Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Where Two or Three" by Sheila Finch (Part 2 of 3)

Where Two or Three

by Sheila Finch

[Continued from Part 1]

She couldn't stop thinking about Sam. Of course Daddy would find out if she took him for a ride in the car! And even if she did get the keys, she certainly shouldn't be driving all the way to Palm Springs, the only part of the desert she knew how to get to. By Monday morning she was roaming around the silent house as antsy as if it were the first day of school in a new place.

Who did that old guy think he was, anyway?

That was a question she could find the answer to.

Daddy had gone to the airport on his way to a two-day SETI conference on the east coast; Mom had driven up to Santa Barbara to see Grandma, who'd suddenly taken ill, and she planned to stay the night. Maddie was on her own.

She went into the study to use the computer. It didn't take long to learn that Samuel Coulter Ferenzi had once been famous. And that there was something really odd about the dates.

He'd been the first astronaut to rendezvous with an asteroid, she read, a feat no one else had repeated in the twenty years since. She skipped over the voyage and its mission. When the crew came back to Earth, there'd been a huge welcome parade. Ferenzi had given speeches at universities. He'd cut the ribbons opening Air & Space Museums. The tabloids had buzzed over his romance with a movie star. Then things had apparently gone wrong.

The phone beeped. She touched the pad for the study extension. "Parker residence."

"What're your plans for today, Madison?" her father's voice asked.

Just like that, she thought. No: How are you, sweetie? No: I hope you're not bored all by yourself? that anybody else's dad might've asked. Sounded like he'd given up on her already; she really resented that. "I'm putting in my hours at the hospice like I'm supposed to!"

He'd taken her cell too, as if he thought she'd be putting in a call to her supplier.

"Don't get snarky with me, young lady!" Daddy said. "Be home before dark."


"My plane's boarding. See you in a couple of days."

Maddie turned the phone off before he put any more conditions on her. It wasn't fair. Maybe she should've done something that would really deserve it, not just a couple of puffs off a joint someone handed her. And it hadn't even given her much of a buzz!

She turned her attention back to the monitor. Ferenzi had started acting strangely. Several hospital stays had followed; one article mentioned psychiatric care. On the tenth page of citations, she found a tabloid headline: Spaceman sees aliens. Bride calls off wedding. The date was puzzling, only a little more than twenty years ago. Too recent to fit the old man in the hospice bed.

Maddie exited the program and thought about what she had just read. Chances were, Sam was crazy. Why did he want to go to the desert? And more important, why should she risk being grounded for the entire school year to take him there? She'd be as crazy as he was to do it.

A flicker of movement on the computer's monitor attracted her attention; the screen saver had activated. She stared at the ballet of spinning galaxies and soaring cloudlike nebulae her father had installed. He was involved with the SETI program at JPL, but it wasn't something he talked about much. Not because it was secret, Maddie knew, but because the results were so disappointing. She wondered if he knew about Sam Ferenzi. Her father thought people who claimed to have seen aliens cheapened the real search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The old man seemed so lonely. At least she could take him for a short drive around Pasadena. Maybe the change of scenery would do him good.

She knew where her father had put her car keys. He never locked his desk drawer, trusting the members of his household. She felt a twinge of guilt as she retrieved her keys.

# # #

"I'm taking Mr. Ferenzi out for a drive," she told the charge nurse as she pushed the empty wheelchair past the nurses' station. "That okay?"

The charge nurse today, a young dark-skinned man in green scrubs, looked up from the charts he'd been studying. "How long you planning on keeping him out?"

She hadn't expected to be asked. "Umm… We shouldn't be too long."

The charge nurse rubbed his eyes as if he'd put in a long shift. "He'll need his meds again in a couple of hours."

No way she could've gone to Palm Springs and back in a couple of hours! Sam would just have to take the disappointment. If he even remembered.

But the moment she stepped into his room, she knew he'd remembered. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, dressed in maroon sweats several sizes too large, one bony hand holding a scruffy olive-green duffel bag, the other stroking the hospice cat.

