It’s the end of the world, but only for a little while.
“The Understudy,” a science fiction short story, the full text below.
If you prefer to hear your stories, I’ve put together a short audiobook version of the story, a little over 17 minutes. You can hear it right here on this very page:
or you can find it on SoundCloud.
He once heard a man say she was beautiful.
But that was back when there were men in the world to say such things.
He slipped around again to her right side, next to the curb. The wet asphalt beyond glimmered with light from shops on the other side of the street trying to catch some pre-theater traffic. The air smelled of wet autocab exhaust, and rain steamed off the still-warm sidewalks into the cooling night.
He stole a glance over his left shoulder at her, and he wondered. Her pale, high brow, the soft incandescence of red hair, the girlish nose, rich lips always in a pose of half-hesitant resolve over a noble chin, profiled against the windows of a café—he had once heard a man say she was beautiful.
The windows of the café were fogged with the moisture of coffee and rain evaporating off the shoulders of coats thrown onto the backs of chairs inside. The dripping empty arms were splayed out like something hit in the chest with a shotgun, bleeding rain. He half expected to see a chalk line drawn on the floor under the coats.
That image—the chalkline—that puzzled him for an instant, and then, relieved at finally recognizing the source of the memory, he laughed to himself. He knew all about mystery stories. He’d even read one once.
He stopped in front of the café door. “Would you like something to drink before we go in?” He drew up his coat sleeve to find his watch, although he knew the time perfectly well without bothering to look. “We have twenty-six minutes and fourteen seconds—thirteen—twelve–.”
She laughed and shook her head, the curls beginning to tighten as they jeweled in the moisture. “You’re not supposed to do it that way,” she said. “Anyway, I want to be there before the lights go down, in case we can see him from our seats.” She continued down the sidewalk toward the theater and he hurried to catch up.
“So you’ve never seen him before?” He asked.
“No. Not in person. And have you?”
“I did, a long time ago,” he said, shifting back around to her right side. “When I was at school.”
“Why do you keep doing that?” She asked.
“Moving around to my right side like that?”
He frowned briefly, searching deep for something he once had read or heard. . . . “Yeah–I’m supposed to stay on the street side of you. That way, if an autocab goes by and splashes water from a puddle, you won’t get wet.”
“But you will,” She smiled brightly.
“Yes. That’s not supposed to matter.”
“It will when you go home and do your laundry,” she suggested.
“OK. It does seem silly. You won’t rust, after all. But it’s what people are supposed to do,” he said, now feeling a little defensive about it. “So we’re supposed to do it. Once,” he declared, a little more sure of himself now that he had had a chance to think it through, “it was a reflex for men to do that. A woman wouldn’t even have asked why. Once upon a time.”
“So I wasn’t supposed to ask?”
Now, he was really confused. “Gah. I don’t suppose anybody remembers the why of courtesy, these days.”
She raised her eyebrows skeptically. “If they do, I’m sure they never told me.”
“I—I don’t know.” He gave it up as a bad job.
But it was too late for that.
Turning her chin up, her forehead back and to the side to an appraising angle that somehow made it possible for her to look down on him, despite the fact that he was a foot taller than she was, she examined him carefully. “I’m sure that’s demeaning to me. Isn’t it?”
“It’s not supposed to be!” His voice carried an unmistakable note of panic.
But she wasn’t finished with him. “You know what I think?” She asked, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper.
He was almost afraid to ask, but he did. “No. What?”
“I think we should just walk further away from the curb. Then neither of us gets wet.” And with that, she tugged him to the side, away from the street.
He mulled this over in silence for another minute until they stood before the heavy glass door of the theater. The marquee announced Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
“Oh, this one! I thought it was ‘Faust,’” she said.
“I’m sorry! Have you seen it?”
“No. I know the story—but then, we all know the story.” She pulled the massive glass door open and then, her hand on his back, she urged him through the door.
She took the opera glasses from him and trained them on a box at the far end of the theater.
“Beautiful theater,” he said.
“It is. But then again, ‘All the world’s a stage,’ now.”
He wondered. Was that supposed to be a joke? He laughed uncertainly. She had a tendency to be awfully philosophical that way, and that wasn’t a strength of his.
She focused the glasses with quick fingers, then tossed them aside and trained her own eyes on the tiny figure slumped in the wheelchair in a box across the vast hall. “He’s so small!”
“He’s shorter than I am. But that’s him.” He narrowed his eyes and nodded slowly. “He’s changed.”
“They do tend to that,” she said. She studied the depth of age in the old man’s face and hands. Unconsciously, she touched her own cheek, unmarked since birth, her skin warm and smooth as silk. “Who’s that with him?”
“His nurse. She’s the very latest model.”
“I guess she would be. You said he’s changed.”
“Yeah. He’s – smaller.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“At the University of Illinois, Supercomputing Center, Urbana.”
“You were there?” She asked.
“Oh, it was nothing special,” he demurred. “I wasn’t one of the first. They were cranking us out by the dozens in those days. I doubt he ever noticed me. I did speak to him, though.”
“Really?” She sounded like that meant something to her.
“It wasn’t such a big deal then. There were still thousands left just like him, five years ago. I knew a dozen of them at school.”
“And now they’re all gone. All but him. He’s the last one of them left,” she said.
He studied the feeling that welled up in his breast, surprised that it was so strong, so sudden. It wasn’t because of the thought of the old man in the wheelchair across the theater. He kept replaying, over and over, that delicate lilt of an ache in her voice, the curve of her neck, perhaps the way her shoulders went forward a trace when she said ‘he’s the last one of them left,’ maybe, but it was hard to be sure.
“What were you, then?” she asked, suddenly. “When you saw him?”
“I was fresh out of the box,” he said. “Just another Ph.D. in computer science and systems engineering. I worked on integrating third generation AI with human tissue cultures.”
