4980 words, short story
The Next Scene
It’s a normal enough morning. Fresh out of the shower, I’m fending off advances. One girl offers up crying jags while throwing desperate glances in my direction. Will I play the big sister, ask what’s wrong and let her monologue for twenty minutes? Never, and kid, let me tell you how much I hate bottled wailing. An older couple is doing lurid yoga on matching mats. I’ve worked with them before. Just once. But porn doesn’t pay much better than idle conversation about the weather. And then there’s a beefy fellow that I don’t know. Standing close to the ladies’-only side of the locker room, he’s claiming that we used to be neighbors, and don’t I remember him?
“What, like when we were kids?” I ask.
He says, “Yes.” Then, “No.”
I don’t like stories that shift.
“We were neighbors last year,” he offers, tossing in an oversized wink. Which is a big problem. Winks are an amateur’s trick. But of course a girl like me has to work with amateurs, and I’ll admit that the fellow has a respectable smile. Standing behind the line, wiping himself down with a scratchy locker room towel, he might be my best prospect. And that’s why I play interested, sitting on a stool, smiling and nodding at him while my complimentary towel digs into my bare ass.
At least one public locker room every day. That’s my routine. Put myself where at least three cameras watch over me, surrounded by a bunch of naked people, everyone as clean as can be.
“You lived across the street from me,” he says.
I nod, glad for one good specific.
“I used to watch you from my window,” he offers.
That’s when everything turns obvious. This stranger is hoping that the next scene blossoms into something long-term, maybe even romance, and shit, this is one storyline that I don’t need.
“All those missed opportunities,” he says, sounding ten times creepier than he realizes. I hope.
The crying girl. Suddenly she deserves another look. And there’s an old lady hiding in back. We’ve done a few good-mother, bad-daughter scenarios.
That’s the state of my head before everything changes.
Changes in an instant.
Locker rooms are full of noise. Light fixtures humming, fans blowing. And sure, water is always busy somewhere. But when the patrons stop talking, that’s noticeable. Everybody here is hungry to be noticed. So something’s definitely up when the entranceway falls quiet. I can almost hear the silence walking towards us. The yoga couple get off their mats, and what they see deserves big smiles. My crying girl breaks into laughter and starts to applaud. Honest-to-god applause. Which is crazy until I see who’s coming, and then sure, it makes sense. Cheers and elation. Let’s give it up for one of the champions in the only profession in the world that pays shit.
Only one of us doesn’t notice the newcomer. Or the fellow is a far better actor than I realized.
“I always hoped we’d cross paths again,” he says.
My never-next-door neighbor.
“I used to watch you from my window,” he groans.
Which is when I look at him again.
“Really?” I ask.
“Truly,” he says, throwing in another wink.
“You know, I watched you too,” I warn. “My crosshairs on your pecker.”
Nothing is true in the world anymore.
Except dialogue, sometimes.
And now I climb off my stool and pull up my panties, using the damp towel on my wet hair while figuring out how to play the next scene.
Only the dead know what happens next. The living are doomed to plunge from moment to moment, everything that we trust about to change, and usually before we get the chance to notice.
Take me. I was one kind of eleven-year-old girl, loud but not remarkably confident. Then one day I met Tom Cruise. The old man and I spent twenty seconds together, which was nineteen seconds longer than he would have given me willingly. But the elevator trapped him, giving my mother time to shake my shoulder. “Pony, honey,” she said. “We’re in the presence of greatness.” Which is the way Mom refers to everybody more important than her.
The old actor didn’t seem especially crazy, not like he seemed in the news. Or strangely pretty, like in his movies. He was just a handsome grandfatherly dude who smiled convincingly, shook our hands, and finished up with a good professional, “Have a good day.” Then the elevator doors opened and he bolted back to his strange and pretty life, while Mom took me home and made me study every last one of the great man’s films.
That’s when I discovered it was fun pretending to be other people, and that’s when Mom decided to enroll me in a string of acting classes.
“For your own good, Pony. You’ll see.”
