Sound the Alarm
by DJ Burnham
forum: Sound the Alarm
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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Sound the Alarm



          Pohraen swept her arm across the dirty wooden floorboards, scattering the last of the remaining die-cast miniature troops in a cloud of dust. She'd done it a thousand times before, employing every strategy that her late father had taught her, time and time again. She never grew tired of it and didn't even know what a doll would look like; this was all she knew. When all of the other toys of antiquity had long since been broken, lost or worn beyond repair, the only new manufacture gaining Central Command's approval, was that of the model troops. 

         Life outside of the vast armoured bunkers was unspeakably dangerous, and there was no room for boisterous pastimes within. War gaming was encouraged and praised, as cultivating a militaristic mentality in the young had become the norm, and with it came an unquestioning hatred for the enemy. It's relentlessness was a sorry excuse for the escapism that a young child craves, even in settled times, and these were far from that.

* * *

         Pohraen, satisfied with the conclusion of her endeavours, returned the battered soldiers to their heavy metal box, slid it under her bunk. She quickly rubbed a wet cloth over her face, ran her fingers across her close-copped, greying hair, and set off for the community hall. It was 100th Day, and ever since she (or anyone else, for that matter) could remember, the evening of that day was always spent in the company of those living in the district. The soldiers would take it in turn to be present, as their guard couldn't drop for a moment. The sense of occasion was overwhelming and for a few precious hours they could draw comfort from their assembly.

         As they drew near she ran ahead of her aunt, entering the hall at full tilt. The twelve-year old (whose name meant 'Little Flower') was rewarded by a burly foot soldier, who swept her up in his muscular arms and swung her around, before setting her down and presenting her with a slice of fruit from the central table. Pohraen smiled broadly and nibbled at the delicate flesh, savouring every moment of its wondrous taste. They were all allowed to have one piece each, and then it would be another 100 days of dry old rations, before the treat would be repeated. She sucked the last of the juice from her fingers and wiped them, boyishly, on her rough, hand-stitched brown jacket.

         The fruits were cultivated in a handful of vast subterranean farms, fuelled by artificial light, fed by recycling every scrap of organic matter available. Mostly they were concerned with the production of high protein staples (the few lucky cattle that lived down there were kept purely for their milk), but for the purposes of morale, there were a few farmers who produced fruit.

* * *

         They had hurled themselves at one another for decades, so long in fact, that few could recall precisely how the interminable war had begun, but all were driven by the deep waters of lunatic conviction, which ran through generations, impervious to the futility of military stalemate. Propaganda had served its purpose long ago, superseded by loathing and unshakable conviction, fundamentally psychotic to an outsider, but to the population of this scourged planet, the axiom, by which they lived their lives, was effectively physical. By now it was hard to tell the two sides apart, even the children carried the gaunt, ashen appearance of their parents; nihilists from birth, agnostic for life. In less than a century they had evolved deeply furrowed brows and their hair was grey by late teens, smile lines and ruddy cheeks were a thing of fantasy. On closer inspection, the clothes worn by one side of the conflict were slightly brown (the Righteous), whereas those of the other had a grey tinge (the Virtuous), but the people who shuffled about within them were practically identical. Planet Sphelrie's atmosphere was choked with smoke and dust, kicked up from the surface by the countless explosions of a ballistic nightmare, conjured up from a marathon arms race. Sunlight rarely penetrated the mantle, and even when it did it only served to accentuate the destruction. Entire cities had been abandoned as pockmarked wasteland, countryside choked by spent munitions and unmarked graves, as the remaining wildlife cowered in crumbling bolt holes.

         Food was scarce and as bland as the itchy garments that hung off them like sackcloth, conditions were squalid, disease rife. All that kept both sides from suffering a catastrophic implosion of morale, was their enjoyment of music. What precious resources remained (talismen from better times) were channelled into the sweet sounds of instruments and voices, united in song, transported by harmony, delivered from Hades.

