Lea wasn’t sure when she started to feel different, but probably it was in London, during one of the conference dinners, to which she was invited with other university guests, all coming from language departments. She found herself sitting in a corner with only one person sitting next to her, a Chinese man, who quickly finished his meal and left. After that, she could move one place and sit next to a French woman, but she was immersed in a conversation with her countryman, to whom she showed something on her mobile phone. Lea didn’t want to intrude and the strong orange light coming from this woman’s phone disturbed her. She moved even more to the edge of the table to stay away from the light.
Lea herself didn’t have a mobile phone on her as she hardly used it. This was because she preferred to have different equipment for different purposes. To take photos, she used a camera. To find a new place, she consulted first a traditional map and then she drew her own small map which she held in her hand when looking for her destination. Most importantly, however, Lea simply did not like the look and touch of smartphones. For her, a smartphone was like a cross between a grenade and a rodent, waiting for the right moment to blow one’s hand or bite one’s ear, therefore she normally left it at home and only took it when travelling abroad. Even then, she put it at the bottom of her suitcase, where it quietly run out of battery. Lea’s smartphonophobia didn’t go unnoticed. People asked her how she managed to survive being so ‘disconnected’. When she explained, they gave her funny looks or with ironic smiles wished her good luck in moving against the tide.
A couple of weeks after the episode in the restaurant Lea noticed that most people’s smartphones emitted an orange light and that when looked at from a specific angle, the ears and hands of some of the smartphone users were also glowing with orange light, albeit much weaker than that which the phones emitted. She didn’t share this observation with anybody, not to reinforce her reputation as an eccentric, but at home she took the smartphone away from Alex, her son, replacing it with an old model of a mobile phone and asked him not to use it, unless absolutely necessary. Since then she spent much time teaching Alex the skills one needed when one didn’t have a phone, such as using maps and playing music from vinyl records and CDs. To make him keener, she told him that this was what she and her father used to do when they were young, long before Alex was born.
Alex was initially dismissive of this ‘back to the old days’ exercise but later started to enjoy the time spent on the old devices or without any electronic equipment whatsoever, cycling with Lea to the neighbouring villages and having lunch in the old-style cafés. It was on such trips that Alex also discovered the orange light originating from the bodies of some guests. Unlike Lea, for him the light had a different intensity and shape; on some occasions Alex saw a glow, on others, sharp rays piercing the air and reaching as far as the ceiling.
“The orange monsters try to find the best way to take over people’s bodies and launch an attack,” he said to Lea, pointing out to her a particularly strong orange ray, which for her, however, looked like a fragment of a blurred rainbow.
“Shh, don’t say that to anybody,” said his mother. “People will take us for nutters.”
“But we’re not,” protested Alex.
“I know, but as long as the rest of the world doesn’t see the world the way we do, our perceptions are not valid.”
On one visit to the café some twenty miles from home, Lea noticed that light also emanated from Alex and it was green. When by chance he lifted his hand, sharp green rays crossed in the air with one man’s orange rays. The man must have got a strong headache as a result as he buried his head in his hands and went to the waitress asking for Aspirin. For the duration of their stay, the guests’ smartphones stopped working. In consequence, some people left before they finished their meals and one went to the manager accusing her of creating ‘white space’ to force the customers to eat more. Lea and Alex found this accusation rather funny, but they kept quiet and left when there were still several customers, so they couldn’t be identified as the culprits. After that, they tried to avoid this café. Luckily it coincided with a beginning of a period of short days and heavy rain, followed by an unusually severe winter, which put Lea and Alex off from cycling. They were spending most of their weekends at home, reading books, listening to music and playing board games. They also hugged a lot and touched each other’s hands. Although it was enjoyable by itself and the two were affectionate all of Alex’s life, they felt that now there was more to it than cuddling, as every time their bodies touched, a refreshing coolness moved between them and they became more energetic. Without saying a word, they knew when it was happening and giggled when it did so.
