An ON TIME Excerpt: “Babel of Silence” by E.J. LeRoy

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Enjoy an excerpt from E.J. LeRoy’s “Babel of Silence,” featured in our upcoming anthology ON TIME.

The worst thing about prison is the voice shackles. Those silver-colored collars they snap around our necks immediately following the guilty verdict are both cruel and painless.

Long ago, reformers passed laws to prevent cruelty toward the incarcerated. They abolished solitary confinement. Nowadays, misbehaving prisoners share a cell with a robot companion to prevent loneliness and brain decay. Commissary goods reflect current market prices. Working prisoners make fair wages. And all prisoners, whether working or not, receive monthly universal basic income payments like any other citizen. But what the new system takes from us is far more insidious than anything that existed before the reforms. They’ve robbed us of the ability to speak.

In the midst of all the reforms, policy makers noticed that prisons still had riots, and some inmates still managed to escape. So, the think tanks gathered and did what they do best—making bad decisions for other people. To prevent these politically embarrassing situations, they needed to disrupt communication among prisoners without causing societal uproar about sentient rights violations. They found their solution in the voice shackles. 

I touch the metal band wrapped around my throat. It doesn’t hurt or interfere with breathing. Sometimes, I actually forget it’s there. Other times, I forget what it does and try to speak. That’s when the voice shackle vibrates against my skin, rendering my vocal cords useless. Like all prisoners here, I’m artificially mute. 

To prevent our vocal cords from weakening, voice shackles vibrate throughout the day to mimic normal speech patterns. It’s a sick joke. Talking would be best way to exercise our vocal cords. But the reformers won’t allow it. For all they gave us, they weren’t content unless they took something away.

To further disrupt communication and discourage rebellion, prisoners are no longer housed with their own kind. No two members of the same species are allowed to share a cell or block. In this section of the prison, I’m the only human.

With each of us isolated from our respective species, organization’s nearly impossible. But we all need social interaction, so rudimentary forms of communication gradually emerge. When misunderstandings lead to fights, we’re sent to robot confinement for twenty-five standard hours. Back at our block again, we and our silent alien compatriots try to reestablish some form of meaningful interaction in order to preserve our sanity.

Prisons like this exist throughout the galaxy. This one’s located on Planet GD-7, a distant Earth colony. I’ve never been to Earth, so I don’t have any attachment to the so-called home planet. I just know that Earth houses the think tanks and politicians who passed the prison reforms. My family and I lived on a different Earth colony, Planet Virgo-5. If I’d been arrested before the reforms, I would’ve been sent to a local prison. Then, my family would be able to visit me. But with mandatory species mixing, there wasn’t room for additional human prisoners, so they shipped me here. They locked the voice shackle around my neck back on Virgo-5 immediately after delivering the guilty verdict. No one on GD-7 has ever heard me speak.

Three of my fellow inmates and I sit at a table in the common area of our block, playing cards. Depending upon what game we’re playing, we use a combination of gestures and table slaps to convey essential information. It’s crude but mostly effective.

Heishon poker from Planet Nikwai is ridiculously complex for silent players. It’s a team game that resembles a cross between Earth’s hearts and spades during the first half of each round, then looks more like Earth forms of poker during the second half. The new inmate, the purple squid-like alien sitting to my left, has been having good luck so far. Actually, her luck’s been too good. 

Undistracted by words, I notice she’s been using her suckered hands to pick up multiple cards, and discard the bad ones. Unable to call her out for cheating, I yank her tentacle arm, startling her into dropping the extra cards. We stand at almost the same time. At 5’11” Earth Imperial Measurement, I’m not used to being towered over. Squid Woman, or whatever her name is, has to be at least 6’5”. 

I throw the first punch. My advantage doesn’t last long. Within seconds, Squid Woman latches her suckered tentacles onto my hair and pulls it in every direction. The only indication I’ve cried out is the rattling of the voice shackle against my throat. If I don’t detach Squid Woman’s suckers soon, I’m sure she’ll rip off my scalp.

I jab at Squid Woman’s face, trying to hit a vulnerable area. With my opponent dragging me down by the hair, I can’t land a good hit. 

Instead, I pinch one of the suckers attached to my head. 

She recoils, allowing me to create distance between us. 

