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. This is one of five endings we're posting this week. Vote on this week's endings here.
Martin Pitt-Bradley writes:
All of Roger’s writing up front and then pages of me impersonating him didn’t seem right, so I rearranged things a bit. I kept a file of whatever I lifted out and then reinserted every bit later on, like delaying the Gernsback cover and Claire’s introduction. The biggest leap was combining Alex and Bruce, though I saved Bruce’s namesake for later. It’s all in there, somewhere.
Mason's phone beeped just as he was dipping his fried lake perch into the tartar sauce. He was sitting in the Capital, a Campustown bar that offered an elementary but cheap menu. It was beset on two sides by undergraduate hangouts that didn't check IDs, but free of the adolescents, the Capital had a vaguely bohemian feel. In Mason's opinion, this atmosphere was the upside of the lamentable tendency its neighbors' patrons had of standing outside and leaning over the sidewalk to vomit. Wiping the oil off his fingers, Mason then checked the text message that was, apparently, from his research assistant Alex. It read, "We have a pattern." Mason reflected that any pattern would not change now that the Titan listening lab had captured it. Alex could wait a few minutes. Mason finished his perch, fries and creamed corn, then closed with apple crumb cake and the last of his beer before getting up.
He walked east on Green Street, noting as he always did that Alma Mater was still standing, and turned left at the College of Engineering to walk down to the National Center for Supercomputer Applications. It was pledge week, so the fauna shaded barfing Greeks. Ignoring the students, he concentrated on his measured steps, refusing to let eagerness take hold and speed him up. He wasn't falling for this "pattern." Mason had been listening to Titan—or rather his equipment had been listening—for so long that he knew if he betrayed hope, that moon would break his heart. This pattern, like all promising patterns in celestial noise, was likely meaningless. As always, there would be some mundane way to explain it away as random noise.
Mason's primary reason for monitoring the signals was a pragmatic one: It brought in grant money, the kind of money that got Mason's tenure fast-tracked and allowed him to spend most of his time in the lab and hardly any of it lecturing. The university was a subcontractor tuned into the Cassini spacecraft since it launched in 1997. When it finally arrived in an orbit around Saturn in 2005, Cassini deployed her passenger, a lunar lander named Huygens, which landed on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. After years trudging through the solar system, Huygens was now sending back signals from where there had been only silence before, extending man's ear, and hopefully his mind, farther than ever.
Huygens didn't resemble the Mars rovers at all. Rather than crawl about, Huygens relied on a series of ancillary probes, every one of them loaded with instruments, which were dropped at random across several miles. They burrowed into the ice, then triangulated between themselves and began relaying data back to Huygens, which then bounced UHF feeds up to Cassini, which beamed them back to NASA and Mason's lab. Between the cameras, spectrometers, seismometers and electrodes, which Mason's team specialized in, it was the most comprehensive study of an extraterrestrial surface ever.
The concept of lonely Huygens and its probe siblings sitting on Titan's icy planes was a curious thing. For that matter, Mason reflected, it was curious even that Saturn existed, or the Universe, or him. He found consolation in contemplating just how small he was. His point of view was no longer Urbana, Illinois. It was now some undefined, implacable spot where all the immensity of the universe was just a pinpoint of light. In his imagination, he approached this sparkling singularity through the void until it broke down intimately into larger pinpoints, and then galaxies, then suns and planets, like one of those YouTube time-lapse videos. Closer and closer, Mason drew in his mind, until finally he was back in Urbana, and Alma Mater, walking across campus with a loose gait and a couple beers coursing through him.
Mason tries to imagine what might have Alex promising patterns. In density, Titan was half ice, half rock. If only Emily Dickinson had known about this moon, she would have written a poem about it. Since ice and rock tend in their nature to remain ice and rock, what interested the team was the ocean in between them. This sort of sea was not frozen because it contained a great deal of ammonia swirling with magma. If anything was happening on Titan, it was happening there, thought Mason as he used his swipe-card and took the elevator to the third-floor laboratory. Swipe cards were made possible because of early computer programs such as those at Illinois. At the time, the university's' computer department fit in a modest office building filled with vacuum tubes just east of what was now the Center. A photo of it was framed in the lobby.
"So what's up?" asked Mason as he stepped into the lab, which for all the data feeds beaming in from NASA, looked like a regular office. There weren't any cubicles, and there were plenty of computers, but none of its contents would have looked out of place in an accounting firm.
"Wait, you're here?" Alex perked up, genuinely surprised.
Mason answered, "Yeah, I got your message."
"Regan ran to go see you at the Capital." Alex stood and pulled out his phone. He was a fairly good looking guy, but he had been letting his weight slip while writing his thesis. Mason had gone through the same phase years ago. "Yeah, Reeg… He's here— no, stay there... yeah we're coming."
"We're walking back?" asked Mason as Alex hung up.
"Yeah," answered Alex as he pulled on his windbreaker.