When winter passed, many of the children in Alex’s school got ear infections. It was attributed to a nasty virus which arrived in the North of England, together with the bad weather. Its peculiarity consisted of attacking only one ear, the right in the case of right-handed-children, and the left in the case of the left-handed ones. It caused a burning pain and black discharge, which looked like ash mixed with saliva. The doctors didn’t know what to do apart from giving the children antibiotics and vitamins because they were not familiar with such an ailment. Alex was the only child in his year who didn’t get the illness. He told his form tutor that this was most likely because he stopped using a mobile phone, but she laughed it off, saying that it was proved beyond doubt that smartphones were completely safe and the school was not a place to spread conspiracy theories. But during the same meeting, she praised Alex for making progress in practically all of his subjects. In less than a year he moved from being an average pupil to the top of his class. Alex believed that this was not because he had gotten much better, but because the rest of his class had gotten worse, but he didn’t say it as he didn’t want to offend anybody.
Eventually, the ear infections cleared up but the children emerged from the illness weaker. Most lost hearing in one ear and after some time, in the other, as well as their appetite and energy. A year after the mysterious illness only about a dozen kids in Alex’s school were still able to hear and the school had to adapt to teaching all children as if they were deaf. The same pattern could be observed across the whole region; children got ear infections which debilitated them. Lea was surprised that the media kept quiet about this epidemic; the only sign that it was acknowledged was indirect; the health section of the BBC website heralded the lowering rates of child obesity in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the area’s drive to learn sign language, which was presented as a sign of the growing inclusivity of the British society, particularly the North.
Alex didn’t mind using sign language at school, but this made him eager to return home, where he could chat with his mother in his usual noisy way, with talking being mixed with laughing. In fact, every day he came home anxious that Lea might also lose her voice because deafness and muteness had become more common also among the adult population. Quietly and gradually, sign language became the dominant language not only at schools but also in the offices of all sorts of businesses and even the parliament. Rather than fighting to translate sound language into sign language, now those who weren’t deaf demanded that the sound language was preserved in national institutions, but their plight was usually dismissed as bigotry.
The spread of deafness and muteness affected the way films and music were produced and consumed. There was a massive return to silent cinema. New films were made without sound; old films were subtitled or discarded if it was deemed unprofitable to subtitle them. The makers and distributors of these films argued that only now had cinema fulfilled its promise of becoming a universal language – the century of sound cinema was a step back on the road to achieving this goal. There was also a return to black and white films, as people were increasingly insensitive to colour, but here the resistance was stronger, especially from the arthouse directors’ lobby, who didn’t want to lose their distinction from those producing commercial films. In music, the louder instruments got prevalence over the quieter ones. Drums and bass guitars dominated the stage, rendering acoustic guitars, pianos and flutes redundant. Despite such adjustments, there was simply less demand for music, and musicians filled the queues for unemployment benefits. Many became homeless. One could see them begging on the streets of Marston, propped by their silent guitars, to indicate that they were not ordinary junkies or weaklings kicked out from their houses by their girlfriends, but a nobler kind, like the victims of tsunamis or political persecution. The problem was that the streets were now full of such destitute ex-professionals, surrounding themselves with their now obsolete instruments and almost nobody paid any attention to them. Everybody in Lea’s work agreed that it was only a matter of time before the university folk joined them, but for some strange reason, this moment kept being postponed.
Lea, who was both charitable and a music lover, was spending a large part of her salary handing money to the begging musicians. Eventually, she offered one such musician, a young man named Daniel with a sunny face and large dark eyes, who turned out to be half-Cuban and half-Hungarian, a room in their house. She thought, perhaps irrationally, that as Daniel knew three languages, he might keep his voice longer than most people.
Daniel was happy to move in. He admired Lea’s collection of Spanish books and conversed with her in this language. Sometimes Alex joined in, as the silence surrounding him outside home made him eager to learn foreign languages – something which he didn’t want to do previously. Daniel also played board games with Lea and Alex and started to teach Alex how to play guitar and drums, even though previously music was Alex’s least favourite subject at school, till it was quietly abolished due to the spread of deafness. For Alex’s thirteenth birthday Lea bought her son not one, but two guitars and a drum kit, as they were now sold for pennies. Daniel also turned out to be very good at repairing things in the house and even making furniture. Like Alex, he was also chatty and in a short time, Alex and Daniel became best friends. Every day Alex was checking if Daniel wasn’t producing any orange light and when he contracted it (usually after a trip to a shop or a local diner), Alex extinguished it through the touch of his ‘green hands’. He confessed to Lea that he was doing it also at school, and after several of his ‘healing sessions’ kids were regaining some of their hearing and voice. Lea asked if the teachers knew about his power, but he said no – he was doing it discreetly, not out of fear of teachers, but in order not to be pestered by the whole school.
