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ALL ABOUT EMILY

Connie Willis

Connie Willis’s most recent novel, a two-volume work entitled Blackout and All Clear, is set in World War II, in the middle of the evacuation of Dunkirk, the intelligence war, and the London Blitz. It won the Nebula Award and is a current finalist for the Hugo. In reviewing Blackout, the Washington Post described Connie as “a novelist who can plot like Agatha Christie and whose books possess a bounce and stylishness that Preston Sturges might envy.” She is currently working on a new novel about Roswell, alien abduction, cattle mutilations, and Area 51. It is, of course, a comedy. These books have, unfortunately, distracted Connie from writing her annual Christmas story. Luckily, this year she took some time between novels to fashion a holiday story.

 

 

“Fuck The Red Shoes. I wanted to be a Rockette.”

A Chorus Line


All right, so you’re probably wondering how I, Claire Havilland, three-time Tony winner, Broadway legend, and star of Only Human—ended up here, standing outside Radio City Music Hall in a freezing rain two days before Christmas, soaked to the skin and on the verge of pneumonia, accosting harmless passersby.

Well, it’s all my wretched manager Torrance’s fault. And Macy’s. And the movie All About Eve’s.

You’ve never heard of All About Eve? Of course you haven’t. Neither has anyone else. Except Emily.

It starred Anne Baxter and Bette Davis, and was the first movie Marilyn Monroe appeared in. She played Miss Caswell, a producer’s girlfriend, but the movie’s not about her. It’s about an aging Broadway actress, Margo Channing, and the young aspiring actress, Eve Harrington, who insinuates herself into Margo’s life and makes off with her starring role, her career, and very nearly, her husband.

All About Eve was made into a musical called Applause and then into a straight dramatic play which was then made into another musical (Broadway has never been terribly creative). The second musical, which was called Bumpy Night and starred Kristin Stewart as Eve and me as Margo, only ran for three months, but it won me my second Tony and got me the lead in Feathers, which won me my third.

Macy’s is a New York department store, in case you don’t know that either. Except for Emily, no one today seems to know anything that happened longer than five minutes ago. Macy’s sponsors a parade on Thanksgiving Day every year, featuring large balloons representing various cartoon characters, the stars of various Broadway shows waving frozenly from floats, and the Rockettes. 

 And my manager Torrance is a lying, sneaky, conniving snake. As you shall see.

 

The Wednesday night before Thanksgiving he knocked on my dressing-room door during intermission and said, “Do you have a minute, dear one? I’ve got fabulous news!”

I should have known right then he was up to something. Torrance only comes backstage when: one, he has bad news to deliver, or two, he wants something. And he never knocks.

“The show’s closing,” I said.

Closing? Of course not. The house is sold out every night through Christmas. And it’s no wonder! You get more dazzling with every performance!” He clutched his chest dramatically. “When you sang that Act One finale, the audience was eating out of your hand!”

“If you’re still trying to talk me into having lunch with Nusbaum, the answer is no,” I said, unzipping my garden party costume. “I am not doing the revival of Chicago.”

“But you were the best Roxie Hart the show ever had—”

“That was twelve years ago,” I said, shimmying out of it. “I have no intention of wearing a leotard at my age. I am too old—”

“Don’t even say that word, dear one,” he said, looking anxiously out into the hall and pulling the door shut behind him. “You don’t know who might hear you.”

“They won’t have to hear me. One look at me in fishnet stockings, and the audience will be able to figure it out for themselves.”

“Nonsense,” he said, looking appraisingly at me. “Your legs aren’t that bad.”

Aren’t that bad. “Dance ten, looks three?” I said wryly.

He stared blankly at me.

“It’s from A Chorus Line, a show I was in that you apparently never bothered to see. It’s a line that proves my point about the fishnet stockings. I am not doing Chicago.”

“All Nusbaum’s asking is that you meet him for lunch. What harm could that do? He didn’t even say what role he wanted you for. It may not be Roxie at all. He may want you for the part of—”

“Who? The warden?” I said, scooping up my garden-party costume into a wad. “I told you I was too old for fishnet stockings, not old enough to be playing Mama Morton.” I threw it at him. “Or Mama Rose. Or I Remember Mama.”

