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The Thinking Molecules of Titan: Ending by Ellen Chen

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.

Ellen Chen writes:

"I think it's some sort of mathematical pattern, like a machine in operation," said Claire.

Regan jumped in. "No, it's a communication. A message."

"If so, we should send something back," added Claire.

"Like what?"

Claire was standing now. "We could send a musical counterpoint. Or a variation on one of their phrases."

"Who's 'their'? There's no 'their' there—no possibility of Saturnites or Titans," said Alex.

"How do you know?" said Claire.

"Guys, hang on." Mason wanted to keep things peaceful. "You know how the Earth looks like a giant blue marble when seen from space, but you have to be really far away to realize that? Maybe this "Titan music" is something like that—something you have to be far away to understand. And maybe it's present within ourselves and develops and grows with us, something organic, like a thinking molecule. Maybe we have this pattern too."

Alex waved his hand in disagreement. "Or maybe it's none of those things. Maybe there's no "Titan music"—it's just a reflection of our own analytical tendency to make patterns out of chaos."

"But! There is a pattern!" insisted Claire.

"Why are we arguing about this? It's going to take years to figure this out. Like the human genome project, this is going to take a long time. And that only has four building blocks, G-A-C-T," said Regan.

Mason smiled as he tapped two fingers gently against Regan's thigh. "Blocks that can be combined in a multitude of wonderful ways."

"It's like arguing about who has the best pizza, or about someone's belief in God," said Regan, smiling back.

"Pizza, now we're talking! I'm starving!" said Mason.

They argued whether to go to Joe's Place—pizza by the slice, with the sweet sauce; or Timmie's super thin and crispy pie served in New York crosscut style. They were ready to go to Mama Italia's for deep dish, when Mason decided on giant burritos. As the four of them walked over to Green Street for dinner, they could see constellations, including a clear Orion, twinkling in the night sky.

Regan looked up. Titan's sequence will take a very long time to analyze.


It took some time, but the team arrived at the idea that the Titan sequence was a message, not from Titan, but originating from somewhere else. It took many supercomputing resources to work on analyzing it. But there were always more questions than answers, and eventually, they each went on to something else in their work. Mason left right away, to do genomic analysis, Claire to language processing, and Alex went to a Web startup and made millions. Only Regan stayed on the Titan Sequence project the longest, but even she eventually switched to a different area—computer vision.

But it was Mason who first came to have an understanding of what the sequence could mean, years and years later.


In the hospital, Mason is very quiet as he lies on the hospital bed. Regan sits by his side, sometimes helping him brush his gray hair, what's left of it, so it doesn't poke into his ears and cause an itch. Many days she helps him hold up his books and reads to him when he gets tired. Until the day he hears the music again.

"Remember the music?" he says. "It was 'like a failed Mozart' according to Claire."

"What music?" says Regan. "You mean the Titan Sequence?" She puts her book down.

"Yes. I hear it now. I hear it. From inside."

"How can you hear it from inside?" she says gently. "Is your brain getting rewired? Isn't it because you're remembering it from before?"

"No, this is different. More clear."

She tries not to question him. She just listens. She wants to give him time to say what he has to say.

"It's all there," he says. "The memories. Like a movie in my mind. Chasing fireflies on a summer night and letting them glow on your palm. Oh, and my Dad, before I was old enough really, he used to take me to the PLATO lab in the languages building. It was a darkened room, so you could see the orange LED text. I remember the "beep beep" of the touch panel, and it was like being in a secret club, me playing games all the time on there. Pico Fomi was the name of the game I loved. The coolness of the bandannas which we dipped into water bucket, at the corn detasseling job, meeting—" he caught himself in time before saying his old girlfriend's name. "My friends, cycling across the flat, straight country roads…"

"Mason, you should rest," she says.

"And you and I, the night at the farm aid concert at the stadium—remember the fireworks at midnight, they filled the whole sky!"

