Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Radio

On another brief wander this evening, I was passing underneath an open window when I heard the unmistakeable crackly sound of a radio. I'd almost forgotten what they sound like; it's been a few years since I last heard one.

The last time was on my last visit to the Railway Regions, when I would gather occasionally with a small group of passengers on the Train to listen to Mr. Intaglio's salamander-powered receiver, a tiny machine held together with twine and snail glue. We would stay up until the quiet hours of the morning listening to tinny, static-filled broadcasts from exotic places we'd never heard of.

The Inadvisable Music Hour is broadcast from a mountain toll bridge in Skeen, where the bridge-keepers would let musicians cross for free if they played a sufficiently outlandish instrument.

The Nightsound Show is a nocturnal cornucopia of music and philosophy from the distant underground town of Carburrow, where they discuss stories and foreign politics and the supernatural late into the night.

Brendan Harzelflat, age two hundred and three, tells stories of his long and eventful life and sends them out over the Aether from his solitary lighthouse, speaking in a voice as soft and unhurried as waves on a beach.

One opera program we never did find out the name of, since none of us recognized the language.

It was a good few weeks. That little radio receiver was one of many reasons I was sad to leave the Railway Regions. Until today, I'd almost forgotten the sound of static, of scratchy voices riding on invisible waves over impossible distances, of the mysterious and melodic Aether-whistles that interrupt them every so often.

It was startling to hear that sound here, in this tiny town in the middle of the Desert. I looked around to see where the sound was coming from and chanced to be looking up just when a wild-haired man stuck his head out of a second-story window.

"It's working!" he called to the street in general. I was one of the only people actually in sight, so he turned to look at me. "I'm finally getting a clear signal! Well, almost clear. Come up, come up and listen!"

I rarely refuse invitations to interesting things, so I went up to listen.

The building looked like a shop of some kind. It was closed at the moment (possibly because the owner was busy tinkering upstairs), but the door was unlocked. Since I'd been invited, I opened it and went in.

The lower room was full of clockwork and other machinery. The sun slanting in the window struck glints from pocket watches, clocks in various sizes, a gramophone or two, even some of the more complex types of farming equipment, all in various stages of dismantlement. Gears and cranks and other specialized bits of metal lay with an array of tools all over a pair of long tables that stretched the length of the room. The smells of metal and machine oil filled the air. Something clanked rhythmically in a dark corner in the back. It was fairly clear that this was the town mechanic's shop.

A half-dozen salamanders dozed on a table beneath the front window, with their scales turned dull black to soak up every drop of the remaining evening sunlight. Small, slitted eyes opened briefly and then ignored me.

I could hear a crackly, muffled voice coming from the back. Past a curtain, I found a narrow spiral staircase leading up. It looked like it had come from somewhere else. The ornate wrought-iron railings, twisted round with designs of winged weasels and snakes, were wildly different from the simple stone walls around them, and the staircase didn't quite seem to fit the stairwell. The middles of the steps were worn down, the edges scattered with mysterious bits of machinery.

If the downstairs room had been cluttered, the upstairs room made it seem practically empty by comparison. It was all machinery, floor to ceiling, stacked in precarious heaps and hanging from the rafters. Jars of nuts and bolts stood on any surface flat enough to hold them. Loops of chains and wire hung from hooks. Several of the heaps had small, open areas in the middle, showing that there were work tables somewhere beneath all the clutter.

The machines here - when I could pick individual ones out from the chaos - were much more fanciful than the practical, workaday devices downstairs. Here was a fan, a ring of thin blades punched with geometric patterns of holes, designed to be spun by the air rising from a candle flame; there, a music box built to play multiple brass musical cylinders at once; farther in, an ungainly machine for cracking eggs. Judging by the litter of pulverized eggshell around it, it had not yet succeeded in doing so gently.

In the center of the room was the man who had called me in, whom I assumed to be the mechanic himself. He was a short man with a face like a bespectacled sheep and a wild mane of woolly hair. He wore a shirt stained with machine oil and a vest that seemed to be made entirely of pockets.

"Oh good, you found the stairs." He spoke Halsi, almost too quickly for me to follow. "Some people can't. Do you speak other languages? I finally got a signal on this thing and I'm talking to someone, or trying to, but I can't understand a word."

