By Gary K. Shepherd
Callie walked forward into the lights and saw the thousands of silent, expectant faces turn toward her. For a moment, she felt pure panic, for the sight had awoken in her the memory of an old nightmare. Then she took a deep, steadying breath, opened her mouth, and began to sing.
Callie’s earliest conscious memory was of her parents looking down at her with that same kind of expectant look. She remembered how they had looked at her so intently, so eagerly, waiting for something from her, something that she could not provide. And then, they would turn away, their expressions filled with such disappointment and sorrow that she could scarcely bear to look at them.
Later, she remembered being very young and playing with the other toddlers, running, shrieking, and laughing through the forest in games that had no names and no rules. Then, as they got older, the children would stop and stare at her strangely, then stare at each other, and finally, go off together to play games from which she was obviously excluded. She became accustomed to solitude, but she could never accept the rejection.
Even her doting parents finally had to admit that something was wrong. They took her to see the village healer, who poked and prodded Callie before she finally indicated with a shrug that this was beyond her abilities. They took Callie to a long procession of specialists. At last they went to see a tall, thin, imposing man with a beard. He took Callie’s head in his hands and stared deeply into her eyes, seeming to gaze right down into the depths of her being. As a member of the old school, he was not satisfied with gazing, however. He took Callie into a room full of strange machines and examined her with every one of them.
After the tests, he took her parents aside for a while, and Callie’s mother began to cry. When he brought them back, he patted Callie on the head and smiled at her in a way that was both encouraging and pitying. Then he handed them a book, an old-fashioned paper and ink book, which bore the title that Callie later learned read—“How to Speak.”
So Callie and her parents began the long and painful process of learning how to speak. Her parents read the book and began introducing Callie to words. Every thing, every action, every thought had a word that went with it. Words could be written with letters on a page, or they could be spoken, using the tongue and lips to shape the sounds, putting the sounds together to make words, and the words together to form sentences. If it was hard for Callie to learn these things, it was doubly hard for her parents, who did not have the flexibility of youth to ease their way.
But they did learn, and life took on a sort of normalcy for Callie. She would get up in the morning, say “Good morning” to her parents, and they would say “Good morning” back. Then she would ask what was for breakfast. Sometimes, her mother would tell her about their plans for the day, or her father would tell her a story about
when he was boy. Callie spent a lot of time sitting between her parents while they were Communing. She would scrunch up her eyes tight and try to be part of it, and sometimes, she imagined that she was. But when her mother told her what they had been Communing, Callie’s guesses always turned out wrong.
She would walk hand-in-hand with her mother through the village, and their neighbors would stop to Commune, and Callie’s mother would translate for her, telling her, as closely as words would allow, what these people were thinking. Some of her parents’ closest friends even learned a few words of speech, so they could talk to Callie directly. Callie was always polite to them, but it was difficult not to giggle, because they sounded so strange.
When Callie was ten, her parents told her they had a surprise for her. They took her to see a boy named Stone. Stone was from another planet, and he could not Commune either. Stone’s parents and Callie’s parents had a great deal to Commune about, and they left Callie and Stone together to get acquainted.
Callie and Stone sat staring at each other for a long time. Finally, Stone said, “Boy, you’re ugly.”
Callie was so startled that she said nothing. Stone snarled. “And you’re stupid, too.” He looked around. “This whole place is stupid. It stinks here. The sky is all wrong. I hate it here. Why did they have to bring me here?”
Callie’s parents had explained all this to her already, so she said, “They want us to get to know each other. They want us to learn from each other, because they think it will help us get along in the world.”
Stone snorted. “Yeah, I heard it all before. Is it gonna help me Commune? Is it gonna help me be like everybody else? What am I gonna learn from a freak like you? How to be a freak? I already know that.”
Callie tried, she really did. She wanted so much to find someone who was like her. But Stone was not like her. Stone hated the whole universe and wanted nothing more than to get even for the cruel joke that he felt it had played on him. He tried to get Callie to help him play mean tricks on other people, and when she refused, he began to turn them on her. After several weeks, she worked up enough courage to tell her parents that she did not like Stone.
Her mother was surprised. “But Callie, we thought that you and he would have so much in common that you would like being together. We even thought . . .” She looked so distressed that Callie almost regretted telling them the truth. One thing Stone had taught her was that an advantage of not being able to Commune was that you could tell lies. But Callie did not want to lie, so she told her mother about the mean things that Stone had done.
