Dead Air

“They’re scared of us.”

“Of course they’re scared of us, that’s the freaking point, now go and check on Lilith,” I say. I know there’s no point in checking on her, but I want Stokes off my case. He heaves off his chair, which was way too close to me for comfort, and heads towards the door. He’d been leaning in, trying to get a look at my screen with his framed eyes. His guy never does anything, doesn’t even act like anyone’s watching him. My guy on the other hand, he’s always on edge. It’s fun to watch.

I reach for my Pepsi across the keyboard and down the last half of it, attempting to stifle my urge to yawn. The day shift always sucks. I’m tired and moody and so is everyone else. It’s especially terrible when there’s nothing happening on the screens. At those points it’s pretty easy to convince myself that sleeping on the job wouldn’t do any harm. My eyes droop and I have to shake the idea out of my head to stay awake. Don’t yawn my mother would say, we don’t have time to be tired, now do we?

“How old was that guy?” I ask Tinker. I already know how old he was. I know every part of his story. It just helps to be reminded, especially when I’m this tired.

“18. Already on the way out. He was getting too old,” smirking, he adds, “I don’t think he expected his nap to end quite the way it did.”

“What, with a jail sentence? No I don’t think he did,” I laugh. Tinker doesn’t take his eyes off his screen, but he laughs too. Is it weird that I don’t even know what colour eyes Tinker has? As far as I know they’re what I call ‘screen’ hue. They’re always reflecting what’s going on in front of him. The crazy focus doesn’t bother me; it shows that he gets it. He understands that this is important. Plus, he’s 17. If he misses a beat he’s out.

They want to keep us young. ‘We don’t want to see you influenced by outside forces’ they’d say. They used to watch the screens that we watch now. These days they watch us, waiting for us to slip up so they can catch us out. And it’s terrifying when they do.

The thought wakes me up so I train my eyes on my guy. He’s sitting at his desk going through paperwork. I smile knowing it’s something official and lean back in my chair. He taps his fingertips on the table top while he scans the documents. I can’t hear him—apparently that was going a little too far—but I can see him well enough to mimic his movements and get an idea of the sound. He’s nervous. Good.

As if on cue he looks in the direction of our camera. He does this every few minutes while he works through the pages, probably making sure the camera hasn’t transformed into a government crushing monster lurking in the corner. But every time he looks up it’s still just a camera, and he returns to his paperwork. The real government crushing monsters are hidden in a room drinking Pepsi.

We’re here because the government forgot us. We’ve been plucked out of the places that don’t exist on maps, the places where laws aren’t really a thing. We were chosen because we’ve practically been conditioned to resent them – the government, obviously. And we do, resent them I mean, because everywhere else on this planet seems perfect. My mother called it the world of the white-picket fence, and here, well here it isn’t so good.

In my peripheral vision I see the door to my left open. Stokes emerges looking shaken. He closes it like it’s made of glass and walks toward us bedraggled.

“Lilith doing well?” I tease. Stokes pouts, making him look even younger than his already 14-year-old self. “Did she get up to anything on the weekend?” Stokes pulls his chair away from my console and towards his own. He sits down between Tinker and me and lets his head fall into his hands, his fingers weaving into his red hair. He’s a scrawny kid so he looks like he’s folded in half, crumpled at the waist like a piece of paper.

“I don’t get it,” he says, his voice hollow.

“Few people do Stokes. You’ll get used to it,” I say.

“It drives me insane. She just sits there…”

“We know,” I tell him, still watching my screen. My guy is quickly scrawling words over a notepad.

“…I’m going out of my mind just thinking about it…”

“Yeah Stokes, we get it.”

“…Hour after hour. How does she do it—no, how can she do it? What about food, and water, and like, sunlight?” He speaks fast now. “Sitting in one spot for that long isn’t possible. I’m starting to think she can’t move. Maybe that’s it, maybe she can’t get up. Oh god. She’s stuck there isn’t she?”

“We shouldn’t have told him that story,” Tinker says. He’s talking about the ‘Lilith’ story. Not the one about Lilith’s terrible past, the one about the Lilith. You know, Adams first wife, she-devil, night monster, evil bringer. It freaks Stokes out, so naturally I think it’s hilarious.

“You’re thinking way too far into this dude,” I say. He shakes his head. His brows are furrowed in desperation and his mouth is gaping just enough for it to look comical. He looks like he’s going to give himself a migraine. It’s hard not to giggle at the sight of him.

