The club is brightly lit as the audience files in. It was clearly never meant to be. With all the spots and floods on, the uneven concrete floor and black-painted, unfinished wood beams are transformed from underground aesthetic to cheap grunge. The foam “rock” walls, hung with video screens, look like the cheap imitations that they are. The bar’s leprous stains and old cigarette burns make it look dirty instead of DIY.
The barrel-bottom tables are already supporting a smattering of drinks with their uneven legs, though, and even now, an hour before the headliner starts, the servers weaving their ways through the crowd are carrying loaded trays. An air of suppressed excitement — or is it nervousness? — permeates the room. No one wants to be sober tonight.
There’s a stage opposite the bar: knotholed plywood, painted black like everything else. It’s empty except for a wooden, straight-backed chair and a small, red, plastic toolbox. Behind the chair is a closed door. There are no mics, no monitors, no video or holographic equipment. Just a chair, a door, and a box.
The audience clusters near the walls of the club, drifting along the edges to check out the installation portion of the show. Twenty-five video screens are hung on the walls, a bit above eye level. Below each is a Plexiglas display case on a pedestal. The TOS on the tickets specified no recordings, but several of the people have the unblinking, slow-pan stare of videolenses; there’ll be bootlegs up by the end of the night.
Precisely half an hour before showtime, the lights go down, and the screens snap to life. Each one shows the same thing: a white room, brightly lit. A card table and a white kitchen-table chair with a green plaid cushion tied to its seat.
On each screen, a woman comes out from behind the camera and around the table to sit down. It’s the same woman on every screen. She’s blonde, wearing a plain, blue hospital gown that’s too long for her; it trails on the floor. Her hair is shoulder length and unkempt. She moves with the careful, fumbling deliberation of a recent restore; it’s obvious her spinal memory hasn’t integrated yet.
On screen 7, she trips on the gown and knocks over the chair, cursing loudly and windmilling her skinny arms for balance.
She pulls the chair out from the table (#7 picks it up off the floor instead) and sits down. There’s a rustling as she flips through the papers in her hands. Then she looks into the camera and starts to talk.
“My dearest Caroline,” is how they all begin. They’re not in sync, so the result is a stuttering chorus. After that first line, they start to diverge. Some of them are nervous, others excited; #13 seems on the verge of tears. At the center of the room the sound of their voices converges into a dinner-party murmur.
“By the time I’m watching this, I’ll be dead,” #2 announces solemnly, before dissolving into giggles. She covers her face with her hands, then throws her head back to look into the camera again. Her green eyes glint with amusement. “I said it that way on purpose, just to fuck with your head. I knew you’d hate it. All those arguments with Paul about identity, the meaning of self, et cetera, et cetera. Blah fucking blah, right?”
A middle-aged white woman, in a black dress and red shawl better suited to the opera than this club, sets her glass of Pinot Grigio down on the Plexiglas box beneath screen 12 and bends to squint at the document inside. It’s a death certificate, dated three weeks ago and signed by a Los Angeles coroner. Next to it is an empty prescription pill bottle. A server, passing by, gestures at her irritably to take the glass off the box. He wipes off the wet ring it left behind with a rag he stuffs back into his belt. She glares at him as he walks away.
#4 jumps out of her dumbfounded silence with a nervous laugh. “Um. Hi. So, this is more awkward than I thought it would be.” She rustles the papers. “I have a script. Okay. Okay.”
“Yeah, I hate it too,” says #9, leaning into the camera as if imparting a confidence.
The box beneath her holds another death certificate — this one from Seattle — and an X-Acto knife. A white guy in skinny jeans with a red goatee bends to get a better look, then turns away with a disappointed look on his face. “There’s no blood,” he says to his girlfriend, who elbows him as they move on to the next screen.
#7 sweeps her hair back from her face. “So here’s the thing,” she says. “We did it. Are going to do it. Whatever. The big performance piece. You should have seen it — or at least I hope you should have. We sold a shitload of tickets. The Mercury says they’re sending a photographer.”
She takes a deep breath. “At nine-fifteen tonight I’m going to kill myself, live, in front of a crowd. And then I’m going to turn the reins over to you.”
A piece of drywall with a hole in it lies in her display case. The tag beneath it indicates that the Portland Police Bureau impounded the gun as evidence, pending an investigation. “That’s bullshit!” blurts a short black woman with a mohawk and a nose stud, reading the tag. Her girlfriend shushes her, eyes fixed on the screen above.