* * *
         By now the singing had begun and 200 voices were raised in unison. Four musicians played wind and string instruments, accompanied by an organist and two percussionists. All seven were amplified, such that they could lead the choir. This was the only luxury use of power and technology permitted by Central Command, as resources were far too meagre to be wasted on anything other than that which had a military use, and the basic support of life in the bunkers.

         The songs were of faith, hope and victory, the hymns and anthems of Righteous salvation, a paean to better times; both past and future. The words had been sung so often, across the generations, and with such fervour, that their meaning had become ingrained into them. This had occurred to such an extent that the greater part of the throng no longer considered the content on a conscious level, but were lifted in the euphoria of unity and mesmerised by the tonal vibrations in a trance-inducing state of bliss. Pohraen was still too young, and the loss of her parents still too fresh in her memory, to give herself over entirely. Nevertheless, she joined in and sang with all her might, happy to belong, absorbing the joy and the adults' rapture. She stood with a group of nine other children, ranging from eight to fifteen years of age. These skinny little urchins were the only youngsters present. The stress of endless conflict, poor diet and sickness, did nothing for levels of conception, and children were generally regarded with great fondness by the adults, especially on 100th Day. At sixteen they were sent for training, boys and girls alike, and with a low birth rate, coupled with the consistent attrition of manpower, the overall population was inevitably declining.

* * *

         Tanks, aircraft, ordnance, automatic weapons and the majority of rifles and pistols had all been rendered obsolete, ruined and exhausted, along with the funds that had fed the monster. However, the Sphelrians were a resourceful race and soon devised new methods of combat, as well as resurrecting old ones, such that swordsmanship made a comeback, along with designs for ancient catapults (trebuchets) which would fling heavy wooden balls, coated in flaming tar (flamers), into the midst of the enemy. They built airships, airscrew-driven by coal-fired engines, the heat from which was piped from the gondola into the envelope, to supplement the lift from the internal helium-filled ballonets; and to allow for buoyancy adjustments as the coal was used and cargo jettisoned. They could stay in the air for days, appearing silently in the night above unprotected populated areas, to deliver flamers from the sky, as well as providing valuable surveillance information. Battles took place at sea again, as frigates were recommissioned, propelled by both oar and sail, weaving around the larger steam-driven battleships, protecting them from attack. Submarines were developed for attaching clock-detonated explosive charges to the hulls of stationary battleships. They were powered by an eight man crew, who laboriously turned a handcrank, like a multiple brace and bit, to rotate the propeller which would carry them through the water. They would submerge by flooding ballast tanks, drawing air through long, narrow-core pipes to the surface, but only having a short amount of time when they dived deeper before they ran out of oxygen. It was long enough to release a diver to attach the mine, but not always long enough to await his return. A similar principle was attempted on land, to drive recommissioned tanks, but the sheer weight made the task virtually impossible, and the lighter models could be flipped on their backs like turtles, by a group of men levering them with tree trunks. 

         While they continued to wage this primitive warfare, a new direction was developing in the Righteous camp. The sole technical advancements were being made in relation to the reproduction of music. With so much happening in the raw environment of the battlefield, it was considered essential to raise the spirits of their troops, and the simplest way to achieve that was to play them music as they launched an attack. Naturally, as soon as one side started doing it, so the other side came back with their own amplified compositions, each side trying to drown out the melodies of their opponent. Before long the frontline troops were blasting each other with escalating levels of discordancy, unbearable cacophonies to taunt and unnerve the enemy. The Righteous scientists experimented with methods beyond standard amplification and discovered that they could focus sound to within a very narrow band, of considerable intensity. They recorded the most harsh and grating combination of notes imaginable, reversed the playback direction, fed the result through an output transducer and aimed it at a colleague in the middle distance. One blast saw him fall to the floor with his hands over his ears, writhing in agony. They rushed to his position and arrived just he was standing up again. He described intense pain and nausea, as well as a loss of balance, revelling in the outcome, despite his obvious discomfort.

