The story below was originally slated to appear in the January 2011 edition of This Mutant Life before, sadly, the magazine shut down after the December 2010 issue. I still count this as my second published short story, though in reality it never did see publication. I still like it, though there are some things I may go back to expand upon or rewrite. But I think, in this case, it is best to publish it here as it would have appeared had This Mutant Life continued. Maybe someday down the road I’ll revisit it and rewrite it, but until then, I hope you enjoy it …
* * *
Kuni opened his mouth to speak and a babble of voices filled the air. So he closed it and the voices stopped. Instead of speaking, he nodded and Mia continued.
“I’m really proud of you Kuni,” she said. “You know, most savants can’t attend schools except those specially designed for them. But you, you’re doing exceptionally well. Mr. Trotter said your essay on the rise of savants and the end of mechanized war was superb, though your conclusions were rather bleak. Doesn’t that make you happy?”
Kuni shrugged. He knew his essay was good. Kuni also knew why he went to school with regular people. For being “special,” he was quite ordinary. Why should being ordinary make him happy?
“How can you sit there and shrug like that? You have been born with a gift!”
Kuni met Mia’s eye and opened his mouth. A cacophony of voices erupted. Eyes fixed on Mia’s, Kuni let the words roll and tumble over each other in wave upon wave. As the avalanche of voices thundered, he grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and began to write in his childish scrawl. When he finished, he shoved the paper across the table and closed his mouth. The voices fell silent.
She picked up the paper and read aloud, “How is this a gift? I can’t even make the voices say what I want. They just talk and talk and talk and there’s nothing I can do but shut my mouth. What good is being a savant when my gift can’t do anything of use?”
“Your gift is useful,” Mia said immediately.
Kuni snatched the paper back and scribbled furiously. He knew his haste would only make his writing harder to read, but he didn’t care. Again, he thrust the paper at Mia when he had finished and leaned back in his chair awaiting her response.
“Can I lift cars? Can I fly?” Mia paused in her reading and looked up at Kuni. “Do you really want those gifts? Sure they’re flashy and impressive, but what about their minds? Will either of them ever be more than a three year-old mentally? Will either of them ever be able to ask the questions you’re asking now? And what about your essay? Didn’t you say that savants, just like every other weapon in history, would eventually be replaced?”
Kuni did not allow himself to be swayed. He just leaned forward and tapped hard on the paper with two rigid fingers.
Mia sighed and continued reading, “If war ever comes, who will they send to fight for us? Who will protect us from the other savants out there? Me?”
Mia didn’t respond; she only looked at him with pity.
Kuni grabbed the paper once more, and ignoring the message Mia had not finished reading, wrote in thick, dark letters, “I DON’T WANT YOUR PITY! I JUST WANT TO BE USEFUL!”
He slammed the pencil down and stood up, toppling his chair. He stormed across the room to lean, head and forearms against the wall.
A paper rustled once. Otherwise the room was quiet, the constant hum of the air conditioning the only sound keeping the room from complete silence.
Kuni wasn’t surprised to hear Mia rise from her chair a few moments later. He wasn’t surprised to hear her approach on quiet feet. Neither was he surprised when her voice broke the quiet just behind him.
“It may not make you useful for war, but the voices—I think I can help with those.”
Now that was surprising.
* * *
Kuni wiped away the tears that streamed down his face at the closing notes of the anthem. He wouldn’t look at Mia, wouldn’t acknowledge the way she had watched him when the song began and the tears followed. He realized that she had remained seated throughout the anthem—very unpatriotic of her.
The game didn’t interest him much, so after only a few minutes of back and forth between the teams he changed the channel, landing on the news of all things. War was brewing again and a dozen or more nations were readying their savants. He almost changed the channel then, almost turned the television off, but the map on the screen was too beautiful. Each country stood out boldly in a different color, each played its role in the image before him. But as he watched, the image transformed. Half of the colors, so striking when viewed side by side, turned to a deep red, rich and strong. And the beauty was destroyed.
He shut the TV off.
“Why does the anthem move you so?” Mia asked after a short pause.
Kuni shrugged and Mia came to sit beside him.
“I told you before that I think I can help with those voices. Do you remember that?” She paused again. “Of course you remember. But I think the anthem might be the key. I think if anything can bring the voices together into one, it’s the anthem.”
Kuni looked up at her, not quite willing to believe that what she said was possible. If he didn’t believe her then he wouldn’t be disappointed when it didn’t work. But he wanted to believe. He met her eyes and she must have seen something there, because she smiled, took his hand, and led him outside.
