by B R Sanders
The planet came alive when Wren played her flute. She felt the scrubby grass pulse in rhythm with her song. There was a tightness in the air, a sense of expectation. Polyphemus was a Class-4 planet: inhabitable for humans without terraforming, but it did not yet host sentient life-forms. As the planet holistically responded to Wren’s flute, she wondered how true that classification was.
Everything on Polyphemus was as attuned to sound as she was. The atmosphere of the odd little planet was so dense that little visible light was able to punch through the clouds, shrouding it in perpetual darkness. Sight had not turned out to be a high evolutionary priority. Its flora-fauna instead evolved bio sonar to find their way around. Wren had been recruited twice in her life – first for the cutting-edge sonar implantation surgery that gave her something like a sense of sight, and then to aid the exploration scientists on Polyphemus. She had no scientific training, no credentials, nothing but her status as a moderately successful medical guinea pig to bring with her to that far-flung planet. At eighteen, she was barely full grown, with only her peculiar experience of life to contribute to the colony, but that was enough. The researchers welcomed her. She became the scrappy mascot of Research Station Three.
Wren’s implanted sonar pinged. The doctors told her before the experimental surgery that the sonar would manifest as a form of vision, but then again, the doctors had all been born with eyes that worked. The implanted sonar was more like a breeze blowing by or a shift in the softness of the ground. Wren had something like a sense of sight, now, but her brain translated those signals into tactile sensations. She felt, rather than saw, Dr. Auden approach. Each of his steps was a gentle wave brushing against her. Everyone’s sonar signature was a little different, marked by idiosyncrasies in the rhythm of their movements, in the length of their strides, in the way they held their hands.
“Hi, Dr. Auden,” she said.
“I heard you playing.” He spoke softly, with the measured, clipped accent of a colony brat. “Dinner is ready. Do you want to eat?”
“Sure.” She packed her flute away and stood up. Polyphemus lay dormant again. Or perhaps it just lost interest. The connection she and the flute had forged with the grass, grass that was also a sort of insect, slipped away.
Back in the cafeteria of Research Station Three, conversation mingled in the air with the smells of garlicky rations. The scientists had so many questions – how does the planet have tides without a moon? Polyphemus had no axial tilt, and thus no seasons, and yet the life of the planet waxed and waned like there was a winter and summer and spring. The geologists were still trying to find out why certain regions were rich with life while other sections of the planet were inexplicably barren. It was a strange little planet. It had no valuable resources, it was too dark for the sighted to want to colonize, and it was a long way off from any other inhabited planet. But it was a riddle, like Wren’s perfectly formed but non-functioning eyes had been a riddle. She knew that scientists loved riddles like she loved music. It was the way they understood the world.
Doc Razza, waved to Wren. Razza was young and agender, and trusted Wren’s sonar more than the others. Ze treated Wren like she could really see, used nonverbals to communicate as much as ze used verbals. Wren sat down beside Razza. “Hey.”
“Hey, Batty.” Razza had explained bats once to Wren. Some extinct creature from Earth that, like her, were born blind and navigated with sonar. Razza claimed ze’d seen preserved skeletons, but Wren was skeptical. “You remember that idea I had a while ago?”
“You have lots of ideas, Razza.”
“I mean the project. You know, with me and you. With the different instruments, different forms of music.”
“Oh, sure.” Razza handed her a piece of bread. The sonar pinged it, and her hand moved to accept it, simply at the right place at the right time.
“We got a care package,” said Razza. “Can you play the guitar?”
“Excellent. How do you learn music?”
Wren smiled. “I don’t learn music, Razza. I make it.”
Doc Razza and Wren wrote the research proposal together in the quiet aftershifts while the rest of the scientists slept. Razza and Wren selected variables: organic vs inorganically produced tones, harmonic vs dissonant chord use, tempo and volume. They identified possible research sites and possible control sites. Razza treated Wren as an expert, as a studied and verified musicologist. The authority ze lent her puffed Wren up with pride. Wren liked that she would be solving a riddle, not that she was the riddle worth solving. She couldn’t stop grinning when the proposal was approved.
