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Fiction: Five Dispatches from the Third Word War by David Prill

ATTENTION:

This account of what transpired during the final despairing days of Word War III was written with professionally disarmed words translated from the original pantomime. The owner of this magazine assumes no legal liability for any injuries suffered by the reader as a result of exposure to what follows, although as a precaution it is recommended that you examine this article in a well-ventilated location with a fire extinguisher not more than seven feet away. If you stare at these words for more than fifteen consecutive minutes, immediately rinse out your eyes with a saline solution. Thank you for your attention.

#

DISPATCH #1

The weekly word drive was going abysmally, as Chancellor Mallard and Secretary of State Keel gazed down from a balcony in the Ministry Blocks. Below, shabbily dressed folk milled about nearly empty word trays.

“Pathetic,” mimed the Chancellor. “Just pathetic. There’s hoarding going on, there must be. I won’t stand for such unpatriotic displays of selfishness.”

“All the raids we’ve conducted have turned up very little,” Keel gestured.

“Then we need to turn the screws tighter.”

“Yes, Chancellor.” Keel knew the citizenry had been squeezed until they squeaked. That was a simple fact. Even rationing didn’t help. In the neighborhood where his parents still lived, Old Shakopee, folks scrabbled for whatever words they could scrounge, even their good mornings reduced to nonsensical babble. He had promised to stop in tonight for dinner. He couldn’t find the words to express how sorry he felt for them.

The Chancellor reflexively looked skyward, then returned his gaze to the street below. “I’d sell my soul for a decent weapons-grade thesaurus.”

“Yes, Chancellor.”

“We’re a glorious nation, not just some Third-Word country that can be pushed around.”

“The bombing has been very fierce this week.”

In the distance, the thud of an adjective package striking its target served as an exclamation point.

“We’ll hit them back twice as hard!” the leader mimed angrily, banging his fist on the balcony railing.

“Yes, Chancellor.”

“I see that look on your face, Secretary. With what, you’re thinking? I had a very interesting conversation with Professor Slagmore this morning. He wants to show off a few of his latest creations. Come.”

They left the balcony and took the elevator down to the Language Lab.

The Language Lab resembled a militarized grade-school room, the letters of the alphabet circling the green brick wall, with wicked-looking word-launchers and other delivery devices, both everyday and exotic, set up at a number of stations throughout the large, brightly lit space.

“Well, Professor, what’s your latest and greatest tide-turner? Have you finally split the atomic infinitive?”

“CBU-52B,” mimed the limping man in the white smock and oversized black horn rimmed glasses.

“CBU-52B?”

“I refer to the technical name. In common usage, Exploding Verblets.”

“Exploding Verblets. Hmm. How do they work?”

“The verblets in the CBU-52 are softball-sized and are intended primarily to shred and dismember human bodies. The dispenser holds 220 of the verblets and can be used against both people and light-skinned vehicles.”

“Clever. What else do you have?”

“This is the Mark 84 JDAM. It’s a preposition-fused weapon. It has two integrated kill mechanisms, a magnetic influence fuse to sense armor, and deployed trip wires that explode the prepositions when someone walks ON or disturbs them. Another feature is the random delay function, detonating OVER several days for highly effective area denial and harassment operations.”

“Very deadly, WITHOUT a doubt. But Professor, you understand that we do have the expertise to weaponize words, it’s the lack of same that is currently vexing us. It pays to increase your word power.”

“Creating new words, that is difficult, time-consuming. They don’t always take immediately. They need to burrow into the culture before they can be weaponized effectively.”

“We don’t have the time. Find as many wordsmiths as you can and put them to work at once. I want results, Professor. Now!”

A sudden shock hit the room. The light fixtures swayed. Dust puffed down from the ceiling.

“That was close,” someone mimed.

The Chancellor and Secretary corralled several security officers and hustled back up to the main level, to the balcony. The word, a pronoun from the looks of the blast signature, had hit close to the Ministry Blocks. A large crater was visible in the middle of the street outside the blocks. The main language barrier was almost totally demolished.

“Words,” mimed the Chancellor, gripping the railing, his neck veins bulging. “I need words!”

#

DISPATCH #2

The First Word War began as most wars do. A dispute over territory, a score that needed to be settled, a distraction from a country’s problems. But this wasn’t a war of words, this was a war with words.

Traditional munitions had long since been banned by global treaty, the stockpiles destroyed. When international tensions rose, and the weapons cupboards were bare, our leaders grew alarmed, fearing they had left our homeland defenseless.

To the rescue came one of the keenest scientific minds of any era, Webster K. Crane. He devised a method to weaponize language, bring the words themselves to life, so they could be used to deliver death, in doses large and small. A noble cause, it was self-defense, congratulations Webster K., take a bow you national hero.