Callie’s mother looked at her father, and he came over and knelt beside her. “Callie,” he said with difficulty. “I am ashamed. Your mother and I assumed that just because you and Stone were alike in one way, you would be alike in other ways, too. It was a mistake, and we are sorry.”
There is nothing harder for a child than to learn that her parents are not perfect. But Callie was made of strong stuff, and she absorbed the lesson without bitterness. Stone and his parents went away, perhaps back to the planet they came from. Callie’s parents didn’t say, and frankly, she didn’t really care.
About a year later, her parents told her about Misty. They were more cautious this time. First, she and Misty were told to write letters to one another. Misty was a little younger than Callie and Stone, but she was very good with words. She lived on the same planet, so there was no long trip involved, but they wrote letters back and forth for quite a while before Callie’s parents felt they should meet in person. Misty’s letters were long and wonderful, telling Callie about what she was doing, what she was thinking, what she was feeling. It was almost like Communing, when she read those letters.
When the day came that they were finally to meet face to face, Callie was both excited and nervous. What if Misty turned out to be different in person than in her writing? What if Callie didn’t like Misty? What if Misty didn’t like her?”
But when Misty came into the room and saw Callie, her face lit up like a glowtube, and she ran over and gave Callie a big hug. Callie laughed because it was so different from Stone, and Misty started laughing, too, and soon everyone was laughing. Callie took Misty off to show her around the village, and the two girls walked arm-in-arm all day, laughing and talking.
Callie told Misty about meeting Stone. Misty stuck her tongue out in disgust. “Oh, him!” she sniffed. “I met him, too. What a pain! But my parents made me meet him. There’s not too many like us around, you know.”
“You mean there are more than just you and me and Stone?” gasped Callie.
“A few,” said Misty. “I only know about the others because of Dr. Fisher’s Center.”
“Who is Dr. Fisher?” asked Callie.
Misty was amazed. “You haven’t met Dr. Fisher?” She shook her head. “Don’t worry, you will. He’ll see to that.” She stopped and looked thoughtful. “If it weren’t for Dr. Fisher, I suppose I might have turned out just like Stone. Since I started living at the center and got to know him, he’s really changed me. But you’ll find out.”
That night, her parents asked her all sorts of questions about how she had gotten along with Misty. Callie was happy to answer them all, but she had a question of her own. “Mama, Papa, who is Dr. Fisher?”
Her mother and father spent a moment Communing, and then her father put his arm around her and said gently, “Dr. Fisher is a scientist. Scientists study things in order to find out more about them. The thing that Dr. Fisher studies is . . . people who can’t Commune.”
“How come he hasn’t come to study me?” asked Callie.
Once again, they Communed before he replied, “He wanted to, but we wouldn’t let him see you.” He took a deep breath. “Do you know what the term ‘guinea pig’ means?”
Callie thought hard. She had a good memory for words (she had had a lot of practice), and after a moment, she remembered. A guinea pig is a little mammal. In the old days, they used to use them to do experiments . . .
Oh, I see. Callie thought some more. Then she said, with great determination, “I want to meet him. Could I?”
Callie’s mother smiled, but it was a shaky smile. “If you want.”
So a few weeks later, Callie’s parents brought her to the center. Misty had told her so much about Dr. Fisher, that when she finally met him, she was surprised and a little disappointed. From Misty’s glowing descriptions, she had expected him to be tall, dignified, and awe-inspiring. Instead, she found him to be a wizened gnome of a man— wrinkled, old, and shorter than she was, although she was not yet a teenager. He was also curt to the point of rudeness.
“So you are Calliope,” he said abruptly, when they first met.
“I prefer Callie,” said Callie stiffly.
“Why? Calliope is a fine old name, with a great history. I will use it.” He retorted. After speaking to her for no more than ten minutes, he said, “Your language skills are terrible. You are—what?—twelve years old? Yet your vocabulary and syntax are worse than a six-year-old in pre-Communion times.”
She shrugged, not wanting to show how much his comments stung. “The only ones I ever speak to are my parents and a few friends, and they always understand what I mean.”
“That is going to change. You are going to have to speak to all sorts of people, and they will need to understand you. You will have to work on that.”
And so she did. She was not really prepared for how hard Dr. Fisher worked her. He coached her and Misty on proper speech. At the same time, he ran her through a constant stream of experiments. He hooked her up to every sort of machine imaginable and examined her in every possible way. On top of that, she had to complete her normal school work, for both Dr. Fisher and her parents insisted that she keep up with her age group academically. She and Misty and some other young ones who stayed at the center studied both under Dr. Fisher and with a professional tutor, who was also a non-Communicator, as Dr. Fisher called people who could not Commune.
