CHAPTER SIX. 1

SEPTEMBER 25, 1962

GORDON BERNSTEIN PUT DOWN HIS PENCIL WITH DELIBERATE slowness. He held it between thumb and forefinger and watched the tip tremble in the air. It was an infallible test; as he brought the pencil lead near the formica table top, the jittering of his hand made a tick-tick-tick rhythm. No matter how strongly he willed the hand to be still, the ticking continued. As he listened it seemed to swell and become louder than the muted chugging of the roughing pumps around him.

Abruptly Gordon smashed the pencil down, gouging a black hole in the table, snapping off the lead, splintering the wood and yellow paint.

“Hey, ah—”

Gordon’s head jerked up. Albert Cooper was standing beside him. How long had he been there?

“I, ah, checked with Doctor Grundkind,” Cooper said, looking away from the pencil. “Their whole rig is off the air.”

“You looked it over yourself?” Gordon’s voice came out thin and wheezing, overcontrolled.

“Yeah, well, they’re kinda gettin’ tired of me coming around,” Cooper said sheepishly. “This time they unplugged all their stuff from the wall outlets, even.”

Gordon nodded silently.

“Well, I guess that’s it.”

“What do you mean?” Gordon said evenly.

“Look, we’ve been working on this for—what?—four days.”

“So?”

“We’re at a dead end.”

“Why?”

“Grundkind’s low-temperature group was the last candidate on our list. We’ve got everybody in the building shut down.”

“Right.”

“So this noise—it can’t be spillover from them.” “Uh huh.”

“And we know it isn’t leaking in from outside.”

“The chicken wire we wrapped around the apparatus proves that,” Gordon agreed, nodding at the metal cage now embracing the entire magnet assembly. “It should shield out stray signals.”

“Yeah. So it has to be some screwup in our electronics.”

“Nope.”

“Why not?” Cooper demanded impatiently. “Hell, maybe Hewlett-Packard is shittin’ us on the specs, how do we know?”

“We’ve checked the rig ourselves.”

“But that’s got to be it.”

“No,” Gordon said with compressed energy. “No, there’s something else.” His hand shot out and seized a stack of x-y recorder plots. “I’ve been taking these for two hours. Look.”

Cooper paged through the red-gridded sheets. “Well, it looks a little less noisy. I mean, the noise has got some regular spikes in it.”

“I tuned it in. Improved the resolution.”

“So? It’s still noise,” Cooper said irritably.

“No, it isn’t.”

“Huh? Of course it is.”

“Look at those spikes I brought up out of the hash. Look at their spacing.”

Cooper fanned the sheets out on the formica table top. After a moment he said, “I’m just eyeballing it, but… well, looks like they come at only two different intervals.”

Gordon nodded energetically. “Correct. That’s what I noticed. What we’re seeing here is a lot of background noise—damned if I know where that’s coming from—with some regular stuff on top.”

“How’d you get these plots?”

“Used the lock-in correlator, to cull out the genuine noise. This structure, this spacing—it’s there, probably been there all the time.”

“We just never looked closely enough.”

“We ‘knew’ it was garbage, and why study garbage? Stupid.” Gordon shook his head, smiling wryly at himself.

Cooper’s forehead wrinkled as he stared off into space. “I don’t get it. What’ve these pulses got to do with the nuclear resonance?”

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing.”

“But, hell, that’s what this experiment is. I’m measuring the big nuclear resonance spike, when we flip the spins of the atomic nuclei. These pulses—”

“They’re not resonances. Not as I understand a simple resonance, anyway. Something’s tipping over those nuclear spins, all right, but… wait a sec.”

Gordon stared down at the x-y graphs. His left hand twitched absently at a button on his rumpled blue shirt. “I don’t think this is any sort of frequency-dependent effect.”

“But that’s what we’re plotting. The intensity of the signal received, versus the frequency we see it at.”

“Yes, but that assumes everything’s steady.”

“Well, it is.”

“Who says? Suppose the noise comes in bursts?”

“Why should it?”

“Damn it!” Gordon slammed a fist down, sending the snapped pencil skittering off the table. “Try the idea on for size! Why is it every student wants things spelled out for him?”