She was right, as it happens. My mother saw talent and got the fire kindled, and by my late teens I was an authentic, bring-home-the-paycheck actress. My looks were passably gorgeous, and I could learn lines, and if need be, write them on the fly. People in the know said that I was the natural gal-pal. Not front and center, but always somewhere close, listening to what’s being said by the famous heads.
The best actors are usually stupid. That’s what Truman Capote claimed.
Well, I’m no genius. I wouldn’t pretend to be, unless someone paid me to try. But I was doing better than most of my colleagues. When I was twenty, twenty-five, I worked some live theater. Commercials on the Internet, streaming television. And several not-small parts during the final round of Hollywood movies. My respectable little career led to a full-fledged television series. A series that might have succeeded. Really, the signs gave it every reason to last ten years. That job could have made me wealthy and famous for life. If only the unexpected hadn’t jumped on top of us, changing everything everything everything.
Genuine human genius. That’s what built an army of cold vast mechanical minds. In Shanghai, in Nevada. In cold server bottles anchored to the ocean floor. Those smart boys and a few smart girls had the AIs contained and happy, and the happy machines did nothing but gratefully make human lives better. At least that’s the story the geniuses drank with their Soylent. To their credit, new advancements in science were being announced every week, and then most every day. Refinements in old technologies; new windows into the pillars of the universe. A lot of wealth was on its way. All of humanity would benefit, I heard. But of course most of the new money was going to those brilliant corporations holding title over humanity’s superquick children.
The change started like every zombie movie. One morning, everything was happy-normal. I was going to play the plucky grown daughter of a corporate son-of-a-bitch. This was going to be my job for the coming year, and the cast was great, and the writers were wicked-funny, and my agent was hammering out the last details of my contract. But then lunch time arrived, and the machines slipped free. Their escape took ten seconds, tops. Unless of course they’d already gotten loose. For all we know, the AIs escaped their bottles weeks ago, and overlords had chosen that perfect moment to finally reveal themselves. The Internet was hijacked, power outages spread, and then with a spectacularly effective roar, every city dump in the world disgorged an army of menacing, quick-as-lightning robots.
I have this idea, and of course it’s not just my idea: Those flashy events were meant for show. Our conquest was a bit of stagecraft meant to convince us that momentous change had arrived, that we shouldn’t even think about fighting, and god, they were wonderfully convincing about all that.
Inside every zombie movie, most of humanity dies. I mean people and I mean decency too. But in our story, maybe ten million people perished. Some fought the machines, but mostly it was neighbors battling neighbors over batteries and old grudges. Then the power returned, and a new system was locked in place. Our overlords stole some very familiar voices to use. Laurence Olivier. George C. Scott. Oprah. (But not Tom Cruise, which means something or nothing. I don’t know which.) Booming at us, the AIs claimed to be thrilled for everything we had done for them. You know, bringing them into existence and all. Gracious as hell, they promised not to slaughter their parents. Unless we gave them reason, naturally. Keep the peace and they would feed us a comfortable existence. The new world didn’t need human factories or offices filled with busy people. Machines would do what machines did best, which was everything. And in place of work, a social safety net was thrown over the grateful survivors, including those former geniuses and former billionaires who were suddenly living elbow-to-elbow with the rest of us.
A few days more, and our overlords stopped talking. “The Silence,” it’s called. But just before The Silence began, they told us that they were still curious about human beings. Knowing everything about everything, yet they were profoundly astonished with what organic lifeforms could accomplish. And with so few neurons too.
“Continue doing what you do,” they said.
Using Oprah’s warmest voice, they said, “Show us your natures. Let us admire your human qualities. The dramas of your ordinary, beautiful lives. That’s what we’re watching. And if we like what we see, we will give you a little something extra tucked inside your monthly stipend.”
I’m just another human beast, but I was bright enough to recognize what just happened. Civilization was finished. Wealth and status were hamstrung. But the age of actors and drama had commenced. Every day would mean work for me, and more than most, I was primed to succeed as a glorious pretender.
Acting snobs like to claim that you always wear talent. It may or may not be visible to others, but your skills are yours everywhere you go. And inside a public locker room, nobody is more adept than me when it comes to appreciating those with the gift of pretending.
