Chapter 1 Ratings Spike
“C’mon Jess, you’re missing it.”
“Yeah,” she paused significantly. “I think I’d rather finish the dishes. Anyone want to help?”
She heard apologetic mumblings from the shared lounge behind her. Apparently not. Jess Kelly, platypus researcher, perhaps soon to be ex-platypus researcher, reached for another dirty cup. Home was Cairns’ James Cook University campus accommodation. Her research project had been in tatters for months. Cleaning stuff was an excellent distraction.
Housemate, Lindsay was trying to persuade Jess and fellow student, Rob, to watch Celebrity Council Elimination with him.
“So, what channel’s this bullshit on?” said Rob, not looking up from his phone.
“Channel Five,” explained Lindsay.
“You sure? Didn’t they go broke?”
“No, but if they make another Guess My Star Sign, they’ll be heading that way,” said the coral researcher.
Then why do you watch it? thought Jess. She sniffed suspiciously, “Nice! Who left prawn tails in this cup?”
Another burst of mumblings issued from the lounge at this dastardly breach of share-house etiquette. Mumblings of the: one of the others who’s not here now, variety.
“Right,” said Jess, quitting the kitchen. “So… the Indian-looking woman’s the pop-singer? I don’t recognise most of them.”
“These shows… you don’t need to: got your bogan sportsman, your outspoken refugee advocate … a sprinkling of models. Oh …” said Rob, “I’ve seen that travel show-vet before and maybe her…”
“Tayla’s hot,” said Lindsay to Rob. “She’s always doing yoga poses … she’s super flexible. And you know, they’re filming it close by. My sister had her reception there, actually.”
Jess had a vague, prior awareness of CCE; its forum of models, sports stars, and media personalities; it’s unlikely premise of celebrity wisdom solving the nation’s problems. “Is it … so bad that it’s good?” she said.
“Nah, it’s just bad,” Rob assured her.
But the pair were of that group that considered an unhealthy BMI or even being “super bendy” didn’t readily qualify an individual to allocate medical resources.
The students’ TV showed the seven remaining celebrities sitting at an outside dining table and surrounded by exuberant tropical foliage …
“It’s turquoise, my birthstone,” said Tayla the actor, stroking her nose stud. “And it’s just so important to match your birthstone to your real star sign. Especially when, you like, don’t identify with your birth star sign.”
Matt ignored this inanity. A parrot flew overhead, and the floppy-haired comedian asked, “Is there any milk left – other than long-life stuff?”
“Just soy mate, what do you reckon this is, ‘The land of milk and honey?’” snorted Lenny, the show’s requisite celebrity sportsman.
“The colour really suits you, Tayla,” said Kat, the model, ignoring Lenny as usual. “That milk and honey saying is just so wrong… I mean who wants to live in a land built on the slavery of cows and bees.”
Matt sensed yet another food politics squabble brewing. These had been less intense since the radio shock jock’s elimination, but he didn’t care for them. Why are we always bickering over almond milk and soy burgers or discussing astrology?
“How do you tell if someone’s a vegan?” said Lenny, toying with the machete the celebrities used to de-husk coconuts.
“Ah, could that be… ‘just wait five minutes, they’re sure to mention it!’” said Matt affably. He grinned at Len. In the control booth, just visible through the trees, he guessed the producer would be displeased with his attempt at peace keeping. Stuff it. “Now, now, big fella, remember I’m here to make the jokes, spread fun and mirth…” He waggled his finger in Lenny’s direction.
“India,” Kalinda suggested in her quiet, often serious way, “has more vegetarians than anywhere else … and most of them drink milk and eat yoghurt and cheese, even though cows are sacred to Hindus.”
“Ah yes, the celebrated Palak Paneer,” said Vito, the celebrity chef, straight to the camera and preening his waistcoat.
“My favourite,” growled Lenny to Matt’s amusement. He knew the cricketer had developed a liking for Indian food on tour, and that big Len much preferred tandoori oven meats.
Matt could tell Kat was unpleased with Kalinda’s intervention. The model’s shapely nose edged higher. She peered over it. Political correctness dilemma, thought Matt.
