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Story by Luke Sciarappa

[This story is fictional, but partially based on my own experiences. It was also inspired by an account of the steam tunnels under Caltech, though the tunnels that the tunneler and the whistler explore are definitely not the same as the Caltech ones. I hope you enjoy reading it! -Luke Sciarappa]

 

"You really have to see this."

"What? Hmm?"

There is a  sound of bedsheets rustling.

"I was exploring, and I found this incredible place. There's this door near the Lesser Great Hall, it's pretty hard to notice unless you..."

A sigh. "You've been in the tunnels again?"

"The tunnels are important! They're our cultural heritage, but still mostly unknown and untouched. What little we know is like, like stars against a night sky: brilliantly beautiful, but surrounded by emptiness."

"Did you ever consider that there might be a reason so few people go there, why so little is known?"

"Come on, it's almost two. I know you're gonna come."

Thump, thump: two feet hit the floor. In the night's quiet, it is possible to discern more soft rustlings of cloth as clothing is adjusted and shoes are put on.

Without speaking, two people walk together. The k'chik of doorknobs and their footsteps will not awaken anyone. The stairs do not creak, being made of concrete. Their footfalls take on a more resonant character as they descend into a smaller space with smoother walls and floor.

"Game?"

"Of what?"

"Questions. About what you found."

"Knowledge goes one way, it should go the other. Alternating questions, yes/no answers."

"Agreed."

"Why do you whistle all the time?"

"Yes. Is it a room, or is it the thing that's in the room?"
"Yes. Was that a serious answer?"

"Sort of. Is it true that the thing you have found is in a reasonable sense an aspect of the room itself and not because of an object that is in the room?"
"Technically, no. Do you whistle to show that you're happy?"

"Nope. When you said 'technically', did you mean that the first option was closer to the truth than the second, even though it wasn't true?"

"Yes. Do you whistle because you're happy, not necessarily to broadcast the fact?"

"No. Is there a spectacular mural in the room, or writing on the walls?"

"No. Do you not have a real reason for whistling, it's just unconscious habit?"

"No. I think that's enough questions for now."

"Wait, I owe you one. I started."

"Fine, what do you think that mural is supposed to mean?"

"No."

"Oops, that wasn't yes/no. Well, that's fair, then."

There is a brief silence, then someone begins to whistle prettily. They pick out the tune of "Yesterday" for a while, surprisingly strong in the face of the silence. Chancing upon a spot with larger echoes, the whistler switches to doing some arpeggios as quickly as possible, so that they almost sound like chords.

"Why that song? It doesn't seem to fit this place."

"Different people see the tunnels differently. For some, they're like a close friend; for others, an empty canvas. You seem to see them as something between a sacred site and a god."

"And you?"

"No-one even knows how deep the tunnels go. They have not shown their true face to us yet, and I treat them accordingly --- with curiosity tempered by suspicion."

A hand tracing a wall produces a gentle rubbing noise.

"Heck, I've never even found my way through this maze mural."

"You don't have time to tonight."

"Besides, it's not such a sad song. It's so beautiful that it makes me happy just to hear it."

"Ah, you've given yourself away!"

"I suppose so."

"You whistle not because you're happy, but because you're sad!"

"Almost, yes. It's emotional engineering, of a primitive sort. Surprisingly effective, though."

There is a pause.

"Wait, what's that? I've never seen those before."

"Here, try dropping some of these in."

plink

plink

plink

 

"What happened to the fourth one?"

"These are called the One Two Three Infinity pipes."

"I see. I wonder if someone keeps that rock pile from running out."

"Almost certainly. We'll probably never know who, though."

"That's what unsettles me about some of you deep tunnelers --- you never want to meet or talk with each other. You keep this hoard of information all to yourself... you chose that metaphor about stars in the sky earlier, which I think is interesting."

"Hmm?"

"What I mean is --- what would it look like, if the night sky were filled with stars? Same as the day. If this place were opened up, fully mapped, well-known to the public, it'd lose its mystery and wonder. So you keep almost everything you find a secret."

"Can you fault me for it?"

"No, but it does unsettle me, somehow. Anyways, whatever this room is must be pretty interesting if you're going to show it to me. Or maybe you would only show me the least interesting things?"

"Hehe. You want to know which it is, maybe you should do some tunneling yourself. Anyways, here we are."

A thunk as a door not accustomed to opening opens. After two people pass through it, it clicks shut.

"Where's the maGIC - whOAH!" As the voice reaches certain pitches, the room responds with a loud ringing.

A whistle, trying to center on the pitch that makes the room echo most loudly: ooOooooooOOOOOOOOO

"So it has a powERFUL resonANT frequEncy. So does my shower STAll."

"ActuALLY, your whistlING MIGHT BE perfect FOR THIS. Maintain the fundamental as powerfully as you can."

ooOOOOO...

The sound increases in volume, booming. Then, from a hole in the wall comes the fifth above it. Opposite it, another hole gives a pitch which is above the fundamental by a fourth plus several octaves. Other holes sound other pitches, some not in the harmonic series of the fundamental. The sound is not static, either; ripples and beats run through it, and somehow the different pitches swell and fade, allowing others to come to the foreground. Sometimes it seems there's a primitive chord progression running, but most of the time it feels more chaotic, less organized. The whistler stops.

"What is this?"

The whistler almost starts whistling again, but seems to realize that the sound is barely diminished.

"I don't know who did it. Each room has a certain resonant frequency, and they're connected in specific ways by the tubes. The end result is a chaotic system; each room affects the others, dampening or encouraging their frequency. Like pendulums attached to each other with rubber bands. Sometimes there's a semblance of order, but I think whoever made this could only manage so much control. It feels right, somehow, though, as it is."

The whistler whistles, putting more energy into the system.

"It somehow stores the energy to let itself run for a while on its own."

The whistler whistles further. They whistle arpeggios, even quicker than before. The layered sound seems to accept this; in any case, the notes from the arpeggio move closer to the foreground. After the whistler leaves off, though, they linger for only a few seconds before devolving into a different pattern. The sound very gradually diminishes to nothing, as the two sit there silently. Eventually, there is a thunk-click as they exit.

"You know, maybe we're both wrong."

"Hmm?"

"What I mean is --- I've never seen a night sky with the blackness filled in by stars before. Maybe it wouldn't be just like the day. Maybe it would be something incredible and wonderous. If this is a star, I'd be willing to try it."

"You wanna put new stars in the sky, you gotta find them first. Tunnelers can always use another explorer."

"Perhaps I can get some of you to reveal your hoards of knowledge before you die and it all vanishes."

"Good luck with that! Tunnelers never want to share what they know."

"Maybe if I whistle for them, in a certain way..."

The whistler whistles, not a tune, but a single pitch; and yet, somehow, it seems to have in it the quality of the room that will one day be immortalized in Tunnel maps as the Star.

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