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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Songs from the Wood
by Chris Harris

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Despite years of studies, nobody had cracked the code. Many individuals and groups, looking at the puzzle from a multitude of different angles, had all failed to solve the riddle. Birdsong, it seemed, might never give up its secrets.

Thomas Mills was one such researcher. He'd made a hobby of the subject, but like the rest he was getting nowhere fast. Unlike the rest though, he was a man obsessed with the subject and one who truly believed in a final solution.

Living alone in the woods of Surrey, his home was his laboratory. Since taking an early retirement, the time he had to devote to his passion had trebled; in fact he did little else now. From dawn to dusk he was forever exhausting new leads.

He'd read all the books ever written on the subject. His library, which was the second bedroom of his house, was entirely devoted to the task of cataloguing this literature. To him it was a shrine to the beauty, mystery and enchantment of the birdsong of the wood.

Nearly all the authors of all the books were wrong. Just a handful had gained Tom's respect, the rest he read for amusement value alone. His favoured works, that is the books of the few, he kept on a separate shelf and he referred to them constantly.

The key issue was that of birdsong being a collective language. His theory, as yet unproved, supported the idea that each bird sang a separate letter in a word. A group of birds would then create a sentence to which they were all contributing.

There were several major obstacles to overcome. Identifying the individual letters that each bird sang was complicated because each species sang that same letter differently. As letters were identified, the problems of alphabet and language developed, with the latter being shrouded in the mists of both level and topic.

Most researchers fell into the same trap. They assumed birds to be singing about sources of food or serenading potential lovers. Tape recordings would be made and played back through speakers in trees with the responses observed. Then, by a process of self deception and falsified statistics, the findings, or "Mumbo Jumbo" as Tom called them, were published.

Any serious researcher, if not instinctively, would soon learn to appreciate the complexities of birdsong. The time of day, the number of birds involved and the distances between them all seemed relevant. Perhaps even the strange and silent choreography of flight itself contributed to the orchestral deliberations of the wood.

Advances had been made. Although of unknown length, the alphabet was now known to comprise of at least forty letters. Tom, himself being the discoverer of three, was now focusing more on words than finding new letters. Here too progress had been made with hundreds of groups of letters or words now being accepted by the scientific community.

The problem was that the words didn't say anything. There was no correlation to sounds being sung and physical events or responses thereafter. If this was a foreign but human language, the puzzle would have been solved by now with so many pieces on the table. It was so frustrating with every avenue, no matter how ingenious or off the wall, resulting in a dead end.

The search to discover new words was very laborious. The real fun of course was to learn what the words said. With no progress on the actual meanings of words, the slow task of learning new words did at least supply a trickle of satisfaction, allowing the researcher to remain buoyant.

Although painstaking, the cataloging of new words was vital. The very fact that letters and now words were being identified was a huge advance on the science of just a few years ago. The findings that birdsong operated like the labours of a single ant towards the achievements of the whole community were a phenomenal breakthrough.

Tom had the entire woods wired up. His house was the central point for collecting data, and sensors high in the trees for hundreds of metres around sent their audio signals back for analysis.

He often compared his operation to that of a spider's web. Indeed he truly was a spider who pounced on every audio signal, sealing its fate and saving it for later.

Until recently all the information collected had been stored on tapes. Now the task fell to an infinitely more powerful tool. Tom had purchased and installed a computer that now not only recorded birdsong, but analyzed it also.

This saved Tom hours of tape searching, but of course the machine would still only search for patterns as instructed by the operator. The time saved in manual tape searching, however, did enable him to spend longer devising more and more diverse programs to try and make sense of the meaningless words.

He tried all sorts of ways to analyse the data. The letters did form words and the words were in common use all the time around him. He could even hear some of them as they were sung in real time in the woods; others still he could only identify on slow playback. None of them, however, said a thing that any human could understand.

