Ellen That-a-Way started her life as a small child. Her mother was dead and totally removed from her life. This allowed her to grow up strong and vital. Her father was kind and gentle, and he pointed at the sky a lot whenever they were outside. Right now they are inside, little Ellen about to go to sleep.
“Dad, look at this painting I made.”
“Well my daughter sure can draw pictures of Florida.”
“Don’t be silly, Dad. That’s Vega. Dad, I know we’ve talked about how immense the universe is, but we haven’t discussed how long eternity is. I mean, suppose there was forever, and in all that time there were billions of civilizations, and then for one brief instant there was only us, and then again, after we were gone, there were billions of civilizations once again. Couldn’t that be why, no matter how hard we search, there still might not be anyone out there to find?”
“Well if that is true, you know what that means, don’t you?” His brow was furrowed as he asked his hard question.
“What?” she said “what... what..?”
“Some other time...” he promised. “I’m going down and make me a snack.”
* * *
There were two whole sticks of butter already melting in the small pan; he looked at the third stick. After a moment he shrugged his shoulders and threw it in. “Well you only live once...” he said, “although...” he added, “sometimes your relatives claim they’ve seen you years later, at a completely improbable location.” He took the salt container down off the shelf, and using a long icing knife to scrape off the excess he measured exactly 1/4 cup of salt. He threw the salt in the melted butter and then picking up the pan, he poured the butter over the popcorn... naturally the heart attack was massive.
A priest leaving the house stopped to console little Ellen. “Sometimes God hides his real tenderness...” he said, ”and then he just strikes us down with a flaming sword!”
“I should have kept the lite salt near the kitchen,” she answered.
The priest knew she was too young to understand the way he understood. He got in his car and drove away.
Ellen went through the hall and up the stairs, she put on the headphones.
“This is x delta omega calling mom and dad, over. X delta omega calling mom and dad, over.”
A faint hum caught her receiver. Electric energy was rushing across vast distances, working past the static barriers of space... only to become the most difficult and most wonderful product of our civic development: personal communication.
“Hey kid...” the voice answering her said, “try the Internet; CB Is dead.”
* * *
The equipment was modern. Outside there were fifty large metal dishes pointed at the sky. Each one was sixty feet across and, working together, they searched for signals from space.
Ellen sat on the hood of her car, sat under the evening sky and listened with headphones, waiting for the moment that would make her life worthwhile. Suddenly she jumped up and then jumped into her car.
She pushed the pedal down as far as it would go. Her car was now racing down the long straight pavement. She grabbed her phone and began punching numbers frantically. Stirred to life by the passage of her wild convertible, the dust swirled above the road like a string of floating galaxies.
“Look Ben...” she said, “I need you to cancel my appointment with my dentist... And see if you can get a fruit basket or some flowers sent to my niece in San Diego... Also, there’s some dry cleaning to pick up on Madison... You know that little place I’ve been going to. And can you call Roth Kearson... See if that Riki Lake interview is still on for Tuesday...? And don’t let me forget about that class I begin teaching tomorrow; I’ve still got to arrange a curriculum.” She was just about to break the connection when something else occurred to her. “Damn, I almost forgot... There are aliens on a convenient frequency, and they are trying to contact us.”
Ellen and her team spent the night tuning in to active frequencies and networking their clever computers. By the next day they were ready to share their discovery with the world.
“The first part of the signal was simple,” Ellen testified to the crowded room. “It consists of simple equations and rudimentary symbols. The second portion is more complicated,” Ellen stated authoritatively. “The second portion appears to be identical in many respects to television of the thirties; you know, one commercial every hour, programs that don’t mention the word ‘cleavage’ or the phrase ‘tight-thong bikini’. Right now we are attempting to transfer the signal to this screen.”
There appeared on the screen the image of a large marble edifice with a podium built in the top. A twisted cross identified the era and the setting. But the man at the microphone was not the most easily identified rogue of history; this was an unexpected character, one who would be very difficult to identify. He was a short, fat man in work clothes; he had on narrow suspenders and a wide bow tie. The first image on the screen was this average looking man snapping together the hinged halves of a shutterboard. On the board were the words in German...
While they watched, the man dropped the shutterboard and then he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a black comb. He held the comb under his nose; making it resemble a mustache. Next he began waving his free arm wildly, and he began strutting about and yelling at his co-workers, acting like nothing they did was correct or acceptable, acting like he was overcome with great anger and an implacable rage.
The co-workers were obviously nervous. They were acutely aware of the camera, and they made gentle gestures whose purpose was clearly to dissuade their friend from clowning.
The man in suspenders centered himself once more on the grey marble stage. He looked straight at the busy camera and began making funny faces. Then, inspired to a different brand of deviltry, he slowly turned away from the open lens. With his back facing the camera he wrapped his arms around himself as far as they would go, and he began running his hands up and down, giving the camera the impression that he was being held in a romantic embrace by a woman hidden in his huge hug. As the hands slid up and down he began giving voice to an imagined exchange; alternating between the falsetto and the baritone...
