Requiem for Mowers
Some three hours after a mower Queen had been planted in lawn five, Dr. Sidney Laramore was surprised to hear singing. He had been developing the micro-tech mowers for several months, on the smaller, two-square-foot lawns in his laboratory, but he had never heard them sing before.
He was engaged in an hourly check of a nearby lawn, whose grass had been genetically altered in an attempt to stop it growing at a given height, so he finished taking his notes before turning his attention to the singing lawn. The first thing he did on reaching it was check whether the mowers were keeping the grass trimmed. As far as his eye and a ruler could tell, the grass was the correct height across the entire lawn. Of course, if the mowers had stopped working, it would be two or three days before the grass height changed noticeably. As nothing seemed to be wrong, he paused to listen to the sighing music emanating from the grass. It was soon apparent that the loudest sound came from one corner of the rectangular lawn; in fact, that corner seemed to be making almost all of the noise.
Sidney stood entranced for several minutes, until his pager bleeped plaintively - the lab's Director was trying to contact him. Reluctantly he left the soft sound behind and returned to his office, where he phoned the Director.
"Gareth Jones." The voice was brusque.
"Hello, it's Sidney. You bleeped me?"
"Ah, yes." The brusqueness faded but did not disappear entirely. "We've got a deputation coming next week, from some anti genetic-engineering Luddites. They're worried we're going to seed the country's lawns with man-eating grass, or something. The damned law says we have to let them in, so I want you to show them around - convince them what we do is perfectly harmless, that sort of thing."
Sidney sighed. He wasn't keen on the PR side of his job - it used up rather a lot of time he could better spend on research - but they couldn't afford to let public opinion be turned against them. "OK. When are they coming?"
"Tuesday at half nine."
"Do they know about our micro-tech work?"
"Didn't say. You'll have to play that by ear. Right, that's fixed then."
"Before you go," Sidney had to get in quickly before the Director could hang up, "I've got something rather interesting down here - you might like to drop in when you've got a free moment?"
There was a slight pause. "Is it commercial?"
Sidney smiled down the phone, "If I knew that, I'd be in marketing, not research. It's certainly unusual."
"Right, I might drop in after lunch. Bye."
Sidney replaced the phone and began to consider how his mowers could produce music.
The Director appeared just before two that afternoon, rolling into the lab in jovial mood after his business lunch.
"So, Sidney. I can give you ten minutes - what have you got for me?"
Sidney noted the unusually generous 'ten minutes' - Gareth had obviously enjoyed his lunch. "It's outside, lawn five, in the two hundred-square-foot area." He led the way through the lab and out to the test lawns, stopping beside the neatly trimmed fifth lawn.
Gareth Jones stopped beside Sidney and looked around vaguely, trying to locate something. "That's a nice bit of music." He looked around again. "Where's it coming from?"
Sidney smiled and pointed to the lawn.
Gareth looked down at it, trying to determine where the speakers might be hidden. "So you've come up with under-soil speakers, have you? Not quite as useful as under-soil heating, is it?"
Sidney shook his head, his smile widening into a grin. "No, there's nothing special in the soil. The music is a produced by the micro-tech mowers we infested the lawn with."
The Director looked down at his Research Engineer. "Sidney, could we come up with a more positive phrase than 'infested', do you think?"
"Oh, sorry. I'm afraid that's the technical term for it, but I'll think of something else for the visitors. 'Seeded' perhaps?" Sidney shrugged unenthusiastically.
Gareth rolled it around his mind for a moment before pronouncing judgement. "It'll do." He looked back at the lawn again. "Now, why do these mowers make music? Surely that wasn't in the design spec.?"
Sidney laughed, "No! No, it wasn't, but each mower unit has both sound transmission and reception capability." He paused, uncertain. "You know how these mowers work?"
"I don't; is it relevant?"
Sidney shrugged, "Sort of. I don't know; I'll tell you anyway. Each 'mower' is a self-replicating unit about the size of a lady-bird. We infest - sorry, seed - the lawn by attaching a Queen mower to a metal rod, which we push into the soil in the centre of the lawn. The Queen replicates, producing Slave mowers which crawl away into the lawn."
"They do what? " Gareth looked somewhat shocked.
