The Performance
by Vera Searles

Make your time on stage count.

     Victor stood alone in the spotlight, his tuxedo too tight, the cummerbund pinching at his waist. He knew he was getting too paunchy, but a mentalist’s physique wasn’t important on the stage—only his mind.

     The audience was waiting, hushed. They knew the routine—Victor demanded absolute silence for the performance. How they loved watching this show of power--tickets were always sold out.

     Across the stage in another spotlight sat an old man in a wheelchair, his shoulders hunched forward, his haggard face and hollow jaws trembling with age as his blank eyes gazed into nothing. He must be almost a hundred, Victor surmised. He never wanted to be told their ages or their names, or what dreadful illness devastated their bodies. It might diminish his mental strength to know anything about the people he helped.

     Why was his mind wandering all over? Concentrate! he told himself. He had to make contact, get inside that old head and reach down to the core—the nucleus of the brain—and take control.

     He’d always been the only performer in his field able to accomplish miracles with his mind. But now there were a few other mentalists coming along, younger, quick to gain power over the impulses of a train across the stage. But Victor was the supreme mentalist, with never a failure.

     Seconds were ticking away. Behind the old man, in the wings off-stage, Victor could see the stage-hands peering back at him. He read their minds—he was able to pick up thoughts so easily.  The stagehands were wondering why it was taking him so long. They wished he’d stop moving his feet about—it was a clue to the audience that he was having trouble. Victor zeroed in on their minds and sent a message: “I’m not having trouble, I’m just uncomfortable in this damn tuxedo.”

     Now he had to focus, suppress his own concerns and burrow in beneath a synapse to the old man’s brain. He directed all his mental energies at the cortex, and shut out everything else—the stagehands, the tight clothing, the lights, the inkling that the audience was getting restless.

     He received just a flicker from the mind across the stage. “Good, that’s it, old man,” he sent. “Come along the pathway, follow me. I want to help you stop suffering.”

     But the flicker went out. And in its place, Victor had an impression of a scene from his childhood: the first time he had controlled another mind. He had sent a message to his mother that he wanted ice cream, and she had gone out in a near-blizzard to get it for him. When his father became angry at her folly, Victor controlled him into acceptance and approval of her act. It had been a happy time—they sat in the kitchen eating ice cream, a family quite content. And Victor had found his profession.

     He had become a hypnotist, then a mind-reader, and finally a healer. Healing without hands, without touching, just mental, his publicity read. And then he had been approached by the medical syndicate, who made him an offer he couldn’t, and didn’t dare, refuse.

     The sound of a muffled cough in the audience made him aware that his thoughts were wandering again. Take control, he told himself, and he forced his eyes to fasten on the old man. Victor detected a slight stirring of the brain across the stage, but it was only a short glimmer, then gone.

     “Come on, old man, don’t stop like that in mid-thought,” Victor sang out. But there was no mental response..

     The stagehands were staring at him again, and he picked up their thoughts. He’s losing it. He used to do the performance in three minutes, and it’s going on six already now. It gets longer each time. Yeah, he’s getting old. He’s about washed up in this business. The audience senses it, too. They’re restless, shuffling their feet, and you hear those low coughs?  Losing it? Washed up? He’d see about that. Angrily he focused all his energy on the old man’s brain. His mind reached past the cerebrum and searched out the impulses. And now he was picking something up. “Good, good, old man, I’m here to help you and now I’m going to tell you what to do.”

     He was aware of the old man’s thoughts traveling back to him through the atmosphere: “I see you standing over there, Mr. Performer. I know who you are, and what you do. On the outside I may be failing and old, but in here, in my mind, I’m still alive. You didn’t know that, did you? And there’s something else you don’t know. Some day soon you’ll be the one sitting over here on this side of the stage in a wheelchair, waiting for someone else’s mind to take control. Ever think about that, Mr. Famous Performer?”

     Victor shuddered and the audience let out a small collective whisper.

     “No!” Victor sent back mentally. “I’m in control here, and you’ll do as I say!”

     “You’re just a stage show for people who can’t stand the reality of suffering, Mr. Famous Performer.”

     “It’s your family who can’t stand the reality of YOUR sufferings, old man. They paid me good money for this.”

     “Then DO it,” came the mental reply. “Only don’t call it a performance. Call it what it is—MURDER.”

     “Euthanasia is ethical! The AMA approves—they sponsor this show--”

     But suddenly the old man’s head slipped forward, and Victor realized the truth: the old man’s brain had been more powerful than Victor’s and he had died because HE ordered it, not Victor. He hadn’t allowed Victor to transmit his favorite words: “Die! I command you to die!”

     A doctor stepped from the wings and took the old man’s pulse. When he nodded, signifying death, the audience stood as one and shrieked their acclaim. Roses fell at Victor’s feet. Bravos echoed across the theater.

     And Victor knew that it had been his last performance.