"Did you say she 'ran' there? What's going on?"
"F$#@, we're never going to get that thing done now," grumbled Alex at the shoeboxes of punch cards sitting on a side table. Him and Regan had taken on a project to rebuild a working model of PLATO, the old computer program created on the Illinois campus in the 1960s. For two weeks, Mason had endured the two of them leaning over boxes, arranging cards poked like Swiss cheese. Once Regan immersed herself in those cards, Mason could barely get a nod out of her.
"Alex, what's going on?"
Alex was already out the door and beckoning Mason to follow so that he could lock up the lab. "Oh I'm not saying anything. Regan was pissed that I texted you. She can tell you."
Mason eyed him incredulously.
"Come on Mason, we've got to go."
Passing the vomiting pledges for a second time, Mason arrived back at the Capital to find Regan waiting with a pitcher of dark Löwenbräu beer ready. Löwenbräu was Mason's favorite, and Regan was smiling, she was buttering him up for something.
"Hiya boss." Regan's eyes, framed by her red glasses, literally sparkled. She rarely wore makeup and didn't need to.
"Okay, Alex won't tell me anything, you're way too happy, I'm scared to ask what's going on."
Mason and Alex sat down as Regan grinned and started pouring Mason a glass. "Oh, in a few minutes, you're going to love us."
Mason accepted the beer and took a sip. He was getting a little lit, but boy did it taste good. "Okay, what have you got?"
Regan answered, "I have a model, and you know what you say about models."
"All models are wrong, but some are useful." George E. P. Box, words to live by.
Regan smiled. "I hypothesize that we are not receiving specific signals from the different electrodes in isolation, but that what we are measuring under the ice is one cohesive whole."
Mason failed to see any revelation. "Well it is an ocean, fluid. That's why they set Huygens up the way they did."
"No, not just an ocean. From what we've run, we've found a different class of noise."
"'Kay, here's where the arguing starts," inserted Alex.
Mason asked, "How different?"
Regan bobbed her head. "Subtly different."
Mason warned, "This better be going somewhere…"
"Okay, give me five minutes." Regan rubbed her hands together. "We have this ocean, it's underneath a sheet of ice on a moon and made up of this methane-euthane stuff, and it's a pretty violent place, but there's warmth courtesy of how these magma oceans are warmer than the rest of the moon. Now, we know on earth that life is possible without oxygen, like those plumes at the bottom of the Pacific, living off sulfur. It's not what I'd call a wonderful life, but it's there."
Mason rolls his eyes. "Regan, there's going to be a massive burden of proof on claiming the discovery of—"
"Five minutes, Mason, well four now." She continued, "So while things are bubbling away in this ocean, on a nearby rock a few steps closer to the Sun, intelligent beings develop: humans, us." She then emphasized, "That's the kind of intelligence we understand. So, these people send a spacecraft to our ocean's moon."
"How many minutes before the science fiction really starts?" asked Alex before swigging his beer.
"I'm ignoring you." Regan refocused. "Little did we know that in this ocean, over many, many eons, two molecules first got chummy and reacted to each other's presence, then three did it, then four. They never actually communicate, but something happened. Bodies didn't evolve into plants and animals because they couldn't, this kind of environment would rip anything like that to shreds but, as Darwin taught us, a random event can cause something, anything to change in life. Something nudged things in the right direction, and life started to coalesce."
Alex grinned while topping up his glass. "And out pops Moby Dick."
"And that's the problem," Regan pointed at Alex. "We think life needs to look like us, that it needs to be wrapped up in skin or bark, and that intelligence needs to be encapsulated in a pink noodle that we call a brain. That's a f@$#ing prejudice."
"Prejudice?" blurted Alex. He feigned innocence by tapping his heart. "I love your little molecules!"
Regan continued, "We don't know what happened exactly, like I said, this is just my model to explain it, but there must have been something, because regardless of what happened, the proof showed up." She then slapped her smartphone down on the table.
Mason eyed the phone sitting there. "So I'm guessing the five minutes are up."
"Listen to it," ordered Regan.
Both Regan and Alex watching him intently, Mason unwrapped the earbuds, popped them in and hit play. The din of the bar was then replaced by odd synthesized tones. In a kitty-cornered and cold sort of way, it made him imagine a failed Mozart.
"What am I listening to?" asked Mason.
"It's what happens when you combine all the sensors, every feed, and run a modified regression," answered Regan.
Mason thought to himself. Was it music? Whatever it was, it built to a crescendo, then teetered there, holding him. Could he have somehow connected to a frothing pool of magma and ammonia on a distant moon?
Alex raised his hand, asking Mason for permission to speak.
"This isn't a class, Alex."
"I know that. If it was, you wouldn't be here." Alex grinned. Mason's dread of lecturing was well known. "I have a counter-argument."
Regan waved. "Go ahead."
"No Darwinian thunderbolt. No life. What we have here is just random noise that we have sorted through for so long that we finally found something pretty, which is proof of our aesthetic tastes, not proof of intelligent life."