Perhaps it was the touch of her hand, or the hope she offered, or some mixture of the two, but whatever it was made Kuni’s heart thunder in his chest. They stopped beneath an oak tree and took a seat on a shaded bench. Mia released his hand.
Kuni pulled out a pad and pencil and wrote in a shaky scrawl, “How will the anthem help? What difference will it make? Why do you think you can help me with the voices?”
“It’s powerful, Kuni,” she said. “Somehow it cuts through defenses you don’t even know you have in place and grabs your heart. Does anything else do that? If anything will work, it’ll be this.”
Kuni scribbled a response with a hand that shook even worse than before. Mia read it and laughed.
“Of course we’ll start right away. Why do you think I brought you out here?”
Kuni’s heart pounded so hard he felt as if he rocked back and forth with each beat. Could this be possible?
“Do you know the anthem by heart?”
“Good. What is it about the anthem that moves you so? Is it the words? The music? Or something else?”
Kuni flushed, but decided it would be worth a little embarrassment if this worked. He wrote, “The words and the music seem to speak of a longing for home and family. It’s beautiful.”
Mia looked up from the paper and gave him a look he’d never seen before. He had no clue what it meant, but his face grew hotter and he looked down at his toes.
“What I want you to do,” Mia said, “is concentrate on that feeling. Let it break your heart if that’s what needs to happen, but feel it. Can you do that?”
Kuni shrugged. But how could he know unless he tried?
He focused, brow furrowed and eyes squeezed shut, but nothing happened. He could remember the feeling, but he couldn’t feel it from memory. He tried again, this time gritting his teeth. Still nothing. He opened his eyes and shook his head.
“Okay, instead of thinking of the feeling, think of the anthem, remember the words and the music, and maybe that will bring the feeling back.”
Again Kuni’s brow scrunched and his eyes closed. The song was beautiful and he could even hear it in his head, but it was no use. The memory didn’t have any power to move him. He was about to open his eyes when a voice began to whisper the anthem, singing soft and low.
It had to be Mia since no one else was there, but with his eyes closed, Kuni couldn’t be sure—he had never heard her sing before. He didn’t want to open his eyes, knowing it would break the spell her gentle song was weaving. The words washed over him and one by one the emotions followed.
“Now sing Kuni,” Mia said.
Somehow he still heard her singing, yet clearly she had spoken to him. Was it her song he heard or some other?
Kuni opened his mouth expecting the cacophony to ruin the song, but all he heard was music.
* * *
Alexei yawned and rubbed his eyes with tiny fists. He bent down to pick up Teddy where he rested beside yet another charred and broken body.
“You have done well Alexei,” Teddy said in his fuzzy, far off voice. “There is only one more job for us to do before we can rest.”
“But I want to rest now Teddy.”
“No whining Alexei.”
His shoulders sagged and he nodded.
“I’m sorry to be sharp with you,” Teddy said. “This has been a long war for me too and my nerves aren’t what they used to be.”
“It’s okay,” Alexei said, stroking Teddy’s plush fur and squeezing him tight. “I forgive you. Where do we need to go?”
“East. I know we’ve only been punishing a few people at a time, but this time it’s a room full of people. They’ve been very bad, and they need to be punished—more than any of the people you’ve met so far.”
“Which way’s east?”
“It’s to your left.”
“Thanks Teddy. What would I do without you?”
Alexei gave Teddy’s soft, furry body another squeeze.
“Now hold on tight, okay Teddy?”
Alexei leapt into the air then sped off to his left, into the east, and toward those he needed to punish.
* * *
Kuni opened his mouth and for the fifth time that week, and second time that day, the voices said only what he wanted them to. It was progress. He promptly shut his mouth and smiled.
“You’re getting better,” Mia said. “I’m proud of you.”
Kuni grabbed the paper to write his response, but Mia’s hand closed over his. Her hand was warm and soft. His heart experimented with a new rhythm, beating with strange beats he felt in his ears.
“Why don’t you say it rather than writing it,” she said, not letting go of his hand.
Kuni spoke, or tried to speak, but the voices were no longer under his control. Still her hand did not leave his and his heart continued its irregular rhythm. Words continued to pour from his mouth in a multitude of voices, but gradually he began to hear in the cacophony one voice he recognized as truly his own. It wasn’t the tenor or rhythm of speech that alerted him, for he had never heard himself speak. Rather it was what the voice said.
Could she hear it? Could she pick it out of the noise?
“I love you,” it said. “I would give up all my progress with these voices if it meant you would stay and tutor me.”
He clamped his mouth shut. Those words, that declaration of love, were the only ones he had heard. It sounded as though they were the only words he had said, and all the other voices had gone still and silent.
