Signal to Noise
Gabriela James Noguera
A change in her feed gradually woke Laura, same as every day like clockwork, as they used to say.
Her feed changed twice in the night (that she was aware of). Upon climbing into bed after the second reminder to take her sleeping pill came the guided meditation, and as her pace and breathing slowed and her brain quieted, soothing sounds took over. When the time came to rise and prepare for the day’s work, newsreaders’ voices began to whisper gently in her ear, the volume slowly incrementing to ensure a natural awakening.
After listening drowsily for a couple of minutes and satisfied that all remained well, Laura clambered out of the bed she would diligently make as her feed cranked some upbeat tunes. Pete had left for work an hour earlier, leaving Jack at the school attached to their office block, so Laura quickly typed out the habitual greeting message before helping herself to the coffee he’d left ready. By the time she’d drained the mug, she always had a sunny message adorned by Pete’s signature emoji-overuse and usually accompanied by a photograph – most frequently of Jack skipping into school, an indulgent, creamy caffeinated concoction from the drive-thru or the quirky socks hiding beneath his grey cotton trousers. As she took the first few sips, the music gave way once more to the presenters’ calming tones, which were carefully debating the Best Dressed list created following last night’s music awards. Laura pulled up the pictures on her phone as she listened, then readied herself and set off.
Her drive to the office generally went pretty smoothly: the automated traffic report warned her of any disruptions or delays, the robotic voice mapping out the best route as she started up her engine. Once on her way, a group of journalists staged a heated discussion to keep her company on the lengthy commute. This was a relief, as in the momentary silence as the channels switched a red warning light had caught her eye, reprimanding her for the emptiness of her tank. She mused on the possibility that her and Pete driving the same route separately was perhaps a little wasteful, a thought that was rapidly swept away by the knowledge that the feed organised things that way for a reason. Anyway, the Feeders had assured Laura last week that the price of petrol would very soon be falling back to its normal state — even lower, in fact. It was just one of those other nations across the ocean having its little blip, decades after us, as usual. The predictable group of dissatisfied troublemakers and crazed conspiracy-theorists prophesying the end of the world. Apparently they claimed the emissions from petrol were going to wipe out weather… Laura scoffed as she recalled the report, buoyed by the invigorating jangle announcing the Celebrity Gossip Recap.
‘They’re manifestly wrong,’ she thought to herself. ‘We get thunderstorms and heatwaves and hail and hurricanes. End of weather!’ She chuckled, pitying their undoubted financial troubles, the corrupting fear that came with unfettered access to the internet, and the hysteria engendered by uninformed conversation.
Her musings were cut short by the mention of her favourite famous couple and rumours of their engagement. Now that wedding would make for a compelling Best Dressed review. Laura wriggled in her seat with excitement and finally settled in to listen to the serious segment of the news as she glided onto the highway.
‘Today we’re discussing a Think Piece which has been popping up in people’s feeds across the country. It’s called How Sure Can You Be of Your Cat’s Loyalty?, and I’ll tell you Susan, it’s had a lot of people facing some tough questions.’
‘It’s certainly a compelling one. After that report on how much children cost parents and the government, I think we might be seeing a lot of houses free of litter boxes and potties. I doubt there’ll be many complaints, there!’
Laura smiled and briefly wondered what the government would do with all the surplus food and medical supplies if people really did stop having children. She knew a few of her own friends were already convinced that it was either selfish or self-destructive, or both. ‘We’ll probably send it over to those places being run into the ground by hippies and loonies. Always having to bail other people out when it’s their own stupid fault for not behaving. I suppose that is a lot like having children.’
‘Is your marriage being undermined by frequent interruptions? Are you tired of wondering what the kids are up to? Are you concerned that your children are developing debilitating dependence? The brand new release of the country’s most popular child-entertainment kit See No Evil, Do No Evil could be the solution to all of your problems!’ Indeterminate, kitschy pop music kicked in as Laura considered that these were issues that had been vaguely troubling her. ‘The new system comes with parental override controls which let you decide exactly how long the screens fill their goggles. You’ll never have to wonder if their stillness is a cause for concern again. Now you’ll know they’re having a blast with their favourite cartoons, and you can enjoy the peace without a moment’s guilt or worry. From the comfort of your bedroom, you can finally relax in the certainty that they will be entirely occupied for at least four hours— or whatever duration you desire! And if you order now, we’ll throw in an incredible two months’ supply of your state administered child tranquilizer, totally free of charge. That’s right: we’re giving you the gift of time and saving you money. So don’t delay, order your new and improved See No Evil, Do No Evil kit today!’
