Reprint Story: Harmony

Reprint Story: Harmony

By Andy Dudak
Originally Published in Interzone


The song plays everywhere in this frontier provincial capital, piped into shops and bazaars, blaring from police fortifications and mobile propaganda vehicles mingling with tank columns. The melody is cloying. The singers are children who were press-ganged into local stardom. It’s clear from the accompanying video—also ubiquitous on large screens throughout the city—that the children were chosen to represent the ethnic groups at odds here. They chant civic virtues and howl about unity. But there is something more within the song, in its harmonies and resonances. Some call it auditory magic, but it’s more properly termed “interference technology.” Within the spheres of the song, you stroll in a civic euphoria. You’re in a thriving metropolis that provides jobs and infrastructure, courtesy of the occupiers.

Art Feature: Shape of the Future Reading Reprint Story: Harmony 23 minutes Next Decay Gospel

You are home.

The song plays as you garrote the customs house official. The kids trill about rule of law, lending the murder an ironic air. You tighten the wire, making it vanish into the man’s fleshy neck. Blood wells up and jets. His expensive shoes scuff the floor as he struggles, seeming to print a visual representation of the song’s rhythm.

The patterns of the song are everywhere.

Then you run, and the song is ridiculous in this context. You’re a foreign agent fleeing justice, fleeing detainment, torture, ruination for local friends and lovers, all of this and more, but somehow it will be okay. You can slow down, take a breather. You should find a patrol unit to talk to. If you just explain everything, they will see reason.

No. That’s the song at work.

You stand amid ruined warehouses, breathing raggedly in the moonlight. The song nearly got you to commit suicide, and not for the first time. This time it was the verse about rule of law, or maybe the bit about patriotism. But now you’re in control again. You were sent here because you are two people. You can pass through security checkpoints, scanned and verified as lost in the song. And you can stand apart from that, deep down in that space carved out by intensive training, where the scanners can’t reach, and plot fomentation.

You hum one of your warding phrases. Your mind clears.

The influence of the city’s song, reaching you from a police fort on the other side of the ruins, recedes. You can’t believe you nearly turned yourself in. Yet another illustration of the song’s power. In training, you found it hard to believe interference tech could be so potent. But after a year in this city, you understand the technology better than your teachers. You know, for instance, that the longer you’re exposed to the song, the more susceptible you become. You reckon you know the song’s grand subtlety better than the locals. You sometimes think of it as a municipal utility, like water or power. For most citizens, it is merely a euphoric. It keeps them working for and believing in the occupiers. But for a dangerous anomaly like you, it must strive to do much more.

You run on. It’s time to quit this city, this occupied frontier and half-life. You don’t know how much longer your warding techniques can hold out.


Packs of wild dogs roam the repurposed university campus where you’re housed with other foreign visitors. You give the animals wide berths as they tear each other apart in the dead of the winter night, amid glowing dormitories. The song emanates from the south gate checkpoint, so the spectacle isn’t grim. It’s a necessary and fascinating part of this urban ecology. You’ve let the song perform many of these little services for you, believing you can resist when it counts. You let the local hardtack bread taste better. You allowed the song to lull you to sleep, when you’d otherwise have been tossing and turning, wondering when armed police were finally going to smash through your door. You’ve let gutter miasmas and coal hazes smell like progress. You’ve even let the song ameliorate homesickness, rendering your homeland in an unfavorable light—possibly the most dangerous concession of all. Now you realize every little indulgence was erosive.

You hesitate at the entrance of your dormitory.

What are you doing here? Weren’t you supposed to be fleeing the city? If the authorities are after you, they’ll be looking for you here. You shouldn’t be anywhere near the campus. The song brought you here, didn’t it? Turned you into a sleepwalker again? If you’re not vigilant, it tends to nudge you onto the routine paths of daily life. You’re a translator at the embassy. It’s a cover job, but you’re good about putting in the time. You often stay late, then wander home via the south gate.

You need to get out of here.

You head for the east gate, knowing you’re on camera, forcing yourself not to break into a sprint. You glare at darknesses, expecting patrolmen to appear. How could you have been so stupid and weak? You need to think.