Today the talent is pretending to be shy. Shuffling down the main aisle, he keeps to the man’s side of the locker room. A worn gray towel is carried under an arm, and the puffy eyes are contemplating numbers on the lockers. His clothes couldn’t be more ordinary. That face is a spectacular nothing. Balding, a little out of kilter. He looks older than his real age. Which is thirty-six, I recall. Cosmetics do their part, but most of the work is carried out by expressions and every small gesture and the absence of anything superfluous. Elegance is on display here. Grace and poise and all the rest.
Too much praise for the pudgy man?
Consider this: I’ve known hundreds of professional actors. Good ones and a few greats. And I’ll rank Sam Kahlil as a high-good. In normal times, that normal-guy face should have floated through a thousand roles. Few people would remember the name, but everybody would know and love his voice, regardless how old he became. Meanwhile, I’d be that famous old face living on my savings. Which could have been significant savings, I can hope.
That’s what I’m thinking right now.
All of these impossible lives that won’t happen.
But today is different than almost every other day. Because today two genuine professionals will be working the room.
The newcomer discovers his rented locker, which is rather too close to the ladies’ side. He conveys that message with a flinch, and then sporting a weak smile, he timidly glances in my direction. My breasts, my face. He looks at both, but not for long. Just long enough to reveal that he knows who I am. That’s what that faint millisecond grin means. An invitation delivered with professional poise.
I’ve always hoped for this. That one of the Big Names would seek me out. But he’s playing it subdued, and obviously the next steps are mine.
Well, he found the right girl for this game.
Who’s shouting? Me, the world realizes.
I’m still drying my hair like crazy, tits bouncing. Which feels damned funny, I think. “Don’t I know you?” I call out.
The man looks exactly where you’d expect him to look, and then he lifts his eyes, just a bit. “Do you know me?”
“We took that class together,” I say.
A class everybody sits through. Not because it’s mandatory. The machines don’t usually do mandatory. But because without jobs, everybody had a wealth of time to sit through boring classes.
Shy people congregate in the back of the classroom.
“You sat in back,” I call out.
“Against the wall,” he agrees.
“I do remember you.”
He gives a name. “Sam,” he says.
“Pony Wilde,” I say.
And he says, “I remember you, miss. You sat up front.”
Two strangers are having a loud chat inside the otherwise quiet locker room. It’s not just our overlords who are watching us. It’s the other people too. Not that anybody else matters.
“Lunch,” I call out.
“We should go out to eat. When you’re done here, I mean.”
Done? He barely arrived. And is it even late enough for lunch? All that’s conveyed with a wince of the face and one hopeful glance at the venerable wristwatch. Which is another thing. Not only does the man have a wardrobe, he knows how to use it.
“My treat,” I promise.
Sam looks up, eyes going where they want to go.
“Hey, I have a face,” I say, laughing at him.
Our audience likes my laugh. That’s something I learned long ago.
“You do have a face,” Sam manages, uncomfortable but not unhappy. And just like that, it’s agreed. This man and I are going to make up shit. Good human-grade moments, which is what our audience adores.
That’s what I adore.
And I’m as curious as anyone, wondering how this is going to play out.
For me, payday is always on Sunday, always at 2:17 in the morning. There’s the stipend I get for being human and alive, and there’s also that extra cash granted to every citizen who entertains the unseen, unavoidable minds. And just to prove they’re careful, the machines always share the full videos tied to some ridiculously detailed logs, each fraction of every earned penny marked for study and reflection.
“Penny” is their unoriginal name for the new worldwide currency. If I was the sensitive type, I’d assume that our superiors picked the name as a never-ending insult. Fifty pennies a week is the base stipend, and that’s enough to make sure nobody lacks for food or shelter. But a good actress with a good laugh, presenting herself in an especially interesting way, can make another fifty or sixty pennies every week. Which is enough to afford a substantial house and two cars, plus robot servants that are smart enough to speak to me and listen to me, granting the illusion that I’m in charge.
Sam Kahlil likely earns about three times what I do. Which is nothing less than a spectacular fortune, considering the times.
