Science Fiction Sad Speculative

First came the illness; the electromagnetic pulse only crackpots believed was coming soon followed. And the earth fell silent, silent with death, with the near-simultaneous obliteration of humankind’s technology and its voice, all wrought by man’s own hand, by the initiation of another senseless and avoidable war by nations who had grown tired of talk, whose people bayed for blood and marched for action.

Silence prevailed, brought about a dark night of the soul for humanity, a humanity accustomed to loudly and proudly expressing opinions, consuming them endlessly, in the spoken word, in print, in media, in houses of parliament.

Few had cared when the deaf could no longer hear, by lipreading, during the blackouts and the gas attacks. Few cared about the danger this posed; the many deaths in which this resulted were seen as a simple and unavoidable shame, for which only The Enemy could be held responsible.

They cared now; the State called mutely for their aid, to teach the survivors how to communicate once more, without speech, without electricity, in a global paper shortage. The State, however, appeared oblivious that there were now too few people fluent in sign language to adequately fulfil this role, oblivious that this was the fault of its own incompetent government, the fault of the monster it had created, the fault of a world comprised of coldly anonymous communities where consideration and empathy were seen as needless time-sinks, trappings of some old dead religion.

A quiet argument ensued.

“The very people you left to die,” signed one committee head, “Are now those you turn to for help. You said there was nothing you could do for us, that the production of transparent masks would take too long, cost too much, that emergency lighting would cost lives you seemed to consider more important than ours. You sacrificed us for your freedom of speech; should we now sacrifice our vocations, our ambitions, our lives, so that you might continue with yours?”

No volunteers came forward. The deaf community, along with those who had learned their language before it became the only one man had left, responded with the same instinct of self-preservation which had driven the others to leave them so vulnerable during the War. Their representatives walked away, with dignity, from a frustrating negotiation which demanded much and offered little. Instead, they worked among themselves, harmoniously, peacefully, built communities of calm through effective communication while the others struggled to argue and fight without shouting and social media.


Zorah Shekhinah was an emaciated twelve-year-old, mute and profoundly deaf since birth, filthy and crawling with lice, who chose to live outside of this community, preferring to observe the people around her passively, impartially, preferring to look deeply at the world through her wide black eyes in an attempt to comprehend it.

She had no people to call her own, had given up on belonging when she was orphaned in the early wars, placed in the care of the State.

Care was a strong word, for they did not. Not one person in the State Nursery could understand her, from the day of her arrival until the end; they left her in a corner without interaction, squatting on a squalid floor watching subtitled news broadcasts, until the brownouts began and television became a luxury orphans were no longer afforded.

Her only sources of amusement then were her large English dictionary and a stuffed donkey which she guarded jealously, for they were the only possessions she had been permitted to bring from her ruined home, the only possessions within reach on the morning when she had run from the Nursery, just as the vibrations of the last bombings began to tear the building down. She had escaped, narrowly, taking a large lump of shrapnel in the side of her head as she sprinted in terror for the nearest bunker. She had stayed there, in near-darkness, surrounded by rats, long after the others departed. At night, she scavenged for food, studied new words under the moon's pale glow, and dreamed of a better world.

Zorah’s epiphany came to her in a vision, a starvation-induced reverie, in which she saw a bare and formless white earth above which hung a paper sky on which were printed the words:

“Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.”

With delirious and urgent clarity, she tore the blank page from the front of her precious dictionary, wrote a simple letter on it with a pencil-stub, requesting an audience with the President himself, curtly offering her services in the instruction of State Sign Language to the masses.

A rickshaw was sent for her several days later. Before she was permitted entry to the Presidential Complex, a State Matron roughly deloused Zorah with a metal comb, a wet rag and a bar of carbolic soap, braided her hair in tight, narrow cornrows which exposed the bald, crescent-shaped scar above her right ear, dressed her in a starched Nursery pinafore and fed her a bowl of salty pap. She was then taken to the palace where, patiently and meticulously, she laid out her proposal for the reinstatement of human communication.

The scientists working on the cure would be first, those working in frontline services, particularly teachers and carers, and – here she insisted – the youngest and oldest people; the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of society, in particular the veterans who had given an arm, a leg, more, in the most literal sense, for compatriots who were now happy to let them rot in State Hospices on survival rations, physical and psychological.

