The first time Ralph noticed the transmitter it barely made an impression on him. He was bicycling by in a blur, and there it was, a teepee of steel girders with a great concave dish on top behind a tall latticework fence, a metal privet, on the rear end of a little shortcut street in the industrial district. Its size was imposing, but there was something inert about it too: a handsome Christmas toy that didn’t work no matter how much you fussed with the batteries. They must have thrown this together last week, thought Ralph. Then again, how would he know for sure?, he rarely rode on this block. He’d only taken this route because of road work on Blake Street. Many days it seemed like the entire River North was under construction. New galleries and shops and collaborative spaces; new restaurants in old warehouses; why not a transmitter on a vacant lot?
He wouldn’t have thought to call it a transmitter then. Ralph hadn’t much time to think. He’d discharged his responsibilities at the studio, and he was racing to get home before the sun set. It was only a fifteen minute bike ride back to his little apartment by the baseball stadium. The rent was rough and there was no space for musical instruments, but fear kept him there, even though most of his old running mates had moved to the Highlands or left Colorado altogether.
After sundown Ralph was useless. Every day around five o’clock the thing would happen. It was as if an invisible stack of old leather-bound encyclopedias had been placed on the very top of his head: crushing, dulling, grinding pressure, rendering Ralph unable to work properly. His mouth would get dry and there’d be a sweet, slightly burnt taste on his tongue, and it would become hard to sing or even speak. Malaise clung to his skin like a wet shirt on a damp day. It wouldn’t burn off until sunrise.
Worst of all — worse than the feeling that his ears and eyelids had been sealed by forces he didn’t understand — was the alarming nighttime disassociation. A frosted glass panel descended between Ralph and the outside world. Through its translucence Ralph could see activity, but it always seemed remote; divorced from his consciousness, a thick layer he couldn’t peel away. This had crippled his interaction with Zara. He could be sitting across a table from her but her words were relayed from a satellite somewhere on the rim of the sky. It took a few seconds for him to process the signal. Conversations with him, he realized, had to be unnerving. He felt very sorry.
Ralph explained all of this to the neurologists. When they pressed for details, he had to admit that he couldn’t pinpoint when his symptoms had started: did the stack of books drop on his head all at once, or had it been a gradual decay? Life, he admitted to himself, had been gently sliding by without notable event. Anyway, tests were negative. They could not tell him what was happening although they agreed that his case was peculiar. Ralph was referred around: a shrink, a spine specialist, a headache center, a urologist specializing in the psychologically debilitating effects of sexual dysfunction. It was all costly. Ralph was running out of money.
Low light conditions sometimes triggered the symptoms, so Ralph begged Angel, who’d hired him on as a sound-editing engineer, to open the thick factory-glass window of the studio. Angel wouldn’t do it. He liked to smoke pot in the studio control room and felt that darkness intensified his high. Ralph had been an occasional smoker but since getting sick (or whatever it was) he found himself unable to handle any intoxicant. Even coffee pushed him to the edge of freakout. He’d done his best to hide his sickness from Angel but now he had to abandon pretense. Ralph paused the editing program, swerved his chair around to face his employer, and told him everything that had been happening to him. There was very little trace of recognition or sympathy on Angel’s face as he listened. After Ralph finished, there was silence in the studio, interrupted only by the sound of a piledriver pounding dirt on the lot across the street. Then Angel grunted, got up, woozily opened the window, and went home.
Now Ralph was left alone in the studio with the talent. It was a kid he’d seen around town but didn’t know by name. He was slight and sharp-nosed with long black hair parted down the middle and he wore a shabby leather jacket in a rodent shade of brown. His bag was a ball of lint and filth. Studio workers got like this, thought Ralph; their daylight identities slowly ebbed away and they were left with all of the characteristics of a mole. Today he was scoring a web promo for a somewhat radical environmentalist NGO. They’d asked for music that was uplifting but also suggestive of technological breakdown. Ralph programmed rudimentary drums; the Mole would coax nuclear-accident sounds out of an analog synthesizer. They worked like this, side by side and yoked together, for hours, without speaking very much.
Then, in the middle of a take, the Mole stopped.
“Your hands get numb?”
“Say what?”, asked Ralph.
“Your hands. Do they get numb when you get that pressure in your head? Does it feel like your fingers won’t bend, like they’re stuck together? Pain in your wrists?”