"It's perfectly all right." Sidney frowned, "Look, it works like this. You need one mower for every six blades of grass but we don't want to have to make all those in our vats - too expensive, and it's unnecessary. The mowers have to be self-replicating because they don't last forever - you'd have to keep buying more of them and they're not cheap. Not yet, anyway."
"Where do the 'Queens' come in?"
"Well, with all those individual units, you need some way to tell them all how tall the grass should be - people like different heights, otherwise we'd hardwire the height into every unit and there'd be no problem. So, I decided to copy the social insects and use a Queen mower. You set the Queen unit to the height you want and it talks to all the other mowers." Sidney pointed to a black metal rod, with a flat black disk on top, which had been stuck into the test lawn, "You set the lawn height by pushing the rod into the soil - the grass will get clipped at the height of that disk."
Gareth studied the metal rod. "The Queen's on that rod?"
"Exactly. Basically, it just runs up and down the rod and tells the Slave mowers how high it is."
Gareth nodded, "Clever. You designed all this?"
Sidney smiled happily, "Yes, but it's actually even cleverer than that. I needed a way to stop the mowers spreading beyond the lawn they're supposed to be mowing, so I made the Queen send out 'I'm here' signals as well. If a Slave doesn't hear that every few minutes, it dies." Sidney waved his hands about, "Well, it's more complicated than that but that's the basic idea."
Gareth waited for a moment, until it was obvious Sidney was not going to continue his story. "So, you've told me the Queen makes sound and the Slaves respond to it. Has this got us any closer to how they make music?"
"Oh, yes." Sidney paused to get his thoughts in order. He had only had a few hours to work on his theory and was not yet positive that it was correct. "Well, the Queens I'm using here were adjusted to 'talk' in audible tones - they normally use ultra-sonic frequencies, to avoid disturbing people. But, the reason they make 'music' is that this lawn isn't square, and some of the units weren't replicated properly - they mutated, sort of.
"You see, the Queen's signals are audible for a certain distance from the Queen, which means there's only a circular area in which the mower Slaves will operate. So, to cover a long lawn, like this one, I needed two Queens; each controlling half the lawn." Sidney waved his arms about, "You could extend this for any size or shape of lawn, of course." He walked down the lawn to point out the second Queen on the test lawn. "Now, you don't want half your lawn one height, and the other half lower or higher. So, I made the Queens communicate with each other; one's supposed to be the master - whatever height you set it to, the other will copy.
"But - and this is the interesting bit - I made a couple of mistakes. One: both Queens on this lawn think they are in control; which means they keep arguing about the correct grass height - it's virtually impossible to push both stakes in to the same depth. Two: the 'I'm here' signal should be sent out every couple of minutes but I didn't think the Queen would get into an argument, so there's no interrupt - if a Queen hasn't agreed on the grass height, it never tells its Slaves that it's alive.
"This is where the mutation comes in. I said that, if the 'I'm here' signal isn't heard, the Slaves die. Well, what they actually do, is spend half an hour looking for the Queen's post. If they don't find it in half an hour, or hear the 'I'm here' signal again, then they die."
"Wait a minute," Gareth was trying desperately to keep up with the onrushing flood of Sidney's explanation. "Why do they look for the Queen's post? Do they want to mate with her, or something?"
Sidney smiled at the image, "No, though it might be fun to add that. No, the assumption is that, if you can't hear the Queen, it must be dead, if it's dead, it needs replacing. So, each Slave tries to find the post and, if it reaches the post before hearing an 'I'm here' signal, it becomes the new Queen - and immediately sends out the 'I'm here' signal, to stop the other Slaves searching for the post."
"So, what did the mutation do?"
"Skipped a few instructions in the search program. If a mutated Slave doesn't hear the 'I'm here' signal, it doesn't bother searching for the Queen, it just assumes it's found it. So you get lots of new Queens - and they all think they're in control, so they all start arguing about the correct grass height."
"And that produces the music." Gareth was relieved at reaching the end of the hypothesis.
"Well," Sidney paused again to get his thoughts in order, "no. Not exactly. The music is actually the result of the Queens' signals interfering with each other. They broadcast the height as an analogue signal - the higher the frequency, the higher the grass. As the new Queens are all on grass blades of slightly different heights, the signals are all similar but different - hence the interference."
