Speechless

A dark and satirical short story about where conspiracy theories come from, and who profits from them.

Image Credit: 
© 2016 Seb Reilly / Used With Permission

Conspiracy theories are great for business. Ever since the first idiot claimed the moon landings were faked people have made money off them.

The thing about conspiracies is the more outlandish they are, the harder they are to disprove. Take the Reptilian idea. Key individuals, world leaders, royalty, newsreaders, actors, are actually giant reptiles from outer space. In disguise, obviously. No one will unmask them because the people around them are also Reptilians. Or slaves. Apparently you can tell who they are because they all look a bit lizard-like. That’s it, the entire basis for the theory. You can thank Bob for that one.

Bob takes his job very seriously. He works for Morgan Pritchard, the market leader in conspiracy theories. Under his desk is a gas mask and a packet of flares, just in case, and he has enough tranquiliser to cripple a whale. Strictly speaking he doesn’t believe the world is going to end, but it helps him stay in character.

Bob was sat in a meeting with the rest of the Senior Executive Team, in the Morgan Pritchard conference suite, working on a new apocalypse. Someone just suggested a virus and everyone else groaned. The world is tired of viruses.

‘What about silence?’ Bob asked.

They were all looking at him now. The Director asked him to go on.

‘It’s just an idea at the moment,’ Bob said. ‘Can I have a moment to flesh it out?’

They nodded. Bob thought.

When Bob had presented the Reptilians theory the Director almost cried with laughter. Bob didn’t think they’d go for it, but they did. It’s strange how the human brain works, particularly consumers. As soon as the lizard-people were in everyone’s heads more cats and dogs were sold than any year previously. The client was a company, you can’t know who, but they own around half of the pet food suppliers that advertise as rivals. You see their brands next to each other in pet shops. They also make ready meals. They’ve made an absolute killing since the Reptilian rumours all those years ago. That’s why Bob is so good at this; he just has a knack for picking the right point of influence.

‘Okay.’ Bob tapped his finger on the desk. ‘I think I’ve got it. We need an end of the world thing, right? Viruses are out of fashion and zombies are just stupid. We’ve been spinning aliens for too long now, but the US government are still paying for that one.’

‘But why silence?’ the Director asked.

‘Well, I was wondering what would scare people. The hole in the ozone layer worked great back in the day, and we’ve kept it going with the global warming thing, why not tap into that?’

‘Different clients,’ the Vice President for Global Affairs said, raising her chubby hand and pointing at Bob with a swollen finger. ‘They sold electronics and these guys are health supplements. I don’t think we could get away with that.’

She was always so negative, the Vice President for Global Affairs. It was almost as if the weight of her job title was dragging her enthusiasm down all the time; either that or the weight of her enormous body, which was sagging over the edges of the chair.

‘That’s not what I meant.’ Bob ignored her jabbing digit and focused on the Director. ‘I was talking about tapping into the fear. What would happen if everyone was struck mute?’

‘As in they couldn’t talk?’ The Director raised an eyebrow.

‘Exactly.’

‘That’s not bad,’ the Director said, nodding. ‘How do we work it in?’

Everyone pondered this for a second. Bob could see they liked the concept, but the question was how to take the fear and feed it into the public consciousness.

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Bob said. ‘How do we make people afraid?’

The Director smiled. The Vice President for Global Affairs looked annoyed. Everyone else waited for Bob to continue.

‘What are we actually scared of?’ Bob leant back in his chair and looked up at the corner of the room. ‘Not being mute, but being alone. It’s the isolation that would come with being unable to communicate. That’s why people fear going blind or deaf. It separates you from the rest of the world. That’s what we play on.’

‘Haven’t we done something like this before?’ the Vice President for Global Affairs asked. ‘For that bottled water company?’

‘Yeah,’ the Head of Disinformation said. ‘The chemtrails thing.’

‘But this is different,’ Bob said. ‘This isn’t the execution, this is fear.’

‘So what’s the execution?’ the Director asked.

They all paused. Then Bob got it, a moment of genius. There was a jug of water on the table, as usual. The water was clear.

‘Salt,’ he said.

‘Salt?’

They all looked at Bob like he was losing it.

‘Fish can’t make sounds.’ Bob waved in the direction of the water. ‘Salt has made them mute, over hundreds of generations of evolution. Land mammals don’t eat salt naturally, and as a result are very vocal.’

‘Dolphins and whales make noise,’ the Vice President for Global Affairs said. ‘They’re mammals.’

‘Not with their mouths,’ Bob replied. ‘They use their nasal passages. We can do that too, the salt doesn’t affect that, just your vocal chords.’

Bob made a kind of humming sound from his nose. The Director nodded in approval.

‘Fine,’ the Director said. ‘Work up a pitch. We’ll reconvene tomorrow at nine and see what you’ve got.’

Bob and the rest of the Senior Executive Team returned to their desks. Bob spent the rest of the day researching, planning, and writing his speech.

