Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Fiction

The Sound of

Diego packs more insulation into the walls. The work’s itchy as hell and the insulation isn’t enough to cut out the whine of the Sound, not entirely, but he likes to think it helps. Behind him, he can hear Liv move about the apartment, rummaging through the totes they’ve never fully unpacked. A year later and they still live like they might have to flee.

“I thought we agreed that the comics would go next,” he says, the Sound like a drill boring into his temples, pushing his voice near to yelling. Not that he wants to remind her what to sell on eBay, but the old X-Men comics might be worth something, and they were a pain to move. They’ve already sold off their future, in loans and in medical bills—might as well sell off the last of the past, too.

Liv appears from around the corner, dressed in an old soccer jersey and boxers. “We did,” she says, leaning against the wall, watching him. He’s shirtless, and bits of insulation dust cling to the sweat on his chest and arms. She smiles, then looks away and shakes her head. “I’m looking for things to send to Ren. Nir FundMe got pulled, and I thought maybe . . . well, maybe we had something we could spare.”

Ren is Liv’s old roommate, and Diego remembers nem as the person who had set them up, who had met him at a clothing swap and told him, listening to his corniest pick-up lines, that ne knew just the person for him. But ne had moved away, had lost nir job and nir apartment when the Standardization of Legal Documents Act passed. Just a little while after the Sound began.

“What does ne need?” Diego asks.

Liv sighs, sliding down the wall to the floor. “I don’t even know,” she says. “I just thought . . . something to say that people care about nem.”

“We can still sell the comics,” Diego says. “Wire some money.”

“So that when we have to pay another violation we have nothing left for us?” Liv asks. The Sound seems to inch louder in the quiet that falls between them. Diego starts hammering the wall panel back into place. After he’s done, Liv leads him into the bedroom, and they get insulation dust all over the sheets, though Diego stops noticing the itch, and for a moment it seems like they can drown out the Sound itself.

• • • •

The unemployment office is full. Diego drops the cup of urine into the special revolving tray and watches it disappear into the nurse’s station. He winces as the Sound spikes—someone must have opened the door. He doesn’t look, keeps his eyes down as he picks up the information packet and finds an open station. Do you swear that all of your answers will be True, according to the latest terms of the Law? He checks Yes.

His head throbs. He wants to be home, where the walls give him some protection from the Sound. He risks a glance around the room, notices a few others scrunching their faces whenever the doors open and the Sound blares louder. The others . . . well, they don’t seem to notice. The nurses at their station. The armed guards near the doors. Even many of the people filling out the information packets. They just . . . don’t seem to hear it. Diego takes a deep breath.

Are you a member of a qualifying religious institution as part of the Path to Success program? He checks Yes, then remembers the notice of changes to the requirements. He pulls out his phone and quickly checks, sees that he’ll need to attend an additional two faith-building programs this month, but still qualifies.

Have you been denied Qualified status at any time over the past two years for any state-sanctioned service or program? Diego checks No. The doors open again, and his headache is a fire burning behind the bridge of his nose, spreading to his temples.

“Diego?” Nearly a shout, and a number of the people in the office shoot glares in his direction. Diego starts and turns, and freezes.

“Hey, man, I knew that was you.” The man standing there is tall, easily six feet, with a face that’s still beautiful despite the heavy bags under his eyes and the smile full of missing teeth.

“Jeremy,” Diego says, and before he can say anything else he’s being embraced, pulled into a fierce hug.

“Shit, man, I didn’t think there were any of the old group left,” Jeremy says, just a whisper in his ear. Diego feels a tremor run up his back, remembering. College. His friends. Fuck, he had gone out with Jeremy for nearly two years, before things had started getting bad. Years before Liv. Years before the Sound.

Diego pushes Jeremy back to arm length, glancing around the room. People are staring. The nurses have noticed, and the guards. He looks up into Jeremy’s face, so familiar once and now not.

“You’re here to fill out an application?” Diego asks, hating how the question sounds in his mouth. But there is no way that Jeremy will qualify.

Have you ever been arrested for violations of any of the provisions of the Unprotected Speech and Conduct Act?

Jeremy’s smile slips. “Yeah, well, I thought that I might as well give it try. I got a line on a gig, but it needs to know my Assistance Status and . . .” He trails off, and Diego swallows.

