“What the hell is it, Fi?”
“John, I can’t hear a thing; it’s in your head. Now please go to sleep,” my wife replies dismissively.
“It’s Tuesday night for Christ’s sake. After eleven.”
She sighs before flipping dramatically to her side, a physical full stop to our exchange. Within minutes, she will be open-mouthed, and soon after, the resentment-inducing whistle through her nostrils will begin.
I lay my head on the pillow but can feel the bed vibrating with the noise—a relentless bass that the blood in my ears is synchronizing with. There isn’t a hope in hell that I will sleep through this. How can she not hear it?
It’s happening a lot recently—sometimes early in the morning, sometimes midday—through the night on occasion. Saturday night, for instance, it started just before six and carried on until well after one. I went for a walk around the block to try and find the source, but it was everywhere. Fi said I should get my hearing checked out; said it’s more than likely tinnitus—the internet is never wrong, of course. Harold and Joan next door also deny hearing anything, but they’re so old, I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t know which way is up.
I always just assumed that I had sensitive ears, picking up sounds that others couldn’t. Even as a child, I recall looking out the window on occasion, trying to find the single illuminated house on the estate.
I open the drawer in the bedside table and pick out the pink earbuds, urgently cramming them in as deep as they will go. Her sigh plays in my head as she turns over, taking most of the covers with her. How nice it must be to be so oblivious to everything.
The vein in my neck is joining in now, strumming punishingly to the phantom beat. It’s working its way across my temples, too, as though trying to find a way inside my head.
This level of sensitivity, it’s a curse, that’s for sure.
Until a few weeks ago, there was another hum. It began like clockwork at three p.m. every day and lasted for exactly thirty minutes. It was monotone and more subtle, but for that brief time, I couldn’t focus on anything else. Fi denies it all; says I have too much time on my hands, and reiterates the advice from some faceless person on the internet to get checked out.
This recent noise is different—random and untamed. And today I can feel it as well as hear it.
There are others; I’ve looked them up on the internet—even joined the group. It’s called ‘The Undertones,’ and membership is growing all the time. And Christ, there’s no shortage of theories; experiments by the government, aliens trying to communicate, some even believe it’s the sound of the world slowly dying. We are scientists, doctors, astrologers, and nutcases—so many ideas. But there is one thing we all agree on: the Earth is fucked—on fire, flooded, and poisoned.
Staring at the crack in the ceiling that I am all too familiar with, patches of my skin suddenly begin to thrum in time with the distant tune. I turn over to my side, but this only offers temporary relief as the skin on my back begins to sing. Frustrated, I turn again, but the noise seems to be invading my body, slowly awakening each of the nerve endings.
“John, will you please lie still!” her muffled voice floats across.
“I wish I fuckin’ could,” I snap, swinging my legs to the floor.
If she makes a response, I don’t hear it. Shuffling across to the window, I move the curtains aside to reveal blackness diluted only slightly by the artificial halogen streetlights. In the distance, I think I see something moving—a series of opaque dark shadows that just as quickly blend into the stillness of the night. I move closer to the window to investigate, but my attention is drawn to the streetlights that begin to flicker in unison, in time with the dull beat. Finally, they return to their dirty yellow glow, and now I’m left with the promised serenity of night. I march out of the room like a petulant teenager and begin my descent down the landing stairs.
It’s getting even louder, stronger. I can feel it on my bare feet—coming through the floor, vibrating through the wooden planks. It’s never been as bad as this before. What is happening to me?
On the way to the kitchen, I press the power button on the laptop and immediately pick up the vibration coming from the machine. Or perhaps it’s just me—my fingertips a collection of nerve endings in a frenzied state. I don’t know anymore.
I place my hand on the surface of the kitchen bench and can feel its monotonous harmony. Running the back of my hands against the wall provides the same tremor-like feedback.
Shit, I can feel it in my spine now. That’s another first. It’s pulsating—an undulating vibration that feels like it’s running up and down the bone. It stops at my neck and runs back to the base and repeats.