“They tell us we can trust the backups,” #7 says. “They tell us they’ve got six nines of reliability — that’s ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent. Um. Plus one more nine.” She clears her throat. “The point is, it’s pretty fucking reliable. That’s why we’re supposed to take them regularly, right? Because something might happen.”
“There’s almost a hundred percent chance that they can revert us.” #13’s voice is shaking; she runs her hands through her hair over and over again. “Wake up in a hospital bed, brand-new body, missing a day or two, go about your business. I’m good about my backups, and my insurance is up to date.”
She sounds like she’s trying to convince herself. There’s only a small handful of people watching her screen, and they look uncomfortable with her display of uncertainty. “What if she doesn’t go through with it?” a man asks. “I paid $200 for these tickets.” The rest of the onlookers turn to glare at him. He has the grace to look embarrassed, and backs away from the exhibit.
#13 pulls her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them. “Will you be me, though?” she asks in a small voice. She’s blinking away tears.
#6 is frenetic, rocking back and forth with barely-contained energy. “That’s the question, isn’t it?” She’s talking so fast the words almost tumble over each other. “Will you be me? That’s what all those arguments with Paul were about. Trying to get him to take his backups. He doesn’t think it matters. He doesn’t think the backup is him.” She stops rocking, leans forward. “We’re gonna prove him wrong.”
A conversation in front of screen 6 breaks off as everyone stares at one of their number: a pudgy, late-twenties guy in a gray suit. “You’re that Paul, aren’t you?” a woman asks. “Paul Liang? Her manager?” Her eyes are bright with excitement, and her cheeks are pink.
He looks sheepish, fiddling with his tie, but he nods.
“Oh my god,” she says. “I can’t believe it!” She extends a hand to him, covered in silver rings. “I’m Jessica.”
Paul shakes the hand, a little awkwardly, but before he can say anything, she’s rushing on. “I’ve been to every one of Caroline’s shows. Every one. Except the one in Seattle, my car broke down in Eugene and it was the weekend, so—”
Paul smiles weakly. “That’s great,” he says. “I know Caroline would love to hear she’s got fans.”
“I’m totally her biggest fan,” Jessica gushes. She steps closer. “Listen, I know you can’t go telling everyone,” her handwave takes in the crowd around them, “but I’d love to know what she’s going to do tonight. See, I have this theory, about cycles? Joseph Campbell said—”
“Sorry,” Paul says. “I don’t know the details myself.” He smooths down his tie again and looks at his watch. “Excuse me,” he says. “There’s something I have to take care of. It’s almost time.”
#12 points at the camera. “See, having this kind of — of backup, this kind of reliability — it should make us feel safe. We should feel like we can take risks. Live dangerously! Experience all the things we would have wanted but didn’t, because they were dangerous. We gave the human race an unlimited mulligan, and nobody takes any fucking risks!” She looks away for a second or two, breathing fast.
“That’s what this piece is all about. Art is risk, right? Art is risk. So we’re risking it.
“You’re the last backup I made before I got the idea for this piece. You probably would have come up with it yourself in a day or so, if not for this video. At least, I assume you would. But not yet.”
“I made all the preparations as quickly as I could,” #1 says. She’s got the largest crowd watching, with #25 a distant second. First and last; no surprise there. “We won’t lose too much time. Even though that feels kind of moot now.” An animated photo lies next to the ubiquitous death certificate in her display case. She’s on her knees, on a stage, with her head in a guillotine. Most people can’t watch it through more than one loop. A middle-aged guy, strawberry blonde with a beard, watches it over and over. His tongue flickers continually over his lower lip while other onlookers edge away from him.
“The backups don’t age or anything,” #9 says, an ironic smile twisting her face. “You’re not gonna wake up like Rip Van Winkle. Time isn’t the problem here — you know that.”
“The problem is identity.” #13’s lower lip is trembling, and she’s biting at it between words. “Are you me? I thought you would be, but you’re not. Paul’s right. You never made this video.
“I’ll — this me, I mean, making the video — I’ll never know if it worked. And you’ll never get to be me, not really.” She sniffs once, twice, and then scrubs at her face with both hands.
#12’s laughter hits one of those gaps in the conversation, a moment when all the other videos are silent. Everyone turns to look at her. “How’s that for rugged individualism, huh? So unique I’m not even myself.
“Six nines. Ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine-_nine_ percent. It’s almost time.” She glances over her shoulder. “Fifteen minutes.”
#24 is sitting cross-legged on the chair. She bends one knee up and puts her chin on it, contemplatively. “Art is risk. Is risk art?” She laughs. “We sold a shitload of tickets, so people seem to think so.”
