I can’t do this anymore. The line inches forward. I hold the book in my hand. A man ahead of me steps up to the microphone. The crowd is quiet. He lifts his carbon filter and says, “Mother.” There is a murmur in the audience, and he leaves the stage. To calm myself I flick the book in my hand to a random page and read to myself, “How long shall I cry for help?”
* * *
I have lived in New Toronto for ten years. I came voluntarily with my parents, which was not how most came during the last two years. For a while, people had naturally been drawn either to Europe or to North America. Eventually it was no longer a matter of choice. The newspapers called it “unsolicited global transfer.” They were still called newspapers even though they weren’t actually made of paper anymore. They were made of biodegradable plastic. Paper had been off-limits since 2025. Manufacturing it caused too much heat.
* * *
The next person in line for the microphone is a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen… my age. Her hair looks like mine except more blonde. She also looks awake. It is more and more rare to see young people alert. Most parents have begun to dose their children with alcohol throughout the day. This calms them down and makes their energy easier to contain. Just point them in the right direction and push play.
As the girl walks forward, I grip my book tightly against my chest. I am trying to decide what word I should say when it’s my turn. There are a few words that I had already nixed like, “Air-conditioning” and “summertime.” The rules are strict. You are allowed one word… two syllables. Anything longer takes too much time to say and releases too much carbon dioxide. The young girl raises her filter and says, “chocolate ice cream.” There is a loud buzzer. The guards take her arms and replace her facial carbon filter. She is taken backstage. I know she wouldn’t be back for two months, and then she will definitely be medicinized. Nervously I glance behind me and flick to another random page in my book. I lower my eyes and read, “…eternal chains under gloomy darkness…”
* * *
It isn’t hard to remember how things got to this point. The matron mentors are required to restate the facts to us every week, and now the whole scenario just runs on autoplay through my head all the time. After the Gobi Desert had shifted to cover most of northern China, the only sustainable population centers were on either side of the Atlantic. The earth was uninhabitable below the Tropic of Cancer. Most island cities were under water. Singapore was gone. Europe and America and a few scattered places in parts south were the last global locations where the temperature was mild enough for people to live.
As is true of all catastrophes, this trend hadn’t been planned… but it could have been anticipated. There had been a steady drumbeat of warning signs and fearful predictions during the years leading up to the mass exoduses away from the hot zones.
What also had not been planned for were the problems involved with having the world population concentrated so tightly in just a few global regions. I don’t remember who coined the term, but at some point, the news was alive and vibrating with the new phrase “terminal atmospheric carbon vortex.” It had not been anticipated that having so many people living… and speaking… and breathing… in two concentrated global areas would cause the carbon problem in the atmosphere above the North Atlantic.
In retrospect it makes sense. There were over twenty billion people living in two areas that were both smaller than the size of Great Britain. That meant a lot of mouths breathing out a lot of carbon dioxide all day and all night.
In addition to the matron mentor teachings every week, viewing the short education video was also part of the daily regimen of required information. The film showed cartoon images of people (us) living in Northern Europe and Canada… and it showed us breathing out massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Then a cartoon version of a huge swirling hurricane developed above the heads of the cartoon people and suddenly two massive holes (like crooked scars) opened in the upper atmosphere of the planet. Cartoon lightning bolts of sunshine entered through the scars, and the cartoon people stopped speaking and starting to fan themselves nervously. Finally, the smiling face of Mrs. Manners appeared. She held her finger up to her mouth and said, “From now on… Shhhh!” And then she held up the now familiar device. The government called them “self-regulating single-user carbon inhibitors.”
The first few weeks with the masks had been very difficult. They closed incredibly tightly, and the seal gripped the skin so much that most people smeared their faces with Vaseline before putting them on. The claustrophobia was made worse by the heat. When mother first put mine over my face, I thought that I would suffocate. It took a great deal of concentration to prevent panic. But that was also the point. The facial carbon filters in the masks forced slow breaths so that only careful, methodical movement was possible… by design, slow movement and no speaking.
* * *
I’ve been daydreaming. I look up and realize there are only two people in the line ahead of me. Even though this experience happens every four weeks, I still haven’t really gotten used to it. Today is particularly awful because Mother and Father are no longer here. Usually I am with them, but last month my parents left for their scheduled work assignment in the North. My parents had been telling me that day would come. The same thing had already happened to most of the other parents of my fellow pupils. The pattern was dreary and familiar. The parents are gone one day, the matron mentors begin to give an extra dose of pills each night, and soon the pupils seemed to stop caring. I take a deep breath to steady myself and open to a new page in my book, “My strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.”
The next person in line is a large man. He steps forward, takes a deep breath, and shouts a volley of obscenities. People in the audience immediately duck in practiced fashion and the rest of us in line automatically take two steps back quickly. The guards rush forward, and the large man shoots himself.
* * *
The Speaking Bees were born out of necessity. Because people were quick learners, after Mrs. Manners in the video told us to be quiet, nobody used their vocal cords anymore. This immediately helped the carbon problem in the atmosphere, but it caused other problems. Apparently vocal cords can atrophy. The doctors had published several findings stating that if vocal cords weren’t used at least once monthly then the corrosion of the diaphragm would follow. Sick people meant more hospital visits, which required extra venting, and that added carbon to the atmosphere. The government had to come up with a way for people to exercise their vocal cords briefly, in a controlled fashion.
