Plot Twist!

I had excitedly blogged about a short story writing contest that I was entering. It sounded fun. They gave us the first line, last line, and a plot twist to incorporate into the story. I settled on a science fiction story idea that I had, although I had never written in that genre before. That was my first big mistake. My second was that it turns out that it wasn’t a contest. I went to submit my story only to find it was not a contest but a “challenge.” That second mistake probably negated my first mistake, because in a real life plot twist, my story sucked.

First, my apologies to anyone who took my advice and spent the time to write a story in order to win the contest that didn’t exist and a Pulitzer Prize. Can I get a show of hands as to how many of you that was?

Thank God there’s always one as dumb as me.

Anyway, my wife, my editor/cousin/godmother, and I all hated it. It’s a story that just lies there like a dead fish waiting to be fileted. What’s the logical thing to do with such story? I guess share it with you as a cautionary tale of how not to write a short story. So, here it is in all its mediocrity.

The attack was over in seconds. I’ve started my presentation with those words for over twenty years now. Schools, churches, community centers, or wherever they will allow me to tell the story. I’m not sure if my presentations are meant to be a penance or purge. I just continue to give those presentations while never feeling sufficiently penitent or purged of guilt.

The presentations provide me an opportunity to make plaintive eye contact with people, so they can see how much I believe that we should not proceed with further space exploration to the Alpha Centauri solar system. Sure, there was a poorly-made movie that few saw based on a book that few read that sort of tells the story I offer without the details I supply. Historical retellings by others and the official report from the government gloss over reasons for the attack. If any reasons are ever even hinted, most suggest a technical glitch in communications as the cause of the attack. Take my word for it. It was no glitch.

 And now it’s going to be a chapter in my memoir I’m writing. It should be my whole memoir. Who really gives a shit about my childhood, education, relationships, and family? My whole life revolves around the attack. At least it does in my mind. My life is the attack. The attack and I are inseparable.

It was twenty-five years ago and the last time I wore a lab coat. Jesus Christ, it was an exciting time. We had the first manned space expedition headed to a confirmed, inhabited planet, and I was part of the ground team at the base. I was still kind of a kid, but I was part of history in the making. Sure, I thought I was hot shit to be on the team with my newly-minted bachelor’s degree while being surrounded by brilliant scientists with doctorates who had made the machinations of the mission possible. I had somehow extended an internship past graduation and weaseled my way onto the team. There was no salary, and I literally slept at the base. I didn’t have a badge to enter, because I never left. I ate whatever people brought in to share with the team. Morning donuts were always encouraged. I never minded being the gopher for lunches or dinners. People would digitally transfer some money to me along with their food order, and I would inevitably have enough extra to buy a sandwich for myself at the cafeteria. Sure, I lost weight that year as money and food were catch-as-catch-can for me. But my need to be part of the team that made history outweighed my need for compensation. And boy, oh boy, did we make history. Just not the type of history that anyone wanted to make, especially me.

In retrospect, I find it ironic that the first contact between inhabitants of planets Earth and Proxima b was an audio recording as was the last. The two planets had been exchanging audio messages for several years. We had no clue what the audio messages from Proxima b meant or if the inhabitants of Proxima b knew what we were saying in our transmissions. I just know that the final recorded audio transmission was one hundred percent made by me — at Dana’s request. It was also the last time Dana and I ever really spoke.

Dana was one of the junior scientists on the team but senior to me by a few years. Although I did work for everyone on the team, I really enjoyed working under Dana. Figuratively only, although I had my hopes that it could become literal someday. I know that may sound crude, but I fell for her so hard. Dana’s jet-black hair pulled back into a pony tail and dark-framed glasses gave her a sexy librarian vibe that I found irresistible. Add a lab coat, and I had all I could do from becoming Dana’s faithful lab lap dog. I tried to play it a bit cool, but I immediately warmed perceptibly whenever she called upon me for some assistance. The task could be as mundane as getting coffee, but if it was Dana asking for the coffee, then I considered it a mission-critical task.

