Dr. Mai Pham wasn’t looking for music when she found it fossilized in an Antarctic glacier. She had been collecting and analyzing ice core samples for data about Earth’s prehistoric climates when she uncovered the relic. It was buried among the remains of a shattered meteor.
Protocol required Mai’s team to prepare samples from the larger ice core and seal and maintain the specimens under controlled conditions. Despite the team’s precautions, ice relaxation from drastic pressure changes weakened one sample. The ice shattered and released a blizzard of discordant sounds that ricocheted against the walls of Mai’s subzero laboratory. The noise rang out as though a symphony of notes had leapt from a rooftop to crash in a disharmonic wreck on the ground below.
Mai’s assistant attributed the phenomenon to abnormal frequencies transmitted by the research station’s radio equipment, although none of it was in use at the time. “Don’t think too much of it,” he said. “Antarctica is notorious for unpredictability. Stranger things have happened.”
That night Mai woke with the strains of a strange melody vibrating in her throat and it hummed between her lips. She rolled over in her bunk and tried go back to sleep, but a tickling sensation in her subconscious prevented it. Like a scratchy tag in the collar of her thermal undershirt, the music nagged at her and refused to be ignored.
She shed her warm cocoon of bedcovers and instead donned subzero gear then left her personal quarters and followed the subterranean hallway that led to the frozen work station. The exercise and cold air cleared the sleepy cobwebs from her mind, making way for logic. What am I doing? she thought. What the hell do I expect to find?
Mai unwrapped an ice core slice she had processed the day before. The sample came from the same section as the piece that had shattered. She cut away several thin wafers and prepared them for gas chromatography and mass spectrometry analysis.
The test results revealed a high concentration of silicon carbide, attributable to the presence of meteoric debris. Nothing in the data explained yesterday’s anomaly. She studied the specimen again under her microscope, but discovered no microbial orchestras. She tapped the ice on her work table and held it close to her ear like a tuning fork. The sample silently ridiculed her experimentation, but it did not sing.
Mai cleared away the specimen and shut down the machines. Her hand lingered over the light switch as she paused at the doorway exiting the lab. Research demanded discipline and did not tolerate flights of fancy. And yet…
Her fingers drummed on her thigh. They tapped out a measure, an organized composition of yesterday’s disordered notes in the way she might have played them on her piano at home–the same measure she had hummed when she first woke up. The tune was nothing she had heard before, but it spoke of logic, structure, and reason. It embodied order and harmony. It compelled, and the curiosity of it drove her forward.
Mai turned on her heel and went back into her lab. She prepped a recording app on her cell phone and retrieved an ice sample from storage. She set the ice on her work table, letting its temperature rise until expansion wreaked its destructive havoc.
Among the mundane crackle of breaking ice, the unmistakable notes sang out again: discordant pulses–a cacophony, primordial and raw. When she listened to the recording captured by her phone, the sounds released from the broken ice affected her the same way her husband’s saxophone had taken hold of her the night she first heard him play.
Before she returned to her room, Mai marked the lab’s inventory records to indicate the piece had succumbed to ice relaxation. She hoped no one ever questioned her notes, because each of those samples was priceless–not for mere cost or potential profit, but for the insights they provided about a Time before the existence of man. Yet she had destroyed the sample, simply to collect a momentary burst of incomprehensible and indefinable data.
And if I had the chance, I would do it all over again .
Theo Spader’s music suffused the interior of the little bar, hidden in the basement of a restaurant near campus where grad students went to drink retro cocktails and indulge in self-importance. Theo’s saxophone pleaded like a lover begging for satisfaction as his elegant fingers fluttered over its keys. Mai shifted on her bar stool, crossing her knees, uncrossing, seeking relief from the way her body reacted to both music and musician.
Later that night, after gin rickeys and vodka gimlets, after Mai stumbled to Theo’s apartment, tucked away from the cold beneath the crook of his arm, Theo called Mai his Angel Glow from a lyric in his favorite jazz song. She thought a man who breathed passion and performed musical sex for a living probably called lots of girls his Angel Glow, but when Theo kissed her and played her with his expert fingers, the things he said to other girls no longer mattered.
Before Theo came along, Mai believed jazz was the musical equivalent of francium, the most unstable element, which was radioactive and fractionate. Jazz notes were frantic, random, and willful. She thought that was also the perfect way to describe the sax player who stole her heart. Like a child after the Pied Piper, she followed Theo and his music, and she succumbed to the enticement of their chaos .
Mai’s Internet research led her to the work of several Cal-Tech scientists who had experimented with nanoscale phononic crystals. These optomechanical crystals used tiny energy traps to capture quanta of sound waves within their structures. And silicon carbide–the stuff composing the ice core’s meteoric debris–was an ideal material in which to develop these isolators.