“Well, okay.” Cooper earnestly knitted his forehead into a worried expression. Gordon could see the man was obviously too tired to do any real thinking. For that matter, so was he. They’d been hammering away at this nightmare problem for days, sleeping a minimal amount and going out for meals in greasy fast-food franchises. Hell, he hadn’t even got down to the beach to do any jogging. And Penny—Christ, he’d hardly caught a glimpse of her. She’d said something abrupt and feisty to him last night, just before he fell asleep, and it hadn’t registered with him until he was getting dressed, alone, this morning. So there was some patching-up to do there, when he got home. If he ever got home, he added, because he was damned if he’d give up on this puzzle until…

“Hey, try this,” Cooper said, jarring Gordon out of his musing. “Suppose we’re seeing a time-varying input here, the way you said it was, you know, days ago—when we started searching for outside noise sources. Our transcribing pen is moving at a constant rate across the paper, right?” Gordon nodded. “So these spikes here are spaced about a centimeter apart, and then two spaced half a centimeter. Then a one centimeter interval, three half-centimeters, and so on.”

Gordon suddenly saw what he was driving at, but he let Cooper finish.

“That’s the way the signal came in, spaced out in time. Not frequency, time.”

Gordon nodded. It was obvious, now that he stared at the wiggles and peaks of the recording pens. “Something coming in bursts, all across the frequency spectrum we’re studying.” He pursed his lips. “Bursts with long intervals between them, then some with shorter intervals.”

“Right.” Cooper nodded enthusiastically. “That’s it.”

“Short ones, long ones… Short, long, short, short. Like…”

“Like a goddamned code,” Cooper finished. Cooper wiped at his mouth and stared at the x-y recordings.

“Do you know Morse code?” Gordon asked him quietly. “I don’t.”

“Well, yeah. I did when I was a kid, anyway.”

“Let’s lay out these sheets, in the order I took the data.” Gordon stood up with renewed energy. He picked the broken pencil off the floor and inserted it in a pencil sharpener and started turning the handle. It made a raw, grinding noise.

•  •  •

When Isaac Lakin came into the nuclear resonance laboratory anyone, even a casual visitor, could tell it was his. Of course, the National Science Foundation paid for essentially all of it, except the war surplus electronics gear acquired from the Navy, and the University of California owned the immense pancake magnets under a Grantor’s Assignment, but in any useful sense of the term the laboratory belonged to Isaac Lakin. He had established his reputation at MIT in a decade of sound work, research occasionally flecked by the sparkle of real brilliance. From there he had gone to General Electric and Bell Labs, each step taking him higher. When the University of California began building a new campus around the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Lakin became one of their first “finds.” He had the contacts in Washington and brought a big chunk of money with him, money that translated into gear and lab space and slots for junior faculty. Gordon had been one of the first to fill those slots, but from the beginning he and Lakin had failed to hit it off. When Lakin came into Gordon’s lab he usually found something out of place, a snarl of wires that almost tripped him, a dewar poorly secured, something that soured his mood.

Lakin nodded to Cooper and murmured a hello to Gordon, his eyes scanning the lab. Gordon quickly led Lakin through a summary of their process of elimination. Lakin nodded, smiling faintly, as Cooper then detailed the weeks he had spent checking and rechecking the rig. As Cooper went on Lakin drifted away, thumbing a knob here, studying a circuit there.

“These leads are reversed,” he declared, holding up wiring with alligator clips attached.

“That unit we aren’t using anyway,” Gordon replied mildly. Lakin studied Cooper’s circuitry, made a remark about assemblying it better, and moved on. Cooper’s voice followed him around the large laboratory bay. To Cooper, describing an experiment was like field-stripping a rifle, each part in its place and as necessary as any other. He was good and he was careful, but he hadn’t the experience to go for the throat of a problem, Gordon saw, to give only the essentials. Well, that was why Cooper was a student and Lakin a full professor.

Lakin flipped a switch, studied the dancing face of an oscilloscope, and said, “Something’s out of alignment.”

Cooper scurried into action. He tracked down the snag, setting it right in a few moments. Lakin nodded in approval. Gordon felt a curious tightness in his chest ease, as though it had been himself being tested, not Cooper.

“Very well, then,” Lakin said finally. “Your results?”

Now it was Gordon’s turn to perform. He chalk-talked his way through their ideas, followed them up with the data displays. He gave Cooper credit for guessing there was a, coded message in the noise. He picked up a recorder sheet and showed it to Lakin, pointing out the spacings and how they were always close to either one centimeter or 0.5 centimeters, never anything else.

Lakin studied the jittery lines with their occasional sharp points, like towers jutting up through a fog-shrouded cityscape. Impassively he said, “Nonsense.”

Gordon paused. “I thought so, too, at first. Then we decoded the thing, assigning the 0.5 centimeter intervals as ‘short’ and one centimeter as ‘long’ in Morse code.”

