Shoppers shuffled to market beneath the tall concrete buildings of Century Square. The towers reached to the dizzying light of heaven, blocking out the sun. Each one was a masterpiece of functionalist architecture, cold, dismal and empty. Companies needing office space looked outwards instead to the redbrick suburbs, and the Ministry of Appropriations, forced to occupy one of the grey blocks, was notorious for inefficiency. But from the rooftops the air-raid sirens could be heard for miles, a distorted melody backed by the percussion of distant artillery.
In the square figures shuffled from stall to stall, huddling round products even the war had not consumed. Old ladies in shawls prodded vigorously at wrinkled apples then complained that they were bruised. A mother berated a penniless stallholder, demanding a refund for cleaning fluids that left greasy smears across her windows. Another fretted around her screeching daughter, offering dollies and candy canes if she would be quiet. Outside the Ministry of Appropriations a street sweeping van belched black exhaust soot. All of them ignored the siren’s wail, made indifferent to its warning by countless practices and false alarms.
A bomber buzzed low and angry over the rooftops, onlookers gawping upwards as it hurled its load into the heart of the square. A thought bomb burst open, showering the place with lettered casing and infectious memes. Concepts hurtled through the air, embedding themselves in shoppers and stallholders. There was panic as the victims found their minds invaded by new and outrageous ideas, confusing and contradicting the reality to which they held. Raw, unexpected perspectives overwhelmed a decade’s dogged resistance, stubborn habits receding in the face of reality’s shifting front line. Some victims, startled into panic by their own discordant thoughts, ran off through the monotone grid of streets, spreading the word in their wake. The rest simply sat down, stunned into surrender by the unending, bloodthirsty futility of violence. The bomb had riddled them with doubts, shown its victims the self-defeating horror of war, the pointlessness of resistance.
The idea spread through town like a contagion, carrying its symptom of silence. Homes, offices, schools, all fell quiet. The handles of sirens ceased to turn, radios hissed with static as local stations gave up educating the indifferent masses. Cars sat dormant in the street, their drivers gazing at each other in stillness. By dusk the distant guns of the front line had ceased their brutal barking. For the first time in years, an owl could be heard.
* * *
Two days later the tanks rolled into town, a grime-streaked victory parade as the opposition sealed their success. Scouts ran ahead of them, darting from one doorway to the next as they watched warily for signs of resistance. Not a finger was lifted against them, citizens watching passively as gunmen stormed their homes and stole their food.
The whole town had an eerie, ghostlike feel, draped in a quiet made not of calm or comfort but of hopelessness and inertia. The invaders initially prowled the streets with a wary determination, rifles at the ready, eyes darting back and forth as they swept through silent buildings or patrolled the deserted, wind-swept roads. The locals went wordlessly about their work, heads bowed, shoulders hunched, as though bent low by a great weight. They went outside only when necessary, and talked in hushed whispers when it became necessary to buy their bread and milk. The soldiers watched them nervously, at first afraid that they might rise into armed revolt, then wary of the unnerving, lifeless silence. But fed, sheltered and safe from any sign of resistance, the war-weary troopers began to relax.
The soldiers’ orders were clear – no fraternising. But set a rule and you set someone a challenge.
‘It’s not fraternising if we don’t talk, right?’ a private said, watching a pretty blonde walk by, long green dress swaying enticingly with each step. His comrades smirked knowingly to each other as he followed the girl down an alley and grabbed her by the arm.
‘Doesn’t seem safe,’ he said, ‘pretty thing like you out on your own.’
He leaned in close, stubble rasping at her cheek, hands reaching round her unresisting waist, fingertips caressing her curves. She reached up, tilted his helmet aside and began to whisper in his ear. He ceased his fumbling. Arms fell slack by his sides. At last she fell silent, gazing into his eyes. He nodded, turned, and walked numbly back towards his companions, rifle trailing in the gutter. The squad huddled around him, eyes flitting back and forth, glancing warily at their friend then nervously over their shoulders. He spoke, and one by one the camouflaged huddle ceased to twitch their heads, sinking into apathy or setting off in determination, spreading the word through their unit and beyond.
Silence crept along the war’s front line. The sharp chatter of small-arms gave way to crickets chirping on the breeze. Bombers idled on disused runways and tanks gathered dust. All across the continent owls could be heard.
This story was originally published in Atomjack magazine, November 2007.