They were babies, not chronological slap-them-on-the-bottom babies, but babies all the same. They had been wiped clean, blank slates. They had full use of their musculature, could wipe their noses, empty their bowels, but during the wipe process their speech centers had suffered a minor catastrophe. Normally they would have been exterminated. It had been such a costly mistake that the Halls of Reckoning had no other recourse. Speech was to be recovered manually.
The long line of neonate adults, their skin glistening, their eyes bright, were perfectly capable of speech. During the wiping process memory had been severed from language. They had no prior experience that linked speech to favorable or unfavorable events. Corporal RT3 would see that this was so.
He looked over the infant speakers as they lined up before the feeding station, a large compartmentalized glass wall like the historically famed Horn and Hardarts. All vestiges of culinary delights, from chicken salad on rye to gelatinous fruit salads arrayed themselves before them. One word was all it would take to open the doors to the glass-enclosed treats. Some of the neonates salivated, others opened and closed their mouths, puckering like newborns, others wore angry or fearful gazes. It was these latter that Corporal RT3 watched most carefully.
These neonates were to become the new scholars to replace those that had been liquidated, those that had had memory, had indulged in rebellion. They would provide counsel that was not tinged with emotion, with memory. Their advice would be factual, flat, and statistically correct. Their severed memories would not stir them to rebellion as they sought a way off this dying planet. They would lodge in the Hall of Reckoning. The Corporal’s was an important post. He had looked on as the previous scholars combatted their way into infinity and he was not necessarily in agreement with what had been done, but he would tell this to no one.
The modifications, the reinforcements, were primitive but they produced results. Like a slot machine, he thought grimly, the ball bouncing, the words tumbling. One word elicited another until in a matter of weeks the bearer of words was complete with a litany of words. Those with lisps, stutters, or other impairments were deemed too distracting and culled out of the selection process.
They were to become an army of scholars versed in the great thinkers, Socrates, Homer, Newton and tempered with humor, Johnathan Winters, Don Knotts, and Flip Wilson. Those who uttered “coup” or “counter intelligence” were immediately removed.
Corporal RT3 had been at this for three days and he watched the neonates with a kind of wonder. A woman, hungry looking, who had refused to speak during this time, had pushed her way up the line. They went unfed between sessions, water yes and nutrients but no solid food. She had a starved look and the Corporal glanced at her tattoo. Babylonian History, tongue: Aramaic. She pushed her way to the front of the line staring at the microphone he held in his hand. She remained mute, her stark intelligent eyes now staring into his.
Normally he would have removed her because of her aggressive glare. He was trained for such eventualities. She was used to starving. He could see from the scars on her back she had been reduced to menial labor.
“Speak!” he cried as pushed the microphone toward her mouth.
She padded around on her bare feet, cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered,
He smiled. “Good! Another!” he said his voice sharp and unrelenting.
He delayed releasing the food. “Another!”
“Angel!” she shouted, her head swiveling on her shoulders as if looking for someone in the line of bodies. A tremor rose among the waiting neonates, like an unexpected wave.
He didn’t know the meaning, thought perhaps it was part of her knowledge of Babylonian history, but it unnerved him. He felt perhaps it was something argumentative. Corporals, and there were many, were ever on the alert for anything smacking of political heresy.
“Very good,” he said sighing deeply and he pointed to the glass wall. She pressed her face against the wall, her lips leaving saliva on the glass. He opened the door and extracted an egg salad sandwich.
The sandwich was wrapped in cellophane and he gingerly handed it to her and asked her to step aside. She quickly had it open and again he motioned to her to move. She looked squarely at him and offered him half of the sandwich He shook his head vehemently, and pushed her aside. As he began another reprocessing, a childlike man in his twenties, he watched her from the corner of his eye, saw the gobs of creamy egg salad, mayonnaise smeared across her lips and mouth.
“You there! Z40B! You can’t eat in here,” and he pointed to a doorway at the end of the hall. “In there!” he cried as she stuffed the rest of the sandwich into her mouth, her cheeks bloated. She smiled brokenly. Normally he would have called her out for restructuring, but the line was long and people were hungry. He had words to get.
The process of restoring language took about 8 weeks. It was a slow process eliciting just a trickle of words at first, “to be, “friend”, “mending.” Later the words would flow into themselves like a symphony. Paragraphs, essays, stories would come tumbling out. At times the Corporal would have to force them to stop. The more words they knew, it seemed they no longer hungered for food. The Corporal, however, was not alone in his work. There were many corporals all working to restore words. At times, too, the work seemed dangerous.
Once in a while, a great while, the corporal thought, a word would flower and die in anguish. Tears and shouting would occur and the neonates would be briskly escorted away back to the mines or fields or laboratories. Sometimes the sensory memories were not severed completely and he would have to look up and down the line looking for neonates that seemed to be practicing their words. Sometimes the neonates were explosive though naked and without weapons.
Their future role as sterile, objective counsels to generals and the oligarchy, required precision. One misstep, one sad or angry neonate could bring the whole universe that had been carefully constructed tumbling. Corporal RT3 took his job seriously.
The next morning he found himself looking for her. It was hard to distinguish features. Their heads were shaved and their torsos were all sunken. It was through some miracle that he remembered her tattoo. Z40B. Babylonian History: Tongue Aramaic. The tattoos were emblazoned on their arms just beneath the shoulder. He looked for her as he strutted up and down the line. He had an unbidden moment of regret thinking she had been whisked away during the night after the patrollers, the secondary patrol, language experts, studied their spoken words. What had she said? Noise? Noise was benign or at least he thought so and then he saw her leaning against the glass wall. He thought she might faint, her look was so dire. He took her arm to reveal that she had been standing before a steaming bowl of soup, cut off from her by the glass window.
“Word?” he said.
For a second time she looked at him and smiled, revealing newly missing teeth.
“Pho,” she said, cupping her mouth as if revealing a secret. “Pho.”
Every hair on the back of his neck stirred unpleasantly.
He knew the meaning of ‘faux.” Though not a good word, it was not entirely inflammatory.
“Pho,” she said, slipping her arm onto his shoulder, pointing to the glass window.
But ‘foe” was entirely wrong. He brushed her hand off his arm and took her by hers, the tattoo obliterated by his grip, when the Arbitrator implanted in his wrist started flashing. He called it his purity button. It measured sexual arousal and as they walked the length of the room, he waited precious moments before he pressed the flashing light, privately enjoying what was going on between his legs. As they reached the sentry at the exit door, the door back to ignominy, he pressed on the flashing light and received the first warning electrical shocks, mild at first, and then greater until his body succumbed.
She was struggling now and shouting. “Pho! Faux! Foe!”
About the author:
Nancy Demme has been a Children’s Librarian and facilitated creative writing groups for adults, teens and adolescents for 25 years. Her work has been published in US1, Confrontations (LIU’s literary journal), Kelsey Review and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. Her novel The Ride made the short list for 2015 Sante Fe Writers Project Literary Award and was runner-up for the 2015 Howling Bird Press Fiction Award. Fish Factory Fiction, a one act play, underwent a reading at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton, NJ. Active in the Garden State Storytellers League, she also teaches Writing in English to ESL students and creative writing to teens, adolescents, and seniors. She continues to take courses in everything from playwriting, children’s literature, song writing, drawing, screen writing, fantasy and storytelling.