(written for the Friday Fiction “Write about a Stolen Conversation” prompt)
(author’s note about ‘The Conversation Stealers’)
The idea for this story came to me in a dream (I went to bed thinking about the writing prompt) and got itself fleshed out as I drove to work listening to whatever the drivel was that was emanating from my car’s stereo. It is a science fiction story and a life story about censorship and marriage and war and politics and Big Oil and music and following orders and the importance of communication. Given time, I would like to expand it and flesh out some of the ideas, but I think it gives a good idea of what I had in mind, given the short amount of time I spent on it. I hope you enjoy ‘The Conversation Stealers’, here in its raw, unedited form!
Don Franks stood before the court, well dressed in his black, lightly pinstriped suit with a tightly knotted tie around his neck and over a freshly pressed white shirt. He looked around at the judges, the jury, the audience of interested individuals and media representatives, all of them seated silently in their respective places in the large courtroom, and he smiled. “Your Honors, the People would like to call S. Jefferson Banteros to the stand.”
A hush even more silent and deafening than what had already been in place overtook the room to such an extent that even the whirring of the digital recorders, computers, fans and other mechanical devices seemed to go silent in that instant. S. Jefferson Banteros, Senior Dialogue Moderator for the United States Department of Homeland Security, rose and slowly made his way to the stand. Don Franks, a simple lawyer from Nebraska, felt his heartrate rise with excitement as he watched the man walk, head down, and take his seat. This was a victory, even if the judges and the jury did not decide in favor of his arguments. For the very first time in history the world could see the face of a Conversation Stealer, in fact the most brutal and celebrated of the Conversation Stealers. The whole world would look upon him, would hear his voice and would see him face justice. And this, to Don Franks, would be a major victory for all the freedom loving people in all the world.
“Mr. Banteros,” said Judge Helen De’Votee, the Head Judge of the newly formed American Council of the People, her quiet voice echoing int he otherwise-silent courtroom. “You understand that you are under oath and are expected to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You also understand that under the current Sunshine laws and the recently enacted Homeland Transparency Act, you are required to answer every question completely, for you are not bound to any secrecy or classification requirements. Do you understand?”
“I do,” said S. Jefferson Banteros in a quiet, gravelly voice without looking up from the spot on the floor he had chosen as the haven for his gaze.
“Mr. Franks,” said Judge Helen, “you may begin.”
“Thank you, Your Honor,” said Don, bowing slightly to the judges seated at the front of the courtroom. Walking toward the witness, The Witness as far as he was concerned, Don spoke in a loud voice so that everyone could hear him, even the people in the back that were hidden behind the television cameras. “Mr. Banteros, please explain to us exactly what it is you were employed to do by the Department of Homeland Security.”
Banteros looked up from his favorite spot on the floor and stared at the skinny, well dressed lawyer before him. He spoke slowly and deliberatly as he said, “You have already presented all of the documents, you have exposed the whole program. There is nothing more for me to say about it than what you have already presented as evidence.”
Don smiled at Banteros, “Oh, that is true enough, Mr. Banteros. It is true that I have read and presented all of the documentation that has been provided by the Department of Homeland Security and I am certain that it is complete and accurate as far as it goes. However, I want to hear it from you, one of the most experienced and perhaps the most respected and feared of the Department’s Conversation Stealers.”
“Objection,” shouted the government’s defense lawyer. “Using the media’s headline-grabbing name for my client’s job is demeaning and shows a lack of respect for the witness.”
Before the judges could rule on the objection, Don responded, “I retract my last statement and apologize, Mr. Banteros. I have nothing but the utmost respect for you and would not want you to feel that my choice of using a popular phrase was meant to demean you. Pardon me and please let the record show that Mr. Banteros is a Dialogue Moderator. Now, Mr. Banteros, if you would, please explain your work. Leave no details out, for we, The People, want to hear it all in your own words. Please speak loudly or at least into your microphone, so that we can be sure everyone in the room can hear you nice and clearly.”
Banteros looked at the jury, the judges, the audience and cameras, and then focused his gaze once again on the tiny spot on the floor that had caught his eye earlier. He took a deep, slow breath and began to speak in his low growl. “I am a Dialogue Moderator for the Department of Homeland Security. My job, and the job of all of my colleagues, is to protect national security interests for the United States of America. As Mr. Franks has explained already, the purpose of my group is specifically to prevent people from saying the wrong things, from getting themselves into a situation where… unintended intelligence assets are released to, say, the media, or to a foreign operative. It is—“
Don gleefully interrupted him in mid-sentence, saying, “I’m sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Banteros, but please start from the beginning. Where and when did your division come from and how did it get its start?”
