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                                                                                        Whistle

                                                                                            by

                                                                                    Jack McDevitt

 

     Twenty years ago, Al Redwood walked out. He walked out of Ed Gelman's old galactic survey project, out of his job, and out of town. I knew what it was all about. We all knew.

     Al thought he had a message from M82.

     Gelman laughed at him. And I guess the rest of us did too.

     There was no way to prove anything. All he could do was point to a narrow band transmission in the optical range, with peculiar symmetries and repeating pulse, wavelength, and intensity patterns. A laser, Al suspected.

     I remember the final confrontation with Gelman, the day Al stormed out, the last time I'd seen him. They were on the front steps of the data center, on the front steps, screaming at one another. Gelman didn't want any little green men hanging around his project. So Al quit, and I never even got the chance to say goodbye.

     He dropped out of sight for a couple of years. None of us heard anything. His family had money, so he didn't have to work. And then I got a Christmas card from Texas: Nick, it said in his precise handwriting, it was the pulse clusters all the time. How could we have missed it?

     There was no return address. But I knew that, out there somewhere, Al was still chasing his elusive vision. Later, over the years, there was more: on D.C. Marriott stationery: I still think the frequency correspondences are critical. One weakens, another intensifies. Is it a counterpoint of some kind? By the way, I'm doing fine. My best to Ginny and the kids. And hurriedly scribbled on a postcard with a picture of the Atheneum: Getting close. They're out there, Nick. They're really out there!

     Al was a lot like M82. Explosive. Remote. Lit by inner fires. Ultimately self-destructive. A man whose personal stars periodically went nova. Ironic that he of all people would imagine receiving a transmission from that chaotic place, which had erupted nine or ten million years ago, and which was undoubtedly still bubbling.

     Periodically he'd say he was going to be in the area and would stop by. The first few times I got in a couple of bottles of Jamaican rum. He was big on rum. Later I didn't bother.

                                #

     It went on like that for two decades. Sporadic letters from odd places around the country, from Canada, from Europe, from Australia, once from Tokyo. Always promising progress. Sometimes they came in spurts, sometimes several years passed between communications. It was almost as if he were pursuing those damned gremlins around the world. He never spoke of anything else, other than to ask about my family, or my health. As far as I know, no one else ever heard from him at all.

     Then one night at about 3:00 a.m., he showed up in a driving January rainstorm, and I'll never forget how he looked, old and exhausted, his hair gone, his face creased. His top coat was open, his cardigan drenched. Water ran off his ears and nose. He stood in the storm, eyes empty, making no move to come in. "Nick," he whispered, "I know what it is." As if we'd last spoken the day before. As if someone had died.

     I pulled him inside. "Hello, Al."

     He was shaking his head, staring at the night light that illuminated the staircase I'd just descended. I hit the wall switch, a table lamp came on, and he seemed to jerk awake. "I know it's late," he said. "I'm sorry. I hope I didn't disturb anyone."

     Ginny and the kids were all long gone by then. "No," I said.

     "Good." Even for two decades, he'd lost a lot of ground. I knew I'd gotten gray myself, slipped into my later years. But Al looked ready for a back porch and an apple tree. "You know what the sons of bitches did?"

     "No." What sons of bitches?

     He peeled off his coat and, before I could get near him, lobbed it across an armchair. "We were on the wrong track right from the beginning, Nick. It never occurred to anybody we might be looking for something other than digital data."

     My God, he was off and running again. "Al," I said, "what are you drinking?"

     He ignored the question. "I mean, our working hypothesis had always been that an artificial transmission could be translated in some mathematical way. And that one that had come seven million light years would have to be a directed signal. A deliberate attempt to comnmunicate. Right?"

     I nodded. "How about brandy?" There was no rum in the house.    "Sure. Now: an effort to communicate is going to contain instructions. It's going to break easily. It has to. That's the damned point!" He chewed his lip and I thought he was choking back tears. He went quiet for a while. "But it was never there. I tried every approach I could think of. NSA even had a crack at it. Did you know that? They came up with nothing." His eyes brightened with satisfaction. "Absolutely nothing. You know what Gelman thought?"

     He ignored his brandy until I pointed to it.  "You ought to get out of your shoes," I said.

     "Gelman thought it was a reflection. He couldn't account for it any other way, so he decided it was a damned reflection. Nick, why do we always try so hard to explain everything away?"