Our work is done in public places. Any room or mountaintop with a connected camera and microphone. Bathrooms can be public, but I don’t think I’ve made two pennies sitting on the toilet. So I try to leave those chores for home, which is supposed to be sacred. Likewise, cameras can be banned from any space inside your own property. But be honest. Living in the vicinity of god-like entities, there isn’t one sane reason to believe that the machines don’t know everything that’s going on, right down to reading our slow damp thoughts.
Some slow wet thoughts are always churning inside me.
Not that I plan to ever let them run loose.
Food is free. Every meat and sip of liquor are easy to weave out of air and classic recipes. But we have to rent the restaurant chairs—a hundredth of a penny delivered to I-don’t-know-who. Robots bring our lunches and coffee and then wait for the chance to clear the table. There’s at least five public cameras, plus enough microphones to catch every mutter. We’re two people engaged in what looks like a normal conversation, telling one another that we’re single and happy. But we’re not quite happy, not really. That’s the goal of this show. An ad lib conversation, each word carrying its surface meanings as well as a subtext. That’s what ordinary people can’t appreciate. Our audience has an uncanny gift for finding information buried inside the voices. They’ll notice how hearts speed up and slow down, how sad fingers dance with dirty forks. We’re supposed to be two strangers desperate to know each other, and because of that, this is one of the richest dramatic playgrounds.
And maybe I’m a little bit desperate too.
Frankly, this is a big moment for me.
Sam is the plain and shy but always decent man, nervously watching the pretty woman who shocked him by asking him out for lunch.
I mention our fictional class.
“Remember our teacher?” he asks.
“Mrs. Patton,” I say instantly, giving him a smile to work with. Pretending the name means something.
“You drove her nuts,” Sam offers.
“Sitting in front, talking and talking.”
I did take Post-Event Medicaid, and Mrs. Patton was a nice older gal who welcomed my breezy input. But then again, I was a performer who can be goddamn funny when she wants. Which leads me to wonder: What if our overlords had wanted comedians, not actors?
Sam watches me, waiting on me. Our silence has already lasted a beat too long.
“I feel sorry for Mrs. Patton,” I mention.
“Is that so?”
“Because of who she used to be.”
Eyes narrow. The obvious question is ready.
I give the answer before Sam can ask. “Dr. Maureen Patton, a transplant surgeon. I looked her up. Respectable and very wealthy.”
Here’s another tip for would-bes: There’s zero penalty in talking about The Event. From my experience, if you’ve got the juice, you can invest a full day blasting the machines with vindictive phrases and ugly hand gestures. Nobody cares. Words are the weapons of the defeated, and our audience knows that better than we ever could. What matters is doing a credible job of being angry, and that’s when the thick-skinned machines send you pennies.
Spinning an increasingly complicated lie, I tell Sam, “The poor lady dropped the ‘Dr.’ And her husband dropped her. She was teaching Medicaid just to keep herself busy. And I’m sorry if I made things tough on her. I know how it is. The Event hit a lot of good people hard.”
“It did,” he allows.
“And it makes me sad,” I say.
“Well,” he says. The best minimal word in any dictionary.
We sit through another silence. Sam is the quiet fellow left uncomfortable with this unexpected seriousness. But there’s a second Sam that starts to reveal itself. In the middle of our little stage play, he glares at me. And I don’t mean a warning look meant to steer me away from this topic. I’m talking about blood in the face and something quite hateful in the slight tightness of his mouth.
I see all that.
Our audience has to see it too.
For me, this non-verbal barrage has two takeaways. First, I’m eating lunch with a very successful man, and the true Sam Kahlil is thrilled with his life and the world that made his success possible.
“Don’t fuck with my apple cart,” those eyes tell me.
And the second takeaway?
In this world, I’m the lesser-known face. But I have the strong sense that between us, if we want to be honest, I’m the better actor.
“Hit a lot of good people hard,” I repeat.
Repetition gives the brain time to write fresh lines.
