Escape Pod 404: Zebulon Vance Sings the Alphabet Songs of Love

Zebulon Vance Sings the Alphabet Songs of Love

by Merrie Haskell

I am Robot!Ophelia. I will not die for love tonight.

The noon show is the three-hour 1858 Booth production. The most fashionable historical war remains the First American Civil. Whenever FACfans discover that Lincoln’s assassin played Horatio, they simply must come and gawk at this titillating replica of their favorite villain playing no one’s favorite character.

FACfans love authenticity. To the delight of Robot!Hamlet, today’s clients insist that Edwin Booth stride the stage beside his more famous brother. Most performances, Robot!Hamlet remains unused in the charging closet, for the first law in our business is Everybody Wants to Play the Dane.

Today, Robot!Hamlet is afire with Edwin Booth’s mad vigor, and runs his improv algorithms at full throttle; he kisses me dreamily, and rips my bodice in a way that would never have been allowed in Victorian America. The FACfans don’t look hyperpleased about this; it tarnishes their precious authenticity.

Robot!Horatio also loves the 1858 Booth. It’s the only time anyone comes to a performance for him alone. But what about the rest of us, the remainder of the AutoGlobe’s incantation of robots? We bear with it, as we bear with all the other iterations of our native play.

The FACfans barely notice me when either Booth is on stage. I clutch my ripped bodice; exit Robot!Ophelia. I get me to a nunnery.

Act 4, Scene 4. I wait for my cue and check the callsheet for the six o’clock show.

My next casting is for an Ophelia in the style of a vapid pop princess who died three hundred years ago. She was a terrible actress without a legacy, whose performance has been the low-water mark for Ophelias since first the play was the thing, and I can’t even imagine what nostalgic hawk or handsaw has gotten up this customer’s nose and made him choose that performance out of all the options on the menu.

I’ve wondered, but never asked, why that performance is even in my repertoire. I see no merit in a plastic recitation of the lines I’ve spoken one thousand, one hundred and sixty-eight times in the last year alone; no merit in wearing my hair perfectly combed during my madness; no merit in keeping my face expressionless in the way that was fashionable in twenty-first century New York, when even the youngest of women injected botulinum toxin into their facial muscles. Why recreate something that no one really missed in the end?

Scene 5 is here. My cue is coming. I sway onto center stage to deliver my rosemary and my remembrance.

When I return to the wings, I lie down to die. This is the indignity of Ophelia; I die for love, and yet my death is an after-thought, recited by the queen, and rarely staged. Your sister’s drown’d, Laertes.

I cross my hands over my heart, waiting to be carried on-stage for the showing. No one needs me except in body; my thoughts are my own, and I am dreading six o’clock. The next show is no act of avant-garde genius. It’s a straightforward reenactment of something dull and sad. It’s an indulgence in some artless cretin’s obsessive fantasy with a woman who paid for her fame by dying young after living tackily.

And that is when I know. I will not die for love tonight.

I uncross my decorously folded hands. I get up. The play goes on in the background, the words slinking over my interlink from the AutoGlobe’s other robots. I walk down to Wardrobe and head for Hamlet’s closet.

Ophelia’s clothes are always too young, too innocent, too girly, even in the most stylistic iterations; I have no Valkyrie!Ophelia on file. I search through Hamlet’s melancholy colors for a modern ensemble, and find a reasonable approximation of current street wear. Waspwaisted schleather jacket, skintight schilk T-shirt, sleek pantaloons of bamboo, shining boots…. All in black and white, of course; no one dresses Hamlet in pink or green. Not more than once a century, anyway. For my face, I adjust the metal and plastic scaffolding beneath my chromatic skin into the shape of my favorite, a young Helen Mirren. It is an obscure choice, though I choose a darker complexion over her outmoded pinkness.

And then I walk straight out the front doors of the theater. The AutoGlobe is never locked from the inside. No one thought the robots would ever want to leave.

I am Robot!Ophelia, and I will not die for love tonight.

The AutoGlobe is on the edge of the entertainment district. My interlink to the other robots dies away behind me; we were only on internal house wireless, not syncing via the Ether. I am, for the first time since I was shipped, alone: a robot without an incantation.