“I only meant he might want you to play Velma,” he said, fighting his way out of the yards of crinoline.

“No,” I said. “Absolutely not. I need a role where I keep my clothes on. I hear Austerman’s doing a musical version of Desk Set.”

Desk Set?” he asked. “What’s it about?”

Apparently he never watched movies either. “Computers replacing office workers,” I said. “It was a Julia Roberts-Richard Gere movie several years ago, and there are no fishnet stockings in it anywhere.” I wriggled into my ball gown. “Was that all you wanted?”

I knew perfectly well it wasn’t. Torrance has been my manager for over fifteen years, and one thing I’ve learned during that time was that he never gets around to what he really wants till Act Two of a conversation, apparently in the belief that he can soften me up by asking for some other thing first. Or for two other things, if what he wants is particularly unpleasant, though how it could be worse than doing Chicago, I didn’t know.

“What did you come in here for, Torrance?” I asked. “There are only five minutes to curtain.”

“I’ve got a little publicity thing I need you to do. Tomorrow’s Thanksgiving, and the Macy’s parade—”

“No, I am not riding on the Only Human float, or standing out in a freezing rain again saying, ‘Look! Here comes the Wall-E balloon!’ ”

There was a distinct pause, and then Torrance said, “How did you know there’s a Wall-E balloon in the parade? I thought you never read the news.”

“There was a picture of it on the home page of the Times yesterday.”

“Did you click to the article?”

“No. Why? As you say, I never read the news. You didn’t already tell them I’d do it, did you?” I said, my eyes narrowing.

“No, of course not. You don’t have to go anywhere near the parade.”

“Then why did you bring it up?”

“Because the parade’s Grand Marshal is coming to the show Friday night, and I’d like you to let him come backstage after the performance to meet you.”

“Who is it this year?” I asked. It was always a politician, or whatever talentless tween idol was going to be starring on Broadway next. “If it’s any of Britney Spears’ offspring, the answer is no.”

“It’s not,” Torrance said. “It’s Doctor Edwin Oakes.”

Doctor?

“Of physics. Nobel Prize for his work on artificial neurotransmitters. He founded AIS.”

“Why on earth is a physicist the Grand Marshal of the Macy’s Day Parade?” I said. “Oh, wait, is he the robot scientist?”

There was another pause. “I thought you said you didn’t read the article.”

“I didn’t. My driver Jorge told me about him.”

“Where’d he hear about Dr. Oakes?”

“On the radio. He listens to it in the limo while he’s waiting.”

“What did Jorge tell you about him?”

“Just that he’d invented some new sort of robot that was supposed to replace ATMs and subway-ticket dispensers, and that I shouldn’t believe it, they were going to steal all our jobs— Oh, my God, you’re bringing some great, clanking Robbie the Robot backstage to meet me!”

“No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. Would I do that?”

“Yes. And you didn’t answer my question. Is this the same Dr. Oakes, the robot scientist?”

“Yes, only they’re not robots, they’re ‘artificials.’ ”

“I don’t care what they’re called. I’m not granting a backstage interview to C3PO.”

“You’re dating yourself, dear one,” he said. “C3PO was aeons ago. The reason Dr. Oakes was asked to be the Grand Marshal is that this year’s parade theme is robots, in honor of—”

“Don’t tell me—Forbidden Planet, right? I should have known.”

Forbidden Planet. The second worst show to ever have been on Broadway, but that hasn’t stopped it from packing them in down the street at the Majestic, thanks to Robbie the Robot and a never-ending procession of tween idols (at this point it’s Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and Justin Bieber, Jr.) in the starring roles. “And I suppose that’s where this Dr. Oakes is tonight?”

“No, they didn’t want to see Forbidden Planet—”

“They?” I said suspiciously.

“Dr. Oakes and his niece. They didn’t want to meet Shiloh and Justin. They want to see Only Human. And to meet you.”

