The Sound Barrier – Tony Clavelli

The Sound Barrier – Tony Clavelli

Metaphorosis April 2016
April 2016

The airlock releases with a clank and a cough and she’s out. Sunghee Cho floats down as the first of the Valiant’s crew to touch the surface. The ground crunches and she slides, scraping along the ice. The rover shuttle waits a short distance away, a hulking windowless box on caterpillar treads.

The whole walk is unnecessary. There’s a jetway to the transport. It was how I arrived. But despite the radiation risk, people prefer the walk. Because who wants to travel 800 million kilometers just to get picked up in a taxi? The walk is crucial for the effect.

“All good here,” Cho says to her crew. Her voice trembles with excitement.

She takes her next steps, and her boot’s sensors light up my screen with each footfall. I add the crunch and the scrape in perfect time. I like this part. Then she bends her knees and leaps, comes down seconds later on both feet and glides a few meters. I adjust gladly.

The other four crewmen follow Cho, and though they aren’t my subjects, I have to account for their landing so Cho’s experience is as natural as possible. This is where the real show begins. I toggle to a wider view shot from the transport ahead. The Valiant looms behind the marching crew. There are workers already there, aiding in its disassembly, ensuring the ship’s automated collapse runs smoothly. This craft will be repurposed for the crew’s real mission below the surface. I send the sound of the other crewmembers’ landings into Cho’s speakers, toning down the fall to cover for their distance from her and the direction she faces. I don’t want to brag, but I’ve been told there’s no one who can balance for this quite like me.

On the monitor in front of me there’s a liveview of Cho’s face from her in-helmet cam tucked in the corner away from my main interface. The image is distorted slightly, fish-eyed from its closeness. It’s bright and grainy, but I can see her. There are thin creases near her eyes, and a pockmark scar beside her small nose. Short bangs cut a straight line across her forehead, poking out from her suit’s hood. She’s beaming.

“Everything’s clear,” she reports. Her voice trembles, but not out of fear. “Two minutes ’til pickup.”

I love when they’re this excited. It feels right, like it was maybe worth coming here. By the time the third crewman comes down, their spacing is far enough apart that I treat it as out of earshot.

I turn around briefly to check on Chris. He’s shifting at his station, adjusting knobs and shimmying to get comfortable. The gravity here doesn’t sit well with him. He’s in charge of ambiance—funneling in an appropriate blend of wind and white noise. When an entire crew signs on, like the Valiant has, our team matches theirs one-to-one. Since Chris’s performance review didn’t go well last week, Dr. Singh thought it would be best to relegate him to a simpler task for a while. There isn’t much of an atmosphere where they are, but without the added “room sound” effect, visitors get an unnerving sense of emptiness. Today he’s trying out a sampler he wired himself, cobbled together from a spare Korg running through a potentiometer to distort it. He gives me a wink. It’s cheesy but it works.

Chris starts in with breeze effect that has too much synth for reality. Our conductor Dr. Singh flicks a warning light that flashes on all our monitors to indicate the offending noise should be corrected. Chris adjusts badly, switching the effect midstream.

I hear what Cho hears in my headphones, and it isn’t good. The effect whooshes, transferring ear to ear like something thrown past you and narrowly missing. Cho panics, her eyes pressed shut, her teeth clenched.

I switch my primary feed to the Valiant’s onboard cameras. Cho is up ahead, horizontal, a few feet above the pale yellow surface. The errant sound makes her try to dive for cover—an understandable reaction. But in the low gravity of Europa, this sends her shooting off in the wrong direction, outstretched like an awkward, low-flying superhero. The rest of the crew stops to watch their leader rocket away. I cringe, and switch back to the helmet view.

“Unknown projectile,” Cho gasps.

The light on her face fades to dark as she finally hits the ground and slides. The scraping sound of her visor against the ice has no need to be simulated, but I turn on dampeners to make it less severe. I toggle to the wider view and watch her scoot past the transfer vehicle and crash headfirst into an ice spike ahead. I press a few ugly, thumping keys for this effect, because Dr. Singh strongly advises honesty.

“Captain Cho,” another crewman radios. “Cho, are you okay?”

Her in-helmet view shows that her vitals are acceptable, her rad-shields and her visor held up, no cracks or breaches. It also shows that she’s angry, and embarrassed, but otherwise fine. While she lies there, I look left to see Tina and Will trying to carry on with the other crew members as they skate and scrape their way to recover their captain and get to the transfer that will take them below the surface to the colony. That’s where we are.