Lately Tom had been trying to find mathematical symmetry in the sounds. Did words occur in sequences or maybe in sequences inversely proportional to the square root of something else? And if found, would this pattern still be beyond comprehension; could it ever be deciphered?

If the language excisted, as it clearly did, then it must and eventually will be understood. Every aborted search, although fruitless, left less work to be done. The computer stored the results and alerted Tom to any repetition of thoughts; progress of sorts was being made.

Tom found the blackbird particularly enigmatic. Their lack of fear and curiosity towards his endeavours gave them a unique charm. He often sang back to them and knew they listened, but what they were thinking he could only wonder at.

Through the woods ran a stream. It was a place where many birds congregated, and although nests were more densely populated here, the birdsong remained at an average amount for the wood as a whole.

Hotspots did exist. Here the number of songs intensified showing some elements of geographical significance. Such groupings though, shifting over time as they did, made a full assessment very complicated.

The magical moments of dawn and dusk could often feel like heaven or hell. Beginning slowly, the songs of the dawn chorus mirror that of dusk almost like a reverse tape. At first it feels like a lesson in the ways of the wood, but then as the symphony erupts it leaves the observer feeling teased and then positively under siege.

The barrage of information continues throughout the day. It comes in waves like a roaring ocean that is rarely becalmed. Just as a computer might download the day's work overnight, so the wood imparts its soul during the day.

There had been the lunar cycle breakthrough, of course. This most recent discovery had Tom's heart racing. It was observed that on each first day of the lunar cycle, birds sang the same song. It had remained unseen because different species with different dialects took turns in starting the proceedings.

To say that exactly the same song is heard is perhaps a little misleading. At around 2:30pm and again at 4:50pm, there are variations that defy all comparison to previous months. All the words spoken outside of these periods however, are exactly the same in content as every first day of the cycle.

Other equally mystifying observations have been logged. Whichever bird begins the dawn chorus, the second bird is always along the line of sight to the rising sun. Sometimes the second bird is closer to the sun on a line drawn between the two, and other times it is further away.

If the second bird is further away from the sun, his song becomes the centre point for the rest of the chorus. If, however, the first bird to sing is farthest away from the sun, then it is his position that remains at centre stage.

Always next to join in are groups at north, north-west and south, south-east. Following these groups, other solitary individuals close to the epicentre generally begin, and are normally positioned to the west. Thereafter the complexities in the evolution of the chorus appear random.

The solar alignment never varies. Even with heavily overcast skies, the line between the first two birds to sing always points to the rising sun. Although moving, this very exact position is faithfully identified throughout its seasonal cycle.

Geographic orientation is not fixed. Observations from a number of places at various latitudes maintain a 180 degree separation for the second phase of the chorus. This separation however is always unique to the global coordinates of a particular place but never shows a connection to the sunrise line.

So many problems to solve. So much more than a single researcher could do no matter how much time or computing power he may possess. Tom knew the size and shape of his subject. He also knew that to try and focus on all sides, as interesting as they may be, was impossible.

Tom's first love was that of understanding birdsong. More specifically within this area, he had reduced his word searching program to concentrate more on the language code.

For recreation, he allowed himself space in his diary to enjoy speculation on birdsong alignments. But his primary goal would remain that of learning the language. All associated puzzles could still be enjoyed, but were kept strictly under the "Fun" umbrella.

Back in the spring Tom had tried something that had backfired on him. Armed with the recently discovered symmetry of the dawn chorus, it occurred to him that he himself might start the monthly cycle. Using a recording from a previous month, he did just that.

For three whole days not a single bird sang. They were still in the wood, he could see them, but they wouldn't sing and they wouldn't fly. He felt as though he were guilty of deceit among friends and as if he had betrayed their unspoken trust.

The fourth day came and at last they sang; it was beautiful. The song they sang was not the first day's song though, but otherwise all appeared normal. Although others had played the sounds of birds back to them, never had whole words and phrase been used as in Tom's experiment. The effect had been catastrophic.