You can’t simply walk out of the city. You’re quite sure you’d die in the freezing waste. You don’t think the song can fabricate this certainty. It can color memories, but not create them. You’ve seen the waste for yourself. The highway is empty save for the occasional government vehicle, and it is checkpointed regardless. You can’t hitch or bribe your way out.

Your only chance is the next consular suborbital. You have to get to the embassy quarter.


“I mostly translate visa-related documents,” you explain, shivering as the snow begins to fall. “Criminal background checks, health certifications, the kind of thing machine translation does well enough, but I have a job thanks to the Visa Process Act, which I’m quite a fan of. You wouldn’t want a drone taking over your beat, am I right?”

The patrolman levels his rifle as you babble in the common tongue.

“Tonight…this was my first kill, and he had to die, you see. He was helping us move weapons to Real Sunrise, Nuclear Wavefront, and other rebel groups in the mountains, but…”

The patrolman’s stunned expression gives you pause. You have to make him understand.

“…He was becoming a liability…conspicuous spending, braggadocio in nightclubs. I hadn’t planned on garroting the fucker, but he wouldn’t drink his fucking tea, and there’s all that old wiring in those shitty old offices. Surely you can see why I had to do it.”

Why isn’t he lowering that rifle? When you first approached him, shouting for his attention from a dark alley, his defensive stance was justified. But now that you’ve explained yourself, he should be slinging his weapon. He should be smiling warmly and using his headset to tell his superiors everything’s okay.

“Get down on the ground and put your hands behind your head.”

“No, you don’t understand—”

“Do it!”

The song, ringing from a police fort at the intersection, comes to an end, then starts up again. The opening instrumental makes you want to sit down in the snow and weep. You hum a warding phrase and realize what you’ve done.

The patrolman pulls his trigger to an impotent click. He curses, fiddling with the keypad.

You rush him. Draw the knife from his boot. Shove it between his belt and chest plate, and holding onto the handle, propel him, stumbling and gurgling, backward into the alley. You follow him down into the snow. You yank the knife sideways and blood pours, steaming into the cold night. Straddling him, you cover his mouth while he dies, humming another warding phrase.

You’re a murderer, a danger to society, an abomination. You should turn yourself in. The warding phrase barely keeps you from heading for the intersection.

“I’m sorry,” you tell the dead man beneath you. “Rest assured, my time will come.”


You enter the warm, dim confines of the temple and collapse shivering on ancient flagstones. The resident priest, an ancient woman with close-cropped hair, descends from the altar in flowing robes. She sits on the ground before you, assuming a meditative posture.

There are no cameras in here, as far as you know. That was the concession made by the city for having the song play even in this supposedly sacred place.

“I saw you in a dream,” the priest says, her eyes closed. “You don’t belong here.”

You don’t know if she means the temple, the city, or the occupied frontier. No matter which, you agree with her. “I’m trying to get to my embassy,” you say, “but I’m afraid. Maybe I don’t deserve to escape.”

“There’s no such thing as deserve to. There’s only the time left to you, and what you do with it.”

Is that genuine wisdom, or the song talking? How susceptible is she? You’ve heard rumor of these ascetics, of their immunity to the song’s effects. Embassy staff have been laying bets on how long the city will allow its priesthood to endure.

Is that why you’re here? To somehow learn their technique in a matter of hours, before venturing into the streets again? A fool’s errand, regardless of how weak your warding phrases have become. “I think the song brought me here,” you say.

“That would be…unusual. Why do you think so?”

“Because I’ve been here before.” You’ve often enjoyed the atmosphere of this ancient place. Your warding phrases were more effective here, for some reason. “They’ll come looking for me.”


“And the tradition of sanctuary is long gone.”

“Even a thousand years ago, there was no real sanctuary here. This temple is nothing but a pile of rocks. The only true sanctuary is within yourself.”

The bloody knife is on the ground beside you. Why did you bring it along? The priest’s eyes are still closed, but she must have seen it as she condescended from the altar. Up there, the old, phantasmagoric idols have been covered in tarps as part of the city’s latest anti-extremism drive.

