“Murphy was an optimist.” Randy smiled to himself as he fingered the faded words on the wall. The room was spartan, with only the essential bed and toilet. It wasn’t much larger than a prison cell, but he would miss it. The crowded walls were covered with hand-drawn peace signs, scribbled cartoons, and depictions of marijuana plants. Hours of Randy’s idle time reflected in the ink on the walls. The occasional words of wisdom that were written into the bare spots had faded with time, but his favorite one was still visible. Murphy was an optimist. He had adopted the phrase as his own because it so aptly described himself.
Murphy’s Law just couldn’t explain the extent of his run of bad luck. The past eighteen months had seen him go from a loving relationship, a nice home, popularity, and a little fame to utter and complete poverty and solitude. Only through a desperate and drunken act had he been able to unexpectedly pull himself out of the gutter. He had probably been better off in the gutter, he mused.
Flickering uncertainly in the doorway was the small lamp he had traded a set of guitar strings for. The shadows danced on the walls of the windowless apartment, bringing his gaze to the far corner. There it was; the reason he had returned. His guitar shone like a sacred sword, begging him to reach out to it.
It wasn’t the nicest guitar in the world. It was a low-quality Peavey, with standard pick-ups, a scratched and faded pick guard, slightly rusty tuning keys, and a hot pink pick wedged between the fifth and sixth strings. It was the only item he felt any attachment to anymore, though. Even when he had refused to sober up for seven straight months, pawning everything he owned for more beer, he had always kept the guitar. Like Hank Williams, Jr., there was many a night he left a tear in his beer as he played himself to sleep; hungry to the point of starvation, but definitely drunk. He had lied, cheated, and stolen to get along. He had lost everything, but throughout it all he kept the guitar.
Randy gingerly sat on the bed, covered with old army surplus sheets given to him by the church across the street. He picked up his guitar and strummed a chord, wincing at the disjointed sound. A large roach crawled out from under the bed. He shooed it away, but refused to squash it. After all, the roaches were the only audience he had played for in a long time. Never upset your fans.
Quickly tuning the guitar, Randy closed his eyes and played one last song for his insect fans; an old Eagles song. Despite his best efforts, though, he just couldn’t find that peaceful, easy, feeling. He would soon be playing audiences a lot weirder than roaches. The thought sapped any enjoyment he might have felt at playing right out of him. He finished quickly, skipping an entire verse, stood and brushed his thick mass of black hair out of his eyes. He needed a haircut badly, but the whole idea of looking presentable seemed more worthless now than ever.
Sighing, he looked around the over-sized closet he had called home, closing the book on this chapter of his life. He reached down and switched off the faulty lamp and closed the door behind him, sidestepping a hole in the rotting floorboards as he walked towards the stairwell. The familiar sound of Mrs. Atwell’s television followed him down the stairs and into the street.
They were waiting for him as he left the building, oddly contrasting the ghetto in their silk shirts and pressed suits. He was told that they were a government-assigned security detail, here for his protection, but to Randy they were nothing more than thugs hellbent on keeping him from escaping. Randy had given up on learning their names. He simply gave them numbers mentally now. Thug One was touching the microphone in his ear, listening. Randy suppressed a flare of irritation at the delay. After a moment, Thug One looked up, the building behind Randy reflecting in his sunglasses. He said simply, “Ready?”
Randy nodded, gripping his guitar tighter as the black Lincoln pulled around the corner. As the car pulled to a stop, Thug One opened the door and ushered him in. The car was crowded with more Thugs, none of them speaking. He watched as his old home faded from view. The smoked, bullet-proof windows were difficult to see through as twilight crept up on the city, but Randy turned his gaze towards where his new home would be, ignoring the restraining hand from a Thug as he pressed his nose against the window. The glass was two inches thick; any projectile powerful enough to get through that would probably demolish half of the car. The Thugs took their job seriously but they needed to lighten up a little.
Finally, the Lincoln turned past the Capitol Building, heading towards the Washington Monument. Randy felt the familiar ache in his chest and his stomach started to burn again. Reaching into his pocket for an antacid with one hand, he peered intently in the dim light, absently noticing as the Thugs leaned closer towards him, vying for a better view. Sitting squarely in front of the Smithsonian Institute, between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument, was the large spacecraft that had almost destroyed the Earth. There was his new home.
