Cullin sat and stared at the mike. He tapped his finger nervously on the push-to-talk button. With his other hand, he mashed the left earpiece of the headphones tight against his ear. He strained to hear the signal against the oceanic roar of the ionosphere. Without looking up, he felt for the af-gain on the radio and slowly increased the volume. He held his breath, closed his eyes, and concentrated on the crashing waves of static for the whisper of a human voice.
"It's eight-forty Zulu, where the hell are they?" A ten-over-nine voice blasted through the static temporarily deafening him.
He jolted stiff in his seat and hit the PTT. "Have some mercy will you!" he shouted. He released the button and heard the crowd of previously silent hams who had also been blasted.
Cullin ripped off his headphones and put them on the desk. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
"Two AM. I must be nuts," he muttered. He glanced out the window of his second-story shack. Moonlight illuminated the solid gray cloud ceiling. In the dim glow, Cullin could see a light snow dusting the foot-deep pack that covered his back yard. He worried for a moment about icicles on his antenna. Propped on top of a fifty-foot aluminum tower, the antenna swayed back and forth in the frigid winter wind.
Cullin looked back at the clock on the wall as he reached for his mug of almost-warm coffee. Eight forty-five Zulu--the red numbers glowed in the dim radio shack. The shack was a cave strewn with electric boxes and wire. It was lit dim-yellow by a 40 watt bulb burning under an aging lamp shade. He sat before the lighted dials and dimly glowing tubes of his energized radio, his face illuminated by the electric fire.
From the headphones on the desk he heard a voice. Quickly, he pulled the headset down over his ears.
"...Nothing yet. The bulletins said they would be QRV at oh-eight hundred Zulu. I heard them talking to their manager in Norway yesterday." He recognized a big-gun from the east coast. If the big-gun couldn't hear the expedition, nobody would.
"I have the WWV solar report," said another voice, a local. "They say there was a huge solar flare. The 'A' and 'K' indices are rising like mad. They're expecting we'll see the aurora as far south as Atlanta."
Another chimed in, "Those guys had better hurry, propagation is going to go to hell-in-a-handbasket in no time. All we're going to hear up here is white noise when the F-Layer disappears."
Cullin tipped the last drops of lukewarm coffee into his mouth and contemplated going downstairs to the kitchen for another. He pushed his chair from the operating desk, but a voice pressed him back like an air hammer.
"This is three-yankee-five ex-ray up 20!"
It was the Bouvet expedition. In a second, the crowd was on them. Powerful amplifiers spewed streams of radio energy through expanses of wire and antenna. Energy converged on the tiny south Atlantic island. One by one, the operators began picking off the strongest signals:
"November-two-charlie-romeo, 5-9-9." The Norwegian operators quickly provided the minimum necessary information to validate the contact.
Cullin mashed the PTT and barked his callsign into the microphone, "Kilo-kilo-six-oscar-norway, October November"
The Norwegians came back to a Japanese station, then a French station, then several Americans from the east coast. Each time they acknowledged a station, Cullin shouted his call sign into the microphone.
Again and again, "Kilo-kilo-six-oscar-norway!"
"November-four-quebec-juliet -- 5-9-9."
"Kilo-kilo-six-oscar-norway!" Cullin pleaded. It seemed they would work the whole world before him.
It was ten-twenty Zulu. The growing rasp in his voice betrayed the two hours he had spent in vain.
The sky outside began to brighten. The Norwegian's signal faded. Cullin could still hear the signal from Bouvet, but he knew that it wouldn't last long. The radiation from solar storm had finally reached the earth. No one would hear Bouvet. Bouvet would hear no one.
Cullin cranked the RF-Gain on his transceiver hoping to squeeze the last watt of power into his antenna before the band dropped to noise.
He could barely hear the Norwegian say "Kilo-kilo-six-fox-juliet, 5-9-9."
"Damn!" Cullin blurted into the mike and pounded his fist onto the table. He heard a high-voltage "SNAP" from his transceiver, and felt a tingling vibration pass from his headphones to his temples.
A shock. Startled, he reached to yank off the phones when he heard, "...what?"
