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The Thinking Molecules of Titan: Ending by Taylor Bettinson

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.

Taylor Bettinson writes:

Claire passed the phone to Alex. "Sure, could be a failed Mozart," Alex grinned, "or successful Philip Glass."

Regan took the phone from Alex and passed it back to Mason. "Who's Philip Glass?"

"Well, now I feel old," said Mason as he pocketed it. Elliott slapped him on the back.

"Don't sweat it, you're not alone."

As if to prove the point, the two elder statesmen soon polished off their beers and rose to call it a night. Regan, Alex, and Claire toasted them. Claire tap-tap-tapped on the top of her shoebox full of punch cards, and Mason nodded—he'd agreed to visit the work-in-progress PLATO exhibit some time ago and kept avoiding it. That would make him feel old too. Then again, he was old, so there was no need to be embarrassed. That would be childish.

Just as Mason and Elliott departed, the waitress returned with Regan's crumb cake. Regan thanked her, and admired it for a moment before taking any bites. She adjusted her glasses as if she couldn't believe it was real. Their loyal server, bless her heart, had delivered this beautiful indulgence with all the fixings. Vanilla ice cream and warm caramelized apples and butterscotch syrup were all melting into each other, infusing the craters and crannies of the cake with beautiful swirling patterns never to be separated again: entropy at work. Entropy? Oh Regan, she thought to herself, thermodynamics in a bar? What a nerd you are.

But it was true. Even in those random swirling patterns, even as her dessert died the heat death of the universe in miniature, she saw mathematically precise spirals and curls in it. Warm, gooey, golden ratios. She took a bite of them, carved off a crumbly corner, swooped into the melty sauce with her spoon, and forever altered the sweet equations on the plate. Immediately they regrouped, bled back into the spoon's wake in newer and somehow more intricate shapes.

As she savored this delectable microcosm, inspiration struck. First, she'd only seen this dessert. But then she saw all of that. Something had happened, as if by itself. An idea.

*

Mason arrived at the Spurlock museum the very next morning. Alex and Claire's computational replica was masked with thick white canvas drapes in a room all to itself. A golden stanchion with a flat head mounted on it announced that the reveal was 'coming soon.' But not for Mason; for Mason, the moment of immersive nostalgia had arrived. It provoked some inarticulate anxiety in him.

Or maybe his anxiety was just the emotional residue of a sleepless night spent speculating on the pattern, that so-called pattern. A career's worth of professional skepticism couldn't quite wrestle his high hopes to ground. Damn Regan and her infectious imagination! Such a perfectly calibrated theory, metaphysically modest yet revolutionary in its implications. 

Claire burst forth from the shrouded space beyond and beckoned him in. It was eerie. His senses were so finely tuned, every sensation so heightened, that this casual gesture seemed ceremonial, even ritualistic: the lifting of the veil.

Behind it, of course, was nothing but Alex's irrepressible smirk and a hulking tower of metal and plastic, like something off the set of Star Trek (original recipe).  "How about it, doc? How'd we do, bring back any old memories?"

"I'm not that ancient, pal, but thanks for the vote of confidence." He had, of course, used the PLATO system when he was a student, but that was the '70s and PLATO IV, lightyears more sophisticated than this first model.

"I'm glad you take it as a compliment. We open in a week and you, my friend, are officially our first preview audience."

Alex gestured invitingly to a cheap plastic chair positioned before a vintage monitor and keyboard, and all Mason could think to say as he walked over to them was, "It sure looks impressive."

"Wait until you see us turn it on." Alex flipped the switch on the antique glass monitor and it sprung to life in that romantic, old-fashioned way, with a single point of light in the center, slowly expanding and inflating until a whole fuzzy, glowing world filled the screen.  Claire posed by the computer, open shoebox in hand, ready to feed PLATO its first punchcard.

Mason braced himself. Maybe he didn't remember PLATO I, but oh boy did he remember punchcards. The nostalgia was coming on strong now.  Look at this keyboard, he distracted himself, now that's ancient.

Alex flipped a thick switch on the side of the machine and it came to life with a basso hum. Claire popped the first card into the slot and it began to click and whir.

"We cheated a little bit," Claire explained, "wrote it some new programs." The characters on the monitor came into focus and Mason chuckled. There in rudimentary pixellated graphics was a multiple choice question. The instruction read, Please place the following great minds in chronological order.

The great minds were Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, and PLATO. That's to say, already in order.

"Wow you guys, this is really impressive," Mason was earnest this time. The audible mechanics of the arcane hardware were to him like a time travel device. His anxiety was melting away. "Listen to that beauty sing," he said as he punched the correct order into the test program. 

"Another failed Mozart?" Claire asked, borrowing Alex's smirk. But Mason was ready with the comeback:

"More like an Alan Turing drum solo."

"Music to our ears," Alex said, patting PLATO on the back panel. The two proud parents were beaming. As Mason click-clacked away at the computer's questions, they exchanged a knowing look.

"Anyway," Claire piped up, "you don't have to run through the whole thing. We just wanted to show you the gist of it."