Banteros looked up at the lawyer and started at him with fire in his eyes. “My division, Mr. Banteros, was a direct extension of the Warrantless Wiretapping Act from the early 2000s. When the courts overruled the Act and its protections for the phone companies, we had to find… different… surveillance techniques. This is when I and my colleagues began our roles within the Department.”
“And what did you do, Mr. Banteros?” asked Don, again smiling as he interrupted.
“As I was saying,” said Banteros, slightly louder and with an edge to his voice, “my colleagues and I were assigned to listen to every speech, every conversation, every verbal exchange of information that took place among People of Importance so that any inappropriate exchange of information or any issues of national security could be prevented. We would essentially halt the conversation in mid-sentence if that was necessary.”
“Who are these ‘People of Importance’, as you call them?” asked Don.
“A Person of Importance could be anyone,” answered Banteros. “Typically it would be the President, any President or leader of a world power, really, or maybe a press secretary for the president. Perhaps a diplomat or a representative to the United Nations. I was assigned to listen to congressmen and their staffs, a governor or two. Others were assigned to listen to police officers at the donut shops around the nation. There may very well have been someone assigned to you, Mr. Franks, though thankfully it was not I who got that assignment.”
Don cleared his throat and shifted his stance slightly. “And what, exactly, did you do, Mr. Banteros? How did you listen in on all of these conversations? How did you stop whatever you perceived as needing to be stopped?”
“If there was a speech, I would attend it. If there was a phone conversation, I would monitor it. You don’t think the wiretapping stopped just because the Wiretapping Act was overturned, do you? If anything, it expanded. It just stopped being talked about, thanks to the people assigned to monitor the media, which, again, was not my assignment. But that was it, Mr. Franks. Our job was to listen. You would be amazed at how many issues could be resolved or even prevented if only people would make a habit of listening. It is so simple, really, what we do. I mean honestly, if I can just be honest for a moment, how many times did you hear, as a kid, that sometimes the best thing to do was to shut up and listen? I know my mother told me that a million times if she told me once. But how many people actually take that advice? I can tell you, Mr. Franks, that it is not a common activity. Listening is just not something people do anymore.”
“That’s very nice, Mr. Banteros, but I haven’t asked you to give me motherly advice and I sure hope you’re being honest for more than just a moment.” There was a quiet swell of giggles in the courtroom which quickly subsided. “I’ve asked you to talk about your job, I’ve asked you to talk about your role in sabotaging the free world.”
“We did no sabotaging, Mr. Franks,” shouted Banteros, the microphone whistling with feedback at the outburst. “We did our jobs. We were protecting America. We were protecting the world! You do not know how many wars were averted by us moderating an angry leader and preventing him from saying something he would later regret. Many wars have started due to a simple mistake here or there, a leader giving in to his frustrations and emotions and letting anger boil over to the point that he puts his finger toward the button and sends in the troops. The terrorists of whom we all lived in fear for 20 years… they communicated using normal conversations, not some weird high-tech mechanisms. They would say innocent sounding things which had a much more sinister meaning. We disrupted this channel of communication amongst the terrorists. We should be celebrated, not paraded out in the court of public opinion like this!”
“Very nice,” said Don. “Very nice words indeed. If only they were the whole story. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Tell the court about how you accomplished this. Tell the court about this.” He pulled out a small, purple jar, shaped like an old style perfume bottle. It had a cork stopper at the top and the bottle itself was highly decorated in various geometric shapes. “I present to the court as evidence this Conversation Bottle.”
“It is actually called a Dialogue Storage Unit, or DSU,” said Banteros. “The conversations we… moderate… are stored in these bottles and the bottles are locked up and stored in various locations around the country.”
“Where did these DSUs come from? And how do you fill them?”
Banteros shifted in his seat and looked genuinely uncomfortable.