Ralph paused the drum loop.
“Yes. Matter of fact yes. What’s it to you.”
The Mole angled his head forward. He seemed to become very small and very hard: compact, like a marble, or a dislodged bathroom tile.
“It’s not just you. It’s many people to varying degrees. This has been going on for awhile.”
Ralph started to speak, but suddenly short of breath, he swallowed his words and wondered. He’d always thought that he was alone with his illness. For a second he felt oddly proprietary about it and maybe protective of it: who was this charlatan who wanted to open up his ailment to the public? Then he shook past it. Maybe there was an answer.
“It’s the transmitter.”
The Mole explained what he’d discovered: the transmitter was generating a steady low-frequency electrical pulse. Most people didn’t notice the pulse, or simply shrugged off its effects or assimilated them to the strain of modern life, but Ralph, he theorized, was a particularly sensitive individual. The supervisors of the transmitter began the broadcast at noon and allowed the signal to grow in intensity until the evening rush hour. Nobody knew exactly what the transmitter was for. It may be an information-gathering device that had been networked with similar towers across the country. It may be an interceptor, or a field scrambler — something designed to block a transmission coming from a local source. Or perhaps the signal was meant to disorient people; wear them down, make them easier to control.
It seemed both far-fetched and plausible. For years Ralph had suspected that he was a plaything for forces he didn’t understand. He knew that occlusion was the government’s main business, but their motives had always seemed opaque.
“How — how did you find this out? I mean, I thought it was just a cellphone tower.”
“I can see you’re new to this. Look you’re going to have to educate yourself.”
The Mole scribbled an Internet address on a piece of paper. Don’t try to take in too much at once, he said. Start with a general overview and then go deeper. As deep as you can stand. It’s all connected.
That evening Ralph bicycled by the transmitter. It was a very ugly thing, he decided; cold and alien and soiling the spot it stood on. He also felt foolish that he’d ever mistaken it for a simple cellphone tower. He was pretty sure he knew what those looked like, and this was something more malevolent, more like an oil derrick, a blackhead on the land, than an antenna. Not knowing what else to do, he counted the girders — but before he’d reached ten, he was overwhelmed by a crashing onset of symptoms. His heart thumped so fast he could feel it in his teeth. Frightened, Ralph rode back to Blake Street in a fog.
“It sounds like altitude sickness.”
“How could it be altitude sickness? I’ve lived here my whole life.”
Zara stared down at an untouched salad. She’d agreed to meet him for lunch at Steuben’s, but Ralph could tell she didn’t want to be there. He used to pick up the tab; today, they’d split it. Zara actually had had altitude sickness when she’d moved to Denver eight years ago. She’d had nausea and a paralyzing headache on the night they’d met — she opened a show for his band, which was then a hot ticket. Zara flubbed the words to her folk-pop songs, made guitar mistakes, cut her set short, and sunk, despondent, into the big green cloth sofa backstage. She was loose change in the cushions. The rest of the guys laughed at her — another no-talent L.A. transplant with an expensive guitar — but Ralph took pity on her and brought her a glass of seltzer. He figured she was drunk. She wasn’t. She wasn’t from California, either — she’d relocated from Madison, Wisconsin a few weeks ago. Zara had been ill every night; Mile High air had really knocked her flat. Unlikely, said Ralph, acting the local tout. He explained to her that altitude sickness was rare in Denver and didn’t really start afflicting people until they climbed, oh, eight thousand feet over sea level.
He could still feel her glare.
A month later Ralph started producing Zara’s music. It was his first studio gig and he found that he was very good at assembling things. His bandmates didn’t understand the attraction, or why he was working so hard. Ralph played everything himself, including the drums, and helped organize the ideas in her notebooks into verses and choruses. Zara sang — at first with very little confidence, and then, after months of trial and error, with guilelessness that Ralph found touching. Not just Ralph; when the E.P. came out, it was received ecstatically, offensively so, by the local press. Zara became a name to drop. A manager found her an agent. The agent found her a record label. The first thing the label asked her to do: get a real producer.