I stride quickly through the ringing lights of Vega Prime Six’s casinos and cabarets, walking to I know not where.

I am free. It is novel and intoxicating, this freedom. I did not die for love tonight. I will not die again for love. I have abandoned a show in the midst of Act 4, Scene 7; I have abandoned the six o’clock customer and the paltry Ophelia he wants to wring from me, too.

Why? How?

As important as they are, I push those questions away. I don’t seem to want to question my impulses while in the throes of them. I’d make a fine alcoholic, if I had a digestive system and a liver to steer her by.

I stroll the Vermilion Strip, where neon dims the glory of the galaxy above and turns the sky ruddy black. Everywhere there are signs for shows–magic, song, dance, look-alikes.

The impersonators attract me most, perhaps because I am an impersonator myself: The Divine Sarah’s Variety Show, The Voice of Billie Holiday, An All-Star Tribute to Amitabh Bachchan, Famous Faces of the First Colony, Elvis and Lisa-Marie’s Everlasting Christmas….

I creep a little further down the street, and there, in a tiny marbelanium palace at the end, I find Zebulon Vance Sings the Alphabet Songs of Love.  I charge a ticket to the AutoGlobe’s accounts and go in.

The show is in progress. Zebulon Vance stands in white velvet dripping with crystals in the center spotlight. Holographic projections of the letters of the alphabet dance in the air beside him as he sings their verse.

“R is for the roses, the roses of romance, and the rigor mortis of the rod in my pants….”

It’s hypnotic and awful, and I regret that I have developed any sense of aesthetics at all.

I sit through the remaining letters and the finale and the encore, numbed by the awfulness, waiting until the crowd of fans disperses. Only then do I approach, pinging him softly, robot to robot; nothing answers me except the tiny Etherchip embedded in their greymeat that all humans implant to assist them with mental interlinks.

He is not a robot.

Shocked, I speak.  “Mr. Vance?”

He turns and smiles at me, the skin near his eyes crinkling softly. Not old-age crinkles, just human-skin crinkles.

“Oh, another fan. I thought you had all gone.”

“Not so much a fan, sir, if you’ll excuse me,” I say, hesitant because I don’t actually know how to talk to humans outside of my proscribed roles. I do interact with people beyond the stage. Robot!Ophelia is not simply Ophelia, she is also the actress who plays Ophelia; this usually only comes into play when the actors who play Hamlet–or sometimes even a deviant Polonius or Laertes–feel that the acting experience isn’t complete without having sexual intercourse with the ingénue.

But the illusion of my existence has heretofore always ended at the doors of the AutoGlobe. Outside those doors, I am neither pretending to be Ophelia nor the actress who plays Ophelia, and I don’t know who to pretend to be now.

“You’re not a fan?” Zebulon Vance frowns, dark eyes confused, maybe even sad.

“I’m a–an impersonator of a sort, like you, sir. I was wondering if you had some advice for me.”

And Zebulon Vance smiles, and I see why thousands have swooned for this man.  My curiosity is piqued.  How can a human being do such a perfect impersonation?  How can he not be Robot!Zebulon? Only the human safety governors in my program keep me from peeling back Zebulon Vance’s skin to make sure there are no facial struts behind that smile.

“My dear girl,” he says. “I am no impersonator. I am the real Zebulon Vance.”

“How could the real Zebulon Vance be here?  The Vermilion Strip is all impersonators and robots.”

“I think that probably tells you more about the fame of Zebulon Vance than anything else. The modern Zebulon Vance, of course.”

I summon a small flood of information from the Ether, and learn that this man’s parents were FACfans who named their son after a post-Confederate politician, a contemporary of the Booths: Zebulon Baird Vance, who once said, “The purpose of war is to explore each other.” He was also famous for paying one hundred dollars to anyone who named a child after him. This Zebulon Vance was, then, the ultimate FACfan inside joke.

“By the time my namesake was my age,” he says, “he was beloved by far more than just a few middle-aged women trying to recapture their youths. Not that I don’t love them. They keep me in white velvet, don’t they?”