I’ll bet, I thought, waiting for Torrance to get to the real reason he’d come backstage to see me, because meeting a couple of fans couldn’t be it. He dragged a ragtag assortment of people backstage every week. He wasn’t still trying to talk me into doing the latest revival of Cats, was he? It was not only the worst musical ever produced on Broadway, but it required tights and whiskers.

“Dr. Oakes’s niece is really eager to meet you,” Torrance was saying. “She’s a huge fan of yours. It will only take five minutes,” he pleaded. “And it would certainly help with ticket sales.”

“Why do the ticket sales need help? I thought you said we had full houses through Christmas.”

“We do, but the weather’s supposed to turn bad next week, and sales for after New Year’s have been positively limp. Management’s worried we won’t last through January. And the word is Disney’s scouting for a theater where they can put the new production of Tangled. If they get nervous about our closing—”

“I don’t see how meeting them will help us get publicity. Physicists are hardly front-page news.”

“I can guarantee it’ll get us publicity. WNET’s already said they’ll be here to live-stream it. And Sirius. And when Emily said she wanted to meet you on Good Morning, America yesterday, ticket sales for this weekend went through the roof.”

“I thought you said we were already sold out through Christmas.”

“I said Only Human was playing to full houses.”

Which meant half the tickets were going for half-price at the TKTS booth in Times Square and the back five rows of the balcony were roped off for “repairs.”

“And you know what management’s like when they think they’re going to lose their investment. They’ll jump at anything—”

“All right,” I said. “I’ll meet with Dr. Nobel Prize and his niece, if she is his niece. Which I seriously doubt.”

“Why do you say that?” Torrance said sharply.

“Because all middle-aged men are alike, even scientists. Her name wouldn’t be Miss Caswell, would it?”

“Who?”

“The producer’s girlfriend,” I said. I pantomimed a pair of enormous breasts. “Ring a bell?” He looked blank. “Really, Torrance, you should at least pretend to have watched the plays I’m starring in.”

“I do. I have. I just don’t remember any Miss Caswell in Only Human.”

“That’s because she wasn’t in Only Human. She was in Bumpy Night. Lindsay Lohan played her, remember?” and when he still looked blank, “Marilyn Monroe played her in the original movie. And please don’t tell me you don’t know who that is, or you’ll make me feel even more ancient than I am.”

“You’re not ancient, dear one,” he said, “and I wish you’d stop being so hard on yourself. You’re a legend.”

Which is a word even more deadly to one’s career than “old” or “cellulite.” And only slightly less career-ending than “First Lady of the Theater.” I said, “Yes, well, this ‘legend’ just changed her mind. No backstage interview.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll tell them no dice. But don’t be surprised if they decide to go to Forbidden Planet instead. Their entire cast has agreed to a backstage interview, including Justin.”

“All right, fine. I’ll do it,” I said. “If you get me out of the lunch with Nusbaum and talk to Austerman about Desk Set.”

“I will. This interview will help on the Desk Set thing,” he said, though I couldn’t see how. “Star Meets Fans” is hardly home-page news. “You’ll be glad you did this. You’re going to like Emily.”

 

There was only one thing to like about having been blackmailed into doing the interview: our discussion of it had taken up the entire intermission, and Torrance hadn’t had time to ask me the thing he’d actually come backstage to.

I expected him to try again after the show, but he didn’t. He left a message saying, “WABC will be there to film meeting. Wear something suitable for Broadway legend. Sunset Boulevard?” Which was either proof that he saw me much as I was beginning to see myself, as a fading (and deranged) star, or that he hadn’t seen the musical Sunset Boulevard either.

I had the wardrobe mistress hunt me up the magenta hostess gown from Mame and a pair of Evita earrings, signed autographs for the fans waiting outside the stage door, turned my phone off, and went home to bed.

I kept my phone off through Thanksgiving Day so Torrance couldn’t call me and insist I watch Dr. Oakes in the parade, but I didn’t want to miss a possible call from Austerman about Desk Set, so Friday I turned it back on, assuming (incorrectly) that Torrance would immediately call and make another attempt at broaching the subject of whatever it was he’d really come to my dressing room about.

