Pale skin, poreless. Plastic polymer. Eyes too big. Nose too straight. Black-wire lashes. Mouth like an open wound, boiling with insect larvae. She’s been dead for days.
Camera pans out.
Tattered red dress. No shoes. An arm stretched like a prayer. Rats squirming loose from between the slats of her ribs. The shot lingers on the slope of a brown nipple. Zooms out; refocuses on the detritus that surrounds her, a funeral pyre of plastic and rot. A drunk pisses against the wall three feet away.
Maurice contemplates the headline, even as a communication channel dilates. His editor’s voice pours through the frequency, abrasive, baton-blunt. No. Just another whore. Not worth the time. Skip.
He clenches teeth, tears himself from the woman’s blank stare.
SPEAK FOR US
The malware is cigarette burn, stove-top kiss; pinprick inferno that slithers through his firewalls like a nest of tapeworms.
SPEAK FOR US
Words crawl through. Video clips of dying, dying, dead and dying things. A demand loops; his vision suffocates under a flurry of letters.
SPEAK SPEAK SPEAK —
“Are you listening to me?”
Maurice pivots in his chair, lanky arms crossing over a xylophone chest. His mouth puckers like a bullet wound, then smooths to silence. Control, he demands of himself. Breathe. The air-conditioning growls. Under its percussions, he hears an echo. SPEAK SPEAK SPEAK.
“People know the third world isn’t safe.” American twang, white man’s confident bass. His editor looks fifty, going on thirty-eight. Broad shoulders. Hundred-dollar haircut. Oil-black Berluti loafers, skinny tie, leather blazer made to order. “It’s not news.”
“Isn’t news what we say it is?” says Maurice, petulant. He slicks fingers through dark curls, over the roof of his skull, down to where the input cable punctures bone. Detaches. Data fizzes, fritzes; a glint of binary as Maurice escapes the World Wide Web.
SPEAK SPEAK SPEAK. The words, diffused and distorted, quiver like a second heart. He knows he should get his security network checked, have one of the Company’s mercury-eyed technicians remove the anomalous content. But he can’t. Won’t. It’s hard. If he can’t speak for them, the least he could do is listen.
“Maybe if you were working for the New York Times.” The other man’s mouth coils. “But you’re not. Out of the chair. I can take feeds.”
Editor — name is Frank, frank like his conduct and his armament of words — sits down and jacks himself in, even as Maurice screws the cap back onto his own port. Can’t be too careful with cheap technology, he thinks. Every day, the feeds swarm with stories of those who were not: information junkies with brain pans full of maggots, college kids bristling with wasp babies, ant-eaten coma patients. Too many to accrete hits, too many to care.
Maurice lets his eyes travel over his editor’s neural port; envy blooms, astringent and cold. Tech that sharp would cost his entire pension. The knowledge squares the set of his chin as he seats himself in front of an old-fashioned keyboard. He stretches arms and fingers, endures each aching pop of ligament and tendon with a convulsion of effort. His lungs burn for a cigarette. But not yet, not yet. This is his penance, this nicotine starvation; his pale show of solidarity for the ones with haunted, silent mouths.
Three waxen-faced teenagers dead. Cause: back-alley physicians, snake-oil miracles, rusted tools thick with bacterium.
Frank’s voice: Old news. No angle. Skip.
A waitress gone missing; nineteen-year-old nobody from Maurice’s old neighbourhood. Corkscrew black hair, hopeful eyes, nutmeg face almost textbook pretty.
Frank’s voice: Skip. We’re not that kind of paper.
Young widow roasted alive in a crematory. Voluntary sutee, her family hisses. Murder, her friends cry. Murder murder murder.
Frank’s voice: Skip.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Maurice sucks on his cigarette. He can’t breathe, can barely contain the riot of emotions. A muscle in his jaw spasms in protest.
Frank’s machine-gun rumble sings with warning. “What?”
“Really? You want to skip that last one?”
Silence crushes them. The air thickens, arms itself with words unspoken, so dense that you could split it with a knife. Frank lowers his eyebrows, gaze still glazed, seeing-not-seeing as he tilts his skull at Maurice. His eyes, colorless and cold as ice, coruscate with a thousand lines of code. “Is this a joke?”
“No,” answers Maurice, too quick. “I… No. It’s just that it was fucking medieval.”
“And what would you have us do about it?”