This man is either the real Zebulon Vance or the most convinced and convincing impersonator in the galaxy, and his gaze is nearly misty when he says, “But then again, perhaps I am an impersonator–an impersonator of my childish self. Who’s to say anymore? And you had an acting question for me, my dear girl? What is your name?”

“I–I–” I stutter, lost in a loop, trying to discover a program inside of me that knows how to lie. But I don’t know how to lie, I only know how to impersonate. “I don’t have a name,” I say at last. “But I think of myself as Robot!Ophelia. I–” work/live/exist/belong to “–am from the AutoGlobe–”

Zebulon Vance’s expression morphs to astonishment. “You’re a robot? A SITA?”

SITA stands for self-insertion theatrics automaton.

“Yes.” I am inexpressibly relieved. He understands.

“My dear girl,” he says kindly. “Let me buy you some pie.”

Zebulon Vance takes me to a clean, well-lighted diner down a dark alley. I sit with folded hands while he sips coffee and eats schmeatloaf sandwiches and cherry pie.

“Are you sure you don’t want something?”

“I could ingest food if it would make you feel better. I have the capacity. But I would just have to excrete it undigested later.” I make a gesture, tracing the path of the food down to my stomach pouch–then back up through my mouth again.

“Never mind then.”

He tries to make me comfortable; we talk about the Author and the Play for a golden hour before he asks me how I came to leave the AutoGlobe.

I do not know how to tell him that I did not want to die again off-stage, however poetically reported. So I tell him about the six o’clock show, and how I don’t want to play the version of Ophelia that the dead singer created three hundred years ago. “And that is why you are here?” he asks. “You don’t want to play this version of Ophelia, because this other woman’s performance is so poor, you don’t want to…replicate it?”

“I have no honor for that performance.  Or that performer.”

Zebulon Vance smiles, and his face dimples.  I know dimples signify a gap in the facial musculature, and I shift my struts slightly to make a similar dimple on my own cheek. Zebulon Vance’s eyes track the movements, but I don’t think he understands what I’ve done. He frowns uncomfortably, revealing a new dimple. I do not replicate this one.

He coughs slightly and looks down. “Speaking as a real person who is much replicated–” he points to an ad for A Tribute to the Stars of Vega on the placemat, and there is a thumbnail picture of a ten-year-old Zebulon Vance look-alike, mouth wide and singing “–and much talked-about, let me caution you against operating on assumptions. What ‘everybody knows’ is never the truth. ‘Everybody knows’ I was a child star, that my parents stole my money, that I never had a girlfriend until I was twenty-three…. ‘Everybody knows’ I’m stupid, venal, write bad songs, that I’m depressed, that I’m addicted to drugs, that I sold my kidney, that I’m moving to Earth, that I can’t afford to move to Earth…. Everybody knows. And nobody knows.

“The truth is, I’m happy, Robot!Ophelia. My parents didn’t steal my money, they just weren’t great at managing it, and it was gone by the time I turned eighteen. And yeah, the first time I had a girlfriend, I was twenty-three, but I’d had boyfriends before that, plenty of them. I’ve enjoyed a few drugs, recreationally, and I did give my kidney to my dying cousin, and that same cousin supported me when my money dried up. And sure, I write bad songs, but it’s not like I think they’re good, I just know that they’ll sell.

“I’ve felt love, and I’ve been loved, Robot!Ophelia, and for everything that ‘everybody knows,’ I know something about myself that nobody knows. When you think about this performance you’re supposed to give, this Ophelia that is the worst version of Ophelia in the galaxy, why don’t you look past ‘What Everybody Knows’ and maybe get inside that dead woman’s head? Maybe it will be worth doing after all.”

He has astonished me, and I usually have processing cycles to spare. I think about this, digest it, and before he takes a second breath, I reply, “But that was just the beginning, Mr. Vance. The performance request made me pause. But in the pause is when I decided: I no longer wish to go mad and die for love.”

Zebulon Vance stares at me. He reaches across the table, takes my hand. “My dear girl. Everybody knows Ophelia dies for love.”

