Stella, Stella, Fortune Teller

Author: Hillary Lyon

The beaded curtains sounded like the patter of soft rain as they closed behind Georgina. She navigated the dimly lit room, taking the only seat at the small round table situated in the middle. In the LED candlelight, a crystal ball gleamed in the center of the shawl-covered table. Georgina sighed. Why did she let her roommate talk her into this? A visit to a mystic-bot was likely a complete waste of time and money.

A soft light ignited within the crystal ball; dark blocky letters grew and took shape: “Welcome to Stella’s Parlor, a division of Mystico Entertainment. Please place right palm here for chip scan.” Georgina did as advised, annoyed with herself the whole time. A tiny, tinkling tone signaled her payment had been approved. There go twenty-five credits.

Soft ambient music began to emanate from the corners of the room, almost masking the mechanical swoosh sound of the fortune-teller’s entrance. Stella, the mystic-bot, docked at the table across from Georgina. The bot appeared to be right out of Hollywood Central Casting for horror-movie gypsy fortune tellers, circa 1940. Paisley silk headscarf, jangly bangle bracelets, multiple gold-coin necklaces, a face creased like a road map. Her dark glass eyes met Georgina’s.

“I am Stella. Tell me what you wish to learn. I know all.” The mystic-bot’s mouth moved convincingly.

Georgina cleared her throat. “My boyfriend, will he—”

“Five to ten,” Stella interrupted. The mystic-bot put her hands together, as if in supplication, and continued. “With time off for good behavior.”

“What? No, will he ask me to—”

“His cohorts will testify against him.” Stella droned on.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about! My boyfriend has a great job as a loan officer. He’s honest, he’d never—all I want to know is if we’ll get married! Or am I wasting my time with him?” Georgina was exasperated; Stella obviously had her confused with some other client. Maybe her prediction program was corrupted?

“Your Simon has a gambling addiction, well hidden from those he loves.” The mystic-bot closed her eyes. Georgina could see the glass orbs rolling spasmodically beneath Stella’s silicone lids. She watched in fascination as Stella’s factory-tinted lips moved in silence, as if the bot was whispering prayers; Georgina wondered what deity a mystic-bot would invoke. The God of AI? The Goddess of Entropy?
Georgina refocused on the session. “No,” she objected, “he doesn’t have a problem, he’s a dream come true, and how did you—ah, you learned Simon’s name when you processed my payment,” Georgina realized. “You did an instant search on my name, that’s all. Nothing ‘mystic’ about that. This is a joke.” Georgina began to rise from the table, but Stella clamped onto the woman’s wrist with a machine’s unshakable grip. “Later this very afternoon,” Stella hissed, “he’s arrested for embezzlement. Big time bookies, human hookers involved. You must distance yourself.”

“If you don’t let go, I will report you and your ‘entertainment company’ to the authorities. As it is, I’ll be filing a grievance to get my credits back.” Stella relaxed her hold and Georgina jerked her arm away. Without looking back at Stella, Georgina stormed out through the beaded curtains, ignoring the mystic-bot’s plaintive warning: “Leave him now and save yourself from a world of hurt!”

Standing on the dirty pavement outside Stella’s Parlor, Georgina mashed Simon’s number in on her phone. Her fury quickly morphed into rising panic, and her button-punching became more frantic, as over and over again, the call went directly to voice-mail.

The Souvenir

Author: Hillary Lyon

Micah stood up straight, pushed back his hat and flashed his brightest smile at the tourist taking his picture. They always placed their family members on either side of him and made sure they got the heavily forested mountains in the background. Or sometimes they wanted Micah and their kin to stand before the large, weathered wooden National Forest sign. Being a personable, photogenic Forestry Service employee, Micah always obliged.

A picture is worth a thousand words, but even better, it is evidence that you were there—wherever “there” is. So Micah spent most of his days, of late, posing and smiling with strangers and their relatives. This sunny afternoon was no different.

“So, Ranger Mick, has there been an uptick in visitors since the deregulation? Speculation was places like this would be flooded with—”

“Flooded with friendly visitors, yes,” Micah finished for the pale, pudgy tourist dressed in fluorescent blue and yellow plaid. And those same visitors nearly drowned local businesses with their devalued currency, he added to himself. Deregulating time travel was one thing, but lifting restrictions on the number of travelers each month—that had wreaked havoc on the past. His present.

“And it’s Micah, not Mick,” he added delicately.

Tomorrow-landers—that’s how Micah and his friends thought of these tourists—they all wanted to visit the past, where there were still vast expanses of uninhabited, pollution-free land. Where they’d find clean air, fresh water, food that didn’t come out of a factory spigot, fit women, virile men, and real dogs. Micah worried what the future must be like if so many people there were in such a rush to leave it behind. These tourists were forbidden to talk about their own time, lest they alter the course of the future. But weren’t they altering that course just by being here? Still, the tourists couldn’t help but let details of their lives slip, and what Micah overheard was depressing.

“Treat them as if they are visitors from one of our urban coastal city centers,” the head of the Forestry Service Workers Union had instructed in a memo released last month. “They speak our language, so it will be easy to converse with them. They are curious, though not always polite. But you must be polite and accommodating at all times! Our future depends on it!”

“Hey, Ranger Mick, one more pic for the scrapbook,” the blubbery tourist demanded, raising his camera up to his little pig eye. “Yeah, now Bettina, how about you sidle up next to Ranger Mick, and put your arm around him. That’s great! Now, look into each other’s eyes—”

The young woman reached her flabby arm around Micah’s trim waist and pulled him closer to her. “It’s just like fate!” she said with breathless excitement.