But within the bowels of government, spies were in our midst. Spies who stole the secret for weaponizing words, spies who took the secret back to their own countries, unfortunately restoring the balance of power.

#

Things were different back then, sonny. We fought with real words, words rife with violence and death and fear. Compound words. Hyphenated words. We gave as good as we got.

Word War I was spectacular in its violence. All the best worst words were thrown into the fray. A feeding frenzy, stripping the language of all its most horrific elements.

And you might think that this excising of the most terrible terms from our language would have created a more civil, peaceful world.

It did not.

People are people, nations are nations, no matter what the state of the language.

The confiscation of words by the Defense Blocks made it harder to communicate, misunderstandings arose more easily. The crossword puzzle industry was decimated. Even the diplomatic corps was reduced to grunt and groans. One thing led to another.

Word War II began clumsily, as countries tried to adapt to arsenals lacking the usual words of war.

Old words took on new meanings. Even sunshine and lollipops could open a wound the size of your fist in a man’s chest.

Perhaps most of these words didn’t deliver the punch of the originals, but they were still plenty potent. It just took more of them to get the job done.

Word War III, some felt, was really just an extension of Word War II. Historians fought to a stalemate over this point.

It didn’t matter to us. If you’re getting whipped with a leather belt or a hickory switch, the pain is the same. We hadn’t fared well in the first two Word Wars, for whatever reason. Leadership or luck, it didn’t make a difference. We were beaten down, not defenseless but nearly so. Ripe for the taking. A perfect time for enemies to settle old scores without fear of reprisals.

#

Keel returned to his office, placing a black satchel on his desk. His assistant, Jane, looked at him with concern.

“What’s going on out there?” she asked. “My desk just did the marimba. How could they get so close? What happened to our defenses?”

Keel shrugged one of the thirteen different shrugs that people employed in the post-word world. He used Shrug #5, which meant, We both know the answer to that, let’s not discuss it further, by the way, any messages for me while I was out?

“Just one. Your mother wants you to pick up some ice cream on your way to her place.”

“Thanks.”

“How is her neighborhood holding up?”

“Not good,“ mimed Keel. “The shortages are really hitting home. I could barely understand her the last time we spoke.”

“That’s too bad. It’s tough all over.”

“Yeah, tough is the world all right.”

“My folks over in Dupont Block are going through the same thing.” She gave Keel a resigned look. “It’s only a matter of time, then? Before…you know.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. Don’t tell anyone I told you. No one can admit it around here. Bad for morale, etc.”

“I think we can all see the handwriting on the wall.”

“Not all of us. Not…Him.”

She didn’t respond right away, self-conscious, perhaps afraid. Then she finally mimed, “What should I do? What should anyone of us do?”

“It’s a good question, Jane.” Keel went to the door and closed it. “Do what you can for your loved ones. Spend time with them. Give them what comfort you may. Do what you can.”

“Until the…end?”

“Until the end. Until the final words have been launched. This is war.”

#

DISPATCH #3

Secretary Keel left the Ministry Blocks early, carrying a satchel that bulged slightly more than normal. He nodded to the guard as he left the Ministry Blocks, his heart no longer jackhammering by the time he reached the sidewalk.

Keel kept walking, heading to the nearby rail station. When the train pulled up he found a seat near the back and tried to relax. It wasn’t easy. He knew he was taking a chance, but the situation was dire. He had attempted to talk to his mother late this afternoon. They were hurting, their ration dictionary full of blank pages. She mostly mumbled her way through the exchange, struggling to get her plight across to him but he got the gist. One of these years, perhaps for her birthday, he was going to buy her that pantomime phone.

The train smoothly left the station, circled the downtown district and headed east. The normal landscape of government towers, apartments and parks was upended here and there by blast sites, more now than the last time Keel rode this route. If one of those pronoun packages hit a major rail line, the city would be in deep trouble.

A man in a gray trench coat sat down across from him, gave him a short glance and began reading a fotopaper.

Keel grew nervous. What if he had been followed? He should have slid the satchel under the seat instead of holding it on his lap. He clutched it tighter, and forced himself to look out the window.

It began raining lightly, the gray mist making the rubble even more bleak. A series of faint percussions sounded in the distance. Incoming or an anti-word fusillade?

A memory came to him, from back in the early days of Word War I, when he was just a lowly clerk in the Ministry Blocks. Back then a cult arose that protested the use of anti-word weapons, claiming it was censorship. The cult gained some traction among college professors and writers, but eventually disbanded when their leaders attempted to publish a literary journal using a series of incoming ICBNs (Intercontinental Ballistic Nouns). Took a week to clean the blood off their office walls.