         Within a month the Righteous troops had been equipped with similar devices and the results were outstanding. They were able to pick off one soldier after another, rapidly driving them back and advancing their own position. Fear swept through the Virtuous forces as the invisible weapons were unleashed on them. Commanding officers struggled to keep them at their positions, with tactical retreats occurring at an unprecedented rate. The Righteous troops began to get cocky and started to celebrate for the first time in ages, breaking out precious reserves of triple distilled alcohol and bursting into song. Their own officers joined in, sensing their relief and the need for rejoicing in their success. Meanwhile, after failing to develop any form of effective ear protector, the Virtuous tactical operations headquarters considered their options. They assembled a crack unit comprising mature, experienced soldiers, who all had something thing in common. They hadn't been near the frontline for sometime, because, following explosions or combat injuries, they were all stone deaf. They underwent a rigorous period of training for a risky operation, which would involve superb coordination, consummate professionalism and seemingly impossible levels of stealth. Setting off in two groups, the first headed behind the smallest known enemy position, under the cover of dark, whilst the other group made their way directly towards it. The handful of Righteous troops on night watch had grown sloppy, as the constant barrage of sonic bullets had made them feel invincible. As the old Virtuous soldiers made their move, the Righteous troops were slow to react, surprised to see such a brazen assault, and it took them a moment to realise what was happening. Even then, they were lazy in their response, and so over-confident in the power of their new weapons, that they no longer bothered to carry many other forms of protection. They fired smugly at the advancing men, at first puzzled by the age of some of them and then terrified when they realised that their response was utterly ineffectual. As they reached for what few swords they'd brought with them, the second group of Virtuous soldiers suddenly appeared from behind and cut them down with practised precision. Seizing the sonic devices, the Virtuous soldiers quickly made their way back to the tactical operations officer. In no time at all, both sides were firing sonic bullets at each other, and the impasse returned once more.

         The Righteous scientists went back to their research and before long had developed a new device. This time they produced a different kind of hypersonic weapon. It caused no pain or nausea, nor disorientation or physical manifestation of any kind; it was far more subtle than that. Working on the principle that they had been able to transmit sounds, they reasoned that they should be able to project messages. Once again a volunteer stood, tremulously, on the brow of a distant hill. This time he didn't fall to the ground, he jumped up and down, clapping his hands together and cheering. He repeated the secret, randomly controlled phrase back to his colleagues. Now they could target a beam at individuals which could create a range of effects, from simple misdirection of troops to repeated auditory hallucinations which could convince someone that they were going quietly mad, or even lead them to take their own life. The instances for use were more limited than the sonic bullets, but with carefully planned campaigns the Virtuous troops were mislead by a targeted commanding officer, and marched straight into a massive ambush. With practice, the Righteous officers were able to direct the Virtuous troops in any direction they wanted, but only when they were close enough to identify the commanding officer, so they had to be extraordinarily careful. Most of the time they used the new hypersonic device to undermine the, already precarious, mental well-being of the enemy soldiers.

         Meanwhile, the Virtuous scientists had been working along different lines and had been experimenting with ultrasound. Apart from a signalling device to highly trained dogs, it had little direct application in land warfare, but then they thought about trying it underwater; drawing on their knowledge of cetacean sub aqua bioacoustics. They adapted the sonic rifle design, with which they had become totally familiar (following its seizure from the Righteous troops and their own production of similar units for counter-offensive combat). Their initial experiments confirmed that the ultrasonic wavelength travelled tremendously quickly through water, with little difference between fresh or salinated water. With the creation of a large hyperbolic dish (along the design principles of the sonic rifle) they found that they could also focus ultrasound, and tried it on some fish. The results were both spectacular and shocking. 