She was surprised at how many non-Communicators there were. There were about two dozen at the center, and Dr. Fisher said there were hundreds more out there who had chosen not to come to the center or had never even heard of it.
One day, as Callie sat wired to a complex circuit board, with Dr. Fisher insisting over and over again that she try to visualize the color orange, she burst out in frustration. “Why is this taking so long? When are you going to find out why we can’t Commune?”
He grunted. “Have patience, Calliope. I don’t know how long it will take. I first have to find out why it is that people can Commune.”
She was startled completely out of her tantrum. “What? I thought everyone already knew that.”
He shook his head, still studying his readouts. “Nope. We know how people Commune; that is, we know what areas of the brain are involved, but we don’t know why they can.”
“I don’t understand.”
He glanced up and chuckled at the look of astonishment on her face. It was the first time she’d ever heard him laugh. “You must remember, little Calliope, that for the vast majority of its existence, the human race couldn’t Commune. Except for some rare and rudimentary incidents, everyone was a non-Communicator. No one knows why, a few centuries ago, people suddenly attained the ability to do it. Perhaps it had something to do with the Human Diaspora. Perhaps it was some stage of evolution we had to attain. But the real cause remains a mystery. Only a tiny fraction now don’t have the ability. By learning why they can’t, perhaps we will also learn why others can.”
Callie was suddenly near tears. “But I wish you could find out soon. You don’t know what it’s like to be different from everyone else, not to be able to Commune when everyone else can.”
His face lost its humor. “What makes you think that I don’t know?”
She was even more astonished than she had been before. “Dr. Fisher . . . can’t you Commune, either?”
He shook his head. “Occasionally and with great difficulty and not very clearly.” He turned back to his readouts. “Now we better get back to work.”
Callie was transformed. From then on, she approached her tests with new energy. No longer did she feel like just an experimental subject. Instead, she felt a sense of partnership with Dr. Fisher. Together, they would work to solve their mutual affliction. She began to understand why Misty admired him so. She became so enthusiastic about the whole business, in fact, that Dr. Fisher himself felt obliged to caution her. “Don’t forget, Calliope, that I have been working on this problem since long before you were born. In science, you cannot expect sudden breakthroughs.”
“But they’re not impossible, either, are they?” she responded.
“No,” he admitted. “There have been instances of overnight discoveries. But you can’t get your hopes up.”
Although she promised to be patient, she also did not lose hope. She worked with such energy and conviction that other people noticed it. As the years passed, the other non-Communicators began to look upon her more and more as Dr. Fisher’s protégé, rather than as another subject. She started helping him around the center: learning to do little housekeeping tasks, record-keeping, and welcoming new arrivals to the center.
After she finished her standard schooling, she began to study directly under Dr. Fisher as his primary student.
One day, as they worked together in comfortable silence, she decided to broach a subject that she had been wondering about for some time. “Fisher, why do you have no life companion?”
He snorted. “No woman would have me. I am married to my work, as they used to say.”
She took a deep breath. “Fisher, I am sixteen now, and I am still a virgin.”
He paused a moment before replying, “I wouldn’t worry about it, Calliope. You are young yet. The time will come. You just need to meet the right someone.”
“I think I already have. Fisher, I would like you to be the one to deflower me.”
He winced. “Calliope, I am an old man . . . a withered up, ugly old husk of a man. You are a beautiful girl. You deserve someone younger, handsomer, stronger.”
“Who?” she demanded. “No man who Communes would ever feel right lying with a non-Communicator. There is no one at the center more my age that I care for as much as I care for you. Please, Fisher. I will ask you just this once. If you say no, I will not pressure you, but you are my choice.”
He turned and took her hands. “My dear Calliope! How can I refuse such a lovely invitation?”
When it was over, he asked her if it had been as good as she expected. “Better,” she whispered, and she held him tightly. “Fisher, is that what it is like to Commune?”
“A little,” he confessed. “Now you can see why the entire course of human history was changed when people started Communing. Before, human society was full of violence, selfishness, oppression, and hatred. With Communing, those things became impossible. How can you do violence to someone when you can feel their pain?”
The next day, Callie announced that she was moving in with Fisher. Her parents objected; there was such a difference in their ages! But they could see she was determined, and they had learned how stubborn she could be. Misty and the others at the center seemed to accept it as a matter of course. “It’s about time,” said Misty, a trifle smugly.