“The song is nothing new, really,” the priest says. “It has always existed in one form or another. It is sharper now, thanks to technology, but we have been resisting it for millennia. Granted, we must be more vigilant these days. I spend most of my time in deep mindfulness, at the expense of my other duties. If I relented, I would quit the temple. I’ve felt that in my less guarded moments. And if I left, the temple would surely be demolished.”

“And a pile of rocks would become a different pile of rocks.”

She opens her eyes, startled. Her laughter fills the hall, a beautiful sound that momentarily interferes with the song.

“What’s so funny?”

“Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you were meant to come here and say that to me. Maybe I’ve become too attached to this place.”

You fail to see the humor in this, but these priests are inscrutable at the best of times. You stand, knife in hand. “I should go. You’re not safe with me around.”

“It’s too late.”

She stands and takes your free hand. She leads you behind the altar and into her monkish living quarters. You hear the front doors slam open, the muttering of patrolmen. How did she know? Mystic foresight, perhaps, or an intimate familiarity with the song-scape of the outer courtyard, acquired through long hours of meditation.

“Come out, you old witch!” one of the patrolmen shouts. “And bring anyone you’re harboring!”

She bars the cell door, then yanks a toolbox from beneath her cot and grabs a hammer. She turns to the intricately carved rear wall of the cell, a beautiful relief of devotees like herself going about their daily tasks.

“I never had the heart to do this before,” she says. “Let’s hope the old rumors are true!”

She attacks the priceless art, her hammer-falls mingling with the patrol’s shuttering impacts on the cell door. The relief crumbles beneath her assault, revealing a crude dry-stack wall beyond. You kick through this easily enough. You take the priest by the hand and rush down a tunnel of ancient, rough-hewn stone, producing your palm booklet to light the way. A spray of automatic fire follows you into the earth, sparking along the walls.

You flee into a labyrinth, choosing your branching way at random. After a few minutes, the priest drags you to a halt. She breathes heavily and leans against a wall of mortared skulls. She’s old, of course. There wasn’t time to consider that.

The patrolman’s headset-crackles echo somewhere behind you.

“Leave me,” the priest breathes.

You drag her on, getting hopelessly lost. A strange feeling begins to suffuse you—an old, familiar feeling, like a scent from childhood. The song doesn’t reach down here, you realize. Blessed, outlandish silence. You haven’t experienced it in a year. You reckon the priest hasn’t know it for at least a decade.

“By the gods,” she whispers—whether in fatigue or amazement, you don’t know.

Despite your exhaustion, you feel a great weight lifted from you. You remember what it was like to be one person. All the mad things you’ve done over the past year flash through your skull. Considered in silence, the song strikes you as more insidious than you ever imagined, more dangerous than it allowed itself to seem. Those hacks that trained you had no idea what they were dealing with. This new perspective drives you forward. The old woman sags to the ground. You heave her over your shoulder and charge on.

You enter a large chamber with a vaulted ceiling. Oxidized murals cover the walls, saints and gods, forests of inscrutable pictograms. You lower the priest to the floor, and she surprises you by staying on her feet. She shambles to the nearest mural, beckoning your light to follow.

“We should keep moving,” you say.

“Which way?”

She has a point. At least a dozen tunnels converge on this room.

You light the nearest expanse of murals for her. She examines them with reverential awe, her hands repeatedly drawn to the faded paint, then jerking away at the last moment. “By the gods. All these years I could’ve been down here… There’s so much to do, lifetimes of work, study and preservation. Forgotten histories! This city has endured many occupations over the centuries, many methods of control.”

She weeps silently as she limps along, following lines of pictographic text or sequential art.

You listen for the patrol. There is only the profound silence, a silence like a great height commanding new perspectives, not the silence of a crypt. Your furtive year of muttered warding phrases seems like a dream.

“I think we might’ve lost them,” you say.

“Don’t count on it.” She takes your palm booklet and begins scanning the walls. “They’re coming, and they will destroy this place. You have to take as much of it with you as possible.” She mouths silent words, reading pictograms as she hobbles along and scans.

Your jacket and shirt are soaked in blood. You prod yourself for injury, find nothing, and look to the old priest. She’s bleeding heavily from a gut shot.

