“Countdown to New Year’s” or “The Experiment Escapes”

As I said on Monday, I’ve been doing more writing lately and, inspired by Lena’s example, I thought I might dedicate some space here to prose as well as pictures. Some friends and I have recently formed a creative writing club/circle and what follows here is a short story I wrote as an outgrowth of one of our prompts. The idea one week was to write as story with either of two titles: “Countdown to New Year’s” or “The Experiment Escapes.” Here is what I came up with:

Countdown to New Year’s or The Experiment Escapes

“Don’t say it’s stupid,” Scott seethed, pacing. “Say it’s not for you, that it’s not your kind of thing.”

“That’s true, it’s not my kind of thing,” said Tracy, tersely. “It’s not my kind of thing because it’s so stupid.”

“That is so ridiculous. The Experiment Escapes is, like, the smartest movie to come out this year. It’s not OK for you to drag it through the mud just because you don’t get it.”

“Oh, so it’s not OK to call the movie stupid, but it’s OK to call me stupid?”

“I’m not calling you stupid,” sighed Scott, in a voice that implied he now was. “I’m saying you don’t get the movie. It’s hard sci-fi, Trace. It’s not immediately accessible. If you’re not a film critic, or a scientist, there’s going to be a little work involved with this one, but it’s worth it. It has a lot of really interesting stuff to say about the military industrial complex, gender politics, evolution…”

“Really? Because to me, it just looks like a bunch of naked women running around trying to kill a giant squid.”

“Look,” sighed Scott, “there’s a really conscious Greco-Roman aesthetic to this movie and the nudity is just a part of that. The characters work for the Olympus Corporation, right? And their ship, “the Persephone,” is, like, all full of white columns and stuff. It’s super interesting. I mean, most sci-fi universes are all silver jumpsuits, but why? Aren’t we just as likely to look back in time for our inspiration? Besides, there’s no full-frontal – they really had to tone it down for the R.”

“OK, but why are they all women?”

“There’s actually a great in-universe explanation for that. The Olympus Corporation used to employ male crewmen, but they didn’t hold up well on long voyages and usually ended up raping and killing people. Women just made for calmer more cooperative crews. And, if I can anticipate your next point, the widespread lesbianism is a totally plausible adaptation to – “

“No, apparently you cannot anticipate my next point, because my next point is: If you already know every tiny fucking detail about the movie, then why do you even need to see it?”

“Oh, yeah, because we have no idea what happens in Countdown to New Year’s! That movie’s a total fucking inscrutable black box!”

“At least it’s relatable! At least it’s an actual human story!”

“And a movie about man’s indomitable will to survive isn’t?”

“No, a movie like that absolutely would be. Unfortunately, you want to see the one about an astronaut-raping squid instead.”

“OK,” Scott snapped, flinging his arms wide and momentarily blockading the nearby Pinkberry, “Countdown to New Year’s is a bullshit movie!”

“Why? Because it’s funny? Because it has heart?”

“No. Because it’s an obvious, paint by numbers romantic comedy! It’s a meet cute, New York in autumn insult to everyone’s intelligence.”

“You know, it’s not that simple. It actually follows a lot of different, intersecting stories. There’s the guy with the Muslim girlfriend, the woman with cancer, the dad who – ”

“Right it’s a Golden Corral of a movie – a shitty buffet where you can get lots of different stories in tiny, mediocre portions. And it’s cynical, Trace. The movie studios talk about four quadrants, right? Young men, old men, young women, old women. When you’re making a movie you want it to appeal to as many – ”

“Yeah, I get it Scott! I know about the quadrants! And do you know what, Scott? You’re right: I bet Countdown to New Year’s is a so-so movie. I bet it’s forgettable. It’s not the smartest movie around, but it seems sweet, it seems funny, and it’s got the girl from “Cattycorner” in it and I like that show a lot. It just looks like a fun, relaxing, date nighty-y kind of movie. That’s why I wanted to see it. It’s not a violent, three-hour slog. It’s cute. It won my vote with cute, Scott.”

“Well, my movie is the smartest movie around. You may not be willing to make that claim, but I am,” said Scott, striking a pose of all-in fearful resolve that would not look out of place in a painting of a nineteenth century naval hero. “And if we’re dealing with so great an intensity gap that you don’t even think – ”

“You know what? I don’t care. See your fucking movie. I’m leaving.”

“I will see it. And I’ll see you at home.”

“Will you?” asked Tracy, very, very rhetorically. She then shoved her hands into the front pouch of her sweatshirt and walked briskly down the block. Her flip-flops slapped against the pavement as she walked; non-committal shoes for a woman with a firmly made-up mind.

“Fine by me,” Scott thought later, taking his squeaky seat in the back of the theater. “Tracy will come around,” he thought (but didn’t really). “I’ve defended this movie enough today anyway, now I can finally enjoy it.”

But he didn’t. Almost immediately there were problems. For one thing, all suspense was thrown out the window when, 10 minutes into the movie, a close up of an ancient alien carving clued the audience into exactly what the monster was going to look like. For another, android doctor Cato’s description of evolution actually included the word “progress,” which would be laughable if it weren’t so infuriating. Finally, the camera work was so shaky that Scott found himself waging his own desperate struggle, this one against nausea and dizziness.

Things just kept getting worse. About 70 minutes into the movie the survivors of the crash are taken in by a mysterious group of desert nomads. In their tent, Navigation Officer Artemis Kane complains to her lover, Octavia Jones, that “you can’t trust these people.” “…Nor any other,” says Jones who, secretly under the cephaloform’s sway, then whirls around and stoves in her beloved’s head with a bolt thrower.

Watching that scene, Scott was surprised at how hackneyed it was. “Has the writing in these movies always been so bad?” Scott was suddenly very thrown off, both by the clumsy writing and by the strange guilt that the scene had kindled within him. He squinted at his faintly glowing watch. “Less than halfway through!?” he thought. “That can’t be right…”

At the end of the movie, “The Persephone’s” lone survivor, lieutenant Hippolyta Torres finally manages to lure the cephaloform behind the downed ship’s one functioning engine. In a gruesome flash, the creature is sucked into the roaring turbine and reduced to a spray of besuckered confetti. With the twin suns of Helios rising behind her, Hippolyta basks for a brief, beautiful moment in her hard-fought victory. Her perky breasts are splattered with blood and motor oil, and soon she will bury six dead friends in the sandy soil of this desert world, but at least she is alive. Then her expression begins to change. First it sags and then it falls as she shrieks in horror. Suddenly the audience can see what she sees; all the tiny pieces of the monster’s body writhing, sprouting tentacles, growing rapidly into a thousand new squids. It is only now that the audience truly understands the terrible nature of “Project Hydra.” The hubris of the Olympus Corporation is now laid bare and mankind’s future seems very dark indeed.

Everyone is chagrined and surprised to see that Hippolyta’s is but a Pyrrhic victory. Everyone but Scott, that is. Because Scott Matheson, as of this very evening, already knows everything there is to know about Pyrrhic victories.

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