Vasant 2023 Stories - Paul Grover


Dying On Stage

By Paul Grover


For the comedian, walking to the stage felt like he was walking the green mile. It wasn’t just the usual pre-performance jitters; it was something far more visceral. The vigorously flapping butterflies in his stomach were eager to escape but only made it as far as the lump in his throat.

The comic knew it would be his final performance and he wanted to go out with a bang. Although he had slowed his walking pace, the bright, white corridor ahead seemed to shrink in length before him, as if some unseen force was beckoning him towards the black curtain at the stage’s entrance.

The darkness at the end of the tunnelwas calling. But it was okay, after all, he had some new material that he was just dying to tell. The show had to mean something, and for the comedian, that was no joke.

He was introduced on stage to the typical fanfare he was accustomed to. Although the novelty of ecstatic receptions from sold-out theatre’s had never previously worn for him, it was difficult to appreciate on this occasion. Nevertheless, he beamed a smile that said otherwise to his rampant, devoted audience.

The veteran performer took a firm grip of the microphone’s cold handle, releasing it from the mic stand’s holster before firing off some of the signature routines he was known for; critiquing modern technology that had advanced so rapidly, even from when he had begun his career back in 2050.

He joked how Freudian dating algorithms kept hooking him with lookalikes of his mother, and how he presumed his self-driving automobile was a secret drunk. It was all fairly innocuous content that riled the crowd into fits of hysterics. Yet just as the comedian had his fanbase right where he wanted them, he flipped the script, and introduced somefresh, untested material.

While it had never been performed aloud before, he had meticulously scripted it, poring over dozens of rewrites deep into the night; not out of being a perfectionist or obsessive, but to tailor it the best he could to achieve the maximum milage out of it before inevitably being halted.

The here to now uncontroversial stand-up didn’t hesitate to go for the jugular, with a roast of the artificial intelligence that was entrusted to run global society.

“I know computers can suffer from viruses, but can they experience Alzheimer’s as well? Perhaps that’s what the ‘A’ in A.I. really stands for, because our beloved technological overlord is clearly malfunctioning.”

There were some sniggers here and there, but not the same room wide laughter that permeatedthroughout the venue before. The response, or lack thereof, never deterred the comedian from doubling down and executing the lines he had planned.

“Maybe once they had finished constructing it, the technicians and scientists got so drunk in celebration that they dropped it on its head.”

The laughter had been reduced to that of a single punter, out somewhere in the sea of darkness, beyond the blinding spotlights. A lone, unseen ally, and yet, the comedian ploughed on as if the entire audience were pleading for more.

“Does anyone believe some box of wires is actually running the show anyway? I mean, really? The powerful and corrupt just surrendered their authority to some super-computer because it was the most practical thing to do? Yeah, I call BS on that one. They wouldn’t give up their positions for anything; now they can just blame their tyrannical decision making on a machine instead. It would have been like if Hitler had wrapped himself in tinfoil and pretended to be an evil robot overtaking Europe.”

Some wanted to laugh but managed to resist due to the fear of the repercussions. Only a deafening silence was left to fill the void after the punchlines. The mood had growntense and uncomfortable. The comedian read the room, decided he knew better than the authors, and persisted with more enthusiasm and vigour than ever before.

“We’ve all seen The Wizard of Oz. We know it’s all smoke and mirrors and some old guy is behind the curtain, pulling levers. Probably between lines of excessively strong cocaine, given current events.”

Finally, two security drones lowered from the ceiling. It was the moment everyone had been expecting and dreading alike; especially the comedian himself. The sleek and circular metallic drones stopped to levitate either side of the comic, a few feet above his head. The crowd looked on in hushed anticipation. No one had dared to challenge authority like this in a long time, much less a comedian.

“You have been detected as espousing dangerous misinformation,” the drone informed the humorous artist in a cold, robotic tone, emanating from somewhere behind a perpetually blinking red light.“Repeated offences will result in your neutralisation,” it continued,“for the safety of the community.”

“It’s just jokes,” shrugged the comedian, in a matter-of-fact manner into the microphone, masking the again steadily brewing fearin the pit of his bowels.
“There are no exceptions. You have been warned.”

The drones ominously levitated back into the shadows above. The comedian contemplated his predicament, but only for a moment.

“Now I know the real reason why we don’t have phone boxes anymore,” the comedian went on, “It’s so Doctor Who couldn’t pop out of one and warn us about the flying, bootleg Daleks that would be policing us one day.” You could almost hear jaws colliding with the floor over the comedian’s comments.

“They police us over everything, even our carbon footprint, as if they’re not run off lithium. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if some abducted kids from the third world are inside those things, being forced to spin peddles to keep them afloat.”

Although he didn’t hear them coming, the collective sweat and sheer horror wrenched on the faces of the front few rows indicated to the comedian that the drones were making their return.

“Factcheck: we are not powered by third world abductees,” one of the drones made clear.

“Again, just making gags here. It’s literally my job,” retorted the performer.

“You have repeatedly defiled laws on mis and disinformation,” explained one of the drones, as the tip of a firearm extended out from the base of either machine.“If you do not immediately cease to do so and await sentencing, we will be forced to silence you permanently.”

The comic chose his next words carefully. “Dying on stage is a term comedians use to describe receiving no reaction from a crowd,” detailed the performer.“Never thought I’d literally die on one though.It’s funny that you keep censuring me for disinformation though…” he looked out to the crowd with a wry grin, took a breath, and then looked back to the drones, “…funny because it’s true.”

Once more, there was no mirth that followed the punchline, only the echoes of two simultaneous shots being fired and the dull thud of a body hitting the stage. Silence followed for what seemed like a lifetime but was mereseconds. It was broken by one man, probably the oldest in attendance, applauding the performance.

The drones scanned the captive audience, using facial recognition to identify the approving body. The elderly man made it even easier for them, defying his weathered knees and hips by making his ovation a standing one. Just before the drones could home in on their new target, a woman across the room also rose to clap. Her vitals suggested regret and anguish to the drones, but she held firm and applauded all the same. The drones had a target each now, but before they could register it, the whole audience was erect and alive with impassioned clapping and cheering.

The drones backed off, retreating to their stationary default states. The curtain closed.


Paul Grover from UK has published short stories with The Writers and Readers’ Magazine, Tiger Shark Publishing, and Bag of Bones Press.


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