The growing deafness slowed communication as everything now had to be written down or conveyed by gestures. People also started to make more mistakes in their writing than they used to. At Lea’s university, the lecturers got special training to learn what the students intended to say when they wrote gibberish and mark their work according to the merit of their intention. However, many of those who were meant to teach them also experienced illiteracy of sorts and were unable to decipher either the text or its intentions. Consequently, nobody now wanted to show colleagues how they marked their students’ work in order not to be accused of incompetence. The management recognised the problem as it was itself also plagued with it. The response was limiting direct communication to the bare minimum. In order to send an e-mail to an external institution, one had to receive numerous permissions and even writing to colleagues required vetting by the head of department and somebody from HR. Lea began to wonder whether other employers adopted the same procedures, but it was impossible to find out because employers everywhere were secretive about their practices.
As weeks and months passed, Lea’s workplace became quieter, literally and metaphorically, as the people lost the will to write or gesture, as well as their voice. In offices, she frequently saw employees scrolling a mouse on a blank computer screen with a vacant expression or moving their finger on the lower parts of their smartphone as if they were reading the Braille alphabet. They even didn’t do it to pretend that they were working, as they didn’t change their behaviour when their superiors came in. There was much talking about the change - the approaching change was the explanation and excuse for this stupor because there was no point in investing one’s energy in the present, if the present was meant to be swept away any minute from now.
Eventually, the change was about to happen: the company Pineapple decided to introduce to the market a new smartphone, the ‘wordless’. The idea behind it was that people would send messages using a phone which would absorb the person’s thoughts, edit them and pass them to their addressee. This soon-to-be universal telepathy was meant to be the fastest, cheapest and most effective way of communication ever invented. To transfer their thoughts properly, however, people would have to focus on what they wanted to say or otherwise, the wrong messages would be delivered or they would be unreadable or get stuck in the thoughts-processing centres. One could imagine how dangerous such a situation would be, if, for example, political and industrial secrets were passed to enemies. A wrong use would also lead to unnecessary use of electricity and e-waste. In short, there were meant to be great advantages to learning how to use the Pineapple phone well and disadvantages in resisting this great invention. Pineapple admitted that the new phone was a bit bulky, but all great inventions started like that. In due course, it would become smaller and more convenient to use.
Lea’s university signed an agreement with Pineapple to launch there a pilot project to assess the effectiveness of the new phone before the device was to be used commercially; the Training Unit was given the task of testing the new technology on its employees. The skill needed to master it was labelled the ‘channelled mode of thinking’ and it consisted of thinking one thought at a time and making sure this thought was directed to the right address: the student, the colleague, the manager or somebody external. Thoughts had to move quickly rather than occupy one’s mind endlessly and be work-centred rather than private or random, as this is what working should be about – being at one’s office not only in one’s body but also in one’s mind. To participate in this test, the staff was to wear the phone during their working hours. It looked like a helmet, filled with thin cords which attached themselves to the nerves like tentacles of the octopus, except that an octopus had only eight tentacles while this helmet had hundreds. The tentacles were meant to collect the thoughts and send them to the processing centres which would edit them before passing them further, as well as prepare the statistics for the day, listing how many messages were prepared correctly, how many went adrift, how many stay in one place and the overall quality of intellectual work performed by a given person. Those who had a low ratio of correct messages were to receive extra support either from motivational speakers or yoga instructors. The former were to help the staff think fast and straightforward; the latter to assist them in concentrating on useful thoughts and to clear their heads from ‘dust’. People gossiped that the best way to pass this test, which presumably would determine one’s continuous employment or lack thereof was to clear one’s mind with a line of cocaine in the morning. The management must have found out about it as the next day the campus was plastered with posters about the dangers of drugs and warnings that being caught on using them equalled instantaneous dismissal.
“Can I opt-out from this trial?” Lea asked a woman who was leading one of the pre-testing sessions.