         With another month's work they developed a super-sensitive sub aqua grid, which was not only capable of detecting movement in the water, but could produce an excellent standard of imaging, such that individual types of fish could be identified. The scientists set up their equipment in one of the many docks that were engaged in repairing battleships and frigates. They employed their own divers to attach ultrasonic weapons to the keel of each ship, and then had them swim around in simulated manoeuvres, pretending to place mines on the hulls. The grid followed every movement, easily distinguishing between man and fish, and the ultrasonic weapons tracked their every move, constantly focusing on head or chest, cross-hairs on the monitoring equipment watched by the swiftly trained weapons officer.

         Satisfied that the system was working, all they had to do was wait. Sure enough, three nights later, enemy submarines were picked up entering the perimeter of the sub aqua grid. Two divers were released, one made for the largest of the Virtuous battleships, the other made for a frigate. As one of them came within range, the weapons officer made delicate adjustments to the targeting mechanism, focused on the upper third of the enemy's skull, and fired. For a moment the diver hesitated, then began thrashing around wildly, before hanging limply in the water, occasionally twitching. The second came within range of the frigate's weapon, and this time it focused on his heart. The man clutched his chest, dropping the mine, and struggled in the water, bubbles bursting from his mask as his panicked breathing drew heavily on his tank. Within moments, he too hung in the water, a subtle plume of blood trailing from the side of his mask. This time they let the submarines escape. Far more effective for the enemy to hear of the terror of the underwater weapon, than to finish the job; at least on this occasion. They dragged the divers from the water and took them away for postmortems. The results matched their experimental findings with the laboratory fish. The first diver had still been alive when they'd got to him, but incapable of speech or voluntary movement, and died soon after. Widespread cerebral micro-tissue destruction had turned his brain into an amorphous jelly. The second diver was found to have suffered heart failure, brought on by ultrasonic disruption of the sino-atrial node, or pacemaker. 

         The system was deployed at all of the Virtuous docks and they wiped out several more attempts, before the submarines stopped coming. As electronic components were requisitioned from every available source, to feed the escalating sonic war, communications began to suffer seriously.

* * *
         The time had come round for 100th Day again, but Pohraen sat miserably in her room, listlessly rolling the dice that would determine the fate of her toy soldiers. Her eyes were damp, but her sobs were over. Her aunt had informed her that 100th Day had been indefinitely postponed. Pohraen didn't fully understand the reasons, but it had something to do with Central Command taking the equipment that made the musicians' instruments louder. There was some talk of having a rota, so that fewer individuals would attend the hall each 100th Day, such that the instruments could lead acoustically, rather than be drowned out by the voices, but it could never be the same. Pohraen couldn't see why they had to have the instruments at all, as everyone knew the songs so well. She argued the case with her aunt for a while, but she insisted that it had something to do with a thing called tradition, and that 100th Day without the musicians was unthinkable. Eventually Pohraen gave up, resigned to the fact that there would be no fruit that day, or possibly any other. Perhaps all that she had to look forward to now was her coming of age, conscription, and death at the hands of some Virtuous infidel. She lay back on her bed, closed her eyes, and tried to remember that last 100th Day. At least they couldn't take that away from her.

* * *
         The Righteous military tacticians turned to their own scientists again, this time with instructions to provide them with every single item of electronics left at their disposal, except for a handful of vital communications devices held by their highest ranking officers. The Righteous scientists turned their attention to the lesser known area of infrasonics, at the far end of the acoustic scale.

         Producing equipment that could generate infrasonics caused them no end of problems. At first their attempts were met with a pile of useless junk, shaken to pieces by the devastating waves. Phenomenally tough housings were cast in lead and the entire generator set in concrete, with seventeen apertures allowing the sound waves to escape. Once the stability of the units had been resolved, they came to the series of experiments which would determine the most effective wavelength for disabling enemy troops. At first they underestimated the power of the device, and several of them fell ill for weeks after the initial series of experiments. One died, following the rupture of his bowels. Continuing their research, with considerable caution, they set up a refined device in the desert, well away from any areas of Righteous population; they termed it, the infrasonic bomb. Over the coming months the scientists, aided by the military, set up a whole range of experiments. They placed caged animals (in some cases the last of their kind on Sphelrie) at strategic points around the bomb, from a few hundred yards, to several miles. Troops had worked feverishly, in the preceding weeks, to construct buildings from a variety of different materials and, again, at varying points from the anticipated epicentre. The experiments were based on the effects of a variety of wavelengths, and the results were terrifying.

