01 Feb The Voice on the Radio
I opened the present. What the fuck is this shit? “Oh wow, grandpa, thanks!”
He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and said, “It’s a Ham Radio, son. I used to have one when I was younger. It’s got a hundred mile range, so you can talk to people all the way out in Fairview. Real conversations, not the text messages or emails you all use these days. I’ll even let you use my old license and call sign.”
Yeah, I’m never going to do any of that. “Sounds great, grandpa!”
“Let’s set it up together.”
“…Uh, yeah, cool!”
He spent two hours setting it up, showing me how to operate it, and telling me stories about the other “hams” he’d met over the years. He switched it on and got in contact with some gruff sounding dude out in Fairview. They had a lively discussion about how the FCC was oppressing their constitutional rights.
I caught a movie with Jeremy, got some free pancakes at IHOP, and turned in early. A mediocre birthday, like always. I have a bad habit of drinking soda before bed, and, as usual, I ended up staring at the ceiling wide awake. I browsed Reddit for a while, but you can only see so many cat pictures before they all start to look the same.
I flicked on the ham radio and fiddled with the tuner. Other than the police band, the air traffic tower, and some guy ranting about the Federal Reserve, it was quiet. I sighed, laid back in bed, and started to doze off.
That’s when I heard it.
At first I thought I imagined it. I was in that half-awake, half-asleep state where your thoughts start to play tricks on you. I thought maybe I had started dreaming before I was fully asleep and had hallucinated a sound.
A sound like a voice calling through static.
I listened for a moment. Nothing. Just a dream. I turned over on my side and closed my eyes.
I snapped back awake. There it was again, for certain this time. A voice calling out, as if from a great distance.
It was coming from the radio.
I turned the volume up as far as it would go, but I could still hear only the faintest sound, like someone calling from the bottom of a well. I adjusted the tuner for better reception, but it didn’t help. I picked up the microphone and spoke into it. “Hello?”
The voice stopped. There was a long moment of silence. Then the voice called out again, more clearly this time. “Hello? Hello?”
“Hello? Can you hear me?” I suddenly felt very stupid. It was probably just another weirdo survivalist out in the woods who wanted to babble about EMP blasts and the gold standard or something. Still, there was something in his voice. An urgency that was hard to ignore.
There was a fluctuation in the static, and the voice came in again. “Hello?” He said something else, something in what I assumed was German.
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you. I only speak English.”
He spoke again, and I could hear how thick his accent was. “Please, I ask you. When are you?”
“Where am I? I’m in Chester. About forty miles outside Fairview.”
“No, no.” The static was starting to overtake the voice again. “When are you?”
“What time? What year?”
I stared at the radio. So this was one of those ham weirdos that grandpa was talking about. I shook my head and chucked a little. “Uh, it’s 2013 dude.”
There was an excited barrage of German that turned desperate when the static started drowning him out. “Please, I must ask you. Please, wait…”
I set the microphone down. Great. Another outlet for creepers to say creepy shit. We sure don’t have enough of those in the world. I switched the radio off and went to sleep.
“What the fuck is that shit?” Jeremy said.
I rolled my eyes. “Ham radio. My grandpa got it for my birthday.”
“That’s hilarious. Does it work?”
“Yeah, hundred mile range. It’s stupid though. The police band is sort of interesting, but other than that it’s just survivalists and conspiracy nuts.”
“That’s awesome. We should pretend we’re under siege during a zombie attack, like do some War of the Worlds shit with this thing.”
I laughed. “I don’t know man, it’s just a lot of weirdos on there. Like the other day, I was listening to it, and this one guy–”
Jeremy switched the radio on, and immediately I heard a frantic voice calling out. “Hello? Hello?”
“This guy,” I said. “This guy is a fucking psycho.”
“Dude, sweet. I love talking to psychos.” Jeremy picked up the microphone. “Hello?”
“Hello,” the voice sounded overjoyed. “Please do not go. I do many fixes to machine. Transmission is very much better.”
Jeremy giggled. “Dude, you’ve got fucking Bruno on your radio.” He spoke into the microphone. “Ja, das is gut. Much sound. Bravo.”
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
“I’ve had a few semesters, yeah.”
They spoke back and forth in German for a bit. “What are you saying?” I asked.
Jeremy sat back and shook his head. “This guy is a piece of work. I asked him where he’s located, and he said ‘long ago, many years in your past.’”
“When I talked to him he wanted to know what year it was.”
“He’s playing a prank. He probably goes on here, pretends to be a time traveler to troll the survivalists, and then puts the recordings up on YouTube. Actually pretty brilliant, if you ask me.”
“Ask him how he’s communicating from the past.”
Jeremy spoke into the microphone, and there was an excited flood of German from the other end.
“What’s he saying?” I asked.
“I have no fucking idea.”
“I thought you spoke German?”
“Level three. If he was describing the animals he was seeing on a safari I could maybe follow him. But he’s talking about like, ‘particle tunnels’ and ‘chaotic duality waves’ or something. I don’t think I could understand him even if I was fluent.”
The voice on the radio sighed and took a long pause. Then, with heaviness in his tone, he said, “Please. Tell me about your world.”
I scoffed. “We should switch it off.”