* * * * *
Three hours later, Randy looked down in annoyance at his neatly manicured nails and his pressed clothes. Early in the morning he had received orders to make himself “presentable” today. Under protest, Randy had allowed the Thugs to take him from shop-to-shop. Now here he was, staring at himself in a full-length mirror in a glitzy men’s store in Georgetown. His thick mane of black hair had been shampooed, conditioned, treated, and then trimmed to his collar.
A mother of two with a heavy Hispanic accent had cleaned his hands and given his fingers and his toes a manicure. She had spoken incessantly of her children during the entire manicure. Her simple humor had appealed to Randy, but he now knew way too much about those damned kids.
A tall man whose boyfriend had stopped by twice had agonized for an hour over his “visual ensemble,” finally opting on a nice Italian suit with a loud, distinctive tie. Randy had no idea what “athletic cut” meant but felt dishonest wearing a suit so named; the last time Randy had worked out had been a decade earlier. The tie was the only good part of the suit as far as Randy was concerned. He felt naked without the familiar weight and constriction of his jeans.
A three-hour affair for the result in the mirror. Randy had to admit that he looked pretty good, even though he had been pretty apathetic throughout the entire ordeal. It had been a long time since he had cleaned up so nicely. The last time he had worn a suit was for her, and it hadn’t been nearly as nice as this one.
Don’t think about it, he berated himself. She doesn’t care anymore. Probably never cared in the first place. Randy suddenly felt the need for a beer and turned away from the mirror.
Something odd was happening, he knew. The moment the Thugs had finally capitulated and allowed him to retrieve his guitar, he had know something was amiss. For two months, he had met with multitudes of government officials, including the President, as the aliens performed a cursory study of Earth. Everyone wanted to meet the man who stopped the alien invasion – but no one had granted him his freedom. No one had forced him to get a haircut or wear expensive clothes before now, either. Randy’s flight instinct had kicked into full gear. I need a joint, too, he thought sourly.
The Thugs were good at their job and Randy had almost forgotten their presence. His thoughts of fleeing were, once again, squashed as he looked at the door. Today’s ‘Thug One’ was standing alertly, but unobtrusively, near the front door, his finger touching the microphone in his ear. The GQ Man of the Thugs, Randy decided, striking a pose. His new moniker would be ‘GQ Thug’. The thought caused him to laugh out loud, earning a bewildered look from boyfriend-boy, who was still fretting with the seam on the legs of Randy’s suit. Randy impatiently brushed him off and approached GQ Thug.
“I’m done here,” Randy informed him dryly and asking the question that had been on his mind for hours, “What next? Why all this,” he gestured helplessly at his suit, “stuff?”
GQ neither smiled nor frowned, looking at Randy with steely eyes. Simply, “To the spaceship.”
A cold, unseen hand reached into Randy’s chest and squeezed his heart, making it difficult to breathe. “Already?” he managed to spit out. “I thought we had a week before I had to go.”
GQ motioned Randy out of the shop as the Lincoln pulled up to the curve. “You’re scheduled to depart tonight, sir. Someone will be meeting you soon.”
Despite the grip at his elbow by GQ, Randy stopped and planted his feet firmly in the door frame of the clothier’s shop. “Someone? Who?”
“I’m just a bodyguard, sir. I was not informed,” he lied. A touch of compassion and humanity crept into his voice, though, as he gently but firmly put Randy back in motion towards the awaiting car, “It’s probably the President.” If the President was in that car, or anyone of importance at all, GQ would definitely know, but Randy was still reeling from the unexpected news and didn’t protest further. I’m leaving tonight! It’s too soon. Now, more than ever, he wanted to run.
Randy sighed and crawled into the Lincoln when it was obvious that no answers were forthcoming and that there was no escape. It was darker than usual inside the car and the Thugs looked different somehow. As his eyes adjusted, he gasped in surprise. The Thugs weren’t Thugs at all. It was not, however, the President as GQ had surmised. Sitting directly across from him were three people; the Vice-President of the United States, General Harrison, and a geeky-looking kid who was twiddling his pen nervously in his hands. GQ climbed in and placed a restraining hand on Randy’s shoulder, forestalling the obvious question on his lips until the door was shut.
