Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
[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.]
Christopher Williams writes:
"Anything that isn't Mozart is a failed Mozart," said Mason.
"But what about it, specifically?"
"Well, what is 'music' anyway?" said Claire.
"An organization of sounds, separated by spaces of no-sound, modulated by changes in volume and creating recognizable patterns over time. Of course, who is to say what is or is not a pattern, or what is recognizable? This is in the ear of the beholder, but I hear the rhythms and patterns of a Mozart."
The waitress came back to the table with the last piece of apple crumb cake on a white plate that she set in front of Regan. Claire's fingers began to walk, spiderlike, across the table towards the edge of the plate, to be shooed away with a giggle.
"You said your computers identified this as a pattern," began Alex. "What do they think it is?"
"They don't think at all," said Mason. "They're programmed with a set of mathematical algorithms. The algorithms define the limits of 'random' for various frequencies and waveforms, with a certain plus and minus variability. They say something is happening outside the probabilities of random chance, but what is that something? The computer wouldn't know it was Mozart, but it would know it's not nothing." He gave Claire a sidelong smile.
"And you're still single!" Claire replied, batting her eyelashes and giving a theatrical sigh. "What are the chances?"
"Wait a moment, here," said Alex. "When you guys listen, on an ordinary day, what are you listening to? I mean, you're picking up signals, but from where?"
"Cassini is built with a number of sensors and antenna arrays, tuned to pick up a variety of phenomena," said Regan, between bites. "Out there around Saturn and Titan, you've got a large magnetosphere, bombarded with charged ion particles from the solar wind. Plus there's radioactive decay, and some thermal activity but it's very small. And all the molecules in that liquid ocean, crushed together by gravity, generate a piezoelectric effect. Basically it's one big radio transmitter out there, and we're looking for the right station."
"Real rock radio!" said Alex.
"So all this raw data, on many frequencies, gets scooped up by Huygens, transmitted to Cassini, and then beamed back to us to interpret," finished Mason. He craned his neck around, looking for the waitress to signal another round. Claire held up a finger for one more, and Alex made it three. Regan waved hers away.
"Most of what we get is noise," continued Mason, "defined as static generated by that swarm of electromagnetism. I should say, it's all been noise, until today the computers say we have a pattern. We've had pattern matches before, and in every previous case we were able to dismiss it as an anomaly. For example, if you randomly throw ten dice on a table and they all come up as six. This is odd, but possible. And then they do it again. Very odd. And then a third time. And then a fourth. This would be so unlikely that the computers would start screaming their heads off—well, if they had heads. The computers would know that the chances of this being random are so unlikely that it would not normally happen within the lifetime of the universe. But, does such an occurrence imply the transference of information, or the presence of intelligence? Or that the dice are simply loaded? Then you might roll the dice a hundred more times and the pattern goes away and no more groups of six. You scratch your head, say "that was odd," and move on. Just an anomaly. Strange things happen in the universe, more often than you might believe."
"Well." said Alex, "isn't life itself one of those anomalies? I mean, you get a random assortment of organic molecules, at the right temperature and pressure, zap it with a bolt of electricity, and Voilà! Life. Isn't that highly unlikely?"
"Yes and no," said Regan. "There are experiments going on all the time in labs around the world, where scientists recreate what we think were the primordial conditions for life on Earth about 3 billion years ago. Inside a bell jar, they get some basic organic compounds in a warm, wet bath sans oxygen, which hadn't arrived much on the scene yet. And when they zap it, amino acids form, which are the basis for more complex molecules and proteins. It happens a lot. And the math alone says that it shouldn't. We can't explain it. There is no reason we know of why certain arrangements of molecules want to stick together in certain ways, and will do so when given the provocation. And when they stick together, they tend to form groups and types of groups—patterns—that also tend to make more of themselves, like self-arranging puzzle pieces. So I'm saying on Titan, we've got liquid methane and maybe some other stuff we haven't figured out yet, we've got heat caused by gravitational pressure, we've got a swarm of charged particles creating a strong magnetic field. Do we have our Voilà! moment here?"
"When you get two frequencies that match, or are multiples of one another, what do they call that again?" asked Claire.
"Harmonics," said Mason.
"Yes," said Claire. "Harmonics. I love that word. And that's what I'm hearing in your signal, although it's not pure of course. Whole-number integer harmonics, or something close to it. And doesn't that happen in nature, too? When one thing vibrates just so, it can set up a sympathetic vibration in something else and they tend to vibrate in unison, adding together rather than canceling out."