The one important task she gave me was definitely not mission critical, but it was sort of cool. It was an extra that could get some news and social media coverage. We had not been able to understand the language in the audio messages that the Proxima b residents had been sending us for years. As our team of space explorers sped to their planet, we had no way to understand what our unwitting future hosts were telling us. And there was no way to tell if they understood what we had been transmitting. Our astronauts were flying blindly toward an alien planet.

Dana was part of the communications team, and I could see her frustration mounting each day. The team just could not crack the code or language the Proxima b residents had been using to send us messages. Dana confided to me that we needed something visual from them to go along with the audio. Like a picture of a dog and the sounds they use to represent the word “dog” in their language. That could give our team something to get them started with translation. But for all we knew, the residents of Proxima b may be dogs. Our astronauts were heading into uncharted territory with no way to communicate with whoever or whatever they found living there.

Dana and the rest of the communications team was focused on working day and night to try and give our space travelers some way to understand their soon-to-be hosts. In case they failed, she assigned me the task of putting a short music video together that explained a little about our friendly mission. No more than a minute long, the video was supposed to show the Proxima b residents a little about who we were in a musically friendly and appealing sort of way. We would upload it onto a tablet that our astronauts could use to show the video and demonstrate our friendliness. I made sure that I leaned heavily on Dana for guidance. Oh, sure, I knew that we needed to show lots of handshakes, hugs, kisses, babies, kids playing, cute animals, and beautiful scenes from what was left of Earth’s natural beauty. But I ran each and every image past Dana for her approval with the hope of just commanding a fleeting moment of her attention. Those moments of her attention did seem to get longer and longer, and I felt something could be brewing between us. But that would all have to wait until after inhabitants of two distant planets made history with face-to-face contact.

As for the musical soundtrack, I figured that I would chronicle the evolution of our music. I started with classical music which I knew very little about. I settled on a short snippet from a peaceful Chopin nocturne. I transitioned to a beautiful aria from Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. I wended my musical way toward the present with snippets from historically significant musical genres including jazz, blues, rock, disco, rap, pop, alternative, soul, country, and today’s thrashtronic music produced using artificial intelligence. There was so much to pack into a minute, and I failed. My final mix of the music clocked in at eighty-six seconds. That meant a few more pictures of babies, puppies, and kittens added to the video. No problem.

Dana questioned me about the use of a soundtrack rather than just keeping it simple. God, I loved engaging with her in serious conversation. She wasn’t just smart. All the scientists working on this project were sharp. Dana combined her intelligence with a razor-sharp wit, keen insight, and a heightened level of sophistication. I made the case that if we offered many varied musical sounds to the Proxima b dwellers, maybe one of those sounds would resonate positively with them. Dana acquiesced too quickly for my taste. I could have bantered with her all night over the plusses and minuses of a simple versus varied soundtrack. But she ultimately left the musical mix up to me.  

The final music video had to get approval, so there were several rounds of submissions to the higher-ups, rejections, edits, and resubmissions. I think the brass eventually wearied of the process, and I doubt that they even noticed some of the changes I made to parts that were not under scrutiny and discussion. When the final edit was approved, the end result was no doubt my music video. I was proud of the finished product that had my fingerprints all over it.

The music video was uploaded onto the tablets aboard the space craft. The crew would be able to each have a tablet with which to show the music video to the inhabitants of Proxima b. With plenty of smiling baby faces, cute animals, and displays of affection backed by great music, we were certain that our good intentions would be effectively communicated.

Everyone on the team was in the control room as the spacecraft landed. Major Jeannie Nelson, our lead astronaut, kept us all informed with an almost stream of consciousness style of commentary. She was so good at describing the events that we felt we also were landing on Proxima b. Major Nelson described landing on a planet that looked both similar and different to Earth. She described more of a barren landscape but definitely inhabited as what appeared to be an Earth-like city was visible in the distance.

