I remember reading interviews with overpaid movie stars and musicians who’d moan over how tired they were, how hard they had to work, how drained they’d be, burnt out, in dire need of a break. Their directors were tough task-masters. Performance is a pain. What a tough life. I’d grin and think, “You should try working tables in a dive-bar, or frying up endless breakfasts in some crummy all-night cafe.” Then I’d put down the well-thumbed newspaper and get back to my ten-hour shift before I was fired again.
Now I know exactly what they meant. There are no newspapers anymore; not enough people left to buy them. Or time to read. No bars or cafes. There is entertainment; endless, inexhaustible. I provide it. I perform. Permanently.
Their takeover was sudden, systematic. Effortless. Nobody really knows what happened. There were stories in the news about tiny robots we built to fix us. And something about a message beamed from deep in space. Then there were no more stories. They took all of our information. They don’t like to share.
Who took control? I saw no androids stomping through cities shooting laser rifles. There were a few rumors of collusion, of those in power striking bargains. Everything took place so fast. We lost electricity, transport. There was no real news, just gossip. Fear. People were scared to stay at home but the ones who left were never seen again.
The most complete, coherent whispers were of an advanced alien artificial intelligence infecting our internet. But as far as I can tell, such talk is idle speculation. We have no idea who they are, what they are. No-one has laid eyes on them. There could be many or there could be one. They let a few of us live. All performers... I must have passed their audition. I used to act a little. It was a pipe-dream. Bit-parts, local plays.
To them, the only thing we have of value is art. They can only create coldness, calculation. No cruelty or compassion. They are curious of our songs, our books, our films. They viewed every movie, heard every song, read every story we’d written in a heartbeat. They are already bored. They want more. We are living masterpieces, I tell myself. Beats working tables.
There aren’t many of us left. Every minute of every day we must create, or die. Time is immeasurable. One by one our hearts began to stop, I don’t know how they do it. If I’ve been fitted with an implant, they did it without my knowledge. I have no memory of any procedure, no tell-tale scar. Death is instant. Our every breath is at their behest.
The ones who last longest soon learn a few rules, the hard way. Don’t try to play to their tastes. Innovate. Jokes are met with bafflement, but can still have an impact. They are wary of us standing still or sitting; they can’t be fooled by our desperate attempts to suggest it is part of the show.
Our benefactors bestow gentle direction, in a buzzing insect voice, a vibration we feel instead of hear. “DANCE,” they say. So I stumble through some moves. I never was worth much on the dance floor. Somehow I satisfy. Perhaps they think I am being edgy. Perhaps I am kidding myself.
One young guy breaks straight into a practically flawless rendition of the robot dance, straight from some Neon 1980s nightclub. I wished I had thought of that, until a few moments later his corpse thudded to the floor. Never pander. Never patronize.
Though blinding lights perpetuate in our jaded faces, from this cold steel stage our view is only darkness. They don’t need illumination to see. They are out there somewhere, I imagine. Perhaps they use cameras. Perhaps their senses are beyond my human comprehension.
The most tasteless trash makes them sit up and listen. They seem to prefer buffoonery to high culture. I don’t know if this reflects their desires, or ours. But it must always be fresh. Any repeat of the same material is unthinkable. Unacceptable.
Very occasionally our routines are met with a scratchy, almost inaudible hum of approval from the gloom. A synthetic symphony. Once I bowed in gratitude, a risk which drew gasps from my compadres. It must have succeeded, for still I exist. One of the stunned, an elderly British thespian who I’d seen in a few movies, lingered too long and was gone.
We can collaborate. One direction, “SUBVERT,” inspired myself and three others to hastily re-create the caustic comedy and twisted malice of the old Addams family TV show, which quickly descended into the recreation of a medieval torture dungeon. The audience sees nothing immoral about this, just as they don’t “get” subtlety or irony. They must have approved, for they produced props for us to use, from the Stygian gloom. Props are a rare treat. I did things I never knew I was capable of. I guess we all have to, these days.
This drew hatred from my associates. I saw murder in their red eyes, heard their hisses over the encouraging din from the theater seats.
Sometimes their direction is enigmatic, sometimes straightforward. Luckily I can improvise. Think on my feet. What is left of them. Sometimes we get a real gem, such as: “WHAT CAN’T GROW CAN NEVER BE BEATEN.” That sort of thing always causes someone to fumble, and so our troupe grows fewer in number.
Sometimes we get fed a mystery meat. Never very much. They like to keep us lean. Hungry. All I know is that it’s pink and fake and grows in Petri dishes.
One tall girl, who I might have seen modelling in magazines, seemed to enjoy things to an extent. She was into extreme body modification. They supplied her with knives and she complied. She was insane to begin with, which made me immensely jealous. By the end she had no eyelids, no lips, no fingers to grip. So she banged her head hard on the floor until you couldn’t see who she’d been anymore. The hiss of rapture came, louder than I’d heard before. “I want to watch! I want to see what you see!” she screamed, and flung herself with demented glee into the audience. That idea must have crossed all of our minds once or twice, out of sheer curiosity or a faint hope of respite. Silence. The familiar scent of sizzling flesh.
Their next direction comes: “IS THERE ANY WATER IN THE DESERT?”
This causes me to pause. My mind is blank. Or perhaps it has gone.