“This is pointless. There is no physical effect which could produce data like these.” Lakin glanced around at Cooper, clearly exasperated.

“But look at a translation from the Morse,” Gordon said, scribbling on the blackboard. ENZYME INHIBITED B.

Lakin squinted at the letters. “This is from one sheet of recorder paper?” “Well, no. Three together.” “Where were the breaks?”

“ENZYM on the first, E INHIB on the second, ITED B on the third.”

“So you haven’t got a complete word at all.”

“Well, they are serial. I took them one after the other, with just a quick pause to change paper.”

“How long?”

“Oh… twenty seconds.”

“Time enough for several of your ‘letters’ to go by undetected.”

“Well, maybe. But the structure—”

“There is no structure here, merely guesswork.”

Gordon frowned. “The chances of getting a set of words out of random noise, arranged this way—”

“How do you space the words?” Lakin said. “Even in Morse de there’s an interval, to tell you where one word stops and another begins.”

“Doctor Lakin, that’s just what we’ve found. There are two-centimeter intervals on the recordings between each word. That fits—”

“I see.” Lakin took all this stoically. “Quite convenient. Are there other… messages?”

“Some,” Gordon said evenly. “They don’t make a great deal of sense.”

“I suspected as much.”

“Oh, there are words. ‘This’ and ‘saturate’—what are the odds against getting an eight-letter word like that, offset on each side with two-centimeter spacings?”

“Ummm,” Lakin said, shrugging. Gordon always had the feeling that at such moments Lakin had some expression in his native language, Hungarian, but couldn’t translate it into English. “I still believe it to be… nonsense. There is no physical effect such as this. Interference from outside, yes. I can believe that. But this, this James Bond Morse code—no.”

With that Lakin shook his head quickly, as though erasing the matter, and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I think you have wasted your time here.”

“I don’t really—”

“My advice to you is to focus on your true problem. That is to find the source of noise in your electronics. I fail to understand why you cannot seek it out.” Lakin turned, nodded to Cooper curtly, and was gone.

•  •  •

An hour after Lakin had left, after the equipment was turned off or cycled down, the data collected, the lab books compiled and details filled in, Gordon waved goodbye to Cooper and walked out into the long corridor leading to the outside. He was surprised; the glass doors showed gathering gloom, and Venus rising. Gordon had assumed it was still late afternoon. The frosted glass in each office door was black; everyone had gone home, even Shelly, whom he’d counted on talking to.

Well then, tomorrow. There was always time tomorrow, Gordon thought. He walked down the corridor woodenly, lurching to the side as his briefcase banged against a knee. The labs were in the basement of the new physics building. Because of the slope of the shoreline hills, this end of the building gave out onto flat land. Beyond the glass doors at the end of the corridor night crouched, a black square. Gordon felt that the telescoping hallway was swimming past him, and realized that he was more tired than he thought. He really ought to get more exercise, stay in shape.

As he watched, Penny stepped into the framed darkness and pushed through.

“Oh,” he said, staring at her blankly. He remembered that he had mumbled a promise this morning to come home early and make supper. “Oh damn.”

“Yes. I finally got tired of waiting.”

“God, I’m sorry, I, I just…” He made a gawky gesture. The plain fact was that he had completely forgotten, but it didn’t seem wise to say that.

“Honey, you get too wrapped up.” Her voice softened as she studied his face.

“Weil, I know, I… I’m really sorry, God I am…” He thought, self-accusingly, I can’t even get started on an apology. He stared at her and marveled at this compact, well-designed creation, womanly and slight, making him feel bulky and awkward. He really ought to explain how it was with him, how the problems took up all the space inside him while he was working on them, leaving room for nothing else—not even for her, in a sense. It sounded harsh but it was the truth and he tried to think of a way to tell her that without…

“Sometimes I wonder how I can love such a dope,” she said, shaking her head, a small smile beginning.

“Well, I am sorry, but… let me tell you about the set-to we had with Lakin.”

“Yeah, do tell.” She bent over to pick up his briefcase. She was wiry and she lifted the bulging case without difficulty, shifting her hips. Despite his fatigue, Gordon found himself studying the motion.

The tightening of her skirt made her thighs leap into outline beneath the fabric. “C’mon, what you need is food.” He began his story. She nodded at his words and led the way out the back and around the liquid nitrogen filling station and down into the small parking lot, where safety lamps cast shadows of the guard railings, making a stretched and warped fretwork on the fresh blacktop.

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