The doctor who placed a young deaf woman’s cochlear implant shares some bad news with her husband Sam. The implant has moved away from its connection point and cannot be functioning properly.
In the hall outside the office the patient, Jennifer, waits for his husband and the doctor when she hears a call for help. Looking up she sees janitor Robert Vitale working nearby and asks what he wanted. He denies saying anything. The doctor and Jennifer’s husband emerge from the examination room during this conversation and the doctor tells Jennifer the implant isn’t working and reassures the confused janitor. Jennifer believes she hears someone but cannot discern who it is.
Back at home, Jennifer cannot hear normal sounds. But she remains convinced she’s hearing something. Her husband knows how much she wanted to hear their baby’s first words and to respond when he cries. He tries to reassure her, suggesting perhaps her great wish to hear inspired a hallucination.
Shortly after three a.m. Jennifer wakes up. She believes that she hears the baby crying and goes into the nursery to comfort him. Soon her husband enters and tells her the baby wasn’t crying and she should put him back to bed and let him sleep. She sits up, refusing her husband’s offer of company.
The next day during a class Jennifer teaches for deaf children, at 3:10 p.m., she again “hears” the message and begins scrawling on the chalkboard. One of the children tries to talk to her. When the child cannot distract her she fetches an administrator. Jennifer has covered the blackboard with a mixture of zeroes, ones, and X characters.
Jennifer goes to the hospital where Sam meets here. She passes the time before his arrival writing line after line of the strange characters. The janitor from the other day approaches her when he sees what she has written. He can only partially communicate with her because his understanding of sign language is imperfect. But he tells her what she has written seems to be binary – the language of computers. She gives him the pad and he promises to enter it into his computer.
The school incident prompts Sam to arrange an interview with a psychiatrist, Dr. Lieberman. The doctor asks Jennifer questions to gauge her problem: do her voices tell her to do things she does not want to do, and so on. When he gives her a notepad she writes more of the characters. She tells him that if she blocks the message and doesn’t write it, it hurts. She also tells him she has met a man who says he can translate the message. Not knowing who this is, the doctor assumes it is an hallucination. Telling Jennifer that he senses that she wants help, Dr. Lieberman talks to Sam outside. He tells Sam that he believes Jennifer has experienced a schizophrenic break and prescribes medication that has worked well for his patients in the past. He assures Sam this medication will restore Jennifer to normal.
Elsewhere, the janitor begins entering the complex code into a personal computer.
At 3:10am a glow appears in Jennifer’s bedroom. She rises and goes to the window, where she sees space, and the sun getting closer and closer. Just as the sun seems about to engulf her house she wakes up – it was a dream. The next morning she gets out of bed and tells her husband the voices have stopped.
The janitor finishes entering Jennifer’s code into his computer and it prints. He looks at the printout and softly says, “Oh, my!”
The next day the janitor finds Jennifer at the hospital and tells her that what she has “heard” is definitely a message. She takes him into the ladies room because she needs to keep their meeting secret. She has told her husband she no longer hears the voices because she fears otherwise he’ll believe her crazy and seek treatment. The janitor tells her she is not crazy and that the message could be from another world – and who but an alien would send such a message? He gives her a PDA and a short course in its use, telling her the device can hold pages and pages of data that he can transfer directly to his computer. He also tells her he used to work at NASA but lost his job due to government cutbacks.
Jennifer has filled her prescription. As her husband watches she takes one of the pills but when he leaves she removes the pill from her mouth and tosses it. At 3:10 p.m. she hears the strange message again and begins entering the sequence of characters into the PDA. Her husband surprises her and she closes the PDA. He asks to see it but she won’t let him; he tells her that if the voices have returned she will need a bigger dose of medicine. She reassures him the voices have not returned. He tells her that he must go to Chicago for a few days but that the can cancel if he needs to. She further assures him that he can go and that she’ll be fine without him for a few days. They go to bed.
The next day Jennifer meets Robert Vitale at the hospital. He tells her he has printed out all of the code but that he needs a very large room to set it up. She invites him to return to her home where they pin up the message printouts. Vitale sees something in the pattern of X marks. Then Jennifer sees it. She connects the X marks and the result is a human hand. Robert picks up a marker and helps her work.
When Sam returns later the pair of them have completed their illustration and are discussing a gas laser. Sam recognizes the Robert as the janitor and asks why he’s at their home. He tells the man Jennifer is ill and Robert counters that she is not. He tells Sam he didn’t understand the X characters until he realized they were a “palimpsest” or message within a message. He shows Sam the completed drawing – the man and woman picture sent with Pioneer 10 and next to it, a somewhat larger being that has four arms and a decidedly alien head. Robert admits the Pioneer 10 probe is nowhere near any alien civilization but theorizes it could have fallen through a wormhole and been carried anywhere. He also theorizes Jennifer’s implant is picking up an unusual signal that carries a message from aliens. When Sam sees a nine hundred dollar charge for parts on his credit card he snaps. Robert says he’s an astrophysicist and tells Sam he “has to believe him” but Sam replies that he has to do no such thing and orders Robert out of the house.
Sam’s conduct angers Jennifer and she packs a bag and leaves without telling him where she is going. She goes to Robert’s home and together they begin to build the gas laser described by the message. The noises Jennifer hears get more painful because their source draws closer. Robert realizes she can pick them up every twelve hours because Earth’s rotation places her at the terminator twice a day, and this is when she can hear the signal. Robert tells her where to find a large bottle of aspirin and when she opens that cabinet she finds something else – a prescription bottle containing the same anti-psychotic drug prescribed for her!
Robert hastens to explain. He had a psychotic episode and his life went downhill. He spent a year on the street and some time in jail before getting medication to control his problem. He assures her he’s better now but admits that’s why he can only get work as a janitor. Nobody wants to hire a schizophrenic no matter their other qualifications. He also assures her that his voices were never real but hers are. Convinced, she tells him to get back to work.
Sam cannot find Jennifer anywhere he looks and makes phone calls...
Decoding another part of the message, Robert and Jennifer learn the senders are on a spacecraft tethered to an enormous light sail over a thousand miles in diameter. Such a ship relies on light pressure to push it. This particular ship is off course and plunging towards the sun. Their message is a last minute cry for help; they hope Jennifer can hear them and build a laser to push them around the sun and back out in the universe. The humans will never meet these aliens but at least they’ll know they saved their lives.
They move the laser to the rooftop. Robert returns to his apartment to retrieve his camera and Sam is there waiting for him. They fight and Robert tries to restrain Sam while yelling to Jennifer to get to the roof and operate the laser. She races away and operates the computer controls; the laser fires, illuminating the sail and pushing the ship to a new course away from a fiery rendezvous. Sam reaches the roof in time to see the light sail fade from sight and can only watch agape. Jennifer heard the message and with Robert’s help saved the aliens. Share this article with your friends