Friday, June 18, 2010

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

Where Two or Three

by Sheila Finch

[Continued from Part 2]

The sun was setting as they entered the outskirts of Palm Springs, a fuzzy red beach ball sinking into hazy waves of low-lying smog. Maddie was tired from driving in heavy traffic. Sam had slept most of the way. Now he woke and struggled upright.

"You want to eat something?" she asked as they passed a coffee shop.

"No. Go on through the city."

"How much farther are we going?" The Tesla was new enough to have an efficient fuel cell system, but there was still a limit on how far it could go without a recharge. Since she'd never had the chance to drive it this far, she had no idea what that limit was. The battery's indicator bars remained in the safe zone, but for how much longer?

"Just outside the city, you're going to make a left."

And then what? She kept the thought to herself because he obviously wouldn't answer anyway. She gazed at the people strolling from boutiques where golden light spilled out onto the sidewalk to restaurants whose banners pronounced them award-winning. Maddie retracted her window and the car filled with the aroma of barbecue and garlic and the faint sounds of music. Her stomach rumbled.

"Oblivious," Sam said. "All of them. It's going right through them and they're oblivious!"


"You too. And me. And worst of all, NASA and SETI. Turn left at the next light."

The lights and sounds of Palm Springs fell away as they took the narrow dirt road across the desert floor rising slowly toward the nearby hills. The sky was filled with misty rose and lavender light, and the tops of the Little San Bernardinos looked as if they'd been draped in glowing chiffon.

"Pull off here."

Tiredness flooded through her. This was without question the stupidest thing she'd done in her life. Sam scrambled out of the car without help, yanking the duffel bag behind him. In the twilight, he looked spidery and strange, like an alien himself. She yawned and reached to turn off the engine.

"Leave it running," he said. "I need a power supply."

He rummaged through the bag, pulling objects out and setting them down on the sand. She got out of the car.

"Here." He handed her a pair of field glasses. "You might as well look at the stars while I'm getting set up."

She took the glasses out of their case. She could see Venus in the west already, and other pinpricks of light were beginning to show against the rapidly darkening sky. Her father had taught her to recognize the major constellations and nebula clusters and most of the minor ones too.

"Easier at night," Sam said.

"What is?"


Did he mean the kind of signals SETI was listening for? That would be dumb, she thought; the stars were there even when we didn't see them. "What difference does darkness make to messages coming from way across the universe?"

"I meant for us!" he said testily. "Less distractions."

Arms folded tightly across her chest, Maddie stepped away from the car. The sky glittered overhead but she'd lost interest. The desert night was already much cooler than the day and if they stayed here too long she'd regret not bringing a jacket. Somewhere in the hills, a coyote yipped. A large bird flew past her on silent wings.

"Look," he said suddenly.

On a flat-topped boulder he'd set up the contents of the duffel bag. She saw a small oscilloscope with the regular undulation of a carrier wave passing over its screen. Beside it was something that looked like a really old cell phone, bulky, with an antenna poking out; cables ran between them and a metal box, also small. He was really nuts if he thought that contraption was going to capture alien signals. Daddy had taken the family on a vacation trip to see the Allen Array in Northern California; it looked nothing like that.

"You forgot to bring a dish!" Her voice added its own snaking wave to the screen.

The coyote gave a full-throated howl this time and was joined by another. The lines on the oscilloscope jumped into peaks and valleys. He bent over the rig he'd assembled, cocking his ear and turning dials. The night air filled with the eerie whale song he'd played for her in the car. An owl hooted. The screen became a jumble of snaking lines.

"I don't get it."

"You need a symphony. At least --" He hesitated as if trying to find the words to explain a difficult concept to a kindergartner. "You need to learn how to listen to a symphony. Too bad you didn't bring your flute."

She jumped as if he'd poked her. "I think I might have -- it's still in my shoulder bag."

He nodded. "Get it."

No point in arguing with him. She found her flute in the car and put it to her lips. The instrument added its own line to the undulating patterns of the oscilloscope.

"A symphony not made up of our instruments," he said.

In the dark, his eyes glittered like the stars. She glanced up. Somewhere, in all that magnificent light show, there were other intelligent beings. She believed that, even though scientists like her father had spent more than seven decades trying to capture a message from just one, and failing absolutely. But what Sam was trying to do wasn't science.

"You saying that whales could help SETI listen for alien signals?"

"Don't be stupid!" the old man scolded. "Sentient creatures that've been on this planet maybe longer than we have. What might they know? Trees too. Thousand-year-old sequoias -- centuries to process the hormonal messages in their cells! And creosote bushes -- there's a budding hive mind for you! Ravens and crows. Even coyotes. We don't have the first idea how to listen to the intelligence on our own planet, yet we think we'd recognize an alien message if it hit us!"

