I first wrote this about thirty years ago as a draft for a novel. The world has changed a great deal since then, and I have become increasingly wary of writing science fiction which can all to soon become science fact. Enjoy the story.
All around was children’s laughter, ebbing and flowing on the breeze, as clear as Sunday church bells and about as misplaced in that poisoned, Godforsaken desert.
The tired old man shifted his weight on the hard, hot ground, his knees drawn up tight against his chest, his shin bones sharp and brittle blades through the thin fabric of his trousers. Wearily he rested his aching forehead on his knees, closed his eyes and listened again.
He was enveloped in a grey brown whisper of half-forgotten sounds, some loud and close; the frantic scurrying of hard shelled insects, the wind worrying at his clothes; others less distinct and further away, like a distant echo of rockets, trains or thunder.
And there was the laughter. A single peal rang out above the rest for one bright moment, clear and crisp, it forced the man to lift his head and open his eyes… blink.
Slowly, painfully, he looked around, squinting against the rancid yellow glare. At first he could see little, his tired old eyes not yet fully adjusted to the brightness, yet gradually he focused on the nightmare.
All around, for as far as the appalling visibility would allow him to see, stretched an apparently limitless grey and yellow wasteland. The ash and sulphur-choked ground shimmered in the unrelenting heat, stirred here and there by tiny vicious whirlwinds that danced in the toxic wind. Areas of hideous swamp vented swirling clouds of noxious vapour into the super-dense atmosphere, further reducing the already limited horizon.
He could just make out what had once been the far border of a field, revealed as a barely discernible ridge along which a hedge had once run. At that moment, the children were running towards him, their eyes flashing in the well remembered sunlight, their clean, healthy hair streaming round their heads in the crystal air.
The two boys and three girls were chasing a giant brightly coloured beach ball which bounced ponderously, wobbling through the air ahead of them. A fickle gust of once existent wind caught the ball and flicked it up and out of the reach of the bright blond girl in front who, jumping to reach it, tripped and fell… blink.
She hadn’t hurt herself badly, merely grazed her knees. In fact, she had been far more concerned about the grass stains on her brand new jump-suit which, luckily, didn’t matter too much as filming was almost over for the day.
It had been such a perfect day. The children had done well and the shoot was considered an unqualified success.
In fact, at that moment, the world had seemed almost perfect.
The threat of an East West confrontation had receded after the break up of the Soviet Union and the de facto end of the Cold War, the Russians and their disparate associate states too busy struggling with the seemingly insurmountable problems associated with social and economic reform to worry about anyone else for the moment.
The introduction of some of the most intensive and effective agricultural techniques not only provided more than enough high quality food for the First World, but their application throughout Africa, the Indian sub-continent and South America was already a long way down the track to eliminating the word hunger from the world’s vocabulary.
There was one major downside which no-one could have predicted; birds. As a result of an abundance of grain in the fields (some sub Saharan regions were producing two crops per year) and an unexplained downturn in natural predators, bird populations had multiplied exponentially, especially crows. Within a few years, crows had become the modern day equivalent of Locusts, yet twice as destructive. Poisoning, shooting, netting, all were tried and abandoned for one reason or another. The search for an effective solution that didn’t cause more problems than it solved became more and more urgent as time went on.
The old man closed his eyes again, lowering his head back onto his knees, the sound of the children receded for a moment as they passed behind him… blink.
He had been working on the scarecrow project privately for some months before the government got involved and then, within a matter of days, he had access to all the funds he needed and more, staff, labs, the lot. An eccentric back-room inventor one minute, the head, albeit an uncomfortable one, of a multi-million pound research project the next. Whereas his original concept had been nothing less than brilliant, putting the idea into practice was to prove a technological tour de force.
It had ultimately taken billions of pounds, tens of thousands of man-hours and five of the best years of his life, but it had all been necessary, the scavenging hordes had had to be stopped.
He shifted position again, adjusting his face-mask and glancing at his air gauge with the disdainful air of someone performing a task more out of habit than concern.
The anti-crow system had evolved into a network of low-orbit geo-stationary satellites, which together provided near total cover for all the primarily agricultural nations of the New Western Alliance.
