I didn’t want to send Chuck. Honestly, I would’ve rather gone with Ted. Sure, he was slightly retarded—sorry, mentally impaired—but at least I knew he could be trained. Ted was submissive, he was polite. Sure, he drooled a little and occasionally struggled with basic tasks, but he was a listener. Listeners were good.
“We’re not sending a retar—a mentally handicapped individual to make first contact, that’s out of the question,” repeated the voice over the radio, one of several voices we’d only ever known as “Houston.” Regardless of who spoke, they always had the same subtle tone of irritation as they declined my request, never failing to point out that Ted was slightly—very, very slightly—retarded. “He thinks he’s a shoe,” the voice would occasionally emphasize after refusing me.
We’d been in the shuttle for decades at that point, living and dying in the three hundred yard ship as we floated semi-blind through space. There had been four of us once, the missing number being Jenny. She was my wife and my partner, my one stipulation to agreeing to the mission, to agreeing to volunteer my life trying to reach the signal NASA had long-ago received. Truthfully, I would have gone anyway – but having her with me was the only other thing I really wanted. The four of us knew we wouldn’t be returning, but it didn’t bother us. The idea of being the first humans to find someone else, or something else, was beyond any Earthly needs we could think of. It was an easy decision in the end.
We lost Jenny on a simple repair mission. She was struck by a rogue meteoroid outside the shuttle, a tiny little rock no bigger than a few grains of sand. She died instantly, the force of the impact knocking lose a metal pole inside of the shuttle. It smacked Ted hard enough to give him permanent brain damage, then ricocheted into my legs and shattered them. We never retrieved her body.
I lost my wife and the use of my legs that day. The only thing I got to keep was a best friend who now thought he was a shoe, spending his days waving his arms like a pair of untied laces, and Chuck.
I never liked Chuck, I thought he was the wrong choice for the mission. He was whiter than a ghost that adamantly opposed the sun, yet he swore that he suffered from “Michael Jackson disease,” in which his skin simply didn’t reflect his “blackness.” That would have been fine with me—I was not racist and had numerous black friends—had it not been for the fact that he reminded me of it on a daily basis, shouting the “n-word” every three seconds as I passed by. He’d refer to Houston as “my n-words,” and constantly belittle anyone who told him to stop. He threatened to fight me once for scuffing his “kicks,” which I later learned were his sneakers. In fact, he wasn’t even wearing sneakers—none of us owned any, although Ted occasionally confided in me that he was thinking of making the conversion from a shoe to a sneaker. I was provided the nickname “bitch” by Chuck soon thereafter.
Chuck was a brilliant engineer, one of the finest people I’ve ever known when it came to repairing and supporting the space shuttle. Yet he was misguided, dumb, arrogant, and racist. Any time I tried to tell him not to do something, he yelled at me for “keeping the black man down” and did exactly what I told him not to. He once pulled a pistol on me, told me he was going to “gat my ass” if I kept “fronting.” I was not “fronting,” I assure you – I was simply requesting he not wear his pants so low. It made it difficult for him to walk. In response, he threatened all of our lives by suggesting he would discharge a firearm within the shuttle.
Ted had always been my choice for the mission. Even when both of us were sane and able, he had still been my recommendation. He was smart, polite, well-spoken, and well-learned. He would have made a brilliant representative for humanity. Houston refused after the accident, said his mental inabilities left him useless. I assured them I had him trained to recite exactly as I told him, said I’d even go in his stead—yet they were adamant. They needed someone who looked physically able and could respond to rogue questions. It was to be Chuck.
The day we made contact wasn’t really as exciting as I had hoped it would be. We’d planned for it for so long, spent so many years talking through every single scenario that it felt like we’d been there before. We simply found them, their silver, silent ship silhouetted by the glow of a massive, teal planet behind it. Several small, black figures hung weightlessly beside the ship, attached to it with gray tubes. Without a word, Chuck threw on the space suit and pushed himself out the hatch, attaching a line to the side of the shuttle before floating toward them. I had my radio tuned to his so I could listen. It went wrong almost immediately.