Because it couldn’t possibly be the scruffy-looking professor and his all-dressed-up niece who Torrance brought to my dressing room Friday night after the show. I could see why Torrance had rejected the idea of her being the producer’s mistress. This petite, fresh-scrubbed teenager with her light brown hair and upturned nose and pink cheeks was nothing like Marilyn Monroe. She was nothing like the gangly, tattooed, tipped, and tattered girls who clustered outside Forbidden Planet every night either, waiting for Shiloh Jolie-Pitt to autograph their playbills.

This girl, who couldn’t be more than five-foot-two, looked more like Peggy in the first act of 42nd Street, wide-eyed and giddy at being in New York City for the first time. Or a sixteen-year-old Julie Andrews. The sort of dewy-eyed innocent ingénue that every established actress hates on sight. And that the New York press can’t wait to get its claws into.

But they were being oddly deferential. And they were all here. Not just Good Morning, America, but the other networks, the cable channels, the Times, the Post-Daily News, and at least a dozen bloggers and streamers.

“How’d you manage to pull this off ?” I whispered to Torrance as they squeezed into my dressing room. Apart from the Tonys, Spider-Man III accidents, and Hollywood stars, it’s impossible to get the media to cover anything theatrical. “Lady Gaga’s not replacing me, is she?”

He ignored that. “Claire, dear one,” he said, as if he were in a production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, “allow me to introduce Dr. Edward Oakes. And this,” he said, presenting the niece to me with a flourish, “is Emily.”

“Oh, Miss Havilland,” she said eagerly. “It’s so exciting to meet you. You were just wonderful.”

Well, at least she hadn’t said it was an honor to meet me, or called me a legend.

“I loved Only Human,” she said. “It’s the best play I’ve ever seen.”

It was probably the only play she’d ever seen, but Torrance had been right, this meeting would be good publicity. The media were recording every word and obviously responding to Emily’s smile, which even I had to admit was rather sweet.

“You sing and dance so beautifully, Miss Havilland,” she said. “And you make the audience believe that what they’re seeing is real—”

“You’re Emily’s favorite actress,” Torrance cut in. “Isn’t that right, Emily?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve seen all your plays—Feathers and Play On! and The Drowsy Chaperone and Fender Strat and Anything Goes and Love, Etc.

“But I thought Torrance said this was your first time in New York,” I said. And she was much too young to have seen Play On! She’d have been five years old.

“It is my first time,” she said earnestly. “I haven’t seen the plays onstage, but I’ve seen all your filmed performances and the numbers you’ve done at the Tony Awards—‘When They Kill Your Dream’ and ‘The Leading Lady’s Lament.’ And I’ve watched your interviews on YouTube, and I’ve read all your online interviews and listened to the soundtracks of A Chorus Line and Tie Dye and In Between the Lines.”

“My, you are a fan!” I said. “Are you sure your name’s Emily and not Eve?”

“Eve?” Dr. Oakes said sharply.

Torrance shot me a warning glance, and the reporters all looked up alertly from the Androids they were taking notes on. “Why would you think her name was Eve, Miss Havilland?” one of them asked.

“I was making a joke,” I said, taken aback at all this reaction. And if I said it was a reference to Eve Harrington, none of them would have ever heard of her, and if I said she was a character in Bumpy Night, none of them would have heard of that either. “I—”

“She called me Eve because I was doing what Eve Harrington did,” Emily said. “That’s who you meant, isn’t it, Miss Havilland? The character in the musical Bumpy Night?

“I . . . y-yes,” I stammered, trying to recover from the shock that she’d recognized the allusion. The younger generation’s knowledge usually doesn’t extend farther back than High School Musical: The Musical.

“When Eve meets the actress Margo Channing,” Emily was cheerfully telling the reporters, “she gushes to her about what a wonderful actress she is.”

Bumpy Night?” one of the reporters said, looking as lost as Torrance usually does.

“Yes,” Emily said. “The musical was based on the movie All About Eve, which starred Bette Davis and Anne Baxter.”