“Come now,” said Don, walking toward the stand. “You’ve been so forthcoming so far, Mr. Banteros. Don’t stop now. Tell us how this works. Tell us –“ Don noticed Banteros flick his fingers and saw the little purple bottle in his hand, the cork opened and held between two fingers, just slightly away from the bottle’s opening. Banteros had his eyes closed and looked as though he was concentrating hard. Don laughed loudly and said, “How is it working for you, Mr. Banteros? Have you discovered that we have a displacement field in place here in the courtroom? You cannot steal my conversation with you. In fact, you cannot steal anyone’s conversations in this room. So, how about you close up your bottle there and tell us about the program?”
Banteros opened his eyes and stared straight ahead. Sighing, he closed the bottle and tucked it back into his robe-like garment. “You have all heard of Roswell, New Mexico, I’m sure. This technology came from there. The DSUs and the technology to manufacture them were given to us in exchange for information on the spacecraft that may or may not have been found around the Roswell area. Essentially, I can mutter a spell while in the presence of an open DSU and the conversation will be captured in the DSU, effectively rendering the participants incapable of completing the conversation.”
“A spell,” asked Don. “You mean like magic? You expect us to believe that there is magic involved?”
“No,” said Banteros. “Not magic. I used the word ‘spell’ because it would simplify the conversation we are having, I thought. It is an activation phrase. The DSU is voice-activated.”
“So,” said Don, “you and your colleagues used these DSU devices and the activation commands to capture conversations before they were able to be completed? Literally, you stole conversations?”
“Yes, but we only did it when national security was involved,” said Banteros.
“That may be how it started, Mr. Banteros,” said Don. “But that is not what it became, how it is today. Tell us about the Domestic Dialogue Moderation program.”
“There was no such program,” said Banteros.
“I’d like to declare this witness hostile, Your Honors,” said Don to the judges. “He refuses to cooperate and answer the very questions you instructed him to answer. I wish to file a grievance and have Mr. Banteros placed under arrest for violating the Transparency Act.”
“Alright!” shouted Banteros. “I’ll answer your questions. However, there was no Domestic Dialogue Moderation program. Officially or unofficially, this did not exist. But there were many troubling aspects to our country’s society, failures on the part of our people, and many of us decided that we could help. It – it got out of hand, perhaps, but you cannot paint us as evil people, Mr. Franks. We were trying to help.”
“So you acknowledge that you used these DSUs on our citizens,” said Don. “On the innocent, hard working American families you were charged with protecting?”
“Yes,” said Banteros, looking down at the floor once again. “But it was done in order to help. No one got hurt and many people were helped.”
“No one got hurt.” repeated Don. “No one got hurt? Divorce has risen to 79 per cent of marriages. Gang violence has increased. Unemployment has skyrocketed. The Oil Industry is larger than ever and our hardworking families are paying more and more for gasoline, food, and everything else they need to survive. Families are losing more children as we fight wars all around the world. All of this has happened and escalated in the ten short years since your program has been in place. How is it that no one got hurt, Mr. Banteros?”
“No one got hurt,” said Banteros, “I mean, physically hurt, by the act of moderating their conversations.”
“So you are justifying this by saying that having a conversation stolen isn’t painful?” asked Don.
“That’s right,” said Banteros. “It doesn’t hurt. Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and lost your train of thought? If so, then you had a conversation moderated. You should be grateful! You were likely about to say something that would have been wrong, dangerous, hurtful or maybe all of the above! If, upon further analysis, it was determined that the line of the conversation was not going to cause trouble, it would be given back to you, thus the feeling of regaining your train of thought. But if it was deemed to be a dangerous conversation, you would not get it back.”
“Oh, but don’t stop now, Mr. Banteros,” said Don. “There is more to it than a lost train of thought. You got power crazed! You became so full of feelings of power that you started monitoring every conversation. Talks between husbands and wives, talks between foreign leaders, talks between scientists researching new energy technologies… they all became the same to you. Then someone, the president perhaps, maybe a congressman, maybe someone else, decided that you and your colleagues could push a political agenda. You started to guide world politics.”
“No!” shouted Banteros directly into the microphone, causing people in the room to jump at the loud noise cutting through the silence. “No. That’s not how it was.”
“Mr. Banteros,” said Don loudly. “Do you deny that you stole a conversation between our president and the leader of the Iraqi Federation which was meant to ease tensions between our nations? Do you deny that you, yourself, actually prevented a reconciliation from occurring, actually causing war to break out between the United States and the very Iraq we spent billions of dollars rebuilding?” Don waved a handful of papers and placed them in front of Banteros. “I have evidence right here stating that the president went to Iraq to reconcile and in the middle of his conversation with the Iraqi president he simply forgot what he was going to say. The Iraqi president was offended by this and dispatched his troops immediately, using the very technology we provided to him years ago when we were rebuilding the Iraqi nation.”
