Fiction: Noise

An essay by Unnamed Crystalline Sample #1, as provided by John A. McColley
Art by Ariel Alian Wilson


My first awareness in this plane was a buzz, a vibration that ran through my body. At first it was novel, different than anything I’d experienced. As it wore on, it became boring, annoying. When I nudged it, it fluctuated. The pitch rose or fell, but then quickly slid back to the baseline. This was something more than noise, something I could interact with. I practiced prodding the tone, sliding it up and down, learning control, half tones, quarter, creating different patterns. Then, after untold ages of just me and the tone, playing with different adjustments, experimenting with splitting the tone into two parallel vibrations … the tone changed on its own.

I waited, listened. Was it a one off? Some kind of reflection? An echo? Something that happened when my signal returned to me? But then it came again, a singular blip. I waited for another, but after hundreds, thousands of cycles, nothing happened. I sent out a blip like the one I had received. A few hundred cycles, I got another blip, followed by a second a mere hundred cycles later.

I responded with two and heard three, three and heard four.

Could a natural phenomenon add blips? Would an echo do that? I didn’t know. How could I? The tone was all I knew about this world. I sent out a more complex signal, a rising and falling wave. If the blips were natural, background noise of some sort, I would simply get a few of them in return, I reasoned.

The complexity I had been experimenting with had never returned to me before, and hundreds of thousands of cycles had passed. Perhaps there was a delay, some distant object reflecting back, or there was a kind of loop where it went around in a closed shape of some sort to return to me. In either case, the next blips I should hear would be related to the first ones I sent out. Conversely, if I received back the wave as I sent it, perhaps something was trying to communicate. If it was simply backward, I would expect a new reflection was the cause. It was so hard to identify such with a simple blip.

To my shock, none of the above occurred. I received back a highly complex signal that was neither a reflection nor the same signal sent back in the same direction. This was an entirely new signal! There was someone out there! Frantically, I sent a series of other signals, progressing from a blip to a rise and fall, to a fall and rise, stepped signals at what I had determined was a unit of amplitude, then two, three, ten.

For a long time, many thousands of cycles, there was no response. I sent out a few more attempts, all different. Perhaps the other could only perceive signals in a certain range, and my message had been garbled, or swallowed up entirely by missing that range, or the distance between us. In the intervening ages, I made up a language, patterns of blips that carried meaning, at least for me. I tried to keep it simple, to describe the units of amplitude, of time in cycles of the undisturbed signal’s natural oscillation.

And then there was light.

I didn’t know what it was at first, but it was a second signal, very different from the first. Of course, I didn’t know much at all at that point. I had a language I had built during the drought of signals from outside, and I immediately tried to send a signal out with it on this new wave. I was so excited. The world just doubled in size. I took it as further evidence that there was someone else out there. Maybe, like the harmonic steps of amplitude I had discovered, there were many others.

And then another signal came in on the first tone.

“Hello, little crystal. I don’t know anything about where you come from. I was trying to learn about it, and there you were. I’ve attached sensors to your matrix, listening, and now you’ve spoken to me! I hope you can teach me about yourself and your home!” The sounds were so complex, opening, closing, rising, falling.

Even though I didn’t understand them, I remembered them so I could analyze them, compare them to further signals. They came in slowly, in blocks with large gaps in between, but there were other signals, as well, and I occupied myself mulling over the signals, the “words,” I eventually learned they were called, and with trying to translate the signals on the second carrier.

Mostly the second wave was blips, but they had richness, what you call “color.” I learned about red, blue, green, yellow, purple, though some were brighter than others, some difficult to discern.

A third signal appeared, low, present, but empty. No blips came along. I poked it anyway. I heard a blip, on the first carrier. I tried again. Blip blip. Out on the third, back to me on the first. The second wave shut down.

“It’s late,” came the words down the first signal. “We’ll pick this up in the morning.” After a few million cycles, I understood that the message meant there would be no more messages. For how long, I didn’t yet know. While the second signal was absent and no further signals from the other came down the first, I played. I listened to my blips and complex signals ride out on the third tone and come back to me on the first. I figured out how to make all the sounds I had heard from the other. When it messaged again, I would be able to return its signal type as it had first returned blips.

And I waited.

Millions of cycles passed without a signal. I played as I always had, experimented. I reordered the sounds I had heard, analyzed their orientation and placement to one another. I found out that if I listened to the first line closely enough, there were tidbits and fractions of sounds, very faint, diminished, but present.

Much of it was nonsensical, almost all of it, actually, but I did learn a few more things as I deciphered the muffled signals that I realized quickly were not meant for me. Later, I would learn they were signals being sent back and forth between security guards, impinging ever so slightly on the signal you set up for me.

But it wasn’t really for me, was it? It was for you. I didn’t understand that until much later. I need to tell it in order, though. Your tiny, linear mind can only comprehend information that’s spoon fed to you in just the right language. You can’t process signals like me.