Mason nodded for Alex to continue.
Alex swigged his beer and obliged. "Regan wants to believe that Titan's molecules evolved and somehow grouped together into consciousness, and that this collective-whatever-thing is what we're hearing. But we're looking for patterns. Noise is usually ugly, spiky ups and downs, we filter those out. Given a large enough sample and survivorship bias, randomness can spuriously look nonrandom.
"Also, second point," he continued. "We see design, but the design was picking the pattern out. What is music other than math? Well, my algorithms—my genius algorithms, I should say, are math. They're practically designed to isolate something that resembles a melody."
"You don't see many squares in nature," asserted Regan.
"Maybe if we looked long enough and close enough, we would," countered Alex.
The waitress knew them all and stopped by the booth. "One left of the apple crumb cake."
"Dibbies," answered Regan.
Alex put Mason on the spot. "So which way are we going on this? Pretty static, or a lunar intelligence?"
Evading the ultimatum, Mason squinted, his forehead prickly from all the beer, and asked Regan, "Are you implying that alien life is evolving in an ocean full of ammonia, and that its first attempt at expression is music?"
Regan's eyes were lit up by alcohol. "Can you imagine?"
After getting home, Mason found that he couldn't sleep and poured himself a Scotch, musing that this model of Regan's seemed determined to get him drunk. Then an idea crossed his mind, and he tried to shake his glass to form bubbles, but the best he managed was a few tiny ones that burst instantly, so he took to imagining them instead. Drifting back years to a Fall biology class, he tried to think of how many signs of life bubbles might display. They could split or merge, so there were reproduction and growth. Internal regulation? Well there was surface tension and a clear delineation between the outside world and the bubble's internal one. Response to environment and order? Well they rose from high pressure to low, which, in terms of potential energy, was energy utilization. Okay, that last one was a bit weak. Evolution? Now that was a toughie.
What if Alex was right; if you watched enough bubbles for long enough, would you start to think they were intelligent? How would one know the difference between a genius bubble and just another random but pleasant one? He recalled the infinite monkey theorem: get enough monkeys banging away at typewriters long enough, and one of them will eventually type the complete works of William Shakespeare.
Damned Regan and her music! He was the professor, she should have been the one up fretting over his ideas. He resolved to text her. "We need to talk tomorrow."
He was surprised by the chime of a reply text barely seconds later. "Alex and me are still arguing, get on Skype."
"Seriously?" he asked.
"Yeah, log on."
He pulled out his laptop and accepted Regan's dinging invite.
Feeds pop up of Regan and Alex both sitting in their apartments. Despite the dark rings under their eyes, they were both still very much awake. While rubbing his face and wondering if his cheeks were going to appear pink on the video feed, Mason asked, "Any progress?"
Alex answered, "We're somewhere between I think it's pretty static and Reeg thinks E.T. is phoning home."
"E.T. phoned from earth to space, asshole," Regan retorted.
"Should I tell him about the music thing?" asked Alex.
"Sure, go ahead."
Alex explained, "I found an experiment called 'The Musical Gene Pool' where sounds were first randomly generated. Users then voted clips up and down. As users rewarded random clips for being the 'most musical,' those clips were combined to form larger ones. Eventually, they pulled music out of noise." He cleared his throat. Regan and he both sounded hoarse. "With us, the first filter was my algorithms and the associated regressions, those got rid of the really random stuff. Filter two was us deciding what we thought was pretty."
Jesus, Alex! All Mason had come up with was the tired monkey example. "And you, Regan, what do you say?"
Regan answered, "I wonder why we don't just dismiss all musicians as random events."
"Any suggestions?" Mason posed.
Everyone sat silent.
Mason closed his eyes for a moment. They weren't following the scientific method. Yes they had observed something, but now they were floundering, they had to form a hypothesis, make a prediction and then test it. They were meant to be scientists! "Then we send a song back."
"What do you mean?" asked Alex.
"Music isn't all that different from language. Both of them are based on information and patterns. I bet a mathematician would have trouble proving there's a fundamental difference," Mason explained. "So we send something back. If what you found is just random noise, Titan won't notice. If it is consciousness, it will communicate."
"We're assuming it can even perceive what we're sending is a message," inserted Regan.
"Well if it can't, we're up shit's creek. We can't prove anything without experimentation," stated Mason, realizing too late that he was probably a bit short-fused at this hour.
Regan picked up on the awkward pause. "So if we send a song, and we see a statistically significant uptick in the pattern, then we know we have something."
Alex grinned. "You think man's potential first communication with alien life should be a song?"
Mason perked an eyebrow. "You're not sounding like a skeptic."
Alex's grin grew wide and toothy. "Oh no, Reeg's definitely the believer here. I'm just wondering about the prime directive."
"Oh shut up Alex," spat Regan.
"So what do we send and how do send it?" pressed Mason.