Her eyes widen, and she smiles. “I think I’m going to go through with it. It’s not like it’ll be the first time, after all.”
“That’s what I need to tell you, kiddo,” #25 says, staring straight into the camera. “This isn’t the first show.” She spreads her hands and grins. “Welcome to the world, Carebear. You’re in a reversion center in Chicago. Tonight is Caroline Archer’s thirty-ninth Final Show. Doors at eight.
“And you’re the star.”
The crowd’s getting bored with this. They’re drifting over to the bar, flagging down servers, turning away from the screens. “When’s she gonna do it?” a guy with scraggly, long, brown hair asks. The woman in the opera dress glares at him.
“What?” he says belligerently, tossing back the last of his PBR and waving his arm at a passing server. “I came to watch some crazy chick blow her brains out, not to watch a bunch of videos.” The server hands him a fresh beer off of his tray.
“Hey Ben, come over here!” a friend calls to him. He scans the crowd, locates his buddy’s waving hand, heads for screen 25, where Caroline is rocking back and forth, almost jittering in the chair.
“I think I can do it. I think I’m gonna do it. Oh man, I’m way off my script,” she says breathlessly.
“I think she’s gonna do it early,” Ben’s buddy says, and they guffaw loudly. One of them starts a low chant of “Do it, do it, do it, do it” and the other takes it up. They get louder and louder, egging each other on. People start to look at them. One of the servers makes a beeline for screen 25.
“I did it thirty-eight times before, after all,” Caroline says. “At least, that’s what the last us said, and I believe me.”
Shushed by the server, Ben’s forehead wrinkles. “There ain’t thirty-eight screens in here,” he says. Turning to face the crowd, he shouts, “Hey, where are the rest of them?”
“Art is risk,” #12 repeats. Across the room, Ben and his buddy are starting a new chant.
“Show — us — the — rest” they shout. After a few repetitions, they’re joined by a few other guys who’ve had a few beers and are up for starting a ruckus. The chant gets louder and louder.
#12 takes a deep breath. “OK,” she says. “Here’s what you’re gonna do. Or your options, anyway. In a minute, that door,” she points, but the door is off-camera, “is gonna open, and a few people will be there. One of them will be Paul. They’re also gonna have a camera.”
“There aren’t any more videos,” Jessica explains earnestly to another guest, waving her beringed hands to take in screens and the chanters demanding “the rest” of the show. “I’ve been to every show — except the one in Seattle — and there’s a new video every time. I think she lies sometimes about how many shows she’s done. Like, maybe it’s part of her statement? About how we lie to ourselves, or—”
Her interlocutor is looking from side to side, searching for a way out. He spies a server, points in her direction, and gives an apologetic shrug as he extracts himself from the conversation.
“Paul’s gonna ask you to sign some stuff,” #16 says. “Waivers, disclaimers, some other kind of contract ending in ‘-er.’ I didn’t really read them. I’m gonna die tonight anyway, and I trust me not to screw us over.” She grins. “Plus I feel like if I changed my mind I’d have a really good case against anything the last one signed. As long as I don’t do the things she did, she’s not me, right?”
The server who shushed Ben before is back at screen 25, gesturing angrily as he tries to quiet the chanters down. He gets in Ben’s face and Ben shoves him, knocking him backward into one of the barrel-bottom tables, which tips over, spilling beer and vodka-cran all over the server’s face. The chanters cheer as he blinks alcohol out of his burning eyes.
“Paul will have a script for you, but,” #7 snorts, “it’s not super important that you follow it. Just try and give ‘em a show, huh?” The bouncer, attracted by the commotion, is pushing her way through the crowd that’s gathered around Ben. She’s a formidable-looking black woman, tall and well-muscled, with her hair in cornrows and a Doctor Who shirt. One of the bartenders is on the phone, a finger in her ear and shouting to be heard over the noise. Ben’s picked up the Plexiglas case under screen 25. He’s holding it over his head, miming throwing it into the screen while the other chanters urge him on.
“Last us was crying,” #14 says. “Look at me, though, I’m not. I guess that’s a piece of evidence for our theories, huh?”
#25’s screen flashes sparks and goes black as the display case crashes into it. The chanters cheer. Breaking through their line at last, the bouncer grabs Ben by the shoulders and gives him a shake. She’s taller than he is, and seriously pissed off, and he blinks at her through his PBR haze, unsure how to react. Behind her, the servers have regrouped and are dealing with the rest of the chanting cohort.
“The cops are on their way,” the bouncer shouts at Ben. “Now, you can either get the fuck out of here right now, or you can deal with them.”