Gareth studied the lawn for a short while longer, then turned back to the lab. "So, we have the world's first 'singing' lawn." He hung an image of his own, large, lawn before his eyes and imagined it singing to his dinner-party guests. He liked what he saw. "Sidney, I think we may just have something commercial here. I'll get back to you." He reached the door from the lab to the corridor and swept it open, rounding on Sidney - to bestow a fatherly smile - before exiting toward his plush office.
Shortly after the Luddites left on Tuesday, the Director got back to Sidney. Sidney looked up from his DAT recorder and frowned at the new intrusion.
"Sidney! How did it go?"
"The tourists?" Sidney shrugged, "They seemed remarkably soft. I think it was the music; 'music soothes the savage beast' - or is it 'breast'? I can never remember. They wanted to know how we made grass sing, so I told them we'd made micro-tech crickets. I didn't think they would want to know the details."
Gareth nodded impatiently and rushed on, "Good, good. Right, I've had a word with our marketing people, and they agree that this singing lawn will go well with our other novelty items - the grass that changes colour in the Autumn, things like that."
Sidney waited for this barrage to finish before he got up from his knees. He was beginning to think the lawn was a little more important than a 'novelty' item but was not yet ready to broach the matter with Gareth, or anyone else.
Gareth continued, "I also suggested, and Marketing agreed, that we should seed my lawn with these mowers, to check it works outside the lab, and for advertising - I can play it to important guests and soon they'll all want a singing lawn!"
This relieved Sidney somewhat - Marketing had a tendency to want to drag large groups of potential customers through the labs, which got in the way of research, and upset the quiet atmosphere surrounding the test lawns. It was rumoured that Sidney treated his lawns like a monastic garden - a rumour Sidney, himself, had created because he thought it sounded good.
Having failed to elicit any excitement in Sidney, Gareth tried cajoling him into backing the project. "You see, Sidney, I often have important people at my place," he made it sound like a stately home, "for dinner, and so on. You've no idea what these people might pay for a singing lawn!" He changed tack as an idea struck him, "Can we tune these lawns, do you think? Or get them to play recognised music? What a selling point that would be!"
Sidney shook his head gently, "No, I don't think we can do either." He turned back to his lawn. "I've been recording the music for the last couple of days," he indicated the DAT recorder, "and I've found something I didn't expect. I thought we would get random sequences, strange jumps, things like that. But after two days of listening, I haven't yet heard a note out of place." He turned back to Gareth, "Better than that, it sounds as if the music is actually directed - as if someone was composing on the fly. It started experimenting with harmony this morning."
Gareth studied his employee for a moment. "It started experimenting? Sidney, I think you need a holiday. It's just a lawn, for God's sake!"
Sidney sighed. "Well, that's more or less what I expected you'd say. Never mind - I'll help you 'seed' your lawn, if you want." He considered for a moment, looking down at the softly humming grass. "I think I'll have to try cloning this lawn - take a bit out and add it to your lawn. Yes, put it in the centre, I think - the mowers will spread faster that way."
Gareth waved the issue aside, "Save the theory for your conferences. If you say we can do it, I'll take your word for it. Now, when can you start on my lawn?"
"I've only had this lawn a few days ... say next month perhaps, if nothing goes wrong in the meantime."
"Next month? What could be dangerous about sound?" Gareth shook his head decisively, "Put it in tomorrow."
"Tomorrow." Sidney shrugged resignedly. "All right. It'll probably take two days for the mowers to reach all parts of the lawn, judging from our tests on these lawns."
"So it'll be ready for the weekend. Good, good. I'll tell my wife to be in for you - she can get to work on a guest list for Saturday. Right," Gareth rubbed his hands in anticipation, "I'm off to lunch. Keep up the good work, Sidney."
Kathy Jones opened the door to Sidney's knock. "Hello." She looked down at the section of turf he was carrying in a shallow box, its metallic umbrella placed exactly in the centre, then she looked up again. "Well, you must be Mr. Laramore - Sidney, isn't it?" He nodded and she continued, "You'd better take it around by the gate, otherwise some of it's bound to get on the carpet, and I hate hoovering. It's this way." She retrieved a bunch of keys from inside the door and led him around to the side of the house. "I'll have to unlock it for you - next door's dog tends to get in if we leave it unlocked."
