In The Land Of The Deaf (Electric Spec, Issue #13)

I really wish you’d get yourself deafened, Geoff’s wife signed.  It’s just too dangerous out there.
The irony was, of course, that Geoff barely heard anything these days; years of firing his gun in the line of duty had permanently damaged his eardrums, though not half as badly as the bullets had damaged his targets.  Still, Geoff groaned, not wanting to get entangled in the same, decades-old fight on the morning he was scheduled to give his high school presentation on the ‘worm.
It’s just four years to retirement, he signed back, wishing Angie had learned to read lips; all this signing was hell on his arthritis.  The day I get my pension, I’ll step down.  Promise.
She sighed, blowing a lock of gray hair away from her forehead, and he felt grateful when she didn’t bring up how he was supposed to retire five years ago.  But she knew what he’d say anyway; there just weren’t that many of the sounded left to patrol the streets.
She cocked her head towards the shut door at the end of the hallway, where their surly teenaged son curled up in his room and never came out.
Can’t we deafen William, though?  He wants it done so badly, half his friends are deaf – I can do it myself with an ice cube and a needle…
William would want to be deafened, Geoff thought sullenly.  He’d never wanted a son, but the repopulation centers had requested that they bear at least one child before Angie was out of childbearing age, and Geoff had always done his duty.
Still, William had sensed Geoff’s distaste for children, and had quietly rebelled against everything Geoff considered right and good.  A real son of his would be out at the academy by now, learning how to scan the streets for headbobbers and practicing his target shooting, not locked in his room like a garbage bag filled with donuts, playing old videogames and masturbating to dead porn stars.
He was sick today, too sick to go to school.  But Geoff knew that it was no coincidence that William got a cold on the day his Dad gave the recruitment speech to his class.
You know the law, Geoff signed.  He’s sounded until he’s eighteen.  Someone has to be a copper.
He’s not going to be a policeman, she signed, pounding her fist against her palm for emphasis.  Or a doctor or a pilot or anything that needs ears.  And in the meantime, who knows when he’s going to stumble across some headbobber muttering Insane Cricket?
I have to go, he said, strapping on his holster.  We’ll discuss it later.  Today’s the most important day of the year, you know that.
She glared at him.  They wouldn’t discuss it again, of course, not without her starting a new fight, but he did have to talk to the students.  She respected that, at least.
Geoff strode out of the engraved French doors and down the long, marble steps, tsking at the state of it; the narrow steps were buried under layers of dead leaves and rotting birds, the space between the Corinthian columns webbed by hundreds of brown spiders mercilessly devouring thousands of flies.  The hedges, once carefully sculpted into the shapes of ponies and elephants, were just thorned tangles mummified by white webbing.
Geoff grimaced.  He’d thought that moving into a mansion would be posh – houses had been for the taking once their owners had all bashed their skulls against brick walls.  He’d laughed at his mates who’d opted for smaller flats.  But they’d been the wiser; when supply trucks needed driving and factories needed working hands, no one was left to be a maid.  And Angie was too weak-willed to strongarm William into doing the landscaping properly, so they lived in an elegant sty.
He got in his police car and started driving to the school, pulling down the empty roads with the rows of rusting cars crashed into trees; the trunks had grown around the crumpled hoods, the roots reaching in through cracked windshields to tug at the collars of skeletal bodies.
It was funny, how Geoff missed the squawks and garbles of police radio; he used to turn it off out of a need for silence, much to the chagrin of his staff sargent.  But there was such a thing as too much quiet.  Now, when they needed him, a light flashed in the dome and he had to pull over to read the bulletins.
Back then, he’d hated the stupid repetition of “over”s and “roger that”s, but now that it was gone, he realized how the constant babble had instilled a sense of community.  Each “roger” told you that somewhere, a man just like you was doing the same boring job, rattling locked doors and talking to needy old biddies who heard a noise outside their window.  And it made you feel like all this dullness meant something.
Now, he knew every one of the twelve policemen left alive, and the job itself involved daily gunfights.  But it felt emptier – a thin echo of what had once been a noble duty.  Riding alone with nothing but the breeze to keep him company, Geoff sometimes felt like the last man left on Earth.  He wanted a radio, he really did.
But all it took was for one copper to hum the Cricket over the police bandwidth, and everyone would die screaming within weeks.