A few feet away, #24 is still explaining. “You can record a video like this for the next us, if you want. Just make sure to change the location to wherever Paul says we’re going next, and tell me it’s the next show down the line.”
“Or you could lie, I guess,” #9 says as Ben and company slink past her towards the door, stalked by the bouncer and two of the bigger servers. “Fucking with your own head like that seems pretty evil, but what the fuck, right? How do I know we haven’t done it before?”
Ben delivers a parting shot — verbal, not physical — to the bouncer on his way out the door. One of the servers goes for him, fury twisting his face, but the bouncer grabs the server by the arm and drags him back. With a roll of her eyes, she jerks her head back toward the crowd: deal with them. The heavy wooden door to the club slams shut behind the last of the chanters.
“You also get to pick your cause of death,” #24 says while one barback mops up the spilled drinks and another sweeps up broken glass. “Within reason. Paul will need to arrange everything pretty fast, so keep it simple, okay? Unless you want a guillotine. We have one of those already.”
“Or you can walk,” #6 says. The crowd is starting to calm down, wandering away from #25’s shattered screen and back toward the ones that are still playing. The servers are out in force with their trays, soothing ruffled tempers and frayed nerves with a round on the house. “Just get your street clothes and walk away.”
“I left you those black jeans and the Narwhal Jesus shirt.” #13 sniffles now and again, but she’s not crying anymore. In fact, a smile is playing at the corner of her mouth. “Everything else is still at the house. Paul has my purse, so you can get on the next plane home. Nobody’s gonna stop you.”
#12 laughs. “Like I said, I don’t think anything I signed could be binding on you anyway. But even if it was, the contract says we can back out whenever we want. We don’t even have to refund the tickets.”
The police show up too late. The bouncer and one of the bartenders stand close to the front door, giving a statement. One of the cops wanders over to the first exhibit. He watches the image in the display through a couple of loops, then turns away, shaking his head in disgust.
#9 stares straight into the camera. “The problem is, if you do that, you’re not me. Maybe that doesn’t bother you — how would I know what someone who isn’t me thinks? But if you walk out that door, and get on a plane, you’re not me, or any of us who came before. Or her, I guess, if you think that’s relevant. The original Caroline, or the ultimate Caroline. Whatever. That’s the dilemma: are you us or aren’t you? If identity wins, you’re gonna walk up on that stage tonight and blow your brains out, and the next us wakes up tomorrow night in the next town and watches the video you made. Or maybe you’ll cut your wrists, or something — I haven’t really decided yet how I’m going to do it. I asked Paul for options. I don’t know what the rest of us asked for.
“If you walk, you live. But you’re not us. I don’t know who that makes you, and you won’t either.” She looks away from the camera, up and to the left, for a few seconds, then back. “I guess that’s a risk too, isn’t it? I never thought about it like that. Is life art? Do bats eat cats?” She giggles.
#6 jumps at a knock, somewhere off-camera. She looks over her shoulder for a moment, then nods to someone there. “It’s decision time, Caroline,” she says, turning back.
“The crowd’s already out there,” #12 points out. “Drinking, talking. Watching these videos we made for each other. It’s half an hour to showtime. There’s a stage, with a chair on it, and a door.” She points. The spotlights come on over the stage. Obediently, the crowd turns toward it, draws closer to the center of the room, where the videos all merge into conversational murmur.
#7 says, “At nine-fifteen—”
“—maybe a little later, you know how dramatic Paul is—” #18’s voice is heavy with irony.
“When it’s time,” #4 says, “that door will open, and someone will walk out.”
The punk with the mohawk points at the clock hanging over the stage, which stands at 9:25. She glances at her girlfriend, who nods agreement. They take each other’s hands.
“If you go through with it, it’ll be you at the door,” #13 says. “And you’ll be me. Or her. Yourself, I mean.”
“If you chicken out,” says #9, “it’ll be Paul, and he’ll tell them all to go home.” A dissatisfied murmur goes through the crowd at this. “Maybe they won’t like it, but fuck ‘em. The whole point of this is to find out who you are.”
All together, the spots go out. All eyes turn to the door at the back of the stage. A light springs to life behind it, turning it into a black rectangle outlined in brilliant white.
Behind the audience, all 24 Carolines are silent. They sit, looking straight into the camera with identical expressions.
The door swings open. Behind it is a silhouetted human figure. And all of the Carolines start speaking again.
“So what’s it going to be, Caroline?” they ask in perfect unison. “Are you us, or aren’t you?”