The 51st Annual International Congress of the Speaking was held on the 24th floor of the New Delhi Marriott. Katarina limped into the conference room and picked up her nametag. The nametags made sense when the conference first began. Back then, they had trouble fitting everyone into the largest conference centers around the world. But now with only five of them remaining, it was more symbolic of times past than anything else. On the other hand, they did seem to help Dingwen, who grew more forgetful each year.
Katarina was the last to arrive. A somber foursome sat at the lone table in the room on the 24th floor. In the background were pictures of members lost since the last meeting. It was a tradition they had started a few years before when their numbers dipped below a hundred. This year, there were three photos – Jorge, Esmeralda, and Mae.
Katarina had grown fond of Mae and Esmeralda. She was a bit of a third wheel, but still always enjoyed their times together. When she heard that Esmeralda had died, she knew Mae would not be far behind. News of Mae’s death from Takotsubo cardiomyopathy 48 hours later came as no surprise.
Jorge probably should have lived a few more years, but he was the daredevil of the group. Out alone on a hike he tripped and fractured his femur. He was found a couple of days later and taken to the hospital, but his kidneys had shut down without water and he never recovered.
So here they were, the last five humans that could speak to each other. Dingwen, Holly, Sofia, Amelie, and herself.
Sofia saw Katarina first and rose to greet her.
“Good to see you, old friend,” said Sofia softly.
They embraced and headed to their seats.
Amelie was the conference leader now that Jorge had passed. She stood to address the table.
“Welcome to the 51st Annual International Congress of the Speaking.” Amelie forced a smile.
“As always, we mourn the loss of those who are no longer with us, knowing that their companionship enriched our lives while we were privileged to have it.”
Amelie paused for a moment of silence and tears welled in the corners of her eyes.
“Hey, who died?” Dingwen joked. His memory was much worse this year. Katarina was surprised he made it to the conference at all.
Amelie ignored the comment and continued. “The only item of business today is a sad, but necessary one – the disbandment of this Congress.”
Before anyone could say anything, their Vesh hostess entered the room, followed by several Vesh waiters with food trays.
Katarina stiffened at their arrival. She minimized any contact with the Vesh, despite their necessity. She found their features unnerving. Deformed, vestigial ear buds, the concave mid-face, the short neck. Even though she knew their DNA was 99.99% similar to her own, she had never been able to shake their alienness.
The hostess oversaw the food delivery and when she was satisfied, all the Vesh left without a sound.
“Why disband now? I want every breath I take filled with words until the day I die!” Sofia was incensed.
“Sofia, take an honest survey of the room. Dingwen can’t remember any of us. Katarina and I have so many medical problems that getting here nearly killed us. There is a ninety-five percent chance neither of us will be alive next year for a meeting. And Holly is so close to deafness that she considered using the original Vesh technology just so she would have someone to ‘talk’ to.”
Sofia glared at Holly and cleared her throat so she could shout to her. “You’re that bad off?”
Holly held her hand to her ear.
Sofia stood and walked over to Holly, bending over to yell directly in her ear. “You’re that bad off? You were willing to lose yourself to Vesh tech?”
Holly nodded. “Dear, I don’t think I can go on much longer. The only reason I haven’t taken that last walk home was so that I could see you all one more time.”
Sofia’s shoulders sank.
“It’s not what I want, Sofia. But this will be the conference of goodbyes.” Amelie had been preparing herself for months for this eventuality.
Katarina surveyed the room again. She would miss these people, former strangers, united by the slowly extinguishing flame of human speech. She knew the Vesh would keep a record of their ancestors’ ability to communicate aloud, but would they understand what that meant? Without any auditory nerves, could they comprehend the concept of speech? She would never know.