Although she had used the old botanical term for breaking her hymen, Callie felt that she had been anything but ‘deflowered.’ In fact, she felt like she was blossoming. Beneath his gruff exterior, Fisher was a kind and gentle man, who treated her as if she were the most precious thing in the universe. And, a few weeks after she had moved in with him, something wonderful happened.
She came in late from working at the center one night and found him relaxing in the tub listening to mechanically recorded music. She had become used to this; music was one of his most beloved hobbies. But this recording was like none other she had heard before. “What was that?” she gasped after the recording ended.
“Maria Callas. You like it?”
“It was incredible!” she breathed.
“You have good taste. She is one of the greatest singers ever recorded.”
“She was making music with her voice!” exclaimed Callie.
“Sure.” He frowned. “It’s called singing. Haven’t you ever heard vocal music before?”
Callie shook her head. She had heard instrumental music, of course, and remembered her father humming tunes to her when she was little, but actually hearing a person mix the sounds of words together with music was a revelation to her. “Do you have more?”
Eagerly, she devoured all the vocal music in Fisher’s small collection, and then turned to the library archives to find more. They were all ancient, for singing was a forgotten skill. She listened to every one she could find; singers with incomprehensible names like Fitzgerald, Caruso, Presley, Yang, Demola, and Mokindo. Still, she felt the need for more. One day, she asked, “Fisher, do you think that I could do that?”
“What? Sing? I don’t see why not.” He answered off-handedly. “You have a pleasant voice and a sense of rhythm and timing. You just need training.”
“Could you train me?”
He laughed. “You are asking the wrong person, my love. I can barely croak a tune. You need someone who really knows the art. And I don’t know if there is anyone left who does.” Something in the look of her eyes sobered him. “Calliope, if there is someone who can teach you, I will find them.”
It took time and a lot of work, but Fisher was true to his word. He finally found an academic who studied the history of vocal music, named Dr. Willow. At first, Willow was not agreeable to the idea of working with someone who could not Commune. But Fisher kept badgering him until he agreed to listen to her. After hearing Callie’s first clumsy attempt to sing, he changed his mind. He even learned speech so he could coach her.
Hard work was nothing new to Callie. She worked harder under Dr. Willow’s instruction than she ever had before, but it scarcely seemed like work. She found a
resident of the center, a reclusive man named Brown who could play all kinds of instruments, and convinced him to accompany her. After months of practice, both Willow and Fisher agreed that she was ready to perform before an audience. So they brought together the residents of the center for an impromptu concert.
Callie was nervous at first, but these people were her friends, and once she started singing, she forgot everything but the music. When she finished, the applause, if not deafening, was certainly satisfying. Misty rushed up and hugged her, and everyone gathered around her and Brown, clapping them on the back and congratulating them.
Unknown to Callie, some family members of residents had also been in the audience that day, and they began to Commune the knowledge of Callie’s talent to their friends and relatives. The news spread like wildfire, and soon, requests for her to sing began to pour into the center. Callie was astonished. She had thought that people who couldn’t speak would not be interested in her singing, but Willow told her that people didn’t need to understand the meaning of the words of a song in order to enjoy it. “It is a universal thing,” he said.
Misty had to take over Callie’s duties around the center so that she could have enough free time to answer all the requests for performances and to keep in practice.
It was an exciting time for Callie. The only thing that bothered her was that Fisher did not seem to be enjoying her success. She was hurt that he could not share her happiness, and finally, she confronted him. “What is the matter, Fisher?” she asked. “Are you jealous that I am becoming so well known?”
He smiled wanly. “Of course not, little Calliope.” (He still called her little, though she was now a head taller than he.) “I am happy for you. It’s just that . . . well, the simple fact is, I’m dying.”
“What?” gasped Callie.
“I didn’t want to tell you for fear it would distract you from your music.”
Callie was shocked. She had been so involved in her singing, she had scarcely noticed how quiet he had become, how slowly he moved, and how little he ate. But now all the clues came together in a horrifyingly clear way. “No!” She cried. “We’ll take you to the healers. They’ll make you well again.”
“I am not really sick, Calliope” he said. “I am just old. My body is running down. I’ve already lived two centuries, and I’ve had a full life. My time is over.”
“No!” she cried again. “You can’t die. I can’t live without you!”
“Your words dishonor me,” he said, in his sternest instructor voice. “Yes, you can live without me. You are a strong and independent person, as your parents and I have taught you to be.” His voice softened. “When I was younger, I had a conceit that I would go down in history as the man who discovered the secrets of Communing. That is not to be, it seems. But I know now that I will be remembered as the man who introduced singing to the great Calliope. With that, I am content.”
