The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
Editor's note: This is a continuation of a story Roger was working on when he passed away. This ending is one of many we received. To read Roger's beginning to the story, from the end of which each entry picks up the thread, go here. Illustration by Krishna Bala Shenoi. This is one of four endings we're posting this week. Vote on this week's endings here.
Dylan Dougherty writes:
"May I?" asked Alex.
He pushed aside his warming beer and nudged up against Claire. She nodded slightly, removed an earbud and handed it over. Alex popped the white plastic nub into his ear and listened. His eyes narrowed and he leaned closer to Claire, resting his arm on her back.
"It's beautiful," he whispered. He looked around at the others. "Is there more?"
Regan took a deep pull of Guinness and set down her empty glass. "That's it— approximately one minute, then a ten second intermission, and then the data repeats."
Mason laughed, then finished off his own beer. "Not the data," he managed. "The music. The music repeats."
Regan regarded Mason with a slow-burning disdain. "Never underestimate the random beauty of the universe," she said. Mason started to speak, but her hand fell upon his and held it tightly. "Never," she whispered.
A waitress carrying two armfuls of platters glided to their table. "Your appetizers," she said and all eyes shifted to the plates of fragrant fried pub grub, gently landing on the table. "Bon appetit!"
Mason pointed at his iPod and announced, "Food for thought." He removed the device from Claire's hand and deftly popped out the headphone wire. Alex and Claire frowned and handed over the earbuds.
"So, now that you've heard my story, can you hypothesize whether we are hearing a preview of the Cosmic Symphony, by the Thinking Molecules of Titan, or is this just random noise?" She knew that their opinions had already been shaped by their beliefs. The "music" was merely an afterthought that could validate their personal theories, or be discarded, like an empty bottle of snake oil at a desert crossroads.
Regan sighed at their silence. Mason looked at her, and thought about the beauty of the sigh. Something sparked inside his mind.
Suddenly, Mason intervened. "I think there's only one answer," he opined as he absent-mindedly brandished a Buffalo Wing. "If you throw away all of the scientific theory and empirical evidence, what is left?" He started munching on the wing.
"A structured set of sound waves, pleasing to the ear," said Regan.
"Agreed, but break it down more," mumbled Mason he polished off the spicy meat, "Hot!" He reached for Regan's beer.
"Get your own!" she said, although she surrendered the beer to her colleague.
Claire interjected. "If you break it down, you have a signal that affects a positive feeling in the receiver."
"It's intentional," intoned Alex. He set his elbows on the table and leaned in and spoke, as if sharing a secret. "There is nothing random about this string of data. It has a deliberate, complex pattern that denotes an intelligent source."
"Good!" remarked Mason. He wiped his face with a colorful restaurant napkin. "The way I see it, we have two possibilities. On one hand, the interaction of these molecules is the result of unique circumstances. Any patterns we see in the data are coincidental... we don't understand the behavior of the molecules because we don't understand the context of the physical environment."
"Agreed," chimed in Regan.
"But on the other hand, I think when you push the science to the side, there's one natural conclusion," he confided.
"It's a message from God!" he stated with a little too much conviction. Blank stares bore into him from the surrounding tables.
"Keep it down," hissed Regan.
"Sorry, people," announced Claire. "Scientist talk."
The clattering of forks and knives resumed and Regan poked a fist into Mason's side. "You're embarrassing us," she said, "and you're overreacting to a bunch of malarky."
Mason started to respond when an old lady spoke from a nearby table. "Excuse me," she said in a nasally rasp. There were a lot of old people sitting around her, looking at Mason.
"Yes?" answered Mason.
"My friends and I would like to know," she swept a mummified grey hand around at her dusty companions, "What is the message?" The old people chuckled at Mason's deer-in-the-headlights expression.
"What does God have to say?" she repeated. People at adjacent tables also started to laugh at the expense of Mason, once one of the greatest minds ever to come from the University. Now he was a joke. The old woman didn't relent. "We'd really like to know over here," she snorted and laughed, like an animal. She looked back at her comrades and said, "Young people today."
