Even in this modern age of broadcast communication and instant messaging, there are places in our lives where simple, loud, public sounds carry essential meaning. Most of the time, we experience them only in “test” mode—checking on their functionality and accustoming us to the particular form of the alert and the expected response. In my own everyday life, there are fire drills at work, the monthly ammonia-release alert siren test, the interruption of tv or radio shows with the Emergency Broadcast System horns and message, "This is a test. This is only a test..." There are a few that aren’t “test mode”: the bells of a level railroad crossing, even the fog horn at the local marina.
Thinking about all those, perhaps Rotenek’s floodtide bell seems more familiar. It shares characteristics with the churchbells that mark the hours or sound funeral knells, but despite the close association with the church of Saint Nikule, the purpose is civic and secular: a way of communicating the threat of environmental peril to those who aren’t watching the river closely. It’s a close cousin of the flash flood warnings we get in California when the winter rains come, or the net-yet-realized dream of an alarm system that would give a few minutes warning of earthquakes.
Except for purely mechanical systems such as railroad crossings, behind every alert system is a person who must make the decision of when to invoke it. What happens when that person makes the wrong decision? Or waits too long to decide? Where is the balance point between trusting to authority and the chaos of impulse?
[Note: ellipses are bits of omitted text that are a bit spoilery for something that isn’t essential for this excerpt.]
The tower had been part of a warehouse once long ago, but all that was left was the tower and the arcade along the front where the charmwives sat. The bell didn’t belong to the church, even though it was the priest who rang it. It belonged to the city and the merchants. To all of us. There were other bells in the tower besides the floodtide bell: a deep one for thick fog on the river, to warn barges where the channel turned, or to sound an alarm during the fires a year past. There was no door or lock on the stairs to the bell tower for that reason.
[…] After a slow creak, the first peal rang out sweet and high over the Nikuleplaiz, followed by the double tone. Around me the stones shivered. Nothing else sounded like it. You could tell the floodtide bell even with other chimes ringing.
Once the first notes rang out, my ears were full of the sound. […] I counted off the peals. Nine. Ten. There were voices and shouts from the plaiz below. Through the window of the bell tower I could see two of the deacons come out on the church steps to stare. Fifteen. Sixteen.
I had counted to twenty-four when I saw men in the uniforms of the city guard come into the Nikuleplaiz on the far side, walking determinedly across the cobbles toward the tower. […]
If the floodtide bell belonged to the church, it would have been no business of the Guard. And of course if the priest had rung the bell, that would have been authority enough. […]
The sweet peals of the bell trailed off to echoes and were still. But […] I could hear other bells taking up the floodtide call. Someone might send a command to silence them, but for now the two-tone cry spread throughout the city, “Alarm! Alarm!”