Satire Science Fiction Classic Humor Literary Fiction

Lowest Common Denominator

By Anatoly Belilovsky
Jul 9, 2020 · 3,141 words · 12 minutes

Masked Horror

Photo by Tom Roberts via Unsplash.

From the author: This one is an original! You'll see why in a moment. To say that it's in poor taste is to praise it above its station.

Under the icy glare of Damokles Jones’ eyes, Louise Renault, Vice President (Programming,) squirmed in her chair in the conference room at Cacharodon Television Network.

“Would it be fair to deduce from the look on your face,” Jones said, his voice so small as to approach a whisper, “that you do not agree with the proposed course of action?”

Out of the corner of her eye Louise saw, arrayed around the table, the faces of other Vice Presidents: Carlos Corday of Operations, Marcus Junius Booth of Marketing, Hinckley Fromme of Accounting, and Gavrilo Quisling of Production.

“It’s our highest-rated show, Mr. Jones,” she said.

Jones’ lips pulled back, and, as she did each time she saw what passed for Jones’ smile, she could not help but doubt that nature had anything to do with teeth of such extraordinary albedo.

“How’s your chair,” Jones said. “Comfy?”

“Why, yes,” she said.

“Good,” Jones said. “They cost me plenty.” He paused. “You ever wonder why I, Damokles Jones, President of Cacharodon Television Networks, spent so much on comfy chairs?”

She raised her eyebrows. “No,” she said slowly.

Jones sat up straighter. “Because,” he thundered, “I bought them for my subordinates! Of whom not one, not one, I tell you, has anything resembling a backbone!”

She looked around. Carlos Corday had shrunk into a very small ball. Marcus Junius Booth sat biting his nails. Hinckley Fromme whimpered softly. She turned back to Jones.

“Except you,” said Jones. “You have a backbone. I like people with a backbone. I love the sound they make when I bite them in half. Crunchy and satisfying!” He turned to a sweating man to his left. “Booth!”

“Yessir!” exclaimed Booth.

“Tell Miz Renault why we must cancel Mixed Nuts.”

Booth turned to her, scattering drops of sweat across the polished table. “It’s our advertisers,” he said. “Citron Motor Company and Apocrine Cosmetics. They are threatening to… ahem… retrograde their… ahem… placement options.”

She did a quick mental translation. “Pull their ads? But that makes no sense! They can’t be unhappy with our ratings!”

“It’s not the ratings,” Booth said. “It’s demographics. They don’t like our viewers.”

“Too old? Too young? Not affluent enough?” she said.

Booth shook his head. “Too bright. They watch the ads, then buy competitors’ products.” He paused. “Better products, more durable, less expensive.” He sniffed. “If this goes on, we are doomed!”

“Oh,” she said in a tiny voice and shrunk back into her seat. “I see.”

“I’m sooo relieved,” Jones said, “that you have come to understand the reasons for this decision.” He thumped the table in front of him. “As of right now…” He paused to sweep the table with his gaze. “Mixed. Nuts. Is. Canned!”

The creature appeared in midair in front of the President with a “pop” not unlike the bursting of a whoopee cushion.

“This,” the creature said, “is the most ridiculous thing I ever hoid.”

The creature was alien, that much was clear: Louise knew no Earthly beings that looked like a cross between a camel and a tarantula. From the expression on Jones’ face, neither, apparently, had he.

“Whaaa…” Jones mumbled and raised his hand, then let it fall and pushed off with his feet, propelling his chair a foot back until the wall cut off his retreat.

“Never were truer words spoken,” the alien said. One of his eight articulated legs brought a cigar to a slit that resembled a mouth the way a squid resembles a pair of pliers. “Whaaa,” he added. “What depth of perception. What swiftness of thought.” The alien’s face sported a rectangular black mustache and a pair of rectangular black eyebrows which wiggled with each of his Brooklyn-accented words. “What a tough crowd.” One of his eyes popped out on a stalk and turned to scan the room. “What do you need Vice Presidents for? If I were President, I’d keep all the vice to myself.” The alien’s eyebrows wagged again. “Boo!” he said.

A great collective gasp filled the room, composed of all breaths previously bated. Jones’ hand scrambled under his armrests, found the alarm button and pressed it. The alien’s eye glanced at him, and Jones, now jammed into a corner, assumed an expression he hoped was innocent. The alien’s eye narrowed, then turned to Louise.

“What’s your favorite vice, Margarita?” the alien said.