The Vice-President smiled warmly and proffered his hand, “Randy, it’s so nice to see you again.”
Schmuck, thought Randy as he grinned sickly and accepted the hand. Rumor had it that during the initial crisis, just after Randy had performed his “Cosmic Concert” as the media had dubbed it, the Vice President had suggested that Randy be “dealt with severely” to appease the alien invaders and to show them that Earth would not tolerate such behavior. Never proven, of course, but Randy disliked him on principal anyway. He was everything Randy never wanted to be; conniving, shifty, falsely modest, and overly-ambitious. All politician.
The Vice President motioned to General Harrison, “I’m sure you remember General Harrison from your Pentagon meetings last month?” At Randy’s nod, he motioned to the geek, “This is Stefan Reins, a grad student at Georgetown University who has an idea as to why the aliens did not destroy the intelligent population of this planet as had been their original intention.”
Randy suppressed an urge to roll his eyes at the sterile words used by the Vice-President, “destroy the intelligent population.” Fuckin almost wiped us out. Not a damned thing we could do about it, either.
“Stefan has spent the last month,” continued the Vice-President, “working with our brightest and best, as part of General Harrison’s staff, trying to prove his theory.” He frowned as he saw Randy’s mouth turn upwards at the implied oxymoron. “It is because of that theory that we are here right now. His father is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.” Which explains why he’s allowed such high-level access, good idea or no, thought Randy. Another over-privileged kid.
Stefan looked up from his pen and nodded somberly, “I’ve been working with military intelligence for weeks on this.”
Military Intelligence, Randy laughed to himself as the oxymoron went from implied to explicit. He nodded back at the geek without letting his face betray his emotions. He looked to the Vice President, “OK, fine.” He shrugged; almost tasting the beer in his mouth so great was his desire now. Let’s get this over with so I can have a drink – if I have time for one. Just one more.
“But why all this secrecy?” he asked. “Why meet me in a car rather than in an office? Why now?”
General Harrison sighed and shifted his weight loudly in the cramped vehicle, “The aliens have been using miniaturized spybots to observe us. We’re safer here and can discuss our plans.”
Randy wondered why they even needed spybots. No weapon of any type in humanity’s arsenal had even the slightest effect on them or their ship. He said as much out loud.
The Vice President agreed, involuntarily looking out of the window and into the sky as the Lincoln passed a pair of pedestrians, “We think we know why the aliens didn’t destroy us and why they now spy on us.” He leaned in dramatically, “It’s probably the most dangerous secret mankind has ever held.”
“Dangerous?” Randy asked sharply. Danger meant violence. If violence were involved, he wanted no part of it. He had made it abundantly clear, over and over again, that he was a pacifist. The last time he had been a part of any violence, he had woken up in the hospital with a neck brace on and an IV in his arm. Bitch, he thought savagely and unexpectedly.
“Stefan’s idea got the attention of some powerful people and he was brought here to help validate his suspicion.” He looked at Stefan expectantly.
Seeing his cue, Stefan started, “Basically, Randy, the aliens are curious about us. The question is, though ‘why?’ What did you do, specifically, to pique their curiosity and cause them to stop the invasion?”
They wanted a response, Randy realized as he looked into their faces. What did I do, he thought. I just wanted to die quickly. He felt a sudden need to describe what had motivated him to do what he had done. He had said the same things in meetings a thousand times in the past eight weeks. No one seemed to understand, but he tried again anyway.
“Terror. The day they arrived was the most terrifying day of my life. When you’re that scared, you’re free. Know what I mean?” Blank stares were all he received from those in the car with him. They didn’t get it. Randy ground his teeth in frustration – there was no way he could describe why he had done it. He had never been good at talking to people, preferring to let his music speak for him. He tried again.
“The fuckin’ world was falling apart around our ears, man!” Randy hissed. “Half of New York was gone like it had never existed. Disintegrated. Poof.” He spread his hands in a mock explosion. “One million people turned to atoms. London, Hong Kong, and Cairo were being vaporized by three other spaceships. More were being tracked as they entered the atmosphere. There were sirens going off all around the city. Entire squadrons of jets were roaring across the skies.