He reaches for her, and they clasp hands.

"The Titan sequence—it was a trigger, a code, a key, a sequence, that enables me to remember it all. I think there's some secret vault that keeps these for the rainy day, for today. Maybe there is a part of the brain that stores these up and grows with you, thinks with you as you experience life, and then stores the best moments for you."

"Yeah," she says. "I do that all the time when I am having a bad day, remembering the good days."

"But this is stuff I haven't thought about in years, just waiting for me. It's there; it's all there."

She lets him talk.

"Regan, wow, I see how this can work! Everyone understands music, or gets it, there are no words to translate, it is immediate, so it would work for everyone. Everyone who can hear the music." He grimaces.

"Are you okay? I'm going to get the nurse."

"I'm fine. I mean I'm not in pain. The pain is gone."

Then Mason hums the Titan sequence perfectly. Regan tries to remember if she ever told him. She had worked on it years, analyzing the sequence, and so knew it well from her work, and here he'd sung it perfectly from hearing and working on only the front part, and not the part she had later discovered and mapped out in her analysis after he left. Maybe he was a genius—a musical genius. No, he was terrible at music.

But 'How?' she wonders. Had she taken him to the lab and played the full sequence for him? No, it was in a secure area, she'd never taken him there.

"Well, wouldn't it be different for each person then, if it changes as we go through life?"

He hums another part of the sequence.

This is something new she had not heard before. His own music, perhaps. She wants to ruminate on the Titan sequence, but she just listens as she realizes what is happening. Her vision starts to blur. The world is closing in.

She stands up. "Yes, that's different." She fiddles with her phone, and it falls off her wrist. She sends a message to their sons. "Come right away, run if you have to."

"Brandon and Russell are already on their way," she says.

She stays calm for him, and looks at him as hard, and as gentle, as she can. "I love you," she says, while praying for their boys to come soon.

"Do you feel…God?"

"Is it God? I don't know. I don't know. But I believe there's something. I feel something with you with everyone. He looks at her now. I know you with all my heart I know you. I am you, and I am connected. Maybe I'm talking to you because I heard the music once, so it is easier to stay here with you a little longer. Everyone has their lives—some much harder than others, but each of us has their happy, good moments perhaps locked away. Maybe on Titan, everyone is guaranteed, even if their life is hard, maybe everyone is guaranteed a good death. From the tiniest bit of magma-plankton to the biggest, meanest lava monster you ever saw."

Mason makes a monster scowl, like he'd done when he was a young parent to Brandon, walking stiff-legged like Frankenstein to pretend-attack him and lift him into the air, arms around him. "Maybe this is true on Earth. Maybe that's all we can do. Have respect for the beauty of each other's lives, no matter how quiet a life we lead, or how grand; no matter how long, or how short." He smiles. "This is amazing, this is—I can hear the music now, it's music, and it's all good. There was this one day back in Urbana, not just one day but many days. It was at dusk, and I could feel the light and smell the fresh cut grass; and it was all quiet with the evening sun filtering through the trees, and I had power in my legs. I could run through the park, free, free as a beam of light, racing through my world, my own world. The music. Helped me to remember that, to remember how that feels."

She looks out the window and can see down to the street that Brandon and Russell have arrived. They are running. She waits in the hallway for them and sees them running across the hall, as if they were boys again running in the house where they shouldn't, now grown.

She composes herself and reaches to embrace them as they get to the door. The three of them go into Mason's room together and spend his last moments with him, just the four of them, together.

Hours later when they come out, it is over. A friend calls. It's Alex.

"I'm sorry, so sorry. What did he say?"

"Well, his last words were 'Wow, I thought I had forgotten that. So many memories, and it's like they're welcoming me.'"

"With open arms?"

"Maybe that's what he was going to say…I hope so. I hope he is welcomed with open arms where he is now."

"I know he is."

Throughout the universe, and on Titan, the thinking molecules thrummed in agreement.

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