Alex wiped foam from his mouth. "I dunno. I think you're reading too much into it, wanting to see something that isn't there. Reality is much more chaotic, and it's just us who want to apply some filter to it, give it shape and form in our own minds."
"Not if you believe in math," said Mason. "Starfish exhibit the Fibonacci sequence in their proportions, and the Golden Ratio is found in spiral seashells, for example. There's a class of stars that also radiate harmonic frequencies, in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, but we don't think it's a signal per se. But who knows? Maybe Mozart came from Titan."
"That would explain a lot, actually," said Alex. "Why was Cassini launched, originally? What was its intended purpose? I mean, you didn't actually expect to find life, did you?"
"There are a lot of answers to the 'why?' question," said Regan, pushing away her plate of apple crumbs and wiping her hands on a white napkin. "Curiosity, of course. Validating NASA's mission to explore the cosmos. There's so much we don't know about our own neighbors in this solar system, and we needed to get closer to Saturn to take a good look, we can't really do that from here."
Mason was playing with the iPhone, listening to the signal again absently. "Cassini is using old tech compared to what we have today, but it's picking up everything it can and sending it back for analysis. Of course, there's a small signal, something like a 'ping' but a little longer, that Cassini sends at regular intervals back to mission control. Basic calibration and telemetry stuff: here I am, here's my current location, power status, system diagnostics…and Holy Hell!"
Mason held the phone away from his face like it had just sprouted wings. All eyes turned to him. "Regan, call Werner."
"Uh, Mason, who's Werner, and what are you talking about?" asked Alex. Claire looked at Regan and shrugged her shoulders at Mason, who seemed to be staring at a point somewhere about a hundred miles into the distance.
"Werner is one of JPLs old astrophysics guys," said Regan. "Dr. Werner. He's got a long, old Tyrolean first name that no one can pronounce, so we all call him Werner. Even his ex-wife did. Anyhoo. He helped set up the Cassini program back in the day. I studied with him here, before he retired a few years back. Still drops into the Center every now and again, for old time's sake." Regan gently touched Mason on the shoulder, not sure if she was about to wake a man sleepwalking. "Uh, honey? Poopsie dear? Time to take your medication. Seriously Mason, what is it?"
"I want to have Werner listen to this. I'm not sure it's anything, but I just had a thought. Will you let me keep it to myself until Werner gets here, assuming he can?"
"Oh, he's got nothing better to do. Still lives near campus, is anxious to be loved and wanted. Let me give him a buzz." Regan fished out her own phone and started tapping keys. Claire and Alex drummed their fingers on the table and looked at each other with arched eyebrows, nursing their beers while a strange smile crept over Mason's face. Everyone was listening to Regan.
"Hi Werner. Yes, yes it has been. Fine, just fine. And you? I know. Listen, if you're not too busy right now, we have a little interesting puzzle for you, or actually Mason does. Something we would like you to listen to. Really? Great. Can you meet us at the Capital? You know the place? Oh, of course you do. Wonderful. Ok, see you soon."
Mason staunchly refused to say more, just shook his head with bemusement. Claire flirted, Alex mocked, Regan giggled nervously. All of them listened to the iPhone again and again, hearing the music of the spheres in their own ways.
Werner arrived as if he had just run there, and perhaps he had. He was now the epitome of a tweedy Professor Emeritus, with just a hint of the former '60s counter-culture radical hippie thrown in for flavor. After introductions were made to Alex and Claire, they skootched in on their side of the table and made room for another chair. Werner seemed to be delighted to be there, like he had at last been called in to kick the winning field goal for the Fighting Illini.
"Well, Mason. what is all this fuss about, hmmm?"
"Werner, we got a hit on some kind of pattern match. Not sure what it is, but Regan is also convinced that it's coming from a slightly different vector than the previous signals. First, I want you to listen to what we picked up. Just listen."
Mason handed over the phone, and Werner eagerly let the signal sample play over a few times. His closed his eyes for a moment, nodded his head, and then handed the phone back. "Well, it's been a while since I was at JPL, but it sounds like something and not nothing."
Claire and Mason shared a look, while Regan giggled. Alex tried to kick Mason's shin under the table, but he couldn't reach and instead thrashed around for a moment like a man trying to get a frog to jump off his stomach.