“Why do you want to do that?” asked the woman.
“I would like to keep my thoughts private,” said Lea.
“Honest people have nothing to hide,” said the woman.
“They might want to hide this very fact, in order to not be taken advantage of,” said Lea.
“This exercise is not about curtailing people’s privacy or censoring their thoughts, but about working more efficiently and improving communication. This is how humanity develops – by changing the modes of communication. Once one mode ceases being efficient, another needs to be introduced. We are now on the threshold of the communication revolution, but to make it happen, we need to show commitment.”
“Can you explain to me why the old mode of communication stopped being efficient? Why people can’t speak or write correctly anymore?” asked Lea.
“This is an evolutionary thing. Certain organs regress or disappear when they stop being useful, like the tails on monkeys when they developed into humans. Of course, there are always “dinosaurs”, who keep their extra teeth or useless tails, even groom them as if they were a sign of their superiority. But they delude themselves by thinking that they matter; they are irrelevant or even obstructive. It is in these organs where toxins accumulate.”
Lea wasn’t convinced by this argument, which sounded memorised and recited, so there was no point to discuss it any further, especially as her interlocutor produced an above-average amount of orange light, which made Lea almost dizzy.
“Returning to your question, I will have to talk to my boss. I will let you know as soon as I find out,” said the woman.
The following week Lea learnt that going through the training was not compulsory, but was essential for keeping her professorial job and salary. The alternative was to get re-deployed, either to the university catering services or to estate management, moving furniture and other stuff along with the robots. She decided to go to catering as she couldn’t do heavy lifting. She was sad to tell Alex, as he was always proud that his mother was a professor, but it turned out that he wasn’t too concerned. He said that they would manage even on her reduced wages, as they were used to modest living and thanks to working in the kitchen Lea was allowed to bring uneaten food back home. In fact, there was so much waste food these days, that the leftovers were enough for all three of them. The government boasted that the epidemic of obesity was finally averted, but in Lea’s view, it was less to do with the policies of public health or self-restraint and more with the general lethargy enveloping the population.
Some of her new co-workers, like Lea, found themselves in catering because of their refusal to wear the gear provided by Pineapple. They made their choices for various reasons. A couple of union activists objected because they were politically minded and didn’t want their thoughts being censored; two lecturers from psychology because they were prone to migraines and dizziness and believed that the ‘helmet’ would trigger their illnesses. There was also a woman from the fashion department who refused this gear because she specialised in designing hats and regarded the headgear as hideous and a threat to her job. They were all called the ‘Left Behind’. It was meant to be a term of abuse, but their recipients embraced it. ‘We, the Left Behind must stick together,’ they said and they greeted each other by putting their hands on their heads as if to show that nothing, literally and figuratively, was exerting pressure on their brains – they were their own masters. Lea looked at this budding symbolism with amusement, yet she succumbed to it because she didn’t want to be left behind even by the Left Behind. She wanted to belong somewhere, not so much for her own sake, as for Alex’s.
Lea quite liked her new work, not least because half of the people who were working in catering weren’t deaf and even when they were making wraps and sandwiches, they engaged in conversation. They also didn’t mind speaking their minds. But even the most outspoken complained that ‘speaking one’s mind’ didn’t mean what it used to, because society had lost the ability to judge others’ outspokenness. The language of most people had become reduced to the basics and such layers of linguistic expression as irony went unnoticed by its recipients.
One day after work Lea found in her pigeonhole a piece of paper inviting her to a meeting at the professor of neurosurgery’s house, Eric, who’d been demoted to the campus’ assistant gardener. He lived in a part of Marston that Lea had never visited before. There were about ten people when Lea arrived, mostly university folk, but there was also a woman who used to work at the council and got fired when she demanded that a quarter of the city become an internet-free area.
They started the meeting by introducing themselves and then Eric said: “We’re meeting here because we are concerned about the future: our own future and that of our children and grandchildren. We are called the Left Behind, but I believe that it is the rest of the world which is moving backwards, while we, at least, managed to stand still.”
“Why do you think so?” asked somebody.