“Meine Eva Braun, können Sie mir ein gutes Hotel empfehlen?” (Can you recommend a good hotel?)
“Mein Gustav, wir haben keine Socken.” (My Gustav, we haven’t any socks.)
“Ich sehe mir bloß alles an.” (I’m just looking around.)
“Welchen Wein empfehlen Sie?” (What wine do you recommend?)
“Meine Mondaffe Eva Braun, kann ich mit einem Scheck zahlen?” (My moon monkey, Eva Braun, can I pay by check?)
One of the men seated in the viewing room spoke up (partially because it’s so very important to move the story in some other direction, and partially because the author doesn’t know any more German): “Ellen,” he said, “it looks like there’s another message on a parallel frequency.”
“Let’s look at it.”
A design blueprint filled the screen. It was in a language never seen before on Earth, it was a three-dimensional, third-angle projection, and it was upside down. The supporting documents and the book of standards covering the interpretation of utilized symbols were still packed in a crate somewhere in Nevada, somewhere in area 51. Ellen looked at the information on the screen for seven seconds.
“The welding looks a little light.” She said.
“But we could build it?”
“I don’t see anything standing in the way.”
“It looks like it will cost a ton of money, there’s no way we’re going to get a Republican congress to fork over that much money for science.”
“We’ll tell ’em it’s a weapon,” Ellen said.
By the end of the week they were standing next to the machine.
The countdown started: three, two, one... Everything was going great, but it was a man they were sending on the trip and not Ellen, so the machine blew up.
Two agents from the FBI were questioning the distraught Ellen. “You say the saboteur had long flowing hair and a crown of thorns on his head, and that he had dynamite strapped all over his body and he was dressed as a Carmelite nun. Is that when you first suspected he wasn’t supposed to be there?”
“No.” Ellen said ...I first became suspicious when I realized the man was working on a government facility and he didn’t get his job through a relative.”
Ellen was anxious. “With the machine gone, how are we going to contact the aliens?” she asked.
“We could use one of the 199 machines that are left,” a general answered her. “We never order less than 200 of anything,” he added.
Ellen That-A-Way stepped up to the capsule. It would be wrong for the author to talk about the uniform she wore, wrong to state that the author remembers being many places, to the Grand Burlesque as a teen-age boy... to a special beach in France upon completion of college, to a grunge rave happening fashion show, sponsored equally, by the Leather Board and the Victoria’s Secret company; it would be wrong to mention these experiences and then say I’ve never seen a garment so intriguing as the one she wore walking along that fantastic movie set. It would be wrong, so I’ll skip right to the part where she exits the capsule and stands on another world.
Ellen was out of the capsule standing on a beach. It was all so familiar. It was just like the painting she had completed twenty years before. Here was the blue ocean, and there the great expanse of shoreline. There were the three trees, with the last one bending down as if bowing to a king.
She thought she saw something moving. At first it was nothing more than an approaching blur; a small collection of colors coming nearer and nearer. Then from the vicinity of the shimmering colors came a clearer picture. It was her father pulling himself along on the sand. He crawled the remaining twenty yards that separated them, and then, after a short pause, he rolled over. Both his hands were holding his chest. He spoke in short bursts taking deep breaths and emitting low moaning sounds as he went along.
“They’ve sent me to you. They felt it would be better if you were to meet someone you were familiar with. Unfortunately they’ve reproduced me right at the height of my heart attack. Child, there are a billion stars and a billion suns, and on every one of them is great potential. There is a planet near here where everyone is conservative. It is known as Planet Hell. And there is a planet near it that is completely liberal, and it is also known as Planet Hell. I guess what I’m trying to say is... take care of each other. No one else wants the job.”
Ellen looked up at the great sky, waiting to return home and give everyone the word. She stood there looking up for three long minutes. Then she looked down at her father.
“When do they send me home?”
“The next slide is scheduled for June 17, 3070.”
She sat down to wait.
He held out a bowl, in the bowl there were nine pieces of popcorn floating in melted butter. “Care for a snack?” He said.
The End (except for this last bit)
“Here is what we witnessed.” He started to replay her adventure. “As you can see,” he continued, “the capsule, upon release, dropped through the strange machine. As it fell, three separate projectiles left this area here. At first we were perplexed, but then we enhanced the image. Now watch as I play the enhanced version.”
Three objects were floating out to the capsule, floating because the action was now in slow motion. There was a fat disk, a tall rectangle, and a tapered cylinder. Only when the cylinder hit did Ellen identify the objects. Just as the cylinder splashed flat against the capsule, she whispered the names. “Burger, fries, and a large cola...” She said the names with amazement in her voice, her lips trembled, they seemed ready to add “would you like an apple pie with that...?”
“They are more advanced than we thought. They have franchising! And their fries come in a covered container to keep in warmth!
“We’ve also looked at the diary...”
“So... not only was the first page empty, so were the next eighteen!”
Copyright © 2004 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith