There’s this story we like to tell on Deck 3—we, the quiet ones. The voiceless dishwashers and short order cooks and house musicians who scrub and busk in grimy bars on a space station full of grimy bars. It’s about a girl who was quiet too.
One night, this girl met a trader, just like you, wearing cuts that were too expensive for his pay grade. That all but said, “I’m a stealing bastard.”
And I’m sure, darling, once that trader realized she couldn’t talk, he gave her the exact smile you’re giving me now. A smile that doesn’t need translation. A smile that says, “Prey. And prey again.”
“I have what you’ve lost,” you whisper in my ear when I serve you your drink, all sugar, all lies. “We’re going to be good friends.”
I nod. Pretend to agree. We quiet ones call traders like you something else. Voice Stealers.
“Maybe we can work something out,” you say.
I don’t say anything.
* * *
In the story we tell, the girl plays music at the bar when the glasses are full and cleans up after they’ve all been emptied or spilt. So no one wonders why she’s there long past closing. No one else is there to see this go down.
When she and the Voice Stealer meet, it’s in the ungodly hours of the morning, when the Deck’s so quiet you can hear the space station humming tunelessly to itself.
“I’ve got what you want,” says the Voice Stealer. But the way he slip-slides into the chair says, “Like hell you’re getting it back.”
The girl sits across from him anyway and taps her throat.
He smiles like a predator. “Do you remember how you got here?” he asks.
* * *
Of course we remember how we got here. It’s a story so familiar and smooth that it slides right off of the cops’ shrugs and the bar owners’ grunts. Gestures that mean: “Great, more stranded stowaways. More cheap labor. Shame, they can’t tell us what happened.”
It always starts with a Voice Stealer. Except us quiet ones, like the girl, like me, never realize the story has begun until after we wake up in a cargo box on a space station far away from home. The last thing we remember is an iffy decision to take a strange trader up on that drink. Well, they’re wearing a nice suit, we reassured ourselves. What’s the worst that can happen?
So we ended up drugged, dumped on a godforsaken station, voiceless and too broke to get back home.
But I’ll give it to you, darling, you Voice Stealers are careful. Only choosing victims from planets too insignificant or crowded for anyone to care. Taking voices from people whose voices wouldn’t be missed.
My aunties always said there’s a market for everything in the universe. They said, watch out, everyone has a price.
I didn’t believe them. But I was an idiot back when I had a voice.
* * *
When we meet, the bar’s been closed for hours. I’m cleaning my battered violin and you’re finishing your last drink when you slide into a chair beside me. All smiles, all teeth.
“Can you remember how you got here?” you ask. But what you’re really asking is: “Do you know who to blame?”
I shake my head. I don’t remember who took my voice. There’s lots of Voice Stealers in the universe. There’re even more quiet ones.
* * *
In the story we like to tell, the Voice Stealer presents our girl with an irresistible offer. A new voice for a price. He pulls out a box no bigger than a thumbnail and holds it up to his throat. When he speaks, he sounds like an old man.
“Yours. For ten thousand,” he says. But the posture of his shoulders says: “More than you have. More than you’re worth.”
The girl’s face falls, but not for the reason he thinks. That’s not her voice. She was half hoping he had her old one, but it’s probably for the best. She’s learned how to talk to other quiet ones through expressions, hands, and gestures. The language everyone speaks without words. The vocabulary isn’t great, but it’s always honest.
Music helps too. The girl has a knack for the bass. Even in grimy bars, people stop slurping their drinks to listen to her riffs.
“Too much?” the Voice Stealer asks in his creaky voice. “How about a trade, then?”
* * *
The thing is, this story repeats itself like a bad melody.
You’re holding a box the size of your thumbnail up to your throat. You sound like a bratty four-year old.
“I have a client that’ll pay real good money for this. But I heard you on that violin tonight,” you say, sweetly. “A trade, maybe? This voice for your musical ear. You need to talk, yes?”
This would be a more tempting offer if I didn’t know you were a lying bastard. If I hadn’t heard the girl’s story before or the dozens of others like hers.
You’re mistaken, darling. We’re voiceless. Not mute.
You start to slump in your chair.
We quiet ones have learned from you Voice Stealers. Little tricks, like how to seem non-threatening. How to lace your drinks, like you first did to us. How to wait. The girl in our story wasn’t a Voice Stealers’ victim again. She was first to perfect this method. The first of us to transform from your prey to your predator.
So let me tell you how this story will end. In the morning, you’ll find yourself slumped in the cops’ doorway with that stolen voice taped to your throat and I’ll use your cash to get back home to my very large and very vocal family. It’s a fair trade, don’t you think?
Your eyes widen in realization. “But… you need… a voice.”
Really? I flash you my hungriest smile. Haven’t you been listening, darling?
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