The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
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.
Jeremy Gable writes:
Alex rolled his eyes. How many composers have there been—not just classical musicians,but any sentient creature that made a sonic tone out of a piece of something - and she references Mozart? Why not just say Beethoven, or Elvis Presley, or The Rolling Stones? In the school of cunning observations, Claire was remedial.
"No really, listen!" She shot the iPhone to Alex's ear. Indeed, the rhythm was familiar,vbut alluded immediate recognition, residing in that part of the brain that works tirelessly to conjure memories without ever finding success.
"It sounds kinda like… 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'."
"Or 'The Alphabet Song'," Mason countered.
"It is! Well, kinda," This is where Claire would push her glasses further up her nose if she wore them. "It's 'Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman.' At least a variation of it. Perhaps the most recognizable musical rhythm in the world."
Elliott chimed in, "More than 'Jingle Bells'?"
"I said 'world', Elliott, please try to keep up." Claire thrust the iPhone at him, singing along to the tuneless rhythm, "Dah dah dah dah dah dah dahhh… Dah dah dah dah dah dah dahhh… Please tell me you had a normal childhood."
Regan, owning glasses, did push them further up her nose. "So these molecules are singing 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'?"
"Or 'The Alphabet Song'," Mason countered.
"They're not aware they're singing Mozart," Claire exclaimed, "they just… are. How would they know who Mozart is when most tweens don't even know? He's just… out there. Mozart is somehow universal. Something more than human. Some sort of prophet."
Alex put his hand on Claire's head, a sign between the two of them to shut the conversation down. He knew the ability of her Mozart-is-some-sort-of-prophet theory to clear a room.
"No, let's hear her out," Mason interjected, recognizing the sign.
"Please," Alex interjected, "look at my lunch, it's such a wonderful lunch."
"So," Regan stepped forward. "Mozart was… ahead of his time?"
"No more lunch," Alex said as he pushed his tray away.
"Time wasn't a factor," Claire took a step closer to Regan. "Time didn't affect Mozart."
"So he was sending signals out to the universe?" The giggling Regan took a step closer to Claire.
"No, Mozart wasn't a transmitter."
"He was a receiver?"
"He was a mother-friggin' receiver!" The two women high-fived. Future generations would study this moment as a textbook example of syzygy. The waitress, a silent witness to this moment, felt happy for some reason she could not fully explain.
"So then," Regan pushed her glasses up again, "what do these molecules have to do with Mozart?"
"That…" Claire thought about this for roughly the amount of time it takes to receive a Steve Swisher from Hot Doug's. "…Mason?"
Mason found, as would often happen, a stream of words flowing from his mouth that somehow formed a cohesive thought. "Well… Mozart, who was writing symphonies before he knew anything about anything, just somehow knew this song, right? And come to think of it, do any of you remember actually learning this song? Or did it always just exist?"
The room was silent.
"So if we all just inherently know this tune," Mason continued, "so did these molecules. 'Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman', 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star', 'The Alphabet Song', whatever you call it, it must have existed in the universe since… who knows, since the beginning of time?"
Alex leaned back too far in his chair, "You're talking about…?"
"The first song ever created!"
Alex toppled over. Legs in the air, his voice cried out, "Ever?"
"Ever. If Adam and Eve existed, they made love to this tune."
"And I'm out." Claire returned to the shoeboxes, her natural aversion to the Old Testament taking over.
Mason continued, "These molecules, they've discovered self-sustenance, community, mathematics, movement, communication, and now—the most important part of existence—artistic expression. Does anyone know when 'Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman' was written?"
No one had the answer. Alex, who was already researching the subject, had reached a dead end on his smart phone's Wikipedia app. He said nothing.
"So perhaps the first step to self-awareness, to realizing that you are a creature capable of reflecting a culture back onto itself, is this song. Or at least this rhythm. Claire's right, like mathematics, rhythm is interstellar, it may go under different labels, but the rules are fundamentally the same."
Claire did not look up from PLATO, but her victorious fist-pump was all the confirmation that was needed.
"So," Regan pushed her glasses up her nose, silently cursing her short-sighted optometrist, "are they talking to us?"
"Well, let me put it this way, say you're just walking down the street, whistling to yourself…"
"Just play along," Mason continued. "At any point, you're passing maybe ten, twenty people. Are you performing for them? Of course not, you're just whistling because… you like it. So perhaps these molecules aren't making these patterns to communicate with us. I think they're just… enjoying the music."
He made eye contact with Regan, the two of them expressing a telepathic agreement that they loved that idea.
"So," he continued, "the question is… how do we let them know we can hear them?"
The room fell silent. Alex searched "molecular communication" in his Wikipedia app, which only pulled up something called "Nanonetwork".
"Perhaps," Regan giggled, "we whistle back?"
