Comus Marvidakis is a dead man.
He is not dead in the fact that he is a rotting corpse. He is dead in the fact that he is absent. Somewhere outside this barbed-wire enclosing of the colonyâ€”across a plain, through a tangled brush, over lake or seaâ€”is a place where he once belonged, but is no longer a part of. He ceased to belong in that place, far away from here, when the military police came knocking on his motherâ€™s door, driving him out of bed, and chasing him through the aged cobblestone streets for an unnamed crime. If anything, they got him on resisting arrest, which was enough. It was enough to mark him as suspicious. It was enough to bring him, thrashing and howling for absolution, into the Superior Court, hundreds of miles from home, to be lambasted by a handful of strangers as if he had committed a serious crime against the country, and condemned. As far as he knows, his mother and sister in that eroded seaside town have not heard word of him since they saw him tackled and handcuffed from the salt-stained windows of their rotted, narrow home. To them, he might as well be dead.
At the request of the ambivalent Department of Health and Human Services, instead of enacting our policy on a national level, we are conducting a small-scale social experiment in which we will test our intended policies for their effectiveness. We have been approved by the Department of Health and Human Services to randomly select five hundred citizens, from diverse social and economic backgrounds, to participate. The only difference from their normal lives would be that, instead of our current sub-par policies of disciplinary action, we would be enacting our new policies in the manner in which we would execute them on the national scale. The experiment will be highly monitored, through visual observation, and secluded for optimal authenticity. Also, in the spirit of authenticity, these selected citizens will not be informed about these policies, except for the law enforcement and governing class that will have to have some knowledge of them in order to be enacted properly, if necessary.
The shadows envelop Comus like a heavy hood as he is dragged down a dimly-lit corridor. It distorts all conversation between the guards to unintelligible scoffs and snickers, except for one word. Procedure? he repeats with a weighted tongue wrapped in a shag carpet. The guards laugh and do not answer.
He is held to a high-backed metal chair by belts and human hands as he thrashes and screams like an animal, gnashing teeth at anything that threatens to hold his mouth open from the red-hot scalpel inches away. After a few blows to the face, his jaw slackens and it is forced open enough to admit the surgical clamps and slowly unravels his swollen tongue. The blade is placed horizontally across the back of his tongue and sears the nerves as he unleashes a blood-curdling scream. The blade is pressed down farther and farther into the muscle-y, rough tissue of the tongue, each scream louder and louder than the next that he fears his voice box will rupture. Pain surges from his tongue, to his face, down his spine to make his fingers and toes coil. Heâ€™s writhing beneath the steady pressure of the restrainers as the blade reaches what he thinks is the bottom. Then the surgeon digs deeper into his mouth. Comus howls, his back arches slightly and jerks violently at every jagged cut until the strain is released and his head recoil backwards against the back of the chair. His mouth is throbbing, burning, and filling slowly with molten fluids that he gags and spills out in a flood onto the linoleum floor beside the chair. Heâ€™s moaning in agony as the rest of his body is released from the chair. He is then dragged to a cell where he is left, feeling as if he died.
He might as well be dead.
As requested by our colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services, here is a brief explication of our experimentâ€™s procedure:
Out of the selected five hundred citizens, roughly one hundred and fifty will be chosen to undergo a behavioral adjustment treatment. The treatment is the same for every citizen, despite crime: the surgical removal of their tongue from their mouths. We feel that this is an acceptable, fair treatment that inflicts excruciating, lasting pain in the body, which instills feelings of self-preservation within the subject, and will cause them to, more than likely, obey so that no further harm will come to them. Also without a tongue, the subjectâ€™s impaired speech will create disconnect between themselves and the world around them, due to their inability to communicate. It will make them feel dejected and alienated, striving for a purpose that they will perform well in order to be accepted back into society once again, despite their impairment. Their work ethic will be the unspoken plea for forgiveness for the wrongs they have done against their community. We will give them their purpose again through structured labor that fulfills their own desires as well as provide a needed workforce for the community. A tongue, as far as most appendages on the human body go, is not as necessary as other body parts like hands, fingers, legs, and genitals, to name a few. It is possible to function without one and live a fairly normal life, which is our sincerest hope after the behavioral adjustment treatment. The farthest thing from our minds is the division of our citizens and inhibiting them, in any way, from living as they would normally. Our only hope is that they, and the other citizens in the colony, learn from their circumstances and choose not to act out or disobey ever again as a result.
