James Carter awoke from a sound sleep with a monumental pounding above his left eye. His bedroom, awash in a pale white light, spun around his stationary full-size bed into a swirl of vintage Sandeman reprints and old movie posters. As his consciousness returned, he delicately traced a finger over a throbbing artery down through his cheek before it disappeared into deeper flesh, where it troubled the nerves in communication with his stomach, making him slightly nauseous. The vaguely geometric shapes floating in his vision, like tiny dim arcs, were not particularly welcome, though all told the waking awareness of these symptoms explained why he had found himself making awkward excuses to the magnificently proportioned woman of his dream, with whom he was both happily intimate and utterly unfamiliar.
These things happen. But James, being who he was, had a medicine cabinet amply stocked with a range of remedies recommended by all but the most obdurate physicians. Tylenol, trusted by hospitals; Bayer, good for his heart; Advil, in case the aspirin upset his stomach; Excedrin, for his worst headache pain, and Midol Extra-Strength PMS, because his ex-girlfriend swore by it during her periods, and why should the worst of his pains be any less than hers. Safety caps flew in all directions as he mixed a cocktail of multiple shapes, sizes, coatings, colors, and dosages, always unable to commit to a single medication for the sheer number of credible-sounding options. He figured his body would vomit up whatever it didn't need, and he had a host of effervescing tablets and bubbly pink goo stowed away for if and when it did. Another migraine headache. They came once in a great long while, floored him for an hour or two, and gave him the excuse not to go work the next day, which work he figured was the cause behind them in the first place. A minor withdrawal from his interest-accruing karma.
Terrible pain aside, they bored him to tears.
He returned to the edge of his bed, and tried to focus on the crumbling remains of the original one-sheet from The Day the Earth Stood Still hanging over his desk. Staring at the beam coming from the alien's eye-slit usually helped to stop the swirlies. As the world ground to a halt, James noticed that the girl in his dream looked a lot like the one lying in provocative helplessless across the space-man's arms. High-heels, long hair, and ample cleavage straining against a bright red low-cut dress. James closed his eyes in search of a vision. Wild, earth-shattering prisoner-of-conquest intergalactic space-sex. With aliens. That's hot in any star system.
He lay back against his pillow and waited patiently for the 100 milligrams of diphenhydramine HCL he'd swallowed to kick in. Thank you, Unisom. And god bless Captain Pfizer. Some thirty minutes later, sleep took him.
"I don't think I can come in today," he said, weakly, into the mouthpiece of his mobile phone hands-free headset. In one of his free hands he held the remote to a plasma screen television; the other was buried deep inside a crisp-looking box of Froot Loops.
"No...I just don't think I can make it. But if you really need me..."
They didn't, and in point of fact, never had. James clicked them off and clicked the TV on. Not much happening at 10:00AM on a weekday. He flipped around the network and cable stations, passing over ESPNs 1-3 and HBOs 1-4, beyond the Spice and Playboy channels, over to Discover and TLC and BBC America, where strange people were in strange homes doing strange things to strange living rooms they didn't live in with strange fabrics and bizarre cylindrical pillows that could only ever end up on the floor. Different episodes of the same program, or maybe, he considered, as an echo of last night's intracranial anvil chorus reverberated around his brain, different programs of the same episode.
What a strange thought, he thought, and decided to sit down. The milk in his cereal bowl was already red-flecked and thickening, but he found himself in no hurry to eat. The yellow loops seemed to take on a sort of faint glow--like the glow around the Lucky Charms marshmallows in the old commericals when they floated across the sky. Lucky Charms should glow, he decided, pressing in his temple; that he would expect. But certainly Froot Loops should not, or the toucan had never mentioned it. Something slightly amiss. Normally the headaches subsided entirely in the night. They never appeared again the following morning. He was only ever temporarily conscious of them. Perhaps it was a tumor. Or maybe an aneurism. Could it be an aneurism? Was there a family history he didn't know about? A trend he should have noticed? Genetic tests he should have taken to detect as precisely and as far in advance as possible the personalized chronology of future illnesses indelibly engraved on all those double helixes he'd been warned about by PBS? James began to fear he would have to somehow think his way out of pain. Where was the tumor medicine? What do you take to stop your head exploding? America must have a pill for that, it has one for everything else.