Once a month, in each ventilation district, people would line up, then wait, then step forward to the microphone, and then say one word, two syllables long. It needed to be an actual vocalized word. Just a random sound would not provide the vocal cords with enough activation. The doctors determined that one word per month was enough exercise… and then there could be another four weeks of silence. First people just said whatever word came to their mind, but over time people began to use their monthly words as a way to commemorate things which had been lost or left behind. People started saying things like “springtime” and “Christmas” and “snowflakes.” Inevitably some people decided to make their words more political… or spiritual. That’s when the guards began to be used.
* * *
The large man’s body is cleared from the stage… This is the third similar incident in the last three months. It makes grim sense. It is a quick way out. And it is something I dream about. Imagine having the chance to shout again… to scream… even to just sing softly. As I look at the large body being carted away, I realize that I envy the man.
The loudspeaker gives off three rhythmic beeps followed by the standard pre-recorded sanitary announcement which is used anytime there is an issue. The soothing voice of Mrs. Manners says, “Please remember: indoor voices and kind words.”
A young lady who is next steps forward. She lifts her filter and speaks her word softly into the microphone, “Laughing.” The audience seems to collectively hold their breath, but the word is technically allowed. It isn’t a command and therefore doesn’t qualify as incitement. The guards don’t move. The young lady exits the stage.
* * *
Mrs. Manners was a creation of the government, and soon she was used for everything: important announcements, daily reminders, bedtime routines. Every evening when people received their miracle poison pills, it was Mrs. Manners who chimed in, encouraging us to swallow the pills quickly. They slowed everything down. The pills and the predictable repetition of the announcements and reminders helped crowd control. Mrs. Manners had only a handful of phrases. She spoke in English and Mandarin. She said things like: “Walk. Don’t run.”, “Breathe slowly.”, “Take your pills.”, “Love your planet.”
Late at night, after the last Mrs. Manners announcements, Mother used to creep out of her bed and sit next to me to read softly to me from her book. Even though Mrs. Manners had a soothing voice, it was Mother’s calm reading which helped me settle into a comfortable breathing pattern for sleep. Her words from the book also promised something better in the future. Apparently, there would someday be no more pills and overcrowding. There would be something new.
When I asked her when it would happen, Mother had a troubled look in her eyes. I waited. Finally, she just tapped the book gently, and smiled.
Last month, before my parents were transferred, Mother gave the book to me. She said it was mine now. I started reading it to myself every night. Lately I have been carrying it around with me because it reminds me of her.
Last night I read long into the night. I found a new story in the book that I had never read before. In the story there was a special queen who was very beautiful. She was one of many queens, but the king seemed to like her best. Everything she did pleased him.
The queen was thirteen, like me. Also like me, the queen wasn’t allowed to speak to the king unless she was given permission. If she wanted to speak, she had to take a chance. She could show up in his throne room and hope that he was in a good mood. Otherwise, he might condemn her to death.
One day the queen realized that her people were going to be destroyed by an evil court sorcerer. She needed to get the king’s attention in order to prevent the slaughter. But that meant that she had to take a chance. The queen wasn’t sure what to do, but then a friend told her something which clarified her mind. The friend said, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
The queen decided. She came before the king. He decided to let her speak. She said that she wanted to prepare a special meal for the king and for the sorcerer. The king agreed to her request.
The queen prepared wonderful food, and as the king and the sorcerer ate, they eventually became full and happy. And then, the queen spoke. She said, “If I have found favor in your sight, O King, and if it please the king, let my life be granted me for my wish, and my people for my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have been silent, but we are meant to be slaughtered.”
Then the king said to the queen, “Who is he, and where is he, who has dared to do this?” And the queen said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked sorcerer!”
The king was so angry that he walked to the nearest balcony to breath some fresh air to calm himself. The sorcerer, in fear for his life, begged the queen to do anything she could to spare him. As he begged her, he tripped and fell on the hem of her dress. When the king came back, he saw the sorcerer on the queen’s hem and believed that the sorcerer was trying to assault the queen. He roared and commanded that the sorcerer be hung from the gallows.
I looked up from reading the story in the book. Something about this felt very familiar.
* * *
As I was leaving my room to come here to the Speaking Bee today, the last thing I did was to grab the book. It’s now my turn in line. I step forward. The crowd in front of me is enormous. I can’t see the back of the auditorium.
I hold the book into the air above my head. For a moment I close my eyes and picture green meadows, deep valleys, snow, and banquets of real food. I picture the queen standing in front of the king. I open my eyes, lift my filter, open the book, and I begin to shout at the top of my lungs. It feels absolutely wonderful. I read from the first page, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the ear…!”
Zary Fekete has worked as a teacher in Hungary, Moldova, Romania, China, and Cambodia. They currently live and work as a writer in Minnesota. Some places they have been published are Goats Milk Mag, Journal of Expressive Writing, SIC Journal, Reflex Fiction, and Zoetic Press. They enjoy reading, podcasts, and long, slow films. Twitter: @ZaryFekete
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Speaking Queen”:
Author Zary Fekete’s “what if” scenario brings us an imaginative dystopic piece that comes perhaps closer to reality than we’d like. It’s reminiscent of the classic novel concepts like George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. So far, none of these dystopian worlds have come to pass. We hope that Zary Fekete’s does not either.