This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “The Death Sentence.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
This is one of my oldest stories, and it was my attempt to literalize a metaphor. Yeah, that’s totally what I was trying to do. Literalize that sucker. Oh, and talk about free speech, too.
The Death Sentence
The City had never been cleaner, safer, or quieter than it was on Erik Dankelson’s twenty-ninth birthday, and he couldn’t have been more heartsick about it. The streets were free from litter, refuse, and vagrants. The Downtown buildings rising above the waters of The Lake and The River were pristine towers of concrete and steel, untouched by graffiti and vandalism. Even the speech of The City’s citizens was as distilled and pure as boiled water.
The small circular window at the foot of his bunk shed a weak gray light into the narrow room, falling onto a small toilet and two suspended beds, the only furnishings in the white cell. The bed below his was empty.
Erik climbed down from his bunk and gazed through the barred window at the quiet city below. The pain in his head had receded, but his throat still ached, and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. The five-mile-long straightaway of The Parkway stretched out like a ribbon before Erik, its darkened high-rise offices and apartment buildings framing the deserted six lanes of pavement like walls. Traffic was prohibited until eight. He was scheduled to pronounce his death sentence at noon.
* * * * * *
Just hours earlier, Erik had shared his space with a young man named Merkel. The two death row inmates had shared less than four hours together before Merkel had been taken away.
“You’re Dankelson, aren’t you,” Merkel had said to break Erik’s self-imposed silence. It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” Erik answered, wincing. The soft organiplastic covering his throat and lower palate made him want to gag.
“I heard all about it yesterday,” Merkel said, his voice brightening. “How they caught you and brought you in…”
Erik held up his hand to silence Merkel. The boy couldn’t be more than seventeen, he thought. And already condemned to die.
“Words,” Erik murmured, as a fleeting memory of Jenna and Emily pricked at his conscience. He swallowed with a grimace, looking down at his hands, clenched into useless, obscene fists. It had been almost twenty-five years since an act of civilian violence had occurred in The City, as a result of the anti-barbarics the leaders had begun slipping into the water supply decades ago. A fist was as useless as a closed mouth and a still tongue at a free speech rally.
He looked over at his cellmate. “So tell me, Mr. Merkel, why are you here?”
“Call me Merk, okay, Mr. Dankelson?” Merkel said, sitting up straight and hugging his thin legs.
“Sure, Merk. Talk to me.”
Merk continued, his voice filling with pride. “We had just broken up a soundstream transmission from The Capital to The City. President Shitbag” —the floor vibrated with distant footsteps, coming closer— “had just started his speech about making The Country the safest and cleanest place to visit, when we broke in and started scrambling his words. Every other word was—”
Erik held his hand out again, trying to halt the stream of illegal words that began pouring out of the boy’s mouth. As Merk swore, his voice deepening and gaining volume, the boy’s face became suddenly older and full of power. Erik knew the feeling. The footsteps grew louder and faster in the outer hallway.
The automatic door locks gave way as three uniformed men rushed into the room. Two of them fell upon Merkel. The red-haired boy was shouting now, filling Erik with the familiar and intoxicating rush of forbidden speech. The thrill of the words tempted Erik to speak, but the organiplastic in his mouth and throat tightened, and he could barely breathe, much less use his voice.
The three guards were dressed in tight, dark blue bodysuits with the yellow armbands of the Cleanspeech Units, and each wore flesh-colored sound dampeners in their ears. The largest, a thickly-muscled man with a pointed gray goatee, slapped a long, triangular piece of organiplastic into Merk’s mouth, and the boy’s oaths became gurgles of pain and rage. A second guard covered the boy’s mouth with black tape, and then he and his partner carried the boy’s kicking body out of the room.
The big guard held back and turned to Erik with a crooked smile at the corners of his goatee. He held a small box under his thumb, and when he moved it, Erik could feel his organiplastic mouthpiece tighten.
“Do not try to instigate uprisings, good sir. The City will have clean speech at all times, even here, and we are willing to use whatever means at our disposal to do so.” He leaned close to Erik, adjusting his armband. “Good day.”
The door popped as its locks slammed into place. Erik sank down to the floor as the footsteps died, and the tension of his mouthpiece lessened gradually. He began a countdown in his head. He had less than fifteen hours left to live.
* * * * * *