The Silent Ones
by Erica L. Satifka
The year travel opens up between alternate Earths is the first year you fall in love, with a strapping farm boy from one of the rural worlds named Paul. He takes you to a barn dance thrown by his people, where you learn to smoke a corncob pipe. His sister, a tiny girl with saucer eyes and dirty hair, steals your purse. You’re too hammered to mind.
You get drunk on apple wine and fuck Paul behind a haystack while a band of his cousins screeches on their fiddles and moans in that unintelligible alternate-world dialect of theirs. At the pale green Formica kitchen table, Paul gives you a stick-and-poke tattoo of his initials inside a heart.
But when your six days are up, it’s back through the travel gate with you, and no more Paul. You mope for weeks, watching but not performing the calisthenics exercises on television, alternating handfuls of candy and amphetamines. Finally, your two best girl friends drag you from your home – “Don’t be such a drag!” – and bring you to the club.
And that’s when you see your first silent one. With the robes and everything. Shit. He’s sipping a martini, looking totally out of place, bopping his head to a spastic electroclash beat. Club soda rises up your nose, coming close to spilling out.
“Hey, get a load of that,” Sydney says, poking you in the ribs.
You laugh. It’s pretty hilarious.
“Rocks pretty hard for someone who dresses like a Druid.”
“Shut up,” you say. “He’ll hear you.” But when you look over again, he’s already left the bar area, his martini abandoned.
“Beam me up, Scotty,” Sydney jeers through gulps of rum and Coke.
You’re disappointed. You wanted to watch him more; it’s a new thing to you. But already you can tell that the band’s as weak as the club soda. No wonder he left. Bum scene.
“Hey, I’m out of here. Tell Randa.” You escape Sydney’s talons and light up in the parking lot. Thirty yards away a glowing red orb that pulses like your cigarette’s tip hangs at crop duster level. You turn away, vaguely ashamed. It’s like when you were seven and accidentally spilled milk into the aquarium, becoming an instant murderer. Your parents didn’t really care, but you did.
Not everything happens all the time, everywhere.
That’s the first line on every bit of literature dealing with the alternate worlds. Want to visit a world where the triple World Wars never happened? You can. Want to see a place where computers run on steam power and even the horses wear corsets? Go for it.
Or you can just muck about in a world full of beautiful hillbillies or debauched Atlanteans. That’s more your personal speed, anyway.
Most of the planes open for travel aren’t that different from your world. The atmosphere has to be breathable, at least, and it’s helpful if the inhabitants are roughly human, and mostly your size. Nothing will destroy a plane’s Yelp rating quite like a tourist crushed by forty-foot-tall giants.
Nobody stays in an alternate world for long. The languages aren’t remotely learnable, and the social structures are often even denser. But it sure beats a week at Grand Cayman!
You keep the glossy travel brochures in your nightstand. Sometimes you fan them out, a little universe. And only fifteen days of vacation a year, you think wistfully.
The following autumn the government finally decides to do something about the widespread cultural cross-contamination propounded mostly by visitors from the more religiously-inclined planes. Cops catch saffron-robed adherents of a syncretic faith wheatpasting suras onto the sides of subway cars; a Ming vase with a detailed depiction of the Crucifixion shows up in the Smithsonian. Big deal, you think. Histories are made to be broken.
You are given the opportunity for a sabbatical, but you can only afford to go to one of those really crappy Central American commune worlds that don’t even have bathrooms, so you postpone it. You think of Paul every morning when you layer foundation over your tattoo. His sister took out a credit card in your name that first month. It was a bitch to cancel; you’re glad he’s gone.
Sydney and Randa take you to the beach instead, and you lose two weeks’ salary in a slot machine. A little peeved, you lounge on the pier in your sheerest camisole, watching the red lighted orbs dart and scatter along the darkened shore.
They’ve been showing up more frequently now, eliciting a minor amount of concern by the tinfoil hat crowd. On the beach below, teenagers lob beer cans at the orbs, which scuttle away, only to be herded back to a central location. You watch as a baker’s dozen of red lights are forced into congregation, then look back at the teenagers on the sanded ground.