"Werner, I'm working on a theory," said Regan. "I know you used to read as much sci-fi as me, maybe more, so this is a science fiction story. I'm guessing that Titan is slowly getting a little smarter, and our computer here at the Center is kinda smart too. Our computer senses something is up, but doesn't speak Titan-ese. And Mason here, well, he thinks maybe you can help us finish this story, but he's keeping the mysterious ending to himself. Oh, where are my manners. Beer?"
Werner ordered a large German stout and a bratwurst with hot mustard. Regan filled him in on the story so far, up to Mason having his Holy Hell moment.
"Alright then, everyone," said Mason. "The Center here is one of the listening stations, under contract, and we're not the only ones. But NASA is in charge of mission control, and you, Werner, were at JPL when this whole thing was dreamed up and set into motion. Here at the Center we get one copy of the signal from Cassini, but the original still goes through JPL. They get the telemetry information from Cassini, that's not our business and we're not even supposed to access it. But Werner…" and here Mason took a heavy breath and let it out slowly, "…you helped set up the guidance program, isn't that right?"
"Yes, I did, indeed. That was my moment in the sun."
"Perfect. Now, I want you to listen to the sample again. Clear everything else from your mind. Listen only for one thing. The 'ping', Cassini's transmission back to JPL, the 'here I am' signal."
Mason handed the phone back, and Werner played the loop again. This time his eyes were open and seemed to sparkle with the promise of tears, and his smile filled their table with radiance.
"Oh yes, yes indeed. I should have picked that up the first time. It's different than before, more muddy. There's an interruption, lots of noise. It's broken into three or four fragments, but yes, it sounds very familiar. Oh my…" Werner's voice trailed off and he handed the phone back, almost tenderly.
Regan looked uncharacteristically speechless. "Are you saying what I think you're saying? I thought the signal was moving…."
"…and maybe, just maybe, it is," finished Mason. "I bet if we go back to some of the earlier signals, before they were even registered as matches by our computers, we might find this same signal in an even more primitive and latent form. We're going to need to talk to Bruce about this, chart the progression of the signal over time, see if it gets stronger and more clear in the future."
"And look for its focal point, if we can triangulate a position. But if what you're saying is true, I just bet I know where it's going. Holy cow."
"Hey, guys," said Alex, "maybe Claire is following but you left me behind. For mere mortals, what do you mean?"
"This signal," said Mason. "We shouldn't be getting the telemetry signal at all, that's not even sent to us. We only get the antenna feeds, coming from Titan and Saturn and the rings. This is a sound we shouldn't be hearing, but it seems like we are, or at least an incomplete version according to Werner. So where's it coming from? I've got a hunch. The molecules, the piezoelectric, agitated molecules swimming around in all that chaotic and incoherent energy out there, the fluctuating gravity, the magnetic fields oscillating with the orbits of the other moons and Saturn's rings, they are starting to respond."
"Respond to what?" asked Claire.
"Why, the music of the spheres, of course. A much smaller sphere than expected. We sent Cassini out to Saturn and Titan in order to listen to everything we could. And in order to get there in the first place, it's been sending its signal back to Earth, a steady, regular, precisely timed 'beep'…"
"Many separate 'beeps', actually," interrupted Werner. "Calibration data, coded into a packet known only to the chosen. I helped to write it, and although it wasn't deliberate, I guess it has something of a musical tone to it. I was playing in a band at the time." Werner seemed awfully pleased with himself, having kicked that field goal.
"…millions of times repeated," continued Mason, "even before it took up a permanent orbit. The signal repeating, and getting louder, and closer to Titan with each passing second. This went on for years. And now, Huygens is on the surface—making physical contact with the ice of Titan—and sending that signal."
Regan began to giggle again, sheer ecstatic disbelief on her face.
Alex said "Are you telling us, that your molecules are pinging back?"
"Learning," said Mason. "Getting smarter with each iteration. At first, approximate and crude, below the level of our awareness. Now gathering more molecules to their cause. More and more, vibrating in sympathy."
"Harmony," said Claire, raising a glass.
"And moving," said Regan. "Not towards Cassini, but to where Cassini is pointing."
"Towards us," said Werner, to everyone's surprise. "We went searching for knowledge, and the possibility of life. It turns out we may have made it instead. Participants in the process, and not just passive observers. We've come to understand that at some level all reality and phenomena are interactive. Maybe Cassini and Huygens just had a baby, and it's heard its mother's voice. Now she is learning to speak. Her first words are 'Here I am.'"
"The thinking molecules of Titan, talking to the thinking molecules of Earth," said Mason.
Alex looked thoughtful for a moment. "This calls for another round."
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