That all seemed very long ago. Ralph’s bandmates had piled into a van and gone to Brooklyn without him; he never heard from them. Zara was older now and she had a new boyfriend who worked for Wells Fargo. Ralph attempted to conjure animosity toward him, but he really couldn’t. Mostly he felt unburdened by it, even as he still thought of her, steadily drifting away as she was, as his North Star. When they were together, he’d had to put on a front. Now, with nothing to lose, he could tell her anything. Right now, he wanted to talk about the transmitter: not just his initial suspicions, but what he’d learned online, and the people who’d posted their speculations, and their symptoms, to the message board he frequented. He kept his voice low, and patted the air with his hands as he spun it out for her.
“Ralph. This is all crazy.”
“I know it’s crazy. I’m not trying to say it isn’t crazy. I don’t want to believe it.”
“But you do.”
He didn’t know if he did. There were many people on the board who were much deeper into it than he was, he told himself — anonymous writers who connected the transmitter to the NSA, or the Gladio B plan to restructure the international order, or Native American extermination, signs and symbols in the murals at the International Airport and in the films of Stanley Kubrick, UFOs, chemtrails and 9/11, the whole paranoid shebang. These people were mad, or seemed to be. But the truth, experience had taught him, was always somewhere in between the extremes. The authorities said the transmitter was nothing. Others said the transmitter was everything. Logically, then, it must be something.
“What about guitar? Have you been playing guitar?”
He admitted he hadn’t really been playing guitar.
You need a project, she said. You need a creative outlet. It’s unhealthy for you, spending all day in an airless little box out in RiNo, slaving away for corporate clients. No wonder you get sick at five o’clock, Ralph, it’s another day wasted — another day you buried your ambition and devoted yourself to stuff that’s beneath your abilities. No wonder you can’t breathe, she said, you’re drowning in your own surplus energy. Pick up your guitar and play. I bet that pressure in your head will go away.
So he tried to play guitar. He retrieved a Telecaster from the studio and found the chords for some of his old songs. Yet his mind didn’t govern his hands as seamlessly as it once did. This was unnerving. What’s more, the songs felt like messages from an inactive version of himself. It was if he was listening to his past self through a rice paper barrier. The later at night he played, the more muffled the sound became, until one night he realized that playing the guitar wasn’t curing him at all — it was exacerbating the problem. It seemed silly that he’d take Zara’s advice in the first place. She had no access to his consciousness, and probably thought that his symptoms weren’t as bad as they were. He didn’t fault her for her skepticism. But he did wonder why it was so much easier for her to accept the view that there was nothing wrong than his particular feeling that something was off. The government, or the transmitter, or the puppet-masters, or whoever they were — why would *they* get the benefit of the doubt? How hard is it to entertain the simple proposition that those in charge might be mistreating those without power in ways that we don’t fully understand?
Ralph felt the signal intensifying. This suspicion was corroborated by his friends on the board, many of whom reported debilitating new symptoms: constant ringing in the ears, electrical pains shooting down the arms, an inability to walk straight or think clearly. Many were furious with doctors and family members who refused to take them seriously. He felt for them. His own symptoms weren’t accelerating, not exactly, but something even worse had happened — he’d begun to feel them during the daytime. His work at the studio suffered accordingly. Angel pulled him aside and asked him if he was on drugs.
“Am I on drugs? Me? You! You’re on drugs!”
Ralph was put on warning. Shape up, said Angel, or he’d have to get a new audio editing engineer.
That night, Ralph stopped his bike across the street from the new restaurant that had opened in a disused glass warehouse a block away from the transmitter. It was early May in Colorado and the weather was beautiful, and the patrons at the outdoor tables were laughing and flirting. Ralph fought off the contempt that the sick people inevitably feel toward the healthy — the feeling that the world is a mockery designed to make those sidelined feel terrible because of their inability to participate. None of the patrons looked down the block at the tower of girders or the giant convex dish. Nobody seemed to feel the radiation. How stupid he would sound if he jumped the black guardrail and warned the them all about the terrible danger they were in. He’d be dismissed like an idiot preacher. Those arguments that felt airtight on the message board could not survive exposure to Blake Street. He realized he despised these people. Ralph knew this was terribly unfair. But at that very moment — and even afterward — Ralph couldn’t say why.
It came to Ralph that he was bound to investigate the transmitter. Perhaps he wouldn’t know what he was looking at, but he could snap photos and jot down details, and post what he’d found to the board. With some of his remaining savings, he went to a hardware store and purchased a crowbar and a giant pair of metal shears for the cyclone fence. Then he went to a certain farm supply store. With the rest of his savings, he purchased as much ammonium nitrate as he could. As he packed the ammonium nitrate into his bag, it came to Ralph that he was bound to destroy the transmitter.
