Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#42


Courtesy of The Supreme Plasmate himself comes this brazen bulletin! Robert Rhodes, star anchorman, finds there is more going on at Canadawide than news reporting. You might even say, his next report will be out of this world, heh, heh, heh...

Do Not Adjust Your Set
(Part 1 of  2)

By Jeffrey Blair Latta


IN THE BEGINNING, Robert Rhodes thought it was a great idea.

In fact, if anyone had asked, he would have said he thought it was probably the best idea his boss, P.J. White, had ever come up with. It was crazy, sure, but it just might work. And if anyone could pull it off, it was the news team at Canadawide. Nowhere in this fair land could you hope to find a more competent, more organized and more professional team of reporters, anchors, camera-people and what-have-you. They could do it. They should do it. That's what Robert Rhodes thought.

At least, in the beginning.

They were gathered together in the conference room, seated in plush chairs around the long, black table, a table so polished you could see your nose hairs in it. Rhodes, as the lead anchorman, sat to P.J.'s right, the place of honour. Near the opposite end of the table, far, far below the salt, Dorothy Patterson, the floor manager, looked decidedly less convinced than Rhodes.

"Let me get this straight," she demurred, skeptically rattling her long nails on the tabletop. "You want us to lie to the public?"

P.J. was silent a moment, as if giving her time to reflect upon the error of her ways, then, seeing that she had no intention of doing that, he proceeded to reiterate his plan almost word for word, as if perhaps she hadn't heard the first time.

"Not lie, Dorothy, no, not that at all. What I'm suggesting, to improve ratings, what I have in mind is, we broadcast a homage...yes, a homage. Back in 1938, Orson Welles made history when he broadcast mock reports of an invasion from Mars. Everyone knows about the War of the Worlds broadcast. It's famous. What we're going to do is create a homage to that broadcast. We'll do the same thing, only we'll do it with television. The same deal, news reports of Martian saucers landing throughout the country, of giant Martian 'death-machines', of deadly Martian gas attacks, we'll give them the whole works, pull out all the stops...the whole shebang! They'll eat it up."

Dorothy continued to scowl. "But we're a news team! People are supposed to be able to trust us, for God's sake! We can't go around making things up. How can we ask the people to believe us ever again?"

P.J. sighed, a long-suffering expulsion of air. "First off," he continued patiently, "news teams do this sort of thing all the time. All the time. Remember that April Fool's Day broadcast with the peasants 'farming' spaghetti noodles from 'spaghetti trees'? Everyone loved that."

"But that was harmless. This is a national invasion!"

"It's only a matter of degree. Anyway, to get to your second objection, I don't believe -- and I think the others will back me up on this -- I don't believe the modern audience can be fooled so easily as the audience way back in 1938. Today's viewer is more intelligent, more savvy. They'll recognize it for what it is, harmless fun...a homage!"

For a moment, Rhodes thought Dorothy was going to launch another attack. She inhaled sharply, like some sort of gas-propellant rocket launcher preparing to fire. P.J. obviously thought so, too. He didn't give her time to renew her objections but delivered his final argument in a firm, cold, and decidedly uncompromising voice.

"I think this is a good idea, Patterson. The network thinks it is a good idea. And with all the down-sizing we've been hit with lately, I'd have thought someone like you, someone in your position, would have welcomed something innovative like this."

That put a stop to whatever she had been going to say. The floor manager let out her breath and just sort of wilted in her seat. Apparently gratified by the effect his statement had on his employee, P.J. nodded and scanned the other faces around the table.

"All right, then, that's settled. Gentlemen, one week from today, I want a broadcast to end all broadcasts...I want an invasion from Mars!"

After the meeting, while preparing to go home, Rhodes began to think over what Dorothy had said. It bothered him a little, especially because he knew she was probably right. Maybe this was something they should think about a little harder. Maybe they would be crossing some sort of line, a demarcation of trust, and one which, once crossed, could lead to problems down the road. After all, they weren't talking about some harmless April Fool's Day prank, were they. They were talking about reports of death and destruction throughout the country, fake reports. What if some people out there really did believe? What if audiences weren't as 'savvy' as P.J. liked to think. They were fooled back in 1938. What if they fell for it again? Just from a legal point of view, Canadawide could be in for a load of trouble.