“Hey, that’s great,” Diego says, but there is no feeling in it. He suddenly sees a snapshot of the past, of him and Jeremy and Lucas and Levi and the others, all laughing in the Resource Center. Back when there had been a Resource Center. Levi had died in what the cops called riots right before the Sound started. Diego thinks Lucas got out, maybe all the way to Canada. His whole family had been looking for a way away. And the others, they all blur, the memory of their voices drowned out by the Sound.

Do you pledge your allegiance to the United States as required under the Anti-Terrorism and Treason Act?

“Say, where are you living these days?” Jeremy asks, and Diego’s breath hitches. “Maybe I could stop in and say hi without all . . .” He waves around the room, and Diego remembers the way that Jeremy kisses, the way they used to sneak into the nature preserve near the river and, under the stars and the moonlight, let their hands and mouths wander.

“Oh, it’s really nothing,” Diego says. “I haven’t even really moved in completely and . . .” The nature preserve was paved over five years ago. The Resource Center is a crisis pregnancy center now. “I mean, you should give me your number. I’ll call and we can set something up.”

Jeremy nods, the smile gone entirely now. He winces, and Diego looks over, sees the door swing closed, though he hadn’t noticed the Sound spike.

“Yeah, that sounds great,” Jeremy says. “And it was great seeing you again.”

Diego nods, forces a smile, and doesn’t comment as Jeremy walks away to get in line to give his urine sample. Diego returns to his packet, is almost glad to have its simple certainty.

If you are found ineligible for assistance, do you accept liability for any and all costs associated with processing your application, including lab fees and possible additional adjustments? Diego checks Yes.

• • • •

The notification of audit vibrates on his phone before he can get home. The cost will be waived as long as he is found in compliance with the Truth. He steps beneath a tree and bites back a swear. It’s possible his phone is recording now and he can’t afford for it to be used against him. Instead, he signs into his social media account and quickly scans through his recent posts. He doesn’t post much, and most of it is only checking in at church and unemployment and other approved activities. There are, of course, underground sites that defy the laws, where people can sign up anonymously, but Diego’s never . . .

He checks his friends, makes sure no one is saying anything that could possibly be viewed as a violation. Just to be safe, he unfriends a few people who knew him back in college. His fingers stop when Ren’s profile comes up. He hovers, weighing his options, then swallows and closes the app. Hopefully, the auditors will see it as a good enough.

He looks up—the sky is a clear blue. His headache is worse despite the heavy headphones that are supposed to keep out the noise. A group of kids run past, laughing. He takes off his headphones, wanting to hear them, and he watches their faces, wonders which of them can still hear it. They’re all smiling, and he can’t detect a strain in the cadence of the laughter, not over the buzz of the Sound. But is that smile just a little forced? Is there a shine of desperation behind those eyes? Are people born already deaf to the Sound, now? Sometimes Diego finds it difficult to remember what it was like before the Sound began. Sometimes he finds it difficult to remember why it had started. To keep the peace, they were all told. It’s been proven to make it more difficult to gather outside, more difficult to organize or march. And really, they’ll get used to it. Everyone can get used to it. He hurries home.

Liv isn’t immediately evident when he walks in, but she must be back already. Most days, she finishes work before he’s able to get through unemployment requirements. There’s a small box on the kitchen table filled with a few old shirts and travel soaps. Stuff they were saving for guests or for trips, but there’s nearly no chance of either in the near future. He takes his phone and shoves it in the pantry on the shelf along with his headphones, then closes the door.

“Don’t bother with dinner,” Liv says, entering the kitchen. She’s dressed up, red blouse and tight jeans. “I have reservations.”

“Oh, I wasn’t . . .” He pauses. “Wait, reservations?”

She bites her lower lip, and her eyes gleam as she walks to him. “Yeah, well, I thought we needed to celebrate my . . . promotion.”

Diego wraps her in his arms. “Congratulations,” he says, and there’s something like relief that floods into him. “Why didn’t you tell me you were—”

“Like I was going to ruin everything by telling you about it before it was a done deal,” she says. And laughs. Diego’s not sure the last time he heard her really laugh. “I signed all the paperwork. Salary. Insurance. For both of us. And enough of a raise that we’ll be able to move into a bigger place, even if you’ll be kicked off assistance.”

“That’s . . . huge,” he says. It is. No more spending all his time at the unemployment office. They’ll have to keep up going to Church, but maybe they could switch to one that was a little less fire and brimstone. Liv would have her own requirements for employment, but those were always more lenient than those for Assistance of any sort.