“Blast-off!” yells a jock in a white cap. A firecracker shoots from a puny metal stand, and you remember, yeah, it’s Independence Day. The orbs flicker wildly and scatter like birds at a shot. One falls, and another teenager rushes to intercept.
“Ow, fuck! It’s hot! My hand!”
“Serves you right, idiot,” you say, loud enough for everyone on the beach below to hear you. It’s not loud enough to reach the teenagers, who have already dispersed to pick on a tribe of old people foolishly walking the beach after dusk.
A deaf man hands you a card with three globes and a squiggly line printed on it.
“Sorry, I don’t have any money.” As if your camisole had pockets or something.
But as you look at him, really see, you realize it’s a silent one convincingly dressed as a beachcomber, in a rumpled tee shirt, red visor pulled low over his eyes. His eyes are a light purple that just doesn’t exist in your world’s genetics.
“Well, what do you know.” Except for the eyes he’s not a bad-looking guy, a bit flabby around the middle, fitting in better than the one in the club a year ago. You hold up the card. “So what does this mean, hmm?”
He smiles with all his teeth, points up.
“You’re from space, is that it? You come from those red things?” He shakes his head no. “Okay, I give up. What are you doing here?”
Another grin, and a sound from his throat that sounds like a grinding gear. He flaps his hands frantically and spins in a close circle.
“You want me to buy you a drink? Hey, I’ve got some friends with me, how about we all go out for some drinks, big guy?” You’re taunting him, and it makes you feel sick, like you’re no better than those teenagers on the beach. But the guy’s almost asking for it. You cock a finger. “This way.”
He follows like an eager puppy, his pointless visor attracting attention. There’s no real code of etiquette for the silent ones, but you have the feeling that what you’re doing is so totally wrong. They’ll serve him, of course. But this kind of thing just isn’t done. You halt, and he collides with you.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was doing. Stay here.” His eyes glisten, quizzical. “Don’t follow me in.”
He understands. He starts to pace away, but then breaks into a full run, diving off the pier onto the beach, the weirdo. Only a few people have gathered at the edge. You look down and there is nothing there.
You are cold in your camisole.
That autumn, a red lighted orb runs for Congress on a write-in campaign. It doesn’t win, but it’s a step forward. So say the major television commentators, anyway.
Randa takes a long weekend in an orgy world and never comes back. Rumors spread that travel between planes is being severely restricted. You wire Paul, no response. It’s hard not to think of the alternates as being fake worlds, their inhabitants somehow lesser. You wonder if maybe that’s the reason you slept with Paul.
At the grocery store, you wait in line behind an orb with two small satellites circling it. Children? You think you should know more about these things. After all, you’ll be working for them next week; they bought the firm. But what do you do? Tap it on the shoulder and say hello?
You feel, for a moment, hunted. Like something small, furry, and endangered.
In the parking lot you spy a hooded woman kneeling next to your car. She is siphoning the gas with a black hose.
“Get out of here!”
But she just watches you, blank-faced, the siphon hanging out of the side of her mouth like a piece of black licorice. With a gulp she swallows a mouthful of Texas tea, then reaches into her pocket, hands you a card.
One word, scrawled in ballpoint pen by a childish hand: GO.
“This is my car, psycho.” You take her by the shoulder and pull her to her feet, rough. Her thousand-yard stare is directed at the grocery store. Looking behind you, you see the family of red lights, the small planetoids of children spinning around their mother. You look back to your car. The silent woman opens her mouth wide, as if screaming. Her face glows with rage. You realize that she is screaming.
The silent woman takes the opportunity to wrest herself from your grip. She uncaps the bottle of gas and launches it at the largest of the red lights, the mother. Within five seconds, she’s removed a match from her pocket and struck it. You slap her wrist.
Her face droops in disappointment. Shaking her head, she walks behind your car, of course disappearing as soon as you think to follow her. The orb family drifts away, gasoline dripping from them with a pat-pat-pat.
A family of red lights moves in across the street. It keeps you up with its constant glowing, like a burning brand.
Be more tolerant, you tell yourself. It’s how they communicate. Or, so it would seem. What other reason?
You keep the two index cards gathered from the silent ones, the card labeled GO and the card filled with chickenscratch, in your wallet. You don’t know why. Maybe they are the last silent ones you will ever see. You haven’t seen a single one since that hooded woman attempted to burn the family a month ago.