“I can get you to the embassy clinic, maybe even out on the suborbital.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” she says, sliding down to the floor. “This is where I belong. This is where I’m meant to die.” She beckons you weakly, and you kneel before her. “I know what you are, more or less.” She hands back the palm booklet. “This is the greatest piece of intelligence you’ll acquire in my little city.”

You contemplate the booklet. There is no signal down here, but you should’ve gotten rid of the device long ago. You remember trying to, just before entering the decrepit customs house, but the song was playing, imbuing the gadget with absurd nostalgic value that outweighed its trackability. Now it contains real value you don’t feel worthy of.

“I don’t gather intelligence. I’m just a fucking weapon. I bring destruction everywhere I go.”

“Then don’t fight what you are. Be a weapon, but be the greatest possible weapon, the kind that destroys ignorance.” With great effort, she lifts her hand and touches the device in your palm, as if blessing it. She scrolls backward, struggling to keep her eyes open, fighting to breathe. She taps to enlarge. “There…look. The pattern on that saint’s robe.”

You scrutinize the faint, intricate geometry.

“The space in the middle,” she says. “That’s where we are. It’s a map.”

You see it now, the maze in all its complexity, its many entrances marked.

“Finish scanning this place before you go. Get it out of the occupied frontier. Don’t give it to your superiors. Give it to the world.”

You place the glowing booklet on the floor. You take off your jacket and press it against her belly, trying to staunch the flow. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. This is right, I can feel it. I needed to leave the temple, but I had to do it against the song, not with it.” She smiles, the lines of her ancient face a sudden map of pure gratitude. “Thank you.”

You sit there long after she stops breathing, the booklet a candle in the dark.


You emerge from a sewer access station into the pre-dawn gloaming. And back into the song.

You’re inside the embassy quarter checkpoints, but still outside your nation’s autonomous ground. You follow an alleyway to a main thoroughfare and find a procession of young people marching and dancing to the song. They are one of several streams feeding into a large crowd blocking the entrance to your embassy.

The song is particularly loud here, blasted from ubiquitous speakers, ensuring there is no hiding from it even in the deepest embassy chambers.

You linger at the mouth of the alley and make a perfunctory attempt to upload data off the booklet. As you expected, it has been locked down. You’re sure it’s being tracked, so you don’t have much time. You know you should ditch the device, but sans upload, that would mean discarding the cultural wealth you’ve been entrusted with. You can’t do it.

Is that the song at work, keeping you trackable?

You close your eyes and listen, trying to gauge the song’s effect. You feel strong after your respite in the catacombs. You’re certain you stand immune, for now anyway. Never mind warding melodies and meditation. A spell of silence was just what you needed.

Not knowing what else to do, you make your way down the street, trying to stay inconspicuous among the parade spectators. The dancing youths wear the green armbands of the Harmony Brigade. They drive a miserable throng before them, “reactionaries” in paper dunce caps and bibs. You know many of these wretches are simply deaf.

You pity them. The song is actually quite beautiful. You can acknowledge that now, from your new, detached perspective. The formerly saccharine melody now rings sweet.

You follow a crush of spectators toward the mob pooling in International Friendship Square. You glance toward your embassy and find the way blocked by chanting locals.

“Where’ve you been?”

The familiar voice, and the language of your homeland, gives you a start.

You turn to find the Old Man shivering in his wrinkled office fatigues, glaring wide-eyed at you and the surrounding chaos. He’s your direct superior in the translation bureau. You haven’t made an appearance there in three days. “Never mind,” he says. “We need to get out of here. The embassy’s a bust, as you can see.”

You’ve never liked him. He’s one of those consular service officers that have been at a remote posting for too long. You’ve met plenty of his type, here and on other assignments. They stop going home to decompress. They become defeatist, racist, hedonistic, sometimes developing mystic tendencies.

“There’s a car waiting at the north gate of the quarter,” he says. “We can sort out your red tape on the way to the suborbital. Let’s go!”

You don’t know if he’s just a translation supervisor, any more than you know if he knows what you really are. You do know one thing: he was a person of interest in the embassy mole investigation that you participated in a few months ago. You followed him for a week. All you uncovered was his fondness for brothels and drink, but he remains a person of interest as far as you know.