A few years ago one of the major pharmaceutical companies, you’re not allowed to know which one, had overstocked on saline solution. By overstocked, what they actually meant was they had tonnes of it and no way of making a profit. They asked Morgan Pritchard for help, and Bob came up with Swine Flu. Essentially it was just flu, like you get every year, but because of the atmospheric changes it was going to hit harder that year. Bob and his team just branded it and let the rumours grow. The pharmaceutical company mixed a bit of flu inoculation with saline and immediately sold out to various governments. It went so well they had to make more. But since then, what with Bird Flu and Ebola, everyone’s getting a little sick of viruses.

Bird Flu wasn’t Bob, just so you know. That was Atherton Strauss. They’re not as good as Morgan Pritchard, obviously, and often just repeat ideas. They fail to realise that the second scare is never as good as the first.

The following day the Senior Executive Team sat in the conference room once again. Each person had a booklet explaining the proposal and Bob had committed his speech to memory. He was first on the agenda and knew how to put on a show; he’d been doing it for most of his life. As the lights dimmed the display screen lit up with the slideshow he had created. The first slide was a bottle of vitamin pills.

‘Health,’ Bob said, ‘is the second most important concern for the modern consumer. The first, however, is communication.’

The slideshow changed to a stock photo of people talking on phones. Around the table each member of the Senior Executive Team poured themselves a drink from the jug of water that was always there.

‘We can now put forward the case that they are inevitably and intrinsically linked.’

Bob clicked the button in his hand. On the display screen images relating to his previous work began fading into each other.

‘The simple fact is all conspiracy theories are just conjecture based upon subjective analysis of rumours, with the occasional fact thrown in to verify the claims. Remember the World Trade Centre? The stock markets crashed. Terrorism had gone from suicide bombings to mass genocide. Everyone lost out, except the arms manufacturers, and because the buildings didn’t hold up people started blaming the government. It’s a cover up, they said. Back end arms deals, discounts, more money for private industry. The Illuminati.’

The slideshow changed again to show the ocean.

‘The greatest advantage of a conspiracy theory is that it cannot be quashed. The harder you try to silence it, the more it will spread. That is why people believe their governments are poisoning them with fluorine. That is why you need potassium in your supplements.’

On the screen a video started playing of whales swimming underwater.

‘Because we eat a lot of salt, which we add to our diet, in two or three generations our vocal chords are going to start breaking down. In twenty generations we will be semi-mute, and in fifty we will only be able to make nose-sounds.’

The whale video faded into a cross-section of the human head, with the vocal chords and nasal passages highlighted.

‘Just like the mammals that live in the sea, our voices will disappear due to the massive amounts of salt we ingest daily. The only way to prevent this cancerous breakdown of your vocal chords is to increase your potassium intake.’

The display screen changed again, now showing a pile of salt.

‘Add potassium to your vitamins. Market that it neutralises the effects of salt. We will dilute the story; drip it out through our usual scientists and magazines. The governments will deny it, of course, and that will just strengthen our case. Remember when sugar used to be good for you? We changed that. We even got the governments on board. A lot of people weren’t happy about it, but the meat industry was very grateful.’

The last slide appeared; a stock photo of smiling people.

‘You provide the supply,’ Bob said. ‘We will create the demand.’

The screen faded to black and the lights in the room returned to normal level. The Senior Executive Team clapped.

‘I don’t know what to say,’ the Director said. ‘Good work.’

‘Thanks, Boss.’

As Bob walked back over towards his seat a ripple of laughter spread around the table. That’s how it’s done.

‘Set up a meeting, Bob,’ the Director said, glancing back at the agenda. ‘Now, on to the next order of business. Angela?’

Bob sat down at the table as Angela, the Chief Propagation Officer, began explaining the statistical analysis of the distribution of all disinformation for the last quarter. Bob, as usual, didn’t pay much attention. It was boring, data-driven nonsense that he didn’t really care for. He was the Senior Consultant for International Theories, after all. What did he need statistics for?

Bob could feel his mouth getting a little dry. The rest of the group had all been sipping water throughout, but he hadn’t drunk since arriving at work. He reached over to the jug in the middle of the table and poured himself some water.

The Chief Propagation Officer cleared her throat a few times mid-sentence. Bob, already parched, lifted his full glass and swallowed. He kept drinking until the cup was empty.

Finally the Chief Propagation Officer finished. The Director looked around the room, took a sip of water, and turned to the next page on the agenda.

‘The next thing to discuss concerns me greatly.’

The Director coughed.

‘Excuse me.’

The Director coughed again, more violently this time. The Head of Disinformation opened his mouth to ask if the Director was feeling unwell, but no sound came out. He looked confused, his eyes opening wider as he tried to force his voice to work, but there was nothing. His face grew red and the veins in his temples bulged with panic but he was silent.

Angela, the Chief Propagation Officer, poured the Head of Disinformation some more water. The jug was almost empty now, but the Director gestured for the last of it. Angela obliged, and the Director drank.