Then the model gave Kalinda a patronising smile and diced another sweet potato. Matt sighed as she and Tayla launched into a new discussion, enthusing over vegan chocolate, yoghurt and ‘meats’.
“Plant-based meats are so convincing now, Tayla, that carnivores can’t even tell the difference.”
“Absolutely, they’re to die for…”
Matt turned to the loud rustle from deep in the bushes. They shook and parted. He would never forget what happened next.
No one would.
It would become the ultimate: Do you remember when? moment. One of those generational spotlights: the moon landing, Princess Diana’s death, the Twin Towers, the Cubs winning the World Series. More surprising than the much-anticipated zombie apocalypse; less predictable than a feisty exchange of nuclear weapons.
In a way – an odd and tragic way – the moment marked the career-high point of Kat and Tayla. Mere hours before, they’d been fretting over their screen time and the next elimination episode. And there’d been all that unpleasantness about the butterfly effect and Hitler…
“Enough. Halt. Desist!” came the strange cry.
Like an Anime nightmare, the creature crept from the shrubbery behind the dining table. With predatory mantis grace, it advanced on the bewildered contestants.
A static rasp and then, incomprehensibly, in the voice of the phone-app Siri, it said, “Decease the vegetarians!”
The comedian flinched as Kat shrieked. Tayla stood, clutching half a mango, then staggered. Matt tried to catch her as she fell. Both young women collapsed.
In a daze, Matt heard Len swear as the creature stalked towards the nearest camera. It asserted in fractured English how it was most annoying that the two young people were always twittering on about their dietary habits… that it was deplorable that those endlessly discussed habits chiefly involved the slaughter of innocent plant life and worst of all: The deceased celebrities regarded their awful choices as morally superior.
Blood pounded in Matt’s ears as he attempted to process this declaration – struggling with both the philosophical implications and the syntax. This time, Mariam screamed – two more of the green segmented things strode from the bushes.
The former-cricket-hard-man not noted for the sophistication of his processing – in sport or life – reacted first.
“No, Lenny!” cried Matt. Too late.
The cricketer seized the machete and buried it in the upper body of the nearer creature. It oozed a little and casually directed multiple eyestalks at its attacker.
Matt held his breath.
But even in those early moments, he sensed this individual’s glance lacked the deadly intensity of a chip-focused seagull.
He remembered to breathe and watched the worse-trip-ever blend of banana palm and upright lobster remove the machete with fussy movements of its claws. Another static burst (part dial-up modem, part off-station radio) and the impossible creature said: “Abrupt comrade actions remorse. Please to continue televisual experience.”
This remarkable televisual experience was occurring at the Cassowary Lodge: thirty acres of remnant rainforest near Cairns (as the world was soon to discover: the largest town in exotic, far away, far-north Queensland, Australia).
Vegetation hid the tasteful low impact buildings, including the reality TV show’s production base, maintaining the illusion of isolated jungle splendour. Illusory hardship was fine. However, the closest camera-crew member didn’t care for the change in circumstances. He locked off his camera, turned his rotund person and set off at a rapid waddle towards the lodge.
Matt gaped as the alien returned the machete to Lenny. The cricketer sheepishly replaced it on the rough-hewn table. Before Matt had time to react, he was hit by a fine spray of alien fluids. In a squelchy green blur, the creature launched a tendril and tripped the fleeing cameraman.
Celebrity Council Elimination was to experience the greatest ratings spike in the recorded history of such spikes. More viral than a COVID-19-Ebola team-up. News readers, poor things, were to exhaust themselves in search of ever-greater hyperbole.
Among the viewers were Jess and her housemates. Those ratings figures were rapidly eclipsed by the me2Screen and YouTube hits. Surpassing examples of water bottle tossing excellence, kittens playing with soap bubble machines and even the long-ago but momentous occasion of a certain non-conventionally attractive singer appearing in a British amateur singing contest.
For the moment, such ratings gold lay in the uncertain future. Matt edged protectively closer to Kalinda. Despite the circumstances, he smiled – delighted as she clutched his hand. Albeit anxiously, and all too briefly. Oblivious to the cameras for once, the celebrity group huddled at the mercy of the aliens’ intentions. With a waving of antennae and focusing of bits of anatomy best described as eyestalks, the intruders prepared to make their intentions clear.