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Kevin Helock

Even Barney Parks, the perpetually mouth-breathing intern at Consumer Electric, knew that his boss’s idea for a smart microwave would never sell. Sure, the average American in 2022 would have happily turned over the task of estimating the time necessary to heat up a week-old burrito to a machine that promised never to overcook leftovers and thus condemn one to a couple minutes extra wait while the food cooled, but such a luxury simply wasn’t worth the extra $549 of state-of-art electronics. And yet Mr. Forster, the aging head of R&D and suspected author of the passive-aggressive letters employees kept finding on the break room microwave whenever someone used it to heat up leftover tuna, insisted that smart microwaves were “what the people needed” and “precisely the innovation that would put Consumer Electric back on the map.”
    By the time the design team managed to build their first prototype, Forster had already demanded a number of additions to the original design. These included a self-cleaning mechanism, an option to replace the screeching timer with a woman’s voice seductively counting down the remaining seconds, and an electronic screen over the door which displayed videos of cats from the internet while the food cooked.
    It was this final innovation that was destined to change the world forever.
    In early tests, each of the microwave’s components had functioned properly. But when the whole thing was put together and the machine was turned on, the cat videos came out blurry, and the honeyed tones of the timer woman were replaced with a garbled mess of bizarre chirps, beeps, and hiccups, occasionally interrupted by a shrill warbling that sounded oddly like laughter. Company experts were called in to run extensive tests to figure out exactly what was wrong with the prototype, and at the end of a week they came to a startling conclusion: somehow, the microwave was picking up signals from space.
    Within days, company headquarters was crawling with reporters, and no fewer than 74 cameras were pointed at the microwave at all times. It seemed the entire human race was tuning in to watch as fuzzy kittens rolled across the prototype screen and those mysterious sounds—postulated by experts to be alien speech—emanated from the speakers. “Dinner’s ready, big boy!” the timer woman would interrupt every two and a half minutes, and Barney Parks would scramble to shove another frozen pizza inside so the world could once again hear the alien broadcast.
    As Consumer Electric stocks skyrocketed, Mr. Forster tried to use the attention to advertise the upcoming line of smart microwaves. But standing in front of the prototype and loudly talking over the alien quickly made him one of the least popular people on the planet, and the PR department staged a swift and quiet coup. No one asked any questions when Forster disappeared, and it would be days before anyone bothered to loose him of his duct-tape bonds and let him out of the breakroom closet.
    By this time, a crack team of linguists, cryptographers, and experts in internet fan theories for low budget sci-fi films had been assembled at headquarters to decipher the code of the alien language. Analysis revealed two distinct alien voices, each taking turns speaking in an apparently inexhaustible stream of alien chatter. The team quickly ruled out a looping message, deciding instead that the broadcast was live. Aliens were speaking to humanity at that very moment.
    The team was also able to determine that the alien language was enormously complex, and despite their best efforts, they reluctantly predicted that it would be years before any sense could be made out of the bizarre noise. Concluding that such a language could only be spoken by a species intelligent far beyond anything terrestrial life had yet produced, they decided instead that the best hope of communication lay in teaching the aliens English. Presumably, such an advanced organism would have no trouble learning a comparatively primitive language. It may be no time at all before mankind’s best and brightest could chat it up with aliens— a priceless opportunity to advance our understanding of the universe. Could the aliens travel faster than light? Or cure cancer? Could they resurrect extinct species? Solve the ongoing climate crisis? What insights did they have on art, religion, and philosophy? Investors in Consumer Electric imagined psychic communication, teleportation, zero-emission energy, a whole new line of products guaranteed to make fortunes unlike anything the world had seen before. Barney Parks imagined what fantastical wonders the aliens might be able to teach us about sex and called worldwide dibs on the first alien chick while he shoved another frozen pizza into the microwave.
    Between interviews, the team assembled a collage of tapes designed to teach children how to speak, stacking multiple layers of audio and speeding them up so the aliens could learn as quickly as possible. To the human ear, the result was just a jumbled mess of voices like the sound one might expect to hear from a cage full of monkeys falling down a stairwell, but the experts assured the public that they were dealing with a hyper-intelligent species. Surely, it would take mere minutes for the aliens to master our language.
    Meanwhile, R&D was making modifications to the microwave, enhancing it so that it could broadcast as well as receive messages. The work was slow-going. After all, the billions of online viewers made the thought of turning off the prototype for any length of time unthinkable, so the Consumer Electric workers had to don radiation suits fashioned from microwave door screening so they could work on the thing from the inside out without interrupting the broadcast.
    At long last, the communicational upgrades to the microwave were finished, and the world watched as the tapes were connected by a mass of wires that hung in bunches across the walls like oily clusters of rubberized vines. When the entire setup was ready, the tapes began to spin, the sound from the microwave momentarily drowned under the cacophony of two-dozen educational language tapes simultaneously played at 50 times the normal speed. For a few minutes, the sound was unbearable, with only a momentary pause as Barney Parks changed out one pizza for another. Then, mercifully, silence.
    For exactly 14 seconds, the room remained quiet but for the soft mewling of kittens on the microwave screen and the breathy croon of the woman counting down the time until the pizza would be ready. Then the kittens were washed out in a rush of static, and a voice spoke from the microwave in shrill but otherwise perfect English. “Excuse me!”
    The static faded away until a clear picture of the alien emerged. It had bright purple skin, six eyes of a solid, gleaming blue arranged in a circle on its smooth forehead. All three of its lips had been smeared with a vibrant orange cosmetic, the shuddering tentacles on its head done up in curlers. It was dressed in a fluffy pink garment resembling a bathrobe, the fabric matching a disorderly mass of pillows stacked in the background. What appeared to be a poster was visible on the curved silver wall behind, a picture of two aliens in tight-fitting clothing, tentacles flowing in the wind, holding each other tightly, their faces serious and triple lips almost meeting.
    The alien pointed a manicured claw out from the microwave screen. “Yeah, you! Would you cut out that racket? I’m trying to talk to my bestie!” All six of the alien’s eyes rolled. “Like, could you be any more rude?” Then the static fuzzed over, and the kittens reappeared.
    In the stunned silence that followed, the sweat-covered face of Barney Parks was thrust in front of the 74 cameras, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open. “Dibs!” he shouted. “You all heard me! I have dibs!”

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