Geoff rolled down the window.  The only sound was the distant buzz of cropdusters, releasing billowing blue clouds of avian neurotoxins over the forests and lakes.  He hated the way the insects were devouring the world now that the birds had vanished, but you couldn’t chance it; near the end, the birds themselves had picked up on Insane Cricket, twittering its toxic melody to all who’d hear.  He’d known more than a few who’d picked up the ‘worm from some buggered songbird, and there was only one cure after that.
He felt a strange, suicidal impulse to flick on the radio.  It was always on; zombie radio beacons had been set to play nothing but Insane Cricket, endless variations on the same tune, their headbob DJs long dead but their legacy still leaching into the air.  But he remembered all his mates who’d pounded galvanized nails into their eardrums, and thought better of it.
He slowed down near the edge of the city metro as he approached the edge of the school district, eyeing the abandoned brownstones with caution.  Every shadow could hide a headbobber, their ears clawed into tatters, their foreheads bruised from where they slammed their heads against the walls in vain attempts to get the ‘worm out of their brain.
You could pick it up just seeing them.  Just last month, Geoff had spied one emerging from a basement – it had been a debutante once, clothed in ragged fabrics that had been quite fashionable once, but now it was skeletal and bleary-eyed.  He’d shot her, of course, but the rhythm of her walk as she’d lurched towards him, begging for death, had started a rumble-drumbeat in his head.
He’d told no one.  He gone straight home and gobbled sleeping pills up to the edge of an overdose, then thanked the Good Lord when he’d stifled that rhythm under a weekend’s muffled unconsciousness.
This was the danger zone, though.  He cruised slowly, his pistol out, scanning the shadows of alleyways.  Ideally, you’d have a thorough, apartment-to-apartment search to find every one of the poor bastards, but it was a big city and only a couple of hundred folks had survived the ‘worm.  Most of the headbobbers were dead, but some of them could live for years with that thing looping like a non-stop calliope, each repetition devouring more and more of their brains until they could think of nothing else.
Thankfully, the furious Cricketers – the ones who’d decided they could drown out the noise with the shrieks of other people’s pain – were the first to go.  They were the scary bastards, Geoff thought; if they didn’t knife you, they’d sing it in your ear.
Still, just a year ago half the damn city had burned when a ‘wormhead had set himself on fire, so you couldn’t quite ignore them.  Some days, he wished the whole damn place would burn.
Geoff let loose a breath of relief when the guards waved him past the razorwire-topped fences of the public schools.  The guards manned machine guns, vigilantly eyeing the broken windows across the streets; sometimes, a crazed ‘bobber would set up speakers and blare Insane Cricket across the rooftops, doing spastic jigs that reminded Geoff of a man getting jabbed with needles.  Fortunately, the guards had mortars for just such an occasion.
The crisp salute the guards gave him when he cruised into the courtyard made him sit up straight with pride.  Why not just deafen all the children and be done with it? the city council asked, and if they’d just see how efficient these men were, they wouldn’t ask stupid fucking questions.
He brushed the dust off of his uniform before opening the door to the classroom.  The class was waiting in dreary silence, picking their teeth with matches, fifty students just before deafening age.  The headmaster waited by the blackboard, a slouching imitation of a man – the real teachers had been the first to go when the kids made Insane Cricket their ringtones.
“Get out,” Geoff said, not bothering to sign the words.  Some of the kids jumped at the noise; that was encouraging.  The teacher scuttled out of the room.
Geoff glared at the pimpled faces of the students, who looked pleasingly frightened; kids were scarce these days, so most of them had been coddled beyond recognition.  The only way you could make a man tough was by knocking them down, but what challenges had these kids faced?  If they wanted a seventy-inch plasma screen TV, it was waiting for them, free, in abandoned malls and houses.
“If you can’t hear what I’m saying,” he said, mouthing the words excessively, “Then get the fuck out.  You’re useless, you puerile, lawbreaking shits.”
Two-thirds of the class squinted, though he wasn’t sure it was because lip-reading was a lost art or because they hadn’t been taught the word “puerile.”  But red-faced scorn was a universal language, and they skulked away in shame, leaving the room far too empty.
Had there been that many prematurely deafened last year?  No, there hadn’t; each year brought fewer recruits, that was the truth of it.