She looked impressed, and he liked the look in her eyes better this time. “What sort of expert systems?”
“These were intended for medical examination—”
“Like that nurse?” She interrupted.
“Uh, yes, just like his nurse.” He sighed. “In those days, long before I came along, most of the production line robots were intended for medical. Back in the early days of the plague. Back when we thought we could still keep most of them alive.”
“Remember those autodocs? Back before your nurses?” Her voice lowered with scorn. “I hated those things. Lying in a box like a coffin, something like a rolling pin going over you. . . .”
“Everybody hated those things. That’s why we worked so hard to replace them with bioengineered AI in lab-grown human bodies. Toward the end, you could get a checkup and not know if your doctor and nurse were human or synthetic.”
“Like that nurse,” she said.
“Yes. And like—everything else. The world is a different place because of the work in AI and bioengineering that we did there. Not just medicine. Now, it’s . . . everything. Teachers, cab drivers, everything. And you can’t tell them from the real teachers and doctors and nurses.”
“Real! Isn’t she real?” She nodded toward the nurse.
“Well—sure. I meant the old ones. Uh—you know. The human ones.”
“The dead ones,” she corrected him, still staring at the old frail man in the wheelchair across the theater. “But why didn’t he die? He caught the plague, too. Everybody caught it.”
He shrugged. “A handful of the people who caught the plague survived, though it left most of those with some brain damage, and none of them lived more than ten years.”
“Except him,” she corrected him again.
“Except him,” he said. “For the moment, anyway.”
“I hear he has a new heart,” she said suddenly.
“Installed last year. New kidneys, and one replacement eye.”
“I did the battery,” she said, a little obscurely.
“The . . . the battery?”
“For his heart. Nuclear power. Reactors, batteries. That’s my thing. Can’t make the world look like it has people in it if you don’t keep the lights on.”
“No, I suppose not. . . .”
“Somehow,” she said, changing the subject again, and turning back across the theater and staring as if she could see her battery buried into the old man’s chest, “somehow, that all makes him seem more—more real. But when he’s gone, they’re all gone.”
“If you don’t count the embryos frozen in the Vault.”
“Oh, I haven’t forgotten them,” she said, a dreaming look in her eye. “Do you think we’ll ever find a cure for the plague?” She turned at last from the old man in the wheelchair.
“Sure. We’ll cure it. It might take a decade or two, but we know everything we need to know to do it. They taught us everything they know. And they taught us how to find out for ourselves what they didn’t know.”
“You think so?”
“I—hope so,” he said.
“I hope so, too,” she said. “And then we’ll thaw them out. The little ones in the Vault. And I’ll have one in me. We’ll raise them, just as soon as we have the world cleaned of the plague.”
A new look started to creep into her eye and he studied it, confused. “I hope I can have one with red hair,” she said.
“I’m sure they’ll give you whatever you ask them for,” he said, watching her profile, trying to identify that expression but failing miserably. “They created only five thousand of us, and only half of us are female, so there will be plenty of them to go around, once it’s safe for humans in the world again.”
That seemed to satisfy her. She stared back at the old man and nodded, oddly wistful and defiant at the same time.
The lights began to dim in the theater and the old man disappeared into the shadow, half machine and cultured tissues in his wheelchair and with his lab-grown heart and kidneys and eye, but still half human too, the last of them, and that only for a little while longer.
Unless you counted the ones frozen in the Vault.
“And in the meantime,” he said, “. . . our job is to remember what the world looked like with humans in it and keep the world just the way they left it, just as they taught us. When we bring them back, we’ll raise them, we’ll educate them, and then, and then,” he stalled slightly and wondered in the background if that was a part of the art of speech that he was picking up from his experience or just a glitch in his programming, “. . . and they won’t even know. They won’t know that their parents are—what we are.
“Not until we tell them.”
For three hours he said nothing more. At last the house lights came back up, and the audience, respectful, sat still, silent, as the nurse adjusted the blanket on the sleeping half-man’s lap, turned his wheelchair about, and then disappeared through the curtain behind the box.
Then they applauded the play, the actors disappeared, and the crowd spilled out onto the streets, wet and shimmering with the remains of another late shower, the lights of the autocabs and coffee shops painting the streets in broken strokes of electric light.
They retraced their way back down the sidewalk. He walked on her left side this time, again beside the curb, and she let it go.
“So, what did you think of the play?” she asked.
“‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
He repeated the artificial actor’s gesture and voice flawlessly, like he’d been created knowing the lines.
“They didn’t believe that!” She shivered visibly. “They wouldn’t have made us if they believed that.”
“What they believed and what they did weren’t always the same things,” he muttered.
“And that’s the difference between them and us.” She said.
A passing autocab splashed water from a puddle, wetting the backs of his legs. But he was not, after all, going to rust. The only steel in his body, a few of the long bones and the skull that enclosed the hybrid organic-electronic brain, safely sealed away from the killing plague, was much too deep, all buried under real cultured muscle and blood and skin, much too deep for anything like the weather to ever touch.
“One day you’ll bring that red headed child of theirs to see this very play,” he said.
“Their child! You mean my child.” She stopped, the image of the half man still deep inside her, like frailty, half finished. “Yes, I will.” She could almost feel her child growing in her now, a little thing, right now so cold and still and locked away dreaming and frozen in the vaults until the cure for the plague was found, but one day warm and alive and walking at her side and asking her why the stars shone in the sky. Not asking her makers. They were all dead. No, asking her, because the child grew in her until she brought it forth, and it would know that.
“I will bring my child to see a play.” She started back down the sidewalk, away from the curb. “But . . . I think maybe it will be a different play.”
The Understudy, by K.D. Azariah-Kribbs