“Yo!” Chuck shouted. I had to lower my receiver to keep from going deaf. “What’s poppin?”
The small figures remained stationary. The script we’d rehearsed, the one we’d spent years perfecting, was designed to be as peaceful as possible. NASA believed the creatures understood all of Earth languages, and therefore created it in the least threatening means possible using our common tongue. Chuck had already strayed from it with his very first syllable.
“What’s poppin?” Chuck repeated, slightly louder this time.
My heart was racing, my chest heaving and falling with a mix of rage and fear. We’d given up our lives, given up our hope of ever seeing the Earth again, for this one moment, yet it was already ruined. It was going exactly as I had anticipated. I’d spent the past few nights adding notes to the script for Chuck, knowing just what would happen. “Do not call the beings ‘your “n-word,”’” “do not curse when speaking to the beings,” “do not shout at the beings,” “do not try to fight the beings.” I was very specific.
“Yo, you dogs deaf or stupid? We should sent Ted out here. He fit right in with these tards, yo,” Chuck said, turning toward my window. “These bitches tryna fight me I think.” He lifted his fists up as if to protect his face, apparently unaware that he wore a massive, glass helmet.
“Human?” uttered a deep, familiar voice into my ear. I thought the beings would sound different, I had planned to hear sounds I’d never even imagined. Yet, to my surprise, the being sounded almost exactly like James Earl Jones. I’d had no idea how well George Lucas had researched the role of Darth Vader.
“What’s good, my dog?” Chuck seemed to relax, instead pointing his gloved fist out in the direction of the beings. It looked like he was waiting for a fist bump. “Bump it, dog.”
“You are human?” said the James Earl Jones being. I waited expectantly for it to breathe heavily through a respirator like Vader would. Nothing.
“Yeah bro, human. But we both dogs now. Bump it.” Chuck kept his fist in the direction of the beings.
“Welcome, human. You have traveled quite far. We have never met one of your kind.”
“What do you mean ‘your kind?’” Chuck said, the light of the nearby teal planet reflecting off his astonishingly pale skin.
I knew what Chuck meant. I knew exactly what he meant. I hoped to God I was wrong.
“I do not understand the question. I must apologize, we are not rehearsed in the vernacular of your people.”
“Your people? You mean black people?”
“I am not familiar with this question,” responded the being. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt as if the creature knew exactly what the question meant.
“Don’t play me for a fool dog, you know what you said. Why you hating on the black man?”
I could see Chuck’s pale skin gain a slightly reddish hue around his cheeks, as always happened when he became flustered.
“We are not disrespecting any man, we revere all of humanity and welcome you unto us.”
“But you respect the black man a little less, right?”
The creatures turned toward each other.
“That is not what we are saying, human. We have many black friends. Garlash over here has three black friends.” The being pointed to a taller, similar looking creature a few yards behind itself. It nodded slowly.
“So you think you’re cool now because you got black friends? I bet your kind is all about slavery of the black skinned man.” Chuck made a motion toward his pocket, as if reaching for a pistol I knew was not there. I had removed it from his suit before he left.
“We are black skinned, human. We harbor no hatred toward ourselves, nor are we enslaved by ourselves.” The creature lifted its sleeve, dark, black skin shimmering beneath.
Chuck seemed a bit perplexed by this discovery, finally seeming to take a few seconds to think about his next sentence. I stared in amazement. The beings had countered the race card in the only way proven to work: by being the same race as the one claiming prosecution. They truly were of a higher intellect.
“Oh,” Chuck said. “We cool, then. Respect, dog.” Chuck held his fist out again. The being lifted its own fist and softly bumped into Chuck’s, the two of them opening their fingers in a fake explosion.
“We welcome you to our world,” the being said. “My homie.”
I never did want to send Chuck, but there was a reason why Ted had been made captain and I had not.