“The people who surround us are gradually losing their senses. It started with hearing, but now it is also sight, smell, taste and touch. And with the loss of the senses, comes the loss of intellectual power, as it is the use of the senses which allows us to develop intellect, as John Locke observed as early as the seventeenth century. And when both the senses and intellect are impaired, the will to live also diminishes,” said Eric.
“We are told that the loss of the senses has to do with the development of intellect. The more intelligent people are, the less they need their senses. Pure intellect is meant to compensate for these losses,” said a woman from psychology.
“I think this theory is false. Intellect is not autonomous – it cannot develop in the void,” said Eric.
“If this is the case, why does all of this happen?” asked Lea.
“I’m not sure, but I believe that this has to do with the consequences of long-term exposure to substances used in computers and even more so, smartphones,” said Eric.
“What substances?” asked somebody whom Lea had never met before.
“I don’t know,” said Eric. “I am or rather I was a neurosurgeon, not a chemist, but I think it is not a single element, such as mercury, whose effect on the body is fairly well-known, but their combination. And because as many as 62 different types of metals go into an average smartphone, it is very difficult to say which combination is most dangerous. It might be copper and neodymium, gold and terbium, zinc and dysprosium or all of them. But even before this epidemic, I discovered that some smartphones emit an orange glow which has the power to penetrate one’s body, like sunlight penetrating the bodies of people who spend too much time sunbathing. Once it has moved under the skin, it slowly destroys what is there, like the mysterious virus we heard about last year. Has anybody noticed the orange glow?”
Lea, of course, knew it very well, as well as the green glow, but she didn’t want to bring it up, at least not until the others did.
There was only one person who saw it, a guy from criminology who specialised in explosives. Correctly, he also noticed that the light took two forms: rays and an amorphous glow.
“Rays are for shooting, glow is for strangling,” he said in an impassive voice.
“Why can’t the rest of us see it?”, asked a man with very thick glasses, which made Lea giggle silently.
“It’s possible that together with getting weaker, we lose the power to notice what happens to us. Ignorance is a means of putting up with loss”, said Eric.
“So we are doomed?” asked the woman from the fashion department.
“I hope not. There were plagues in the past which decimated communities, but in the end, these communities managed to survive. Sometimes the epidemic simply went away; on other occasions, a cure was invented, like antibiotics. Here it seems to me that the first stage to halt the plague should be to give up smartphones. Instead, what we see is Pineapple introducing a more sophisticated version, which uses all these rare metals, only in larger quantities and produces more orange light, which goes straight to people's brains.”
“Why do they do it? Do they want to destroy us?” asked the ex-council employee.
“We cannot exclude that possibility, but I think it has more to do with a need to conceal the old flaws. Once everybody is using the new version of the smartphone, nobody will ask what was wrong with the old version. This is how technology develops. Who these days, apart from historians, ponders on the disadvantages of using a jenny or printing machines? But I think we need to resist the change because the new smartphone is more dangerous than anything previously invented. It is not like a new jenny, but a new guillotine.”
“Why is this scheme being piloted in England, rather than in the States, where the company has its headquarters or in China where most of the smartphones are produced?” asked a man who used to work in sociology.
“Good question,” said Eric, “In fact, the pilot schemes are running in these countries as well. England, however, was chosen, because here the gap between what the people think and say publicly was deemed the greatest and this is especially the case in Marston. The assumption is that if the English people can be trained to “say” what they “think”, everybody can. But this is exactly the reason why we shouldn’t allow this to happen.”
“What should we do?”
“First, we should resist the experiment, not allow the orange light to penetrate our bodies and those of our kids. We also need to have our eyes open to people who might have developed antibodies, anti-rays. It is them who will show us a way out of this apocalypse.”
“How to recognise them?”
“I’m not sure yet, but I know that there are already people working on constructing equipment which would capture the orange radiation. The hope is that it will be able also to identify benign radiation. Most likely its carriers, our saviours, will be young and for some reason have been sheltered from the orange light until they were able to fight it. We need to have them on our side and extract their secret.”
“Surely we cannot do it without their consent and that of their parents,” said Lea.
“Why shouldn’t they consent when the saving of humanity is at stake?” asked Eric rhetorically.
“Maybe they want to be left in peace. Maybe their parents want them to be left in peace,” continued Lea, thinking that already she’d said too much.
“This would be very selfish of them,” said Eric.
