World Fantasy Award nominee Christopher Brown is the author of TROPIC OF KANSAS, forthcoming July 2017 from Harper Voyager. His short fiction and criticism has appeared in a wide variety of magazines and anthologies. He lives in Austin, where he also practices technology law. More at christopherbrown.com.
Some Other Modulations
1. The Unboxing
Paul’s new tuner arrived on a Saturday, in a box from the place formerly known as West Germany. It wasn’t really new. The Audiokraft Model 5 had been built in 1974, during the golden age of radio activity. According to the experts, it was the first truly high-fidelity tuner able to capture clear signals off all available bands, short wave to military to FM.
Dan from Audiolabs, Paul’s dealer, said that Model 5 was the best there was — if you could find one. Which, it turned out, he could. Not even that expensive.
When Dan said the name, he tried to sound like he spoke German.
“The Model Funf,” he said, slicing through the packing tape with a sharp blade. Then he pulled it out, set the foam casings down on the floor, and slipped the plastic wrapper off the machine with the touch of a stoner surgeon.
Paul had an image of the year 1974 in his head: an image of Germans and antennas, but the focus was not too sharp.
The tuner was different, both older and more modern than he expected, with retro plastics and alien fonts, heavy dials, analog displays whose precise purpose remained unclear. Even without power, it radiated a clean transmission of otherwise indecipherable information encoded within the atmosphere.
Dan lifted the unit and set it on the rack. Paul took the cable from the Abingdon Research Reference 230 amp and carefully inserted the single knobby prong into its receptacle on the back. It made the machined click of a perfect fit.
The listening room was in the basement, a cube of painted cinderblock, old rugs, and acoustic ceiling tiles. Dan had set up the outside antenna the week before.
Dan looked at Paul and smiled as they made the connection, even though they did not know the true language.
Just then the door to the upstairs opened halfway, letting a splash of natural light into the room. A small girl stood in the aperture, backlit.
“Hey, sweetie,” said Dan. “How are you doing today? Want to help your dad with his new radio? It even gets sounds from outer space!”
She picked up a piece of foam the size of her torso and held it over her head.
“Lily,” said Paul. “I thought you were watching cartoons. I’ll be up in a bit.”
“Daddy,” said Lily.
Dan raised an eyebrow and turned on the power.
In that place the winters are long, and the nights are longer.
Tuning the faraway transmissions that floated through the cold night air, Paul learned how to get lost. You would be surprised what you can find out there, beyond the coordinates scheduled in the guides. Especially if you learn to listen to the noise, and realise it is not.
He had read about numbers stations, and even heard recordings, but it was different when you stumbled upon one. He found the enigma he later called the Bandleader in the dark astronomy of a Tuesday morning in February, trawling previously unexplored expanses of the wave band. At frequency 11455, six minutes of a crackly male voice reading a series of numbers in a disinterested monotone.
“Three seven two seven twelve. One five five four six. Nine nine five nine one.” Like that, over and over, until it ended with a burst of ethereal muzak, then static.
Paul learned, contrary to his expectations, that the Audiokraft’s excellent reception did not alter the inherent peculiarities of short wave transmissions. Rather, it enhanced them. What might be heard as static on a portable receiver became a recognisable sonic map of the contours of the ionosphere. Each transmission would come wrapped in a cocoon of white noise that undulated with the cycle of the wave, now audible as the laboured sighs of a dying Earth.
Paul returned every night at 0900 GMT to the same frequency, and always heard a different series of numbers bookended by the same song. “Dusk in Upper Sandusky,” he eventually figured out. A Big Band number that acquired extraterrestrial qualities as the saxophone throbbed in and out with the short wave signal.
Scanning the band, he found other clandestine stations. A mechanical woman reading three-digit sequences at 6700 kHz. At 10200, a regular 800-millisecond burst bookended by a series of fuzzy tones spliced from the theme of a 1930s radio mystery. On 6500 at 2330, crisp elliptical Chinese counting. Klaxons, pings, data squeals.
Paul began to catalog the stations, recording detailed notes of the broadcasts in a bound journal. Websites devoted to the subject led to obscure fanzines and out-of-print manuals, but none of them really had any answers. The secret vox of the state did not publish a glossary.
The numbers stations, it was said, were a simple twentieth century method for intelligence agencies to communicate with their field agents using primitive but infallible crypto. The agent and the sender had the only two copies of a pad of paper printed with random numbers in groups of five, three or seven. The numbers tied to a matrix that read like the coordinates of a road map. Each page was destroyed after use. Since only one other copy of the pad existed, the code was inherently unbreakable. Though reliant on pre-World War II methods, the system remained a preferred means to send simple but operationally risky messages to field agents, e.g., “Meet Smith at the National Museum at 1615 GMT on 23 March”.