“Snap out of it,” he growls. “Hum a warding phrase, dammit!”

So, he knows about your training after all. That’s well above a translation supervisor’s clearance. “Warding just makes it worse.” You realize the truth of this as you say it. “Lulls you into a false sense of security, lets the song sink its hooks deeper. I’ve learned a lot in the past twenty-four hours.”

His pitying stare is a good piece of acting—excellent field craft. That clinches it. He must be the mole, and he intends to betray you. “Let’s go!” His voice is strident amid the clamor of the square.

“I’m not going anywhere.” You’ve never been more sure of anything in your life.

“Fuckin’ hell,” he mutters, reaching into his coat pocket.

Your training kicks in: inconspicuous neutralization in a mob environment. You hug him tight, acting overcome with delight in the reunion. Keeping his arms pinned, you ride Brownian crowd collisions into greater density, until you’re both surrounded, trapped.

“Wait…” he wheezes.

You force the knife under his ribcage, then thrust upward, causing a long, strained exhalation. Holding onto the knife, your other hand probes his coat pocket. You touch cold metal.

“You’re lost,” he gasps, resting his forehead on yours.

You’ve seen him produce the flask many times. You’ve watched him surreptitiously dose his tea in prohibited environs, or duck into an alley for a nip. You grasp the flask, holding on for dear life amid sudden, vertiginous doubt.

The song ends, followed hard upon by the opening bars.

You recall his teahouse doses: the skill involved, like a magician’s, the field-crafty glance at neighboring attention, a flash of sunlight on the flask, and he was sorted. Not the kind of thing a mere alcoholic translator could pull off.

He is—was—a clandestine agent. It doesn’t mean he was a mole, but it does mean he would’ve been desirable as one.

The children sing about the epic poem that is their culture, their motherland. They sing their dream, a dream of peace and solidarity. You let go of the flask and the knife. You shoulder away through the crowd, leaving the corpse propped up by close-packed citizens. And the song follows you.


The reactionaries are herded to the center of the square, where machete-wielding Harmony youths decapitate them one by one.

You find yourself near the edge of this crimson, head-littered killing ground. You belong here. Your whole life was leading up to this. You recall the dog packs of the old university campus, and your strange, calm acceptance.

A young Harmony girl—she can’t be more than twelve—hands you a machete. She shoves you toward a kneeling reactionary.

“Join us, foreigner!” she screams above the din.

The man shivers before you, bruised and bloodied, staring down at the pavement. He senses a lull in the ambient disorder. He raises his head and makes bleary eye contact. “You,” he breathes.

He’s familiar, but you can’t quite place him. His crimes are listed on his bib and cap. They include attempted flight into the waste, and something called disharmony.

“Prove you belong among us!” cries the girl’s companion, a boy only slight older than she.

You have standing orders to participate in local culture, to establish trust at any cost. “Field agents get their hands dirty,” one of your teachers said, seeming like centuries ago. “If you find that distasteful, do us all a favor and wash out.”

But that’s not why you swing the blade.

You don’t work for them anymore. No, you remember this man. Your superiors thought he might make a good asset, once upon a time. He’s one of several musical anhedoniacs you tried to recruit. They’re a rare breed, not deaf, but born with unique brain architecture. “I don’t consider myself impaired,” he told you in that teahouse long ago. “I’m evolved. I’m above music.”

Gripped by a sudden merciful passion, you strike. He can never appreciate the beauty of the song. What kind of life is that?

The headless body topples, spouting blood.

The Harmony youths cheer, crowding around to lay their hands on you, as if to confirm you’re real, an actual foreigner converted to their cause. You’re grinning, weeping. This is not some kind of mind control. You’ve finally come to love the song on your own terms. It is your choice. This feeling would be impossible otherwise. The patrolmen shove their way through the crowd, eyes locked on you, and it’s okay. They’re just here to ensure your compatriots don’t whisk you away. They will safeguard your newly earned citizenship. The past is dead. The priest’s lost histories are dead. They never happened. You don’t have to run anymore. You’re in harmony. You are home.


Copyright © 2019 Andy Dudak

The Author

Andy Dudak

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