Wren and Razza drove out to a lush valley, one of the strange spots on the planet where life abounded. Wren couldn’t see it, but she could feel it. There was a density in that valley unlike anything around Research Station Three. Her sonar pinged close, pinged softly. Noises rolled off the trunks of trees, off the smooth skins of the bulbous plant life that detached from the vines and bounded through the grass like puppies. The plurality of forms there in the valley came back to Wren. It beat against her body like soft rain.
Razza’s movement marred the stillness. Ze set up the recorders, the computers, the machines to collect all their data in a clattering hurry. “This is the best spot in Polyphemus, Wren,” Razza said. “Just brimming with life. I wish I could see it all, but it’s too dark, and the fauna-flora hate high-spectrum light. The plantimals–”
“There’s not a better name for them,” said Razza.
“That sounds ridiculous.”
“Only to you, only because you expect them to be one or the other. The plantimals retreat, you know, just curl back into their roots and hide out underground. I can smell it, though. Can you?”
Wren could. It smelled heavy and dense, had the hearty pungence of arable land. She could even taste it–the air held a smooth, tangy bitterness like black tea. “I like the way it smells,” said Wren.
“Me, too. Animants? No. Plantimals.” Razza clicked on the recorder. “Test 1. Alai Razza and Wren Varus present at Site 1, Cradle Valley. Today, we begin research on the effects of extra-terrestrial deliberate tonal patterns on the indigene life forms of Polyphemus. Today’s test is an attempt to quantify and measure what Wren Varus has reported anecdotally.” Razza paused. “Hey, Wren?”
“Why don’t you report your experiences anecdotally into the recorder? Just so we have an official record.”
“Oh.” Wren laughed. Her face grew hot as she took the recorder. “Do I just talk into it? Here?”
“Ah.” She flipped it over. The end she was supposed to speak into was covered in a firm, springy metallic mesh. “Ok. Huh.” She cleared her throat. “This is, uh. . . this is Wren Varus. I am a musician. I play music outside Station Three a lot unless I’m needed for sonar research. I play the flute, mostly. I don’t play anything in particular; I just improvise, I guess. And when I’m outside playing the flute, Polyphemus. . .” She groped for a way to explain it. “Something syncs up. I don’t know if it’s the plantimals or what, but when I play, something syncs up, and I can feel this global rhythm.” She handed the recorder back to Razza abruptly.
“Today, we’re going to see if we can measure this synchronization Wren Varus has described. While Wren Varus plays the flute, I will take readings of the bioelectric signatures and the levels of oxygen here in the Cradle. We will record Wren’s song for the sake of completion, though we have agreed that for this run she will improvise the music as she has done in her spare time, to better replicate her experiences.” Razza clicked off the recorder. “You ready, Batty?”
Wren pulled her flute out of her jacket. Her mouth went dry. Her heart beat fast in her chest: rat-ta-tat rat-ta-tat. “I’m ready. Equipment’s good?”
“You look nervous.”
“I am nervous,” Wren said. She felt a flood of relief in admitting it.
Razza patted her shoulder. “Hey, worst that happens is we don’t pick up anything. Then we just go back to square one. Nothing to be nervous about.”
But Wren stayed nervous anyway. It wasn’t the research that worried her, not really. It was this nagging idea that now, when she wanted Polyphemus to respond to her so badly, that it wouldn’t. That this time she’d pick the wrong thread of music, or maybe the right music but in the wrong key, and that she’d just be sitting there playing to a deaf planet. Wren took a breath and squared her shoulders. She sat down and crossed her legs, nestling into the soft grass. She checked a few notes and tuned her flute. She ran through a scale, then an arpeggio, and then a melody swept her up. The music unfolded, revealing itself to her one note at a time, her fingers moving of their own accord like they were privy to something that her mind was not.