Quickly, he grabbed the mike and said, "This is kilo-kilo-six-oscar-norway, you are 5-9-9 my friend. Sorry, I had the mike open. Over."
Cullin grabbed the pencil and began scribbling the time and frequency into his log. The voice that answered was not the Norwegian.
"...What? Who are you? What do you want?" From the accent, Cullin guessed he was from the United Kingdom.
"Change frequency please OM," said Cullin. "Please QSY to another frequency. The frequency is in use."
At first, Cullin heard only silence. Satisfied that he had chased the offending station away, he sat silently and tried to pick out the fading Norwegian.
"What is this, some kind of joke?" It was the guy from the UK again.
"Old man, please move to another frequency, you're on the DX," Cullin said.
The voice said, "Chippy, is that you?"
"This is kilo-kilo-six-oscar-norway. Please QSY old man."
"James, cut it out, this isn't funny."
The late hour and failure to bag Bouvet wore thin on Cullin's patience.
"Don't you have a call sign fella?" Cullin asked, his throat sore.
"You are not in my ears. Who are you?"
Cullin slapped the operating table with the palm of his hand and leaned into the microphone. "What the hell is this?" he said, "Come on man. Have some pity for the rest of us. The whole world is waiting for this guy. Cant you go somewhere else?" With the flare peaking, and the jamming, he would never work Bouvet.
For a while there was only the roar of the ionosphere. Cullin strained but could not hear the expedition. He could hear others making contacts. The Japanese still appeared to hear him well. But their numbers slowly decreased. Cullin set the mike aside and took off the headset. Outside, the solid overcast glowed orange and yellow. At first, Cullin thought it was daybreak. But at four thirty in the morning in January, there were at least two full hours before sunrise. Then he could see ripples of light play across the clouds as if sunlight was bouncing from lake or swimming pool.
As he reached to switch off the radio and amplifier he heard a tinny voice from the headphones on the desk. He pulled the phones over his ears, hoping to hear either the Norwegian, or at least some news of how long they would remain on the island. He felt the tingling again.
"Are you still there?" It was the British fellow.
"This is kilo-kilo-six-oscar-norway, my name is Cullin, I'm in Mercury Wells California. I'm surprised I can hear anybody with this solar storm going on."
The Brit. began to speak, "Yes Hurley, I'm still hearing it. Eh. Hello. Hello Cullin. What do you want with me? ...Yes, he says his name is Cullin."
"Well, first of all, what is your callsign? And maybe you can tell me your name and where you are," Cullin said.
The voice said, "Hurley come over here. Maybe you will hear it if you are standing where I am." Then, "Don't you know who I am?"
Cullin had lost his patience. His throat hurt from two hours of screaming. He was tired. His coffee mug sat dry and empty. He had wasted a night sleep calling a rare station in vain.
"Look buddy," he said, "I'm really sorry you feel you have to ruin things for the rest of us. I don't know what time it is where you are but its four-thirty in the morning here and I haven't had any sleep, partially thanks to you. So if you don't mind, I'll shut my station down here and say good night to you. This is kilo-kilo-six-oscar-norway Q-R-T!"
"Wait... Please... Don't GO!" The man was breathing hard. Cullin could hear a nasal tone to the voice as if the man was ill.
"What's wrong?" Cullin asked.
"I don't know who you are, or where you are, or how you are able to do this to me. My name is Captain Thomas Hans Orde-Lees of the His Majesty's Navy. I am with the others from the Endurance. We are with the Shackelton Antarctic Expedition. Our ship is lost in the ice. We are on Elephant Island. The Boss and the others have gone for help in the James Caird. It's only an open boat and the seas are very rough. I fear for their safety. They are trying for South Georgia. It's eight hundred miles. Winter is almost upon us. Can you help us? Are you from God? Are you an angel? Good Lord, I'm going insane."
Cullin tuned his radio to peak the guy's signal against the static. The signal waxed and waned but remained very readable and was getting louder.
"Okay, Captain Orde-Lees. Calm down. I can get help. You say you are stuck? Where is your ship? How many of you are there? Can you aim your antenna more toward me? Turn your antenna and peak my signal."