She hesitated, cleared her throat. “I’m the Vice President of Programming,” she said. “And my name is not Margarita.”

“Oh yeah?” the alien said. “Too bad. Can you imagine, you and me? Monster and Margarita? But I digress. Number one vice, programming.” He yawned. “How ordinary. What’s your second favorite vice? Does it involve --” a foot-long rectangular object popped out of nowhere and hovered in the air “-- a slide rule? You slide it, exactly, where? Don’t tell me, show me. Get a volunteer from the audience.” The alien’s eye swept the table again. “Who wants to be volunteered?”

The board’s unanimous gasp was louder this time, and followed by the clatter of overturning chairs and the pounding of stampeding feet as the board, with Jones in the lead in the scramble for the door.

“Stop!” the alien bellowed. “No one leaves! No one enters! I have placed a --”

A whipped-cream-covered pie appeared in midair between Jones and the door and hung patiently in the air. A split second later Jones’ face ran straight into it, his whole body rebounding with enough force to pitch him over the heads of Booth, Corday and Hinckley and slam him back in his chair, the slap of wool-clad posterior on leather upholstery drowning out the alien’s next words.

An uneasy silence descended.

“Now, as I was saying before I had been rudely interrupted,” the alien said. “What’s all this I hear about canceling Mixed Nuts?”

“Whump...” Jones said, then spat a mouthful of meringue onto the table. “What business is it of yours? Get the hell…” Jones wiped at his eyes with his hands, shook the cream off his fingers. “Get the hell off my planet!” he finished, striking the table with his fist. Bits of pie flew everywhere.

“Tut-tut-tut,” said the alien, wagging a limb at Jones. He reached for the slide rule hanging in midair, drew it down to the table’s surface, and moved it like a waiter’s crumb knife to scrape the pie mess onto the floor. “Temper, temper. Watch your blood pressure before you have a stroke, and between you and me and the guy hiding under the lampshade, it won’t be a stroke of genius.” He paused to point the slide rule at Louise. “Unlike Mixed Nuts, which clearly is. Are. Is.”

“You know Mixed Nuts?” Louise said.

“Several,” the alien said. “Some of them right here. Oh, you mean the show? Of course I know it. If I knew it any better it could sue me for palimony. I’ve seen every episode. Twice! I have been so thorough, you should be calling me Henry David.”

A sound of stampeding feet intruded once again, this time from outside the room. “Ah,” the alien said. “Send in the clowns!”

“Security!” Jones exclaimed.

Two uniformed men ran into the room, one after another, the first heading straight for the alien, the second stopping at the door. The alien turned his eye at them, then back at Jones.

“Don’t bother,” he said, “they are here.”

The first man decelerated sharply, his feet straining against the carpet, his arms reaching for the alien. The alien took his cigar from his mouth. Still pushing against the carpet, the first guard stopped, his body at a 45-degree angle to the floor, his face a yard or so from the alien. The alien’s tongue protruded from his mouth, growing longer and longer, until its tip halted an inch from the guard’s face. The guard’s eyes crossed, intent upon it.

“Pffffft,” the alien said, his tongue vibrating in what had to be an otherworldly raspberry.

The guard’s body accelerated backward as if propelled by an invisible stretched rubber band. Gathering speed, it swept the second guard from the doorway. A moment later crashing noises followed.

“What was that?” Corday stammered.

“Isn’t it obvious?” said the alien.

VP shook his head. “A secret weapon?” he said.

“Yes!” the alien said. “A farce field!”

“A force field?” Hinckley said.

“No, a farce field!” the alien said. “And do you know what that means?”

“Nnno…” stammered Hinckley.

“It means that while it’s on,” the alien said, punctuating with taps of the slide rule on the table, “Don’t. Try. Anything. Funny!”

“I… won’t...” Hinckley said in a tiny voice. “What are you going to do to us? And… Why?”

“I’m going to explain it in words a child can understand,” the alien said.“Is there a child in the house? No? Pity; I’ll have to simplify it even further.” The alien paused dramatically and wiggled his eyebrows again. “We are at war,” he said.

“War!” Jones said. “With whom?”

“Yes,” the alien said. “With beings who live on the first planet around the star you call Rigel.”

“Who’s on --” Louise whispered.

The alien’s eyestalk snapped toward her. “Exactly!” he said. “They have several outposts around Earth. The first two are monitoring stations in geosynchronous orbit, and on the Moon--” the eye turned back to Jones. “Care to guess what’s on the Moon?” the alien said.