“People started going crazy when a spaceship appeared over D.C., not five blocks from my apartment. I watched as missile after missile fired from jets overhead exploded against their energy screens and did no damage. It was awesome to watch, but I knew then that I was gonna die.” Randy paused, looking at each man in turn before continuing. “So I got stoned, downed half a bottle of vodka, walked under the spaceship, and played my song. A concert for a million raving, unappreciative fans, who were crying, screaming, fucking, looting, or whatever it is they did when they realized that they were gonna die, too.” He laughed softly at the memory, “One hell of an audience for one hell of a concert.” He looked up, “And I was free, man. Don’t you understand? When death is certain and you have nothing to live for – you’re….” he spread his hands, “…just free. So I did as I pleased. I played.”
Stefan nodded eagerly, forgetting for a moment to play with his pen, “Yes! You saved us all with that final act of defiance.”
Defiance? Randy shook his head in disappointment. They still didn’t understand. Defiance requires hope. He had none. He had been terrorized beyond fear, yes, but not defiant. For an entire year prior to the arrival of the spaceship, he had been waiting to die. Knowing that he was going to die and there was nothing he could do about it had been a relief, a release. The added bonus was that he would be able to die while playing his guitar. He realized that Stefan was still talking and that he had missed his last sentence.
“…to get us. When I saw you later on TV, standing under the spaceship, singing and playing your guitar, I thought you were either the bravest soul on the planet or the biggest fool.”
Randy grinned ruefully. That picture had peppered almost every publication in the world. The lone calm musician standing in the middle of a chaotic sea of frightened and insane people, facing death with dignity. Randy wished that the newsman who had captured that image hadn’t been trampled to death by the mob of fleeing citizens. It was truly a great picture. Randy couldn’t have paid the best publicist in the world for a more provocative promotional image.
“But you saved us all,” broke in the Vice President. “Like the shot heard round the world, this was the song heard round the universe. But the question is, why did it stop the aliens?”
Randy shrugged impatiently, “I dunno. Never really thought about it. I was just facing death in my own way, like everyone else in the streets. At the time, I had no idea that it was my song that had stopped the invasion. All I knew was that they stopped killing. I was not going to die.” Randy recalled the intense wave of disappointment that had washed over him at that moment. Snubbed again – this time by Death. He sighed, “I take it that you guys know why the aliens didn’t kill us all. Get to the point.”
“We think so,” nodded General Harrison. “There have been about ten aliens who have left the ship and have met with selected members of the human race over the past two months. We have noticed something extremely peculiar about them that helped verify what Stefan suspected all along.”
He was clearly waiting to be asked, so Randy obliged, “What was so peculiar?”
“They seem to be amazed at how we advance technologically and in our creativity” Stefan said. “From the fitful start of the Industrial Revolution to the leaps and bounds of the Space Age – they study it all. They pay particular attention to our artists and musicians.”
“I don’t get it.”
“We didn’t either, at first, until one of the aliens mentioned that all their technology came from the Founders, a race of dead aliens who lived hundreds of millions of years ago. They left a bunch of artifacts on the aliens’ home world that, when they discovered them, turned them into a space faring civilization almost overnight. That was almost two million years ago.”
Randy nodded, accepting the staggering numbers simply because they were too large to comprehend, “And?”
Stefan sat back triumphantly, placing his pen in his breast pocket, “And they haven’t advanced technologically since, except in very minor areas, and what little arts and culture they had died when they had no reason to be creative any more. They are little more than wandering barbarians among the stars, destroying star systems for resources and moving on.”
General Harrison frowned, “Barbarians with really big clubs and no regard for human life, though. Stefan failed to mention that the alien who told us about the Founders then callously killed three humans on the side of the road. It was a clear message; no information comes without a price.”
Stefan looked away, “They were my classmates. I was there, in the crowd, when it happened. It’s because I was there, listening, that I am here today. I realized that the death of my friends meant that the information was somehow important.” He looked at Randy with moist eyes, “They used a weapon that just disintegrated them. It wasn’t instantaneous. They knew what was happening and it was painful.”
Randy shuddered, banishing that image by thinking of the foamy head on his favorite brew. He took a moment to collect his thoughts, “I’m sorry, but what has this got to do with me? You’re telling me that the aliens can’t make music? That they have no art or theater?” He caught a glimpse of a jazz bar outside the window of the Lincoln and grew thoughtful. “They can’t sing the blues?”