The captain said to someone, "...surely you can hear this Hurley! His voice is as clear to me as your own! I tell you I hear him..."
Cullin felt a rush of adrenaline. "Captain! I can get in touch with the US Navy and get someone to help you. Please tell me where you are and your condition. Over."
The Captain was silent, save for the rough wheeze in his breathing. "Captain," Cullin said, "I can't help you unless you give me more information. If you're in trouble, I'll call the authorities to help you."
"But how? How can anyone help us now?" said the Captain. There was a short silence. Then the Captain began with resolve, "I am Captain Thomas Hans Orde-Lees. I am on Elephant Island, approximately one-hundred fifty miles from King George Island of the South Shetlands. We have been here for two months. Our ship, the Endurance, was lost in the ice in the Weddell Sea off the Luitpold Coast of the continent of Antarctica about thirteen months ago. Commander Shackelton has gone for help with Crean, Chippy, and Worsley in the James Caird. They set sail about two months ago. I fear we won't last another winter in this place. Can you tell my wife I'm sound?"
Cullin grabbed the phone and asked directory assistance for the number of the of the US Coast Guard. When he got the number, Cullin said into the mike, "I'm calling the coast guard. They can monitor your distress call and contact the South American authorities to get help to you. There must be someone in the Shetlands who can help you. Is there anyone else on this frequency that can hear the Captain?" No other ham answered.
"You mean there are more than one of you?" the Captain asked.
"What? On this frequency? Right now there are probably ten-thousand of us."
"And can you all communicate like this?"
Cullin put the phone down. He rubbed the palm of his hand across his forehead and shifted his headphones. He still felt the tingling in his head. "I hope for your sake this isn't a joke. The Coast Guard will triangulate you in a second. The penalty for a false distress call is very severe."
The captain chuckled and said, "I sorely wish the others could hear you. I doubt I'm in any condition to make a false alarm."
"Haven't you been able to make radio contact with anyone closer to you?" Cullin asked.
"Radio? Ah. So that's what this is. We have one of professor Marconi's devices the Argentinians gave to us. I've heard it said they sent signals all the way across the Atlantic ocean. But alas, James could never get ours to function. I must tell you I'm quite surprised I don't need a receiving device here. Can you do this with anyone?"
Cullin sat back in his operating chair and stared at the mike at disbelief. Where was this joker? He would get more information, then call the FCC field engineer to monitor the guy.
"Captain, what kind of power are you running? What kind of antenna do you have?" asked Culling.
"Power, Mr. Cullin? Antennae?" The captain began to laugh.
"Your signal must be very powerful, you're very strong and propagation is terrible."
"Mr. Cullin. Mr. Cullin from, I believe you said, California. My only receiver is my body. I don't claim to be a smart man in the ways of you scientists. I am a sailor. I don't know how you put your signal into my ears but I would think you would have the decency to master the operation of your machinery before you use it!"
The captain continued, "On the the other hand, Macklin is most probably right. You are an imaginary voice. You are probably the result of a spoiled bit of seal blubber I ate last night."
Cullin sat silently, wondering what to do next. The Captain said, "I am from London, England. Can you put me in contact with my wife? Do you need to know the address? Her name is Marjorie. And what of the Commander, can you give me any news of him? Has news of our disappearance reached you in the California territory? What of Scott? Has his team arrived home safely?"
A finger of cold electricity ran down Cullin's spine. The rippling orange light played on the clouds outside like a the movie on a screen. The orange ripples grew in intensity and brushed up and down the walls of the radio room, the equipment, his body.
"Scott? California territory? What are you talking about?"
"I guess news travels slowly," said the Captain, "Scott departed some time ago. I thought he would have returned by now. Here we are at May twenty-third, nineteen hundred and fifteen, and still no news of Scott. Excuse me, nineteen hundred sixteen. We've been here so long, I keep forgetting we're all a year older."
The sky outside the radio room erupted into sheets of fluorescent orange and red as the ionosphere was crushed against the onslaught of radiation from the sun. And in that instant, the electric tingling increased to a vibrating pain. Cullin had a vision. The light from the Captain's time and place forced itself into his head. It was as if he were dreaming while awake. He could not turn away. The sight was in him.