What if permanent damage had been caused? What if his interventions had left a permanent scar in the flesh of the body of the wood? For twenty five days and nights he waited anxiously the arrival of May and the new cycle.

As the month unfurled, so he became more tense. In the last hours before the new cycle however, having exhausted his fears, an uneasy calm of resignation descended over him. He could now only wait and hope that his dabbling in nature had faded.

Suddenly at 4:12 am the first bird sang. In response a second note rang out at a point towards the rising sun. Then, joining in from the north and south, came phase three of the most perfect beginning to the month of May that Tom could ever recall.

How relieved he felt. Never again would he interfere with something outside of his understanding. It was inconceivable now, with hindsight, to imagine how stupid the experiment had been. Tom felt like an atomic scientist who might join two critical masses of uranium held in either hand, simply to see what happens.

What had he been thinking of? Nobody should join, let alone start a conversation whilst ignorant of the language, subjects and participants; it was an outrageous oversight.

Curiously the events heightened Tom's resolve. After a cooling off period, he found his search for the code driven by renewed vigour. The trauma seemed to have unlocked doors into completely new areas for investigation; he felt inspired.

He began to review his progress thus far. First of all it was known that each bird sang a single letter of a word. Other birds would collectively form a word and others still would eventually create a sentence. But the words were meaningless.

It was helpful to look at the problem in reverse. Rather than say the words didn't mean anything, it was better to say that they didn't describe specific things. To have a word without a meaning is a paradox and so Tom concluded that the word's meanings were one step removed from direct meaning.

The birds must be speaking a compound language. This language would not describe things directly but would lay the foundations of understanding and slowly build up a picture. Only at the end of the sentence could one possibly understand its meaning by viewing the completed picture. Component parts would be completely nonsensical.

Tom began to construct his own compound languages. By doing so he hoped to get a feel for the way they worked. Perhaps they would tend to form into groups that he could label and then further studies might reveal sub-groups.

Could such clusters be cross-pollinated? Was it possible to take elements of one language and merge it with another to form an entirely new group? Such hybrids might have further sub-groups that could also be isolated into identifiable types.

The first pseudo-language Tom created was labeled "Pictures". As the name suggests, communication using this method utilized the painting of a geographical image, where the location of the speaker was more important than that was actually being said.

Honeybees are an example of picture speakers. The flight pattern of bees returning to the hive has in its choreography an encoded map of the best places to find nectar. The dance they perform uses the position of the sun as a reference point, not unlike the dawn chorus.

Pictures languages could be audio or visual. They impart their information by drawing a scaled map to represent something. The image drawn can reveal actual information as seen at the beehive, or can be linked to sounds.

Visual languages linked to sounds are more complicated. The position of an individual alters the meaning of the words he says. If that position can reside in three dimensions, as is the case for birds, then translation becomes infinitely more difficult.

The time of day can also be a factor. Audio-visual languages in two, three, and now four dimensions, are all possible. A note or notes from a bird in the evening could mean several different things depending on where and when it or they were sung.

It was invaluable to begin the grouping of language styles. Soon a less chaotic understanding of the magnitude of the problem began to emerge. Tom didn't believe in chaos and would define that word simply as "Un-cataloged Information".

Nothing in this universe was random. Such concepts as chance, chaos and random occurrence were all the offspring of ignorance and blindness. Anything beyond known science became random, chance, chaos or even divine.

The next type of languages Tom labeled "Morse types". These were based on the now redundant language of morse code. Speakers using this mode of communication would use audio, visual or time of day tags to denote single letters of words.

This language though, still followed a human train of thought. It was based on words actually meaning things as opposed to their being part of "The Compound Structure Type" that he was looking for. The purpose of this exercise was to confirm that compound meaning could still be constructed from "Morse-Type" foundations.

Tom's computer was in constant use. He had it searching for picture languages, Morse-Picture hybrids and all other possible and impossible variations. Day and night its system purred.

The search criteria base was an ever growing file. The computer itself was continually finding new sub-groups and workable hybrids to analyze. Its job was to compare the framework of these languages and that of birdsong and to report on any similarities found.