The shattering of her samples may have provided the energy necessary to release vibrations trapped within the meteoric fragments, she theorized. Liberated sound waves pulsed through the ice shards and made them sing. But it wasn’t a hypothesis about the physical possibility of these sounds that kept her from sleeping at night. The thing troubling her most was the insidious melody.
Long before her tenure in Antarctica, she discovered, a group of astronomers had come here to study the early universe. They attached a microwave telescope to a balloon, launched it into the stratosphere, and let it circumnavigate the South Pole for almost two weeks. Patterns in the resulting images confirmed that sound waves raced through the early universe, creating the structures that evolved into giant clusters and super-clusters of galaxies. Sound waves compressed and expanded matter and light, similar to the way sound waves compress and expand air inside a woodwind instrument.
The astronomers identified the waves’ harmonics. Using musical analogy, they determined the pitches of the harmonic peaks. They called their findings the music of creation. The voice of God when He said, “Let there be light.” The echo of the Big Bang as galaxies and stars and planets exploded into being.
If music had created the cosmos, Mai thought, it would have been patterned and orderly. She knew recreating the original arrangement from the current jumble would require patience, stamina, and perhaps a little providence.
It would also demand the application of methodical reason and a meticulous removal of chaos.
In her bedroom at home, Mai clutched an unmarked box, not much larger than something sized to hold a piece of jewelry: a bracelet, or a slim necklace like the one Theo had given her when she first announced her pregnancy. The box rested in her palm, lighter than air, too light to contain so much agony. Her other hand curved over her hollow belly, much too hollow to have ever sheltered a life.
Her body was like lead. No, something heavier: osmium, the densest stable element. Except she wasn’t stable. Her protons raged and her electrons careened, ricocheting off each other until she was sure she’d explode. Please, God, let me explode. On her knees, hunched over that goddamned box, Mai begged, Give me my own personal Big Bang– so many pieces of me.
So many pieces racing so far apart that it’s impossible to put me back together.
But she didn’t explode and her body remained intact, crystallizing into the frozen carapace that encompassed her pain.
She clutched the box until her fingers cramped into a cage around it, and then she must have fallen asleep or passed out. When she woke up, the box was gone and she didn’t ask Theo what he had done with it. After all, it wasn’t a soul. It wasn’t a heartbeat or a flutter of movement inside her. It was nothing but a container for miscarried remains, calcium phosphate and trace metal residues.
Ashes and dust.
Mai emailed the digital recording of the shattering ice core to Marco Dimetti, a technician from the studio where Theo’s band sometimes recorded. In his reply, Marco provided a colorful report that displayed results from a spectrogram analysis. It included individual pitches, the equivalent notes, and the rate of occurrence for each note.
Mai, Marco wrote, I don’t know what this is, but it was hell sorting it out. I separated everything and cleaned up the static. If you get it straightened out, let me know. I’d be curious to hear it.
Marco had also separated the recorded sounds into individual bytes and uploaded them into a sequencing program that allowed Mai to play with arrangement. Late in the evening, after her laboratory shift, and after sharing a hurried dinner with her colleagues, she logged into the account Marco had set up online. She brought up the sequencer and instructed it to play the ice core notes in the order Marco had arranged them.
She cringed and stopped the playback soon after it began. Honking horns in rush hour traffic made a better tune. She hummed the first note of the refrain that had been haunting her thoughts, then she played the sounds again, one at a time, until she found a match for the one repeating in her head.
The tune was elusive, a slippery fish evading capture. The more she chased it, the faster it squirmed away. She lacked many of the necessary pieces, and the task of constructing an organized composition despite those deficiencies overwhelmed her. After a while, and though she wanted to fling it against the wall, she quietly closed her computer, then put away her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and curled up under her bedcovers.
Mai defied defeat to claim its victory. Not yet. More ice core samples remained, hibernating in her laboratory. In their frozen depths lay possibility and potential, and those two words were the lullaby that sang her to sleep.
“It’s just as well,” Mai said. She sat on the edge of her bathtub at home, hands wedged between her knees. The contents of a home pregnancy test rested on the counter beside the sink. A minus sign radiated from the indicator, burning into the sky like a high-wattage spotlight, proclaiming her failure for the world to see.
Theo sat across from her on the toilet lid, his knees pressing into hers. A frown furrowed his brow and carved deep lines around his mouth. “Just as well?”
“It means I can accept that research position.”
She studied her bare toes as she burrowed them into the shaggy bath mat. These fibers should be tickling my feet. The bathtub ceramic should be freezing my ass, even through these jeans. I don’t feel anything, though. Everything is numb.