“And Marilyn Monroe,” I said.

“Right,” Emily said, dimpling. “As Miss Caswell, the producer’s girlfriend. It was her screen debut.”

I was beginning to like this girl, in spite of her perfect skin and perfect hair and the way she could hold an audience. The media were hanging on her every word. Although that might be because they were as astonished as I was at a teenager’s knowledge of the movies. “—and Marilyn Monroe was in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire,” she said, “which Lauren Bacall was in, too. She starred in the first musical they made of All About Eve: Applause. It wasn’t nearly as good as Bumpy Night, or as faithful to the movie.”

And since she knew so much about movies, maybe this was a good time to put in a pitch for my doing Austerman’s play. “Have you ever seen Desk Set, Emily?” I asked her.

“Which one? The Julia Roberts-Richard Gere remake or the original with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy?”

Good God. “The original.”

“Yes, I’ve seen it. I love that movie.”

“So do I,” I said. “Did you know they’re thinking of making a musical of it?”

“Oh, you’d be wonderful in the Katherine Hepburn part!”

I definitely liked this girl.

“What about Cats?” Torrance asked.

I glared at him, but he ignored me.

“Have you ever seen the musical Cats?” he persisted.

“Yes,” she said and wrinkled her nose in distaste. “I didn’t like it. There’s no plot at all, and ‘Memories’ is a terrible song. Cats isn’t nearly as good as Only Human.”

“You see, Torrance?” I said and turned my widest smile on Emily. “I’m so glad you came to the show tonight.”

“So am I,” she said. “I’m sorry I sounded like Eve Harrington before. I wouldn’t want to be her. She wasn’t a nice person,” she explained to the reporters. “She tried to steal Margo’s part in the play from her.”

“You’re right, she wasn’t very nice,” I said. “But I suppose one can’t blame her for wanting to be an actress. After all, acting’s the most rewarding profession in the world. What about you, Emily? Do you want to be an actress?”

It should have been a perfectly safe question. Every teenaged girl who’s ever come backstage to meet me has been seriously stage-struck, especially after seeing their first Broadway musical, and Emily had to be, given her obsessive interest in the movies and my plays.

But she didn’t breathe, “Oh, yes,” like every other girl I’d asked. She said, “No, I don’t.”

You’re lying, I thought.

“I could never do what you do, Miss Havilland,” Emily went on in that matter-of-fact voice.

“Then what do you want to do? Paint? Write?”

She glanced uncertainly at her uncle and then back at me.

“Or does your uncle want you to be a neurophysicist like him?” I asked.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that either. Any of those things.”

“Of course you could, an intelligent girl like you. You can do anything you want to do.”

“But I—” Emily glanced at her uncle again, as if for guidance.

“Come, you must want to be something,” I said. “An astronaut. A ballerina. A real boy.”

“Claire, dear one, stop badgering the poor child,” Torrance said with an artificial-sounding laugh. “She’s in New York for the very first time. It’s scarcely the time for career counseling.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry, Emily, “ I said. “How are you liking New York?”

“Oh, it’s wonderful!” she said.

The eagerness was back in her voice, and Dr. Oakes had relaxed. Did she want to go on the stage and her uncle didn’t approve? Or was something else going on? “How are you liking New York?” was hardly riveting stuff, but there wasn’t a peep out of the media. They were watching us raptly, as if they expected something to happen at any second.

I should have read the article in the Times, I thought, and asked Emily if she’d been to the Empire State Building yet.

“No,” she said, “we do that tomorrow morning after we do NBC Weekend, and then at ten I’m going ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. It would be wonderful if you could come, too.”

“At ten in the morning?” I said, horrified. “I’m not even up by then,” and the reporters laughed. “Thank you for asking me, though. What are you doing tomorrow night?” I asked, and then realized she was likely to say, “We’re seeing Forbidden Planet,” but I needn’t have worried.

“We’re going to see the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall,” she said.

“Oh, good. You’ll love the Rockettes. Or have you seen them already? They were in the parade, weren’t they?”

“No,” Emily said. “What are—?”