Sidney followed his guide, trying hard not to smile - he had not met the Director's wife before and she was not at all what he had expected from Gareth's banter about her; his jokes suggested she was everything from a dragon to a nymphomaniac. In reality, she seemed remarkably human. He stood beside her, admiring her black wavy hair, as she worked on the padlock. "Did you have to take time off work for this?" Sidney hurried on, "I seem to remember Gareth mentioning you worked in a law firm."
The padlock clicked open and Kathy ushered Sidney into her garden. "I suspect you mean 'grumbling', rather than 'mentioning', but, yes, I do work for a Solicitor. I've had to work very hard the last couple of weeks though, so I felt I was due a day off. And Wednesday is a good day to be out of the way." She swung the gate to and turned back to Sidney, smiling, "But don't tell Gareth I said that. He didn't want me to take the job in the first place and I don't want to give him any reason to start nagging me about it again. Now," she paused momentarily, "what are you going to do with that bit of grass? Gareth was very vague about it, which usually means he hasn't any notion."
"What did he tell you?"
She shrugged, "He said we'd have a 'singing lawn'."
"That's all? He didn't say how the music was made?"
She shook her head.
Sidney sighed in exasperation. "Well ... would you like an explanation?"
"Are you in any hurry?"
Sidney shook his head, smiling, "Not at all - and getting it started will only take about ten minutes."
"Well then, why don't you do whatever it is you have to do, while I make a cup of tea for us both. Then you can tell me how it works. Unless you'd prefer coffee?"
Sidney shook his head, "No, tea would be very nice, thank you." He cast a quick glance around, "Is there a shovel I can use?"
Kathy pointed to a shed just behind him, "In there. It's not locked." She left him to it and went in through the French windows to put the kettle on.
Sidney put his boxed turf down carefully, then searched the shed, coming out with a heavy shovel which had not been cleaned properly. He shook his head in annoyance at Gareth - at least, he assumed it was Gareth who had left it that way - before getting out his trowel and diligently removing the hard, dried earth. That done, he took the tools and turf to the centre of the lawn, measured a square of exactly the same dimensions as his mower-infested turf, and used the shovel to cut it loose. He placed the new turf into its shallow hole and tramped it down gently around the edges. He adjusted the height of the Queen's pole to match the general level of the surrounding grass, then he returned the shovel to the shed, cleaned it again and hung it up on the peg which had been designed for it, rather than dumping it back in the corner as he had found it. Finally, he added eight more Queen posts at the intersections of a grid he had worked out earlier. Together, the nine Queens should be able to cover the entire lawn with their control signals.
Kathy was just laying out the tea-pot and cups on the patio table. "All done? You can wash your hands inside, if you take your shoes off first."
She glared at him good-naturedly before pouring the tea. When he returned, she handed him a cup. "So, how do you make grass sing?"
"... but the direction - the composer, if you will - seems to be due to feedback." Sidney replaced his tea cup. "A Queen says, 'Hi, x centimetres, OK?' and then waits for a reply from any other Queens. But, because they all think they're in charge, the others are trying to say the same thing - just with a different value for 'x'. However, occasionally, a Queen will fall silent just as another starts broadcasting; when that happens, the listener accepts the height command and replies."
"And then it broadcasts the new height. I see." Kathy considered this for a moment. "So, you think this feedback has created a meta-level communication across the lawn?"
"That's it exactly." Sidney nodded excitedly. "I mean, at the level of the neurons, our brains do little more than pass signals back and forth."
"Do you think it can do anything other than produce music, Sidney?"
Sidney shrugged, "I don't know."
"Well, we'll have to wait and see, then." Kathy reached for the teapot, "More tea?"
Sidney eventually left at half-three in the afternoon, having thoroughly enjoyed his day's work. They had chatted amicably through two cups of tea, after which Kathy had offered him lunch, which he accepted with alacrity even though it meant he had to take his shoes off again to go into the house. Backgammon filled the afternoon until, aware that his plants would be getting thirsty, Sidney had regretfully said farewell.
Remarkable woman, he thought. She'd understood his entire explanation - which was more than Gareth had - and she could converse on a wide variety of topics, including gardening. She'd beaten him five out of seven at backgammon, too. Remarkable woman. All of which begged the question - what on earth was she doing married to Gareth?
Sidney sighed and tried to concentrate on driving.