Jeremy looked shocked. “Why?”
“He’s fucking with us.”
“So? He’s doing a great job of it. Don’t be such a downer. This is the most interesting conversation I’ve had in a while, so I say fuck it. Let’s play time travelers.”
We told him about our “future” world. We described airplanes, self-driving cars, space stations, microchips. We tried to describe a smartphone, which was difficult to do with the voice’s shitty English and Jeremy’s shitty German. He was fascinated by the Internet, awestruck by the moon landing, greatly amused when we played some Daft Punk as an example of futuristic culture. Jeremy spent a weird amount of time talking about his Vitamix.
And through it all, the voice kept repeating, “Beautiful. So beautiful.”
“Okay, enough about us, mein herr,” Jeremy said. “Your turn. Tell us about your world.”
A long silence. “My world,” the voice said, “is very dark. Bad things happening. I do not know…how we will escape the shadow.”
“This guy’s a great improviser,” Jeremy said.
“Please, my friends. I have question. It is very important. I must ask you.”
Jeremy smiled. “Sure man, go ahead.”
The voice asked something in German. Jeremy frowned.
Suddenly, there was a noise like breaking glass from the radio. The voice gasped, “Nein, nein.” There were other voices, angry voices, clamoring and shouting. It sounded like a crowd was in the room, and they were wreaking havoc. Loud bangs and thuds, like furniture being turned over. The voices grew louder, and louder. There was a tremendous crash.
I looked over at Jeremy. “What the fuck happened?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Other people were there. They were saying, ‘Dog. Worthless dog,’ over and over again. Sounded like they smashed the place up.”
I fiddled with the tuner, but there was no sign of the voice. Jeremy and I sat quietly for a moment.
“His question,” I said. “What did he ask you?”
Jeremy stared at the radio. “He said, ‘Can they be stopped?’”
Too much soda again. Another insomniac night. I counted the cracks in the ceiling, over and over. Over and over. My eyes began to feel heavy at last.
A burst of static from the radio made my heart jump. I shot upright in bed and looked over. The static faded out and the voice faded in. He was speaking German, quite softly.
Anger flared in my chest. I was sick of this. Sick of him and his stupid pranks. I wanted to smash that goddamn radio to pieces.
I grabbed the microphone and shouted, “Leave me alone for Christ’s sake. I don’t care about your stupid fucking time travel act, just stop bothering me and leave me alone.”
But he just spoke over me, like he couldn’t hear me at all. His voice was shaky and quiet. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I could feel a great sadness in his tone.
I grabbed my phone and opened the voice recorder. I sat there, listening and recording, until he was finished speaking. I sat in silence for a few minutes to make sure nothing else was coming through, then I switched the radio off.
I sent the audio file to Jeremy with an explanation of what had happened. I asked him to translate. The next day at school, he handed me a sheet of paper at lunch. He didn’t say anything, he just handed it to me and walked away.
My friends, I do not know if you can hear me. I do not know if you could ever hear me, or if I was imagining our encounter. But I hope you are out there.
The machine is critically damaged. Perhaps with a great deal of work it could be repaired, but I doubt that I will have either the resources or the time necessary for such a task. I am deeply saddened that we could not speak further. There are so many questions I wanted to ask, so much more I wanted to learn about your world. But please know that, in the brief time we were able to speak, you gave a tired man a reason to continue living.
I know now that the madness that has gripped my country cannot be stopped. I tell my son to be strong. I tell him that our people have endured for thousands of years. I tell him that if we were strong enough to build the Pyramids, we are strong enough to withstand a few grunting apes in jackboots. But he knows I am afraid too. We are marching forward into a nightmare that will take a terrible toll on all of us. I do not know when it will end. The only thing I can cling to is the fact that, somehow, our world will lead to yours.
I think of your world, and I feel something I haven’t felt in many years. An emotion almost unknown to the people of my time. I feel hope. For in a world such as yours, a world of such wondrous invention and progress, what use could there be for war? What reason for hunger? What tolerance for injustice? I know in my heart that you have solved the problems that have plagued our species and created a world of enduring peace and unity.
I do not know how such a world could spring from the darkness that is enveloping this continent. But I hope that the future is as beautiful as you described it. I hope you have built the world that we could not. I hope you have learned from our mistakes. I hope you treat each other with the dignity and respect that is the birthright of all humanity. I hope you have forgotten the word for “hate.” I hope that things are different.
Goodbye, my friends, from the shadows.
Dr. Albert Bachman. Frankfurt, Germany. November 12th, 1938.
A prank. That’s all it was. I don’t even know why I’m posting this. There’s no way it was actually some sci-fi miracle. It was obviously just someone with too much time on his hands playing a big joke on us. He’s probably listening to the recordings and laughing at us right now.
Just a prank.
I still keep the radio on at night. I’ll switch it on as I’m laying in bed, and sometimes when I’m starting to drift off, I’ll think I hear a distant voice calling out in the dark. A voice from the shadows, tiny and frail, yet full of hope. And I’ll sit up in bed and listen. I’ll listen for a sound, a word, anything. But I never hear more. Just my mind playing tricks on me.
I don’t sleep much anymore. Probably because I drink too much soda, right?