Jupiter looms in the background, a colossal not-moon, swirls of coffee and dreamsicles. For a moment I can’t help but marvel at how strange it is to be here. Then Dr. Singh comes on and rips me back to reality. I hear her speaking directly to Cho, beginning her apology. I flip off my headphones and look for Chris. He’s back at his station, watching this play out on his own monitor. He looks like a sad puppy and I have to turn away.

That night, I take him to get a consolation synth-burger from the colony’s food court. We’ve got powdered banana shakes and the burger tastes close to real, but it runs up a hefty chunk of credits. Normally we only eat here on good days.

“We’re not fired, Leah,” he says, passing me an extra can of water. I already feel too full to drink anything, but it’s sweet of him to offer. “I’m going to try something new tomorrow.”

“We’re lucky,” I say. “Please be careful.” I try not to sound as worried as I am.

It was Chris’s idea to join Dr. Singh’s new company last year. The New Pilgrims movement exploded faster than most people expected and the stations were suddenly no longer limited to scientists and government workers. And with that, new markets sprung up everywhere. Dr. Singh had been a psychologist for a shuttle company, but she changed course when she realized that a lot of the New Pilgrims were having a hard time adjusting to the sound discrepancies between what they saw and what they experienced. If life were to continue as normal so far away, the entire sensory experience of home life needed to be transportable. When automated audio failed the beta testing, Singh took over. Our Hollywood jobs had fizzled with the rest of the industry, so Chris and I seized the opportunity. Europa’s over a half a light-hour away from Earth at its closest, so it wasn’t an easy decision. Signing on meant a three-year contract in the Big Abroad, not including two years travel in deepsleep just to get here.

There are growing pains. The fries are cold and dry again. I push them across to Chris. He takes a bite. He is thinner than when we first met, and his face skirts the line between angularly handsome and gaunt.

“You know I can support you,” I say. “If you need to maybe try something else.”

He rubs his knuckles into the side of his head and looks down at the fries. I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t even know if it’s true. He looks hurt.

“Thanks,” Chris says. I can hear the strain in his voice. This is a forced response—deliberate argument avoidance. “It’s good to have that cushion.” He gets up to leave and I tuck the leftover water into my bag and we head back to our room.

This is a new form of arguing and it worries me. He avoids the troubled conversations in favor of agreeing with me. I can’t tell if he does this because he’s tired of fighting about work or if he’s trying to frustrate me. It’s not as if we have somewhere to go for a walk and cool down.

The next morning Dr. Singh asks Chris to handle a rich kid who wants to celebrate his eighteenth birthday by doing the first extraterrestrial ultra-marathon. It’s a painfully simple task and I can tell Chris is disappointed, but he sits down and gets to work.

My subject is Ed Guillory, one of Dr. Singh’s first clients. He is a radiographer from the original New Water mission and has built a life in the colony. Today he’s up top to gather images from a Jovian storm. The lift platform raises a whole flock of rovers from the colony up to the fractured terrain. None of the others are rovers are our clients, so I make a general din to cover the vehicles as they flow like cars from a ferry to their various missions. When Guillory’s alone, I give his rover the rumble of my Hyundai Firestar. I sampled it before I left. The car’s still at home, somewhere, parked in a dark garage, roasting away and waiting for me to return.

“Hello, Leah,” Ed says. He recognizes my engine sample and knows it’s me. “Lovely day today.”

“Sure looks like it,” I say, though my mic is switched off. I’ve never been on the surface, never seen Jupiter with my own eyes. The temperature and pressure in our colony is regulated, filtered, and always the same safe levels. I sometimes wonder if weather only exists to prevent the kind of sensory-deprived dullness my days have become.

Ed carries on with his work. Each contact he makes has a special sound: a gloved hand to the ice core, the blade’s first cut and its release, a tiny shuffling slip of a sample almost dropped but then recovered. His actions are a score and I soundtrack it for him—that’s what he told Singh after the first time I was assigned to him. Ed loves my work, doesn’t mind the inherent, microscopic lag between what he does and what he hears. I can’t help but feel like a part of his research.

I hear a sharp shout from behind me and I look back. Dr. Singh stands at her command station—her mouth agape, her eyes wide. She looks furious at what she’s hearing. On my monitor everything is fine with Ed Guillory so I chance a quick glance around the office. Will sits at the station beside mine and is plugging away on the soundtrack for a solar panel repair crew and doesn’t notice anything. Tina, however, is up and standing behind Chris. He is fixated on his screen while using his free hand to swat Tina away as she attempts to reach over and get to his interface. It looks disastrous. I want to help but I can’t abandon a client.