The train sped along, making stops, and finally the man in the trench coat stood up and headed down to the exit door. 

Keel felt at ease for the first time since he left work. He leaned back in his seat and watched as the familiar skyline came into view.

#

Keel arrived at his boyhood home in Old Shakopee, located on a narrow treeless street on Block H. Their neighborhood had, so far, been spared the bombardment.

Mom all smiles at the door, pain behind the joy, emptiness behind the pain.

She stuttered, trying to find a word that fit the occasion, shook her head in frustration, and said, finally, “Banana.”

“It’s okay, Mom,” he mimed. “I know what you mean.”

He showed her the satchel. “I have something for you. It’s a present.”

“Ice cream?”

He opened the bag.

Her eyes grew wide.

“Didn’t have time to wrap it, sorry.” He smiled.

She hesitated.

“Go ahead ma, take them. They’re yours.”

He could see she was overcome with emotion. She couldn’t talk, no wait, she could, now…

“All snails and kittens

on warm blue baby blankets

Ring around the collar.”

“I know it’s not much, but it was the best I could do.”

She hugged him, and started crying.

They went inside, and he greeted Uncle Roy and Aunt Missy and cousin Judy and the kids Bobby and Berry. He gave them all simple gifts, a word or two each, not enough to give everyone a haiku. The children’s eyes lit up like Christmas tree bulbs. They laughed and played word games the rest of the evening.

The roasted chicken dinner, preceded by a silent prayer, was fine, with ice creamless angel food cake for dessert.

“When will the bombing stop?” Uncle Roy mimed between forkfuls of angel food goodness. “It got very close today. Shook the walls.”

“I wish I could tell you, Uncle. I really do.”

“I thought the government was trying to negotiate a cease fire.”

“I’m not sure the other side wants a cease fire.”

“Why wouldn’t they? Isn’t it in both of our interests? Unless they think we can’t fight back anymore. Is that it? Are we that weak?”

Keel thought a moment before miming back. He didn’t want to lie to his family, but he knew he had to choose his gestures carefully so he wouldn’t panic them. “We’re in a tough spot, no doubt about it. But we’ve been in difficult situations before and we’ve always come out of it with our heads held high. We may take some more hits. In the end, though, life will move forward. It might be a different kind of life than we’re used to, but it will be life.”

Keel saw the anxiety on mother’s face. “Don’t worry, ma. Everything will be okay. The bombing will stop, and our little neighborhood will go on like it always has. The rest of it is just politics.”

Overall it was an enjoyable evening, and Keel was delighted to spread a few good words around. No one would miss them. He would never, ever forget the delighted look on his mother’s face when she opened her

All snails and kittens

on warm blue baby blankets

Ring around the collar.

#

When Keel returned home, and was about to swipe the lock, he hesitated, seeing the door was already open several inches.

He listened carefully, heard no sound.

He went around to the dining room window and peered in.

The sight made him duck down among the bushes.

The room had been torn apart. Furniture overturned, drawers dumped on the floor, papers scattered everywhere.

Keel slowly brought himself to eye-level with the window. He looked more carefully, listened, too. Everything was still and quiet. The intruder had apparently left.

Going back to the door, Keel hesitated, then nudged the door open and took a tentative step inside. Listened again. Silence.

Now Keel quickly checked the rooms to make sure they were unoccupied. He was about the ring the police when he noticed something peculiar: none of his valuables appeared to be missing. Electronics, jewelry, rare coins, all untouched.

Keel sat down on a kitchen chair, thinking, just for a moment.

When the security squad arrested him as he stepped outside his house, Keel knew he shouldn’t have taken the time to pack.

#

DISPATCH #4

“Really, Secretary,” mimed the Chancellor as Keel struggled to free his arms, which were firmly chained to the wall in the Interrogation Blocks. “I didn’t think you were the type. Did you actually think you could get away with it?”

Keel didn’t say anything. His mind raced, trying to figure a way out, wondering how they had caught him so easily.

“Stealing words in a time of war is an act of treason, Secretary. Treason.”

Keel had taken advantage of the pronoun attack, sneaking into the wordpile while the guards were investigating the blast. He had been prepared for a moment like this, and substituted empty words for the ones he took. When the empty words were detonated and didn’t explode, people would just assume they were duds.

“There will be a trial of course, and you will be accorded every right and recourse permitted to any other citizen accused of a crime.”

Keel felt defiant. He was proud of what he did.

“All snails and kittens

on warm blue baby blankets

Ring around the collar.

Couldn’t cause a bruise!” Keel mimed angrily.

“Of course, the missing words were recovered. The extraction process was somewhat challenging, but eventually we did achieve positive results.” His smile was small and cruel.