You're being ridiculous, he told himself in his mother's voice. Common things are common, Occam's razor, and all that sort of thing. He determined to take up a horizontal position on his couch to stare at the ceiling, trusting its mottled off-white coloring and flaking patches of sheetrock to soothe his frazzled nerves. A long crack was advancing daily toward a non-operational ceiling fan. Less a crack than a chasm. It needed repair. Badly. Any day now it would give way and kill him. He'd die watching the television he spent the money to repair the ceiling on. "I can live with that," he said out loud. Or that's what he meant to say, and would have been quite willing to argue he had said, if anyone were around to listen, which no one was, and so he could not even for the purposes of argument get independent verification by an impartial judge that in fact what he did say sounded suspiciously like "silim-ma he-me-en."
So he said it again, just to be sure all the bits of his brain were still finding themselves in agreement. "Silim-ma he-me-en." What the hell does that mean? He blinked a couple of times out of shock and incomprehension before the area just behind his eyes erupted into an impressively searing agony.
The figures in his vision burned brighter than ever before. No minor aurora frootus loopus, but bright yellow lines cutting deep curves across his rods and cones in sharp relief against an eerily darkening background. He would later swear to having smelled the smoke as what looked and felt like laser etchings lengthened and joined the familiar arcs of his migraines into a complete and perfect circle.
The pain stopped. James felt his skin go cool as the sound of a strange white noise rumbled low in his ears. Without effort or even a thought, his lungs gently compressed and his diaphragm contracted, pushing air up through his bronchial passages and past his larynx, where it vibrated over his vocal cords and emerged from his slightly opened mouth:
"Silim-ma he-me-en." The words caused a great discomfort somewhere deep inside his mind, not unlike what he felt around clowns or when wearing a suit and tie. His vision stayed locked on the circle; his mouth remained open.
"Ashuli." A similar sensation plucked at his left hemisphere.
"Shala-om, om, om....Shal...Shalo...Shalom." At last, a word he recognized, and all the Bar Mitzvahs he had to sit through for his Jewish friends fifteen years ago were finally paying off. Hello. Yes. Though also maybe peace. Or possibly goodbye. He rather hoped it was not goodbye. Still confused, he saw the circle in his eyes change from yellow to green.
Further phrases flicked at his cortex in increasingly familiar languages--Arabic, Latin, Spanish, and French, the latter spoken exactly as he remembered Madamoiselle Ludwig making him say it in high school. "Bonjour, tout le monde!" James didn't feel happy, but he intoned it happily enough, and though he understood its meaning perfectly its significance was yet lost on him. He could only sweat into his sofa as the cooling sensation waned and anxiety returned. What now? His chest expanded to draw in another breath and he tried to close his eyes.
"Greetings from the children of planet Earth."
This he comprehended. The circle pulsed a vibrant blue three times before it vanished and all the world became again exactly as he had left it.
"Can you hear me now?"
Except for that. James leapt at hearing a voice speaking clearly in his ears, apparently from nowhere.
James stood up from the couch clutching the remote like a dagger. "Where are you?" he asked no one specifically.
"Just outside your door. I've brought a fruit basket. Is Beethoven with you?"
James sat perfectly still, staring at the man across the kitchen table and desperately trying to reconstruct the events of his life that had led him to this moment. The softball to the head in 3rd grade. The baseball to the head in 5th grade. The basketball off the backboard, against the rim, off the point guard, to the head in 10th grade. Staring at that solar eclipse last August. 73,000 hours of television.
"Thanks very much for having me, Mr. Carter." the man offered, out loud. "I'm sorry you didn't get my messages. Hope I'm not imposing."
"Not at all," James responded, somewhat disconnectedly. "The couch folds out."