There followed the usual indication of which button on the dashboard would activate the order. Laura hesitated for a moment. The volume of the catchy jingle increased as the message ended and she tapped the dashboard while switching lanes.
The Feeders resumed their discussion of whether cats were secretly eating meals at every house in the neighbourhood, with the article in question even making the suggestion that they might be crossing neighbourhood boundaries. An involuntary shiver went through Laura as she thought of Spangles bringing contamination from across the bridge into their house. Surely she wouldn’t…? The creature was looking skinnier and skinnier, if anything. She couldn’t be—
A siren electrified Laura’s skeleton, jolting her out of her thoughts as the unusual interruption of external sound intruded through her Informers. There were very, very few sounds which were permitted to be loud enough to do that. After all, there were no voices around outside the feed to listen to (except the ramblings of children). Pre-puberty surgery ensured that.
Momentary panic numbed her, but she quickly gathered herself amidst the emphatic apologies a metallic voice was reciting into her ear canal for the delay in warning her of the approaching ambulance. Laura pulled back out into the slow lane and gazed at the ambulance weaving through traffic, wondering whether other drivers had been alerted sooner. Those she could see seemed as dazed as her. Strange. The authorities must be really swamped, but with what?
The ambulance was upon her and its wailing was whipping and squeezing against Laura’s brain. She was struggling to concentrate, missing the decision about whether she could trust Spangles or not. And suddenly, there expanded a silence outside the car which was yet more oppressive than the shriek. The ambulance ceased its weaving and slowed to the mandated speed of the traffic, finding its place directly in front of Laura.
Somehow this new external quiet brought an enveloping chill and a roaring that drowned out her feed more decisively and completely than the siren had. The elimination of urgency was anything but reassuring. Laura couldn’t stop herself from imagining what was happening inside that ambulance, the life that was silently floating away separated only by a sheet of glass and a metallic door, unseen and anonymous.
A single blue balloon, weaving listlessly towards the clouds, swam into Laura’s consciousness as the traffic, the road, and the ambulance melted into the meaningless buzz pouring itself into her ears. Miranda’s tear-streaked face, convulsing silently with the shudders, coursed through her entire frame as the balloon made its spectral return once more.
Laura couldn’t imagine what Miranda had felt, could hardly bear to try. She pictured her lying in the hospital bed in a vortex of unheard screams and blood and pain and joy and pride. Then the screams would have stopped. The crushing silence would have dominated the room with its icy, stifling air. They say that’s how women knew, in years past, by the sudden absence of crying and screaming. But Miranda couldn’t have known.
She could remember the soundtrack which the Mixers had curated for Jack’s birth: soothing tones imparting encouragement and reassurance, robotic surrogates for the roles that partners, parents, friends would have played when they could still vocalise words of comfort. Really, it was alright not to be able to hear Pete. The feed surpassed anything he could say. It also provided quiet music, anchoring her to earth, but helping remove her from the agony. And then there were the euphoric, triumphant songs soaring alongside her own elation and messages of pride and congratulations.
Miranda’s would have been similar, Laura was sure. They were, after all, so very alike. She must have been lying there with the joyous soundtrack tickling her serotonin receptors as her brain flooded with peaceful, exhausted bliss. Waiting. Waiting for the nurses to find a way to tell her, to explain, a curious challenge for beings without a voice. There are some things that are difficult to express in a typed message. They must have wordlessly shown her the wretched, lifeless little creature. She wondered how long it took for the Informers to register what had happened, to change the feed. She wondered what they could have changed it to.
That had been nearly a month ago. Realisation crawled and slithered up Laura’s arms as she tried to recall the last time she had heard anything from Miranda. Not since the ceremony. They generally texted every day; Laura couldn’t understand how she had only just become aware of the black silence extending itself between them. She reached for her phone to obliterate the ever-growing wall of darkness and as she looked down, noticed that Pete hadn’t replied to her habitual morning message. Frowning, she unlocked the device and typed her ineffectual platitudes to Miranda, feeling again the sting of the inadequacy of texts where such devastation was involved. She knew that the cost of all the people having a voice outweighed any benefits —for the country as much as for the individuals— but there were moments when she wished she could speak again, wished she could listen.
As an advertisement played out for new granola bars being released in Jack’s favourite flavour, Laura remembered his birth, coming back to the house for the first time. She thought about how, if Miranda’s baby had survived, it probably would have left the hospital with its Informers already implanted.