“They don’t ride in the parade,” Torrance said, cutting in. “They dance outside Macy’s on Thirty-fourth Street. What else are you and your uncle doing tomorrow, Emily?”

“We’re going to Times Square and then Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s to see the Christmas windows and then FAO Schwarz—”

“Good God,” I said. “All in one day? It sounds exhausting!”

“But I don’t—” Emily began.

This time it was Dr. Oakes who cut in. “She’s too excited at being here to be tired,” he said. “There’s so much to see and do. Emily’s really looking forward to seeing the Rockettes, aren’t you?” He nodded at her, as if giving her a cue, and the reporters leaned forward expectantly. But they weren’t looking at her, they were looking at me.

And suddenly it all clicked into place—their wanting to avoid the subject of her being tired, and Torrance’s wanting to know what I’d read about the parade, and Emily’s encyclopedic knowledge of plays and the Wall-E balloon.

The parade’s robot theme wasn’t in honor of Forbidden Planet. It was in honor of Dr. Oakes and his “artificials,” one of which was standing right in front of me. And those cheeks were produced by sensors, that wide-eyed look and dimpled smile were programmed in.

Torrance, the little rat, had set me up. He’d counted on the fact that I only read Variety and wouldn’t know who Emily was.

And no wonder the media was all here. They were waiting with bated breath for the moment when I realized what was going on. It would make a great YouTube video—my shocked disbelief, Dr. Oakes’s self-satisfied smirk, Torrance’s laughter.

And if I hadn’t tumbled to it, and she’d managed to fool me all the way to the end of the interview with me none the wiser, so much the better. It would be evidence of what Dr. Oakes was obviously here to prove—that his artificials were indistinguishable from humans.

Emily really is Eve Harrington, I thought. Innocent and sweet and vulnerable-looking. And not at all what she appears to be.

But if I said that, if I suddenly pointed an accusing finger at her and shouted, “Impostor!” it would blow the image Dr. Oakes and AIS were trying to promote and make Torrance furious. And, from what I’d seen so far, Emily might be capable of bursting into authentic-looking tears, and I’d end up looking like a bully, just like Margo Channing had at the party in Bumpy Night, and there would go any chance I had of getting the lead in Desk Set.

But if I went on pretending I hadn’t caught on and continued playing the part Torrance had cast me in in this little one-act farce, I’d look like a prize fool. I could see the headline crawl on the Times building in Times Square now: “Bumpy Night For Broadway Legend.” And “Robot Fools First Lady of the Theater.” Not exactly the sort of publicity that gets an actress considered for a Tony.

Plus, the entire point of Desk Set was that humans are smarter than technology. What would Katherine Hepburn do in this situation? I wondered. Or Margo Channing?

“You’ll love the Christmas show,” Torrance was saying. “Especially the nativity scene. They have real donkeys and sheep. And camels.”

“I’m sure it will be wonderful,” Emily said, smiling winsomely over at me, “but I don’t see how it can be any better than Only Human.”

Only human. Of course. That was why they’d wanted to see the play and come backstage to trick me. “Fasten your seat belts,” I said silently. “It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

“And you’ll love Radio City Music Hall itself,” Torrance said. “It’s this beautiful Art Deco building.”

Dr. Oakes nodded. “They’ve offered to give us a tour before the show, haven’t they, Emily?”

This was my cue. “Emily,” I repeated musingly. “That’s such a pretty name. You never hear it anymore. Were you named after someone?”

The reporters looked up as one from their corders and Androids and Dr. Oakes tensed visibly. Which meant I was right.

“Yes,” Emily said. “I was named after Emily Webb from—”

Our Town,” I said, thinking, Of course. It was perfect. Except for Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Emily Webb was the most sickeningly sweet ingénue to ever grace the American stage, tripping girlishly around in a white dress with a big bow in her hair and prattling about how much she loves sunflowers and birthdays and “sleeping and waking up,” and then dying tragically at the beginning of Act Three.

“It was her mother’s favorite play,” Dr. Oakes said. “And Emily was her favorite character.”