General Harrison nodded, “We think they already recognize our gift for what it is, Randy. They want to tap into our creativity and rediscover it in themselves. You are the first human they are taking back to their home world. There will be more, they claim, but we are walking a fine line.
“We need to do whatever it takes to make sure that they don’t destroy us. That means we must guard our little gift and not let them have it. They have offered to share technology with us in exchange for willing Humans to go and be seen and studied.” The General frowned at the implication and spat, “Trinkets for the savages. They’ll make damned sure they don’t let us have any important technology.”
The Vice President was suddenly urgently serious; “We have only a couple of minutes until we drop you off at the ship. They have escalated the timescale and want to leave tonight. You must listen carefully.”
The Vice President looked at General Harrison, who pulled out a small electronic device, looked at it, then nodded, “Still no unwanted eyes or ears.” He saw Randy’s inquiring look; “We’ve learned to detect their little spybots that fly around the city. It’s tricky, but they produce a very faint electromagnetic field. This is our last chance to speak privately before you leave.”
I’m leaving tonight. Randy had known this day was coming. Known it and dreaded it. Once he realized he wasn’t going to die, Randy had wanted to leave the city, maybe take a walking tour of the coast, but the local authorities, at the alien’s demand, had apprehended him. They wanted to take him back into space with them and no amount of pleading or crying would change their minds. He had tried. He had kicked, screamed, cried, and broken down: to no avail. All he had left was an emotionless resignation and his guitar. A small grin played itself across Randy’s face as he saw the neck of his instrument sticking up over the seat, next to the driver. Old friend, traveling to the stars with me.
The Vice President’s voice shook him from his reverie, “Listen to me, Randy. This is no time to screw around. You must not under any circumstances teach any alien how to play the guitar, how to think creatively, or how to tap into any type of creative endeavor. Try to convince them that creativity is a bad thing; that the Human race is on a downward spiral of self-destruction, brought about by too many creative individuals.”
“That’s not so far from the truth, it is?” asked Randy. A thought struck him, “If they can’t have or learn our creativity, what’s stopping them from killing me and destroying the human race?”
“A good question,” the Vice President said. “You must try to make yourself a ‘toy’, or favorite plaything, of the ruling caste. We think they are very possessive creatures and will regard you as valuable property as long as you keep them intrigued. You will be the wandering troubadour that plays for the King and Queen. We don’t know the appropriate titles, but we have learned that the aliens live according to some rigid caste system with a small, select, set of rulers at the top.”
“I don’t get it,” Randy felt the awesome responsibility of this task beginning to weigh him down. He had been dry for two months, ever since he had faced death, but now he needed a drink more than ever. The reality of his situation hit him suddenly. He was going to space, the first human to travel to the stars. As a fucking slave to aliens who kill people on the streets to prove a point. He ran an unsteady hand through his hair, “What the hell am I supposed to do? Why are you telling me this now, just before I get on the ship?”
“All the discussions we’ve had in public, for the aliens benefit, about complete cooperation is still valid – until they ask you to teach them. Figure out some way to make it difficult or impossible for them.” The Vice President said, “That shouldn’t be too hard for you anyway, Randy. No offense, but you are not a teacher and can barely keep yourself sober.”
His face sank into his hands momentarily, “Goddammit Randy, you are the last choice anyone would ever make to go out there. You’re all we have; you’re all they want.” He looked up and sighed, “Chances are, the aliens have evolved too much over the last two million years to become creative anyway. According to the Science Advisor, they may not have the brains for it anymore. Two million years is a long time. They’re not wired for creativity anymore. When they realize this, they will have no need for us in terms of trying to become creative themselves.” The Vice President raised a finger and pointed to Randy’s guitar, “But they love our music. It enchants them, almost literally stuns them. We want to make it so that it is ‘fashionable’ to have a human musician at any royal residency, at any formal function, at any event. Make us ‘the in thing’ for any well-to-do or royal alien family.”
A sudden understanding dawned on Randy, “You want me to present the humans as entertainers to the universe. Sure,“ he said sarcastically, “that will work for a while. But what happens when the new spring fashions come out and we are no longer ‘in’? What if they catch on and kill me?”