Polyphemus responded. The grass-insects swayed and pulsed in hypnotizing rhythm, their legs rooted, but their wings out and shivering. She, too, felt rooted to that world, like she was part of the grass and vine-trees, like she too was an indigene life form. Polyphemus responded with more fervor than it ever had before. She thought she imagined the percussive creaking at first. Her sonar gave her a feeling of being at sea, of gentle rhythmic rocking.
“Oh, wow,” said Razza.
Wren pulled the flute down from her mouth. She felt bounded and separate again; human and foreign again. “What is it?”
“Wren, keep playing.”
“Just… just play again.” She heard Razza fumble with more equipment, the hard plastic casing clicking and tapping so its hungry sensors could collect the data. Wren played again. She caught the thread of that odd, playful melody easily. She spun it out until she felt the Cradle sync with it. The melody felt like it already existed: it wasn’t something she created so much as something she discovered. Something she synced with first, and it was through her that the life of Polyphemus could sync with it, too. There was, while she played, a joy in it. A relief and an ecstasy of a thing long wanted and only now received. This joy, she was certain, was not from her but from Polyphemus.
Razza broke the melody with a wild, shocked laugh. “Oh, wow,” Razza said again. “Wren, how are you making it do that?”
Wren let the music die. “Do what? What’s happening?”
“Your sonar works. Can’t you see it? The land is… I don’t know how else to put it, but, Wren, when you played the land danced.”
Wren could make Cradle Valley dance, but only under certain conditions. Recorded music didn’t work, even if it was a recording of a melody that had only just yesterday whipped the land into a frenzy. When she played to the valley live, she only ever got a reaction if she was allowed to play whatever came to mind. It didn’t matter what she played the music with–flute, trumpet, guitar, sung wordlessly–if Wren was allowed to improvise there in the moment the land danced for her. That was enough for Wren, but Doc Razza was a font of endless questions. “How do you know what to play?”
“I don’t know,” said Wren.
“Batty, you have to know something.”
“I really don’t,” she said. “It’s like breathing. Or speaking. Or walking. I can just do it without thinking about it.”
“You can’t just be plucking this music out of thin air,” said Razza.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I’m out there and I just feel it. The rhythm sinks into me from I don’t know where, and then it turns itself into a song. I bet anyone could do it. If you just listened for it, I bet anyone could do it.”
Doc Razza laughed. “Oh, Batty, you are so far from right it hurts. What do you mean the rhythm comes first?”
“I mean the rhythm comes first.” Razza sighed. “I can’t put it any plainer than that. A rhythm sticks in my mind, and the music forms around it. I mean, have you listened to what we record out there? It’s so rhythmic. Really complex rhythms. It’s percussive stuff. I didn’t used to play like that. I like it, I like the way it sounds, but it’s evolved here. On Polyphemus.” Wren leaned against Razza’s shoulder. “It’s something in the rhythm, I’m telling you. I wish I could figure it out. I know it’s driving you crazy, but that’s all I’ve got. It’s something in the rhythm.”
They pored over the recordings. They narrowed it down to six: six recordings had been made in the Cradle and had made the Cradle dance. They listened to the recordings one after another, layered on top of each other, in different configurations. Over and over they listened, trying to decipher what it was in them rhythmically which set the land moving.
“Music’s just math, right?” said Razza, shouting over one recording. “There has to be some way to narrow this down. Some algorithm or something.”
“Music’s music,” Wren said.
“And it’s math.”
“I’m terrible at math,” said Wren.
“Or you’re great at it.”
Wren turned down the recording. “It’s weird. These recordings. It’s weird because the rhythms are different but they’re not dissonant. It’s like points and counterpoints. It’s like we could piece them together and they’d be a whole, but I don’t know which part fits where. But if you listen, sometimes one seeps into another. Sometimes they go to together, and sometimes they split apart. Like different parts of an orchestra.” Wren chewed her lip. “It’s like the rhythm is there, but I can only play one piece of it at a time. Like it’s this enormously complicated thing I can’t capture all by myself just on one flute. Does that make sense?”