“Oh,” I said, and added casually, “I hadn’t realized she was named after someone. I’d just assumed it was an acronym.”

“An acronym?” Dr. Oakes said sharply.

“Yes, you know. MLE. For ‘Manufactured Lifelike Entity’ or something.”

There was a dead silence, like the one that follows the revelation that I’m Hope’s daughter in the third act of Only Human, and the reporters began to thumb their Androids furiously.

I ignored them. “And then I thought it might be your model number,” I said to Emily. “Was your face modeled on Martha Scott’s? She—”

“Played Emily Webb in the original production, which starred Frank Craven as the Stage Manager,” Emily said. “No, actually, it was modeled on JoAnn Sayers, who played Eileen in—”

“The original Broadway production of My Sister Eileen,” I said.

“Yes,” she said happily. “I wanted to be named Eileen, but Uncle—I mean, Dr. Oakes—was worried that the name might suggest the wrong things. Eileen was much sexier than Emily Webb.”

And she’d caused an uproar everywhere she went, ending up with half of New York and the entire Brazilian Navy following her in a wild conga line, something I was sure Dr. Oakes didn’t want to have happen with his artificial.

 “Women sometimes find sexiness in other women intimidating,” Emily said. “I’m designed to be non-threatening.”

“So of course the name Eve was out, too?”

“Yes,” she said earnestly. “But we couldn’t have used it anyway. It tested badly among religious people. And there was the Wall-E problem. Dr. Oakes didn’t want a name that made people immediately think of robots.”

“So I suppose the Terminator was out, as well,” I said dryly. “And HAL.”

The media couldn’t restrain themselves any longer. “When did you realize Emily was an artificial?” the Times.com reporter asked.

“From the moment I saw her, of course. After all, acting is my specialty. I knew at once she wasn’t the real thing.”

“What tipped you off exactly?” the YouTube reporter said.

“Everything,” I lied. “Her inflection, her facial expressions, her timing—”

Emily looked stricken.

“But the flaws were all very minor,” I said reassuringly. “Only someone—”

I’d started to say “Only someone who’s been on the stage as long as I have,” but caught myself in time.“Only a pro could have spotted it,” I said instead. “Professional actors can spot someone acting when the audience can’t.”

And that had better be true, or they’d realize I was lying through my teeth. “You’re very, very good, Emily,” I said and smiled at her.

She still looked upset, and even though I knew it wasn’t real, that there was no actual emotion behind her troubled expression, her bitten lip, I said, “I’m not even certain I would have spotted it except that you were so much more knowledgeable about the theater than the young women who usually come backstage. Most of them think A Little Night Music is a song from Twilight: The Musical.”

All but two of the reporters laughed. They—and Torrance—looked blank.

“You’re simply too intelligent for your own good, darling,” I said, smiling at her. “You should take a lesson from Carol Channing when she played—”

“Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” she said, and then clapped her hand to her mouth.

The reporters laughed.

“But what really tipped me off,” I said, squeezing her lifelike-feeling shoulder affectionately, “was that you were the only person your age I’ve met who wasn’t stage-struck.”

“Oh, dear.” Emily looked over at Dr. Oakes. “I knew I should have said I wanted to be an actress.” She turned back to me. “But I was afraid that might give the impression that I wanted your job, and of course I don’t. Artificials don’t want to take anyone’s job away from them.”

“Our artificials are designed solely to help humans,” Dr. Oakes said, “and to do only tasks that make humans’ jobs easier and more pleasant,” and this was obviously the company spiel. “They’re here to bring an end to those machines everyone hates—the self-service gas pump, the grocery store checkout machine, electronic devices no one can figure out how to program. Wouldn’t you rather have a nice young man fixing the bug in your laptop than a repair program? Or have a friendly, intelligent operator connect you to the person you need to talk to instead of trying to choose from a dozen options, none of which apply to your situation? Or—” he nodded at me, “tell you who starred in the original production of a musical rather than having to waste time looking it up on Google?”

“And you can do all that?” I asked Emily. “Pump gas and fix computers and spit out twenties?”