The trick was to do it in a way that wouldn’t harm anything but the tower. It would be fine with him if he was injured in the blast, but he was horrified at the thought of hurting the restaurant or anybody in it. To his great relief, he found ample bomb-making guides on the Internet. Some of them were technical, but others written in extremely straightforward language. Ralph felt like these were sufficient to his needs. He called Angel and asked for a day off, and after a long silence, his request was granted.
The next morning Ralph woke up early and set to work. There was so much to learn. There was even more to visualize and navigate: possible points of entry, weak areas, escape routes, etc. In his tight apartment, he picked up the crowbar and took a few practice swings — at first gingerly, but then with increasing savagery. Then he returned with vigor to his lessons. Calculation was critically important, as was care in assembly. Any incorrect measurement could jeopardize the whole operation and possibly harm passersby. He’d need a reliable switch, and a good container, and a fuse. Ralph combed the Internet for recipes for the sort of improvised explosive devices used by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, read their histories, learned about poison gas additives. Absorbed in the diagrams and fired by the prospect of homemade explosives, he was surprised to discover that the sun had set. It was well after six o’ clock, and there was no trace of pressure in his head.
At first Ralph found it hard to believe, and perhaps even slightly disappointing. But there it was. As the night went on and the symptoms did not return, Ralph became increasingly jubilant. Zara had been right after all. All he’d needed to do was find something that could occupy his attention and make him feel like he was taking control of his own destiny. That’s why the guitar didn’t work: he associated it with his failures. No one was out to get him. The transmitter was a fantasy. At once the crowbar and the snippers and the explosives — had he really bought ammonium nitrate? — looked absurd and paltry; bad answers to a stupid question. He marveled at how far he’d allowed himself to drift into the abject — how thoroughly he’d unsuited himself for social interaction.
That night Ralph did something he hadn’t done in a very long time. He went out. Not to a club or a restaurant — he just walked the streets of Denver, from the Downtown along the Platte River and up to the Highlands and back. I love this place, he thought. Those musician friends of his who skipped town?, their loss. The next night he went out again, and the next, and the next. From time to time he’d feel familiar stirrings of pressure in his head and numbness in his hands, but he fought it off. Now that he knew he’d done it to himself, and how close he’d come to permanent exile, he decided to develop safeguards. He wouldn’t get sucked into bad thinking again. Yoga seemed like a healthy option, lots of bicycling on and off trails. Techniques for keeping the fear at bay, methods of asserting his will: they were on Ralph’s mind as he locked up his bike at the studio and, to his surprise, found the Mole standing in the doorway.
“You must be feeling better. You’re feeling better.” It was a statement, not a question. Now uneasy, Ralph nodded.
“Don’t you know why? You don’t know why.”
“They turned the transmitter off. A few days ago.”
“How, why would they do that?”
“Nobody knows for sure. Some people think that the experiment ran its course. Others think there was a breakdown of the magnet or sabotage by insurgent elements in the state. I lean toward the belief that they are swapping out the pulse generator for something stronger. But you must know all of this. Haven’t you been following the discussion?”
A wave of dismay washed over Ralph. He had done nothing of the sort. He’d dropped the online message board the night his head pressure went away and hadn’t bothered to check back to see how anybody was doing. He’d stepped over the barrier from sick person to healthy person and eagerly dismissed the person he’d been when he was on the troubled side of the line. Guiltily he realized that he’d already begun to view the community as a bunch of kooks. But if the Mole thought he was callous, he gave no indication of it. Together they worked, side by side and yoked together, without speaking, for the rest of the afternoon — just as they’d done on the day the Mole had first told Ralph about the transmitter.
The May air was thick and damp as Ralph pedaled home that evening. All along the bicycle path, construction crews were finishing for the evening, packing away their bricks and plywood and parking their bulldozers in open lots. The restaurant on the corner was in full swing, with young people talking and texting and drinking too much, and aggressive, too-fast electronic pop oozing out of the speakers. The dry chain of the bicycle squealed against the rusted metal gears. Clouds from the mountains swallowed the stars. And halfway home on Blake Street, Ralph felt the transmitter switch back on.
– Tris McCall