Mason picked up a juicy-looking buffalo wing. He looked at the old lady and said, "I know what the message is, but I can't tell you."
"I can't tell you, because then I'd have to kill you."
He dipped his wing into a little cup of Blue Cheese dressing, brought it up to his mouth and started eating. He stared at the old lady and ate. She recoiled as a chunk of blue cheese dropped off the corner of his mouth.
Claire groaned and Alex's face sank into the palms of his hands.
Regan waved over a waitress and commanded, "Garçon! More beer." She saw the evil eye coming from the old lady. "And Garçon... a pitcher of sangria for the old bats over there."
"Garçon means boy." The waitress scrawled the info on a little pad as she walked away. All was back to normal, if only for a little while longer.
And then the talk ended and a feast began.
Mason stepped through the last of the reinforced steel doors and emerged in heart of the National Center for Supercomputer Applications, in its most powerful and mysterious room, which was run by the University's most powerful and mysterious woman.
"Thanks for coming," said Regan from across the room. She was sitting at a crescent-shaped console comprised of complicated-looking dials, switches and lights. "I see you brought me a present."
Mason set a large box down on a circular conference table in the middle of the room. "Abra," he intoned as he reached into the box, "cadabra!" He pulled out three stacked pieces of electronic equipment: a heavy computer monitor with a small screen, a jacked-up Apple IIe, a perfect 14x14" metal box, painted in primer black except for a small round light. He then pulled out an ugly tangle of cables and wires.
"I brought something else," he announced, and pulled out a large bottle of red wine. "It's Barefoot. The shit is like six dollars for a bottle, but it's still the best out there." Regan frowned. He set out the bottle and two plastic cups. "Hang on a sec," he said as he searched the pockets of his lab jacket. He produced a bottle opener and poked its spiral tip. "Now we're in business. You take care of this and let me set this mess up. Where can I jack in?"
Regan stared at the pile of what she saw as antiquated crap and managed to press a button. A metal extension slid out from under the console and became a solid-looking countertop. "You can jack in right here," she said in a breathy tone. She draped her hand across the console, as if showcasing a prize on a game show. They both erupted in laughter, and Mason came over and gave her a hug.
She opened the wine and filled the plastic cups to the brim. Mason took his and raised the glass. "To us," he ventured.
"To science!" replied Regan. They both laughed, drank, and worked.
Twenty minutes and two glasses of vino later, Mason exclaimed, "I'm in!" He flipped a switch and the bizarre assembly of junk he had assembled powered on, complete with mechanical clicks and whirs as the charge grew stronger.
"May I introduce you to Little PLATO?" He took one of the more modern looking wires and plugged it into a receptacle on the console.
Regan looked on as green lines skittered across the black background of little PLATO's screen. A seven digit number appeared in the corner and started cycling through different combinations; the numbers shifted in and out, at times slipping into binary code and at other times, Regan noticed, flowing into more sophisticated mathematical systems.
Regan started to speak but froze when a red light came to life on the mysterious cube at the center of the assembly. Sound emerged from the speakers embedded in the walls of the lab.
The soft tones of a string section rose from a wall of static. Higher pitched harmonies glided into the air. A droning undertone grew louder, resonating like the song of a sitar. All of these sounds merged into a graceful ambient symphony. Mason and Regan listened, enraptured. The music grew louder and more intricate, the pace quickening slightly.
"The signal! You found the rest of the signal!" said Regan.
"It was all Little PLATO. The PLATO system was designed to serve as a teaching mechanism, but this guy," he pointed at his mismatched mechanical assembly, "is able to teach and analyze. Not only can he analyze, but he can edit."
"What do you mean?" asked Regan as she reached for her wine. She felt so calm listening to the music circling around them. Mason gave her his empty cup.
"It's like this. Have you heard of GIGO?"
"Garbage in, garbage out," responded Regan, pouring Mason a fresh cup of wine.
"Exactly," continued Mason. "Throwback terminology from the days when the PLATO language was invented. Except thanks to Little PLATO's unique CPU— that cube," he gestured at the metal box with the pulsating red light, "it has become Garbage in, Godliness out."