“Fifty percent of the participants in the programme will meet my criteria of disadvantage. Mine,” she signed emphatically.

The President and his Ministers looked at her, bemused, but could not match her in eloquence. They signed in single letters with endless mistakes, squandered precious new paper on rambling and irrelevant handwritten responses, which Zorah acknowledged with a curt nod, before folding and putting in her pocket for reuse.

She won.

Alongside medics and professors, there would be toddlers, girls who had been conscripted from schools to empty bedpans for veterans, boys who had been taken to gather stones and shrapnel from fields of burnt scrub so the State could eat. Terraformers, they called them, an empty title tossed out to glamourize grunt-work, bait for the malleable minds of the young, for which they eagerly left their desks as though it were candy.

If she had the power to scream, she would, scream at those boys that this blackened fruitless earth was the very result of man’s terraforming, that The Enemy was not responsible, but every adult on its surface, whether by action or inaction. Yet this was her very power, she could not, and it had set her apart from the others, caused her to listen more closely, obliged her to prefer authenticity and precision over the spontaneous venting, the rage of human existence, which seemed to have caused the chaos which had laid waste to both society and the resources on which it depended.

“I’ll need an amphitheatre,” she signed quickly, too quickly for their expert to understand, “The largest we have. I can work seven days a week. In exchange, I will accept two meals a day, clean lodgings and reasonable access to paper and pencils. This will mean, if I am not mistaken, that you’ll need to stop wasting them around here.”

The President nodded without understanding. Graciously, Zorah removed a sheet of paper from her pinafore pocket and printed, in small, neat letters, the detail of her proposal, her conditions, her eligibility criteria, under which she drew two lines, for the date and his signature.

Shoulders back and chin high, she stood over him, waiting for his acquiescence. He obliged quickly; there was little choice but to accept, there were no other offers, certainly none the war-ravaged State purse could consider.

“Two bowls of pap, every day,” she signed, slowly and clearly, at the end of the meeting, her round eyes narrowing with distrust, “Or the deal’s off. Please, escort me to my accommodation.”

Zorah did not wait for a response, for approval or permission. Instead, she turned and left the room, dictionary and donkey under one arm, her free hand gathering as many pads of paper and new pencils as she could carry on her way out.


She took her first class late at night on a disused airfield, dimly lit with tallow candles, bright torches to her left and right, students clamouring for a better view on the warm dry grass around her, which crunched underfoot.

She gestured at the Palace Guard to lay down their weapons and close the gates; then, with finger and thumb, removed and discarded the red Rosette of Honour the President had pinned on her chest during the opening ceremony, which bore the honorific he had bestowed on her: Speaker for Humanity.

From one corner of the field, a timid applause rang out; Zorah greeted it with a gently disapproving smile, kept her hand and brows raised high until it stopped.

When all students had received their ration of paper, she sat cross-legged on the small podium which had been erected for her, began to write in large pencil letters a single word, PEACE.

Peace was the language she taught them, young and old, rich and poor alike: not a means of communication but a new voice, hers, supernatural, unsullied by the brutality of words, mild and dovelike, graceful and unprejudiced; she taught them until their minds were restored along with their voices, reconditioned to listen first, to observe before seeking attention, to seek understanding over self-expression, to prefer cooperation above personal interest.


Zorah Shekhinah, 2048-2092, was an orphaned war victim who went on to become the first Speaker for Humanity, a title she famously rejected during her inaugural lecture in spring 2060. She became known internationally as a campaigner for peace, turning down various ambassadorial roles to pursue her teaching career, during which she is credited with educating more than 500,000 students in PAX, formerly known as State Sign Language. She was assassinated during the riots of 2092, along with 63 civilian students, the youngest of whom was 17 months old.

August 11, 2021 18:26

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A.Dot Ram
17:49 Aug 16, 2021

Interesting take on this prompt. We both examined this week how people communicate. I think it's fascinating to explore what would happen if the systems we rely on fell away. You've developed a complex but* vivid world in yours. *My auto type has a weird sense of humor.


Sorcha Wilde
21:29 Aug 17, 2021

Hey Dot, You're so right there - especially at a time when following current affairs can make us feel like the art of calm, constructive dialogue is slowly dying. Thanks so much for your awesome comment :) Happy writing! Sorcha


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