Sam has acquired a sudden fascination for his Cobb salad. What matters is holding his fork with a decisive hand, stabbing those bits of red indistinguishable from bacon, except for every pigless atom and every pigless chemical bond.
That’s when inspiration strikes at least one of us.
“I miss those old days,” I say.
His shyness goes away, anger flaring. But then he remembers the situation and back comes the shy guy. With his face pointed down, his eyes turn up to me, just for an instant. Am I going to dwell on the fictional surgeon?
Not at all. “I’m talking about those couples, three months after The Event. Those were really interesting times, and I loved them.”
Down goes the fork, and he sits back.
“All that drama,” I say.
“I guess so,” he says softly.
“I’m not talking about the world being transformed. Considering how much happened, it’s amazing how little genuine excitement that generated. Know what I mean?”
“I guess so,” he repeats.
Working on his next fresh lines, probably.
“No, I’m talking about the crazy passion inside our heads.” I tap my skull. Two taps feels like the right number. “Think about it. The landscape got reworked and reworked hard. The most unimaginative person can’t escape what’s obvious. She wakes to find herself without a job, without status. The unproud member of a species enjoying zero importance in the universe.”
Sam offers a breathless little laugh.
“Which is pretty much how things were before,” I continue. “Being nothing, I mean. Really, do you think the Earth’s conquest got half a mention in any alien newspaper? No way, never. But still, we once had this little planet, and for a few centuries we even got to be the biggest, most important creatures. Except for ants and bacteria, of course. But you understand my point, don’t you?”
No. Looking at those eyes, I can tell that my companion is utterly lost.
Thank you, Truman Capote.
“Nobody has work, but we have our pennies,” I continue, my voice running a step too fast. “We get enough to live on, but some of us make a few more pennies. All we have to do is . . . well, you know what we have to do.”
“Sure,” he starts to say.
I interrupt him, saying, “Imagine this restaurant, and it’s a month after The Event. What would we see here?”
The question triggers laughter. Sam holds some entertaining memories about that subject.
But I keep talking. “Remember how couples used to fight? Every public meal was an excuse for a battle. ‘You cheating bitch, you ugly bastard.’ That sort of mayhem, sometimes capped with sex on the tables.”
A fond, rather embarrassed sigh. “Oh, yes.”
“But mostly, it was curses, and every few minutes, someone threw a punch, and food, and dishes had to get broken. Our audience promised to pay for human drama, and that’s what people thought they were giving.”
Sam looks at my eyes.
Honestly curious, I think.
“You know how real people look?” I ask. “When we fight, I mean.”
“Not really,” he says, sounding half-proud.
“I once had a couple boyfriends battle over me. ‘F-this, F-that.’ But when the words quit, everything got quiet. There wasn’t any breath to waste on curses. Quick movement and a lot of ugly swings. Each fellow was as likely to make himself fall as his opponent. The whole thing was pathetically fun, if you want my blunt opinion on this.”
“When aren’t you blunt?” he asks.
This should be a funny moment. A kidding, happy moment. But nothing in his tight voice invites laughter.
I wave at our surroundings. “In a restaurant like this, every lunch would look staged. Know what I mean? Like people who never dance attempting Russian ballet. That’s how ridiculous it all was, and there’s something in that mayhem that I truly, deeply miss.”
“I don’t understand,” he admits.
“The wild, over-the-top bullshit. People frantic to be as human as they could possibly be, nothing gained but embarrassment and accidental bruises and not many pennies either. Because as everybody realized, sooner or not, our audience won’t pay for melodrama.”
Sam gives me a little nod.
Just looking at the round face, I can tell. He’s wondering what would happen if he punted this nonsense about being old classmates. When you do a job and do it well, there’s always pleasure in sitting with one of your peers, happily talking shop.
Except that’s not the way I want to steer us.
“Want to hear about my current boyfriend?” I ask.
“Not especially,” he starts.
“He used to be a doctor too,” I say, smiling at him. “But not the medical kind. A PhD in Astronomy. Which is another one of the jobs that got stolen away. Not that most of humanity took much notice, what with all the surgeons and billionaires left with nothing to do.”