“Oh, no,” she said, her eyes wide. “I’m not programmed to do any of those things. I was designed to introduce artificials to the public.”

And to convince them they weren’t a threat, to stand there and look young and decorative. Just like Miss Caswell.

“Emily’s merely a prototype,” Dr. Oakes said. “The actual artificials will be programmed to do a variety of different jobs. They’ll be your maid, your tech support, your personal assistant.”

“Just like Eve Harrington,” I said.

“What?” Dr. Oakes said, frowning.

“Margo Channing hired Eve Harrington as her personal assistant,” Emily explained, “and then she stole Margo’s career.”

“But that can’t happen with artificials,” Dr. Oakes said. “They’re programmed to assist humans, not supplant them.” He beamed at me. “You won’t ever have to worry about an Eve Harrington again.”

“Dr. Oakes, you said they’re forbidden to take our jobs,” one of the reporters called out, “but if they’re as intelligent as we’ve just seen Emily is, how do we know they won’t figure out a way to get around those rules?”

“Because it’s not a question of rules,” Dr. Oakes said. “It’s a question of programming. A human could ‘want’ someone else’s job. An artificial can’t. ‘Wanting’ is not in their programming.”

“But when I asked Emily about her name,” I reminded him, “she said she originally wanted to be called Eileen.”

“She was speaking metaphorically,” Dr. Oakes said. “She didn’t ‘want’ the name in the human sense. She was expressing the fact that she’d made a choice among options and then altered that choice based on additional information. She was simply using the word ‘want’ as a shortcut for the process.”

And to persuade us she thinks just like we do, I thought. In other words, she was acting. “And what about when she said she loved the play?” I asked him.

“I did love it,” Emily said, and it might all be programming and sophisticated sensors, but she looked genuinely distressed.

“They have preferences just like humans,” Dr. Oakes explained.

“Then what’s to keep them from ‘preferring’ they had our jobs?” the same reporter asked.

“Yeah,” another one chimed in. “Wouldn’t it be safer to program them not to have preferences at all?”

“That’s not possible,” Emily said. “Simulating human behavior requires higher-level thinking, and higher-level thinking requires choosing between options—”

“And often those options are equally valid,” Dr. Oakes said, “the choice of which word or facial expression to use, of which information to give or withhold—”

Like the fact that you’re an artificial, I thought, wondering if Dr. Oakes would include in his lecture the fact that higher-level thinking involved the ability to lie.

“Or the option of which action to take,” he was saying. “Without the ability to choose one thing over another, action, speech—even thought—would be impossible.”

“But then what keeps them from ‘choosing’ to take over?” a third reporter asked.

“They’ve been programmed to take into consideration the skills and attributes humans have that make them better qualified for the vast majority of jobs. But the qualities that cause humans to desire jobs and careers are not programmed in—initiative, drive, and the need to stand out individually.”

“Which means your job’s safe, Claire,” Torrance said.

“Exactly,” Dr. Oakes said without irony. “In addition, since artificials’ preferences are not emotion-based, they lack the lust for power, sex, and money, the other factors driving job-motivation. And, as a final safeguard, we’ve programmed in the impulse to please humans. Isn’t that right, Emily?”

“Yes,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to steal anybody’s job. Especially yours, Miss Havilland.”

Which is exactly what Eve Harrington said, I thought.

But this was supposed to be a photo-op, not a confrontation, and it was clear the reporters—and Torrance—had bought her act hook, line, and sinker, and that if I said anything, I’d come off just like Margo Channing at the party—a complete bitch.

So I smiled and posed for photos with Emily and when she asked me if I’d go with them to the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show (“I’m sure the Mayor can get us an extra ticket”) I didn’t say, “Over my dead body.”

I said regretfully, “I have a show to do, remember?” And to make Torrance happy, “All of you out there watching, come see Only Human at the Nathan Lane Theater on West Forty-fourth Street. Eight o’clock.”

  

Copyright © 2011 by Connie Willis

 

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"ALL ABOUT EMILY" by Connie Willis copyright © 2011 with permission of the author.

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