Prologue: HUGH PURCELL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
WASHINGTON, DC 2044
I was twenty-two and desperate for work, desperate for any human contact at all, so when I saw an opening for a junior epidemiological archivist, no experience necessary, I applied on the spot. The listing was vague, just something about “our continuing efforts to better understand the scope of the silent phenomenon.” I got the job on a Friday, and by Monday morning I was already out on the streets of the Charlotte financial district with a list of names and a scripted greeting.
My duties appeared simple—find people who had come into contact with silents and record their testimony. Th e streets at dawn were empty, which was mostly a relief, given the infamous state of the neighborhood at that point. My first interview was with a bird rehabber, a weathered man with a severed pinky, who I found as he was raising the steel gate on his shop. I intercepted a pastor ushering a crowd of churchgoers out of a storefront chapel. There was a boy in the square whose brother was a silent. Most of what I recorded was speculative thirdhand info, wispy urban myths about how silence was a plague, or a conspiracy, or some sort of vague metaphor. Some people were convinced it was caused by foodborne toxins, some blamed the parents, some suspected the kids themselves.
I heard the term “mutetard” a lot that day.
By late afternoon, after getting mugged and dry humped by a group of teenage girls in football uniforms, I was beginning to question how much I actually wanted the job. But I had one more interview subject on the list, a repo man who’d been hired by the city to orchestrate a resettlement of silent squatters from the buildings along Trade Street, where they wanted to put in a high-end artisan pet arcade. His name was Camara, but he referred to himself as “the Camara,” and within minutes of me finding him idling in a tan Burgoyne outside a Pulp Hulk he’d already shown me his blowgun collection and offered to give me a Key West salad. He didn’t know much about the silents, aside from a two-day sensitivity training course he’d taken as a condition of his hire. “You don’t need to know much,” he said, chewing on a cone of fruit meat. “People see the Camara coming and they pretty much get that it’s time to move. Even just a shadow tells them this. Just a silhouette of the Camara passing by a window. You don’t need words to tell someone they’re not welcome.” He didn’t know why there were so many of them living in the burned-out center of the city, and he didn’t seem particularly interested in the question. “So long as they don’t have a grenade launcher, it’s easy money.”
We waited in the cab of his truck until the dispatcher called. We were to drive over to the Bank of America building on East Fifth, where we’d meet the contract crew that would go in and take the place by force once Camara had them assembled. I asked if it wasn’t overkill to involve armed men in a resettlement operation, and Camara said, “A home’s a home. That’s basic info, DNA shit. Animal knowledge that even these silents have. When you’ve got a home, you’re going to do what ever it takes to keep it that way.”
We pulled into a lot off a side street about a block from the bank building. The crew of contract soldiers stood around the transport truck that would take the silents to a camp outside the city limits. They hung around smoking fakies and telling dick jokes while Camara spoke with the CO. They were to surround the building while Camara gathered the silents in the lobby. On his signal, they’d enter through the designated access points and get everyone zipped and dipped. The whole thing should take about fifteen minutes, Camara estimated. The CO nodded, and gathered his men to brief them. Camara took a suitcase from behind the passenger seat of his truck. I asked him if it was a weapon case and he made a little wheezing sound. “Hygiene kits, brother,” he said. “Everyone loves a free toothbrush. You ready?”
We walked down the vacant block to the front entrance of the bank building. Camara carefully pried away a sheet of plywood, and we slipped in through the shattered revolving doors.
I’d seen plenty of silents before. There were two in my first-grade class—sullen, withdrawn kids who seemed to exist on another planet. They were eventually pulled from the system, and I think my classmates and I all felt relieved. There was a family down the street that had a silent boy, and another one who folded pizza boxes at a restaurant on the square. In college I’d heard rumors about silent enclaves, groups of them living in the wilderness or abandoned sectors of the city, but I assumed those were trumped-up tales by the same people who told me about the mad heart-eating cult in the financial district. But inside that decaying bank lobby I saw how wrong I’d been about them, about everything.
There must have been fifty of them in the cavernous space, but I’d never have known if I hadn’t been directly observing them from my spot in the shadows of the foyer—they were that quiet. It seemed impossible that so many people in one place could generate so little noise, just the rustling of fabric and the occasional cooing of the pigeons that clung to the massive chandelier.
