02 January 2009


By Curtis C. Chen

Anton waited until late at night to do it. He waited until he could wait no longer, even though one overachieving apprentice remained in the otherwise empty laboratory.

Anton's pulse raced as he walked toward the airlock. It was transparent on all sides except the one leading into the environment chamber, and clearly visible from where the apprentice sat. Anton made a great show of putting on his pressure suit--heavy boots, thick gloves, ridiculous helmet.

He hummed a tune as he dressed: the last movement of Virgaan's Symphony Cantata, a repetitive but energetic melody that always helped steady Anton's nerves. Sometimes the simplest things were the best.

How long ago had the General recruited Anton? How long had the entire research team flailed, conjuring ever more exotic and convoluted attempts to decipher the Ancient objects?

The inner door hissed open, and the chamber's primordial atmosphere filled the airlock. Anton walked forward through the green mist and pressed both palms down on the control cube, which sat at chest height on a pedestal. Arrayed around it in a rough circle were the other Ancient objects, sitting on their own platforms at various heights.

He felt the sound from the cube vibrating the thick air. It had taken months to discover that the cube activated the other objects sonically, and longer to place each subordinate object at its proper distance from the cube.

Anton could feel the whole chamber resonating. He couldn't hear it through his helmet, of course; even with the most sophisticated microphones, the team had not been able to reproduce the Ancient music. It would never sound the same in a thin, human-breathable atmosphere.

That was why the apprentices slaved away now, trying to represent with mathematics the sounds of the objects in their native environment. But Anton knew it was futile. The General had recruited Anton for his musical talent and insight, and Anton knew that music was meant to be heard, to be experienced with one's own ears.

Anton's fingers trembled as he removed his helmet, and he told himself it was from excitement and not fear.

His eyes watered. He blinked and forced himself to breathe, taking the poisonous air into his lungs. It smelled of dead vegetables and felt thick in his nostrils. His throat burned.

And then he heard it. A beautiful, haunting chord, with overtones he never dreamed possible--nothing like any of the simulations. He turned his head, and the music changed and his vision blurred. As he fell, his ears moved through a multitude of sounds, each one more incredible than the last.

Anton understood. The music was not meant for a stationary audience; it had been designed for listeners who moved around the objects. The heavy atmosphere meant severe pressure grades everywhere. A single step would change the acoustics.

Anton coughed, and blood stained the floor before him. He crawled until he could reach the puddle with one hand, and began writing. It was not a suicide note. He simply wanted the others to know their Maestro had died happy.


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