"Something simple that we can adjust for future tests, like a bassline," offered Alex.
Regan objected, "No, this is music, not a metronome. We need to send something real."
Mason agreed. "I'm with Regan."
Alex exhaled. "Well we can't do lyrics, they wouldn't make sense the way we're picking up signals, so it has to be instrumental."
Despite the hour, Regan suddenly perked up. "Oh, oh I've got it! That song from 2001, dah-dahhhh-da-Dah! What's it called?"
Alex lights up. "The monkey thing! Let me Google it!"
He knew the song had a weird name, but for the life of him, Mason couldn't remember it either.
"Richard Strauss' 'Also Sprach Zarathustra'" Alex had to sound out the name. "It's actually thirty minutes long, so that should get their attention. I've got it on YouTube, I'll play it."
Sure enough, the spirited music that can't help but conjure up the image of a monkey smashing bones started playing.
"And how to we send it?" asked Mason.
"To a moon orbiting Saturn? F@$# if I know," answered Alex.
It was 2AM and Mason was blank.
"F@$#, I've got it," Alex contradicted himself. "The daily diagnostic, we can pump something through the electrodes, like a really mild defibrillator. We can say it's a test, maybe we think we have some interesting findings, but the thing might be f@$#ed up, whatever."
"They'd be suspicious," warned Mason.
"Hardly, those things reconfigure once a day already, stupid test blows out our data feeds for five minutes," answered Alex.
"How strong would the signal be?" asked Regan.
Alex shrugged. "No clue, might not even get through the ice, but I can't think of anything else."
"I can't think period. Let's get some sleep and pick it up tomorrow," suggested Mason.
"'Kay," agreed Alex as he logged off.
"Mason," interrupted Regan just as Mason was about to flip his monitor down.
"It's going to work, I can feel it."
"Maybe, but go to bed."
Mason woke up with a headache and the vague memory of plotting to misappropriate NASA equipment. His assistants had keys to the lab, so he resolved to take his time getting in. He was trying to soothe his sandpaper throat with orange juice when his phone chimed with Regan's text.
"Everything is set up as a sensor test. We can send in the request on your email."
Mason had given Regan and Alex access to his university email to handle mundane communications with NASA.
Mason typed back, "When did you get in?"
Her answer was instantaneous. "Six thirty, can we send it?"
"How will it work?"
"The electrodes. The daily diagnostic will drum off Zarathustra, do we go for it?"
Mason pondered how many careers have been ended by a text message; that must be the ultimate testament to a digital age. He typed, "Yes."
Resigned to whatever fallout might come his way, Mason showered and walked to the lab. It's a long walk, but his doctor had ordered him to get on a regimen after he packed on an extra twenty pounds. Mason objected, he had had a fat Labrador Retriever for years, and that dog had looked perfectly happy with the rolls of blubber under his fur.
Mason realized something was amiss when he heard the thumping as he stepped out of the elevator. Regan and Alex are squabbling over one of the computers and neither of them turned when Mason entered.
"What's going on?" asked Mason over the din.
Regan spun around. "Isn't it great?"
Mason could finally hear it, it was Zarathustra, kind of, but rearranged, indulging certain bits, and there was a staccato of electronic music peppering it.
"What am I listening to?"
Alex rolled his eyes. "Depends how you look at it: micro or macro? Maybe it's neurons firing, maybe it's molecules having sex."
Regan was undeterred. "I had Claire listen to yesterday's signal. She thought that it was music, imagine what she'll say about this."
"Claire's in town?" asked Alex, noticeably interested.
"No, I emailed her an MP3. She's visiting this weekend though, so stay away."
Mason chuckled. Regan was not happy about Alex's crush on her cousin. "Okay, someone tell me what happened."
Alex explained, "We submitted the diagnostic with the song embedded in it, and Bruce must have been there because it was authorized in minutes." Bruce Elliot was Mason's contact at NASA. He was the one in charge of awarding Mason the grant and access to the feeds. He basically made Mason's career. Alex continued, "So an hour to get there, an hour to get back…"
Mason was shocked. "Wait, this came back immediately?"
"Oh not you too," groaned Alex. "She's already talking alien intelligence."
Regan countered, "Maybe intelligence isn't required. All that's needed are patterns that move more readily than other patterns. There had to be a moment in our oceans when those first strands of nucleic acids came together. We might be literally hearing that spark now on Titan. There'd be something religious to that."
"Wait, 'religion?' How are you studying to be a scientist?" snorted Alex.
"I'm a Unitarian, but religion is a framework. We know the evolution of life involves the communication of information. You have a change, first there's this and then there's that. Information moves forward. Nucleic acids in our oceans, over time, eventually became the DNA in you and me. You don't see the beauty of that?"
"You made this all up out of thin air," objected Alex.
"Of course I did, so why don't you tell me how you're going to crack those patterns. Random chance is growing more and more unlikely."