All that remained were fifteen kids wearing diamond tiaras swiped from old jewelry stores, unsure whether they’d just passed some unknown test or whether they were in even deeper trouble now that they were alone in a room with a hardened thug in a suit who’d told their headmaster to fuck off.
Geoff took his time, marking each of their faces, relishing their nervous glances.  He leaned over to pluck a piece of chalk off the blackboard.
“Right,” he said, easing himself onto the teacher’s desk as he rolled himself a fag.  “You can speak.”
They smiled; they’d passed the test.  Then a lean blonde girl spoke up, her voice scratchy with disuse.
“Teacher says we shouldn’t speak,” she recited in a sing-song tone, giving Geoff a cocky grin that dared him to contradict her.  “Says it’s rude to the deafened.”
“It is,” Geoff agreed pleasantly. “But by puncturing themselves prematurely, they abandoned their duties to you.  That’s pretty fucking rude, wouldn’t you say?”
Some of them nodded.  He mentally chalked down the ones who did, took pleasure in their anger.
“No shame in being sounded,” Geoff continued.  “Someone has to do the real work.  I hope it’s you.”
“They said you were going to give a talk on Insane Cricket,” a boy said.
“Insane Cricket,” Geoff recited quickly, listlessly.  “Composed fourteen years ago by some electronica punter in Sussex.  A melody so infectious that once it’s in the brain, it plays in your head until you die – and given enough time, that ceaseless tune will reduce the toughest man to a simpering madman.  It became the biggest hit ever, was integrated into every TV show and movie – until slowly, every single person who ever heard it went mad.  That was most of the damn world.”
“I heard it makes you a rapist,” she said, leaning in with interest.  The other children sat straight up, all their attention fully on him.
Geoff smiled.  They were so hungry for the truth.
“It makes you crazy,” he allowed.  “Crazy takes on a lot of forms.  Some get religion, start broadcasting it to all who can hear it.  Most bash their heads against a wall.  But the rapists and pyros are the ones that get the bad PR, and rightly so.”
He took a long drag on his cigarette, waiting patiently for the obvious question.
“So… why should we keep our hearing?” a squat-faced boy in the back asked.  He looked like a toad, all slicked hair and pimples.
Geoff got to his feet, crushing his cigarette under his feet; he’d only smoked it to distract them from the chalk he’d palmed in his left hand anyway.
He flicked it to the other side of the room, quick as a conjurer’s trick – and every head turned when it clattered loudly off the concrete wall.
The class looked at each other, faces brightening with realization.  They chuckled nervously.
“There are things you need to hear to know whether they work right,” he agreed.  “Things all the fine electronic gadgets in the world can’t quite compensate for; the systolic gurgles of hearts and lungs.  The thrum of a finely-tuned engine.  The sound of a man’s footsteps sneaking up behind you.
“The city council will tell you that it’s useless, that we should all go stone deaf.  But it’s not like ‘bobbers are the only danger; people are bad, always have been.  And you just try tracking some errant wifebeater down inside his house with just your eyes.
“To protect the weak, you need working ears.  And the fact that none of you has caved to the pressure of your classmates tells me that maybe one of you can be a constable.”
They beamed.  Geoff never had been a person who could inspire affection, but he had the benefit of being nothing they’d ever heard before.  They responded to the newness – but would they actually come through for their city in the end?
Geoff knew the answer: No.  Not most of them.  Maybe a third of the remnants of the class here would apply.  And they’d have to take anyone who applied, that’s how bad things were getting.
Still, the girl seemed promising; the way she looked him straight in the eye gave him confidence.  It was the kind of straightforward curiosity he’d always hoped to see in William, but all he’d ever gotten there was sideways glances and half-muttered curses.
He answered some more questions, handed out pamphlets, took some email addresses to follow up on.
As he was shaking the final hands and getting ready to leave the classroom, the toady boy who’d asked why they should keep their hearing crept up to him.
The boy had a huge, doughy gut that a velour shirt didn’t quite cover, his a mess of greasy tangles.  Geoff recognized his sort at once; this was the lad who groveled for attention because he never quite understood what normal people were supposed to do.  He was always dressed in almost the right outfit, echoing his peers with a kind of frustrated incompetence.
He sighed.  If you didn’t make fun of him, he’d be the sort of boy who’d run with any crowd and do anything out of sheer gratitude.  Put him in with hooligans, he’d be hooligan with a rap sheet.  Put him in a computer class, he’d make buggy programs and laugh at jokes he didn’t understand.