Each satellite platform was equipped with a cluster of solar-powered multi-beam laser projectors complete with atmospheric boosters, self-alignment modules and all the usual clutter associated with state-of-the-art satellite technology, plus the all important holographic imager.
This was the core of the system, the true breakthrough, the real genius of the piece; an audio-visual hologram projector that could penetrate even the densest atmospheric conditions with an image so sharp, so clear and dense that it should have cast a shadow. Even the sound resolution had far exceeded everyone’s wildest dreams, it was almost frighteningly clear.
Late in the summer of ‘26, everything was in place, the countless components of the system had been checked, tested and checked again and were at last ready to be launched, under what at the time seemed like a quite unnecessarily tight blanket of security.
They had only really hit one ludicrous, but potentially disastrous snag during the entire project and that had occurred during the last few months prior to the launch of the initial wave of twelve satellites. The whole thing had erupted out of a petty disagreement; in short, the powers that be (or were then) could not agree on the final form the scarers were to take.
Thousands of suggestions were considered, the short list discussed with great hilarity in bars and clubs for years afterwards. The ideas put forward ranged from the vaguely sublime to the utterly ridiculous. One proposition would have had the fields patrolled by images of marching bands, another recommended giant, dayglo cats or monstrous bird-eating spiders. Though a few were discarded on strictly environmental grounds, an equal number as being plain useless, the vast majority were thrown out on aesthetic grounds; it seemed that an awful lot of voters lived near, or overlooked wheat fields.
At one point the list seemed endless, the disagreement total and the project remained stalled. Eventually, more to preserve his own sanity than the world’s grain harvest, the inventor himself had stepped in with a refreshingly simple, environmentally sound and eminently aesthetically acceptable solution to break the deadlock; the children and the beach ball.
In retrospect, it seemed inevitable that his one-and-only daughter, adored and partially adopted by everyone on the team, should have played a key role in that historic holo-film, though at the time he could only remember being vaguely horrified at the prospect.
The cameraman had predictably put Susie in charge, she being that much older than the other four, behaving more like an adult than a twelve year-old right up until the point when they had started playing with the ball. Then she had completely forgotten herself in the sheer joy of the game.
The children’s voices carried to him for a moment, laughing and chattering, utterly carefree. He glanced up again, for a moment he couldn’t see them, then, out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of something through the swirls of mist. There she was, standing stock still for a moment, watching the others with that intentness which had never ceased to fill him with awe.
He watched indulgently, amazed that, after all that had happened, he could still feel a sense of pride in anything at all… blink.
The first approaches from the military had come in the guise of invitations to address groups of eminent and learned gentlemen with largely unspecified posts within equally unspecified Government departments. Then, when the Russian grain crop failed for the fourth year in succession, they finally stopped pussy-footing around and he was officially seconded to the military research facility at Farnborough.
There was no argument, he was already subject to the New Official Secrets Act, and the declaration of a multi-national state of emergency neatly wrapped things up.
For the next twelve months he convinced himself that his involvement was purely defensive, a self-deception that ended abruptly with the demonstration.
One Friday afternoon, he found himself seated along with other representatives of the development team under a large canvas awning, slap bang in the middle of Salisbury Plain, together with a disconcertingly disparate mix of military observers, Government officials and civil servants.
It was raining steadily and he was dog tired after working through the previous night. As a result, he took very little initial interest in the proceedings, so much so that he dozed through the whole of the welcoming address by the Defence Minister. He also missed most of an interminable briefing by some Brigadier whose name he vaguely remembered until, with a slight shock, he realised that the demonstration was at last about to start.
On instruction from a public address system, everyone began staring intently at an area away on their left where the ground began to drop away steeply into a mist filled valley. Cameras were pointed, binoculars trained and he began to be aware of a disconcerting tension in the air.
The first thing the scientist noticed was a faint but steadily increasing vibration through the soles of his feet; two chair backs began to buzz where they touched, coffee cups rattled and gradually the air itself began to pulse. Within seconds, the noise itself arrived, an all-engulfing wall of sound so dense that he knew that if he screamed as loudly as he could, he wouldn’t even hear himself, yet still the pale autumn sun shone on a tranquil undisturbed scene.