Alex turned his nose up. "Patterns lend themselves to pattern-originators, this is all the path of least resistance. We heard something we liked, we bounced something back, it resonated. It's like an echo in a valley."
Regan was taken aback. "Oh my god! You administered the experiment yourself and you're not even phased by the results."
Alex fanned his fingertips on his chest. "I am a professional."
"Nobody told Mrs. Bee she couldn't fly, so she just kept flying," mused Mason. "For decades, no one could explain how bees could fly. Big fat things, liked carrying pollen, stubby wings, it didn't make any sense. Then the high speed cameras got better and we figured it out. We have something here that we can't explain, but it's here, so I want to hear what our faster camera is going to be."
There's a long silence that Regan finally breaks. "We smash this echo."
"Go on," encouraged Mason.
"We sent one song the first time, now we send everything, every bit of recorded music we have. You think we hit a resonance before? Now we'll hit every frequency." She turned to Alex. "What are the odds of that resulting in a randomly pleasant reply?"
Alex paused. "I'd have to look at the numbers."
Mason almost laughed. "Oh come on Alex!"
"Okay, okay," conceded Alex. "If what bounced back after sending pretty much all of human history's music was intelligible, I'd say that'd be pretty definitive."
"How long would that take to transmit?" asked Mason.
Alex started thinking out loud. "Well, again, lyrics won't make sense. So we're talking instruments only, classical stuff, jazz, chamber music, bagpipes, I don't know. Let's say we download a few gigabytes, this is all running on really high frequencies, I bet we could run through it all in a few hours."
"My dad always loved Dvořák," piped Regan.
"Throw him in. Start downloading," instructed Mason.
"Oh yeah? You better cover me when the campus jerks bust me for the torrents," responded Alex.
Mason nodded. "No problem. I'll get on the phone with NASA and ask about running some more diagnostics."
"Shit, how are we going to cover this?" asked Alex.
That evening, Mason was back home when his phone rang. It was Sam, an Engineer at NASA.
"Hi, Mason?" Sam's voice sounded uncomfortable. Mason had never actually met Sam in person and had become tuned to reading him over the phone.
"Yeah, Sam? What's up?"
"Uh, we just got your request for a second diagnostic and… and it's pretty big."
"Do you think that'll be a problem?"
"I don't know, maybe? It's just that we've been running the current diagnostic for almost two years now, and there hasn't been a problem, but this one is several thousand times larger."
Mason grabbed his laptop and pulled up his email. He was going to have to channel some of Alex's hogwash. "Well it's just that we've been noticing some odd resonances lately, might be the diagnostics themselves bouncing back… pattern- originators, you know, like an echo in a valley, you understand."
"Okay, if you think Bruce will be okay with it."
Unlike Sam, Bruce had a doctorate in Physics, and would instantly call bullshit on this. Mason bluffed, "You can check with him, but it's really just another diagnostic, you run one every day anyways."
"No, I mean I already called you at home, sorry, I'll put it through."
Mason exhaled as he hung up the phone. What the hell was he doing?
For the second day in a row, the elevator doors opened and Mason was hit by waves of odd sounds bellowing out of the lab.
"What the hell guys? We're not the only people on this floor!" complained Mason.
Alex, Regan and, to Mason's surprise, Regan's cousin Claire all looked up. There were more speakers here today, and several of the monitors were clustered around a single computer.
Regan smiled. "Hey boss, don't worry, we cleared it with everybody."
"Claire," acknowledged Mason.
"Hello, sir." Claire was a quiet type, a little shorter than Regan, but there was a definite family resemblance.
Alex piped in, "Claire has been showing us how to run some of the feeds through synthesizers. She really has helped us out a lot."
Mason noticed Regan roll her eyes. "So what is that noise, I thought you were looking for music."
Alex waved at the speakers. "I know, random sound, same old same old, right? But that's what happens when a whole orchestra tries to play one set of drums at once, but check this out." Alex pointed at the center screen, it was a chaotic band of static, something Mason had grown accustomed to staring at. "That is crap, but if we divvy up the frequencies…" A few taps of they keys. "…we get this."
The static feed scattered across the other monitors and reconstructed into different bands. Alex turned up a knob on his amplifier and the meaningless noise clarified. Synthesized instruments emerged, all of them working together to play something loose, like classical musicians strumming jazz.
"I give you Joey!" announced Alex, having obviously prepared his punch line.
"Joey?" asked Mason
"Yep, I figured out how to decompress the data streams, I get to name him."
"Regan did find the original pattern," countered Mason.
Regan graciously conceded, "It's okay, I like the name Joey too, but look who's the believer now."
"It's called being objective, you should try it sometime, but… f@$#, it's music!" Alex pointed at two of the bands on the far right monitor. "If I didn't know better, I'd say those two are alpha and beta waves."
Mason was stunned. "Wait, are you saying—"
"All I'm saying is think about Huygens' design. All those electrodes spread over the surface: electroencephalography, Huygens is a moon-sized EEG, and Titan might be a brain simulator," interrupted Alex.