Camara and I stood in the shadows. I could see him taking a head count, whispering the numbers as he surveyed the area. They were all over, scattered among a curvilinear maze of beat-up chairs and couches that let out onto a circular gathering area underneath the frescoes of human industrial progress. Old whiteboards leaned against the walls, revealing indecipherable, abstract drawings that appeared to be the work of multiple artists. Reams of copy paper were used as a sort of crude papier-mâché to construct oblong containers. In one corner a man was sewing pants out of the coarse gray fabric from old cubicle walls. A young woman took handfuls of twigs from a canvas bag and passed them out to a group gathered in a circle on the floor. They seemed fixated on her. She knelt in the center of the floor and braided some twigs into a sort of rope. Th en a man sitting behind her braided his bundle and bound it to the bundle she’d made. Th e next person did the same, and the next, until they had made a large wreath. They laid it out on the floor and ran their hands along its surface, like it told them some kind of story. Th e significance of that wreath still mystifies me even today, but at the time I was simply fascinated that they’d been able to collaborate on such a project at all.
Without warning, Camara strode out into the light, holding up a pair of hygiene kits. “Everybody, listen up,” he said in a firm voice that shattered the cool stillness of the space. Everyone turned. “You may not understand me,” he said, “but the Camara is here to help you. I understand that this is your home, but the city has different plans for this space. I am here to transport you to a facility just north of here, where you can live in peace. There is running water, three meals a day, and cots for everyone. I understand that it will be difficult for you to leave. And that is why I am providing you with these kits, free of charge. They contain a full day’s worth of meal strips, vermin spray, first-aid gel, and a shelter bag.” He turned to show the room the kits. The silents watched him carefully. They couldn’t possibly have had any idea what Camara was saying, but they seemed to respond to him. As he displayed the contents of the kits, their fear seemed to dissipate. They appeared genuinely curious and interested, and began to congregate in the center of the lobby. Camara’s act was working.
“Is everybody in here?” he asked. Again, they continued to stare. “I’m going to go get the kits for you. Do you understand? I’ll be back in one minute.” Camara scanned the people in the room, nodding encouragingly. They nodded in response, but did not move. “Okay? Just wait right here.”
We went into the foyer. Camara winked at me and said, “Real bunch of troublemakers.” He checked his watch and called the contract soldiers. “Okay, they’re all in the lobby,” he said. “Roger that,” a thin voice replied, and we waited. Th ere was a dull burst as four soldiers broke down the front doors with percussion cannons. They rushed in with gas guns drawn, right past us. I could hear them converging on the lobby from every access point, quickly and quietly, spreading out into the space like a rolling cloud. Their boots ground against the concrete subfloor as they secured all of the exits and moved in.
I waited to hear some sort of struggle, but the building sounded oddly dead. I ventured into the lobby and saw that it was empty, save for the soldiers frantically pacing back and forth, searching the rafters with Maglites. The silents were nowhere to be found.
“You had the place surrounded, didn’t you?” Camara asked the CO, who nodded in irritation. There was no sign of an alternate exit anywhere. The soldiers began tipping over tables and kicking chairs. “Over here,” one of them said, standing over a vent in the floor, which led down into darkness. Camara knelt and peered in with a flashlight. “I’ll be shitcut,” he said, scratching the back of his head. Th e hatch was no more than two feet wide. There was no way it could accommodate more than one person at a time. But somehow a group of fifty silents had managed to spontaneously coordinate an escape without being detected.
We quietly filed out of the building, and I walked all the way back to the sanitary district on the outskirts of town, my head still buzzing. The next morning I was back out on the streets. All summer I recorded more testimonials, seeking out communities of silents and observing everything I could. Up until that moment in the bank building, I, like most people I knew, had defined silents by what they lacked. I thought of them as hollow vessels, defective parasites feeding upon the speaking world. But in that lobby I saw them for what they might possess. What unknown abilities had filled this void? Was the world somehow brighter, more tangible, without the nagging interference of language? Was the absence of words actually a form of freedom? I’ve often tried to quiet that constant voice in my mind, to try to experience the world the way they might—but always the questions rush in faster than I can carve out a moment of true silence.
That September I was promoted to regional coordinator, and sixteen years later I’m still here, now the director of the project. For years my colleagues and I scoured the globe to interview parents, siblings, teachers, health professionals, law enforcement, faith healers, neighborhood- watch groups, businesspeople—a diverse chorus of voices touched in some way by emergent phasic resistance. Starting in 2021, we introduced Mémo, the ambient dictation application that allows key subjects to record testimonials at their convenience from anywhere in the world, expanding our reach even further. Every day we are learning more about this strange condition, and every day there are more questions—questions that are, themselves, bound by language, a chamber sealed so tightly that we can hardly even imagine an experience beyond its walls.
But, of course, it’s this experience that waits for us all. It’s inside our brothers and sisters, daughters and sons and lovers. This document presumes nothing about the future; it is strictly a record of the past, of what we looked like before, and how we got here. Are words our creation, or did they create us? And who are we in a world without them? Are there wilder, more verdant fields out beyond the boundaries of language, where those of us who are silent now wander? Each of us must find our own path through these questions. We enter and leave the world in silence, after all, and everything else is simply how we walk that middle passage.