A light breeze came up, carrying the scent of wild sage. She shivered. Fine sand particles coated her face.

"We're never going to get the message until we understand that the voice of the universe is a symphony," Sam said. He turned away from her and stared up at the brilliant tapestry of the desert sky. "Doesn't mean the message isn't there. But right now we're searching for the flute part all by itself."

"My father says --"

"We have to learn how to get more out of the carrier wave. Background radiation of the universe. Whatever scientists want to call it."

Mad, she thought. Totally mad. "Well, I'm not a scientist, so why me?"

"No!" he shouted at her. "I can't read it yet -- nobody can! But somebody has to understand what the problem is, or we'll never even work on it!"

She gazed at the oscilloscope again. The coyotes were singing, a whole pack by the sound of it. The owl hooted from the arms of a nearby cottonwood. The oscilloscope was alive with their combined voices. She didn't know enough to say Sam was wrong, but she knew stranger things had turned out to be true.

"They're out there," he said quietly. "But I've run out of time to find a better apprentice."

Glancing at him in surprise, she saw he was bent over his weird contraption again. She lifted her face to the stars and was immediately bombarded by a huge cold light that overwhelmed her optical nerves. She shrieked.

Sam chuckled. "Just the full moon rising."

She was trembling uncontrollably. "We have to get back."

"I'm done, anyway," he said. "You were just my last chance."

He started packing his things back into the duffel bag, slowly as if the effort exhausted him. She got into the driver's seat. Fine volunteer she was, she thought; she didn't even offer to help him into the car. All she could think of was starting the heater. She heard the old man stumble into the passenger seat and close the car door, sighing with pain, or sadness perhaps. She listened for the familiar click of the seat web locking into place. Then she thought of something.

"It was the messages that hit you, wasn't it, on that asteroid? Even though you couldn't understand them, they were there?"

He didn't reply.

Yawning, she touched the heater's sensor. Nothing happened. She glanced at the battery gauge.

Zero bars.

"Umm, Sam? I think we're stuck."

He seemed to have gone to sleep already.

Well, what difference did it make? she thought. She was already in trouble for driving out here. But it was cold in the car without the heater and she started to worry. How low did the night temperature drop in August? She looked over at the skinny old man, slumped in his seat. Too cold for him, in any case.

Wasn't there an old ratty blanket in the Tesla's trunk? She'd thrown it in there after Junior Class Day at the beach and didn't remember taking it out again. She got out of the car and raised the trunk lid. Yes. She shook sand out of it, smelling the faint trace of ocean as she did so. Maybe there'd been whales passing by, far out in the water, that day she'd played volleyball with her friends. Whales making up songs that humans didn't understand.

An awful lot that humans didn't understand!

She draped the gritty blanket around the old man's shoulders, and he muttered in his sleep. No way she was going to get any sleep. It was going to be a long night till someone came to rescue them. The coyotes were still singing; she could hear them -- nearer now -- even with the windows closed. Weird to think of the noises animals made as music, but then maybe they thought the sounds humans made were weird too.

And maybe Sam was right and the universe was streaming with messages we didn't know how to listen to just yet.

On impulse, she reached into the back seat and retrieved her flute. She cracked the window, letting the coyotes' song enter, and put the flute to her lips to join them.

She heard Sam sigh, and glanced over at him. He seemed to be smiling in his sleep.

# # #

The sheriffs her father summoned found her at dawn by tracking the Tesla's GPS. She woke to the sound of a helicopter's rotors beating the desert air. She was cold, hungry, otherwise unharmed.

Sam Ferenzi wasn't so lucky. Or maybe that's what he'd wanted from the start, she thought, as the sheriff's paramedics loaded her into the chopper for the flight home. Dying like a shriveled up insect in a hospice bed after you've been into space and experienced the tsunami of alien communication, even if you can't understand a word of it and nobody believes you: she could understand how he might've felt. Going in his sleep was a mercy.

She watched the medics carrying Sam's body, reverently. He'd found the clue to a puzzle her father would give anything to solve.

"What were you doing out there?" one of the paramedics asked.

"Just stargazing," she said. It was only a half lie.

The paramedic handed her a juice box as the chopper lifted off the desert floor. The sun flooded in through the east-facing port. A star, only one among billions in the known universe. A symphony of star voices that someday somebody was going to learn how to hear. Somebody who loved both the stars and music.

She drifted off to sleep, thinking of what that might mean for her future.


"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.

The next story posted in its entirety from the anthology Is Anybody Out There? is "Residue" by Michael Arsenault.

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