There are others like him.
Over the next few weeks, he watches through the steel bars as guards drag tangible, passive wraiths past his cell. His vision obscured by the bars, he can only tell if they are men or women by the pitch of the moan emitted from their slack-jawed mouths. Within moments, the clanging of metal echoes down the corridor and the hall is silent once more after these occasional disruptions. Sometimes the odd prisoner attempting speech is heard. Comus, personally, gave up on that long ago, but he listens while the others only succeed with jumbled, guttural gargling. Anyone foolish enough to attempt it is mocked by the current staff making rounds. They respond to their prisoners with anything from animal calls to babbled, syllabic baby talk that slice through the stagnant, silent ward. Heâ€™s reminded of childhood visits to the zoo and aquarium, children with their contorted faces pressed flat against mesh fencing and glass panes, tapping and rapping against the container to catch the animalâ€™s attention and coerce it into action. When the guards attempt to harass him, he only raises his head to stare back until they continue on. He will not be that beast who is baited by overgrown children looking for a bit of excitement.
It is our pleasure to inform you that the one hundred and fifty behaviorally-adjusted have been collected. We will soon be beginning phase one of our experiment.
One morning, the prisoners are all taken out of their cells at once, herded by a large guard detail, onto armored trucks the size of school busses with dark, tinted windows. Comus and the others canâ€™t help but gape at the realm of the normal world, just beyond their reach, for the majority of their twelve hour drive. Gnarled trees and patchy grass beside the battered highway, under a pale grey sky, never captivated so many so completely. Occasionally, theyâ€™d look to one another with dazed smiles before they were horrified by the pale, sallow-eyed, salivating reflections, and snapped their necks down sharply to gawk at their prison-issued shoes. After the initial shock wore off, some would look to their neighbors pressed shoulder-to-shoulder against them and attempt to motion with gestures of their cuffed hands and feeble mouthing of their lips to communicate. Comus ends up holding the hand of a girl in her mid twenties with tight corkscrew curls jutting out of her skull as she shook with wracking sobs. She leans into his shoulder a little heavier than before and holds tight until she falls asleep.
Soon the highway fades away into streets, and streets become gravel roads. Civilization bleeds away behind thick overgrowth that becomes a jaundice, balding forest.
Once again at the request of our dissatisfied colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services regarding the purpose of the behaviorally-adjusted:
It appears that there has been some miscommunication on our part and for this we are deeply apologetic. Some have noticed that the selection and treatment of the behaviorally-adjusted citizens has been completed and we have yet to begin the collection of the other citizens to be present within the colony. This is just a message of assurance that everything is going according to plan. We envisioned from the beginning that the behaviorally-adjusted will be selected first and that they would be transported to the site of the colony, despite there â€œnot being any substantial facilities there.â€ We would like to inform the Department of Health and Human Services that there are suitable living arrangements, on-site, for the behaviorally-adjusted that they will stay in for the duration of the construction period. We also advise them to reference our previous correspondence where we stated that the behaviorally-adjusted will earn their forgiveness through labor. The labor that we have always held in mind is that they will speed the process of construction and preparation along with their assistance. We would like to stress, again, that this was always in the plan and that the presence of the behaviorally adjusted on-site is not a miscommunication or a cause of the loss of our minds at coordinating such an expansive endeavor. Weâ€™d like to thank our friends at the Department of Health and Human Services for their concern and applaud them for their continual effort, looking out for the well-being of our citizens.
They are separated by gender as they are escorted off the armored vehicles. Comus is shoved to the left, away from the girl with the corkscrew curls, who shrieks as his hand is torn from her grip. She is pulled into the confusion on the right with the other women and he loses sight of her in the surging crowd.