Sidney did not see the Director again before he was scheduled to check the lawn - it seemed he had gone to a conference in Leeds - so he phoned Kathy at work, the number for which she had given him when he left on the Wednesday. She suggested he came around at four; she would leave work early to be there to meet him.
When he arrived, Kathy was waiting for him. As he hadn't brought any boxes of soil this time, she allowed him to use the front door, instead of the 'tradesmen's entrance'. She led him through the house to the French windows, then flung them wide, saying, "Listen!" The entire acre of lawn seemed to be whispering to itself, soft ululations building up in the centre, then washing across the neatly trimmed grass, to fade away around the edges. Sidney could already detect the first hints of harmony, as new notes were generated around interruptions in the lawn - trees, bushes, a hungry bird - but there was as yet none of the obvious directorial control that his test lawn was definitely showing.
"Is it going to get any louder?"
Sidney turned from the grass orchestra, to look at the delighted woman beside him. "Yes, I think so. Certainly my test lawn is louder than this, and a lot smaller."
Her smile faded slightly, "I hope it doesn't get too loud."
"Me too. We normally allow several months of testing a new product before we release it, in order to catch just such problems. Unfortunately, Gareth was in a hurry, as usual."
"As usual," Kathy agreed.
"Well, I'd better check the Queens - make sure I put all the posts in firmly."
"I'll make some tea."
Sidney smiled his thanks, then quickly set out on his inspection. He was looking forward to another long chat.
It was on the Monday morning that the Director came to call. Sidney was pottering about in the lab, ostensibly working on albino grass but, in reality, listening to the multi-part harmonies his lawn had begun experimenting with over the weekend. He had recognised, and taped, sections which sounded just like early Bach - repeated phrases, inversions and all. Normally he frowned on talking to plants but, after hearing these compositions, he complimented the lawn on its inventiveness.
Gareth burst into the lab noisily, as usual. "Sidney! I had a great party on Saturday - lots of interest in the lawn. And yesterday, next door came 'round - says he wants a singing lawn as well, so - can you get his started today?"
Sidney glared at the unwelcome intrusion. "It's still in the research stage, Gareth; we shouldn't be giving it to anyone yet."
"I know; that's why I offered it at half-price and said you'd deal with it personally." He glanced deliberately at his watch, "I've got a meeting now. Get on to it, will you? Keep up the good work." He left as precipitately as he had arrived.
As the door closed, the lawn's music reasserted itself. Sidney stared after his boss, wondering whether the man could actually hear his own lawn. Ah well, he'd better 'get on to it'. He'd have to clone the test lawn again; he hadn't been able to generate another singing lawn from a standard infestation of mowers. He suspected the original mutation had been a remarkable accident.
He began collecting his tools, then paused. If he went in the afternoon, Kathy might be getting home just as he finished. That at least would make the job worthwhile. He put the tools away again and sat down to listen to his lawn.
The week passed quite quickly, what with getting the neighbours' lawn started on Monday, returning on the Wednesday to check it had worked, and attempting in between to put together a paper for a philosophical journal. Sidney had decided the lawn was definitely composing its music - it was even passing its 'themes' from one point in the lawn to another. The lawn had even attempted to pass two themes through each other, starting them from one side and intending them to meet in the centre. Unfortunately, the result was a mess, and the lawn had restricted itself since to passing its tunes around the perimeter, so they would not disrupt each other.
In order to write his paper, Sidney was noting as many of the lawn's compositions as he could pick out - not easy when the music was continuous. Kathy had also volunteered to take notes for him, on her lawn and next door's.
Sidney still had his official experiments and chores to perform, so he began working late each night, staying in his lab until midnight or beyond, to work on his paper - a task he was engaged in when his phone rang at ten past eleven on the Friday night.
"Hello, Sidney Laramore, here."
"Sidney!" It was Gareth. A very annoyed Gareth by the sound of it. "Sidney, what the hell is wrong with my lawn?"
Sidney was at first perplexed as to how he was supposed to be able to diagnose a lawn down the telephone, but then he realised that what he had taken to be some modern symphony, was actually the Director's lawn creating an awesome cacophony. His first feeling was of regret - that he had agreed to infest the Director's lawn before properly testing the mowers - but that gave way to a feeling of concern for the lawn itself. What had happened to it to cause it to shout and scream? That was, after all, the human equivalent of the lawn's grating harmonics and severe key changes.