Paul did not have a pad, but got the idea to make his own. Nothing has only one meaning, and close listening rewards an ear to the deeper aural textures of the transmissions. The third pad worked like a double-sided tickertape, translating the patterns beneath the noise into machine verse.
The name was Pakman convenience
His fortunate strength
Let muscles that onion steak
Steel springs chimeric
Repeated listening revealed the tones had other ciphers. Paul intuited the questions and answers from interrogations conducted in secret prisons on the other side of the Earth, triangulated through the broken mirror of mistranslation.
The product captain
Froze on Sacajawea
Good teachers love dogs.
Covert poets sent private riddles, singing in the language of robots. The terse, unimagined epics of barren fields between office parks. Clandestine verses from steganographic infomercials. Random ballads of covert wars fought by spam machine sentinels guarding castles of glass, steel, and bytes.
On a clear night when all the heat escapes, you can hear sounds from space. Upstairs, the family sleeps while the machines of the state work tirelessly to keep them safe.
Three one two seven four. One seven one zero zero.
One website prescribed a technique to discern the physical source of a particular transmission. Paul bought the necessary peripherals and taught himself how.
I could be there by lunch, he realised.
3. Field Operations
Station D is on an old table mountain west of Warrenton, beyond the Beltway, past the Civil War battleground. It’s right there on the maps, marked as a government training facility.
Paul left his car at the Waffle House and walked, playing the role of bird watcher with vest, hat, and field glasses.
It was a tranquil Virginia dawn. Early October, dewy and green, the turf by the road rich and loamy.
He heard the birds but did not see them, and wondered what they were really saying. If they had other names.
A midnight blue Ford drove past him toward town. The lone occupant, a bald white man, turned his head to look at Paul as he passed. Paul pretended to admire a starling singing on the line.
A small orange sign in the right of way warned county crews of the lightwave spectrum cable buried under the grass, an incomplete explanation of the ground’s weird luminescence in the morning light.
As the trees grew denser, Paul began to see chainlink fences through the foliage, some with garlands of razorwire across the top.
A quarter-mile further, he found an entrance with old-fashioned stone pylons bookending a wide gate. On the other side, a guard station, human silhouette within. The shadow emerged bearing gunmetal, talking into his polyester epaulets. Paul kept walking.
Paul walked until he came upon a skinny trail leading into the woods. The two-toed tracks suggested that it was made by deer. He followed it.
The path was muddy, through dense cover. He had to crouch in spots. It was dark. A branch scratched his face. Then the path opened into a clearing. There was a small pond surrounded by animal tracks. On the other side of the pond was a fence with a sign that declared it restricted government property.
He looked through.
The things from which the numbers stations came were faceted white spheres the size of houses, like giant golf balls teed up across a flattened hilltop.
Further on, the red and white steel of a tall antenna rose up on spindly guylines, declaring its independence from the forest.
Paul sat on a decaying log next to the pond, under the shade of the dying tree from which the log had fallen, and soaked in the radiant power of the orbs of the state.
The sun moved and he wondered what kind of light would let him see the waves emitted by those dimpled spheres.
The scene was beautifully depopulated until 1100, when a black van pulled up carrying two men in civilian clothes. They disappeared into a small square building amid the antenna array. They emerged thirty minutes later and drove off.
Paul listened closely, as if by doing so he could hear the sound of the transmissions. He remembered the rich fuzz of the electric wind swirling through his basement sanctum on a frequency not audible in the open air.
A grey fox appeared. It walked right past him to the edge of the pond and only then noticed him. Paul was pleased at this accidental byproduct of his watcher’s stillness, but the fox was not. They stared at each other, for a long minute. Then the fox broke his gaze, took a long drink, and trotted off into the woods.
Paul wondered what sounds the fox could hear that he could not.
Thirsty, Paul followed the fox’s example, ladling water up to his mouth with cupped hands. He could see life in there, too tiny to identify, and he drank it as it drained off his palms. The water tasted electric.
And that was when the men in uniform showed up, guns drawn, trampling the soft trail of the fox before Paul could complete his surveillance.
They did not see any need to torture him. A curious young agent questioned him for half an hour. First about birds, then about the Warrenton Training Center. He told Paul he should find a new hobby. He said he was going to turn Paul over to the U.S. Attorney for criminal trespass on a restricted federal facility. Then he dropped him off at the Waffle House.
Paul set the interrogator’s business card on the dashboard of his car. It was embossed with a gold shield and the outstanding job title of Special Agent. The card was the only tangible record of Paul’s visit.
Later, Paul sent Special Agent Brockman one of the poems slipped inside a greeting card with a picture of a Waxwing. Lily and Paul had seen a whole flock of them two days before, passing berries in a chain.
Together, he thought they might be able to compile a secret Baedeker of the phantom tourist traps of the Long War, each entry an alternate answer to the unasked koan.