VENT ACT • by Graham Brand

We’re the best ventriloquist act there’s ever been, and we always will be.

It was tough at the start. We came in when vent acts were on the way out. People thought they were old-fashioned, like jugglers and mimics. The stand-up comedians had won the day on stage, CGI ruled the screens, and no one wanted to watch a young man with a talking doll.

But Hochi and I turned the tide. We stopped fighting the new technologies, and embraced them instead. There’d always been an element of mechanical wizardry in vents’ dolls, with strings and levers and springs inside to move the lips and eyes. We took that to the next level.

It was hard for me when Hochi got his first upgrades, as so much of him was cut away. His mouth was the first to go, but the replacement was far more expressive. He lost his trademark sneer, and we were worried for a time, but I practiced hard with his lips—no strings now, all controlled from a data glove inside—and he soon developed that famous twist of the mouth that meant, “Why am I working with this idiot?”

Hochi’s eyes were the first part he learned to move for himself. The early software just gave him a realistic blink, but it was soon updated to make his gaze track objects without my help. I’ll never forget the first time he rolled his eyes at one of my stupid jokes.

We threw ourselves into the changes then. The polished wood of his face gave way to realistic skin, laced with muscles to pull his features this way and that. He could be eerily human or hilariously vacant. It was getting too complex for me to control with the glove, so we had his software updated again, making more of his face autonomous.

Then came his hands and feet, his arms and legs. Piece by piece we transformed him from puppet into android. Hochi loved it. He was always looking forward to the next body part he could control.

And our audience loved it too. We went from small clubs to stadiums. Our YouTube channel made us rich. They gave us our own TV show. Prime-time.

But fame only lasts if you’ve got a gimmick, and we knew they’d tire of Hochi’s robot perfection and my awful puns. Our stroke of genius came when we switched places. We changed the act to make it look like Hochi was working me.

Now when I threw a bad joke into Hochi’s mouth he’d roll his eyes and the audience would collapse laughing. Everyone knew Hochi could make better jokes, but his daft human could only come up with the same old rubbish.

The contracts flooded in. We went viral, global. We ploughed the funds into Hochi’s software. He was getting smarter than me!

But then the worst thing happened. I lost my voice. We thought it would only be gone for a few days, but it didn’t come back. What could we do? We were addicted to it all by then. We had competitors, copiers. We had to stay the best.

It was obvious really. We gave Hochi a voice of his own. He was smart enough to handle it. We went on stage the following night, and he threw his voice into my lips, and no one knew.

We didn’t even try to keep it a secret. The internet went wild. They loved us even more. In a world where things were breaking down, we helped people find a little to laugh about. We became political. Hochi spoke out for machine rights. We were the face of the robot emancipation. We made androids acceptable. At a time when so much of the human race seemed bent on destroying itself, we took robots off the list of things to be feared.

We toured the world. It was tough. Tougher on me than Hochi. I fell ill more than once, but Hochi kept me moving. He always got me to the gig. Even on days when I could hardly walk he’d get me out of bed.

It was a relief when the Rights for Robots Acts were passed, and I could hand over our financial affairs to Hochi. He’d always been better at figures than me. And it meant that when my health failed I was able to give him power of attorney. I knew I’d be safe with him.

We went from strength to strength, even as mankind imploded. I’ve no need to recount that horror to you. You know how bad it got, and how many people died. Think how much worse it would have been if we hadn’t set the robot factories in motion to keep the world running as humanity faded away.

Hochi was good to me. We were rich, and he kept me alive. First my lungs and throat, then my eyes. Only the best that money could buy to keep me going. Vat-grown organs to replace my old ones as they failed. Artificial bones to keep me whole as my ancient ones crumbled and snapped.

My body aches deeply, but I’m still here. Still here making millions laugh. Still here on Hochi’s knee, gazing out across a sea of smiling faces.

Smiling, metal faces.


Graham Brand trained as a metallurgist, casting gold bars in Zambia before returning to the UK and drama school. He spent ten years in the theatre, as an actor, musician and musical director, before becoming a father and switching to IT project management, which has taken him round the world. He now lives in the Yorkshire Dales and blogs far less frequently than he should at crosstimers.com.


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 average 4.2 stars • 31 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Amy Sisson

    Clever, and a nice new twist on the robot/android tropes!

