Preview of City of Words, by Steven J. Carroll.

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The pain is immediate. My eyes shoot open, but they are blocked. It’s happening again, and all my ears can hear is the shrill metallic grinding.

I’ve heard a schoolmate say once, before he was reprimanded and retracted, that he’d thought these sounds served no goodly mechanical purpose, that they were only used as a means to torture and intimidate; and now that I hear it again I am tending to agree. Not that I would say this out loud (even as piercingly awful as this noise is now, it is far better than retractment).

My heart races. My eyes are open but they see black. Though, at last, the painful sounds centered in my brain begin to wear away; and from out of the darkness covering my vision, their symbol slowly seeps into my optic nerve.

Who could it be this time?” I wonder, and I find that I am beginning not to care so much if it is an old laborer, or an instructor, or a militant, or any of the other various designations, as long as they are old, for they tend to know precisely the words to say. But when it is a younger schoolmate, they tend not to know the proper words. They don’t know any better, and those are always the bloodiest, and the worst to watch.

And it is no good looking away, or even closing my eyes. This is not natural sight. My eyes are closed tightly already: for I have always thought it to be far too unsettling to have my eyes opened and to know that I’m being controlled. It is better to trick the mind into thinking it is all a dream. And so, within my dream that is not a dream, I can still see the video image of the stage and the confessional podium, and their symbolthe red circle—projected onto the curtain behind the platform.

The tension in my chest begins to settle.

Good, a laborer,” I think, seeing his standard blue uniform, like all laborers will wear.

Yet, instantly I know there is something unusual about this man. And there is something else, something strange and bizarrely familiar in his face, as if I had known him my whole life; though, I’ve never seen him before. How could I have? My concentration is fixed, raking through my internal memories to think of any reason why I should know his face, or his eyes, which do not seem half as blank as a normal laborer’s eyes.

His crimes are read by the orator:

Treasonous speech and incitement.” Which is such a standard accusation that I wonder why he should be treated so cautiously.

What have you to say for yourself?” the orator asks.

But the laborer remains silent. “Sir, I will ask it of you again.”

But still nothing, just his piercing eyes staring straight ahead into the camera.

Do you not wish to retract?”

And I can see it: there is a purposeful intensity in his non-speech. His jawline tightens, as if to keep his words even more firmly held.

There is a murmuring among the audience of spectators. Perhaps this is as unexpected for them as it is for myself. A woman, a Leader by her dress, goes to speak into the orator’s ear. There is some hushed interchange, and the woman is helped back to her seat.

They won’t let him stand before the podium, as they always do, but instead they hold a microphone in front of him, possibly so that it can be pulled back at any time. And as the orator steps to the confessional podium to give the judgement of the Leaders, it is obvious what it will be. It is clearly said on his face before a word is ever spoke.

The Common has found him unrepentant,” the orator says. “His citizenship shall be taken,” he continues, as his puffy white hair and stern face are wafted slightly by a wind that must have blown into the stadium.

All together now,” the orator says, beginning the Ritual. “My heart feels the shame of his deceit…” he says.

If I don’t say it, the grinding will begin in my ears again, and there might even be consequences tomorrow morning, and so I repeat every word. “My heart feels the shame of his deceit… My voice speaks a condemnation… I consent to his termination.”

I hate thatI always hate the Ritual, if and when it comes to that. I wish, instead, that I could only watch, and would not have to speak, and could pretend it was all a dream. And from my place, lying in my sleeping quarters, with the images from the retractment pouring into my vision, I can see the wind that had begun before continue to rise, fluttering the corners of even the thick fabric of the orator’s collarless shirt.

And it is during this unanticipated wind that another unexpected thing happens. The laborer shoves away from the middle of the stage, pushing back the militants who were charged with watching him. He knocks into the orator, toppling him to the ground, so that the puffy-haired old man slides across the stage.

And the laborer, who is now standing before the confessional podium, he lowers his mouth to the microphone, and saysdoes not shout, but sayswith a force of words I have never heard before, only a single word, with a deep voice, and a nod of his head as he speaks.



There is a single shot taken from the front of the stage. A spark burst comes from the muzzle of a firearm, and drops of red land against the all-white rear curtain, on which the symbol of the Common’s red circle is projected. An audible gasping shock of terror comes from the audience.

Instantly, the images from the retractment go black.

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