I replied that I spoke several languages. Unfortunately, my spoken Halsi is not particularly good yet; my reply probably sounded something like, "yes, it speaks many language, what need?" This did not appear to fill the man with confidence in my abilities. He was about to say something else when the radio interrupted.

"Finally, someone else," said a crisp, crackly voice from the speaker. "I don't suppose you speak English?"

It was surprisingly pleasant to hear someone speaking my native language again - even if the voice was crackly and coming out of a machine. It's fairly common to hear English, along with every other language, in the larger cities of the Golden Desert. Since leaving Karkafel, however, I've heard very little of it.

The voice on the other end turned out to belong to a Miss Anthetica Mandrigore, who was speaking from a cottage in the High Fields. She's currently trying to assemble a group of radio operators to create a sort of radio communication team - a "network," she called it - between several of the more remote parts of the High Fields. In that country of cliffs, landslides, broken bridges, narrow switchback paths, and weather so unpredictable that even postbirds find it difficult to deliver mail on time, a system like this could be quite useful.

The mechanic introduced himself - when he remembered - as Bofrid Haggadan. With me as a translator, the two of them spent the next few hours discussing radio technology. I got the impression that neither of them often got a chance to discuss the subject with someone who was equally interested. Miss Mandrigore also had rather a sharp tongue, though, so perhaps it was just as well that the two of them couldn't communicate directly just yet. Not everyone patient enough to operate radios has the same amount of patience with people.

I am far from an expert in any of the mechanical disciplines, so the conversation quickly grew to be over my head. Fortunately, many of the technical terms are the same or similar in both languages; most of the words I didn't understand, Mr. Haggadan did.

No one is really quite sure how radio works. People first found the old transmitters in the floating cities; the theory is that the Hill Builders used them to talk to each other. Some of those old transmitters still work, even after thousands of years, and people like Mr. Haggadan and Miss Mandrigore have started making their own.

Electricity has generally been dismissed as an unstable and impatient form of energy, especially compared to salamander power and the ancient Hill Builder reactors that still power the floating cities. No one would consider using electricity for anything practical. Still, the Hill Builders seem to have been fond of the stuff.

Of course, since no one actually knows how radio transmitters and receivers work, the best anyone can do is put wires and magnets and electrically-trained salamanders together and hope that it all works. Those few who try succeed almost half the time. Even when radio does work, it's never reliable. The signals have a tendency to fracture as they spread, becoming crackly and distorted. They can only be picked up in random patches of space. Move two feet to the left, and everything dissolves into static. Many radio operators find themselves yelling across the room to their microphones, holding their antennas out of the window for a better signal.

Fortunately, nothing like that was necessary today. The two radio operators continued to converse, their voices passing each other on tenuous streams of radio waves stretching halfway across the world, until a storm crossing the High Fields finally drowned out Miss Mandrigore's crisp voice in a sea of static. The two of them made plans to contact each other again in a few days. Miss Mandrigore has a niece who speaks Halsi, so they will be able to continue to trade notes after I leave Rikanta. Coming from two such distant locations, it sounded like they had a lot to learn from each other. I suspect that the niece will find herself with a full-time job shortly.

After switching off his radio, Mr. Haggadan thanked me profusely for my help. He said he would have invited me to stay for dinner, except that - like many passionate craftsmen - he had never taken the time to learn to cook, and all his meals consisted of bread and garlic with the occasional cabbage. Besides, it was quite obvious that he wanted to return to work on his radio. I thanked him for the offer and said goodnight. When I left, he was in the middle of dismantling some piece of electrical wiring, muttering enthusiastically to himself and shuffling through the sheaf of notes he'd taken during the conversation. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a more reliable or widespread form of radio.

For now, though, it remains a pastime for the patient and the hopeful, for dreamers and eccentrics, for engineers who are willing to tinker endlessly with half-understood technology for the chance of hearing a stranger's voice from half a world away.

Then again, anyone who answers them is almost certainly a similar sort of dreamer. Perhaps they're not such strangers after all.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

  • Stats Tracked by StatCounter