The first time he blacked out, Kevin saw stars. Not the tweety-bird kind, but actual galaxies spinning away in the dark. It happened again a week later, and his view zoomed in like some interstellar camera. He found himself looking at one star, with its own system of planets hurtling around it.
When he counted, he remembered seven. Maybe eight, but the third one out certainly wasn’t blue.
It was killing him, of course. His doctor confirmed the presence of a tumor and sent him to a neurosurgeon who said a lot of words that all meant this is killing you, better take it out.
The neurosurgeon even sounded accusatory, as though Kevin wanted these visions. As if he encouraged the blackouts — the splitting headaches, the wasted, shaking, wrung-out feeling that came in their wake — and might say no to them plucking it out of his head.
The visions kept coming while he waited for one last round of tests to come back, that rusty not-Earth oblate spheroid whirling through the black while its double moons danced around it, and it didn’t matter that Kevin didn’t want to see them. They kept showing themselves to him, revealing more and more each time like an interstellar striptease.
He made the mistake of blogging about it, figuring all ten of his friends who looked at his rarely updated blog might get a chuckle out of the useless crap his sick brain churned up while he waited for his surgery date. He figured Jim, his astrophysicist cousin, would pop into the comments and tell him it was all shit, that this detail and that _one, and _the other were all impossible, and he should stop getting his science from Hollywood.
What Jim posted was, “Dude. Call me.”
Then Jim shared the post with his genius astrophysicist Ph.D. friends, and Kevin’s blog went viral. His inbox exploded; his phone, usually silent and forgotten in his pocket, buzzed so much his thigh went numb in self-defense. Local news, local college, CNN, Science Channel, Harvard and NASA and Nightline, plus of course the beam-me-up types and the frauds, and, finally, sheepishly, Jim.
His cousin came over with star charts and a bottle of scotch whose price tag rivaled one of the medications Kevin’s insurance refused to cover.
“It’s real,” Jim said. “Some Norwegian kid found the system last summer.” He unrolled a chart, pointed to a section of sky circled in red pen, and rattled off a string of letters and numbers Kevin promptly forgot.
“So, okay, I read about it and my subconscious latched onto it. Why do you all care?”
“Because you’re filling in information we only guessed at. We know the star’s there, that there are planets in its Goldilocks zone, that one of them has two moons. But you’ve seen more.”
Kevin thought of the most recent blackout, of flying beneath that red cloud cover and soaring over a world almost but not quite like Earth.
“I hallucinated it.”
“Maybe. Or maybe they transmitted, and you’re the receiver.”
Kevin drained his scotch. “Shouldn’t they use radio waves for that? I have a tumor in my skull, not a steel plate.”
“We don’t know what their technology’s like. Or was like. They’re twenty light years away. Who knows how long ago they sent the signal?”
“So they’re beaming it into my head.”
Kevin took several deep breaths. Not because he felt another episode approaching, but so he wouldn’t haul off and hit his cousin. “They’re killing me,” he said at last.
“They probably don’t mean to. They probably thought—”
He wouldn’t take it out on Jim, but the tumbler was another matter. Glass shards rained down. Jim’s flinch and yelp offered a fleeting satisfaction. “I don’t care what they thought! If they’re even real, they’re killing me.”
“You can’t have this surgery until we know.”
Kevin picked up the bottle of scotch by its neck and chased Jim out of his house.
He ignored all calls that weren’t from the hospital, set up a new email account for his doctor to send information to, stayed away from the windows so he didn’t have to see the protesters with their Save the Transmission signs. Save the transmission, sure, but not the poor fucker receiving it.
He hired a limousine to take him to the hospital, and gave the gawkers the finger from behind its tinted windows.
In between glimpses of the planet he’d nicknamed Rustbucket (cities now, and movement on their streets), he had nightmares of men in dark suits and darker glasses waylaying him on the way to the ER, claiming his body and his last days for science and mankind’s Greater Purpose.
But the admitting room nurse had no surprises for him, and only Jim came to try to talk him out of it. Security kindly removed him.
It was only as the anesthesiologist dropped the mask over his mouth and nose that Kevin wondered, Can I transmit back? The world went dark.
Dark, then bright with stars, with Rustbucket’s galaxy, Rustbucket’s star. Down through its clouds, soaring over its white-capped oceans. Rushing to a sprawling city, to the top of its highest building, into one instrument-filled room. Staring into a face entirely unhuman.
Stop, he thought. You’re hurting me. You’re killing me. And, because he didn’t want to let humanity down, just in case this was real: Find another way.
The image winked out like an old television switched off — the aliens? or the surgeons cutting out the tumor? — and that was all he knew until he awoke in post-op.
The tumor got thrown out with medical waste. Jim brought apology scotch when Kevin was released. The world forgot about him in a news cycle. His dreams were his own again.
On the anniversary of his surgery, Kevin bought himself a receiver and headphones, and studied Jim’s star chart. He pointed the antenna toward Rustbucket the best he could, and listened.
Just in case.