Every day at eleven all work stopped. At this allotted time the system would print out its findings from the previous twenty four hours. It was always an exciting time, even when presented with the very cold "Number of matches zero" statement.

Occasionally a page of matches appeared. That the similarities existed was never in doubt, but unraveling the consequences of such findings became immensely frustrating, The solution Tom had to accept was the purchase of another computer.

At great expense the second machine was installed. A few months later, with even less hair than before, and the new computer was ready to go. Its dual tasks would be to study positive leads as they happened and also to wade through the backlog of those found before.

Each day now presented Tom with two reports. The first machine was named Hunter with the second computer answering to the name of Gatherer. Hunter would still alert Tom of the total number of matches and Gatherer would decipher and report on any real language breakthroughs.

Some days the search became laughable. After twenty four hours of continuous calculation and reassessment, all Tom had to show was two blank bits of paper. First Hunter would announce "Number of matches zero". Then Gatherer would echo his catch phrase "Number of ciphers zero".

It was now impossible for Gatherer to respond in any other way. The backlog search had been completed and so his remarks were directly related to the information supplied to him from Hunter during the last period. If Gatherer reported a hit from zero matches that would be severely freaky.

In some ways it was Gatherer's job to report "Number of ciphers zero". The day he said anything else would be the day when birdsong was cracked. To some degree the predictability of zero ciphers was tolerable but a little excitement now and then from Hunter was essential.

Tom continued his search for new types of languages . He discounted "Military code" types, as deception and concealment in nature seemed impossible. Sometimes however, he did feel strongly that the sounds he studied were anything but natural.

Surely the problem had a solution. All the clues were there before him and were simply components waiting to be assembled. He was studying the structure of the sounds, the positions at which they occurred and also the time that each letter or word was sung. Was patience the sole remaining factor, or would he miss finding the right tack?

Perhaps the phrase "Structure of the sounds" was a key point. What about considering the structure of the "Sound" itself? Maybe the relationships of various wavelengths was an important issue and worthy of some consideration, he thought.

Looking at sounds as numbers was an interesting idea. The conversion of notes into the length of their soundwaves added a surreal quality to Tom's endeavors. This investigation was a complete diversion from any method of study he'd used before. Even if the results were negative, they still might open up new sub-groups when merged with elements of other experimental languages.

First he logged all the notes ever recorded. Then his computers scanned the entire database to measure the wavelength of each of the sounds. Preferring to use the frequency measurement of "Hertz", he proceeded to calibrate the known alphabet with their individual hertz values.

The first problem encountered was that of pitch. The same note could exist, but with different frequencies. In fact the whole scale of notes in the musical spectrum repeated itself in either higher or lower pitches. Throwing the musician's handbook aside, he began focusing entirely on the frequency, but still logged pitch shift on an arbitrary linear scale.

Tom called this potential language group "Sound structures". The analytical guidelines were given to Hunter, and with modifications, to Gatherer. The net with which they now fished was baited with three quite diverse language styles and a multitude of hybrid sub-groups.

This additional work was beginning to over-tax Hunter. Gatherer of course had nothing to do unless a match was found by his co-worker and therefore spent much of the day doing absolutely nothing. Putting things right, Tom arranged that thirty percent of incoming data was routed through Gatherer to even the load.

How odd this task became. Looking at a language with no nouns with which to label the world around it seemed bizarre. Only machine languages spoke in such a way, and even they had tags that one could feasibly refer to as nouns.

There were other natural and similarly perplexing language types of course. The haunting sounds of the whale and the clicking noises that dolphins made had both eluded all attempts at translation. Tom wondered if there might be a common denominator in the basic structures of such non- human languages.

As his computers worked, so did Tom. Currently he was re-visiting some of his early sound recordings. Using more powerful tools now than he had possessed at the time, he was finding new sounds that were completely undetectable just a few years ago.