"Want to go for a ride around town?" she asked brightly.

"Stop worrying about the meds," he said. "I don't need them. Only take them to shut the nurses up."

"Are you reading my mind?"

"Obvious they'd tell you when I'm due for the next dose. Where's the car?"

"Around the corner," she said. Where -- she hoped -- no one who knew her would notice it.

"Good. Let's go."

Resentment at the way he ordered her around welled up, sharp and hot. She was a volunteer, not a servant. As if sensing her mood, the cat hissed at her and jumped down from the bed. She held her arm out for support as Sam maneuvered himself into the wheelchair. He huffed and wheezed and settled cautiously, then indicated she should put the duffel bag on his lap.

"You're not as old as you look, are you?" she said spitefully. "I looked you up."

The face he turned to her was open, stricken, like a flower pelted by a sudden, hard rain. She regretted her words instantly, but there was no way to take them back. She wheeled him in silence down the hall, past the charge nurse who was too busy to glance up, and out the automatic door at the front of the building.

Sam didn't say anything when they reached her silver Tesla, and he managed to get into the passenger seat without much help, never letting go of the duffel bag. But she heard him gasp with pain as he landed heavily on his thin hips. She slid in behind the wheel and passed the electronic key over the sensor. Only the red lights on the dash confirmed the electric motor was ready to roll.

They drove east through Pasadena in silence. She thought about pointing out some of the lovely old houses, but he'd closed his eyes as if he was bored already.

After a while he said, "You need to take Interstate 10 east."

"We're not taking the freeway at all."

"You want to hear my story? Then we do it my way."

She glanced at him. "No way! I'd be in a lot of trouble if I did that."

"Me too." The old man rummaged in the duffel, then held out a disk. "Put this in your CD player."

"Cars don't have CD players any more. Everybody has their own --"

"Yours does."

He pointed to the slit low on the dash where she'd never needed to notice it before. Steering with one hand, she slipped the disk into the player.

After a moment's silence, a low, sustained note came out of the speakers, like an oboe, she thought, or a bassoon. The sound undulated in dark, thin loops. Once in a while, the loops were punctuated with a single higher note that died away as it fell. There was something lonely in the sound as if it spoke of enormous distance and the vast passage of time. Then it changed -- or was replaced -- by another, higher voice, this one mournful, with the suggestion of an echo over a frozen sea. Spooky!

She listened for a while, trying to guess what she might be hearing. Then it hit her so suddenly she felt ice pour through her veins. "Aliens?"

"Nope. But not a bad guess," he said. "Whales. Humpback whale songs."

"I suppose next you're going to tell me they make up symphonies and operas!"

"I doubt it. But we don't know, do we? And that's the problem. We don't know."

"We're going back!" she decided.

"I'm trying, Maddie," Sam said. "But I haven't got the right words. I'm going to have to show you."

"Maybe I'm just a dumb kid and I don't care."

"You have to care," he said. "Somebody must! There's the on-ramp."

Obviously, she hadn't been paying enough attention to the road. She slowed the Tesla, a block before the interstate on-ramp. Overhead, the unfinished span of what was going to be the high-speed monorail from Pasadena to Los Angeles, which they'd been building ever since she could remember, looked like a casualty of the terrorist attacks on London and Paris.

She was aware of car horns, a car alarm going off, the ululation of a police siren. Familiar urban sounds, she thought, and remembered the waves on the oscilloscope when the technician tuned the grand piano at home. It had picked up her voice too, and displayed its peaks and valleys in a running line. Insight struck.

"Your vid. That was the sound wave of a whale's song, wasn't it?"

"Two of them."

Something about this strange old man held her, like he was some kind of modern wizard or something. Whatever his secret was, she believed him that it was important. "But what does it all mean?"

"I'm going to show you."

If her father found out she'd taken her car keys, she was going to be in a lot of trouble anyway. Driving a bit farther wasn't going to make it much worse. And she resented being treated like some delinquent kid.