         The animals were observed from what was considered to be a safe distance, both through high-powered telescopes and by checking vital signs with medical monitoring equipment. Depending on the number of cycles per second, the effects were various, but the results utterly conclusive, ranging from elevated heart rate, hypertension, respiratory interference, chocking and obvious pain, to balance disturbance, blackout, internal haemorrhaging, organ rupture and death. At one specific pitch, buildings were shaken to pieces, or even exploded, and all of these effects could occur up to three miles from the epicentre. From their observation posts on the edge of the effective area, some of the Righteous troops experienced blurred vision and nausea, from the silent wave front.

         With further refinements, the scientists produced a bomb which was effective over a ten mile radius, by directing the output through trumpet-like devices, of precise design for optimum air vibration. It was most effective over flat terrain, as the infrasound seemed to actually hug the ground, as it travelled. Consequently the military strategists identified the ten largest Virtuous settlements, adjacent to optimum topography. Ten airships were adapted to carry the bombs, and skeleton crews trained in their deployment. The extra ballonets and heat generation necessary to gain sufficient lift, to carry the immense payload, would be far beyond the safety margins, and would mean that the rams would have to be dismantled, as well as leaving no place for heavy trebuchets or flamers. They would have to take to the air with a squadron of airships surrounding them for protection against enemy attack, but they would be on their own as the target zone approached. It would mean deployment of the entire fleet of Righteous airships and a mission that would be virtually suicidal for the bomber crews.

* * *

         The Dauntless was nearing her target, buffeted by the growing storm, but doggedly pushed on. Suddenly, eight Virtuous airships appeared, illuminated by a lightning flash, on an intercept course. Four of the Righteous squadron left formation to engage the enemy, whilst the others tightened in around the bomber. Twenty minutes later the sky was alight with blazing envelopes, whirling flamers and casualties on both sides, as these leviathans of the sky met their demise and sunk rapidly to the ground, crushed under their own weight on impact. As they approached the target zone, two of the remaining airships, flamers spent, headed towards each other. Each had a battering ram on the prow of its rigid envelope. The Righteous ram was tipped with an enormous, clenched fist, that of the Virtuous by a four-bladed arrow, both cast in gleaming metal. They powered towards each other, in a desperate demonstration of mid-air jousting, rocked by the winds, engines drowned out by the thunder. The Virtuous airship swung at the last moment and ploughed deep into the envelope of her opponent, ripping through the outer fabric, penetrating her rival's heart. The Righteous airship was undone, tattered, torn asunder and began her inevitable descent. The sudden weight on the Virtuous aggressor, still deeply entangled in the flapping mess of her foe, proved to much, and her delicate frame collapsed under the pressure. Together they plunged down, clasped and tumbling in a fatal embrace, as the inky blackness stole them from view. 

         The last Virtuous airship, the Liberator, bore down on the Dauntless, aware that this was no ordinary combatant, but a prize above all others, having been protected by a vanquished squadron. As she drew close, the Dauntless had no means of defence, and the arrow-tipped ram tilted directly for her gondola. The quick-witted captain of the Dauntless cut the engine and, along with the three-man crew, worked the hand crank that turned the forward propeller. The bomb swung fitfully beneath the gondola, as the airship lurched and slowed, but it was enough. The Liberator scraped the edge of the gondola with the top of her envelope. With sudden inspiration the captain grabbed a shovel and swung heap after heap of flaming coals into the air, as the enemy airship rushed below them, and reengaged the engine as soon as it had passed. Losing height and control, the Virtuous crew couldn't match the Dauntless, and lost sight of her as she dived.