Not the sort of chap you wanted to see on the force.
“Excuse me, sir,” the boy whispered through blubbery, girlish lips.  “Can I – “
“Do I know you?” Geoff asked, peering in closely.
The boy flinched as though he’d been struck.
“No,” he said, looking away.  “We’ve never met.”
Geoff snorted, but let it go. “What do you want…”
“What do you want, Stilson?”
“I had a question on… on Insane Cricket.”  The boy paused, and Geoff repressed a flare of irritation at having to draw the question out of him.
“Go ahead, lad.”
“Is it true that you can’t… That if you listen to it, you have to go mad?”
Geoff felt his stomach twist.  “Someone’s telling you different?”
“Let’s say that there was a party,” Stilson said slowly, looking away to the window.
Geoff began watching the boy’s head for rhythms.  It was still.  For now.
“And… some kids had a stereo.  And they were playing music – not Insane Cricket, but – well, you were there.  You know how nice it was to hear, like, a big band.  An orchestra.  With all those horns and cellos and things.”
He’d never had any use for music; that and a shitload of luck had saved him, making him one of the only cops to survive the first wave.  He wanted to throttle the boy for making him play this stupid “Let’s pretend” game.
“Yes,” he said carefully.  “I remember.”
“Let’s say we were drinking, and let’s say some kids said those rumors were stupid – if you were smart, you could get the ‘worm out of your head.  And there was just enough booze that people started daring each other, and people started boasting that it was just music, music couldn’t do shit, here we were listening to the Boston Pops and we weren’t zombies, and….
“…and they started playing it.”
Geoff grabbed the boy by his shoulders.  “Did you…?”
“No!  Not me!” Stilson shrieked.  “I put in earplugs!  So did the others!  But there was – let’s say there was this one kid who listened.  And when he shut off the music, he seemed fine, and he said that see, Insane Cricket doesn’t do shit, all those stupid coppers are dumb as fucking bricks, it’s all a lie to make themselves seem tough.  What would that mean?”
The pure, gormless fear in the boy’s eyes made Geoff want to vomit.  He tightened his grip until the boy winced.  “It’d mean you have a walking timebomb in your fucking school, boy-o.  The hardest men in the Service took the Cricket, and all of them died screaming.  Tell me who it is.”
“I can’t!” Stilson shrieked, tears streaming down his face.  “You’ll hurt me!  You’ll beat me!”
“What do you mean, I – “
And then Geoff felt his world spin as the full impact of it hit him.
He released the boy’s shoulders.  He’d clenched hard enough to leave bruises.  Geoff muttered a feeble apology before stumbling drunkenly from the classroom.
Then he drove home, feeling numb.
His wife was waiting at the doorway, brushing fat spiders off the webs with a broom and stomping on them angrily – but as soon as she saw Geoff, her face softened.
My God, she signed.  What happened?
“I need some tea,” he said, then signed it.  “Could you be a love and make me some?”
Of course, she signed, vanishing into the kitchen.  Thanks to the size of their house it was several hundred feet away.  Far enough that vibrations wouldn’t travel.
Geoff put in his earplugs, his hands trembling so badly he almost couldn’t seat them properly.  He made his way down the hall, feeling swallowed by the pulse pounding in his ears, and cracked open the door to his son’s room.
It was filled with all sorts of cast-off toys, the floor littered with old packaging and broken iPods.  And there was William, his long hair cropped back in a greasy mullet, staring at his computer screen.
His head bobbed up and down.
It wasn’t bad yet – nobody but an experienced copper would have noticed the faint motion – but the ‘bob was there as his son chatted with his friends, a pair of thick rubber headphones on his head to hide the noise streaming into his ears.
No guesses as to what was playing.
Geoff unholstered his pistol.  His hands were numb.  He wanted to fire now, by surprise, so that his son would feel no pain when the bullet entered his brain – but Geoff’s hands shook with a suddenly-discovered love, the gun barrel quivering like an admonishing finger.
William noticed the movement behind him, and turned around.  When he saw the gun, his lips pulled up in a triumphant, mocking sneer.  He nodded his head, though whether it was to the beat or in some twisted satisfaction, Geoff would never know.
“You were – a good lad,” Geoff stammered, wishing he had better words.  “A good lad.”
He fired the gun.  Absolutely no one heard.