His latest equipment was a phenomenal piece of kit. The simplest of sounds became an orchestra when viewed in a purely electronic light. A split second of birdsong could be expanded on screen to reveal a myriad of individual notes and tunes.

Tom's job, never lacking in its diversity, became even more intense. He had to decide which of the micro-notes held information and which represented imperfections in the larynx of the bird. As with humans, the singing skills of individual birds, their age, and even the humidity of the air were all variables.

The speed or flow rate of words was another issue. Were conversations concluded in seconds, or did they last for days? With only a limited awareness of the vocabulary involved, and no understanding at all of the subject matter, the rate of information within the speech remained a mystery.

Making assumptions would be foolish. To imagine a fundamentally different language running at the same speed as our own didn't make sense. Trying, however, to visualize sentences taking days or milli-seconds was daunting.

Something was missing. Beyond the rational study of a subject, born perhaps of obsession or self-deception, was a feeling. As logical and methodical as Tom was, he had the distinct impression that he was hearing only half the conversation.

For all his life Tom had listened to the birdsong of the wood. His passion to understand its meaning had led to an ongoing and increasingly intense interrogation of its construction. Could a subtle understanding be slowly evolving now in his subconscious mind; was he beginning to feel the meanings of the language around him ?

What if he was right? Who or what was supplying the other half of the conversation? And was it the questions or the answers that he could hear to the questions and answers that he couldn't? How could he possibly detect the other half of the mystery, and would it help if even if he could?

He started to study the gaps. Replies to the songs were surely to be in the moments when the birds fell silent. Or could it be that the entire night, for the most part devoid of sound, was devoted to answering the questions of the day?

Once again Tom widened the search criteria. He could almost hear the sighs as a very disgruntled Hunter and then Gatherer, began to include this latest instruction in their tasks. "Analyzing the gaps," he said to them, "often leads to solving the most complex chain of events." They did not look convinced.

There were two ways to attack the "The Gap" issue. First was to see if the gaps themselves displayed any harmonizing symmetry with the songs. Secondly the gaps, if they were valid parts of the converstion, would have something in them with which to participate.

"Gap-Song" symmetry was now in the search routine of Hunter and Gatherer. Tom began to try and find anything in the gaps that might even vaguely resemble communication. Starting with ultra-sound, he was encouraged to find almost immediate results.

The ultra-sound choice was not entirely random. Some years ago he'd read of such sounds being at ancient monuments and also during certain phases of the moon. These effects were an everyday reality to druids and Pagan cultures and were closely linked perhaps to some of nature's now forgotten truths.

Science had a tendency to outlaw the unexplained. Tom's open mind, however, led him to utilize some of nature's mysteries to unravel some of its others. The very real and detectable presence of ultra-sound had clearly justified his faith.

Tom laced the entire woods with new microphones. Placing them alongside existing installations, these more specialized tools were dedicated to responding to ultra high sound frequencies. Naturally, they showed no response at all to birdsong, so if ultra sound was indeed corresponding with those sounds, how curious that would be.

It took four weeks to install them all. Forty five trees had to be climbed, a completely new monitoring console purchased and god knows how many miles of cable laid, all before the switch could be thrown.

At last the moment had arrived. Aching with both anticipation and physical exhaustion, Tom ceremoniously approached the control panel. With a glass of lager, in preference to one of champagne, the ritual of the "Throwing of the switch" and the commissioning of the new listening gear was performed.

Immediately the board sprang into life. All meters showed the presence of ultra-sound, but in levels varying from the barest glimmer to downright loud. Flicking another switch filled the room with an audible representation of the chatter.

The origins of the sound weren't known. Well beyond the normal range of hearing, it was only dogs, some human sensitives and scientific equipment that could monitor it. The sounds could not be traced to a source and appeared simply to seep out of the air itself; it was an eerie phenomenon.

Was the presence of such sounds in the daytime relevant? The idea that daytime birdsong was replied to by ultra-sound at night seemed implausible if the latter, as was the case, continued for both day and night.