         Skilled hand cranking of the forward propeller, balanced with the engine-driven prop', allowed the captain to stabilise the Dauntless into an even, measured descent. Five metres above ground level, four crew members leapt from the gondola and drove ground anchors into the stony earth. Had they come down on mud they would never have had the necessary grip, in the clutches of the raging storm, but they were in luck. Each anchored rope had a corresponding winch on board the gondola, and with painstaking accuracy they were able to lower the infra-bomb, until it gently settled on Virtuous soil. Checking that the anchors held firm, the four men cut the ropes securing the infra-bomb to the gondola, as the captain climbed down a rope ladder. The others returned to the Dauntless and began to stoke the boiler, heating up the envelope. The anchor ropes creaked and groaned, but the captain stood his ground. Just as the anchors started to pull up the rocks and stones about them, he flicked a switch on the side of the infra-bomb and leapt for the ladder. On his command, as he fell into the gondola, four sabres fell on the securing ropes and the Dauntless shot up into the night sky.

         A few minutes later the infra-bomb detonated. The crew of the Dauntless hung over the edge of the gondola, watching intently, night sky lit up by increasing flashes of lightning, as if heralding the appearance of an apocalyptic shockwave, describing a perfectly round circumference as it flattened every tree in its path, buildings exploding like puff-balls, every object scraped off the surface of the land. Incredibly, and in contrast to the scientists' test results, a small hill reflected a tiny section of the wave front back up towards them, at 45°. They knew nothing of its silent approach, and despite its decay, by the time it reached them it still tossed the Dauntless about like a rag doll between the slavering teeth of Cerebrus. As each crewman vomited on the spot, blood oozing from every orifice, they were immediately appalled by the magnitude of devastation which had been unleashed below. As the infra-bomb had never been tested on such a scale, they knew in an instant that every living creature, every fibre of every plant, every brick of every building, all had been blasted to a pulp by the horrifying power of the shockwave.

* * *
         Sixty years had passed since that night and Pohraen was now an old woman - by Sphelrian standards. She had married an ex-soldier ten years her senior, seven years since peace was declared. They had had two children, a boy and a girl, and today she stood together with them again, along with five grandchildren. They were marking the end of the war, just as they had done every year since. This was no 100th Day though and the assembly was mixed, both Righteous and Virtuous in origin, side by side; though such terms were banned long ago and all were referred to as Sphelrian alone. This was a remembrance, primarily for those who had lost their lives to the infra-bombs, and also for those who had died and suffered during the interminable conflict.

         The Virtuous had surrendered unconditionally, but it had been a hollow victory for the Righteous. Such was the scale of devastation that it had been the first time, in all those years, that the two sides had seemed insurmountably unmatched. The Virtuous had been so diverted from their accustomed course of stalemate, that there had been no option left open to them.

         The shock waves weren't just sonic. As horror turned to revulsion, the blinkers were finally lifted, and both sides realised how much they had in common. Within days the Righteous were engaged in aid work, and with more passion than they had ever had for war. Bitterness was eclipsed by remorse. They had all suffered for long enough.

* * *

         And what of the hymns and anthems? The sweet sound that come to be their only sustenance? Their songs had been so deeply imbued with distorted perspective and vain glories, the music so indelibly associated with the horrors of battle, that the associated guilt nullified any pleasure that could be obtained from their rendition. The amplification that had once carried them to euphoria had been plundered and mutated into instruments of death, instead of vehicles bliss. It would be generations before they would come to terms with what had happened, and just as long before new songs would be sung from unburdened hearts, filled with joy.

         Such were the spoils of war.


copyright 2005 DJ Burnham.

DJ Burnham
David Burnham is a Health Service worker living in Brighton (UK). He recently retired from the exciting sideline of concert promotion, and this has freed up some spare time to get back to the fun of writing and artwork. 

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