Lilith, our Lilith, is a fully-fledged hermit. I mean, we all watch pretty important people. It’s our job to cleanse the government. We make sure they stay in line. It’s all very intense. Most of our charges in the main control room are ministers of some sort, but Lilith has charge over the head honcho. For this reason, and possibly others pertaining to whacked out genes, I’ve never had a conversation with Lilith. Sure, I’ve spoken to her, but she doesn’t exactly speak back.

I guess the life she has now is better than what she had before. We don’t just casually chat about what our lives used to be like, but you do hear about them. The stories that are more tragic than most. It was her dad. He drank and he didn’t like her around when he drank, which was always. She spent a lot of time alone. We all did, but her more than most. For me it was called alone time, for her it was probably called get the hell out of my way. Anyway, it’s sort of an initiation for newbies—you gotta go speak to Lilith. It’s an eye opening experience.

Stokes is on edge. We’ve forced him in with Lilith majority of the days he’s been here. Cruel, I know, but when he’s constantly fogging up my screen with his breath I feel the need to be a little cruel. Tinker shows more mercy than I do. He pivots in his chair and looks Stokes straight on. He’s at least two feet taller than Stokes, who is still crumpling in his chair.

“Kid, soon enough there are two very valuable lessons that you’ll have to learn: 1. there is an eighty-five percent chance Lilith is not human, and 2. if she didn’t do the work, we’d have to. Accept it and you might survive more than a month.”

At that, mouth still gaping, Stokes nods and turns back to his screen. I follow, settling back into my chair.

Sometimes this job is interesting. Sometimes a minister tries to slip a piece of paper under their desk during a meeting, or a mysterious package shows up and they try to conceal it under their jacket without looking guilty as hell – they always think they’re being so subtle. Those times are fun. All of us crowd around the console and laugh. There’ll be popcorn if the debacle drags out long enough. Right now, the three of us sitting comfortably and Stokes off my back, I’m content for the day to be boring.

My eyes start to strain and I have to rub them—side effect of looking at a screen all day. It’s like staring at one of those optical illusions and then looking at a wall to see Jesus or Elvis, but instead I see an office imprinted on the back of my eyelids whenever I try to sleep or blink.

I’m still staring at that office when static peers through the original picture on my screen. In our house the television was always on—mostly news—but it was a fixed thing. It was constant. I’d never seen real static.

This is new. My guy and his office continue to fade as I lean in. My heart thunders in my chest. My face is only inches from the screens surface. It flashes and turns to nothingness. Only the black surface of the screen remains. It’s as if someone has taken a remote and turned it off.

I’ve heard of the rooms they shove you in when you fuck up really bad. Stark, and cold enough to freeze over in winter. I know that’s where I’ll go if one thing goes wrong while these screens are off. The thought of bare, cold tiles makes me shiver. I can almost hear the crunching of bone, almost feel the boot of a guard hit me square in the back. I think I can taste blood.

“Uh guys,” Stokes says, hesitant. “Did that just happen to you or…?” He looks to his sides to find both Tinker and I looking at our screens in horror. Tinker looks like he’s going to be sick. All Stokes says is, “Oh.”

I try to speak but my mouth is too dry. I swallow painfully a few times . “What do we do?! What the hell do we freaking do?!” I shout, my voice wavering. Tinker doesn’t say anything. Stokes gives me a look that says ‘I’ve only been here 4 weeks’ and ‘oh god oh god oh god oh god’.

“The screens are dead, how can they be dead?” I shout.

“Dead air,” Tinker says. His voice sounds cracked like mine. The wind has been knocked out of the both of us.

“What? This is bad guys,” Stokes says, confused. He turns to his console and fumbles with the keys. “How do we turn them back on?”

“It doesn’t work like that. They don’t turn off. They’re not built to turn off so we aren’t trained to turn them back on,” Tinker says. Always the expert. “Don’t you get it?”

Stokes just stares.

Fear them my mother liked to say. That government would jump at any chance to turn the rest of the world into the nightmare that we’re already living.

The clock behind us is ticking louder than clocks ever should, forcing me to analyse every second that goes by. Time quickly mutates from a ‘thing’ into an ‘it’, and I know ‘it’ will have our heads if we don’t think of something soon.

“Tinker this isn’t a guessing game, and I’m scared. So it would help enormously if you just spat it out!” I say, sharper than I’d have liked to.

“We can’t turn the screens off—“

“—Yes I’ve gathered that. Thank you for your amazing insight—“

“—We can’t turn the screens off. Who do you think can?”

“Oh. Oh.

Stokes continues to stare.

“So you think it’s the government?” Stokes is still sitting in his chair by his console. I’m leaning against mine, probably pushing buttons in the process. It’s not like they’re working or anything. Tinker is pacing. I find it weird to see his lanky body moving. His hands are steepled under his chin as he thinks.

