Friday, October 5, 2012
The wicker basket is precisely centered on a table in the back of one of Atlanta's better steakhouses. The scaly black talon that prods at the rolls within is attached to a multi-jointed arm. The arm terminates out of frame.
"Well, that's unsettling," Coop mutters into the earpiece in John Hartlesby's left ear. "Give me Three."
Hartlesby teases the joystick to back Three's focus away from the table, so it takes in the human diners immediately around the pair. He taps a button and the display on the main monitor shifts. The diners are being paid to eat, and they do a wise job of ignoring the players. Eye contact is strictly prohibited.
The guards, of course, have been coached where to stand to remain off-camera.
"This lowly one simply does not understand how one monkey could have so long evaded us," Chirp says through the translator bug in John's right ear. "But you have found him, magnificence. And, by your leave, this humble one finds himself hungry."
Without prompting, Hartlesby cuts to Seven, focused on the bigger of the two. The pellicular folds of Pluck's chest ripple in what, six months ago, no one on Earth would have recognized as a smug smile. Most people still wouldn't, but back in the studio Dan and James would be briefing the audience on every nuance.
Hartlesby needs no intepretation, not anymore. The language, sure; he's always had to rely on the translator bug. But not the body language. He's been running the board for the past three months, and now, as the game nears its close, he's come know the aliens far better than he ever wanted to.
"I have given the code to the manager as the final clue instructed," Pluck said. "If we have calculated it correctly, our search will not be for long now."
"Perfect," Coop says. "Hold that shot. Commercial in three, two . . . and we're out."
Hartlesby reaches for his coffee. His eyes are grainy with exhaustion.
"I can't believe we're actually doing this live," he tells the microphone. "The suits cleared it?"
"It's a new day," Coop says. "The president himself signed off."
"Moonachie deigned to notice us?"
"Not that president."
"Oh." Holy shit. "Oh."
"You didn't hear it?" Amazement lifts Coop's voice. "The news division is calling it the speech of the century. I can't say they're wrong. Look it up when you finally get home."
Hartlesby slurps at his coffee dispiritedly. "We never should have given in, Coop."
"Not like we had a choice, buddy."
"There's always a choice."
"I have a family. So do you. And it hasn't all been bad, right?" Coop doesn't wait for a response. "We're coming back. Cue the studio in three, two, . . . "
Hartlesby clicks in the feed from Dan and James. They ask Dana Miller what the contestants are thinking and she giggles and pretends she has the faintest guess of a clue. She's slept with both Dan and James. Hartlesby knows this just like everybody knows it. Not that he resents it; he's too ugly to be in front of the camera anyway. It's the principle of the thing.
"Back to the restaurant in three, two . . . "
Hartlesby comes in on a two-shot that frames Pluck leaning across the table. In the earpiece, claws rattle the silverware.
"Clank and Buzz remain at the edifice for vehicular cleansing," Pluck says. "The Creak siblings search the bottom of a hole for retrieving fish. Of course, you eliminated the Squeaks yourself, which was very well done."
"This vile one gives thanks for your kindess," says Chirp modestly. "Their termination brought great satisfaction. They were delicious."
Pluck shivers in agreement, black scales lifting and settling rapidly with a sound like studio applause. Or distant automatic weapons fire. "Only we are here, where the prize will be awarded," Pluck said. "It is a most exciting moment."
A tuxedo-clad actor brings out a tray of soup and sets the bowls before the aliens without looking at them. Chirp waits politely for Pluck to extend his proboscis before he lowers his own head.
"Disgusting," Coop says.
"The taste is quite distinctive," Pluck observes, dabbing at its features with a white linen napkin.
"The truffles," Chirp agrees, "are subtlety itself. And the flesh--"
"Magnificent," Pluck says.
"This ignoble one could not have said it better."
Hartlesby shudders. But the private school won't pay for itself. If it wasn't him, it'd be someone else. And the aliens' demand had hardly been subtle. Still--
"Give me Four."
The high angle shows the staff gathering behind a curtain.
"We're really going to do it," Hartlesby murmurs. He feels sick.
"'It's never enough to say we must not wage war,' is that how it goes?"
"Don't you dare quote King at me. Not to justify this."
"If you don't like that one, just read your Bible," Coop says. "Story of Abraham. It's a good one."
"These aren't gods. They're cockroaches with IQs."
"Go to Five. The audience will want to see them coming."
The servers round the curtain with hard mouths and empty eyes. They ignore the drumming of the bound boy's feet against the wooden platter.
Hartlesby's throat closes. He swallows down the bile.
"Give me Two."
Instead, Hartlesby clicks in Three, the wide angle on the other diners. He doesn't know what he wants to see there. The revulsion he's feeling? Acceptance? Revolution?
"Two," Coop insists. "Dammit, John. They insisted we show--"
Hartlesby shifts to Four, behind the curtain. The audience will still hear the aliens' voices. "Delightful," Pluck says. "Please forgive this degenerate one's salivation," Chirp begs.
"I can still explain this to the suits if you get Two up now, but--"
Hartlesby leaves it on Four, on the empty space in front of the kitchen doors. No one comes through.
Through the lavalier microphones taped to the aliens' chests, the boy's screams are pegging out the sound board.
"Jesus, John, cut the levels--"
"Let the President hear what he bought," Hartlesby rasps. "Let everyone hear it."
He goes to Five. A well-dressed woman, her lips pressed thin and her face as white as bone, regards the purple lump of meat on her fork as if it, too, might have been cut from a screaming child.
On Three, a man is noisily throwing up.
Elsewhere, hands white-knuckle steak knives. But the diners have been paid handsomely. Just like Hartlesby has himself. Mouths chew. Eyes do not move. Hartlesby shows them, too.
Against the wall, the guards twitch, half-alien themselves in their black combat armor and their riot masks. Hartlesby turns Six to take them in.
"If we don't show the finale on camera they'll--"
Hartlesby pulls Coop's voice out of his ear, throws it on the board.
The aliens had been clear. They'd been watching our games shows for the last years of their journey. They loved them. They wanted to play. And they wanted every minute of every episode recorded so they could replay it all the way home.
Hartlesby picks up his cell. Miranda answers. "Put the kids on," he tells her, and she does.
From the board, Coop's urging has devolved into panicked shouting. Someone is banging on the trailer door.
Miranda puts the kids on speaker.
"I couldn't do it," he tells them.
"The thing is, Randy. If we let them get their way."
"No, John. No--"
"I wish I could say I'm sorry. I love you. I love you all."
He drops the phone as the door implodes. The cops rush in. The board jockey to replace him right behind. But it's too late.
Outside, the night sky has gone white with rushing fire.
This is another challenge flash from Chuck Wendig's site - I drew "Alien Invasion/A Quest For Someone!/A Gourmet Meal" as the prompt. Investigating the quest prompt started spawning different reasons for going on quests, and game shows came to mind. And off we went...
The original draft, which only got a hundred words or so in, had Hartlesby as a cameraman. It got stuck. At some point around then I happened upon the idea of moving him farther back to get more angles, and "board operator" came to mind. The name "Hartlesby" was entirely serendipitous, but about 3/4 of the way through I realized that it was very close to "Bartleby" and all of a sudden the whole story came together.
Sorry about that northern hemisphere. I do hope you weren't using it for anything.