“Leah?” Guillory says, and I know I shouldn’t have let myself be distracted. I turn back and there’s a sensor on the ice in front of him. “Did I drop this?”

The answer is almost certainly yes—he must have dropped it but didn’t hear it fall. He didn’t hear it because I didn’t trigger the sound for it. He chuckles and picks it up. It’s good that he likes me—I can tell he won’t report this. The details are what matters and I have to be more careful. Tina is shouting now behind me. I flick on the noise cancellation on the switch by my ear. This silences the commotion behind me of my husband probably losing his half of our pod rental.

When Ed’s mission finishes I log off and approach Dr. Singh’s desk. I try to keep my head down to avoid seeing a vacant desk where Chris sat but I can’t help myself. When I see him, still here, not already fired, I have to suppress a cheer. He’s working as if nothing happened. He catches me in his periphery and gives me a little salute. I turn and notice Tina has already left for the day.

“Mr. Guillory treat you well, Leah?” Singh asks. She leans back in her desk chair and takes a sip of Diet Coke. The cans weigh about 395 grams so they cost a fortune to deliver, even if the aluminum can be recycled into water cans. Everything is a status symbol in the colony. Durga Singh wears short black running shorts to work every day without fail. I’ve enjoyed working for her from the beginning—she is patient and understanding and an excellent teacher. But I have to talk to her about Chris.

“Yes, Dr. Singh,” I begin. “Dr. Guillory had an incident-free surfacing today.” I gesture back towards Chris. “Look, I know Captain Cho was upset yesterday, but Chris is really talented and—”

“Oh I know he is,” she interrupts. “Come look.”

I sit down on a chair beside hers and plug into her interface. I see the moonscape on the screen and the marathoner running by in the recording. The runner is flanked by a documentary film crew on a flatbed coasting along as he takes floaty but surprisingly athletic strides across the surface. She presses a button and the audio streams in.

I hear music. It sounds like an epic sci-fi film—the tension rising from the strings, the pounding of the timpani as the enemy cruisers appear from behind an asteroid. But on screen, it’s just this man running. Dr. Singh flips on the helmet cam and we see the young man breathing heavily, his eyes determined, dead ahead. There is a gentle sound of his footsteps, too, mixed low, but there is silence from the treads of the dolly, nothing of the plastic squeaking of a constricted spacesuit. I take off the headphones. Dr. Singh taps her monitor.

“A fifteen-thousand dollar tip,” she says. “Client’s not even done with his stunt and already he’s radioing to his crew about how great he feels, demands the money go directly to our sound guy. Says all his friends will be hearing about this.”

I’m stunned. I look over at Chris as he continues to work.

“But that’s non-diegetic,” I say. “It thought that was against policy.”

“It is,” she says. “Strictly. Especially for you film dweebs. Or rather, it was. I had Tina monitoring Chris today after yesterday’s incident. She was as pissed as I was. Sent her home to cool off. But the money speaks.”

I look back at the screen, at the runner plodding along, his face lost in the revelry of Chris’s soundtrack.


Everything changes so quickly. The marathoner posted the videostream of his run on-line using Chris’s audio feed and now all of our clients want the Cinematic Package. At first Chris is really humble about it, but then he’s leaning over everyone’s station, teaching us how to do it right. I know I should be happy, but it feels so false. Soon fewer clients ask for me by name.

Two months later and Chris is in charge of our department, which has taken on two more sound effects specialists fresh off the deepsleep and an in-house composer to save on royalty fees. I can barely keep up. Tina manages the Classics department for clients who only wish for diegetic sounds, which was the whole premise of our journey here. The only reason I’m not working with Tina is that Chris insisted to Dr. Singh that I could handle a stylistic change—and cinematic is where the money is. Water has spiked again back home so I am grateful for this. But only because I have to be.

“Those horns are excellent,” Chris tells me. Dr. Singh has asked him to coach me through another session while she listens in. There have been complaints that my subjects don’t quite “feel it” the way that his do.

“You’re all over this,” he continues. “Really nice. But you can cut the scratching sound. We’ll overpower it anyway when the beat comes later when the action picks up.”

The “action” is the scraping of a fungus the colony’s food team has been growing on the walls of a deep rift in the ice. It’s inherently boring. The scraping is the only sound that the client actually would be hearing during this, but I remove it anyway. I ease in the beat Chris has programmed for me.

Suddenly my client begins working faster. There is fear in his eyes as the music grows more frantic. He fumbles with the container and I resist giving it sound as he pins it to his leg. He races to stow the fungi in the vehicle. Sweat beads on his forehead.