On the way back Eric and his friend gave everybody a bunch of leaflets to distribute. Fittingly, they were printed on the old, yellowish paper which practically stopped being used some years previously and was quietly rotting in the rooms housing defunct equipment, such as photocopiers and scanners.
Its author, on behalf of the ‘Resistance’ asked that people stop using the helmets and ‘regain their voice’. Lea threw them in a bin on the way to the railway station, which took her almost an hour to get to. She was thinking how Marston had changed since she started working there twenty-six years previously. On the winter day of her job interview, she’d thought how she’d never seen as nice a place as Marston. All the shops were beautifully decorated: Debenhams, BHS, Marks and Spencer and dozens of independent shops. And over the next fifteen years or so all of them had gone. Only food shops remained but they were also decimated. Against the background of their disappearance, restaurants, pubs, hairdressers and beauty salons became more prominent and it stayed this way for a while until a new app helped people cut their own hair and they stopped going to restaurants because of the crowds of homeless people living in abandoned shops nearby.
Back at home, Lea asked Alex and Daniel whether they attracted any unusual attention at school. They didn’t.
“Okay, but don’t agree to wear a helmet or give blood or saliva or anything,” she said.
Eric’s predictions turned out right. Although still few people were able to see the orange light, in the next year belief in its existence became almost universal. This could be gauged by the ferocity with which the government and the established media rejected its existence as a conspiracy. ‘There is no orange light,’ was a message which appeared on the screens of computers and mobile phones, as well as on posters and billboards. Inevitably, as soon as such posters were put up, people got rid of the ‘no’. Like in the past tattoo parlours became popular, now the cities were filled with shops selling meters measuring one’s ‘orange radiation’, as well as measuring it on their premises. They were all illegal, but nobody cared – after many years of disappearing professions it was one which offset, albeit in a small measure, the losses of industry and trade. Soon the orange light meter sellers started to offer pills and tonics to reduce the radiation. Again, the authorities warned against their ineffectiveness and toxicity, but this was seen widely as proof that they were actually working. However, people were waiting for the true breakthrough – something which would allow them, not only to slow the penetration of orange light into their bodies, but regenerate them.
One day Alex came to Lea’s work to fetch her to see Daniel’s gig. Paradoxically, Daniel started to get more work recently, not because people were regaining their hearing but because those who were still able to hear were looking for spaces where they could meet like-minded or rather like-sensed people. During the concerts people would often throw their arms forward. This was to show that no orange light emanated from their hands: there were no traitors among them. Lea was reluctant to do so, as she didn’t like to participate in public displays of emotions. But, as the people around her looked at her, she did so and so did Alex. It was then that everybody noticed that they both produced more green light than the rest of the people in the room put together. Especially Alex – the rays from his hands managed to reach the furthest corners of the hall, changing the gloomy room into something like an old-style disco.
After the concert, Lea and Alex were surrounded by the rest of the audience. The people asked Alex to touch them – their ears, the top of their heads, their mouths. Alex did as he was asked, and some people put money into his pocket as he was doing it. But that wasn’t the end of it. He was asked to meet their relatives and friends. One woman said that she could arrange a large-scale ‘healing session’ in an old church.
Lea decided to intervene. She jumped in front of her son, saying. “Please, leave him alone. He’s just a boy and we don’t need your money.”
Lea took the notes out of Alex’s pockets and tried to give them back, but nobody accepted them.
“Keep them, keep them,” they were shouting.
They returned home by taxi. As they were leaving, people stood by the wayside, waving to them. It appeared that there were more of them now than there were at the concert.
Back at home, Lea said to Alex: “We cannot stay in this city. If more people learn about your ability to produce green light, we will be besieged. Somebody might want to kill you to extract the light from your body. We have to escape.”
“Mum, we cannot run away. These are my people. If I don’t save them, they will perish.”
Daniel joined in, adding, “Alex is right. We have to stay here,” and he put his arms around Lea and Alex and Alex embraced Daniel and Lea. Lea also, somewhat against her will, stretched her arms out and put them around Daniel and Alex, so that they created a circle. Then Lea noticed that there was a second circle surrounding them, made of green light. It didn’t stay still but moved as in a joyful dance.