There was a marked difference, however, in the transmissions at night. The sounds became generally louder and more frantic reaching a climax just before dawn. And when the dawn chorus began, all meters dropped as the unheard ultra-sound became truly silent.

Tom was sure that a correlation existed. Hunter and Gatherer kept coming up with bizarre similarities linking birdsong to ultra-sound but could offer no hard and fast proof; they were guessing. Not averse to such speculation, Tom encouraged the practice and even threw in a few tangential ideas of his own.

The melting pot of input and ideas began to boil. Was it possible that a third party was involved with the dialogue of the wood? Could the positions of the sun and moon, along with associated gravity fluctuations be a factor? Did sunlight itself carry encoded information within the hertz value of its radiation?

Facts, although rare, were still facts. And the fact that sunlight, phases of the moon, ultra-sound and birdsong all danced to the same tune was now a mathematical truth. How the tune went was still anybody's guess, but that its contributors worked in harmony was no longer in doubt.

None of this could yet be published. This would be viewed as heresy on a very grand scale indeed. All Tom could do was to wait for that breakthrough that would lead to the unlocking of the language he studied. As things progressed, he began to realize through revelations thus far, that the final solution would be nothing less than extremely profound.

Such associated complexities had protected birdsong. The riddle could never be solved as it stood, because on its own birdsong was simply gibberish. Only when other factors were considered, such as Tom had identified, did any sign of a coherent structure appear.

It was so easy to invent outrageous solutions. In fact the whole fascination of the subject was born of the elusive nature of its meanings. But had he gone too far now? Was looking for words in the sunlight or in ultra-sound really a sane activity, or was he losing the plot?

How had such supernatural solutions evolved? Tom was not entirely guilty. Whilst he had suggested some of the more unbalanced possibilities, it was Hunter and Gatherer who had verified and expanded them. Was there a flaw in the logic and the tools employed for the task? Or were all three of them now completely adrift in an ocean of fantasy?

Tom made a concerted effort to start again. Without stopping the program he stood back and tried to view the topic from the standpoint of a layman. He drew flowcharts to show how a novice might approach the problem. He even introduced a rule to avoid the exploration of any ideas that he felt might result in a bizarre conclusion.

Try as he might, he failed. No matter what direction an idea took, its path, and the paths of all of its offshoots, always led to the place where Tom now stood. Every fork of every route, even if dismissed as "Impossible", led unfalteringly to the impossible possibility that had forced this exercise in the first place.

Tom began to feel an unusual contentment, despite appearances he was not a patient man and despised the laborious statistical analysis of his subject. Now that he was fully computerized, he had more time for life knowing that his machines worked on, even if he himself took time out.

The weather had been beautiful now for weeks. All the trees of the wood surrounding his house hung heavy with the scent and colour of their full summer livery. Here, in paradise, Tom would spend hours submerged and intoxicated by it all.

Trips into town became increasingly tiresome. Since his retirement, the reality of his need for solitude had blossomed. For the first time in his life he was allowed to become the recluse he'd always really been.

Children from the village would peer through the trees at him. He would hear them giggling and sometimes over the microphones he'd learn what they were saying about him. "Mad Tom" was his nickname and some of the more mischievous kids would use duck sounders and make other bird sounds.

Tom remembered these woods when he was young. He'd always played alone and even then had a reputation of being somewhat odd. How the human race loved to taunt and tease their fellow man. It became more fun in a group against an individual. Like a kind of witch-hunt.

Then, as now, they were all so full of hate and jealousy. In a constant state of changing allegiance, they even hated themselves and each other. Adolescence and adulthood provided only the ability to hide their ugliness. Hidden inside remained the primary human drives of vanity and self; to be different was to be thankful.

Under the stars on a warm and clear night felt like heaven on earth. No longer chained by the nine to five slavery of earning a living, Tom often reversed his night and day routines. Sometimes he'd spend an entire week getting up at night and going to bed at dawn.