“I don’t think he’s well,” I say. I check the vitals and see his heart rate has jumped.

“He’s fine,” Chris says. “He has a full hour of breathable air. This is all part of the experience.”

The man gets back to his rover and I continue to program the comedown music, fading the beat down to a faint pulse, and releasing the digital strings. He coasts home without the sound of any engines or terrain crossing, and against all my audio instincts, he finishes his day with just the music playing. When he signs off our system, Dr. Singh comes over to my desk.

“That was wonderful,” she says.

“He seemed really stressed out,” I say.

“It’s good stress,” she says. “See for yourself.” She hands me her tablet. My client has already checked off the review. A-grades the whole way down. It’s the highest score I’ve ever received. “That man of yours has a golden touch, and it’s rubbing off on all of us.”


I get to bed alone. Chris stays after hours almost every day, so I prep enough food for two and leave a plate for him to reheat. I listen from my bed. I hear the door slide open, the microwave ding, the dish sanitizer running, the score of a movie he’s put on. The details are quiet but still there. His weight shifts; he takes a sip from a bottle.

This living soundtrack isn’t entirely new but the playback is—muffled through our chamber walls and entirely separate from me. Yet still it feels amplified. I am awake. And I could join him, but I don’t, and that’s probably what bothers me the most. He should join me.

I keep a book on my chest in case he comes in so I don’t have to pretend that I ignored him or that I’m sleeping because I am terrible at that. When he finally comes into our tiny room, I still haven’t slept a wink. I smell the mouthwash and soap and also a tinge of his skin beneath all of that.

“Hi, sorry,” he whispers. I must be lying too still—unable to mimic how I look when I sleep which Chris knows so well.

“It’s okay,” I whisper.

He arranges the thin sheet over himself and lies flat on his back. He breathes heavily. We are quiet for a few minutes until I move my leg.

“Do you want to go back home?” he asks.

“No,” I say. I realize my voice sounds mean so I try to pad it. “I miss it some.”

“Have you thought about staying?”

“Here? No. I think maybe some other generation will have a good life here, just not us.”

“Yeah,” he says, but I know he doesn’t agree. “You’re probably right. I want to be somewhere special. It doesn’t have to be Europa—any of the new colonies would be interesting. It just seems odd. Are we falling behind here?”

I put my hand on his arm. He lets out of a soft hum. Our skin together gets damp quickly and it’s too hot to remain close.


The company continues to soar. Dr. Singh expands to a second office in the larger pod of the colony, leaving Chris as manager here. Competitor startups have applied for clearance to arrive, and there’s already a new team of sound engineers on one of the lunar stations. But with more colonists every day, we still can’t fill every contract requested.

Even the Valiant, the ship that I thought was the end of us, has signed on again. Captain Cho had a few bruised ribs from her tumble, but the Cinematic Package carries prestige. Cho wouldn’t let a little accident months earlier keep her from that.

Chris no longer has to monitor my every effect. But no one calls and specifically asks for me the way they used to, except for an occasional Classic Audio request from Ed Guillory. Chris helms the score for Cho and her crew on their surface missions. I work alongside our new hire, Michael, building personalized tension for the other crewmembers.

Then with less than three months to go before our scheduled shuttle back, we have our first catastrophe. I’m at my station working with a housing developer as he and his survey crew plan a surface-piercing apartment complex. Michael is working with Ed Guillory—someone must have pressured him to switch to Cinematic.

Michael’s arm swings over and bangs at my desk. My client is mid-conversation with a fellow surveyor so I lift off one earphone.

“No! No-no-no! What do I do?” Michael is frantic. I glance at his screen and the exterior helmet cam on the main interface. The liveview shows blackness and then gray blur and then a blue blur and then it repeats—spinning as Guillory flips away from his craft.

“Chris!” I call out, and he scoots himself from the recording studio on a pedal chair and logs in at the main computer.

The rest I hear in shouts beside me as Michael whacks his monitor, and I do my best to keep my attention on my developer client. Other staff come over and they huddle around Michael’s monitor. The rest of us are forced to stay on with our own clients and try to ignore the scene.

When my developer has returned to his home and the rest of the staff has left the office, Chris stays late to conference call with Singh and legal reps of the Ed’s New Water mission. He tells me I don’t have to wait for him, but I say I want to organize my review files. While Chris is in the conference room with the door closed, I watch the recording.