“What did you do to them?” Keel railed. He futilely struggled against the chains. “If you hurt them, I swear to God…”

“All well and good, Secretary, but please remember that anything you mime here can and will be used against you in a court of law.”

#

In wartime, the legal system worked a bit differently than during times of peace. The judges and counselors still owned most of their important words, Latin possessing too much rigidity to weaponize.

The trial was swift, the verdict certain. Keel tried to argue he took words that were just gathering dust anyway, that previous efforts to weaponize them had failed, but the judge cut him off before he got very far in his exculpatory miming.

The sentence was to be carried out promptly. No, not a mere sentence—his punishment was to be paragraph length, the agony prolonged in order to make an example of him.

Keel was to be executed by copulative conjunction chair.

Tonight!

#

DISPATCH #5

Keel sat in his cell, head in his heads, shaking in this nightmare. He worried about his family. Were they being held somewhere in this very facility? He knew he was weak, giving in to sentiment rather than staying devoted to the fatherland. Now they were paying for his weakness.

A priest came in, but didn’t have much to say. The spiritual realm had long since been plundered, even simple mercy turned into a munition. Of course, the God Bomb had already been used in the early days of Word War I.

Like most everyone he knew, Keel had used religion when necessary to advance his career, but that was where it stopped.

The priest asked him if he had anything to be forgiven for. Keel politely demurred.

The question did set him thinking, though. It sent him back through his life. All the words he used to speak came back to him. He had forgotten many of them. He lived according to the law, played by the rules. He never frequented the underground speakeasies that catered to the powerful and well-connected, who desired to use words that the government had appropriated. The words the speakeasies offered weren’t the actual words, just subtle variations of same, but their use was considered out-of-bounds.

Keel always played by the rules, until now. What drove him to this end? Maybe because he saw the end, approaching at lightning speed, and wanted to do something to comfort those he loved.

He remembered the look on his mother’s face…

All snails and kittens

on warm blue baby blankets

Ring around the collar.

Not long after the priest departed, a pair of guards hauled him out of his cell and led him down the corridor to another small room, decorated only with a single ominous piece of furniture. Here they strapped him into the copulative conjunction chair.

“Any last words?” a husky hooded figure mimed.

Keel pondered a few seconds, then said: “Banana.”

Keel shut his eyes, gripping the arms of the chair and waited for his insides to explode.

He waited.

And waited.

And waited.

He opened his eyes.

I’m still alive, he thought with wonder. Alive.

“Something’s wrong with the copulative conjunction chair,” husky correctly observed.

“What happened?” a suit and tie gestured.

“It didn’t copulate.”

“Well, then we’re screwed.”

They unstrapped Keel and marched him back to his cell. He oversaw the guards miming something about the country’s word power dwindling to such a degree that they couldn’t even fry a crumb bum like Keel.

There must be a law against being executed twice, Keel thought as he sat on his cot.

The bombs hit again. Much closer and they would solve any conundrum about his legal status. The vibrations made his cot shimmy.

Keel pushed his mind backwards, to a simpler time when words were used only as a means to communicate. It was hard to imagine the ease with which people exchanged thoughts and feelings back then. It was challenging to conceive of an era when the ABCs didn’t give children nightmares.

Suddenly, a tremendous roar hit the Cell Blocks. The blocks seemed to rise up, explode out.

A direct hit.

Nearby, and in the distance, more deafening concussions.

Somehow, Keel found himself crawling out of the rabbit hole rubble, at street level. The explosion must have propelled him away from the collapsing blocks.

The city was in ruins. The enemy had launched an all-out attack, using every word in the book. They had even launched dirty word bombs.

Keel wandered the streets in a daze, almost stepping on an unexploded motherfucker, his right leg throbbing, sticky wetness clouding his vision. He heard screams, moans, the wailing of sirens, a language this city had become all too accustomed to.

He came upon a man clawing his way out of a pile of blocks, with the letters D, I, W on them. Even the rubble couldn’t make a proper word.

“You’ll never defeat us!” mimed the disheveled, bloody man, staggering to his feet, directing his comments at the blackened sky. A man Keel recognized as the Chancellor.

“We won’t be down for long! We’ll start over, you’ll see! We’ll make new words, a whole new language of misery, meant for you! We’ll invent words that will wipe you off the face of the Earth!”

As the Chancellor ranted, Keel came up behind him and stood there listening for a few moments.

Although the word for the object which Keel picked up had long ago been expended in the Word Wars, it could be most accurately described as a lump or mass of hard consolidated mineral matter.

And Keel took this lump or mass of hard consolidated mineral matter and…Due to safety concerns, the remainder of this dispatch has been deleted.

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