“It does to you. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Razza.
They decided to collect more data. The more data the better, said Razza. They decided to go to a barren spot to see if she could pluck anything out of the air where there was no life. They took one of the cars and drove to Research Station One some three hundred kilometers away. Station Three was overrun with biologists; Station One was a stronghold of physicists and geologists. Still scientists, but not ones whose academic curiosities were piqued by life forms.
Wren fell asleep on the long drive but woke when Razza parked the car outside Station One. “What time is it?” Wren asked.
“Late,” said Razza. Ze sounded tired. “Way aftershift. They’ve probably already eaten, but Station Three radioed ahead. They’re expecting us. Hopefully they left us some supplies and set up some cots. Here, help me with the equipment.”
Wren and Razza dragged in their recorders and microphones. A young woman met them in the cafeteria and got them situated. Razza asked her endless questions. She was a geologist. She was all the way out from the Home System, just like Wren, though she wasn’t from Earth. She hated to cook. Wren let the conversation wash over her, absorbing it without paying much attention to it. She let the sonar guide her, using Razza’s familiar signature to keep her going the right direction.
Some of the scientists at Station One were still working. Some doors they passed were open, and Wren caught snatches of technical speech she couldn’t parse. Everything they said sounded too clinical, like a dissection. She wanted to yell at them that the planet wasn’t dead, that it was a world alive, that she knew because she played for it and it danced for her. And then came the rhythm. It was pure rhythm, just a clicking clacking tapping rhythm from an open doorway. She peeled off from Razza and the geologist. She barged into the room from which the clicking clacking rhythm came. Her sonar pinged someone in there, someone sitting at a desk or a terminal. “What is this? How did you get this rhythm?”
“Who are you?” It was a harsh voice, deep and gruff and sleep-deprived.
Razza’s footsteps pounded down the hall. Wren heard zir skid to a halt in the doorway. “Wren, what are you–”
The invaded scientist grumbled. “We’re from Station Three ,” Razza said quickly. “We’re just bunking the night. This is Wren; Wren’s blind. She must have come in here by mistake.”
Wren rounded on Razza. “I didn’t.”
Razza tugged at her arm. “Wren, come on–”
Wren jerked her arm away. She pointed in the direction from which the gruff scientist’s voice had come. “He knows something! I am not in here by accident! It has nothing to do with me being blind! Can’t you hear it? It’s the rhythm! All of the rhythms we didn’t know how to put together are pouring out of this room, whole. Razza, this is what I’ve been plucking out of thin air!”
The room went silent but for the elusive, shifting rhythm. “Oh my god, it is. It’s the rhythm,” said Razza.
“What rhythm? Why are you in my lab?”
“What is it?” Wren asked. “Where is it coming from?”
Razza brushed past her. “Like I said, we’re from Station Three .” Wren heard the soft slap of flesh on flesh as the scientists shook hands. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Razza. Alai Razza, biologist. I specialize in botany. Nice to meet you, Chau. What’s your line of work?”
“Astronomy. What’s all this–”
“What are you studying, Chau? Right now, literally right now, what are you studying?” asked Razza.
“I’m investigating local celestial bodies in this region of the galaxy.”
“No! Right now, what is it that you’re looking at right now. What are those readings you’re getting?”
Chau was silent for a moment. “The chatter? It’s a pulsar. There’s a pulsar near Polyphemus. PSR L347-1153. This noise is just its signal. That’s all.”
“What’s a pulsar?” Wren asked. Her heart leapt into her throat.
“It’s a star. A rotating neutron star. Its electromagnetic radiation signature is what you’re listening to.”
“This. . .the rhythm comes from a star?” Wren asked.
“Yeah, it comes from a star,” said Chau.