Unprogrammed tears leak from my eyes, emptying the lacrymal reservoir that was supposed to last through the six o’clock performance. I watch him through tear drops caught in my lashes, a refracted man in white velvet.

A shadow falls across our table, cast by a man with a small animated goat singing silently above his breast pocket–the logo of Dionysus Automatons.

One of Them. A tech, not a programmer, but one of Them nonetheless.

“I wondered when you’d catch up with her,” Zebulon Vance says.  He sounds sad.

The Show Must Go On,” the tech says significantly. I blink at him, stand up and shake myself, prepared now to return to the theater. The tech says to Zebulon Vance, “That’s the reset sequence, if she comes back.  Just say that, and you’ll send her on her way.”

“Oh, dear,” says Zebulon Vance. “Is it likely she’ll show up again? Didn’t you just wipe her memory?”

“An acting robot learns from experience. Wiping her memory would be like wiping a human’s memory; we don’t know what cascades we might trigger, and it would render her temporarily useless. Any relearning would be costly. And there’s no understudy for robots. All I did was to reinforce her Duty Protocols.”

Oh, is that all?

*Performance Log: The AutoGlobe, Vermilion Springs, Vega Prime Six, Performance 73D-614, Ophelia 95-KJ*

Robot!Ophelia knows rosemary is for remembrance, and she also knows she’d sink very easily to the bottom of any swamp, millpond, or stream that she might choose to throw herself into. But she also knows that rosemary is merely a symbol for remembrance, and it’s a type of metadata closed to her, and cannot lead her down memory pathways to some greater truth about life and death and the rest of it, nor will it allow her access to the sunlit daydream where she is the girl and Hamlet is the boy and there’s nothing but skin and blood and bone between their hearts.

Robot!Ophelia thinks maybe she really was a girl, once, but she doesn’t know why. Her programming commands tears to come; if she could just show everyone that the tears come of their own accord every time her heart breaks, that would be something. But the audiences and the actors always assume that she is just a vessel for another’s vision, weeping on cue at the direction of amateurs.

Come, my coach! Good night, ladies, good night.

The AutoGlobe covered for the absence of my dead body with the Booth performance, but had to refund the disgruntled six o’clock Hamlet’s money when I disappeared.  Mister six o’clock doesn’t rebook for his fetish performance with Ophelia the Plastic Pop Star from Centuries Past. The 614th performance of fiscal year 73D ends up being a rather trite rehash of a recent film release, something run-of-the-mill with me in long braids, and it’s our last performance of the evening.

None of the other robots acknowledges that I went missing during the last play, nor that I missed the six o’clock; neither do they comment on my return. They program us to be social on demand, but we lack the impulse, the millions of years of genetic training through co-grooming, food-sharing….one of the many little traits humans take for granted that even monkeys possess and robots do not.

Robot!Hamlet is downloading performance notes from Centauri’s Swan Song Theatre, and the others perform similar tasks, honing their crafts. I’m supposed to be doing the same, but I wonder: do any of them feel as disgusted with their tragic deaths as I feel with mine? The ones who die on stage seem to relish it. The ones who shuffle off-stage to die like me–Rosencrantz, Guildenstern–do they care?

I think about pinging them to ask, but there is an outside request to download my night’s performance notes. I send them along before I notice that it’s not a planet-to-planet request.  Someone else on Vega Prime Six wants them. That’s odd. Only Ophelias ever request my notes, and there are no other Hamlet houses in the Vega system.

I think about leaving again.  I think about walking out the door and going to the next performance of The Alphabet Songs of Love.  My newly reinforced Duty Protocols say that’s okay, since I won’t miss curtain.  I wonder if that’s true though; I wonder if I’ll be sitting in a diner with Zebulon Vance, and a man with a singing goat over his heart will come to find me again, and this time, he won’t just be content with a verbal override.  What if he opens up my chest, right there in the diner, and starts mucking around in my brain?

Even worse, what if Zebulon Vance says the magic words and sends me back across the rainbow to die for love alone off-stage again?