‘Thank God for the miraculous scientists this country has been blessed with,’ she thought to herself, shaking her head as she automatically turned off the highway and joined, without noticing, a queue of cars. ‘Trying to find techniques for mute communication with the poor, dear things was an absolute nightmare.’ She was envious of the people having their babies today with better, more complete support available, a replacement parental voice chirping into babies’ ears from before their departure from hospital. Still, there was a lot of hilarity jumbled in with the frustration. A lot of happiness.
Her brain scanned and flipped through blurs of glowing memories and she considered how he had already begun to form into a fully-fledged miniature human. He had opinions and ideas, hopes and fears. Next year, he’d be undergoing The Trial— a series of tests by which a handful of children were chosen to retain the ability to speak.
It had been surprising to realise that she was unsure what outcome she hoped for. Laura understood all the health risks that came with keeping your vocal cords, yet part of her wanted Jack to be one of the select few who would make that sacrifice for the country. She wanted him to be deemed talented or intelligent or influential enough that his voice would make a genuine contribution to the good of the nation. As a mother, she knew that this was probably wrong and selfish and short-sighted. Surely his health should be the priority? She thought a part of her uncertainty might just be maternal anxiety at the thought of her son undergoing invasive surgery, and the body which she had created being medically altered, plundered, violated… No, no. It was a preventative surgery. It was for his good, it would increase his life expectancy massively. But so many singers and actors and politicians and presenters seemed to be surviving… maybe he could number in the lucky, chosen few.
The striking notes introducing the morning summary of the nation’s productivity, peace, and political position globally awakened Laura and seemed to reprimand her for her defiant train of thought. Performance was on the rise in almost every industry, and ambassadors were disseminating the wisdom and authority that retained such internal prosperity into the international stage in their role as Guiders. Laura felt momentary confusion and panic at the report’s close. Her brain slowly deflating, she wondered what she was frightened by. Then the question presented itself: what came next? Ordinarily, this is when she would turn off the engine and cheerful background music would settle her into her office before the leaden voice reeled of her duties for the day.
But she was still a couple of miles away and the traffic was barely moving. After a brief, disconcerting pause, the first bars of an old favourite from Laura’s youth rang out. She settled into her seat, wondering momentarily whether the other drivers were as confused as she was, before allowing her mind to wander into the comforting folds of carefree adolescence.
The cars inched their way uniformly down the road and eventually, Laura became alert to the fact that several of the turnings had been blocked. Hoping her own was not among these, she watched the reflective black backs of city officials huddling and hurrying in these newly vacant areas.
Finally she came to the road leading to her office and gave thanks that access appeared unrestricted. An optimistic voice trilled out a commercial for an organisational app that could collate every aspect of your existence to make sure you stay on top of your commitments and don’t miss a minute of fun. Laura tried to make a note of its name in her ironically disarrayed mind as the familiar tinned tunes announced her arrival into her designated parking space.
As usual, Laura marched to its beat, vaguely aware that the trimmed hedges decorating the parking lot seemed to be blurring together a little and her heels were giving her an unusual amount of trouble. Even the slightest increment in speed is noticeable in a routine which has been so regimented for years.
Sweeping towards her cubicle, exhilaration and shame mingled as Laura performed an (she prayed undetectable) act of rebellion. With her head held aloft, she tried to sneak sidelong glances into a few of the cubicles, to determine whether her colleagues had arrived on time, and if any might be in a similar state of befuddlement. A few missing heads— but she didn’t know what percentage of workers might be absent or late on any given day. She didn’t even know if they all worked the same schedule. After all, Pete worked a few floors below hers and he began a full hour earlier. The faces she did steal a snapshot of were gazing fixedly at their screens, no trace of confusion (or much else) visible.
Quietly taking up her place, Laura tapped into her computer to make a note of the day’s duties as they clattered into her ears. After a discrete, if sheepish, look around, she pulled out her phone. Still no reply from Pete. Trying to discern the root of her mounting unease, Laura cast her mind over the events of the morning. She had never heard the conclusion the Feeders came to about that Think Piece, and Spangles was probably pawing around her mind, disrupting the tranquility as if she were living up to stereotype and knocking over a ball of yarn which rolled and unravelled into the rest. Surely that’s the only kittenish mischief anybody could imagine Spangles being guilty of.
‘Everything OK? How’s your morning? I can’t figure out if we should trust Spangles… what did you think?’ She hit send, chewing on her lip and raising her eyes to the screen in front of her. Presently she became aware of her own stupidity, and as if somebody were literally shaking her awake, she reached once more for her phone.