The clock on the dash read two thirty-three already. She fingered Palm Springs into the GPS pad and the readout told her ETA three hours twenty minutes due to heavy traffic. Even if she could hurry Sam along once they got there, it would probably be midnight before they were home again. The hospice would've missed Sam and called the police by then.

"Sam, I can't do this."

"Do it!" His voice was suddenly strong and compelling like the young man he once must've been. She stared at him. Then he added in his normal, old man's voice, "I'm going to show you what happened. Maybe you'll understand."

She thought of her father, frustrated because decades of SETI had revealed no messages. It was weird to believe this old man knew something no one else did. But something had happened to Sam Ferenzi in space, and though he looked a hundred years old, she knew from the biography she'd read he couldn't be much older than sixty.

"There must be hundreds of scientists who'd like to know!"

"Tried it. Many times. Got sent to a psych ward."

"But why me?"

"Because you're a musician, and the young aren't prejudiced against new ideas," he said. "And I don't have much time left."

She gave up worrying about what she was doing or the consequences. What was the use? There was no question Daddy would find out. She risked taking her eyes off the crowded interstate to glance at her passenger.

"Just trying to figure out the best way to tell it," he said.

"Starting at the beginning's good."

"I was born. I grew up. I went into space." He closed his eyes.

"You are really the most annoying --"

"Don't be so impatient." He opened his eyes and peered out the window to see where they were. "NASA planned the mission to the asteroid when there was no budget for Mars. Doesn't matter which asteroid. You wouldn't know anyway. We hadn't paid much attention to it, but it was in a near-Earth orbit. So we took the opportunity and went. Routine mission so far."

He paused, and Maddie prompted, "And you walked on it."

"Euphemism. You couldn't properly walk anywhere on it. It was too small and had no gravity. It was like standing on the surface of a giant stone potato. I had a tether to the excursion module -- I wasn't going anywhere."

Maddie listened without interrupting as he described space from the vantage point of a small asteroid. In her imagination she saw the deep, cold blackness studded with unwavering stars, the regular flare of the sun as the asteroid rolled in its orbit. Earth was a small, bright dot in the distance.

"Weren't you afraid?"

He turned his scrawny neck and stared at her. "The astronaut who's never afraid is a liar or a liability. The one who lets his fear rule is a disaster."

"Tell me about seeing the aliens."

"National World Enquirer said that. Not me."

He took a moment, then continued. "I'd been on the asteroid for almost the full time for EVA, and the shuttle's commander radioed to remind me. Then a sudden burst of light blinded me -- and a strong carrier wave knocked out my headset."

He fell silent again.

"Go on," she prompted. "What was it like?"

"The worst pain you can imagine. Like being a T-bone steak plopped onto the hot grill and not being able to get off. Like all your skin is scorched and peeling. Like being knocked out by a high-voltage wire. Like having your eyelids ripped off and being forced to watch a nuclear explosion. Like going blind and stark raving mad at the same time."

That explained his blotchy skin, she thought: radiation burns. The long outburst seemed to have tired him again. He rested his head on the seat-back and went to sleep.

At least, she hoped he was only sleeping.

# # #

[Continued in Part 3]

"Where Two or Three," reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, is one of fifteen original stories included in the anthology Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern, and published by Daw Books on June 1. For more information on this anthology, start here.

Sheila Finch is the author of seven science fiction novels and numerous short stories that have appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Amazing, Asimov's, Fantasy Book, and various anthologies. A collection of her "lingster" stories was recently published as The Guild of Xenolinguists by Golden Gryphon Press. Her work has won several awards, including the Nebula Award for Best Novella, the San Diego Book Award for Juvenile Fiction, and the Compton-Crook Award for Best First Novel. Sheila taught creative writing at El Camino College for thirty years and at workshops around California. She also writes nonfiction about teaching creative writing and about science fiction, and a series of these short essays appear online at the SFWA website. This fall, she will be conducting an All-Day Writers Workshop & Critique Session. Read more about Sheila Finch on her website and her LiveJournal.

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