The Farewell Party
High drama and lowbrow, morbid humor get stitched together in this successful tragicomedy about terminal patients and assisted suicide. Works better than expected.
[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.]
Paul Marasa writes:
"The Singing Salieri Molecules of Titan," Mason offered.
"Not mathematical? Not a Titan version of ones and zeros?"
"Same difference, of course," Claire said. "Math, music, one and the other—can't have one without the other, actually."
"Lyric equations," Regan suggested.
"Well, nothing so complicated—but not simple, not without purpose."
"What purpose?" Mason asked.
"More science fiction," Regan said. The cake arrived and she started on her share. As she lifted the second forkful to her mouth she paused, the crumb cake close, her eyes almost crossed. She backed it away, took a long look.
"This is good cake," she said. "See how it does two things at once? It holds together, just moist enough, but 'crumb' it certainly is, ready to break away, form its own mini-cake—a crumb or two holding together—on the table. Sweet sweet molecules in a pattern."
"In their crumb cake groove," Claire added. "Being the best crumb cake they can be. The purpose of crumb cake," she offered, "is to be crumb cake."
"I can never remember the lessons I learned, sort of, in my logic class. Is that a rhetorical tautology, a begged question, or a self-evident truth?"
"It's a piece of crumb cake," Claire said. "And that sound is music. With attendant musical purpose."
"But couldn't it also be a language?" Regan asked.
"We'd have to listen a lot more, and in lots of different ways," Mason said. "To the lab!" he declared mock-herocially.
* * *
They let the sound fill the room like air in sails—or a choir in the loft.
Alex said, "I'd like to make a joke about how I give it a 10, it has a good beat you can dance to, but—"
"You just did?" Claire interrupted. "Let's shut up and listen to the molecules."
A good minute passed. The sound was not music to their ears, and no obvious pattern emerged—but something did, something more, or at least something other, than bad Mozart.
"Stravinsky," Regan suddenly said. "Not cold Mozart but a hot Rite. And maybe not of Spring, but something, maybe, growing."
"Changing?" Alex offered.
"Evolving," Claire said, her voice barely audible above the rushing staccato sound, more than white noise, and not in any rhythm, but building.
"Is it me, or is the sound a little different than when we started listening a minute ago?" Mason asked. "Bruce, what do you think?"
"Don't ask me; I'm tone-deaf," Bruce said. He looked at a screen, peered closer, then suddenly leaned back. "Jesus!" he said. It is different. Not much, so little that I'm guessing you imagined hearing it, but holy crap you're right."
Claire also looked at the computer screen. "You need to get this organized," she said. "I don't know if Huygens is telling us the truth, or if the singing molecules are messing with us."
"Doing what?" Regan said. "'Messing'? That's impossible."
"OK, maybe not with us, maybe just with Huygens."
Alex, Claire and Bruce spent the rest of the night poring over data. Regan sat in a corner in an armchair, the kind you see left on a curb and promptly commandeered by grad students (or astrophysicists) looking for free furniture. Eventually she fell asleep and stayed that way for about a half hour when she woke up slowly, the sound still sparking along, and stood up.
"Didn't Huygens bounce when it landed?" she asked.
"Yeah," Bruce said, "about 30 cm or so."
"On contact it dug a little hole, then it bounced, then wobbled, then just sat there?"
"All in about ten seconds," Bruce said.
"Do me a favor," Regan said, her voice nice and steady, her mouth spreading in a little excited grin. "Just humor me with one little favor. Is there any repetition to the pattern?"
"Well," Claire said, "there's no single pattern. It's all piled up, more Stravinsky, like you said, but Stravinsky in a particularly contrary mood. You think they complained when he previewed the Firebird; this would've made 'em tear the joint to pieces."
"But there are patterns?" Regan urged. "Patterns in the patterns, maybe overlapping, maybe multi-leveled and running into one another? Anything discrete emerging?"
Claire sat there with Alex and Bruce, and the three of them huddled looked like the kind of scientists in a Méliès film: more magicians than anything, heads almost touching in occult conspiracy. Regan imagined them with pointy hats studded with stars.
The three looked at each other, looked down, looked at Regan.
"Ten seconds?" they asked Bruce without looking at him.
"Just about," he said, as though he were a kid answering a question he knew the answer to, but teacher had given him such a sharp look that he'd doubted himself.
Claire's mouth started to share Regan's grin—but the two did not look amused. And not frightened, exactly. Maybe like Emily Dickinson writing a poem about going to Heaven, all along.
"There's something in here," she said calmly enough, "and goddam if it doesn't last ten seconds. I can't isolate it for your listening pleasure—this ain't no superspy movie, fellow geeks—but it goes thud and bounce and wobble. For ten seconds."
Regan sat down again in the big ugly comfortable chair. It looked itchy, but it wasn't. She lightly scratched her forearms anyway and looked at them one by one.
"Mozart should be so lucky he could fail this way," she said. "You're right, Claire, it is music. A tried-and-true form. Tell us, Claire."
"It's a duet," Claire said. "Or half of one."
"'Titan Duet for Molecule and Probe in Major Bounce, Slide and Wobble,'" Mason said. "Huygens sung it once in 2005, and those little guys have evolved enough to sing it back. Vonnegut was right about the Sirens of Titan—except they don't sing each to each like Eliot's mermaids, but to us." He let the sound spread out, that questioning little music of the sphere out there, the first thought of the Molecules of Titan.
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