It was funny—after all of his resistance to coming, now he didn't want to leave. Behind this curtain, he felt as if he were outside of time itself. Beyond the canvas border was the pattern, and Regan's infectious enthusiasm, and the inevitable disappointment that was sure to follow it. But here…

As Claire once again raised the curtain with her arm, he acquiesced to the present. When he crossed the threshold Alex called after him, "You should give Regan a visit."

He turned back, quizzically. "Why do you say that?"

Alex replied simply, "you'll see."

Weird. Mason shook it off, even as his nebulous anxiety returned. They were right, he decided, he should stop by the lab. It would settle him.

But with every step, step, heart-beat-and step, he had to work harder and harder to maintain the pretense of professional restraint. Everywhere around him he saw not trees and sidewalks and those familiar swarms of Greeks and Geeks. He saw clouds of molecules, thinking molecules—or, not self-conscious, but possessed of information, saturated in it, glistening in the sun, in flux and interacting, animate, musical.

He saw even himself as ephemeral now. Passing Green Street, he remembered his walk to the lab the night before, and so many nights before that. He remembered years of fresh water fish and chips at the Capital, Friday night beers with doctoral candidates, the countless unglamorous experiments that taught him he couldn't do what he did because he wanted revolutionary results, but only because he loved doing it even without them.

To think, to think of all those patterns—and so many! They were habits, ruts, frivolous in themselves, and yet they produced wisdom like that, en masse, over time.

Actually, that wasn't quite right. They didn't mark time at all. These patterns were the things that he cherished the most. They weren't habits, they were rhythms. They weren't ruts, they were grooves. They were signals, not noise. And they made him feel timeless, not time-bound.

As soon as he walked through the door, Regan spun to face him. She beamed as bright as Alex and Claire had.

"Where's Elliott?" he asked, and she indicated the menus scattered on his desk.

"If you want anything you should call him, he's probably almost at the deli."

"No that's fine. How's our baby? Have you scrubbed the signal?"

"I did more than that. I remixed it."

"What?"

"I remixed it. I took a thirty-second loop, scrubbed the noise out as much as I could, and then—see, Claire has Reason on her MacBook, and all these stem tracks. We made it into a song!" She lifted her glasses to rub her eyes, which were dry and red. She'd pulled an all-nighter. For this?

"You're kidding."

"Claire was right. Titan's playing music. We can make music with it." She rolled her chair to the little iHome speaker system on the desk. It was half obscured by the menus, but her phone was sticking out of it. "Tell me what you think."

Interplanetary static swelled in Mason's ears. Still sounded like noise to him. Well, the kind of noise you'd hear in a nightclub anyway. More audibly rhythmic than the transmission itself. Regan lowered the volume.

"I was thinking of uploading it to YouTube, calling it 'Alien Music.' I bet it'd go viral."

"You know you can't do that. Go public with speculation about extraterrestrial life and we'd lose all our funding, nobody would trust us with grant money."

Regan got a guilty look and Mason's alarm bells went off. But then Elliott came in with sandwiches and asked Regan if he'd missed it, and she said he hadn't, and they shared a glance just like Claire and Alex had. She turned back to Mason and answered his suspicious expression.

"Okay, here's the deal. Brace yourself. My friend Sarah works on a SETI project, and I sent her the remix. I told her what it was—I know what you're going to say, I know! It's one initial result. She knows that. And she is very discreet, I promise."

He was petrified with anger. As a meditative exercise he stared at the sleek onyx hardware all around them, the cool blue glow of the rack of servers in the corner. They reminded him of PLATO, or PLATO's unimaginable cyberpunk descendants.

"Sarah played it for her supervisor, and she agreed, on the down low, to transmit it back to Cassini."

"Why the hell would she do that?"

"Boss, don't you see? It's an experiment! If the pattern we found in the transmission really is communicative… when we send a more intricate pattern back, Titan would adapt to it. Wouldn't it?"

"We're about to have the first ever jam session with extra-terrestrial life!" Elliott announced dramatically through a mouthful of corned beef. Mustard dripped onto his jeans.

"The signal got there hours ago. We have the computers scanning for echoes," Regan explained in the tone of an apology. She raised the sound of the static.

Mason listened. He realized he had been jealous of her, of her creativity. It was silly. Because she was free of the burden of overly realistic expectations, his job as her mentor was to disabuse her of that freedom and to burden her. So, yes—jealousy. Except that burdening process wasn't exactly playing out like normal, was it? No wonder he had been so nervous all day. It was too late to stop her. Now it was overwhelming him, the idea that this was the culmination of something, something important. A career? A life? An era in human history?

All those habits and rhythms, all that time spent feeling timeless, what had it been for? Now he knew. It had been to smuggle his inner child through the aging process, so that in this one ecstatic moment he could be free and unburdened again, awed and wondered.

In sympathy the computers lit up. The hiss of space began to beat like a heart. Mason suddenly understood the volatile sine curves on the room's displays to be brainwaves, as if the song of Titan had brought PLATO to life. It was all true!

He laughed an exultant bark of a laugh. He laughed it until his ribs hurt. The years had taught him not to crave revolutionary results, but he'd got them anyway. The moon had not broken his heart.

"My friends," he smiled beatifically, "I think we struck a chord."

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