At night the woods fell silent. It became a world of darkness, instinct and pure cunning. Even man, although no longer threatened by predators in the UK, still carried an hereditary fear of the shadows of the night.

After dark all of the senses changed places. The powers of sight and agility were replaced by those of stealth and acute hearing as all mobility lapsed into the coma of the small hours. The wood at night lay worlds apart from its alter ego of the daylight hours.

Removed from the hierarchy of survival, Tom looked on. In the silence he could hear the stream from his porch at night. And the frantic screaming of bats filled the air as they swooped and dodged in erratic blind-flight.

Foxes came very close to the house. Man was their only real enemy and so Tom felt honoured to have gained their trust and more so to have earned their friendship as he knew he had.

Another visitor also graced this humble abode. How strange that such a small creature should sound so large and fierce. As a young child he was convinced that beyond the curtains lay a jungle full of leopards waiting to devour him; that was until he'd met the hedgehog.

The dawning of the day was special. It was more than just the rising or the setting of the sun, much more. At dawn the entire consciousness and pulse of the woods erupted, showering ever-brighter shards of light and life for miles around. At dusk an intimate joining of the shadows as the invisible sounds of the day began to brighten.

To miss either dusk or dawn is to miss indeed. Tom felt charged by either event and sometimes wished they could occur back to back in an endless cycle. For him the experiences of dawn and dusk could only be truly felt if viewed as the end and the beginning of night.

Some, he knew, viewed his life here as an empty and lonely existence. Tom's father had been an extrovert and threw wild parties inviting all the villagers and every passer-by as well. Everybody came, even if they didn't want to; it wasn't so much an invitation as a command.

His two elder sisters were equally flamboyant. All the young men for miles around were frightened to death of them both. Some would feign illness rather than be trapped with them at one of their father's house parties.

Tom's mother had been his anchor on reality. She was a very shy lady but with a warmth and air about her that somehow tamed her husband and daughters. For Tom she was the dearest and most understanding person he would ever know.

How thoughtless and callous the passing years could be. First to leave were his sisters. One married an American and moved to the United States, and the other left to pursue a career in Scotland. Five and eight years later saw first the death of his mother, and then of his father.

If nothing else, Tom was a realist. He knew and accepted loss along with the inevitable changes it would bring. His father's pipe and his mother's hairbrush remained and were cherished. The room his sisters shared was cleaned with the bed changed regularly. This was not a shrine; they were simply memories.

He'd never been tempted to move from here. To live anywhere else held no attraction for Tom, and leaving the family home would be such an emotional wrench. His parents had worked hard to secure this little piece of paradise, and he was not about to undermine that dream.

Surrey was a beautiful county. Much of it remained unspoiled and this part in particular was exceptionally picturesque. Its ancient charm had escaped the housing developers and the money machine upon which they were dependent. The infrastructure of the local community was still reliant upon working farms and this kept the fields and meadows free from mutilation.

Many nearby towns had not been so fortunate. Whole areas of woodland had been transformed into so called country estates. The road names of such were Oak Drive and Parsons Meadow, but boasted no such open space or greenery; it was rural genocide.

Adverts from the developers were hilarious. They would lure potential buyers with the delights of the open countryside. Two years later they would tear up the neighbouring fields in a new frenzy of construction. To add insult to injury, the sales pitch used to attract the new wave of victims remained unchanged.

Space was running out for much of Surrey. Each village, once separated by two or three miles of rolling downland, became so large as to merge with its similarly expanding neighbours. All the streams and rivers ran dry as a quantum leap in the demand for water spearheaded the demise of rural England.

Tom detested the modern world. The possession-based and control freak natures of its occupants left him cold. He couldn't understand and wasn't remotely interested in any of their pursuits. Even the radio set he used for company had become a tool for the characterless predators that sought to pollute the entire globe.