Then, where there had only been pale blue sky a moment before, there appeared a phalanx of helicopter gunships, the first of many, sweeping over the rise, the downwash from their multiple rotors mashing the grass flat below their bloated grey bellies. Bundles of heavily laden troops cascaded from their open hatchways running, bent double, to take up pre-determined positions before opening up with a withering, chattering fire.
What sounded like a heavy mortar battery started up somewhere over to the right, shells whistling overhead to burst in tight bright clusters, the pattern of bursts creeping inexorably towards where he was sitting. Heavy machine gun fire cracked, whined and fizzed about their heads as, all around him, immaculately suited and uniformed gentlemen and ladies threw themselves beneath and behind tables and benches, scrabbling in the dirt or running about like madmen, screaming meaningless commands, their eyes bright with terror.
The entire nightmare scene had quickly become shrouded in drifting smoke, lit up from within by the vivid lightning flashes of exploding shells and bright slashes of tracers. Splinters howled and whined like banshees, the first troops were only a matter of yards away, advancing behind a vicious curtain of fire.
Then he saw the tanks. There must have been a thousand or more, rank after rank, they stretched across his entire horizon as they came on through the battle smoke, their guns crashing, tracks screaming, engines bellowing, on and on until he knew they weren’t ever going to turn aside.
He opened his throat and screamed and screamed and screamed… blink… at nothing.
There he stood, fists clenched, muck-sweat-soaked, mouth wide open, ears buzzing, trembling with shock, the only sound that of a single skylark, piercing in the echoing silence.
Although the demonstration was subsequently considered an unqualified success, a handful of those present that day never fully recovered. What had started out as a bird scarer had become an awesome weapon of war, entire phantom battle squadrons capable of being deployed anywhere in the world at the press of a button.
Of course bullets and shrapnel passed harmlessly through holo-flesh, bone and armour plate, just as the holographic rounds themselves could not penetrate solid flesh. The tank battalions would not crush a single blade of grass, but the immediate psychological effect on raw, semi-trained troops would be devastating.
They didn’t have long to wait. The moderate Russian parliament was all too soon crushed under the pressure from sixty million starving citizens and the European grain mountains were much too temptingly close to resist.
The first three waves of Soviet armour were predictably and conventionally annihilated by the Western Alliance, it was when the vast numbers of less experienced Russian troops began to be moved into the front line that the holo armies were first deployed.
Their effect was devastating. Within twenty four hours, a powerful Soviet incursion into Western Europe had become a rout, and the hawks in Washington and Bonn couldn’t resist the opportunity to press on towards Moscow, fatally under-estimating the Russian mentality
Faced with a crushing attack on his homeland, the starving Russian bear struck out blindly with the one weapon he had left, and the thermonuclear nightmare at last became a terrible reality.
It took a little less than thirty-six hours to reduce our beautiful green-blue planet to a poisonous cinder, and the human race to a handful of numbed and hopeless survivors reeling in the depths of mountain bunkers.
The scientist survived. At the time the first missiles struck, he was safely ensconced in a secure laboratory, deep underground. His family were more fortunate, atomised by an early ground-burst, quickly, painlessly and unknowing.
The survivors fought for life against unbelievable odds. Not one step was taken outside the bunker for nearly two years, and then it was a brief foray.
There were originally thirty of them, a disparate bunch, all intelligent yet hardly the stuff of a new beginning, even if the opportunity had been theirs to take. Despair and sickness reduced their number to twelve within the third year, only the pragmatists survived.
Ironically, the agricultural satellites had not been targeted and were functioning perfectly, as they would continue to do for thousands of years to come.
The first metallic taste in his mouth told him that his air was nearly finished, but still he didn’t move, except to brush away the tears streaming down his face.
He looked up to see his Susie once again, twelve years old forever, run to catch the beach ball, trip and fall, for the millionth time… blink.
He sat, still as granite while the closed-loop hologram reset in a moment to start the children off again on their twenty-minute, infinite forever-go-round.
He watched his long-dead daughter for the last time, heard the laughter that had kept him alive for so long when most of the others had long since given up.
But the hopelessness had at last become too much…
His whole body began to shake violently as he choked on the poisonous air, and as his head jerked back his dimming eyes caught, for one final moment, an endless vista of identical beach balls arcing up into the filthy yellow sky to drift down slowly and… blink.
© David Hermelin 2017