An essay by Professor Serena Hart, as provided by Maureen Bowden
Art by GryphonShifter
Valerie Hallaway and I were students together at River City University.
“She’s a genius,” I told Martin, my best friend and occasional bedmate.
“She’s more than half mad,” he said.
He was right. Valerie had a theory that there must be a scientific explanation for why people deliberately sacrifice their lives in battle, die as martyrs, or strap explosives to their bodies, turning themselves into flesh and blood bombs.
“There’s no stronger instinct than self-preservation,” she said, “so what overrides that?”
I shrugged. “Adrenalin and testosterone. There’s no mystery about it.”
“Women do it too. So much for testosterone.”
“Maybe they want vengeance. I doubt if there’s a woman alive who doesn’t have good reason to be brassed off about something or other.”
“True, but there’s something else, and I’m going to find it.”
I guessed she’d be rich and famous one day, so I tagged along, hoping for a share of the bounty. We scoured museums and conned the history geeks into allowing us to take flakes from ancient warriors’ bones, and then we turned our attention to the twenty-first century. She was particularly interested in suicide bombers, so we haunted the sites of some of the worst atrocities of modern times, scraping blood splatter and human tissue from broken brickwork and shattered pavements. It was the task I hated most. “What use is this to you?” I said. “It’s the debris of deluded idiots.”
“The world’s full of deluded idiots, Rena,” she said, “but they don’t all blow themselves up. There has to be an unknown ingredient.”
The head of faculty gave her permission to set up her own laboratory in a prefabricated outbuilding standing on the university grounds. The plaster was cracked, the paint was peeling, and the roof leaked, but to us it was the Hall of the Fallen, uprooted from Asgard. We were a couple of latter-day valkyries, carrying back the souls of battle fodder. That’s how Valerie acquired the nickname by which she’s still known: Val Halla. It amused her.
She worked day and night without eating or sleeping, analysing every flake, scrape, and splatter of our human detritus, while I provided a deluge of coffee to keep her awake.
I was dozing beside the Calor-Gas heater in the early hours of a grey November morning when her ear-splitting screech nearly startled me into falling off the moth-eaten, shabby-chic armchair. She pulled me to my feet and hugged me, “I’ve found it, Rena, I was right.”
For a moment, I struggled to remember where and when I was, then equilibrium reasserted itself and I hugged her back. “What is it?”
“It’s a new chemical compound. All our samples contain it.”
“Okay, assuming this isn’t too much caffeine speaking, what’s your theory?”
“I believe it forms in certain people when they’re faced with the opportunity to sacrifice their lives for a cause, and it switches off the survival instinct.”
“You’ll need a control sample.”
“I know. That’s your job.”
I sought out two hundred male and female heroes who’d fought in a range of conflicts and clung on to life against all odds. Their survival instinct was in full working order. For the opportunity to appear on a TV documentary, these brave men and women gladly let me prick their thumbs. None of them had Val’s new compound in their blood.
She wrote her thesis and called her discovery valhallacin. It won her the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The trouble started when the armed forces took an interest.
Val called on Martin and me. She was frowning, and her hands shook. I’d never seen her so troubled. “The Ministry of Defence want to put the compound into a solution and inject it into the troops and all new recruits.”
“That sounds like a bad idea,” I said. “What do they expect it to do?”
“They say it will turn them into a fearless fighting force that will take on any enemy without a thought for their own safety.” Her voice trembled. “Don’t these megalomaniacs care that most of the young people they send into battle will die?
Martin said, “Probably not. Plenty more where they came from. Any bets that in a few years’ time they’ll be injecting the stuff into babies along with the MMR vaccine?”
“We have to stop this,” I said.
Lack of sleep had robbed Val of her vitality. She shook her head. “How do we do that?”
I squeezed her hand. “We’ll find a way.”
Within months, the best brains of the science faculties were also trying to find a way. The aggression level in thousands of people that had been injected with valhallacin was out of control. They deserted from the military, which was glad to be rid of them, and spread throughout the population. They didn’t care about their own or anyone else’s life. Violent crime numbers soared. So did the suicide rate.
I found the solution, but it was Martin who gave me the idea. He did voluntary work in an animal shelter. “Some of the cats and dogs we take in are feral,” he said. “Mealtimes are chaos. You’d think they were all valhallacin junkies.”
“Sounds fun. How do you cope?”