My victory’s short-lived. When I’m about to land a decent punch, one of her tentacle arms snaps toward my face.

I dodge the worst of the impact, but one of her suckers catches my cheek. 

Before I can pinch it away, it clamps down and burns like acid. 

I scream so hard, the voice shackle practically chokes me with its vibrations. No sound escapes. Despite the pain, I manage to give Squid Woman one good poke in the eye. I hope it hurt.

Two robot guards arrive. Robots typically break up fights because they calculate from millisecond to millisecond how to separate and restrain prisoners without causing harm. Unfortunately, Squid Woman’s sucker is still attached to my face. The robots must sense they’re hurting me by trying to pull us apart. Prohibited from directly inflicting pain, they can’t pinch any suckers. I’m relieved when two sentient guards intervene to pry Squid Woman off of me. Pulling the sucker away from my face hurts worse than having it attached. 

I assume the robot guards are taking Squid Woman to robot confinement. The sentient guards escort me to the infirmary with a burned left cheek, bleeding scalp, and missing clump of hair.

“What happened to you?” The doctor, whose name I don’t know, is the only other human I’ve encountered in prison. She speaks English, which is practically useless since I can’t respond. Instead, I make a gesture like I’m dealing cards, followed by a simple reenactment of the fight. Treating silent patients has made the doctor an expert pantomime reader.

“Ah,” she says while treating my sucker wounds. “Someone was cheating at cards?” 

I nod. She uses analgesic glue on my head and cheek instead of stitches. There’s nothing she can do about the torn out clump of hair, at least not in a prison infirmary. I point to the bald patch and sweep my hand across it to ask if my hair will grow back. She assures me it will—a small mercy in a place like this.

Once I’m patched up, the sentient guards take me to robot confinement. The android in my cell is a tall, squishy thing with an approximate humanoid shape. It’s the same silver color as a voice shackle. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not. What I hate most about this place is that the robot can talk.

“Hello,” the robot says in English. “Welcome to robot confinement.” 

Welcome, indeed.

“You will be here for the next twenty-five standard hours. Please let me know if I can be of service.” 

I punch the annoying thing in the gut, purposely soft-bodied so that we can use them like punching bags. They only stop inmates’ blows if they sense the assailant’s in danger of being injured. Out of boredom, I test the robot’s reaction by taking a swing at the wall. It restrains me. When my arm relaxes, it releases me.

“Would you like to play a game?” the confinement robot asks. It’s also programmed to distract prisoners on the verge of throwing a tantrum.

I tap the tablet built into its chest to load the activity page with the usual diversions, like solitaire, mazes, puzzles, and art programs as well as books. The setup’s nothing special. We have tablets just like this one built into our cell walls for so-called enrichment. 

I wish I was back in my cell. At least I’d have the freedom to wander through the block until lights out. I’d also be with my sentient cellmate instead of an annoying robot with an unfailingly chipper demeanor.

A clock icon in the upper right-hand corner of the tablet screen tells me how much longer my punishment will last. I’ve only been stuck in this cell for fifteen minutes, and I already feel like I’m going crazy. No hollering or swearing reverberates off the walls of the confinement area, as there would have been in the era before the reforms. Besides the occasional sound of a robot speaking nearby or a loud stomp from an agitated inmate, the hall’s eerily quiet. 

Frustrated, I punch the robot again, this time in its squishy head. Mentally, I’m swearing at the thing for taunting me with its ability to speak. I punctuate each internal grievance with another blow. One for my inability to speak. Another for that cheating squid freak who got me into this mess. Yet another for the creeps who had me arrested in the first place. 

When the confinement robot senses I’m near the brink of exhaustion, it guides me to bed like a misbehaving child. As a final act of protest, I throw my pillow at its face. Like any good robot, it picks up the pillow and places it under my head. I hide under the covers before that placating artificial nanny can tuck me in. 

I’m not coming out until my next meal arrives.

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E.J. LeRoy is a freelance writer, poet, and aspiring novelist whose work has appeared at Submittable Content for Creatives. “The DeVore Incident,” LeRoy’s first published speculative short story, appears in the Transmundane Press anthology In the AIR. Visit the author’s website at http://ejleroy.weebly.com.  ​

ON TIME is coming in late September 2020. Be sure to follow us on Amazon.

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