The now relentless buzz in my ears is giving me an unbearable headache. I rip out the redundant earbuds and throw them against the back wall. “Get out of my fuckin’ head!”
Christ, what if we are onto something? It’s one thing to postulate such wild hypotheses, but what if there is some substance to them. What if—
“Fuck, Jesus, Fuck,” I hiss as the pressure in my head is turned up again. There is no undulation now, no troughs of relief—the noise has settled into a single and haunting discordant drone that continues to get louder. Grabbing a glass from the counter, I turn on the tap and note the feedback from the metal. The same resonant hum feeds from the handle on the drawer as I reach inside for the painkillers. I quickly wash a couple down and return to the living room.
The screen is where I left it—on the forum page.
I knew it. It’s the government!
They are trying to control us. It’s the noise—that’s how they get into our heads!
They’re outside. They have come for me. What do I—
Fuck. It’s true. It’s them!
We were right.
My phone line is dead. Having to use hotspot.
They’ve been turning up the frequency—increasing their control. But they still can’t get us, can they?
They’re controlling people’s brainwaves with this sound—manipulating emotions—brainwashing them.
All this time, they’ve been watching us. The ones they couldn’t control—we must show up on fucking google maps or something.
I think there’s someone in my garden.
Now we’ve united, they want us under or gone—they know we are onto them.
They’re turning it up—it’s so fucking loud. They’ve sent hitmen in case it doesn’t work. I think I see them outside.
I can’t bear it.
If you have a gun, go and—
Help. That was the last message someone typed. Ten minutes ago. The internet light on the modem is unlit, so I quickly pick up my phone. I’m shocked to find it displaying a signal but not in the least bit surprised by the vibration it sends down my arm. I quickly connect to a hotspot and refresh the page on my laptop.
This site no longer exists.
The noise is overwhelming, voluminous, and head-splitting. I dial emergency services but get no ring tone. I try and connect to the latest news with my phone, but it tells me the site is down. I can’t get onto anything.
My skull feels as though it could cave in at any moment. The air is heavy, and it feels as though the entire house is alive—the floor, walls, surfaces—all vibrating with increasing intensity.
The outside light comes on. My heart stops.
I stare towards the lit-up patio, legs suddenly incapable of movement. I can hear nothing but the relentless drone. It’s debilitating, disorienting.
Slowly, I begin to back away, feeling my way across the furniture and back to the bottom of the stairs. Shit, what was that? Something moved—behind the pillar.
The group was a distraction, a chance to talk to other similar minds. But for this to be—
Another shadow outside. I must get upstairs.
“Fi!” I hiss. But I wouldn’t be able to hear her response above the now mercilessly loud hum in my ears. Clinging to the trembling handrail for support, I begin to pull myself up, staring at the dimly lit patio for as long as it remains in view. Halfway up, I begin to move with more urgency towards our bedroom. I have no idea what I will say or how I will explain this. All I know is that I—we—are in danger.
This fucking noise!
I cover both ears with my palms, but it only makes things worse, as though I am trapping it inside my head. The sensation in my spine is getting more intense. The air feels heavier and even more claustrophobic.
Fiona looks so peaceful, no whistling. A smile has crept across her face. “Fi!” I say—still nothing.
My ability to think feels clouded, like the noise and pressure are bringing a blanket of thick fog that desperately wants to wrap around my brain. I continue to fight against it but wonder how long I can carry on. The pressure behind my eyes is too much. Blood pounds so violently around my body, and every part of me wants to concede. I feel an urge to scream at whoever is out there to put me out of my misery.
Staggering across to Fi, the hairs on the back of my neck prickle an ominous warning that something isn’t right. I run to her side and give her a gentle shake, but her head lollops on the pillow like a rag doll. I try again, more vigorously this time, but there is still no response. Placing my head against her chest, I get nothing. As if making up for both of us, my heart begins to race as I search desperately for a pulse—some sign of life. I prise open her eyelids to find only a glassy vacancy. She’s gone. Out of sheer desperation, I start pressing down on her chest and begin to sob.