Regan objected to this proposition. "How can you call a natural phenomena a 'simulation?'"
Mason thought about the Blue Brain Project. Scientists had used supercomputers to reverse engineer and simulate 10,000 rat brain cells. A full human brain simulation was decades away, but could Alex have been right, could the countless sparking molecules in Titan's ocean effectively have developed that kind of processing power?
Alex countered, "I'm saying it's a simulation because it clearly isn't an actual brain and we've been loading it with the kind of information that musicians think about, and what do we get out the other side? Music. That's a simulation."
"Sorry we didn't find a monkey, but why does life have to be in our image?" argued Regan.
Regan and Alex seemed to have forgotten Claire was there. Mason turned to her. "Claire, you're the music major, can you tell us if this is music?"
"It's music," she said. "I don't know if the molecules know it, and they sure don't seem to know bupkis about notes, rhythm, but…"
"But what?" pressed Mason.
"It's raw, and I'm thinking that if maybe someone never learned about orchestras or musicians, and they didn't care about how a composition could take shape in the real world, because they had never seen the real world, would it sound like this?"
Regan and Alex couldn't add anything.
"Let me hear that one," Claire pointed at one band.
"Sure," answered Alex as he muted everything else until all that remained was a thumping pulse.
Claire explained, "That's almost like reggae. Now mix in that one."
A frenetic twang layered in. It wasn't out of sync, but it still didn't quite fit.
Claire continued, "Now I'd guess that's meant to be a fiddle, like something out of an Irish pub band. I don't think I've ever heard a combination like that. Can you turn them all up?"
The full clamor of everything enveloped them once more, but now Mason was trying to pick out the different parts. She was right, how could everything work together?
Claire continued, "Oboe, guitar, flute, saxophone… I can help you with the synthesizers, but they're all in there. It's just too pure, and it isn't copying anything, or maybe it's copying everything. I don't know."
"If a computer can successfully tell a joke, and do it with the timing and delivery necessary to trick a human into believing that it is human, then that computer is intelligent," stated Mason.
"What are you saying?" asked Alex.
"I'm not saying, I'm assigning. I'm going to go get a coffee, and you all will come up with a way to settle this. Do we have intelligence here or not?"
"Wait, me too?" asked Claire.
"If Joey's a musician, you're the subject matter expert," answered Mason as he stepped out the door.
"Mason!" Regan caught up with him in the hallway.
"You're really going to let us run this properly?"
Mason smiled. "Sure, Alex and Claire seem to work well together."
"Yeah, ha ha," Regan said sarcastically. "But I mean it, if we come up with something, you'll back us?"
She stuck a hand out, Mason looked at her a little sideways, but shook it.
"That's a promise, you just promised," she declared while turning back to the lab.
Mason went for a long walk and didn't just buy any coffee. He splurged on one of those caramel lattes that cost way too much, and he sat with his notebook. What had happened to his quiet lab, his mundane research and his grateful research assistants? For two days now, they've kept him up at night, badgered him into pondering absurdities. They needed to get this out of their systems. Parents of teenagers must go through this phase.
Then his phone chimed, but it wasn't a text, it was a Facebook invite. Mason registered a Facebook account after another professor's students had mounted an online mutiny. Avoiding classwork kept Mason aloof of this kind of controversy since it was handing out grades that generally led to bad blood.
"One night only, The Thinking Molecules of Titan!"
The event was complete with a poster made out of a Gernsback-era Amazing Stories cover. It featured a voluptuous, space girl sporting a plunging neckline and her head in a goldfish bowl fleeing a menacing cloud.
A text from Regan popped in. "Did you get the invite?"
"Yes," replied Mason.
Suddenly, his phone was ringing. Of course, it was Regan. "What do you think?"
"Who made the poster?" asked Mason.
"Alex," answered Regan.
"Well it's not quite 'The Beatles,' but I guess it works"
"We'll need a live connection for another diagnostic," asserted Regan.
Jesus, how would he explain this one? "I'll see what I can do."
"Good, because we sent out 700 invites."
Joey's concert was an hour off, and Mason was heading over to the Capital when he bumped into the last person he wanted to see: Bruce Elliot. Bruce was in slacks, a short-sleeved dress shirt and a tie but no jacket, the unofficial NASA office uniform. He was noticeably irritated.
"Bruce, hi. I didn't know you were coming in," said Mason, trying to feign casualness.
Bruce didn't blink. "I didn't plan to jump on a plane this afternoon. You haven't been answering emails."
"Yeah, sorry, been just a little busy, you know how things get."
"What the hell is this?" Bruce holds up a printout off a Facebook event page. It's Alex's concert poster. "Someone on my staff, one of your old assistants, showed it to me this morning."
A pit formed in Mason's stomach. "Bruce, I can explain."