The video begins with Guillory’s crew singing a “happy birthday” via radio—this soundtracking was their collective gift. Guillory operates a waste removal cargo ship that flies counter orbit and releases his research team’s unrecyclables that the landfill cannot contain. All of the permanent residents wind up doing odd jobs like this. I listen as the dump starts with sparse noodling guitars and keyboard clanks. The dump requires a rapid acceleration to kill the orbital energy and send the waste spiraling to the outer solar system. The light through the port window spikes in sharp diffractions, and even though the lens flares are an effect of the video feed, it is stunningly beautiful.

The music swells and Ed sweats heavily, slicking his stubbly cheeks. His skin flushes and his pupils shrink to pins in the light but he doesn’t put on his protective eyewear. I notice the volume increasing slowly, the high notes and the low ones separating farther from each other and building up tension. As the energy of the music hits its peak, he doesn’t merely release the refuse cargo. Instead he slams his hands down the controls. I can tell that the simulated drama has taken over for him. This isn’t just a garbage dump for him anymore.

The music doesn’t relent, but it shifts in tone. The tense droning of extreme frequencies gives way to a pulsing beat, and instead of using Jupiter as a gravity slingshot, he burns an enormous amount of fuel on a sudden turnaround. Then he races back, the music keeping pace. The disconnect between what he is feeling and what he is actually doing has widened so much that when he panics, lifts the protective seals on the ejection switches and shoves them both manually, it’s hardly a surprise.

The rest of the video is the spinning I saw on Michael’s monitor earlier. I feel nauseous as I hear Chris’s voice on the recording arrive when it’s already too late, clashing with the emergency line the ejection initiated. I turn off the monitor and wait for Chris to finish the call.

“You watched,” he says. I wipe away a tear. He sits at the server and logs into the computer. “Singh says I’ve gotta kill the audio files.”

“But what about Ed?”

“It’s okay. They’ve got only video,” he says. “But now….” He taps a few keys. “Now there’s nothing from us.”

I gape. I don’t know how to respond. Chris’s brow furrows like he doesn’t understand what upset me.

“Dr. Singh said we had to.” What can I say to this? There’s still the little crease between his eyes. I don’t have the energy to shrug it off. “We’re going to tone things down,” he says. “We’ll have a meeting tomorrow. Hover closer to reality. Okay?”

I’m not sure exactly when I became the moral compass of this operation, but everything about what Chris is suggesting feels wrong.


Sunghee Cho adjusts the high beams from above deck and poses for a picture with the icy sky behind her. Blacks and yellows streak and refract in a faint glow that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The lights span across the sloshing sea of black water and fade into the unknown. Her one foot is raised and her hand rests on her thigh like in old portraits of pirates and explorers. It looks pompous but rightfully so. The Valiant II is the first sea-bound vessel ready to explore the Bubble—the air pocket between the deep ice crust and the water sea they float on now.

“Can you take off the helmet?” my subject radios to her. It’s just warm enough that she can do this for a moment. Her lips move but her radio is off. She’s talking to Chris. He operates in a new office he had built in the room adjacent to the recording studio. I hardly see him. We’ve been working with the Valiant for weeks as their mechanics made sure the ship was seaworthy. The crewmembers’ audio controls bounce between me and whoever else is available. But Cho always uses Chris. Cho laughs and nods and then takes off the helmet.

Her eyelids flare and she shivers at the cold. Then she takes a deep breath and holds the majestic pose for my camera-wielding subject. The spatter of freckles, the little scar under her eye, the ponytail with a few strands loose—all of it looks perfect through the liveview window of the camera the man holds in front of his visor.

There is no need to add sound effects down here. There is enough atmosphere to hear whatever they would need to with their simple on-helmet mics. Instead, our auxiliary score provides a “truly one-of-a-kind cinematic life-enhancing journey of the senses,” as our ads say. Chris has been pumping his paychecks into finer audio equipment and, he says, is saving up for house. For us. Or maybe he’s saving some clandestine getaway with Cho. I’m not worried either way.

I am saving for something else entirely. I check the clock in the corner of the monitor and know my final check has been deposited. It should be bouncing to my new account now.

Cho puts her helmet back on after the photoshoot. They will have to stay below deck for most of the ride but for the launch from the colony tunnel they can stay above. The view is worth the risk. But I could never get used to an iced sky. I’m going home.

“Leah,” Chris radios to me. “Turn this up—the pre-voyage mood’s too dim.

I mute the comm mic. I dial my audio knob down, fading the music out slowly. Paying attention to the sounds as I leave makes it easier to do: the air conditioner hum, my sneakers squeak on the tile, the metal scraping against itself as the latch releases on the door, creaking open and closing behind me.


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