He saw a man sitting on a grey-black boulder on the a rock strewn sea shore. Waves crashed behind him and flung foam and spray into the air. A glowing red orange sky shot fingers of light through holes in a blanket of scattered clouds.
The man himself was gaunt. His face was thin. His skin pulled tight against the sharp angles of his skull. His hair was long, black, and wild. It reached out from under his tattered knit cap in the wind gusts like tentacles. An uncut beard and draped onto his cratered sweater. His clothes seemed more like a random assemblage of gray and green dish rags than garments.
The stabbing electric pain slashed through Cullin's head. He tore off the headphones and slammed them onto the table. The vision disintegrated. He wiped beads of sweat from his face with an open palm. Gingerly, touched at the headphones as if they were hot. There was no shock. Carefully, he put the phones over his ears again and heard the voice.
The captain said, "I saw you! I saw you Mr. Cullin! This radio is a miracle. Praise God above I'm sure we will be saved! Mr. Cullin, where are you? What manner of laboratory do you work in? What are those boxes and lights? Can you take us out of here? Please tell my wife I am alive."
Cullin shuddered. His nerves tingled, and he felt a warm wetness growing in his eyes.
"Captain, I don't know what I can do. I don't know how this is happening. Perhaps the aurora..."
"What is the matter, Mr. Cullin? You can help us, can't you?"
"Something is happening. I don't know how. My time here is January 7th. My year is nineteen hundred and ninety."
Cullin's hand slipped from the push-to-talk switch. He could hear the Captain's breathing over the background static. He wondered if anyone else was be hearing the conversation. But there were no other signals on the band. The solar storm had wiped the atmosphere clean of radio signals--except for one channel that linked him to the thoughts of a man who had once been stranded on a rocky island off the glaciers of Antarctica. He stared at the world map he had hung on the wall. The orange light from the aurora ran up and down the map like flashlight beams.
"Mr. Cullin," said the Captain, "are you still there? Can you still hear me?"
"Yes," Cullin answered.
"I am a man with no choices, Mr. Cullin. I have no decisions to make. I have only to eat and breathe and to keep from freezing. All else is in the hands of God, may he have mercy on me. If this is to be, if I am to speak to a man from a different time while I await my fate on this island, then I must accept what has been given to me. You command the science that opened this dialog, Mr. Cullin, I have only to sit and wait. What will you do with me?"
Cullin stared blankly at the lights on the wall. The bright yellows were giving way to darker oranges and reds. The light was fading, and predictably, and so was the signal.
Cullin's voice began to falter. He said, "Captain, our conversation is not due to me or my equipment. I didn't cause this to happen. I have very bright aurora in my sky. There's a solar storm now. Maybe the aurora...perhaps..."
"Oh yes, we have the same here. Bright aurora in the sky, like luminous theater curtains. What did you call it, a storm? Solar storm? What does that mean?"
"A storm on the sun causes those lights. Winds of particles blow from the sun to the earth. Maybe the solar wind opened this channel."
"A storm on the sun! Imagine that! A typhoon of luminous matter." Cullin began to hear a crackle of static while the Captain was talking. The link was breaking. The aurora grew dimmer.
"What can I do?" Cullin said. He felt a tightening in his chest and throat. "I don't know what I can do."
"But that you could contact my wife. I'd like her to know I am still alive. I would like for her to have hope for my safe return. I fear you don't have the ability."
"I don't even know how I'm able to talk to you, Captain. "
The Captain sighed, "What a game God plays with us, eh Cullin?"
"Cullin, old chap, if you will... That is, I hope you understand the curious nature of my situation. If I were well and in my home in London, I'd ask you to tell me the outcome of a pony race, or a cricket match. Maybe you would describe to me the wonders of the future--flying machines, travel to the stars, the end of disease, the end of war. I would ask you to tell me about society in the machine-age."
White noise brushed across the Captain's transmission. The lights from the aurora outside had faded to all but a dim glow in the clouds.