‘Sorry, I don’t know why I didn’t explain when you clearly didn’t hear about the same Think Piece as me— duh! Seem to be a bit dazed this morning, not sure what’s going on. Basically, my Feeders were debating an article about how loyal our cats are, and said lots of them are actually skulking around neighbours’ houses eating all day. Even going to different areas!! Spangles wouldn’t though, right? Did Jack get to school on time?’
She opened up her first task, but was quickly distracted by a buzz from the phone, which she picked up a third time. Clearly the nudge had worked, because Pete had replied immediately. He must have read the first message and forgotten he never wrote back.
‘Hi. Everything is great! Jack got to school early and happy. Work is going really well. Lots to be doing today, I’m sure you are keeping as busy as I am. We will deal with everything else later.’
Oddly curt. And no picture? Maybe he’d encountered traffic too and was feeling a little stressed out. In any case, the uncharacteristic reply smoothed Laura’s pinched brow and she resumed her work, the next hours bleeding into each other without any real awareness of time passing.
Eventually, rumbling emitted from her abdomen demanding attention, and she realised that her feed had not indicated lunchtime and played the midday newsreel. Again, she looked around, but there was no perceptible difference in anybody’s carriage.
‘Do I just go and get food…? Do I wait until the feed switches? Has anyone else eaten?’ Uncertainty twisted her empty stomach as she tried to decide what was the most disruptive or defiant action. It must be better to stick to routine and go to lunch? But without instruction and accompaniment from her feed? Maybe there was a good reason for the delay? But if that were the case, her Feeders would have explained, and issued some sort of update. Laura looked at her dormant phone and pushed herself away from the desk. A moment’s hesitation and she was on her feet, her back burning as she imagined countless eyes turned upon it.
But as she shuffled her usual route down to the canteen, the itch on her shoulder, resultant of a thrilling expectation of a hand descending upon it, remained and eventually faded. She felt almost lost as the music designated for work continued to tip tap in her ear, but she was resolute. Turning back now would only draw attention. Still, discomfort suffused into her conviction as she tried to suppress an unsettling realisation. The systems mustn’t be functioning properly if the Informers hadn’t registered the changes in her brain waves, her footsteps, her heart rate.
Alongside this disquiet, the unfamiliarity of the situation seemed to lend an air of abandon, of freedom. Steeling herself, Laura permitted her eyes to trail over to her left where vast panes of glass showed towering constructions of grey concrete interrupted by grey iron and flecked with similar windows revealing grey offices inhabited by workers whose grey uniforms matched their grey complexions perfectly. Looming between these were grey clouds which were at least imbued with anger and energy. Unplugged curiosity dragged her gaze downwards and shards of ice spiked her veins as she caught sight of a swelling crowd gathering as if the ground were another sheet of glass or metal reflecting the skies.
Laura quickly checked herself as her eyeballs rolled back to position, focusing on the path before her. What on Earth was there to feel scared of? She had never once looked down there. She had never even been in this corridor at this time before. This could be entirely normal. They were probably street cleaners, or workers on their lunch break. This stupid Spangles thing had really got in her head. She let out a hollow chuckle at her irrationality and hysteria and kept her eyes firmly forward until she reached the cafeteria.
But as she ate her allotted portion which had, deeply reassuringly, been waiting prepared in the bowl with her number on it, something atypical happened yet again. The feed stopped altogether. Silence crawled through Laura’s brain echoed in the paralysis freezing her muscles. For a few infinite seconds, her mind was blank. And then it began to compress against her skull in an effort to find a focus, a buoy in the tide of confusion, panic, abandonment, fear crashing upon it.
Then some external force turned Laura’s body around and her eyes sent signals to her unreactive brain, pleading it to register the tangle of blood and bodies writhing on the polished marble floor. Through the soundproofed glass, Laura could not hear the hurricane of howls they brought whipping and ripping through the cavern of the entrance hall. The sounds of fleeing and of indescribable pain which we can only attempt to alleviate through cathartic screams. They sought refuge from the gunfire of the group of rebels whose significance Laura’s instincts had almost registered before being gagged by crippled logic. These rebels had gained fatal consciousness, been able to see what they could not hear and wanted to protest their aural imprisonment. Of course, the impossibility of such expression quickly dawned on them. Speaking was out of the question. Even messages were evidently carefully monitored, controlled, and even composed by the government. Only the written word remained to them, and not all retained this skill. But it had sufficed to organise this moment of visceral protest.