Callie buried her anger, anxiety, and sorrow in her work. People made electronic recordings of her singing and began trading them back and forth. Her name became known throughout the world and beyond. Calliope fan clubs sprang up. Faithful followers flocked to the center to meet her, and many laboriously learned to speak just so
they could talk to her. She had become a phenomenon. Even shy Brown had a circle of admirers surrounding him.
“The experience of listening to music is so individual that it cannot be successfully Communed,” explained Willow. “To know it, you have to hear it.” Thus many people who were not normally interested in music had their curiosity aroused. They wanted to experience this novelty called singing.
In the midst of it all, Fisher grew weaker and weaker. Callie would have nursed him on his deathbed, but he would not hear of it. “I have inflicted my old age upon you,” he rasped as he sent her away. “I will not burden you with my death.”
He might as well not have bothered. Though she was half a world away, she sensed it the moment that he died. “Rare and rudimentary,” she remembered his words bitterly. Callie was furious with Fisher for leaving her alone.
She stayed locked in her room for a week after his death, weeping uncontrollably and not seeing anyone, even her closest friends. For months afterward, she stayed in seclusion, refusing to sing. Finally, a delegation from the planetary council came to see her. The clamor for a Calliope concert had been growing and growing. Would she consent to give at least one more performance?
Callie knew what she had to do. Always before, she had sung other peoples’ words, but for this concert, she would write her own music. She went into the mountains alone for five weeks, and she wrote a song, not so much about Fisher, as to him. When she first sang it for Misty and Brown, they were struck speechless. Finally Brown, who was not given to exaggeration, said, “This is the most beautiful song ever written.”
The concert was going to be huge. An abandoned athletic stadium was remodeled to accommodate the crowd. Electronic networks normally used for data transfer were reconfigured for audio to carry the concert. It was to be broadcast off-world and recorded for posterity. Brown recruited the best musicians he could find for an orchestra to back-up Callie’s voice. Practice was long and intense, and by the night of the concert, they were all keyed to a fever pitch.
As Callie walked toward the back of the stage on the night of the concert, her heart thumping loudly in her breast, she saw Willow, Misty, and a handsome young man in the uniform of a Faraway Explorer waiting for her. Willow stepped forward and said expansively, “You have a ‘sell-out’ crowd tonight, Callie!”
She frowned. “A what?”
He laughed. “It would take a week-long lecture on Pre-Communion economics and something called money to explain that phrase. Just be satisfied to know that everyone who could possibly get here tonight is here.”
He hugged her, and then Misty stepped forward. “I’d wish you luck, but you don’t really need it.” She smiled. “Instead, I brought you a surprise.”
The young man came over. “I don’t imagine you remember me . . .”
Some mischievous glint in his eyes gave him away. “Stone!” said Callie with delight. She touched the sleeve of his uniform. “You joined the Explorers?”
He nodded. “Yeah. Alone on a scoutship, out in interstellar space, it doesn’t matter if you can Commune. Listen, Callie, I want to apologize for being such a jerk back when we were kids.”
She remembered something Fisher had once told her. “Hurt often disguises itself as harshness.”
He smiled at her. “How can one so beautiful also be so wise? Do you suppose you and I could talk . . . after the concert?”
Callie felt as if Fisher’s hands were on her shoulders, pressing her gently forward. “Yes,” she said quietly. “I would like that very much.”
Then, the music swelled, and it was time for her to mount the stage. Callie walked forward into the lights and saw the thousands of silent, expectant faces turn toward her. For a moment she felt pure panic, for the sight had awoken in her the memory of an old nightmare. Then she took a deep, steadying breath, opened her mouth, and began to sing.
©Gary K. Shepherd
Gary K. Shepherd is a freelance writer whose fiction has appeared in Anotherealm, Schrodinger’s Cat, Mystery Time and Millennium Science Fiction, as well as a number of non-paying markets. He has also written non-fiction articles for Military History, Outdoor Adventures, Cobblestones, The American Humanist, Accent on Living, and The Compleat Mother. In addition, his short story, “Night of the Vampire” won first place in the science fiction division of the annual Writers Digest genre fiction contest. He works in a wide variety of genres and styles, from poetry to radio drama. As his day job, he works as a library assistant at Morris Library, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, where he spends a great deal of time resisting the urge to read everything he sees. He also serves as the editor and publisher of United World, the journal of the Coalition for Democratic World Government.