“That—that was an unfortunate mistake,” said Banteros quietly.
“An unfortunate mistake, indeed,” said Don. “Except that it wasn’t. If you look at the second page there, yes, go ahead and flip it over. Yes, right there. You’ll note that we have the board listing for the American Oil Trust company and that your name, S. Jefferson Banteros, is listed as the CEO. Interesting coincidence, I’d say, that you are the CEO of the very company that would stand to gain the most if war broke out in the Middle East, decimating world oil supplies.”
“This is—This is nothing more than a coincidence,” stuttered Banteros. “No one has done more to prevent war than I have.”
“And if you’ll turn the page again, Mr. Banteros,” continued Don, ignoring Banteros completely, “you will find that I have included the letterhead of a lawfirm that specializes in messy divorce cases. Yes, turn the page and look at it, Mr. Banteros. The law firm of Casey, Malta and Banteros, who reported record earnings in the past several years as the divorce rate skyrocketed.”
“Merely coincidence,” muttered Banteros. “We provide a service to these sad folks who have had their marriages fall apart.”
“Yes, you do,” said Mr. Banteros. “I note that all of your cases, though, are based on a sudden and complete inability of the couple to hold a conversation. I highlighted a quote on the next page, right, that’s it. The quote, Mr. Banteros, please read it into the microphone.”
“’The complainant states that she and her husband would never complete a conversation, with one or the other always stating that they lost their train of thought and neither one of them knowing what the conversation had been about. It was as if they had completely lost the ability to talk to one another.’”, read Banteros.
“Interestingly enough,” said Don, “ninety-eight per cent of your cases had that same complaint. Do you think that this type of anguish doesn’t hurt, Mr. Banteros? Do you think depression that was caused by the loss of the sanctity of marriage doesn’t physically hurt, Mr. Banteros? Have I mentioned yet that the marriages that fell apart in all of your law firm’s cases were the marriages of people who were opposed to the political positions of the President? People who were in favor of alternative energy programs instead of oil, people who were against unilateral wars, people who were opposed to this very surveillance program. All of them, rendered incapable of focusing on the political front because they had to deal with these personal matters.”
“Your Honors,” said Banteros directly to the judges. “I am pleading with you to stop this nonsense. The facts of the case are all coincidental, anecdotal! Clearly since my government-appointed lawyer is not arguing to stop this madness on my behalf, I must throw myself on your mercy.”
“Mr. Banteros,” said Judge Helen, “I must say that there have been many times that I’ve been here, on this bench, and lost my train of thought. I find it very interesting and important that these facts are being brought out to the court. Please continue, Mr. Franks.”
“Thank you, Your Honor,” said Don. “There is only one more point I would like to bring out. Mr. Banteros, if you would turn to the next page, please? That’s right, the penultimate page. Right there. The evidence that is there shows a marked increase in the numbers of patients being treated for Alzheimer’s and other dementia in the past ten years, again since your department started this program. And if you turn the page, I’ll show you that you and the other eight hundred members of your program are large stockholders of the very institutions that are working on treatments for these ailments.”
“They told me this wasn’t true,” said Banteros quietly. “They said that Alzheimer’s and dementia and all of that were not caused by our program. They said it was a factor of aging and diet and nothing more.”
“Yes, I knew you were going to say that,” said Don, pulling out a single sheet of paper. “This page, Mr. Banteros, is an internal memo, which I must point out that you received according to the distribution list, that states that there was, in fact, evidence that the repeated act of Dialogue Moderation might cause dementia and eventual Alzheimer’s, due to the repeated ripping of holes in the victim’s memories. Think about it, Mr. Banteros! Every time you pulled out a conversation, you removed the memory of the conversation, too. How could it not wreak havoc on the mind of someone who was being Monitored repeatedly?”
“I – I didn’t know,” said Banteros. “I swear.”