The quality level of Major Nelson’s transmission degraded once she was outside of the spacecraft. Proxima b is subject to more radiation from their sun, Alpha Centuri, than Earth is. That radiation seemed to come in waves as the transmission from our space team alternated between crystal clear sound and scrambled static. Many sobbed when we heard Major Nelson report that some sort of welcoming team from Proxima b met our astronauts for the first time. The uniqueness and specialness of the human race diminished a bit as we faced our counterparts on another planet. Despite becoming less significant as a species at that moment, we were filled with joy.

Major Nelson led the other astronauts in a special choreographed display of hand gestures designed to signify they were on a friendly mission to Proxima b. Hands were raised in a submissive fashion but not over the head as to make our astronauts appear taller and perhaps menacing. According to what we could piece together from Major Nelson’s transmissions, all went well, and our Proxima b hosts were reacting positively toward our astronauts. No discernible weapons were reported as visible.

It was an appropriate time to play the music video. The tablets were on the chests of each astronaut’s suit, and the video was synchronized to play at the same time on all tablets. Major Nelson reported slowly reaching down to press the tablet to begin playing the presentation of the piece I had created. A wave of radiation must have hit the planet at that moment, and we heard nothing but static for sixty-four long seconds. At first, we thought our team may have been attacked and communications disabled. But finally, we heard Major Nelson’s voice again, though it was not what we wanted to hear.

“Oh, God, no!” was Major Nelson’s last transmission. There was a loud noise that we heard clearly over the background static and then nothing. No more scrambly static. Just silence. No sounds came from Proxima b and none from the control room as we sat stunned. Then the sobbing started all around me, and they weren’t tears of joy this time. Our astronauts were gone. Sure, we kept that communications channel open for twenty years in the hope that maybe there was just an equipment failure that could be repaired to allow Major Nelson to communicate once again. But it never happened. That’s why I start all my presentations by saying that I believe the attack was over in seconds. I do. I have to for my own sanity. And I also believe that my music video precipitated the attack.

Maybe I should have stuck with Brahms’s “Lullaby” throughout the music video. I can only speculate that some sound or image offended the Proxima b welcoming committee. Maybe it was the eight bars of music from the Beatles or Lady Gaga that set them off. Perhaps it was a too-twangy country note from Hank Williams Jr. Or, maybe it was the snippet of machine-generated thrashtronic sounds that may only be pleasing to human ears. I guess it could have even been the video image of two little kids kissing. I’ve played the “maybe” game to death. Regardless of what it was, the attack occurred while my music video played.

I wasn’t fired, because I didn’t even work there. It took a day before I was escorted out and erased from the history of the program and the tragedy. The space program couldn’t have an unpaid intern, essentially a homeless person living at mission control and doing odd jobs, to have been the cause of our interstellar landing party’s annihilation. That would not play well in the press or in the federal budget planning process. The space program needed the search for intelligent life in the universe to continue to be fully funded and survive.

Dana was immediately fired and made the scapegoat. Then her boss was fired. Dana retreated into academia, and rebuffed all my attempts to contact her. I’m embarrassed to admit that there was even a restraining order at one point. I had given up all hope of a relationship with her. I just wanted Dana to hear an apology from my lips. Despite not wanting it, she deserved it, and I needed to provide it for my own sake. But I’ve never had that opportunity. I feel I failed her and the whole space program.

Far too many people put their faith in me.

Ugh! That’s ten minutes of your life you’ll never get back. I hope that you at least enjoyed it more than oral surgery. My editor/cousin/godmother thinks I could fix it, but I don’t want to. I have a new story idea based on an attack of sorts, and it is what I write best – juvenile humor. I think it will fit well in my new short story collection about friendship as a follow-up to my award-winning short story collection about the afterlife. Write on!


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