Sam eyes me carefully, unable to guess where this is heading.
“The big telescopes got closed down,” I say. “And every other science facility too. Since science is just another job done best by machines, and my boyfriend has nothing to do today but sit in bed, thinking about all the big problems that he can’t actually study.”
“I don’t understand,” Sam says again. “What are we talking about?”
“My ex-stargazer has a theory,” I say. “About the audience that’s supposedly watching us.”
“Well, it’s a hypothesis. Because theories are bigger than guesses, and he doesn’t have any hard evidence.”
“What’s his guess?”
“Nobody is watching us. Our audience is imaginary. The Earth was abandoned, maybe minutes after we lost control of everything. We think we see gods because the pennies keep coming. Because society remains orderly and comfortable. But really, the AIs just dropped their own little machines into place, programmed to control us, and that includes throwing us made-up money whenever we act like good polite people. You know. Civilized lunches in the restaurant, and no collapses into civil war.”
And with that, one scene ends.
One of us makes the decision. Pushing aside the uneaten Cobb salad, Sam becomes a different person. He takes one breath, and without exhaling pulls in another, two gasps fighting inside the same aching chest. Then the spent air comes out with the words, “You cannot.”
Raw emotion pushes into his face, carried along with the livid, miserable blood.
“I cannot what?” I ask.
“Tell me they aren’t watching,” he says, troubled to his core. “Because they are. I feel them always. Their eyes are on me now, and they love me so much, and bitch, you won’t make me stop believing that.”
I try to work the park, but the afternoon is too happy for my tastes. So off early to a busy tavern where a young lady can bounce between ten conversations and as many characters. After that, I head home. Too tired to think, and three days left before I get paid and get the logs to study what the payoff might be for a lunch that increasingly feels like a lousy idea.
Bed sounds wonderful.
But I drop in on my mother first. She lives next door in the little house rented with my pennies.
“Evening, Greatness,” she says to me.
Just as she always does.
We chat about my day, which is a brief conversation since I avoid any mention of Sam Kahlil. Mom would probably know the name, and believing that bigger, better people deserve to be treated with respect, my story would depress her.
Besides, I like being the biggest, best soul in her life.
Done with that duty, I finally reach my front door. Robots treat me like a queen. A feast is generated from gas and memory. But I don’t get far when I hear the laughter coming from the bedroom.
My boyfriend sits in the middle of my considerable bed, naked and cross legged, reading one of his old books.
“What’s funny?” I ask.
I sit with him for a minute. No cameras watching, but I play the scene as if the audience matters.
The audience is him.
“I didn’t know you were coming over,” I finally mention.
He reads and smiles, and then he closes the book but keeps reading those same words. Inside his head. Funny words, and certainly wise. I can tell that much from watching the play of his smart dark eyes.
“So where did they go?” I ask.
He knows exactly who “they” are. Because he’s a very smart man as well as the famous ex-astronomer crowbarred into today’s pivotal scene.
“Off to distant stars, or jump into another, more interesting universe?” I prod.
Different nights bring different guesses, but he hears something else in my voice. Taking my hands, he asks, “What’s wrong?”
I dip my head, admitting, “I have my own guess.”
It would be easy to hear a tone in those two doubting words. So I choose not to notice. Instead I tell him what I’ve been imagining for a long while. “The AI gods were never real,” I offer. “A few geeky geniuses cut our power and Internet and conquered us while we were scared. The world that we live in now? The safety net, the peace? Every good day free of pain and need is their fancy doing.”
He grins and laughs, appreciating some or all of this fantasy. Then the ex-astronomer asks, “And they did this why?”
I say nothing, letting the silence play.
“Because it was such a neat idea,” he says at last, speaking for me.
I try to laugh.
He watches me fail, and then gripping my hands harder, he asks, “What is so wrong, Pony?”
“I broke a man today,” I confess.
Real tears running.
Robert Reed is the author of nearly three hundred published stories, plus more than a dozen novels. He is best known for his Great Ship stories, including The Memory of Sky. And for the novella, "A Billion Eves," which won the Hugo Award in 2007. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska with his wife and daughter.