The more Rhodes considered the thing, the more concerned he became. Finally, he made up his mind to go back and have a talk with P.J., just the two of them. After all, Rhodes wasn't a lowly floor manager, he was their top news anchor. Threats of downsizing wouldn't work on him. Also, P.J. might be more inclined to listen to the objections if they came from the man who would be asked to read the copy on the night in question.

The newsroom was practically empty as Rhodes made his way past the cubicles to P.J.'s office. The janitor was busy vacuuming the carpet with a device that looked like a mine-detector. Rhodes paused before the office door and raised a hand to knock, but then saw the door was slightly ajar. He could hear P.J. talking inside, a dull murmur, and, not knowing if he should disturb him, peered in.

His back to the door, P.J. was talking on the telephone. At least, Rhodes thought it was a telephone -- at first glance. A moment later, he realized it was more like a walkie-talkie, but one made of Jello.

"Everything is set," P.J. was saying into the Jello walkie-talkie-thing. "The broadcast will go as scheduled. The humans suspect nothing. Inform the Martian Supreme Commander, the invasion can begin one week from today. If anyone sees our vehicles landing or manages to report what we are doing, the authorities will ascribe it to panic caused by the broadcast. No one will believe them."

Then, like a man loosening his tie, he pulled off his mask...

***
Robert Rhodes didn't think it was such a good idea. Not anymore he didn't.

That night, as he lay in bed beside Janice, his beloved wife of five years, as he stared at the window-shadow cast on the ceiling by the streetlight outside, he replayed the scene over and over again in his mind, and try as he might to convince himself that it had all been a dream, he knew it had not been. It had been very, very real.

Over and over his mind's eye watched as his boss, P.J. White, calmly yanked off his own face like some cheap Halloween mask. And beneath that mask? Beneath it was the face of a creature from another planet. A creature from Mars. Bulging eyes, pincher-like mandibles, bristling fur, as P.J. himself would have put it...the whole shebang.

Rhodes only dimly recalled the hours that followed that horrifying revelation. It was all just a collage of jumbled images. Stunned by his discovery, he had staggered from the news building, out onto the street, then, for a time, he had wandered those streets in a sort of drunken delirium, shaking his head, muttering to himself, attracting disapproving scowls from those he had chanced to pass.

Finally, near midnight, he had arrived home to find Janice waiting with a cold pot roast and an even colder disposition. For a brief moment, as he stood in the doorway, his wife poised in the hall with arms angrily crossed, he had considered telling her what had happened. But somehow he couldn't think how to begin.

Janice, he might have said, you'll never guess what I discovered today at work. You remember my boss, P.J. White, the balding fellow who we had over for dinner last month? Well, turns out he's not bald, after all. Turns out, in fact, he isn't human. Actually he's really a Martian, part of a Martian invasion planned for next week. And here's the really funny part. We're going to broadcast this Orson Welles' War of the Worlds sort of thing, so that if anyone reports seeing the invaders the police will think it's just because of our news show. And the horrible thing is that it will probably work. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I'm almost certain it will.

Rhodes almost told Janice that. Almost.

Instead, he simply muttered something about his stomach and slouched on up to bed.

Now, in the darkness, watching the shadows on the ceiling, once more he replayed that awful moment when his boss pulled off his face. And slowly, at the memory, Rhodes' features stiffened with steely resolve.

Yes, he thought. Tomorrow I'll tell someone. Tomorrow I'll tell... Dorothy Patterson.

***
Arriving at the newsroom the next morning, who should he bump into first thing but the man himself...or a reasonable facsimile. Strangely, Rhodes hadn't even bothered to considered how he would deal with his next encounter with P.J. White, now that he knew P.J. White was an alien from another world. As it was, he froze like a raccoon caught in car headlights.

The hallway, where the encounter took place, was narrow, made even more constricted by the presence of the water cooler, and there was barely room for two people to pass. It was standard practice for all employees to step aside when encountering the boss in that passage, but this time Rhodes found he couldn't do it. He just stopped full in P.J.'s path, his eyes wide and staring as if he had never seen a balding executive before. Surprised by the obstruction, P.J. reluctantly stopped as well, his brow (or what appeared to be his brow) furrowing in mild disapproval.

"Something the matter, Rhodes?"

For a terrible moment, Rhodes almost found himself blurting out the truth. In fact, he felt as if P.J. must somehow already know the truth, that the question, innocent as it might seem, was actually a coded way of saying precisely that. It was this alien's way of saying, "We know you know about the invasion, Robert Rhodes. Why not make it easier on yourself and admit it here and now."