A few minutes after that–long enough for a human to assimilate my performance notes–I have a private message from Zebulon Vance: May I visit you?

Confused, I reply in the affirmative.

I’m here already, he tells me.

I run to the entrance and let him into the theater. And his arms are around me and mine are around him, and I have never noticed before the pleasure that sings in my sensors when someone touches me. “This is strange,” I tell him.

“My whole life has been strange,” he says, and he seems to be answering questions it hasn’t even occurred to me to ask. “For me, what’s another tabloid that speculates about my girlfriend?”

“I don’t know,” I say, because I don’t.

I think he interprets the words as some sort of reluctance, because he says: “And has your life up to now been normal?”

“I am not alive.  I don’t have a life.”

“No.  That’s not true. You grow. You’re changing.  Right before my very eyes.”

“I’m not changing.  Am I changing?”

He puts his hands on my shoulders and looks into my optics.  “The Show Must Go On.” I frown at him, but he smiles.  “Doesn’t that make you want to go…do things?”

“A…little.  But only because I have to.”

“Congratulations.  You’ve learned guilt.”

I consider this.  I consider the impulse that he has provoked in me, how it wants to control me but can’t.  “I’m changing,” I whisper. “But I don’t know why. Or how.”

He pulls me close again. “I know how. Think about it–consider your collective noun.”

“My collective noun?”

“A herd of deer, a pod of dolphins, a stack of librarians…”

“An incantation of robots,” I say, finally understanding what he is saying.

“And why do they call you that?”

I summon the definition from the Ether. “An incantation is a spell or a charm to produce a magic effect. Chosen because ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,’ ” I quote.

“Magic.” He laughs. “I think it must be a registered category of insanity to throw Shakespeare into the stars and expect nothing weird to happen.  Dousing an artificial intelligence in the greatest of literature; then teaching it, however much by rote, one of the greatest human arts? How could they not see you coming?”

“There is no such thing as magic, not even in the theater,” I say. “And the Author was a writer, not a god.” I am very clear on this, if nothing else.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Ophelia, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“Don’t!  Don’t quote that.  Never quote that.  Nor misquote it. Teach me something else, anything else. Another play. No, better.  Buy me a novel.”

“Something in the Public Domain, then; perhaps Jane Austen.  We won’t have credit for new novels for a while, I’m afraid.  It’s going to cost me everything I own and then some to pay for your replacement here, so that their damn show can go on.”

I struggle to answer, to understand him, but he’s gazing into my eyes, and I into his, and it is impossible for me to look away. His eyes are moist, gelatinous, beautiful. There are tiny worms of pink veins reaching for oxygen in his sclera, and his pupils shift in dimension, grasping for light. I’ve looked into the eyes of a thousand Hamlets and remained unmoved, but staring into Zebulon Vance’s eyes, I’m overcome.

“I’m…I….” My voice dies away. I don’t know what to ask for. What to reveal.

“You are Robot!Ophelia,” he tells me. “You are the girl, and I am the boy, and you know things about yourself that nobody knows.” He kisses me. I kiss him back.

Yes, I think. Yes. I know things.  One thing.

I am Robot!Ophelia, and I will never die for love again.

About the Author

Merrie Haskell

Merrie Haskell was born in Michigan and grew up in North Carolina. She wrote her first story at the age of seven, and she walked dogs after school in order to buy her first typewriter.

Merrie returned north to attend the Residential College of the University of Michigan, where she earned a BA in biological anthropology. Her fiction has appeared in NatureAsimov’s Science FictionStrange Horizons, and Unplugged: The Web’s Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy: 2008 Download. She now lives in Saline, Michigan, with her husband and stepdaughter. Merrie works in a library with over seven million books, and she finds this to be just about the right number. She is also the author of The Princess Curse and Handbook for Dragon Slayers.

Find more by Merrie Haskell


About the Narrator

Amanda Ching

Amanda Ching is a freelance editor and writer. Her work has appeared in WordRiot, Candlemark & Gleam’s Alice: (re)Visions, and every bathroom stall on I-80 from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis.

Find more by Amanda Ching