"Sidney? Did you hear me?"
"Yes, sorry Gareth, I was just thinking." He paused again. "When did this start?"
"Two bloody hours ago! It was nice and quiet when I got home but then next door's lawn started getting louder and noisier, then ours got louder, and now they're making a bloody racket!"
"It's arguing with next door's lawn?" Sidney blurted it out before thinking what Gareth would make of the idea.
"Arguing? What the hell are you talking about? It's a bloody lawn, for God's sake! I don't want any explanations, just tell me how to shut it up!"
Sidney had to hold the phone away from his ear as Gareth tried to compete with the background noise. He held it there while he considered the possibilities. There was no way to silence the Queens, because they weren't supposed to be communicating audibly anyway. And taking the Queen posts out wouldn't make any difference because all the Slaves were of the mutated variety. Whatever Gareth might think, to Sidney it sounded just as if the lawns were arguing, which implied that they would stop arguing at some point.
Having created these talkative lawns, Sidney felt it his duty to nurture and protect them. Somehow, silencing them didn't seem to fit that feeling.
"Gareth, I think you're just going to have to wait until the lawns quieten down again, as I'm sure they will. If it's too noisy for you to sleep, you could stay at my house overnight; I've got a camp bed, so you and Kathy could use the double bed."
"Are you out of you mind? I'm not moving out because my lawn is too bloody noisy! I don't want your bed, I just want to shut them up!"
Sidney sighed, "Gareth, calm down. There isn't any way to tell them to shut up; I didn't know we were going to need one. So you'll just have to put up with it. After all, it was you who wanted a singing lawn before we had tested it properly."
"What do you mean, 'there's no way to shut them up'? You may not be able to, Sidney, but I'll damn well find a way." The phone slammed down.
"Gareth ... Gareth!" Sidney listened to the buzzing phone for a moment, then replaced it. He didn't know what Gareth would try, but it wasn't likely to do the singing lawn any good at all. He picked up the phone and dialled Gareth's number.
"Hello? This is Kathy Jones." She sounded distraught.
"Kathy? It's Sidney. What's Gareth up to? I don't want him to hurt that lawn."
"Sidney! Thank God. I think he's going to mow the lawn - I mean, with the old riding mower. I told him not to, but he just pushed me away." She quietened slightly, "He never did like loud music."
In the background, Sidney could now hear, amid the lawns' disagreement, a motor mower starting up. The chugging changed to a roar, nearly as loud as the music, then slowly the music began to change - the harmonics dropping out one by one. In less than a minute, there was only one note left, spiralling higher and higher - the scream of a dying mind - until the note was higher than the phone could cope with. Sidney stared in horror at the phone in his hand.
Kathy broke into his imaginings, "It's stopped. I think he killed it. Unless ... no, that's next door's lawn. It seems quieter."
"Kathy, I'm coming over. I can't let him get away with this." Sidney put the phone down and moved to the door. It was not until the lab door closed behind him, that he realised the test lawn had gone quiet. He ran back into the room and out to the test area. Silence filled the air, hanging heavily over the fifth lawn.
He knelt beside his DAT recorder, rewound it a bit, then pressed 'Play'. Darting tunes chased each other playfully from left to right for a few moments, then he heard the scream. His test lawn had heard Gareth's lawn die. The playfulness vanished, replaced by a mournful lament which got softer and softer until it too died away.
Sidney punched the 'Stop' button and ran for the door.
Even after he had switched his engine off, Sidney had trouble hearing the neighbour's lawn. Kathy was at her door before he was out of the car. He ran to her and followed her through the house and into the garden. Next door's lawn was louder there but its lament was quickly fading away. Kathy put her hand on his arm just as the lament reached its final note and stopped, dead.
"It kept playing a tune, then humming quietly, then playing another tune - as if it was hoping for an answer." Kathy's fingers dug into his arm. "It tried for ten minutes, then it began that hopeless lament. I've never heard music so sad."
Silence fell suddenly, when Gareth parked his motor mower, and killed the engine.
Sidney and Kathy stood side by side, looking out over the badly cut lawn - the blades lying where they had fallen, like soldiers mown down on a battlefield. The singing lawn had lost, to a mower with only one tune.