“Sideburn Seth, one of the van drivers, is the drummer with a semi-pro rock ‘n’ roll revival band, ‘The Eyes of the Storm,’ and he’s mad about old records. He brought in a turntable and speakers and some of his vinyl collection. Whoever said music soothes the savage breast had it right.”
“It soothes the savage beast, as well?”
“Works a treat. Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ has them eating out of our hands. Their other favourite is his shellac 78 of Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’.”
“Is the effect permanent?”
Next day, I rescued a couple of laboratory rats from the medical faculty and smuggled them into the Hall of the Fallen, where Val was trying unsuccessfully to find a valhallacin blocker. “I’ve got an idea,” I said.
“We’re not doing animal experiments,” she said. “It’s not right.”
“I know,” I said, “but if this works, I’ll adopt these two as pets and give them a lovely life.”
“We’re not going to hurt them?”
“Not if we keep them away from each other when we give them valhallacin. I’ve brought two cages.” I made the coffee and explained my plan while she sipped her caffeine fix.
Sideburn Seth’s van pulled up outside, and he and Martin carried in the equipment and selected blasts from the past.
We secured the rats in separate cages and injected them with the compound solution. They glared at each other through the bars, bared their teeth and began thrashing their tails and crashing into the cage doors in an attempt to get out.
“Time for music therapy.” I said.
Seth said, “Okay, baby. Let’s get reelin’ with the feelin’.” We played “Blueberry Hill” and “White Christmas,” singing along with Fats and Bing. The rats grew docile. We set them free. They rubbed noses, licked each other’s bottoms, curled up together, and went to sleep.
Val smiled. “I think you’ve done it, folks. Now let’s find out if it works on humans.”
We enlisted help from all the radio and TV channels, Tannoy systems, public announcement systems, and every other system available to saturate cities, towns, and villages with music. Every army barracks, naval base, and air force station vibrated with sound waves, and we catered to all tastes. “The Humming Chorus” from Madame Butterfly, “Recondita Armonia” from Tosca, and Handel’s “Largo” from Xerxes shared the airwaves with Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” Junior Walker and the All Stars’ “Way Back Home,” and Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power.” We avoided anything that might feed the effect of valhallacin, so no military marches or rap made the cut, but we increased the joie de vivre with the Manhattan Transfer’s “Trickle Trickle,” the B-52s “Hot Pants Explosion” and Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” News at Ten showed Politicians and policemen attempting to harmonise to Kate Bush’s “The Morning Fog;” soldiers, sailors, and aircraft crews warbling “Egyptian Reggae” with Jonathan Richman; and prison guards and inmates embracing while rendering A Flock of Seagulls’ “Wishing.” Youtube had a hit with Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton attempting a duet of Paolo Nutini’s “Pencil Full of Lead.” The Dalai Lama joined in the chorus.
The firm favourites were, of course, “Blueberry Hill” and “White Christmas.” They became the century’s most popular downloads, and an enterprising entrepreneur secured the copyright and reissued them on CD. Someone will always find an opportunity to stash the cash. There was no financial advantage to Mr Crosby of course, as he’d long ago shuffled off his mortal coil, but Mr Domino collected his royalties, became a rich man in his old age, and bought a big house in a prosperous area of New Orleans, well clear of the levees.
The world became a peaceful place. “It won’t last, Rena,” Martin said. “Humankind will always develop a compulsion to knock seven kinds of thingy out of each other.” He’s right, of course, but until that happens, we can take a breath, enjoy the respite from the ranting, and preaching, the oppression, bullying, maiming, and murdering. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get so used to it we won’t let anyone spoil it, and we’ll kill them if they try.
Professor Serena Hart is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and she has a PhD in human and animal psychology. She specialises in the effect of sound waves on emotions and behaviour patterns. Her partner, Doctor Martin Goodman, is an eminent veterinary surgeon. They have two pet rats called John and Yoko.
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had seventy-five poems and short stories accepted for publication by paying markets. Silver Pen publishers nominated one of her stories for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She loves her family and friends, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare, and cats.
GryphonShifter is a Seattle-area artist with a background in illustration. She graduated with a BFA in Digital Art and Animation from DigiPen Institute of Technology and now hones her skills with her own art projects. Though she has a wide variety of artistic inspirations, her art is most influenced by the challenging balance between wanting to draw really cute things and a fascination with creepy monsters.
“The Hall of the Fallen” is © 2017 Maureen Bowden
Art accompanying story is © 2017 GryphonShifter