“Who else could it be? We’ve all been sitting here this entire time.”

“No we haven’t,” I say. Stokes looks up at me but doesn’t say anything. “Oh come on guys. Lilith.”

Tinker stops pacing. I can tell that he’s stopped thinking. Now he’s processing. We all look towards the door, which quickly becomes fuel for a million nightmares. I’m not game to open it and Stokes doesn’t move either. He’s white as a sheet and I probably look the same. Tinker drops his hands from under his chin, walks towards the door, grabs the door handle – and completely chickens out.

“Some back up guys?” He doesn’t turn to us, just stares at his unmoving hand on the door handle. I push myself off the console and walk toward him. I don’t know if Stokes follows or not, I don’t check. Tinker throws the door open.

Lilith is sitting on her chair in front of her blank screens. She has her back to but instead of her normal attentive posture she’s slouched over. Her long hair spills onto the keys of her console, invading the crevices like roots. I stand back in the archway of the door. Tinker is standing halfway between me and her, stuck in motion. I want to tell myself I’m staying back to give Lilith room, but I’m not. I’ve never seen Lilith like this. I can hear her crying. I can imagine her face, tears probably matted with hair. I bet she looks younger than she’s ever looked before.

“Lilith…” Tinker says softly. He’s as scared as I am. “It’s okay, we… we can fix this.”

She kind of laughs at that. It isn’t really audible, I just see her shoulders jolt. Maybe it’s a sob.

“There’s no use in that,” she says. Her voice is higher than I would have expected, raspy but youthful. I never thought to ask her how old she was. I don’t think anyone did. Her answer confuses me.

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?” Tinker says, beating me to it.

“I did it,” she says.

“You… you did this?” No answer. I haven’t moved. God I hope Stokes isn’t listening to this, he’ll freak out. “You turned off the screens? How? Why?” She still doesn’t answer. Tinker looks pissed. He’s shifting his weight too frequently, his hands in fists.

“Say something!” he shouts.

“Angers good, but be angry at them,” she nods at her blank screen, “not me.”

Tinker lunges forward and swings her chair around to face him. He’s kneeling in front of her with his hands clutching the arms of her chair. He starts yelling at her to speak. It’s scary coming from him. Controlled and focused Tinker. I was right, her face is streaked and her long hair is tangled by tears. She looks about 11.

“Stop—stop! Listen to her. I want to know what she means,” Stokes interrupts. He’d been standing just metres behind me, listening to the whole thing. Tinker stops yelling but he keeps hold of the arms of her chair. I can see the whites of his knuckles.

Lilith closes her eyes. My hands are shaking so I dig my fingernails into my arm. She opens her eyes—brown and round and innocent—and speaks.

“My dad didn’t give me anything except a room. A shoebox sized thing where I spent my days in. The only times I left were to eat whatever miniscule serving I was allotted.” I can hear the memory of my mother’s voice at the back of my head, this is all you get. Lilith’s tiny hands are clutching each other for dear life. “Or when he made me watch the news once a week on our tiny television. He never let me take my eyes off the screen.”

“What is this about? What has this got to do with anything?” Tinker says cautiously. She continues without answering him.

“He turned me into someone who knew how to be isolated, a person who knew how to concentrate, who knew to never expect anything good. There was too much coincidence.”

I can tell that my cheeks are wet. I think I know what this is about. You have to learn. I’d always ask my mother what she meant by that, but she wouldn’t say. I don’t want to be right.

“Lilith stop, please,” I blurt out before I even know the words are leaving my mouth. Tinker looks back at me confused. His eyes are a grey colour. Of course it would be at a moment like this I’d notice them. Lilith continues, sounding more and more like a child.

“He turned me into someone who knew how to do a job. I knew how to do this, all of this. To be isolated and alone, to stay focused, to not expect anything good.”

“No,” I say, desperate, “that’s why they choose us. They choose us because it makes sense, because our lives have taught us how to do the job. My mother—”

“—You really think she was your mother? You’ve thought about it, haven’t you? Not just the lack of resemblance. The rules, the conditioning. They don’t even fight it when we’re taken away. We aren’t chosen. We’re taken. They don’t turn the misfortune of our lives into employment. They take us away—they take us away from everything good and they put us into homes that condition us to be the way we are! These people we work for, we think they’re right—”

“—Stop it!” Tinker shouts.

“Our lives have been constructed by the only people we have ever trusted. Our lives aren’t even ours. They never have been.”

It’s as if my entire world switches off. Everything is black. The sound of Lilith’s cries are an echo. All that remains is this fuzzy, shaking feeling of despair.


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