     "I don't know."

     He sipped his drink. "Did you know he's dead?"

     "Gelman? Yes, I'd heard. It was a few years ago."

     "You know what I wanted, Nick? I wanted to show him. Son of a bitch, I wanted to walk in and hand him the evidence." His shoulders slumped. "Just as well." He shook his head and laughed.  It was a curious kind of sound: amused, stoical, bitter.  "Doesn't matter. He wouldn't have believed me anyway."

     There had been a time I'd thought Al Redwood was headed for a brilliant career. But even then he'd been a social black hole, a man with no existence outside the observatory. No family, no other friends. Only colleagues, and his work. It was painful to see him now, studying his fingerprints on the glass.

     I was never sure why he felt drawn to me. Maybe it was my family. The older kids loved to listen to him. And Ginny and I often sat with him late into the evenings. My own career leveled off at a plateau roughly commensurate with my abilities, which is to say not very high. I accepted the fact early on that I wasn't going to walk with giants. I was a maker of catalogues, an analyst, a man with an eye for detail. A recorder and observer of other people's greatness.

     He pulled off his shoes.

     "What does it say?" I asked.

     His eyes were cool and preoccupied behind thick lenses. I could see him running the question through again, his lips tightening slightly. "Weren't you listening, Nick? It doesn't say anything! Not a damned thing."

     The storm rattled the house.

     He got up, walked over to his coat, fumbled through the pockets, and produced a CD. "Here." He held it out for me.

     I took it, held it, looked at him. He was refilling his glass, his back to me. I sighed and slipped the disk into a player.

     Al strolled across the room and stared out through the blinds.

     I punched the START button.

     "The neighborhood hasn't changed much, Nick." An electronic whisper blew through the room. "I assumed that the patterns of duration and intensity and color and the rest of it could be broken out into symbols. That it would have meaning."

     The whisper intensified. Rustlings and murmurs surfaced, connected, flowed through the still dry air. He turned, cocked his head, and sighed. "This is what you get if you modulate the frequency with an audio signal."

     "There's a cadence," I said, hardly breathing.

     He laughed. "Yes! From seven million light-years, we get 'Chopsticks'!" He threw up his hands. "Damn their hides, Nick. How could they do anything so vicious?" His eyes were wet. He stood behind an upholstered chair, gripping it, trying to put his fingers through the fabric. The disk ran on: an inconsequential electronic river. "There's not much to it," I admitted. It wasn't really 'Chopsticks,'but it had a similar flavor.  

     "It's a joke." The dining room was dark. He stared through it at the rain running down the windows. He expected me to say something.

     "You can still publish," I said. "If you can document

this--."

     "Hell, no. I've had enough. You publish, if you want." He was pulling on his coat. The sounds did have a certain quality--.

     "You can't go out in that storm, Al. Stay here, tonight."

     "It's okay. I'm over at the Holiday Inn. Thanks anyway." He pushed past me into the entry.

     "Don't forget--."

     "You can have it. Souvenir."

     "Al--."

     "I wanted you to know, Nick. I wanted somebody to know."

     I nodded. "What will you do?"

     "I'll be all right." He shrugged. "I'll go back to New Mexico. I've been teaching down there the last couple of semesters." He straightened his shoulders and grinned. For that moment, the old Al Redwood was back. "Nice climate. And listen: don't worry. I've got a lot to keep me busy."

     Whistling past a graveyard.

     He shook my hand and hurried down the front steps. A car was parked at the curb. He got in, waved, and drove off.

     I wondered if I'd ever see him again.

     They would have needed a trillion watts to hurl Redwood's signal across seven million light-years.  Who would build that kind of transmitter to send out a disruptive coded melody?  At dawn, I was still listening to the damned thing.

                                #

     I took the next day off and went over to see Jean Parker, who operates a recording studio in Middletown. She's a short, intense, redheaded woman with a hell of a smile. I'd met her years before at a Wesleyan faculty dinner, where she was being honored for her contributions to the university music theater. I told her about Al, about M82, about the transmission. About how he was trying to pretend it was not a major disappointment. "I'd like to establish whether there might be something to it."

     "It's a wild story." But she glanced at the disk without interest. "What do you want me to do with it?"