“Whether or not you knew the long term effect of this activity is not what is on trial here, Mr. Banteros,” said Don. “What is on trial here is your blatant abuse of this technology and of the law. You and your colleagues, Mr. Banteros, took away freedom from the people of America and the rest of the world. Officially, this program took away the freedom to make mistakes and work to correct them. Unofficially, the individuals in the program became so power hungry, so certain that they could prevent any negative ramifications, that they allowed it to spiral out of control. If a law firm needed more business, you could provide it. If a politician needed to win an election, you could make it happen. All of this came with a fee, paid directly to the Conversation Stealers that were involved. Greed, Mr. Banteros, is a terrible thing to fall prey to.”
“I was doing my job,” said Banteros. “I was following orders. You cannot fault me for that.”
“No,” said Don. “It is admirable that you would do your job so diligently and so well for so long. I don’t fault you for doing your job and for being most excellent at it, Mr. Banteros. But let’s see what happens when I pop this cork off of this DSU, shall we?”
Don pushed the cork out of the bottle and the room was filled with the sound of Banteros’ voice, speaking as if he was inside the bottle. “They will never find out about the divorces, Mr. President,” said the disembodied voice of Banteros. “You can be sure of that. We have buried these cases deeply within the system and there can be no proof. There can also be no evidence that we moderated the conversation at the United Nations when they were debating about what to do with the human rights violations in Asia – the fact that you needed to have these violations publicized in order to win the election based solely on foreign policy will not be known. And when they bring up the meeting you had with the oil company about price increases they will… um, they will… I can’t remember where I was going with that but I am sure you understand.” Don closed the DSU again as the courtroom exploded into conversation. Judge Helen slammed the gavel on the table to restore order. When the room was finally quieted, Don said, “You see, Mr. Banteros, we can employ your group to do our bidding as well. Everyone has a price, Mr. Banteros. Everyone. And with that, Your Honors, We The People rest our case.”
Don marched his way back to his seat at the plaintiff’s table and leaned back in his chair, arms behind his head, smiling. The defense lawyer had no questions and the jury and judges were sent off to deliberate. Deliberations went quickly and in less than one hour everyone was back in court to hear the verdict.
“In the case of The People versus the Department of Homeland Security’s Conversation Moderation Division,” read the jury foreman from his notes, “we find that the defendant is guilty of crimes against humanity for the pain and suffering caused by the use of Conversation Stealing techniques on individual citizens and for political gain. However, we must throw out the charges related to the stolen conversation between the defendant and the President, owing to the surreptitious methods used in gaining that evidence.”
There were murmurs throughout the room as the judges stood to pronounce the sentencing. Judge Helen De’Votee spoke, “Mr. Banteros, you are hereby sentenced to spend the next thirty years listening to each of the conversations that have been stolen from the citizens of the United States. You must complete these conversations, expressing the feelings that went unexpressed when the conversations were Moderated. You will be monitored, of course, to ensure compliance.”
“This is cruel and unusual punishment,” shouted Banteros. “I am a man, I cannot talk about my feelings with complete strangers!”
“The court has ruled,” said Judge Helen, “that these conversations deserve to be completed in their entirety. The victims of these moderations will be refunded the money paid for the divorce proceedings and any of them who are wishing to reconcile will be provided with marriage counseling paid for by your law firm. This court is adjourned!”
Over the years, the wags and pundits and social engineers who wrote books and yakked all day long on the television came to the conclusion that the Conversation Moderation program was, in the end, beneficial to the world. In the many years following the trial of S. Jefferson Banteros, there were fewer wars throughout the world, fewer marriages ending in divorce, fewer crimes of passion, fewer situations where scientific information was suppressed to the extent that the overall health of the planet suffered. Oil usage was curtailed and the world saw cleaner skies, more bountiful food supplies, happier families and unprecedented peace. And it was all due to the fact that people had finally learned to listen to each other.
At the end of the thirty year sentence, S. Jefferson Banteros emerged from his isolated sound room to a flurry of media attention as he was brought directly to the brand new Museum of Natural Listening in Topeka, Kansas, where he was to be inducted as the founder of the Science of Listening. As his first act at the museum, Banteros headed to the Rocky Mountains, followed by a swarm of media of all types, where he opened a case of DSUs that had gone unnoticed for the thirty years of his imprisonment. Grabbing a glittering DSU and holding it high above his head in the bright sunshine, he said, “This case contains music, all of the songs that you never heard because the recording industry didn’t want you to hear it. I feel that it is time for the world to hear these artists!” With that, he popped open the DSU and smiled as the first notes of a new era flowed out.
From then on the mountains literally sang.