His house in the woods in the countryside was his sanctuary. Tom lived almost exactly at the centre of a protected area stretching ten miles in every direction. Even here the developers and politicians couldn't resist delineating the zone with name, "The North Downs National Park". This apparently caring label was created, of course, only to facilitate a speedier destruction of all other lands.

Resentful of the "National Park" tag, Tom was, however, grateful. Not only would his immediate surroundings remain intact, he would also, by virtue of the size of "The Park", be saved any visual intrusions even from a distance. Life, it seemed, given his good health, could continue.

Hunter and Gatherer had been busy. From the output of recent days it seemed as though they were on to something. Studying their reports, though, indicated that they were as confused by their findings as was Tom. How frustrating it would be to discover and confirm the existence of a coherent language without being able to understand its messages.

The recent work of Hunter had been in wavelength value. It appeared that there was a high incidence of sounds with a wavelength divisible by the number thirty-three. Time and time again the computations revealed that in nearly all of the songs sung by birds, only sounds with wavelengths fitting this criteria were used. What could this possibly mean?

Tom began to sense a kill. The correlation was indisputable even though its significance wasn't yet clear. Hunter couldn't let go either and buried himself in the task of trying to resolve this most promising lead.

Mathematical roots to a natural and spoken language seemed ludicrous. Such tongues did exist of course, but these were derived for machines and used in specialized roles. They would remain second or third generation languages that could only exist as the creations of naturally evolved speech.

Hunter had discovered a coded language. It's words had no meanings in themselves but conveyed information stylized away from direct speech. The purpose of creating such a cumbersome animal could only point to the complexity of its subject matter. Could the minds of birds really cope with this scenario?

The patterns in the maths were awesome. The visual impression in the clusters of figures gave the mysterious dialogue the appearance of being a multiple-choice conversation. Its composition at first seemed to generate, present and then isolate the many variables within its structure, much like an open forum. Next, those same variables would be assessed, re-evaluated, discounted or accepted; it was breathtaking.

Tom's ultra-sound hunch had paid off. It was there in the figures, and just like birdsong it rang out in wavelengths divisible by the number thirty-three. For the first time since his studies began, Tom felt close to a conclusion.

To the left of the control room sat Gatherer. The moment its printer began to report would be the moment of discovery. There was a new sense of urgency in the standby light as it winked on and off throwing its green light into a darkened recess.

The night, already warm, grew closer still. Hunter laboured feverishly on as every twist and turn in the mathematics unfurled. The dynamics of every frantic moment danced and merged with the next in a chaotic blur across the screen of the monitor.

Surely something must be happening. There had been false alarms before but never on this scale and with so much activity. And the progressions of the figures had gone too far now to represent mere chance.

Suddenly a new sound filled the room. Hunter was scanning samples of birdsong and was doing so in the "Speakers On" mode. Exactly why the speakers were being used was a mystery and a quirk of his that had developed only recently.

The samples, although different, were being taken from an identical period in time on selected days. Hunter was replaying several tunes simultaneously, but was running each track at speeds varying by multiples of the number thirty-three; the accumulative sounds left Tom feeling like a drug addict in a bird sanctuary.

Slowly a pattern to the sounds began to evolve. Despite the variety of species and number of songs sung, only two words were ever said here. One of the words agreed to the number thirty-three and all the others said "NO".

Just then, and like genesis itself; Gatherer spoke. Its hitherto dormant printer burst into life indicating a positive translation. Almost immediately the machine fell silent again and left Tom rooted to the spot unable to move.

Should he or should he not look at the printout? It was a moment he'd dreamed of for years. What if it still made no sense, and where would he go from here?

Slowly he gathered up the strength to move. Rising from his chair he approached Gatherer with a tightening knot in his stomach and now stood before the machine.

He knew what he saw was indisputable. Although in the wrong format, he knew that Gatherer's programming would soon re-align these findings and re-print them in their international standard.

The print read...


RE-ALIGNING.........Please wait.

Thirty seconds later and the mystery of birdsong became history as the printer continued...




PROGRAM RUNNING.........Please wait.

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