This momentous occasion required four weeks of brainstorming, planning, programming, testing and coffee runs. In the cramped Titan Listening Lab, Mason turned the calendar from April to May while Regan flipped a pen around her fingers, a trick taught to her in Undergraduate and applied on an almost-hourly basis.
At the same time, 49 kilometers above the surface of Titan, the Cassini spacecraft danced atop the tropopause, the powerful and noisy Titan IV rocket propelling it at ungodly speeds. And at the same time, on the surface of Saturn's largest natural satellite, a number of molecules were shifting around the Huygens probe, enjoying their discovery of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". Or "The Alphabet Song".
"Well," Regan said, watching the rotations of her pen, "I certainly wasn't expecting something like this to go in this year's Christmas letter."
"It's funny," Mason felt his internal monologue becoming external, "you always think of life beyond Earth, and you picture metallics and heat rays, bug eyes. But this… this is curious. Playful. This isn't what I was expecting, but it feels right."
"And does it feel right that our experiment might cause a $422 million spacecraft to crash into the moons of Saturn?"
Mason paused. "Well, not when you put it like that." Silence became an unwelcome guest in the room.
2000 miles west, the minions of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, nestled in the cozy smog of Pasadena, California, monitored the Cassini with an intensity never before given to the craft. Watching a screen that only a Doctorate could love, a mechanical engineer whose real name was lost years ago to the nickname "Bowtie" stood with his finger over a black button.
Earlier in the morning, he spent five minutes struggling to find clean socks, unaware that hours later, he would be communicating across planets.
While NASA watched, Mason and Regan listened, adjusting headphones, pushing glasses up noses, and twirling pens. In their Bose-clamped ears, an emotionless voice droned out, "Two minutes from probe." Regan placed her hand between Mason's shoulders. It was the first time they had ever made physical contact. Neither of them noticed.
The Huygens probe, resting comfortably on the orange iced sheet of the Titan's surface, spent over a decade as an unknown entity, a multi-million dollar machine that had never entered the national consciousness. But this was the moment every multi-million dollar machine hopes for, the kind of profoundly historical event that gets you on the cover of Time Magazine. In the horizon, a small black dot was slowly becoming a spacecraft.
"One minute from probe."
Bowtie did not know why he felt nervous, only that he should. He was a numbers man, not a button-pusher, this was not his scene. He regretted studying Music Theory, as it would have saved him from this task. The entire mission control room stared at him as he was fifty-three seconds away from committing the strangest act he would ever be asked to do.
The probe was accustomed to this sensation. It happened every month. The vibration from the passing rocket was the only motion it got these days. However, something was different. The Cassini was flying at a lower altitude. This meant something. This was important.
"Thirty seconds from probe."
Regan had stopped twirling her pen. Mason had stopped breathing. They stared at the wall as no one had ever stared at a wall before.
"I love you." Regan did not break her gaze, but shifted her head slightly toward his. "Not in the sexy way." The tilt of her face returned to the wall. "Did you hear me?"
"I love you, too. Not in a sexy way"
"Ten seconds to probe."
The Cassini approached the surface of Titan.
Bowtie's finger approached the surface of the button.
Regan's hand approached the surface of Mason's arm.
All was silent. The rocks and ice chips were no longer bouncing. The Huygens probe was motionless. Everything had stopped. The rocket of the Cassini spacecraft had cut out.
Bowtie released his finger from the button. The craft belched fire again. The rocket having resumed, the vibrations continued.
Bowtie pushed the button. No more rocket, no more vibrations. This in-and-out, the cessation and reappearance of tremors on the lunar surface were creating a rhythm. Short short long… short short long… short short long… shu-long. It was "Jingle Bells".
Having successfully broadcast the rhythmic chorus of one of the world's most grating tunes, the Cassini gathered itself for a brief moment, and then continued roaring across the Titan's surface, oblivious to the importance of its hiccups. The Huygens continued its icy rest. The machines returned to normal.
Bowtie took a bow. The mission control room applauded his ability to push "Jingle Bells" on a button without cracking under the pressure. He did not entirely understand what he had just done, but that hardly mattered. He decided in that very moment that he was going to ignore his doctor's orders and eat a cheeseburger for dinner that night.
In the Titan Listening Lab, the noise-voided "Jingle Bells" was clearly heard, and the impact of the communication was unmistakably felt. However, Regan and Mason's exhalation of triumph was quickly followed by an inhalation of pain. A terrifying sound filled their ears. Abrasive and unforgiving, it was what John Philip Sousa would sound like slowed down and cranked up to eleven. The couple ripped off their headphones and slammed their hands to their ears. However, their yells of anguish were inaudible against the volume of the horrific sound that was devouring the room. With the white noise came the companionship of an ever-increasing white light, which drowned all visual objects and enveloped the pair.