Regan gasped. "The music. The signal. How long does this go on? How did you—"
Mason interjected, "The music doesn't stop. It evolves. As I was saying, Little PLATO can absorb the data, analyze it, edit it, and... teach."
Regan moved to the console with a the bottle of wine. She set it down next to her and fine-tuned the signal coming through Little PLATO's jacked in cable. The music became. "Are you saying that you have been fixing the work that the Molecules of Titan began?"
Mason smiled. "Little PLATO has, using random permutations of beauty, gleaned from a thousand Earth symphonies."
Regan smiled with understanding. "Little PLATO stole from the music of Earth to help the molecules complete their Cosmic Symphony."
"Little PLATO was very quick to draw conclusions about where the music was going. He placed the data in the context of Earth's catalog of music. The pieces fit. Not just Mozart. The Beatles. The Sex Pistols. Jazz. All of these little pieces of Earth's music fit into the signal like a million keys fitting into a million locks."
"So you really do think it's an intelligent message," said Regan, starting to stumble over her words from the wine.
"Yes. The signal was a message, just not a complete one. Now, it is. Just listen," said Mason, in an even but distant voice. The music swept through the still air around them.
"What is the message?" asked Regan.
He listened intently, and turned to look deep into her eyes.
"I don't know."
She walked over and took his hand. She kissed him. Mason didn't say anything, but he slipped his arms around her waist. "There is one more thing," he whispered.
"Little PLATO has been sending the edited signal back."
Regan leaned back, wide-eyed.
"Yeah. For two weeks. I was just doing it for the hell of it... I didn't really think about what I was doing. I didn't know how long the grant money would last, so I basically hooked Little PLATO into every piece of equipment on campus. Little PLATO hijacked a big network. The signal he edited," he lifted his hands into he air and moved slowly, like a conductor, "has been amplified, and aimed right back at the source: Titan."
Regan pulled his arms back down and kissed him again, more sensuously. Then she stopped.
"How did you know?" she asked.
"Something clicked when I looked at you today— I mean, I really looked at you... into your eyes, into your spirit. Honestly, it's hard to explain," he paused and kissed her neck.
"The way I saw you made something shift in my mind. I realized how wrong you were about the random nature of the signal, and how blind I was that this theory, this foolish thought in the back of my mind, was true. The signal is a message... but we can't decipher it." He held her closer. "We can only..."
"Immerse ourselves in the beauty of the data?" teased Regan as she slipped her hands around his face. She held him there and looked at him for a moment. "That cannot be. What is it, Mason? What is the message?"
He could say nothing, so he kissed her. He clutched at her hair and met her soft lips with his. She held him tightly and whispered "You freak me out, you little freak." They both laughed and brushed more closely against each other. The passion grew and their bodies merged. Mason thrust Regan against the console, and they tumbled onto the floor.
The bottle teetered on the console for a second, and fell. Red liquid spilled over the console and over Little PLATO. Sparks erupted. The bottle shattered on the floor. Electricity shrieked through the liquid, and when the creeping red tendril reached Regan's bare ankle, the circuit was complete.
The lovers perished in ecstasy.
EXTERIOR - THE SEAS OF TITAN - NIGHT
The MUSIC of the SIGNAL permeates the turbulent sea. MOLECULES agitate frantically, crashing against each other in the chaos of a quantum tempest. We shoot up and zoom back to see the molecules shift into powerful elemental plumes, rushing up through the liquid methane, which flows in shades of green, yellow, and as we move closer to the surface, a vibrant blue shrouds the background.
We rise up surrounded by color, light, and perfectly spherical BUBBLES. The bubbles converge and grow, transforming through colorful fractals of light and energy. The bubbles break the surface of the sea, and hovering just above the surface...
TWO FIGURES are revealed. The space-bubbles join between the two humanoid figures, and dark matter explodes between them. The figures coalesce as the bubbles merge. They look childlike, and their hands are clasped as they float next to each other.
One of the figures opens it eyes and stares into space. Its mouth moves ever so slightly.
(in an otherworldly whisper)