Her head looked down and her hair, short though it was, fell in a veil, hiding her eyes from him.
His hand let go of the pencil and turned over to clasp hers where it rested. He leaned left and leaned right, hoping for a glimpse of her hidden features.
What had she heard?
Mia’s free hand reached up beneath the veil and did something, but even its motions were obscured. Its job complete, she let her hand fall into her lap once more. Kuni watched it fall and thought he might have seen a finger or two glistening, but it could have been a trick of the light. Still his heart stumbled along its uneven path, convinced she had heard him.
Kuni waited, afraid to move. Afraid the slightest motion would make her pull her hand away from his. He felt his strange pulse through fingers gently clasping hers. Even if she hadn’t heard him she had to feel the difference in that telltale pulse. She had to know.
“You’ve done well,” she said, sliding her hand off of his. “I thought you might progress with my help, but I must admit I didn’t expect to succeed.”
Did her voice tremble, or was it his imagination?
“I am proud of you, Kuni, but it’s time I was leaving.”
She stood and he rose to his feet with her, movements synchronized. Heart still stumbling, but picking up speed as though it was tripping down stairs, he opened his mouth.
Mia held up a hand, her left hand, the hand he had so recently held and wished he still did.
“I have to go.”
She turned and ran from him then. Wrenched open the door, she dashed through it. He stood and stared, shocked at her haste but hopeful.
Minutes dragged by and hope began to wither.
Five minutes after the door had closed, it opened a crack and Mia slipped halfway through. She did not look at him.
“Kuni, I just want you to know that I will be your tutor for as long as you’ll have me.”
With that she slipped out the door once more and left Kuni rooted to the same spot. It was only when the clock beeped the hour that he realized his mouth was still open, poised to speak, but no sound emerged.
* * *
Two days later, Kuni found a note taped across his door. It read:
Please forgive me for missing our tutoring session yesterday; I was called away to an important meeting. At that meeting I heard an update on the war. It’s not going well for us, but there is hope. I know this may surprise you, but that hope is in you. With the progress you’ve made, we think you might be able to help when the savant who has caused such damage arrives sometime tonight. Your gift is something he has never seen and you may be able to stop him, or slow him long enough for help to arrive. You wanted to be useful. Well, here’s your chance.
Meet me tonight at the city council office at 6:00.
He arrived that evening, eager to see Mia and to prove himself to these people, whoever they were. Instead, all he found was another note.
* * *
Echoes of voices drifted down the halls so faintly at first Alexei couldn’t be sure they were truly there. Cocking his head, he strained to hear them more clearly, but couldn’t. He began drifting down corridors, feet hovering a few inches off the ground. There was no particular reason he went down some hallways and not others, he just floated, until he rounded a bend and the voices grew louder.
He sped down the hall and came to a T, but there was no confusion left in him. The voices came from the left-hand branch. A few turns later and he stopped in front of a door. Even though he was sure the voices came from the other side of this door, they were still hushed. The door had to be thick.
Alexei pressed his ear against the door and realized for the first time that the voices were singing.
“They must be punished,” Teddy said in his metallic voice. “All of them.”
Alexei hesitated. He didn’t want to punish anyone else. He wanted to sleep. At the thought of sleep he yawned and rubbed at one eye with a fist. It wouldn’t even have to be a comfortable place. He just needed somewhere to lie down without Teddy telling him what to do.
“I know you don’t want to do this,” Teddy said, “but you must Alexei. This is the last time you’ll have to punish anyone.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes. I promise.”
“And after this I can sleep.”
“For as long as you need. Now, the sooner you open that door, the sooner our job is done.”
Alexei reached out and with strength beyond his small stature pushed through the heavy wooden doors.
* * *
The doors opened and Kuni’s mouth snapped shut. The anthem hung in the air, echoing back from wall to wall for a few moments while the young boy stood and looked around him. He was just a child. Kuni could almost imagine him with one arm tightly holding his teddy bear and his thumb in his mouth. The picture in Kuni’s head was nearly complete before him: the boy clutched a teddy bear tightly in one arm, but he doubted this boy had ever been allowed to have a thumb near his mouth.
Their eyes met and the boy asked a question in a language Kuni could not understand so he shrugged and shook his head. The boy tried again, though Kuni couldn’t tell if he had repeated himself or said something different.
“I’m sorry,” Kuni said in one clear voice, “I don’t understand you.”
The boy nodded then and paused. After a few moments of silence he began to hum and pointed at Kuni.