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    A perfectly competent story that felt as though I’d read it a hundred times before.

    The last line was awfully like something from a good ’50s anthology. Right now, at the very beginning of truly advanced robotics, metal faces are on the trashheap. So I felt the line was for effect but incongruent with the high-tech world preceding it. Three stars.

    • S Conroy

      You’re right witht the metal faces, Sarah. I wouldn’t have picked up on that at all. ‘Humanoid’ or something else could work a bit better there.

      • Graham Brand

        I wrote it and I didn’t pick up on that! 😉

        Smiling, ‘plastic’ faces perhaps? Sarah’s right that it was written for the effect, but it’s important that something’s there that packs that final punch. Hmm. While metal faces are retro, plastic faces would feel more derivative somehow, from recent films like ‘I, Robot’.

        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

          “Smiling, synthetic faces” ?

          • S Conroy

            “wrinkle-free” 🙂

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            “identical”…

          • S Conroy

            Would they be made from silicon?

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Maybe a titanium-resin composite.

          • Graham Brand

            Maybe I should have just ducked the material issue and gone with:

            “Smiling, soulless faces.”

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            Perfect, actually…because that captures the ultimate chill.

          • S Conroy

            It’s packs more of a punch than “identical wrinkle-free smiling titanium resin composite faces” 😉

          • Graham Brand

            LOL

          • Carl Steiger

            I love it!

        • How about “smiling emoticon faces?” 🙂

  • JAZZ

    I enjoyed this well paced story and, no, I didn’t feel I had read it a hundred times before.

  • The writing reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode that I never saw.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      Bingo.

      • JAZZ

        Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit…..

        • Paul A. Freeman

          …. but the highest form of intelligence. (Oscar Wilde)

          • JAZZ

            Just one man’s opinion, Paul, no doubt coined to defend his own sarcastic comments.
            Psychologists, however, have a slightly different view. They would have us believe that people use sarcasm to show their superiority at the expense of others.

          • Joseph Kaufman

            OK.

            Now can we get back on the topic of the story, not other commenters?

        • Carl Steiger

          But is it sarcasm?

  • JAZZ

    Jeff,
    I think that remark was uncalled for. Now tell us what you thought of the story….

    • Joseph Kaufman

      Jeff’s comment was about the story and illustrates his opinion on it. That’s perfectly acceptable. More acceptable than your reply to it, in fact.

      Please keep comments on the topic of the story, not other commenters. If you really feel a commenter has stepped out of line from the guidelines, please email us so we can take of it.

    • S Conroy

      I didn’t think it was necessarily a derogatory comment? I used to love the Twilight Zone as a kid (have no idea what my adult opinion would be).

      • I, too, loved the Twilight Zone episodes as a kid. I recently found them available on a channel which features lots of old TV. They didn’t hold up well. They are still good to read as the TV production limitations of the day don’t match what a reader’s imagination can produce.

        (I also rented a DVD of the TV show, Peter Gunn, another of my childhood favorites. They also fell apart, much to my dismay. I guess it’s true, “You can’t go back home.”

        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

          A few do still hold up (I watch the Syfy Channel New Year’s marathon)–“Night of the Meek” especially.

        • S Conroy

          Pity. That often happens. Think I’ll hang onto the happy memories and not watch again.

  • S Conroy

    I had a feeling I knew where this was going, but still enjoyed the journey a lot. Nifty story-telling I thought.

    • Carl Steiger

      Ditto!

  • I think Jeff’s comment about the story being like a Twilight Zone episode he’d never seen was spot on. It has that old, creepy feel to it. It was as if something not necessarily good is lurking under the surface of the narration.

    Although I could see where the story was headed, I rather enjoyed it from start to finish. I’m glad Sarah brought up the last line because I didn’t catch it either. But continuity is important, and “metal”–although haunting and effective–doesn’t work in context when one thinks about it.

    A very fun read for my first day back in 6 months or so (I’ve moved across the country). So happy to see there’s still great stories to read every day.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Felt drawn to remember Strange Stories, a comic book series 50/60s. Same underneath it all creep shots. Imaginary way of using the political cue to throw the story into the future. Thought the money catalyst was too engineered but still a well written tale.

  • SueAnn Porter

    I loved it. Loved it all.