"You know what, I got alerted about your little sensor tests, and I thought, 'Hey, I've known Mason for fifteen years, if he needs to run some tests, no problem, I trust him.' Then you asked to run one of them personally, so I read your request myself, and I said okay, because I trusted you."
"Bruce, listen, it's just data feeds, and what I wrote—"
Bruce holds up a hand. "At first, we didn't know what you were beaming out, I had some contacts in the NSA look it over. They called me back laughing their asses off, it was f@$#ing music! Weird thing though: I had to cover up that some of that music was coming in, not going out."
"Look Bruce, I don't know what to tell you."
"How about where you got the idea to use a seven-hundred-million-dollar lunar lander as a stereo? Better yet, what about your two assistants? They've got their doctoral theses tied up in this crap. Hell, what about your career? You want me to blow up the whole grant?"
Mason felt ill. How much damage had he done? He looked for words, but all he found was a dry hollow in his throat.
Then Bruce asked flatly, "Who are you talking to?"
"What do you mean?"
Bruce was angry. "We know China's mooching off our satellites, recording the feeds even though they can't decrypt them, but how the hell did someone bounce a signal through Huygens? Everyone's telling me it's impossible."
"You mean like EME?" Earth-Moon-Earth: Some enthusiasts get a real kick out of bouncing radio signals back to earth off the moon, or off the ionized trails of satellites, particularly ones the USA likes to think are secret. Take an ordinary ham radio transmitter, add a frequency doubler and, for a few hundred bucks, you can make something that could foul up all kinds of emergency channels.
"Yeah, but this is a probe on Saturn's friggin' moon! You better not be playing with this, Mason. Seriously, they'll be talking jail term."
"No, Bruce, listen to me, those signals aren't bouncing off Titan, they are Titan." Mason exhaled and ran a hand through his hair. There was less of it than there used to be. "Listen, I don't know what it is! How would you define language or, worse, music? We have terabytes and terabytes of static on file. I can't tell you if this thing has evolved or if we've just found the right chemical pops that we think sound nice, but whatever it is, we started getting more and more of it. What could I have told you? 'Hey, I think this sounds pretty, have a listen.'"
"Yeah Mason, you could have."
"Then I'm sorry, because even I still think it's crazy." Mason sighed. "I'm sorry Bruce, I've spent years listening to static, and I've been a scientist, but I can't explain this, and I don't know what else to do with it."
Bruce stared at Mason. "What do we do now?"
"It's up to you. Either make a phone call and we're done, or come to the concert and see if this is for real."
The Capital was so full that Mason had to shimmy sideways between the shoulders of standing patrons to get up to the stage. It was more than just the bohemian types tonight, but the adolescents weren't binge drinking. The whole place had a static electricity to it. Yes, there was chatter, some doubtful, some excited, but no one seemed willing to roar in laughter or belch out profanities. Mason could feel excitement and apprehension swirling in him as he squeezed his speaking notes and stepped up to talk to Alex.
"Is everything ready?" asked Mason.
Alex clambered around some cables. He had clearly enjoyed a couple beers. "Sure is. We're wired right into the lab's network. Claire will play, those PCs there will compress and beam it out, then it's all up to Joey."
Mason turned to Claire. She looked odd perched on the bench in front of the standup piano with microphones stuck in its open top running cables to computers that, in turn, ran more cables out to the surrounding amplifiers and stacks of speakers.
"You ready?" asked Mason.
She nodded from inside the nest of speakers and cables.
Alex ambled up with a microphone in tow. "They're ready for a show, boss."
Mason accepted the microphone and, to his surprise, Alex started waving his arms and yelling.
"All right everybody, time to sit the f@$# down! You know why you're here, and it's time to hear this man, a great f@$#ing professor, Professor James-f@$#ing-Mason!"
Jesus! Mason suddenly feared how drunk Alex was when he set things up, but then the audience roared jubilantly and Mason suddenly found himself to be the focal point of the bar.
"Hello everyone, my name is James Mason." His throat was dry and he realized he was too close to the microphone, but he saw Regan up front at a table with her friends and cleared his throat. "As a physicist, I never thought I'd be introducing a musical act, but this has been an odd week for me."
A few people chuckled.
"I know the poster looks pretty sci-fi, but I have been monitoring the data feeds from the Huygens lunar lander on Titan, Saturn's moon, for a few years now. Celestial noise isn't very exciting, it's mostly just static, but my research assistants, Regan and Alex here—" Mason waved to the two of them. Alex held his beer up proudly. "Well, they uncovered some truly remarkable patterns in the noise. I wouldn't have called it music, at first, but it was there, and Regan," He looks back to her. "Regan, um, she held our feet to the fire and we kept investigating it."
He closed his eyes for a moment. He was sweating. He looked down at his notes, but he was so far off that script that he wasn't sure how to get back. The audience was full of open, young, waiting faces.