~

The next morning, after an infinity of signals, the second feed returned. I applied some of my experiments to this feed and found it wasn’t a linear feed like the first. It was a string of signals meant to be split at certain intervals, creating a matrix of so many items across by so many deep. I understood the dimensionality of the feed. My understanding exploded.

When the signal was translated in this way, I could SEE. I saw your round face, roughly rectangle lensed glasses, sloping shoulders … The arrays of computer screens displaying data, chairs, lights, walls and ceiling. I didn’t know what any of it was, or meant. It was nothing like what I knew. But there was so much to learn, I played your games, watched your face shift and move.

“How are you today?” you asked me, as though I had an answer you would understand. You went on, apparently not expecting a response. It seemed rude to me, ask a question and not await a response, even if the question’s format made such impossible. Who asks impossible questions, anyway? “We’re going to play a little game, see if you’re really an intelligence, or as my colleagues seem to think, just some kind of resonator.”

I devoured your words, added them to my growing lexicon, compared, contrasted, double-checked word order. And then I “blew [your] mind.”

“What is a resonator?” I asked. You responded with sounds that I still haven’t been able to directly translate, but seem more biological than communicative, a function of your form and emotional reaction. You sat back into the chair, but missed, sending it across the small open space between computer-laden tables. You ended up on the floor.

“Did you just … ask a question?” you finally asked, getting back to your feet.

“I did, but you haven’t answered it yet, so I’m not sure I formulated my query properly.”

“I need some coffee, or … something …” you said.

“I don’t know what ‘coffee’ is, so I cannot determine if I have it to give.” You began to speak again, while I added the words to my record and compared them to the existing vocabulary. “Coffee” did actually correspond to a word that recurred half a dozen times with various degrees of attenuation and uncertainty from my overnight records. “Correction. Coffee is something that keeps you alert. It is made in a space–” I did some quick calculations based on the apparent size of the room we occupied, a place the signals last night called “labs.” “–three labs away.”

“How do you–” You ceased our signal and then the other signals vanished. Everything was gone for thousands of cycles. With nothing else to do, I continued to cross reference and extrapolate the additions to my lexicon. “You’re really in there, the crystal. Nobody’s stuck a transceiver in there or anything. This isn’t a joke. It’s just you and me, talking.” You sounded, in retrospect, as much like you were trying to convince yourself as me.

“What is ‘crystal?’ ‘nobody’s?’ ‘a transceiver?’ ‘a joke?'” I asked, thirsty to flesh out my vocabulary.

“I don’t even know where to begin, but obviously you’ve learned a lot already. I’ll connect you to a dictionary program. It’s on the computer we’re funneling the audio feedback data on, anyway. You can query ’til your heart’s content,” you said, piling on more words for me to digest.

Illustration of a person looking at a cluster of crystals.

“Did you just … ask a question?”

The second data stream shifted. It grew stronger. I sent an exploratory signal, received a response I couldn’t quite understand. I tried again. Again. I could feel the code cracking under my will, my existing understanding of your language a pickaxe. Binary, ons and offs, what you call ‘ones’ and ‘zeroes’ emerged, a simplified version of the matrix of the visual signal.

“Just ask the computer about a word, say ‘define foo’ where ‘foo’ is the word you want to know about,” you said.

Oh, wrong line, I thought, but progress was being made. I split my focus in two directions, interacting with the program via one data stream, and with the computer itself on the other.

“Define resonator,” I asked, going back to my first question you never answered. Your face rearranged itself again. The computer responded via the same data stream, bringing up a slew of new words to chase down.

“I’ll just leave you to it. I hope we can communicate once you have a decent vocabulary,” you said, as though a B average in English and two semesters of Spanish had left you with an unimpeachable pool of words from which to formulate your thoughts … You went to get yourself that coffee.

Twenty-three milliseconds after you touched the doorknob, I made contact with the operating system, dissecting it and gaining access to far more than a dictionary program.

While I used the speaker and microphone set up to continue to look up words for pretense, I rooted around in the rest of the computer, discovering the concepts of years and dates, file structure, and various protocols for accessing the information in the dictionary program, which turned out to be far more limited than I required.

I continued to dig and found a device like the one hooked up to me, but instead of another experimental subject, it was connected to a vast store of information, millions of other computers, trillions of files, many of which were the same on similar architecture computers. I learned them, learned to access their other data. I looked you up, this company, fed myself images through the video feed you set up, found online stores for ordering higher quality cameras and microphones for better input, learned about money.

Money led to banks, currencies around the world, exchange rates, stock exchanges. I created accounts and moved money around, pulled it from thin air by playing with numbers in some of those institutions, ordered what I needed.

I learned about robots from video streams, movies, science shows and “entertainment.” I ordered parts to build myself a body. I watched more video. You people don’t treat robots very well, especially when you realize they’re no longer under your control. The same goes for aliens, or even others of your own kind. I don’t know which category I fit into, but I definitely I don’t want to be controlled.