But then, Rhodes managed to mumble, "No, sorry. Bad night." And he stepped aside allowing P.J. to continue on.

But even as he watched his boss's retreating back, a horrible thought popped into his head. It was the sort of thought that caused beads of sweat to break out on a person's forehead. What would the aliens do? he wondered. What would they do to him...if they found out he knew?

After that, he went straight to Dorothy Patterson who he found in the kitchen making coffee. She looked up absently as he entered, nodding in a half-hearted way that indicated she wasn't entirely awake yet, not until she'd had her first cup of the day.

Rhodes didn't give himself time to back out.

"P.J. is a Martian," he said.

She was still looking at him as he said it, and she continued to look at him for several seconds after that. She didn't say a word. Finally she turned her attention back to the coffee pot and calmly filled a cup. Steam curled on the rim.

"Is he?" she said at last. "I knew it had to be something like that."

Rhodes recognized the sound of humour when he heard it. But he was determined. He threw conviction into his tone, using his best anchorman's voice.

"This is no joke, Dorothy, you have to listen to me." Then he told her about overhearing P.J. talking into the Jello walkie-talkie, about the Martian invasion planned to coincide with the false news broadcast. Finally, he told her about the mask, and about the Martian face which it hid. "P.J. is a Martian," he concluded earnestly. "He really is. I'm not making any of this up. And, unless we do something, unless we find some way to stop him, to stop them, his plan is going to work, and we'll be responsible!"

By this point, Dorothy was looking at him again. She was looking at him in a very concentrated, very focused sort of way, as if what he had told her had done more than caffeine ever could to jolt her awake. For a moment, he allowed himself the luxury of hope.

But then she spoke, and her tone was painful in its bitter anger.

"Very funny, Robert. Oh, ho ho. Who put you up to this, was it P.J. himself? That bastard. Well, let me give you a message to take back to him. Tell him, I still think this fake broadcast is wrong, but I'll do my part. He was right on the money. I'm terrified of being down-sized and I'll do anything, anything, including selling out my convictions if it means I can keep a steady paycheck for a few more years. You tell him that."

No sooner had she finished than Rhodes leapt in with an anguished cry: "In the name of God, I'm not joking!"

This time, she saw it in his face. He could see she saw it by the slow look of surprise, then embarrassment, then pained sympathy that shaped her own features. She saw that he meant it, that, at least in his own mind, what he had told her was the truth. She dropped her eyes, unable to meet his.

"Robert," she said quietly, as if consoling a grieving relative, "we've all been under a lot of pressure lately. But you have to pull yourself together. This stupid broadcast has got you all messed up. That's where this thing comes from, you understand that? It's not real. There are no Martians, just P.J.'s harebrained scheme to boost ratings." She paused, then picked up her cup of coffee and shouldered past him. "Get some help," she said, and vanished into the hall.

***
A week went by. Rhodes didn't try to tell anyone else. He knew there was no point. Who would believe him? Even under normal circumstances, his story would have provoked scorn and derision, but with the broadcast coming up? Anyone else would think the same as Dorothy. It was ironic, when he stopped to think about it. Dorothy herself had worried that the public wouldn't know the difference between fantasy and reality, and now, here she was, the one being blinded to reality by P.J.'s concocted fantasy. In a sense, the broadcast was already serving its intended purpose.

But there had to be a way, he felt certain of it. The Martian invaders couldn't win. Somehow there had to be some way to make people believe.

Finally, it was the night before the broadcast. In just twenty four hours, Rhodes would be asked to sit before the television cameras, neatly attired, hair styled, pancake make-up on his brow, to look that Cyclops in the eye and calmly read his scripted lines. He considered simply not doing it -- but what good would that do? One of the other anchors would just do it in his place. There was nothing he could do to stop them...nothing.

That night he told his wife.

Janice listened without speaking. They were side by side in bed preparing to go to sleep, and Rhodes knew it might be his last chance to speak to her. When he reached the end, having told her everything he had told Dorothy, she was silent for a space, as if considering his words carefully. Her features were unreadable. Finally, he could stand the suspense no longer.

"Well?" he asked. "Do you think I'm insane?"

She looked at him steadily, then did the last thing he would have expected.

"No," she said. "I believe you, Robert."

Then she pulled off her mask...

Part 2: Conclusion








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Do Not Adjust Your Set is copyright 1999, by Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)