As the last remaining people are separated and sent towards those of the same gender, Comus tries to see over the heads of the taller men. As far as he can tell, there is nothing here. Only the pale grey sky looking down upon the dry, hay-like grass. It stretches for miles, maybe even beyond his sight. Maybe there, on the horizon towards the west, is the sickly forest he saw through the tinted windows. Maybe its leaves were carried on one of the strong gusts of wind that made him shudder beneath the prison-grey jumpsuit. Back home, these gusts were not uncommon, fueled by the sea. Trees would bend almost backward and leaves would rain down from the sky, coating the streets, yards, and homes in a sweet, eerie calm. It would explain the occasional dead leaf, without a tree to be found, that crunched underneath his feet as he and the rest of the men were herded off. Neck and toes aching from curiosity, he allowed himself to follow the crowd in a more comfortable posture, off towards the unknown. He would know soon enough what was to be become of him. Maybe it would be some sort of relief. The armored guards certainly had enough firepower to open fire on all seventy five men, and probably all seventy five women too.
We are pleased to announce that the behaviorally-adjusted have been situated in their temporary living quarters on the colony property. Groundbreaking is tomorrow morning and construction will commence soon afterwards.
Most mornings they are woken with the rising sun. Within the half an hour after they are given their daily ration and assigned to a project where they work all day. They are overseen by small guard details who stand at a distance with their firearms, ready to interfere if something is wrong. There are not nearly as many as there were during the transport, but there is enough to make everyone uncomfortable, keep their eyes on their work, and their actions productive. Mixed in with the workers are private contractors hired to design and execute the plans, giving the workers guidance. Most of the time, it is as little guidance and instruction as possible and they gravitate towards the guard. If theyâ€™re doing something terribly wrong they are notified, the problem corrected with a few blames and shouted obscenities, and the contractors go back to lounging against sturdy piles of materials until quitting time a little before nightfall. There are a few breaks for water and food. Mostly water. At the end of the day the contractors head home, the guard details thin, and the workers are escorted back to their barracks. After a night of exhausted sleep, they are woken again to repeat this cycle. Again. And again. And again.
Comus lost track of the time long ago.
Occasionally there are times where they do not have to work. There is the blizzard when they first start out that buries the colony in two feet of snow. There are weeks of torrential downpour that flood the streets and pool inside exposed foundations. The barracks do not offer much shelter from the harsh winds and dampness, but it is infinitely more comfortable than outside. Sometimes they are allowed to shield themselves from the blistering summer sun and cook under the metal roof instead. On these days of no work, Comus and the others would remain in their barracks, enjoying the comfort of their battered mattresses, milling about, taking their meals in comfortable company and eating at their own pace. Among them walk a few uniformed security, observing with narrowed stares through the bunk posts. Near the exits he can hear them conniving which tongueless to bait and how many, depending on the game. Who could fuck the most in one night shift, who could crack the skittish twerp the fastest, who could report the most misdemeanors, Comus hears it all and more hissed through the stale air over his middle bunk. He prays that none of them will involve him.
They build homes they are not allowed to live in. They build small stores and a restaurant that are empty, but promise to be expensive for the unpaid workers who built them. They build a small schoolhouse that will most-likely go unused. They build a library next door to the schoolhouse because it feels right. They build a petite religiously-neutral church. They clear away a plot for a public park, like a Town Green. They build a few farmhouses on the outskirts of the perimeter and set to work clearing acres for pastures and crops. They build a depository for incoming shipments. They build a Town Hall with imported, polished marble columns framing a simple wood door. They build a post office. They built a police station whose containment cells remind him of the months after the procedure. They built an extensive clinic next door to the police station with underground rooms. They build a miniature power station and install a few generators around town, connect them to the power grid. They built a fence that encircled the property and sang with electricity and howled from expanding and contracting steel in the languid dead of night.
The completion of the colony has nearly arrived. Construction has been done for several months and the behaviorally-adjusted are preparing for the arrival of the remaining three hundred and fifty participants. Assignments are set for a move-in date of June 1st.
They keep their eyes low to the ground to avoid blinding rays of the sun. He notices a silhouette in the next row of turned earth to his left, staggering along beside him. He barely recognizes the girl with the corkscrew curls from the transport. Her face is thinner and elongated, paler (he thinks) than when he saw her last, the mahogany curls flat, frizzy, and tied back with a ragged piece of cloth. She must not have recognized him either, never even taking a second-glance in his direction. Comus watches from his crouched position towards the churned pasture, hands gripped around a clump of weeds, as she drags a sack of removed weeds, with great difficulty to the next section of earth. At the passing of the guards in his peripherals, he quickly goes back to work. The hours pass. Comus draws closer to the end of his row. The girl with the corkscrew curls grows farther and farther behind him, her thin frame hunches over the earth, chest heaving. She exerts herself with such violent force to drag along the sack of roots and weeds, driving herself into the ground. Her knees are scraped and bleeding through her grey jumpsuit. He glimpses her falling to the ground once again with a strangled moan, unsuccessfully moving her sack along with her to her next work area. He swears he saw a smile tugging at the corner of her chapped lips as he helps her pick up the matted clumps of weeds, tossing them into the bag.