He understood then and focused on what Mia had taught him, letting his mind and heart sink into the longing stirred by the anthem. He began to sing. It was his voice, and his alone that sang. The boy watched him, looking vaguely unsatisfied. So Kuni relaxed his control just a bit and a couple voices joined his.
The boy looked at him more closely for a moment before leaping into the air and soaring around the room. He looked behind chairs and under tables. Obviously finding no one, he flew back and landed closer to Kuni. The boy watched him closely, eyes blinking only occasionally.
Kuni relaxed his control a little further and more voices joined the song. The little boy’s face lit up and he crept even closer.
With every voice that Kuni allowed to join the song, the boy moved closer, until Kuni let his control fall the rest of the way and a choir joined the song. The boy dropped his teddy bear and clapped, a huge smile spread across his lean, tired face. He leapt the last dozen yards and sat at Kuni’s feet, still smiling.
A metallic voice screeched from the teddy bear, but the boy didn’t even glance toward it. His eyes remained fixed on Kuni.
When the anthem ended, the little boy clapped again and cheered in his foreign tongue, before sitting still and waiting, eyes expectant. So Kuni began a softer song, a lullaby sung just above a whisper. The choir of voices sang together, soft and gentle, and gradually the boy’s eyes began to close. His body relaxed along with his eyes and Kuni kept singing. The boy inched down until he was curled up on his side in a little ball. The teddy bear screeched and hissed again, but Kuni kept singing. The boy’s eyes remained closed, his breathing slow and even.
Just watching the boy made Kuni drowsy, but he let the song continue. The little guy needed rest.
A side door opened behind Kuni with a soft squeak and quiet footsteps crept toward them. He heard these sounds, but continued singing. The footsteps stopped behind him, something was set down, and latches were undone, their clicks louder than the squeak of the door or the creak of the floorboards. Kuni wanted to turn and shush the newcomer, but he continued singing, afraid the boy would wake if he allowed the song to stop.
But a pinch at the base of his neck interrupted his song. He reached back to brush away whatever insect had bitten him, but was surprised to find that he couldn’t lift his arm. Strong hands supported him beneath his armpits and at their touch his legs gave way beneath him. The hands guided him to the ground to rest on his side, facing the still sleeping boy.
The newcomer walked around Kuni to squat by the boy’s side. He slid a needle out of a sleeve and gave it two slow shakes. The fluid in the syringe swirled. The newcomer pressed the tip of the needle against the base of the boy’s neck and pushed. The needle bowed and threatened to snap, but the newcomer eased off the pressure. He appeared to think for a moment and all the while Kuni’s body grew heavier. He felt as though he were sinking into the floorboards beneath him. All he could do was watch.
The newcomer reached across the sleeping boy and stuck the needle into the boy’s open mouth. With a slow pressure he let the liquid dribble out to mingle with the boy’s saliva. The boy didn’t wake.
Still squatting the newcomer turned to face Kuni then and with a surprise dulled by whatever drug coursed through him, he saw that the newcomer was a woman. He tried to focus his eyes on her face, but they refused, only growing blurrier the longer he kept them open. Kuni closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His heart beat slowly, pounding as it too seemed to join with the floor beneath him.
“I’m so sorry Kuni,” the woman said, her words barely a whisper.
He felt a tingle in his ear at the woman’s whispered breath.
“They told me to do whatever I could to train you, to break through your block. I hoped I wouldn’t succeed. Because success would only lead to this.”
The woman’s voice broke and in the silence that followed Kuni tried to make sense of her words. His brain felt hazy and unclear.
“You were right, you know, in your essay. The savants’ time has ended, but not to be replaced by something new. We are replacing you with nothing. There will be no weapons, there will be no war. Kuni, you and Alexei are the last of the savants, and soon, even you will be gone. And with you . . .”
The haze lifted just a little from Kuni’s mind, enough to recognize the speaker and follow her words.
“Who are we kidding? Killing the savants won’t end anything. It may give us a break, perhaps even a long one, but there will always be war.” He felt her gently brush his hair from his face. “You’ve known that for longer even that I have. But we have to try, right? We must try!”
Kuni tried to open his eyes, tried to look at Mia’s face one last time. She was killing him, but with her hand still brushing his face, he somehow didn’t mind. His eyes would not open.
So he stopped trying and focused instead on all the things she had taught him. He pictured her face. And with one voice, his own voice, he hummed.
She gasped and pulled away her hand. Seconds later both hands were on his face and he felt more than heard her soft crying just above him. One drop fell onto his face and with one kiss she brushed it away.
Kuni hummed until his breath ran out. The last sound he heard was Mia’s gentle voice singing the anthem over him.