“Hope your ass is up for fun,” she says, “because I got my strap-on out and—” Diego coughs loudly while waving her to silence. Liv frowns.

“I’m being audited,” he whispers, and glances at the pantry. Liv’s shoulder’s slump.

“What did you do this time?” she asks.

Diego forces his jaw to unclench. “It wasn’t me,” he says. “Jeremy came into the unemployment office today. The nurses probably tagged me for review because he’s . . . well . . .”

Liv rolled her eyes. “What the fuck is he even doing applying for Assistance? I thought you said he was political.”

The word stops him. Not that it’s wrong. Not that Jeremy hadn’t always been political. But the way it sounds. What it means.

“He didn’t look good,” Diego says, but Liv just shakes her head.

“Well you’re going to have to be more careful,” she says. She closes her eyes and Diego watches her chest rise and fall. When she looks at him again, some of that gleam has reappeared. “But it’s not your fault. We’re clean now. There’s nothing to find. We’ll get through this. So get into the bedroom and get yourself ready, because I plan on working up an appetite.”

He hopes the smile on his face reaches his eyes. He leans forward and puts his lips against hers, keeps them there while he listens to the Sound outside howling, then pulls away quickly and flees to the bedroom. Liv pursues him. When she fucks him, his every moan is a sound like something breaking.

• • • •

The evening is hot, even in the dying light of late autumn. Diego remembers when November in Wisconsin meant snow. Now they were lucky to get some in late January to keep the rivers from drying up. He walks arm in arm with Liv, who is still bouncing with excitement. It’s hard not to bounce with her, except that he left his headphones at home, and the painkillers he took aren’t doing shit for his headache, and she doesn’t seem to feel a thing. Every block she pauses, takes a deep breath, and chuckles.

“I get paid vacation now, you know,” she says, and Diego hums in response, barely hearing her over the drone of the Sound. She’s not even trying to talk over it. “They say that Greenland is beautiful . . .”

He can see them getting home and taking the travel soaps out of the box to Ren. The shirts would be enough. They’d send the box out tomorrow. Or maybe over the weekend.

There’s a shout from across the street and they both stop, look over. There’s a crash and a figure emerges from an alley, shadowed by two drones. Diego’s mouth goes dry.

“Don’t you hear it?” Jeremy shouts as he runs. “Don’t you—” There’s the pop as one of the drones opens fire with less-than-lethal bullets and Jeremy stumbles, crashes into a lamppost, splays onto the street. The drones descend, jets of pepper spray coloring the air red around where Jeremy fell. His shouts transform into screams.

“Diego, we need to go,” Liv says, her hand pulling at his arm, away from the scene, toward their reservation.

“That’s . . .” He doesn’t finish. His phone is hot in his pocket. It would be safer to leave it at home, but if he shows up out without it, the auditors might think he’s trying to hide something.

“Just a criminal,” Liv says. She pulls him harder and Diego starts walking, but he can’t stop looking at the scene, at Jeremy’s writhing form. He’s screaming, but the more they walk away the more it blends into the background, into the noise of the Sound. Diego’s head throbs, and somewhere in his chest something echoes that hurt. In moments the cops arrive, lights flashing. And then Liv pulls him around a corner and out of sight of it.

“Some people,” Liv says as they walk, and Diego finds himself nodding. Some people. He winces as they pass under one of the giant speakers that play the Sound. He sways, and Liv holds his arm tighter.

“Hey, are you okay?” she asks, and Diego searches her face for any sign of discomfort, any sign of pain. He sees worry, yes. A hint of fear, maybe. But he knows without asking that she doesn’t hear it any more. He looks up at the speaker.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m okay.”

He’s not sure he can describe what the Sound actually sounds like. It’s a pressure, a constant pressure that he has to fight to keep from being crushed by. He feels weak, tired. But the pain in his head is a little less, and he feels like maybe, just maybe, there’s hope. That he won’t have to fight as hard. He looks at Liv, who is smiling.

“You sure?” she asks.

Diego nods. Of course he is. With Liv’s job they won’t have to worry about scraping together just enough to pay the bills. They’ll be able to save. Maybe she’ll even get a retirement account. Healthcare. Vacations. It’s all they ever wanted. All they ever struggled for. And now . . .

He stops fighting it, and the Sound rushes into him. It’s like . . . it’s like his ears popping. That’s it. And then there’s just . . . silence. He breathes out.

“I’m sure,” he says. “Everything’s going to be fine.”

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Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, The Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews, contributes as short fiction specialist at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.