“Antarctica,” she said. “Yes.”
“Eight weeks, give or take. Depends on the weather.”
“You really want to do this?”
Mai looked into Theo’s eyes–those same, questioning eyes stared into her every time the tests came up negative. She felt those eyes doubting her. They blamed, as if these failures were all her fault. Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but probably not, she thought, because I blame him, too.
“Yes,” Mai said. “I think Antarctica is a good idea.”
“When would you leave?”
“Six months?” said Mai. “Like I said, it depends on the weather.”
After another night of surreptitious experimentation in her lab, Mai had captured a recording of the musical discharges of three additional specimens. Played back to back, the collection of sounds revealed subtle variations that indicated the presence of a wider array of raw materials. Again, Marco separated the individual sounds and uploaded them into the sequencer. He offered to replicate the missing tones by manipulating the pitches of the notes Mai had already captured, but she refused. Marco never asked why, for which she was grateful.
How could she say the melody whispered in her bones, infiltrated her DNA, and demanded precision? The music required notes gleaned from the source and anything else marred its perfection. The tune infected her cells and adhered to her atoms. Mai no longer knew if she was making the music, or if the music was making her.
The arrangement singing from the speakers of her computer resonated in the sleepy tones of a nocturne, but it still lacked a note–one solitary sound. The surrounding music revealed its shape in the same way an incomplete puzzle shows the outline of its missing pieces. Mai played the melody on repeat, and her imagination filled the holes with sounds from her dreams: a pitch matching the squeak of the rocking chair in her empty nursery; an arpeggio of a contented infant’s cooing; a chord combination that mimicked the greedy purring of a baby at the breast.
How cliché is it that I’m writing you a letter? But I don’t know how else to talk to you. Each time I try, you turn away. You act like you’re alone in your grief and you refuse me the right to mourn him. How can you not see that I’m hurting, too?
Mai found Theo’s note on her first day in Antarctica. He had buried it deep in her luggage and she thought he must have intended for her to find it after her arrival, after she unpacked and committed to the long stay.
You shut me out, and when you do talk it’s only to tell me how much you hate everything I love. You’ve thrown out my records, banned me from rehearsing in the house, and you refuse to come to my performances. You blame my music for making you sick.
You lost your heart the day we lost our son. What a shame–you had an amazing heart, so full of music and warmth and love. In our house those were always the same things.
I hope Antarctica is the end of your quest. I hope you’ll find peace there. You and that frozen continent have so much in common, after all. I suppose that’s harsh, but I guess I’m beyond caring. I’m beyond all this now.
I’m done, living with ghosts.
On her bunk, with her bags half unpacked, Mai sat clutching the note in her fist, waiting for heartache, sadness, regret…something. In that moment she believed she could have walked outside with no coat, no mittens, no goggles. She would have survived because the ice would welcome her as one of its own.
Most of Mai’s assessment techniques required controlled thawing, but a slow melt ruined the conditions necessary to release the music from the ice. So, she recorded manufactured data about elemental compounds and gas chromatography readings. She corrupted the sanctity of her research and defiled the purity of her scientific method for a single musical note. From pious to apostate, Mai betrayed her religion for this one, last thing.
As the final specimen crashed to the floor, Mai rejoiced in her irreverence. The shards crunched under her boots as she danced upon the ice.
Mai, Marco wrote in his final e-mail, saw Theo at the studio. I told him what you were working on, your theories about music and conception. He said I shouldn’t enable you this way. He asked me to stop working with you. But I’m a businessman. I’ve got bills and you pay upfront.
So here it is–the final note you’ve been looking for. For whatever its worth, I wish you luck.
Mai started the playback, pausing the sequencer to drop this last, single pitched sound into the empty places lacking its voice. A perfect balance of rhythm, harmony, structure, and texture. The completed composition enveloped her skin. Her muscles quivered and her blood pulsed in time with the tempo. An orgasmic gasp and then a dense ball of intense heat permeated the abyss between her bellybutton and pelvis.
Deep inside her, a tickle of fizzing bubbles was replaced by the flutter of wings that transformed into the substantial movement of matter adjusting to the cramped space–the pushing and kicking of prenatal galaxies. The skin and muscles of her belly gave, expanding to accommodate increasing pressure.
This is it, Mai thought, the music of creation. God’s voice when he said, “Let there be light.” The echo of the Big Bang as galaxies and stars and planets exploded into being.
Labor pains mounted as the music ascended to its crescendo. At its peak, after a series of agonizing contractions, an outpouring of light and heat expanded away from the singularity inside her, an explosive burst of primordial energy–her own personal Big Bang.
There are so many pieces of me.
So many pieces, racing so far apart…