Mason shook his head. "I'm not a great professor, I'm not even a good one. I don't leave a lab. I have been here for years, and I don't think I know any of you. My job is to bring in grant money, and I do, and that's my career in a nutshell." There were a couple murmurs, but the audience quickly refocused on him. "But what started coming in last week didn't make sense. At first, I said what we were hearing was random but pretty, but now I know I can't explain 'pretty,' and that probably means I can't call something 'random' either."
Bruce was in the back. Professor Hearst, an old, stern-faced man who happened to be Mason's boss, was next to him.
"What I keep finding myself going back to is the Richard Feynman quote, the one that was up on his blackboard when he died: 'What I cannot create, I do not understand.' I used to think this meant something, that if I could summarize something, explain it, prove it, rebuild it in a paper, then—well then I owned it. But this, this music that we keep getting, it won't be explained, and it's there, and I can't explain it, but I somehow understand. 'What I cannot create, I do not understand,' now encapsulates that I just spent over a decade looking for things that I could control, and now I see just how small of a world that is."
"So we're here to try something. We'll send a song out and then wait and see what comes back. None of this makes sense, and I don't know what you might hear versus what I might hear, but we're going to try."
Mason nodded to Claire who started to play. The piano was a chipper upright model with lightly stained wood and dinged edges, a lot like the one Mason's Sunday school teacher used to play when he was a kid. Claire began with five curious notes, holding the last key to let it resonate ponderously, then she paused before repeating it and pausing again. She then launched into more complex and faster combinations of the pattern, one hand high up the keys alternating with the other one down low, and the audience began to chuckle in recognition. Hushed explanations went round, it was "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Everyone was grinning at the joke when Claire jumped into an uptempo Scott Joplin tune, "The Nonpareil," that she had last played in a high school musical, then she switched into an equally lively "Lily Queen" where she indulged the lower keys with a buttery smoothness and teased out the higher ones with some indulgent improvisation.
Feeling awkward, Mason had climbed down off the stage. He was relieved by how lively Claire's music was and applauded along with everyone else.
Alex returned to his MC position, tapping away on his Lenovo tablet. "All right everyone! We're encoding it now and about to beam it to Titan. It'll take an hour to get there, and any response will take another hour to get back, so sit tight!"
And so began the long wait. If the bar was tense before, now it was positively nervous. The murmurings had built to a dull growl. In low tones, people debated the absurdity of this experiment, whether or not it even was an experiment, how maybe it was all fraud and, if it were real, just what it might mean. Some of Titan's greatest hits, as selected by Regan, played over the speakers. Mason leaned against the wall in a corner of the bar as far away from Bruce and Professor Hearst as possible. Neither of them were making overtures to speak. No, they'd let this properly blow up in Mason's face before delivering the killing blow. Mason first indulged one pint of beer, then a second, all the while pondering just what he had done to his career.
On a reprieve between fiddling with his tablet and swigging beer, Alex ambled up to Mason. "Way to lay it on the line, boss!"
Mason was about to say he didn't want to talk about it when Regan, without warning, hugged him. Mason was stunned and still paralyzed when she finally let go, a warm smile crossing her face.
Alex objected, "Hey, I don't get a hug?"
Regan pointed at him. "You stay away from my cousin!"
Alex cracked a goofy grin. "Why? Did she say something about me?"
Regan laughed despite herself and walked back to her friends' table.
"You know she will kill you," said Mason.
"Please, we'd be family, cousins-in-law." Alex was suddenly enamored with his tablet.
"What is it?" asked Mason.
"It's coming in, it's f@$#ing working!" Alex sprang back on stage and adjusted knobs on his amplifiers. Back in announcer mode, he yelled, "Everyone! It's show time!"
Alex nodded to Claire who pondered the first notes coming in over the speakers, then she began to edge back into the music. It obviously wouldn't adjust to her, but it was still a response to her first piece, so she soon found the groove. Lightly at first, she chased the speakers as they worked up the tempo faster than Joplin would have ever approved, bending his notes closer to the quack-virtuoso, musical mayhem of the ragtime jazz he ultimately inspired. People start cheering and then, just when there was little remnant of Joplin's original strains, Claire saw an opportunity and started pounding the keys like an amateur, rattling the untamed piano's bridges like teeth chatter in the cold and launched into Jerry Lee Lewis tunes.
Mason could feel the floor bouncing as everyone pumped their feet and the piano reverberated against the wall like a launching rocket. Claire rounded the end of a number and sighed to the audience, brushing a now sweaty strand of hair out of her eyes, but then Joey threw down the gauntlet and began tapping out the tarantella through the speakers. Claire turned to Alex, but all he could offer was a shrug, so she jumped into what would normally have been a four-handed duet, jamming the pedals to thicken the sound. It continued, drifting between melodies, sometimes crackling, but no more than an old AM radio would. There was clapping and cheering, and a definite cloud of marijuana wafted through the air.
Bruce shoved a fresh beer into Mason's hand, it was only a pilsner but was still welcome, and the two stood there as the vibrant, raw, inexplicable but undeniable sounds thumped through the bar.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.