For most, the attack was symbolic. They would target the children, as so many have before. This was not only to maximise the suffering they would inflict or to demonstrate the totality of the corruption and dehumanisation which the state had enacted upon them. It also sent a clear message that this system must not continue, and so they would obliterate its future by wiping out the youngest generation. The irony of murdering the small section of society which had not yet been stripped of its voice was lost on them. Their spite was too powerful, their envy all-consuming. Somebody had to pay for their loss, and as is too often the case, those who had not yet suffered such a loss were the perfect victims.
There were those so deranged that they almost believed that they could steal the children’s vocal cords. For them, the act of regaining their own voices by taking others’ was not so symbolic. They hoped that by medical prowess or magical powers the cords would be implanted back into their own throats.
A figure within was responsible for Laura’s finally awakening. She rose and moved towards the tumult, unconcerned by the lead confetti that might explode over them if the rebels had not all been eradicated. But the figure had seen her already and, propelled by the surge of adrenaline that eases our passage, it reached the bubble of silence where Laura awaited. She read the terror and certainty in its eyes. She followed the motion of the thin arms as they rose toward the increasingly pallid face, stopping to clutch in agonised desperation at the throat.
Moving closer, she saw the dripping scarlet splits in the hitherto unmarked stretches of soft white skin. Closer still, she recognised the incisions made by the mouth of an adult human, one determined on exhuming its prize, dotting perforations all across Jack’s throat.
But they had not attained their goal. Because without the indefatigable feed, Laura could hear a sound which aroused a heartbreaking recognition, defiant of the fact that she had never truly heard it before. She heard the wails of her son. She saw the life dripping out of him and urged him with pleading eyes to quieten, to preserve his energy. Her concern was soon rendered unnecessary as exhaustion sapped his muscles and he sank into her, into the silence which both belied and amplified the atrocities whose effects were visible through the gaping glass walls.
Leaning against her, Jack gathered the strength to raise his head towards his mother and mouth noiselessly, desperately. Jack seemed to be begging for his father and Laura’s soul shrivelled as she realised he probably wanted to say goodbye.
For the first time, her impotence flooded her consciousness. She could make no response, could offer no words of comfort or love or farewell. She could only stare helplessly and smooth his matted, reddened hair.
And as she drank in his face and tried to speak to him through clouded eyes, she noticed an almost imperceptible change in the shapes of his gasping mouth. He wasn’t repeating the word “Dad”. He was repeating two words. Two slightly different words which should never be placed alongside one another in the mouth of a child.
“Dad died. Dad died. Dad died.”
Laura clutched his face and covered his mouth. Those could not be his last words. She implored him to understand her messages of love, her promises of fast-approaching peace.
“I’m sorry, Mum.” The shapes of the words were clear. She dug tighter into his arm and pressed her lips harder against his head. ‘I love you. I love you.’ A gradual increase in the weight her body was supporting was amplified exponentially in the weight bearing down upon her fractured soul. She cupped his face gently with one hand, the other a steadying force behind his back, and sank to her knees.
Beside them, another woman grabbed another child. She pulled the trembling, bleeding form towards her and began to gnaw on its neck, simultaneously clawing at the other side with her hand while his pushed and squeezed at her arms, as if the two formed one aquatic creature plucked out of the water and choking for oxygen. This emaciated woman seemed to believe that through this vampiric act she might acquire his vocal cords, as if one could gain a voice through consumption. Undeterred by logic, whether of anatomic theories or in the very real bullets punctuating the air and flesh around her, the woman continued to feed desperately on the child’s gaping throat, digging ever deeper on her fruitless search.
Upstairs, the lunchtime newsreel finally chimed into being. Feeders informed workers that as a reward for unprecedented productivity, they would be saved the trouble of trudging down to the cafeteria to eat. Instead, they would shortly be served a delicious and nutritious meal at the comfort of their own desks.
‘And while you wait, a summary of national news. There’s not much to report as our great country marches on in quiet determination to retain our unchallenged superiority. So why don’t we take a look at how we’re shaping global politics, after a quick rundown of what your favourite celebs have been eating this week.’
About the author…
Gabriela James Noguera is a 23-year-old Masters student in her first year at NYU. She is half Spanish and half English, and was raised for the most part in England, where she completed her undergraduate degree. Growing up, Gabriela was lucky enough to spend some years living abroad in Argentina, Spain and Oman. Her interests are in individuality and identity, and how nature and nurture interact to shape these. The ideas of dual selves and pack mentalities are particularly fascinating to her, as well as gender and sexual identity, and mental health with all the labels, stereotypes and stigmas it brings.