The Vice President, ignoring Randy’s comment about his personal safety, said, “Being galactic entertainers, as you so aptly put it, will allow the human race to spread across the galaxy. We will be considered stupid and useless; no value at all except for our musical and artistic ability. Beneath notice, so to speak. We will be in the house of every major family and government in the galaxy, privy to politics and decisions of hundreds, maybe thousands, of leaders.”
He smiled, “All the while, we will be getting free technology and free rides across the galaxy. As our artists and musicians return home, they will impart the secrets that they have learned, just as you will when you come back. One day, when the aliens least expect it, the Human race will rise up and use those secrets and technologies to our advantage. We will emerge as a serious race to be contended with.” The Vice President sat back, a feverishly intense look to his eyes, “And they will never see it coming because they lack the creativity to do so.”
“My God!” said Randy, as he realized the ambitiousness of the plan, “They almost swat us out of existence and you want to conquer them? Are you out of your fucking mind?” He looked at Stefan, who was playing with his pen again, “And you thought I was the worlds bravest fool? This is insane.”
Stefan spoke quietly from his darkened corner of the car, “It could take hundreds, even thousands, of years Randy. All you have to do is work to make yourself a favorite toy of whatever royal family has requested you. Survive the encounter and come home to tell us what you saw.”
Randy shook his head and repeated himself, “This is insane.” Seeing the determined looks on the faces of those around him, he nodded in resignation. The cold truth was that when he got on that spaceship, he was going to do whatever it took to live. A convenient lie was called for here. “Fine. I’ll do what you ask and play nice monkey with the aliens and keep our little secret.”
He looked squarely at the Vice President; “You’re right, I’m an alcoholic fuck-up who plays the guitar. I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want this. But I don’t have a choice, do I?” He threw his head back in a habitual gesture to get the hair out of his eyes, “I’ll do my best not to screw things up there, but I want a planet to come home to.” He wasn’t above a cheap shot and he took it. “Don’t piss the aliens off who remain here with any more of your pandering. Nobody likes a twit who would sell out his own people for leniency.”
The Vice-President didn’t respond, but Randy saw a hint of a smile on General Harrison’s face.
“We’re here,” said the driver over the speaker. “We’re pulling into the complex now.”
He almost looks human, thought Randy, as he looked at the Vice-President. In a few weeks, even his face would be a welcome sight, he supposed.
The Vice President smiled insincerely, “Sorry about the suit, I know it’s not your style, but it was decided that you should look more like an Ambassador for Mankind as you entered the spaceship.”
Randy grunted and said nothing. He decided that the first chance he got, he would toss the suit out of an airlock. The Lincoln turned a corner and the spaceship moved into view. Randy’s stomach started burning again and he reached for a Tums. The Thugs had better have packed his antacids. He realized he was focusing on minutiae, avoiding the reality of his situation; he was leaving Earth with a crew of unsympathetic aliens.
The Lincoln slowed to a halt and Randy climbed out with GQ, who solemnly shook his hand before climbing back into the car. The driver stepped out with his guitar and, after handing it to him, shook his hand as well. Randy was surprised at how calm he was. Almost as calm as when he had been sure he was going to die a couple of months ago.
There were three human workers loading clothes, supplies and, Randy noticed, spare musical instruments onto an alien transport, which shot into an opening fifty feet up on the spaceship as soon as they were finished. A hastily erected media island was filming both the transport and Randy as he stepped out of the Lincoln and faced the spaceship.
An impromptu crowd that had formed behind the police barrier was cheering and shouting as they recognized Randy. He dimly acknowledged them with a wave of his hand. He noticed that there were no government officials in evidence. The aliens had established control by executing a number of heads of state when they decided not to destroy mankind. Randy didn’t blame them for being absent, but he would have liked a little more fanfare.
He was still focusing on the details that didn’t matter. Fanfare or not, he was leaving Earth. The hopes of an entire planet rested in his shoulders. He took a deep breath. This was it. Time to go. Surprisingly, he felt the last of his nervousness fade away as he stared at the ship. As much as it galled him to admit it, the Vice President was right. The aliens had no idea what was about to hit them. Gripping his guitar tighter, he grinned and strode into the spaceship.
I wrote this many years ago and submitted it to multiple rags for publication and have a stack of rejection letters to prove it. Still, this has always been one of my favorite stories from my younger years.