“I don’t know,” Jones said.

“THIRD BASE!” the alien bellowed, then executed a fist pump with six or seven of his limbs at once.

Jones threw his hands around his head. “War!” he said. “It’s terrible! How is it going to affect… me?” He coughed. “I mean… us.”

“We need your help!” the alien said. “We are in the midst of a ratings war. Nasty business, ratings wars. Noise, explosions, suffering, scorched earth. If I liked stuff like that I could have just stayed married. Our allies have met with crushing defeats.” The alien sighed, his thorax moving in a way that left no doubt that his lungs were elsewhere. “Little men everywhere are turning green with envy. Denebians have been defenestratred, Polluxians have been poleaxed, and Castorians… Well, let’s just say they are singing a different tune.” He lifted his cigar and tapped it. “We’ve had terrible luck in our engagements. We tried mother-in-law jokes on Altairians,” he said. “Do you want to try a mother-in-law joke on a being that reproduces by binary fission? Try it, I dare you! I double-dare you!” The alien’s limbs shuffled as if scrambling for balance. “Or this: ‘Knock-knock! -- Who’s there? -- No, who’s on first!’” The alien pointed the slide rule at Jones accusingly. “Do you think this is going to get a laugh out of a telepathic being who always knows who’s there? Or -- if you lived in zero G --” He lifted a foot in the air, fluttered his limbs and brought his face closer to Jones’ “--would you find anything even mildly risible about slipping on a banana peel?”

Jones shrunk back. “I don’t know,” he said.

“THIRD BASE!” the alien bellowed, then ran a limb over his face in a gesture like wiping off sweat. “But, seriously, you are our only hope,” he continued, lowering himself till he stood on the floor again. “We learned about you from inhabitants of a planet in the Arcturus sector that used to be called Pflupp --”

“What happened to it?” VP interrupted. “It was conquered? destroyed? depopulated?”

“Certainly not,” the alien said. “It’s been renamed. It’s now called Vitameatavegamin. The vote was unanimous. Now when their show comes on, it’s: Welcome, everyone, to Voice of Vegavita… Gigameata… Vitameatavegamin! and half the galaxy is rolling on the floor before they are done with the intro. Now that’s humor!” The alien snapped half his limbs against the other half like slapping multiple knees at once. “We need more like it!” He reached out with the slide rule and tapped the table in front of Jones. “We need all kinds of Earth humor! In every language, in fact. Why, there is a race of beings who live in the Zeta Ursae Majoris system who are so fond of French comedy --”

“Please don’t,” said Louise. “I beg of you --”

“Do you know what they renamed themselves?” the alien demanded.

“I don’t…” Jones said, thought better of it, and shook his head. Louise covered her ears.

“Les Mizarables!” the alien said. “No, really. They did. Cross my hearts.” Five of his limbs made small crossing gestures. “And everyone is clamoring for more.”

Louise unplugged her ears. “What?” she said.

“More,” the alien said. “Everyone wants more Earth entertainment. More broadcasts. More live performances --”

More live performances?” Louise said. “On Earth?”

The alien shook his head. “Not… exactly,” he said.

“You mean,” Louise said, “there really were alien abductions?”

“Not abductions, exactly,” the alien said. “They all went voluntarily. More like defections, I’d say.”

“No sh--” the president said.

“No,” the alien said, “you are thinking of defecations. A defection is --”

“We know what a defection is,” Louise interrupted. “What about... the other stories?”

“Well…” the alien scratched his head with three of his arms simultaneously. “About anal probing…” the alien made a sound like clearing of several throats in sequence. “There is a race of beings in the Capricorn Sector who are composed of pure energy, so as you can imagine, potty humor has been lost on them as they neither eat --”

“No sh--” the President said.

“Exactly!” the alien said. “You don’t seem as dumb as you are. So, yes, they did at one time perform anal probings on Earth, exploring the subject in depth, you might say. But no more.”

“No more?” Jones said.

“No more,” the alien said. “The age of colonialism is over.” He thumped his carapace. “Especially after the regrettable incident with a man abducted from a burrito joint. The, ah, procedure led to an, ahem, explosion in the unfortunate subject’s, ahem… what is the word...”

“Rectum?” Louise said.

“Rectum?” the alien said. “Damn near killed’um!”

An audible groan escaped from Louise; she took a step back from the alien. “This is awful,” she said.