But the act is not quick enough to avoid catching the eye of the passing guards a few hundred feet away. The pair trudge towards them as Comus makes his way back towards his abandoned sack. He never reaches it. One drags him back towards the girl with the corkscrew curls, who is interested more in the dirt beneath her feet than the soldier talking at her. Then Comus is brought up into the conversation and she realizes that he is there, only a few feet away. Her eyes widen and quickly revert back to the earth. They laugh and her sunburned cheeks burn hotter. She is dismissed with a shove into the group on her bloodied knees; her soft cry lost as their attention turns to Comus. They ask him why heâ€™s stopped working. He doesnâ€™t answer. They drive him back towards his own row and overturn his sack, demanding he get back to work and quit stalling. He looks in the direction of the girl with the corkscrew curls. She is back at work, her limp hair hanging in her face to obscure the sobs that wrack her body. His gaze is too long and the pair of guards begin to snicker. They call him loverboy. He shakes his head, hands balling into white-knucked fists at his side. They describe in extravagant detail fantasies of message exchanges, secret meetings, and erotic exploits. He shakes his head as he drops willingly to his knees and starts depositing the weeds back into his sack. Why didnâ€™t they see it sooner? Well, theyâ€™ll have to reassign him tomorrow. Or report his ugly, sickly little Julietâ€”she looks like sheâ€™ll croak any day anyways.
Comus tackles the nearest guard at the knees amidst the bed of uprooted weeds. The partner begins shouting.
It is unfortunate that our policy must include something like this, but it is the only way in which we can maintain order within the colony. Despite what our colleagues at the Department of Health and Human Services say in the matter, we are not cruel people and we do regret any further corrections to any behaviorally-adjusted has to endure throughout the construction and the duration of the colony. Punishment will only be necessary on the grounds of continuous disobedience and defiance amongst the behaviorally-adjusted. And even then, we have instructed the supervisors only to discipline when it is only absolutely necessary. Any further punishment was never our intention, but punishment is necessary in order to continue to have complete cooperation and obedience amongst our subjects and ensure smoothness in our operations at the colony.
Punishment will be administered on the grounds of the severity of the act, as well as the number of times the behaviorally-adjusted in question has committed offenses. The judgment of which punishment to use on the offender will be put in the capable hands of our supervisors at the colony site. We give them a specific regiment of punishments that we believe will be the most effective in curbing the disruptive behavior of the unruly behaviorally-adjusted which will, as always, be subject to change if the methods prove to be ineffective. Preliminary punishment is incarceration for a time. Secondary punishment involves extended incarceration into solitary confinement. Tertiary punishment introduces a more physical and severe behavioral adjustment, a kind of conditioning, interwoven with an incarceration period. And the final punishment, regrettably, is death.
The final punishment, we assure you, is not a punishment we frivolously throw around. We value the lives of our citizensâ€”all of themâ€”and their value to the experiment, and the country as a whole, is as priceless as our human cells. We would be nothing without our people, who compromise and created our functioning being. But those that do not cooperate, or hinder our society as we know it must be eliminated for the good of the whole before they spread their cancer amongst the rest and bring about the decay of life as we know it.
When the other men stare at him later on, it is as if they are staring through him. Their eyes seek the bruises hidden beneath his jumpsuit, the ones the guards by the door hiss about, boring into him with their astonished vacancy. He acts as if nothing has happenedâ€”tugging his sleeves and collar over the matching marks of skirmish on the backs of his hands, wrists, and neckâ€”as he tries to sleep. He is vaguely aware of the shuffling footsteps that pass him during the night, feeling the stillness in the air as they pause nearby, have their visual fill, and vanish in a slight rustle of worn fabric. Part of him hopes that the guards catch them, so they can have their own marks to stare at in the middle of the night. Then he would be left alone, no longer a spectacle as he drifts off into a dead sleep where their ghastly stares can no longer reach him.
In the morning the bed is empty.