     I wasn't sure. "Listen to it. Assume he was right, and this is a bona fide first-contact signal. What might it mean?"

     "You're kidding."

     "Try it."

     Her eyes closed. "Call me in a couple of days."

                                #

     "I've got it on a chip." She ushered me into a booth in the rear of her studio and turned on a synthesizer. "It's tied into a Synclavier III, an enhanced Lyricon, and a few enhancement programs of my own design." She stopped and looked puzzled. "You don't care?"

     "I don't understand much when you get past guitars."

     "Okay. Let me start by telling you that by any reasonable definition, your recording is a legitimate musical composition. Or would have been had the composers not faced extreme difficulties. It has consistent structure, tonal contrast, symmetry and counterpoint, even an intensification of variations toward the conclusion. I don't see how it could be a product of natural forces. So, if your friend was being honest with you, and if the source of this is what you say, then he's right. It's Martian music." She beamed. "If you can convince the public, it ought to do pretty well."

     That was an amusing notion. "I guess it might have commercial possibilities."

     "Get a good PR guy and tell your friend to ride it, Nick." She offered me a cup of coffee. "It didn't sound like much to you because you only had the basic melody. What I've done is to create a virtual orchestra and input the melody into the computer and then through the synthesizer. The system adds appropriate harmonics and rhythm, makes assignments to the various components of our orchestra, and does some basic arrangement. You want to hear the result?"

     "Go ahead." I'm not sure what I expected. I kept thinking about conditions in M82, an entire galaxy caught in an eon-long catastrophe. The band on the Titanic.

     "Tell me about the place where they live." She touched a presspad. "What do you know?"

     "I think it would be fair to say that, wherever they are in M82, the sky is on fire."

     "Okay," she said. "Maybe that fits."

     Lights faded. I listened again to Al Redwood's music. It was more liquid now, distant, delivered by strings rather than the electronic burble of a Cray. There was a sense of misgiving in the cadences. Or maybe in my own mind: I thought about Al, fleeing down the years with his burden. There must have been moments when he doubted himself, suspected Gelman had been right all along. And then, Chopsticks--.

     Suddenly I was recalling North Dakota at night. I was six years old under its blazing vault of stars, standing out behind the farmhouse while the earth turned beneath my feet. It was a time when the world was full of wonder. 

     Without warning, the music changed. It roared. Lightning ripped through it, and stars thundered along their courses. White light blazed across iron battlements. Oceans turned to steam, worlds drifted into the dark, suns dissolved.

     The music filled with rage. Death rode the skies, driving the stars on and on, exploding finally in a torrent of sheer irresistible power.

     And then it changed again. I recalled how Honolulu looks at night from the air. And Gus Evans' 24-Hour Gas Station and Diner, in its warm circle of light halfway up a Colorado mountainside. A coyote bayed outside the McDonald Observatory at Fort Davis.      Ginny lived again.

     And I remembered Tom Hicks. At Wesleyan, when he won his Nobel, and we lifted glasses and laughed into the dawn.

                                #

     "But that's you," I told Jean. "That's not what was on the CD."

     She shook her head. "Maybe my imagination got caught up in it a little, Nick. This is not an exact science. But this is close to what they were trying to send."

     "Then why didn't they send it?"

     "I don't know the physics. But it might not have been possible to transmit anything other than the basic melody. They left the rest of it to us. Listen: I can run it through again, change some of the parameters, and things will be different. But not the essentials. They've provided the architecture. All we're adding is marble and sunlight."

     I stared at her, trying to take it all in.

     "They've allowed us to collaborate with them," she said. No smile. Not this time.

     "I've got to find Al. Hell, this is exactly what he was looking for."

     "Probably."

     "Something else: these people are winning, Jean. Whatever it is they're dealing with out there, they're winning."

     "Maybe." She extracted the disk, handed it to me, returned the original, and gave me a second copy. "For Redwood, when you find him."

     "Why 'maybe'?"

     She was shutting down the equipment. "Did you catch the sense of wistfulness? It runs through everything, even the most turbulent sections. I think they're like your friend."

     "How do you mean?"

     "Whistling past the graveyard."

            _____________________________________

     Originally published in Full Spectrum 2, edited by Lou Aronica, Shawna McCarthy, Amy Stout, and Patrick LoBrutto, Doubleday, Copyright Bantam-Doubleday 1989.​