“Terrible,” the alien said. “Poor guy had to swear off Jalapeños. For life. But I digress.” He thumped the table with the slide rule again. “You must continue Mixed Nuts!” he said. “At all costs!”

“At all costs?” Jones said. “And who’s going to pay for it all?”

The alien beamed. “Advertisers!” he said.

“Earth advertisers?” Jones said incredulously.

“Galactic advertisers!” the alien said. “The great finishing school, Comme il faut en Fomalhaut. Spice Speculators of Spica. Fashions Polaris. I beg your pardon - Fasson Polaree...” He sprayed saliva with the last syllable. “Well?” he added.

“The whole galaxy watches our show?” Jones said.

The alien nodded.

“How’s our market share?” Jones said.

The alien beamed again and contorted one of his limbs in a thumbs-up gesture.

“Astounding!” Jones said.

The alien lifted one of hislimbs and produced an old-fashioned squeeze bulb claxon out of thin air. He honked it with abandon. “Copyright infringement!” he screeched. “Not astounding. Not amazing. Not stupefying. Certainly not fantastic. Pick a different name.”

“How about,” Louise said, “Tales of Terra?”

The alien raised four other limbs as if stretching a large banner in front of him. “Brilliant!” he said, turning to Louise. “What is your name again? No, don’t tell me. Can I call you Evita? Because then I could say that meeting you was inEvitable...”

“My name is not Evita,” Louise said. “And I won’t be part of this charade.”

“Why not?” Jones and the alien said in unison.

“First of all,” she ticked off one of her fingers, “I don’t like being the butt of anyone’s jokes. My name is Louise. Surely you can remember --”

“My name is not Shi--” the alien said.

“Don’t interrupt me again,” Louise said ominously. “Secondly…” she ticked off another finger “I think you are lying. If there are all these civilizations broadcasting at each other all over the galaxy, how do you explain the Fermi Paradox?”

“It’s not a paradox,” the alien said. “It’s business.”

“Business?” Louise said.

The alien nodded.

The Vice President furrowed her brow, smoothed back her hair. “What has that to do…” She trailed off, her eyes took on a faraway look, then snapped into sharp focus. "Encrypted spread spectrum Pay per view?”

“Ta-da!” sang the alien, leaping into the air and spreading all of his limbs. “Brilliant!” He landed, took the cigar from his mouth and proffered it to the Vice President. “Have a cigar!”

Jones rose from his chair and slowly came toward the alien. “Can we be pay-per-view, too?” he said.

“I thought you’d never ask,” the alien said. He reached for the cigar with three more of his segmented extremities, pulled at it, and unrolled it like a scroll. Rows upon rows of tiny undecipherable symbols filled the page.

“Sign here, on the dotted line,” he said. “Right where it says: the party of of the first part is hereinafter called the party of the first part and the party of of the second part is hereinafter called the party of the second part, till death do us part, blah blah blah.” His floorbound limbs shuffled rapidly. “I’ll be back with your beads in a jiffy,” he said. “Actually it used to be my jiffy, but now it’s my ex-spouse’s jiffy. It’s a great jiffy--”

“Wait just a minute,” Louise said. “Is this an intellectual property transaction, or a marriage contract?”

“I hope not,” the alien said. “No, I’m in this just for laughs. You know, travel the galaxy, yadda yadda yadda. Is your name Helen? The two of us, stuck here all the time - it would be Helen Earth!” He rang a rimshot off his thoracic carapace.

“My name is Louise,” Louise said wearily. “And right now --” she looked around the table “-- your idea of laughs --”

“You can’t go!” Jones said.

The alien cringed. “Did he just…?”

“Yeah,” Louise said. “He went there.” She turned to the alien. “You aren’t so bad, you know,” she said. “Compared to… certain others.” She paused. “Let’s go there, too.”

“Let's," said the alien. "I like you. It's so hard these days to find a good straight man."

"Sorry, neither," Louise said. “Two conditions, though, or the whole thing is off.”

“Anything,” the alien said.

“First of all,” Louise answered, “you need better material.”

The alien’s eye bent down to examine his clothes. “What’s wrong with my material?” he said. “Finest permanent press polyester.”

“And second,” Louise said, “We are strictly platonic.”

“What a solid idea,” he said. Louise raised a fist and shook it at him.

The alien grinned. “You know, Louise,” he said, “this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Anatoly Belilovsky

Nasty, brutish and short. And that's just the fiction.