The Captain said, "What have I now, save to witness my end at the hand of God when he freezes my soul from my mortal body? My future is a very simple one, eh Cullin? Among all the wonder of the world, only one bit of information is of concern to us now. Dare you say? Dare I ask? What happens to me, to the men? Do you know? Do we get out of here alive? Are we to be rescued, or will they find only bones many years from now?"
Cullin sighed, "Forgive me Captain, I...I don't know. It's not something I've ever learned...I mean..." And the weight descended on his shoulders. How could he explain to the man that his life, offered with bravery and dignity, would not be remembered eighty years hence?
In the quiet of the radio room he held his breath. He felt a drop run down his cheek. His chest strained against his will to hold in the breath that would release the emotion.
Suddenly, he felt the touch of a hand on his leg. He bolted to his feet with a start, unable to control the shout that escaped his throat. His tiny daughter stood wobbling, holding herself up on Cullin's operating chair. She jumped backward and fell, shocked by the fury of her father's mass rising so quickly. Cullin picked up the frightened child and held her to his chest. She began to cry. His wife entered the room rubbing her eyes.
"Josh, what's wrong? What's all the noise?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said, and swallowed hard.
"Why is Tina crying?"
"I scared her. She snuck up behind me when I had the phones on and startled me."
His wife took the sobbing child from his arms. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah, sure. Just late. You know. All that yelling. Need some sleep."
"What are those lights outside? Did you see them?"
"Its the aurora. There was a bad solar storm. Wiped out the radio."
"Who were you talking to, then?"
"Some local guys. Listen, Cathy, I'm gonna get something to drink, then I'm going to come to bed. Okay?"
Cathy took the baby to her room. The aurora was gone. Cullin trudged mindlessly down the stairs toward his kitchen. Among all the technology he owned, all the controls and dials at his command, there was no knob he could turn, no button he could push to change the past. He could not effect what had happened on Elephant Island in the time of his grandparents.
As he walked through his living room he passed a bookshelf and froze. He had bought the encyclopedia when his daughter was born. It had gone unused and unnoticed since Cullin loaded it into the bookcase. He pulled out the volume Sa-Sk, and brought the book to the coffee table in the living room. He flipped on the lights and sat turning pages.
Cathy appeared on the stairway. She said, "Josh, what's wrong? Come on to bed."
He waved her away as if to shoo a fly.
"Don't do that, talk to me," Cathy said. She descended the stairs and walked toward him.
"This is important. Leave me for one second. PLEASE!"
And then he found it. Voyage of the Endurance, Ernest Shackelton, 1914. Cathy sat down at his side. "What's so important about this?"
"Will you wait a minute," he said. Then he muttered, "I'll find it. Voyage of the Endurance 1914...um...vessel locked in Ice January 1915...crushed in ice October 1915...Shackelton and men float on ice flows to Elephant Island April 1916...Shackelton departs to get help April, 24 1916..."
"Can you tell me what your doing?" she asked again. Cullin looked at her and grabbed her arm. She pulled away from him.
Cullin said, "I just need a second. Listen, I'll tell you later. Please let me do this, Okay?"
"Here, here it is. Look, look at this. They were rescued. Shackelton rescued all of them. They all get off safe and sound." His wife looked at him incredulously. He glanced out the window. He thought he saw a tinge of orange to the dark gray clouds. Was it the street light, or was the sun still alive?
He bolted up the stairs to the radio room and grabbed the mike.
"Captain...Captain are you there? Can you hear me?" He held the headphones to one ear without putting them on.
"Captain this is Cullin. Thomas can you hear me?" Buried in the frying pan static he heard a whisper of the Captain's voice.
"Everything is going to be all right," he shouted into the microphone, "Shackelton returns in August. Everyone is saved. Shackelton returns in August."
He wasn't sure he heard the Captain's reply. A man can hear voices in formless sounds. Sometimes he will imagine the voices are speaking to him. Sometimes he will question his sanity. Years would pass before Cullin could listen to an unused frequency and not hear the Captain's reply in the static sizzle of the ionosphere.
"God keep you, Mr. Cullin."
The next old story is Piano lessons
The last old story is If it barks like a fish, it must be a duck
The first old story is The cheshire woman
originally published in QST in October 1990. WAY before Frequency came out. I should sue the bastards for stealing my idea.