"The couch folds out. Into a bed."
"Ah, oh. You sleep. Yes. That wasn't on the record, you see. We don't sleep. I guess we shouldn't have been trying to calibrate you at night, then. Sorry. Hope it wasn't too painful. We'd wanted to know more before I arrived, but reception around here is pretty awful."
"I have Sprint."
"I get four bars upstairs."
"Unlimited night and weekend minutes."
"Oh. Well. Good."
James focused intensely on the fruit basket between them. It was a good fruit basket. Not too many oranges. He caught sight of a lonely string of logic still dangling from his thoughts and decided to give it a tug. "Jehovah's witness?" he asked.
"Oh, no thank you," the man replied. "Just a banana, for now."
James visibly paled. The sweater that was his sanity had obviously and at long last completely unraveled. There was a buzzing underneath his hearing, at the very bottom, less heard than felt. Old radios get that when the circuits or transistors or whatever they have in there wear out and fry.
"It's a pulsar, actually," the man explained from one mouth, while another cleverly concealed in the folds of skin around his neck leisurely consumed the banana. "From the map. We've been using its frequency to transmit the calibrating signals. It's keeping us connected now. Surprised you don't recognize it, frankly, though I suppose it's been a while since you've had occasion to hear it."
"Yes, the map. From the record."
"The map from the record?"
"The record from the probe."
"The map from the record from the probe?" James wondered how long this could go on and still be grammatically correct. In college a professor showed him that the whole Lady that swallowed a fly thing could have as long a sentence diagram as there were animals to eat each other. But it always stopped with the Old Lady. No one ever ate her. This guy had two mouths. James swallowed. Perhaps I'll die.
The man set down the banana, wiped his neck with a handkerchief held by a small hand apparently unrestricted in its movements by the inconvenience of attachment to an arm, and gave James a long hard look. "You're James Carter, right?"
"Twenty-five years ago, judging by the U-238's decay--that was clever, by the way, putting that there--you sent a golden record attached to a spindly mess of antennae and tinfoil out into space."
"That doesn't sound like something I'd do."
"It had a pulsar map locating your solar system, a model hydrogen atom, a bunch of phrases in different languages--that's how I learned English--and ninety minutes of really excellent music on it. It also had your name and a picture of your office or workplace. That's it over there."
James looked out the window in the direction his prehensile tail was pointing. "The UN?"
"When I was five years old I sent a mix tape into space with my name on it?"
"Yes. And we loved it. Particularly the pieces by Beethoven. And Chuck Berry."
"Chuck Berry's pretty ok, I guess."
"Johnny B. Goode kind of rocks."
"We thought so."
"How did you find me?"
"The note was signed Jimmy Carter."
A finger of recognition poked him in the cerebellum. Then it dug in a nail. It knew the knowledge was in there, but was having terrible trouble accessing it. After an awkward moment's searching, it located an alternately applicable explanation, and flicked it forward. "My Mom and Dad called me Jimmy when I was a kid."
"Well, there you have it." Seemingly satisfied that James' memory of the probe had returned, the man resumed the eating of his banana and returned to a lighter tone of conversation. "So here I am. I haven't got much time--who does!--and according to the brochure there's a lot to see. Now then. Where have you people got Mozart stashed away?"
James sighed deeply, none too much surprised that his parents would send out a deep space probe in his name. Not so long ago they'd been making charitable donations to Greenpeace on his behalf, and there'd been no end of trouble from that. Now, a quarter of a century older, with $120,000 in higher education behind him, a decade's worth of intermittent work experience, and a terrestially impressive DVD collection, he found himself still astoundingly unsuited to the task of representing the whole of humanity to an interstellar traveler who was obviously very bright and seemed to have no end of questions.
"Mozart's dead," James began wearily. "He was killed by Salieri two hundred years ago." He knew that wasn't quite right, that Amadeus wasn't completely historically accurate--but figured it couldn't really harm the aliens that much if their version of history came from the same place as everyone else's. "There are a few things you should know."
On to Part II