“Let me write about it, maybe?” says Maurice, who passes for privilege too easily for his own liking, who is white to everyone but his girlfriend, his parents. “It’s news, ain’t it? A family performing centuries-old ritualistic murder and then trying to cover it up? That’s murder. That’s news.”
“Unless one of the victims recorded the act on Vine—”
“Fuck you, Frank.” Maurice squeezes his fist shut. He tastes ash and rage and an old, old hate. “She was nineteen. She had no fucking business—”
“Maurice —” Frank pins the bridge of his nose between his fingers and sighs. “In case you haven’t noticed, you work in technology. We report on hardware. VR games. Advances in bio-mechanical prosthetics. Sapient sex toys. If the girl was killed by a self-propagating, self-modifying virus named Sutee? Sure. We could do something about this. But this is not our beat.”
“Still a life.”
Frank says nothing, only makes a velvety cat-noise deep in his throat. He shakes his head. His voice, when he speaks again, is almost sad. “A life.”
Maurice shoots from his chair. Behind his eyelids: a chiaroscuro of roasted flesh and tight-lipped men, a woman bent like a broken doll. Faces, so many faces, tumbling, tumbling through his memory cache. He fumbles for his cigarette box, hands shaking so hard that he almost drops it, almost misses the button for the door.
Steel panels open with a pneumatic hiss. The city hits him with the stench of car exhaust and day-old trash and cheap hot dogs from around the corner. Rain writhes. Maurice pulls his coat tight about his shoulders as he looks up into the lights eeling through the gloom. Like a million indifferent eyes, he thinks.
He breathes deeply, drinks in the cancerous distillation of chemicals; takes a moment to appreciate he probably won’t be around long enough to see how much worse the world could get. Social media itches like the tar in his lungs, but he resists. There is so only much he can imbibe before he sinks into a delirium of helplessness.
From behind his eyelids, electronic ghosts watch him shudder.
SPEAK SPEAK SPEAK SPEAK
Maurice lets it in after that night, brings down the divide between inner and outer. Lets it nest in his ribs, drawing breath from his hurt. Lets it fester and grow. It blunders into all the hollow spaces of his brain, the gap between autonomous thought, between every revolution of social media.
SPEAK FOR US SPEAK FOR US SPEAK
He feeds it drafts he will never finish: dirges for cold cases, a photo essay composed of bruises, inflammatory blog posts filled with crowdsourced brimstone. All the hate in the world. All the ache. All the voices that could never speak, will never speak. All of it. All of it. Until there is nothing in Maurice but screaming.
The air burns hot and sweet with cloves as Maurice, hands shaking with so much force that he feels eighty-nine, lights a cigarette. His mind, agoraphobic from familiarity, rattles at the emptiness.
“Thirty years of email correspondence, Snapchat pictures, private chat logs, and every bank account in your extended family line. Ready to be beamed out, if you don’t stay the fuck there.”
The older man does not move, but Maurice can see his eyes oscillating from data point to data point. His breath thins. “Why are you doing this?”
“Because you’re part of the problem,” says Maurice, almost apologetic. “Media is the voice of the people and all that, you know? We tell the stories. We decide whose stories get told.”
Another long, long drag on his cigarette. He watches as Frank’s hands constrict around the armrests. His grip is noose-tight, so tight his knuckles go bone-white.
“What you’re doing is illegal—”
“Technically,” Maurice corrects. “What you’re doing is illegal.”
“Maurice.” Frank’s voice cracks like a skull.
The thin man drinks smoke. “It’s fine. It’d be fine. You won’t fry. Tell them it was a hack. Tell them it was… ambush. Tell them—”
A shrug. “It doesn’t matter. You’ll be fine. Just hang tight, Frank. Someone will come get you.”
He bares teeth and turns. Already, his vision is clotting with notifications, reports, emails like bullets from a firing squad: what’s going on with your boss what is your boss doing what the fuck is happening what what what tell us tell us. Speak speak speak.
A sigh. Maurice slopes to the door, a tired junkyard mutt, ragged and run-down by long, cold nights. He feels old. So very, very old.
SPEAK SPEAK SPEAK.
The words keep time with his step, as he bleeds into the city, invisible against the press of a million, rain-battered bodies. **
About the author
Cassandra Khaw is the business developer for Ysbryd Games. When not otherwise writing press releases, she writes intersectional fiction that combines myth and modern-day malaise. Her work can be found in places like Uncanny, Clarkesworld, and Fireside. Her first novella was Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef, and now she has Hammers on Bone coming out with Tor.com in October. Also, she punches things.