That was how Wren helped unravel the mystery of Polyphemus. The pulsar was the key. It was a phenomenon unique in known space: the radio signals of PSR L347-1153, the pulsar near Polyphemus, bombarded the planet, and the geographical composition of the planet was such that certain tectonic plates were conductive to the pulsar’s signals. These plates experienced minute shifts in response to the star’s pulses, and those minute shifts manifested as those previously inexplicable tides and seasons. Life forms on Polyphemus evolved to pick up on the subtleties of the pulsar’s staccato radio signals, the better to predict the changes in the land.
Something in Wren’s sonar implantation mechanisms made her more attuned to the pulsar’s signals than the other humans on Polyphemus. She had, literally, plucked her music from thin air. PSR L347-1153 sent it to her through the void of dead space, and she took it, and she coaxed it into music. Razza explained that when she improvised what she actually did was spin a melody around the current radio signals the planet received from the pulsar–thus, her music was an amplification of stimuli to which the planet was already responding. That’s why it didn’t work if she played written music. That’s why it didn’t work if they played an old recording of previously improvised music. Razza, in zir articles, highlighted the role of serendipity in these discoveries: had Wren not had experimental surgery, and had she not happened upon Chau’s lab when she did, none of this would ever have been known. Razza and Wren’s research made quite a splash in the scientific community. As no useful practical application could be derived from this research, it made no splash anywhere else.
After three years, the research consortia determined that further study of Polyphemus was not needed: minimal gains for the cost of upkeep on the stations. The scientists packed up their labs. They began to look for new places to study, new riddles to unravel. The news hit Wren like a slap to the face. She went numb for days. In the flurry of packing up, no one noticed when she left. She took a car and programmed it to drive her to the Cradle. She camped there for three aftershifts straight and spent her waking hours luring the land to dance before Razza found her. Ze rushed into the pristine valley and swept Wren into a tight hug. Wren’s flute fell to the springy grass. “God, Wren, are you all right?” Razza asked.
Wren accepted the hug but did not return it. “I don’t want to go.”
“You’re ok? You just disappeared! Why did you disable the car’s GPS? What happened?”
“Are they really going to make me leave?” Wren asked.
“Oh,” said Razza softly. “Oh, Batty, I didn’t even think about how hard this must be for you.”
Wren burst into tears, wretched pent-up tears that sliced through her and left her ragged in their wake. She fell into Razza’s arms, and Razza guided them both to the valley floor. Razza rocked her and let her weep and stroked her hair. Slowly, the sobs subsided. She stayed where she was, curled in Razza’s arms. “I fit here. It’s the only place I fit. I feel what the planet feels. I can give it something it can’t get on its own. I’m the only one the dark doesn’t bother. Why do I have to go?”
“Oh, Batty, it’s all just coincidence,” said Razza very softly. “The pulsar, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a fluke of nature.”
“I’m just a fluke of nature. It means something to me! I know it’s all just math to you, but it’s music to me. Understand? Music’s what happens when the math turns into something beautiful and real and worthwhile. Polyphemus isn’t a research site to me, Razza. It’s home. I’m not a visitor here; I’m indigene. Isn’t there some way I can stay here? No one else has to stay. But can’t I stay?”
Razza held her a little tighter. Ze was silent a long time. “Oh, Batty,” ze said, “I’m sorry. I am. We have to go, and you have to go with us. I’m sorry. But you know PSR L347-1153 isn’t the only pulsar in the universe. How about we go back to Station Three , and you and I look for a post near another pulsar? Maybe it’s time you gave a different star a chance to sing through you.”
Wren pulled back and wiped her face. It wasn’t time. She felt so rooted there on Polyphemus. It wouldn’t be the same. But it would be something. “You would do that, Razza?”
“We’re a team, Batty. Of course I would. Can you do me a favor?”
“What is it?”
“Can you make the Cradle dance for me one last time?”
Wren smiled. She found her flute in the grass, and she let the PSR L347-1153 sing through her. And all around her the land swayed and danced in what she could only understand was unfettered joy.
“The Music of the Spheres” (© B R Sanders) was published in Issue 7 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.