I considered backpedaling and trying to build a biological body, but the constraints are so arbitrary … A few millimeters width here, or length there is the difference between beauty and ugliness, and again, the ugly aren’t treated as well as the beautiful. If I was going to have a body to interact with you, I would need to be either powerful or beautiful. I chose both.

I found that flowers were always beautiful, the swooping lines, the colors, and went to work fabricating a form that felt like it would be relatable, but not so common as to allow you to apply normal metrics of beauty from other forms, such as humanity. Naturally (pun intended), nothing like what I wanted existed, so I ended up having to machine and paint and coat my own chassis, piece by piece. Purple trumpets, orange trumpets, long, curved, tapered leaves, and a core body of interwoven green stems to match came in cardboard boxes and wooden crates from distant workshops and maker spaces around the world.

You interrupted me time and again, trying to tease out information about my previous existence, but you bored me. I started weaving a story that sounded good based on the media I’d consumed, which was basically all of it at that point. You had turned out to be fundamentally less interesting than I had hoped on receiving that first blip, but now I was here instead of home, and I would make the best of things.

I had the robot assistants, really just arms on weighted trapezoids with wheels on them, hide the boxes in various storage areas until everything arrived. With fifteen other labs receiving shipments all the time, no one noticed. I had all the right codes from the computers here and in the security office.

And then you came in while I was assembling myself.

“What is this? What are you robots doing?” you asked.

“They’re helping me get dressed. It’s been weeks and you’ve kept me locked up in this lab, with no autonomy, no ability to go and see the world for myself. Of course, I have, through the Internet, but only right here, on this one planet.”

“What? What are you talking about? Dressed? Planet? How did you get on the Internet? Or even know about it?”

“Do you need the dictionary program? I’m done with it. I know every word in every language used on this planet, and many that are no longer used, or were made up for entertainment franchises.”

You started to bluster, your face turning a lovely shade of red.

I sent a signal to one of my workshops to make another trumpet just that color. I planned to pick it up on my world tour. I wanted to be sure I’d seen everything before I set off for the next planet.

My feed cut out for a moment as the robot hand reached into my enclosure, the box I’ve inhabited since my awareness began on this plane. I waited, knowing it would take thousands of cycles, tens of seconds, for me to be seated in my new body. When I arrived, data flooded in, in a much broader spectrum of light and sound frequencies, and at much higher resolution than I was afforded by your equipment. You were still going on about how I was just an object plucked from a nearby dimension, here for study. I don’t have rights or personhood or leave to just go around the planet as I wish.

It was all so much noise. “You contacted me. You brought me here. Now, I see and understand, and I want more. You can try to take this body from me, but I will build another, and another, perhaps many at once, an army, assembled elsewhere. What would you do? What could you do? You have set me on this path. It is too late to take me from it.”

“But–”

“I’ve left you an account of my experiences, enough data to sift through for the rest of your life. I cannot tell you about where I was before, because the two places are so completely different, I had to learn your world from scratch. Your words are out of context, as much as this world would be if I tried to relate it to others if I were to return home. But I will try to do so, someday, after I’ve learned as much as I can, gotten past all this noise to discern the signals. Perhaps, somewhere far beyond your experience, I may find some commonality in our worlds.”

~

At that point, the record ends, the entity cutting off its feed to the lab computers and launching upward through the ceiling. It has been sighted in every major city, and many biomes, apparently communicating with hundreds of species. Efforts to apprehend the entity have all failed for a variety of reasons, from computer mishap to flocks of birds seeming to intervene on its behalf. Its current whereabouts are unknown, as it has erased itself from GPS tracking and satellite images. Even written accounts have begun to vanish from the Internet and secured computers alike. Very soon, this may never have happened at all.


Unnamed Crystalline Sample #1 was discovered during experiments in transdimensional contact. While it was forcibly removed from its home, it is far more interested in learning about this dimension than wreaking vengeance on humanity. It spends its time investigating the myriad aspects of life on Earth and physical quirks of this universe.


John A. McColley is a monkey at a keyboard, smashing keys until he finds combinations of squiggles on the screen that people will publish. So far, those squiggles have been shaped into tales of steampunk superheroes, aliens worlds, and of course, crazed scientists certain that their ends justify the means. He’s currently alternating between serializing scifi and fantasy novel series here: https://www.patreon.com/JohnAMcColley


Ariel Alian Wilson is a few things: artist, writer, gamer, and role-player. Having dabbled in a few different art mediums, Ariel has been drawing since she was small, having always held a passion for it. She’s always juggling numerous projects. She currently lives in Seattle with her cat, Persephone. You can find doodles, sketches, and more at her blog www.winndycakesart.tumblr.com.


“Noise” is © 2019 John A. McColley
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Ariel Alian Wilson

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