There were shadowy motions, and a faint high-pitched buzz. Somehow, Mason and Regan's hands found each other as they simultaneously gained focus. Surrounding them was a vast frozen ochre wasteland, mountainous and barren, a ringed planet looming vast on the horizon.
"Yeah. I think…yeah."
Regan attempted to push her glasses up her nose, when her hand felt a sudden sharp pain accompanied by the teck of hitting plastic. She was wearing a helmet. The goldfish bowl contraptions around both of their heads were securely strapped to their metallic teal jumpsuits. Regan had an inexplicable plunging neckline.
"Really?" she exclaimed.
In the distance, a wind kicked up. A swarm of orange ice chips and green dust began to spiral and swirl, creating a bi-colored dance of debris. Transfixed by its beauty, neither Mason nor Regan noticed that until it was too late that the ice and dust had surrounded them on all sides, circling around them like a silent tornado.
"Did we die?"
"I… don't know."
Slowly, the debris moved into a formation, creating a series of horizontal lines, five feet from the ground.
"I mean, I know that I have no idea what's happening, so I'm really hoping that you…" Before he could finish, the first line of debris slammed against them. One by one, the lines shot forward, showering them in dust and ice. Struggling to stay upright, they held their arms in front of them, scattering the lines into a number of directions. As soon as it passed them, however, the debris would re-form, circle around and repeat, another series of straight lines slamming against them in rapid-fire succession.
Regan surveyed her unending, absurd situation. The lines of debris were relentless, only wanting to attack. The length of the lines made running an impossibility. All that could be done was to scatter them as they continued their unusual syncopated assault.
"What?" Mason shouted, clearly distracted by other matters.
"It's attacking us in a rhythm!"
"Okay. What's the rhythm?"
"I don't know."
"That's a great help, Regan, thanks!"
Regan lowered her arms, feeling the pounding of the ice against her bare sternum. She scrunched her eyes, reaching into the deepest recesses of her mind for any possible wave propagation solutions that may be lurking there.
And that is when she saw it, obscured through the dust and ice: The Huygens probe. Trying to remember what she had learned so many years ago, she approximated the size of the attack lines, and she held her hands roughly nine inches apart. Nothing changed, the lines continued their assault.
"C'mon… come on!" Regan shouted, as she made adjustments, an inch wider here, an inch further apart there.
Finally, she found it: The Huygens-Fresnel principle. Making an opening whose width was the size of the wavelength gave the lines a harmonious passage. As if recognizing the principle, the orange-and-green debris seemed to deliberately seek out the channel between her hands. The dust then peacefully circumvented her body before coming around again to recreate the journey.
"Mason!" Regan shouted. Seeing what she was doing, Mason followed suit, finding just the right width for the principle to take effect. And as the rhythmic lines passed between their hands, it started to create a melody.
"Do you recognize it?" Mason said. Regan nodded, her eyes welling up with the tears of sudden nostalgia. It was not quite the same melody, but the sweeping scales, the crescendos and diminuendos, the rhythmic feeling of traveling over hills, it all transported her back to her childhood memories of watching her mother play the piano. It was Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune", the song of moonlight.
For an inestimable amount of time, Mason and Regan stood together, playing "Clair de Lune" with the thinking molecules of Titan. They looked at each other, the two of them expressing a telepathic agreement that this was not the beginnings of a physical evolution, as Mason originally theorized, but the rapid culmination of a communicative evolution.
"Does this mean Debussy was also some sort of prophet?"
"Who knows," Regan replied, "they may have all been prophets, plugged in to the language of the universe."
As Mason and Regan smiled, the white light began its return, drowning everything visual and audible. Stumbling in the blinding brightness, they found each other's hands and held them tight, as they journeyed back to a reality that perhaps made more sense but was nowhere near as enchanting.
In the weeks that followed, Mason and Regan could not explain what they had seen, nor did they talk much about the event. They returned to the normalcy of Alex and Claire, Elliott and the Capital, which was not necessarily "normal", but under these unusual circumstances would have to do. They continued their work with NASA, transmitting the rhythmic patterns of children's songs to Titan's surface, and awaiting responses of increasing complexity. However, the results turned out to be more gradual than expected.
"Perhaps we were spoiled," Mason observed over a particularly disappointing lunch of what may have once been fish. "Whatever happened, whatever we saw, that wasn't evolution. Interstellar Debussy isn't going to happen in our lifetime, at least not in any way that we can document."
"So then what happened to us?"
"I'm not sure. Perhaps it was prophecy. Maybe we're the next Mozart?"
It sounded improbable. It made Regan giggle. She held up her beer and toasted with Mason. "To Titan," she exclaimed.
"To Titan," Mason replied. And somewhere, a child could be heard singing:
Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
Now I know my ABC's
Next time won't you sing with me?
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