I should have let her do it. The thought comes unbidden, unwanted, and you hate yourself for it. An alien species comes to Earth for the first time ever, and you want to kill it. Some shining example of humanity you are.
Still, as the light on your cigarette’s tip reflects in the curve of your wineglass shaped like a woman’s torso, you think about a dead culture inhabiting some shitty South Pacific island, stringing broken beads around their conquerors’ necks, not realizing that it was too late to do anything until it was, in fact, too late.
Slowly, your neighborhood becomes a red light district.
As the red lights move in, the city is remade. Doors are widened, then dropped altogether, in favor of three-sided buildings open to the elements. It’s November and you freeze in two layers of clothing and three scarves. When you ask the super why she’s done this terrible thing, she just shrugs.
But thank the heavens above, television still exists. You flip through the three hundred entertainment options until you find some news, any news, you don’t care about the slant.
It’s a Presidential press conference. In the three-walled White House, the President stands bundled in four coats behind a thicket of fungus-like microphones. Behind him, the White House dog roasts on a spit.
Well, that’s weird, you think, until you see how gaunt the President is. No surprise there. You haven’t had a decent meal yourself in a week.
He opens his mouth for a hearty my-fellow-Americans, but nothing comes out. He grins sheepishly and shrugs. You throw a stiletto heel at the television, expecting it to crack, but it doesn’t even make it halfway there.
You attempt a test. Leaving your house you turn to the sky and scream. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you! Get off our planet!” Nothing comes out at all.
Well, that settles it. You go back inside. The president warms his hands over a burning pile of papers. Enough of this. You pack. You prepare. You wait.
You’ve Amtraked it to a travel gate they haven’t yet shut down, somewhere in a Dakota, similar to Paul’s version of Earth. You didn’t know places like this still existed, cut away like this. All the houses here still have four walls.
You touch your stick-and-poke tattoo, and smile.
Standing on a street corner, you take out the small pile of cards you assembled on the train ride. Writing them was difficult. You can still speak your name and the phrase “Here’s my ticket,” but when someone asks you what you’re doing here, even that is glued over.
No matter. You have the cards. And some of them are even legible.
FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT. FIGHT.
There must be Earths they haven’t yet reached, planes still untouched. You remember what the glossy travel brochures said about the alternate worlds when they were first discovered: not everything happens all the time, everywhere.
In another place, people are free. All you have to do is get to the gate. Just get to the gate. It’s a golden half-moon, like a giant dull penny sticking out of the prairie. Just get to the gate.
The attendants, clad in super-serious black and silver uniforms, aren’t saying much either. As you go down the line, into the barely-used travel gate, you hand each of them a card.
FIGHT, you say to the man with cornrows who hands you the ticket.
FIGHT, you say to the old woman who punches it, her lips puckered tight like a coin purse.
FIGHT, you say to the young woman who hands you a sack lunch. Not all alternate worlds have food that you can digest.
Almost as an afterthought, you raise the hood on your parka, shielding your face from detection. It’s not as good as a robe, but maybe you’ll get that in the next world, if it’s still untouched by the invaders.
The gate’s set to random, and that’s just the way you want it. You feel the familiar slicing sensation, like a cheese grater being taken to your skin, and then another plane of another Earth opens up before you like a vista on a transcontinental flight after you’ve broken through the clouds. There’s a street, and a bus stop, and an orange sky, and not much else.
The people here will mock your stolen voice, sure, and the way you act and the clothes you wear, but enough will pay attention. You’ll devise new ways of communicating without writing or speech. Sidelong glances and interesting smells, perhaps.
This time, this world, it has to be different. You shoulder your bag, ruffle the cards in your pocket, and start walking.
About the Author
Erica L. Satifka is a writer and/or friendly artificial construct, forged in a heady mix of iced coffee and sarcasm. She enjoys rainy days, questioning reality, ignoring her to-do list, and adding to her collection of tattoos. Her debut novel Stay Crazy (Apex Publications) won the 2017 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer, and her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Interzone, and The Dark. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her spouse Rob and an indeterminate number of cats.
About the Narrator
Angela Davis is an American voice talent living in Norway. When not admiring mountains, she can be found recording for a variety of projects at home.