The explosion of blinding light and the accompanying bolt of pain sends me slumping to the floor. Every bone in my body rattles with ferocious intensity as I try to push myself back up, but it’s all too much, and I fall to my back again. I feel as though my spine is about to snap and that my skull is only seconds away from cracking like an egg. The floor shakes violently beneath me as I helplessly stare at the ceiling, which is illuminated in impossibly bright light. I watch the crack slowly working its way across; white dust sprinkling down. I can hardly breathe. I feel the pressure on my ribcage now. This sonic undertone is trying to possess me.
I can’t take it anymore. I’m ready to go. Fingers clawing at the carpet, I begin to drag myself towards the stairs again. They can have me—just let it end.
Another elevation in the already excruciating shrill makes me feel as though my brain is bleeding. My teeth tear through the top lip, and I can feel a stream of warm blood running from my right nostril. My fingers are as white as the surrounding light as they bury into the carpet. If it weren’t for the feel of the fabric beneath my fingertips, I would think I was already dead.
The vibration stops.
I see a shadow approaching down the hallway.
White is giving way to black—
Even before knowing my fate, relief washes over me. I now only feel slight cloudiness in my head, but that goddamn interminable buzz is finally gone.
I open my eyes and try to get up, but the shiny silver restraints around my wrists and ankles prevent me from doing so.
Through the glass-fronted room, I see its black eyes staring back at me. The body is almost translucent and spiraling through a multitude of colors. Finally, it settles to a bland greyness. The elongated cranium is twice the size of a human’s, and I can see a prominent vein pounding rhythmically across the forehead.
It begins to move. I hold my breath.
Its legs look weak and spindly, but its movement is smooth, ethereal—like it’s floating across the ground rather than walking. It has no ears as far as I can see. The long, thin arms remain by its sides as it approaches the silver door.
A single vibration comes through the bed and echoes through the metallic restraints. I watch, heart racing, as the door slides open and as the alien steps into the room.
A million thoughts rush through my head, but I offer no words; I don’t think I have the courage. It nods—and I take that as a cordial acknowledgment of my questions and fears. Slowly, it moves to the side of my bed and reaches its hand towards me. Instinctively, I recoil as much as the restraints will allow, and it quickly snaps its hand back. The spindly fingers settle on a warm orange—my favorite color, and it waits, as if for approval. Warily, I nod, and the hand settles against my forehead.
As soon as the vibrations begin, it all begins to make sense.
For years, the three p.m. broadcast was how they communicated between themselves—those here and those back home. They were reporting back on our progress, but most recently, signaling dire warnings. They have been here for centuries—the original caretakers of the planet. No longer could they sit back and watch us destroy it—a race seemingly oblivious to the devastation they are leaving behind. Earth is dying, quicker than we think.
Some of them wanted to let us have another chance—to try and fix it—but others thought it was too late. Arguments began, communications broke down, and factions formed, thus the random outbreaks of noise and tremors—prolonged debates about whether the human race should be eradicated.
Finally, it came down to a vote. A last-minute compromise of sorts was reached.
Only some would live, a handful of free thinkers not already plugged into the machine who had their eyes and ears wide open to everything around them, even the hum.
The alien puts his other hand against my ear, and I immediately feel something move inside my head. It’s a cold and extremely unpleasant sensation; like something is working its way across my brain. My discomfort must be obvious as the alien nods towards me once more. Just as quickly, the sensation is gone, as is the remaining cloudiness. It holds the silver worm in its palm for me to see, and I watch as the writhing inch-long creature buries into the alien’s skin.
They got to us when we were asleep, put them there to protect us. The trail from the worms formed a protective barrier around our brains—pretty much made us immune.
The rest of humanity is gone, wiped out by a sound they were oblivious to. Only us survivors—The Undertones—could hear it, feel it.
It’s our final chance to put things right. Only when we save the planet can we grieve for those lost.
All this time, I thought it was a curse.