by Tom McCarthy
The static's like the sound of thinking. Not of any single person thinking, nor even a group thinking, collectively. It's bigger than that, widerand more direct. It's like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush. Each night, when Serge drops in on it, it recoils with a wail, then rolls back in crackling waves that carry him away, all rudderless, until his finger, nudging at the dial, can get some traction on it all, some sort of leeway. The first stretches are angry, plaintive, sadand always mute. It's not until, hunched over the potentiometer among fraying cords and soldered wires, his controlled breathing an extension of the frequency of air he's riding on, he gets the first quiet clicks that words start forming: first he jots down the signals as straight graphite lines, long ones and short ones, then, below these, he begins to transcribe curling letters, dim and grainy in the arc light of his desktop ...
He's got two masts set up. There's a twenty-two-foot pine one topped with fifteen more feet of bamboo, all bolted to an oak-stump base half-buried in the Mosaic Garden. Tent pegs circle the stump round; steel guy \ wires, double-insulated, climb from these to tether the mast down. On the chimney of the main house, a pole three feet long reaches the same height as the bamboo. Between the masts are strung four eighteen-gage | manganese copper wires threaded through oak-lath crosses. In Serge's bedroom, there's a boxed tuning coil containing twenty feet of silk-covered platinoid, shellacked and scraped. Two dials are mounted on the box's lid: a large, clock-handed one dead in the centre and, to its right, a smaller disc made from ash-wood recessed at the back and dotted at the front by twenty little screws with turned-down heads set in a circle to form switch-studs. The detector's brass with an adjusting knob of ebonite; the condenser's Murdock; the crystal, Chilean gelina quartz, a Mighty Atom mail-ordered from Gamage of Holborn. For the telephone, he tried a normal household one but found it wasn't any use unless he replaced the diaphragms, and moved on to a watch-receiver-pattern headset wound to a resistance of eight and a half thousand ohms. The transmitter itself is made of standard brass, a four-inch tapper arm keeping Serge's finger a safe distance from the spark gap. The spark gap flashes blue each time he taps; it makes a spitting noise, so loud he's had to build a silence box around the desk to isolate his little RX station from the sleeping householdor, as it becomes more obvious to him with every session, to maintain the little household's fantasy of isolation from the vast sea of transmission roaring all around it.
Tonight, as on most nights, he starts out local, sweeping from two hundred and fifty to four hundred metres. It's the usual traffic: CQ signals from experimental wireless stations in Masedown and Eliry, tapping out their call signs and then slipping into Q-code once another bug's responded. They exchange signal quality reports, compare equipment, enquire about variations in the weather and degrees of atmospheric interference. The sequence QTC, which Serge, like any other Wireless World subscriber, knows means "Have you anything to transmit?", is usually met with" a short, negative burst before both questioner and responder move on to fish for other signals. Serge used to answer all CQs, noting each station's details in his call-book; lately, though, he's become more selective in the signals he'll acknowledge, preferring to let the small-fry click away as background chatter, only picking up the pencil to transcribe the dots and dashes when their basic QRNs and QRAs unfold into longer sequences. This is happening right now: an RXer in Lydium who calls himself "Wireworm" is tapping out his thoughts about the Postmaster General's plans to charge one guinea per station for all amateurs.
"... tht bedsteads n gas pipes cn b used as rcving aerials is well-knOn I mslf hv dn this," Wireworm's boasting, "alsO I cn trn pianO wire in2 tuning coil fashion dtctrs from wshing sOda n a needle mst I obtain lenses 4 ths wll we gt inspctrs cheking r pots n pans z C tht they enfrm 2 rgulatns I sgst cmpaign cvl dsObdns agnst such impsitions .. Transcribing his clicks, Serge senses that Wireworm's not so young: no operator under twenty would bother to tap out the whole word "fashion." The spacing's a little awkward also: too studied, too self- conscious. Besides, most bugs can improvise equipment: he once made Bodner's spade conduct a signal and the house's pipes vibrate and resonate, sending Frieda running in panic from her bath .
Serge moves up to five hundred metres. Here are stronger; more decisive signals: coastal stations' call signs, flung from towering masts. Poldhu's transmitting its weather report; a few nudges away, Malin, Cleethorpes, Nordeich send out theirs. Liverpool's exchanging messages with tugboats in the Mersey: Serge transcribes a rota of towing duties for tomorrow. Further out, the lightship Tongue's reporting a derelict's position: the coordinates click their way in to the Seaforth station, then flash out again, to be acknowledged by Marconi operators of commercial liners, one after the other. The ships' names reel off in litany: Falaba, British Sun, Scania, Morea, Carmania, each name appendaged by its church: Cunard Line, Allen, Aberdeen Direct, Canadian Pacific Railway, Holland-America. The clicks peter out, and Serge glances at the clock: it's half a minute before one. A few seconds later, Paris's call-sign comes on: FL for Eiffel. Serge taps his finger on the desktop to the rhythm of the huge tower's stand-by clicks, then holds it still and erect for the silent lull that always comes just before the time-code. All the operators have gone silent: boats, coastal stations, bugsall waiting, like him, for the quarter-second dots to set the air, the world, time itself back in motion as they chime the hour.
They sound, and then the headphones really come to life. The press digest goes out from Niton, Poldhu, Malin, Cadiz: Diario del Atldntico, Journal de VAtlantique, Atlantic Daily News ... "Madero and Suarez Shot in Mexico While Trying to Escape" ... "Trade Pact Between" ... "Entretien de" ... "Shocking Domestic Tragedy in Bow" ... "II Funda-tore" . . . "Husband Unable to Prevent" .. . The stories blur together: Serge sees a man clutching a kitchen knife chasing a politician across parched earth, past cacti and armadillos, while ambassadors wave papers around fugitive and pursuer, negotiating terms. "Grain Up Five, Lloyds Down Two" . . . "Australia All Out for Four Hundred and Twenty-one, England Sixty-two for Three in Reply" ... Malin's got ten private messages for Lusitania, seven for Campania, two for Olympic: request instructions how to proceed with ... the honour of your company on the occasion of.. weighing seven and a half pounds, a girl... The operators stay on after the Marconigrams have gone through, chatting to one another: Carrigan's moved to President Lincoln, Borstable to