All around the table faces were expressing panic. Bob, slightly concerned, went to speak, but he too was unable to make a sound. Angela had realised by this point that she had lost her ability to talk also; tears were creeping from the corners of her eyes, bleeding black lines of mascara down her cheeks.

The room was silent.

‘Finally,’ the Vice President for Global Affairs said. ‘Peace and quiet.’

Everyone stopped trying to shout and looked at her. She was smiling. Bob couldn’t remember the last time he saw that. Then he noticed her glass was dry, she hadn’t drunk any of the water.

The Vice President for Global Affairs saw him looking at her unused glass.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I didn’t drink any.’

She grinned.

‘I’ve got you to thank. It was your idea, after all.’

Bob tried to speak but just flapped his mouth. Frustrated, he hummed through his nose and raised his middle finger.

‘You were right Bob,’ the Vice President for Global Affairs said. ‘All that is left is nose sounds, just like a whale.’

Bob wanted to tell her that she was the only whale in the room but he knew it was futile.

The intercom beeped. Everyone sat there, staring at it, not knowing what to do.

‘I’ll get that, shall I?’ the Vice President for Global Affairs asked. She leant over the desk, resting her enormous stomach on it, and pressed the intercom with her oversized finger. ‘Yes?’

‘A car is here to pick up the Vice President for Global Affairs,’ a voice said.

‘Thank you.’ The Vice President for Global Affairs looked around the room, smirking. ‘I’ll be right out.’

She released the intercom and rocked back to an upright, standing position.

‘Just before I go,’ she said, ‘I might as well tell you. It’s not like you won’t figure it out yourselves, after all.’

The Director, who had been scribbling furiously on a piece of paper, held it aloft for all to see. On it were written two words that horrified almost everyone.

Atherton Strauss.

‘Very good.’ The Vice President for Global Affairs licked her bulbous lips and smiled. ‘They pay more, you see. And who is going to believe a bunch of conspiracy theorists, anyway?’

Bob was getting tired of all this. He swallowed hard and opened his second voice box.

‘Shut up,’ he said in a deep, booming tone.

Everyone stared at him. The Vice President for Global Affairs looked terrified. So did everyone else, but Bob hardly found that surprising.

‘Angela,’ Bob said in his thunderous voice. ‘Bring me the pack that is under my desk.’

Angela’s face was white with terror but she scurried out of the room nonetheless. The Vice President for Global Affairs looked as if she was going to pass out.

‘Sit down.’

Bob pointed at her chair and her legs collapsed under the weight of his words.

Despite knowing this day would come, Bob had never expected it in his lifetime. He always thought he would die in disguise, but then that could never happen. He peeled back the tip of his index finger and pushed a little red button, and then lifted his hand to his face.

‘This is the signal of the All Seeing Eye,’ Bob said to his palm. ‘I have been exposed.’

‘Hold for instructions,’ a distance voice said from Bob’s thumb.

The door to the conference suite opened and Angela appeared, holding the canvas bag from Bob’s office that helped him stay in character. She slid it across the table, her face still pale.

‘This is just a precaution,’ Bob said to the Senior Executive Team.

The Vice President for Global Affairs had her arm deep in her handbag, digging about for something. As she pulled it out Bob recognised the shape of the gun. Faster than anyone could discern, he reached into his own pack and removed the tranquiliser pistol. The dart was in her neck before the Vice President for Global Affairs had even taken aim. She slumped back, a slumbering whale, dribble running down her chin. The gun fell into her lap.

‘Now stay calm.’ Bob loaded another dart. For some reason, he was always more demanding when using his second voice. It must be the resonance. ‘As long as you cooperate, no one will be harmed.’

The Director slammed a fist onto the desk and raised both eyebrows. The hum indicated an explanation was due, but before Bob had a chance to speak his hand buzzed. He raised it to his face.

‘The Illuminati are set,’ the distant voice said to Bob. ‘Saucers are ready to deploy. Reveal now.’

‘Received,’ Bob replied. ‘Increase fluorine output to subdue general population.’

Bob’s hand buzzed again and he lowered it. He felt a sense of loss, turning his back on his life here, but this was always a temporary assignment. Any connection he felt with these people would be gone soon; he was one of the ruling classes and they were simply slaves.

The Director waved, still unsure as to what was going on.

‘Do not be alarmed.’ Bob’s voice was loud and overpowering, and he was aware how that statement would create fear and panic rather than alleviate it, but had already spoken. ‘It is time.’

Bob reached around his head and took hold of the seam hidden under his hair. He pulled with both hands, peeling back the skin. He had spent years in this suit, slowly infiltrating the truth to the world. Now they would see.

His scales felt free when the air touched them. His eyes took a moment to adjust, but as he lowered his old face and the Senior Executive Team stared at his true form he was filled with a sense of relief. Even if they could still vocalise they’d be speechless, but Bob knew he didn’t have to hide who he was anymore. It didn’t matter that he was a six foot Reptilian from another dimension, he could finally be himself.

‘Now we begin,’ Bob said. ‘Welcome to the New World Order.’

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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