“This is a bit much,” Micah said with nervous laughter, as he attempted to gently pry himself free of her surprisingly strong grip.

“Nah, not for the strapping buck whose going to be my baby’s daddy!” The young woman licked her chapped lips and pulled him in closer to her lumpy frame. “Vacation’s over, Papa—I found the one I want!”

“What?” Micah squeaked, sure that he’d misheard.

“Smile!” The camera snapped. “That’s one for the baby book!” the tourist in plaid sang out with unbridled glee.

Archie’s Avatar

Author : Hillary Lyon

The old woman leaned over the tombstone, and wiped the flat screen embedded in the front. It was grimy from exposure to the elements, but with a few gentle, conscientious strokes with her handkerchief, came clean. She sighed wearily, stepped back, and digging through her over-sized purse, located the small remote needed to operate the screen. Two clicks of the green button, and it flickered on. A middle-aged man, handsome in an everyday kind of way, smiled at her from the ether. He waited for her to speak first, like the gentleman he was.

“Hello, Archie,” the old woman said softly.

The man on the screen raised his eyebrows in happy recognition. “Well, hello, Frida! How have you been, sweetheart?”

Frida knew this wasn’t really her dead husband, that this apparition on the screen before her was just an amalgamation of data culled from his digital life. But still—it was comforting to hear his voice, to hear him say her name again.

“My arthritis gives me grief, but other than that, things are fine.”

“Maybe you should exercise more,” Archie offered. That was his answer to almost everything.

“Uh huh. I’ll think about it.” How many times had they had this conversation? Some things never change.

“How are the kids? Behaving and getting good grades?” Archie tilted his head inquisitively, like a golden retriever anticipating a treat.

“Well, as I told you last time, Valerie is married and lives in Fort Worth. She has two kids—Chelsea and Dennis. You’re a grandpa! Jeff is divorced again and can’t seem to hold a steady job. I’m so tired of worrying about him—”

“So don’t,” Archie snipped, catching Frida by surprise. He used to be more patient with family dramas, she recalled. Seeing her reaction, he immediately softened his tone. “I don’t remember any of this. Sorry.”

I’m sorry, too, Frida thought. Especially since I paid for the premium package; when presented with new information, it’s supposed to be integrated into his avatar’s persona. She’d have to contact the company to complain. Again.

Archie’s expression brightened. “It’s so good to see you! What brings you here?”

“It’s our anniversary, Archie. Would’ve been 47 years ago today.” Frida sat on the small concrete bench beside the grave. The sun was pleasantly warm on her face and arms.

“Hoo boy! That’s a lifetime!” Archie laughed.

“Yes, it is. Or would have been.” Frida took her eyes from the screen and looked around the cemetery. It was a gorgeous day. She took a deep breath. “Archie, I’m selling the house. It’s too big with just me. I’m moving south, to a more temperate climate.”

“But that house—it’s home!” Archie looked perturbed. “I put so much work into it. The kids’ll have to go to new schools—they’ll lose all their friends.” On screen, he shook his head sadly.

“Archie, honey, you don’t live there anymore. Neither do the kids. They’re all grown up now, remember?”

“Can I go with you?” Archie looked astounded and sad, like a family dog left by the side of the road.

“I’ll see you next year, hon.” Frida clicked the red button on the remote, and closed the program. She patted the tombstone affectionately as she rose; she knew his avatar wouldn’t process this conversation, but felt better for having told him. Frida leaned over and kissed the warm stone, her lipstick leaving a dusty-rose colored imprint. She stopped herself from wiping it off; old habit. Laughing quietly at herself, she walked away into that beautiful spring morning.

The Birthday Present

Author : Hillary Lyon

“Just think of all the work you will complete, Connie, now that you have an extra month here.”

Conrad ignored Tandie, the on-board computer that ran everything. Including scheduling. He was in the middle of a job, and didn’t care for distracting small-talk.

“Did you hear me, Connie?”

Conrad put his socket wrench down on the floor beside him, and stood up.

“Yes, Tandie, I heard you.” Why did this computer always interrupt him when he was doing maintenance?

“Are you not pleased with the opportunity to finish your project?” The voice still sounded a bit stilted, even with the latest software upgrade.

“No, I mean, yes, it’ll be good to finish my project.” Even though my replacement could do it just as easily, Conrad thought bitterly, and I would be on my way home.

“Now I have to finish this little job, Tandie, so no more chit-chat. Okay?”

* * *

As he sat in the ship’s small kitchen, eating a bowl of steaming shrimp-flavored ramen noodles, Conrad scanned his tablet, reading the latest headlines from home. He began to daydream about his wife, and although the money on this job was good, the time lost made him uneasy.

“Connie,” Tandie interrupted, “before your scheduled down-time tonight, please check the—”

Now it was Conrad’s turn to interrupt. “Tandie, you know I don’t like to be called ‘Connie.’ I prefer ‘Conrad.’ So please change that in your data base. Thank you.”

“Noted. But why do you call me ‘Tandie’?”

“The nickname comes from a computer my grandpa owned ages ago. Listen, any remaining maintenance work will be attended to when I wake up, in approximately eight hours. So goodnight, Tandie.” To Conrad, it often seemed as if he was dealing with a needy wife, rather than a sophisticated computer system. For the life of him, he couldn’t imagine why anyone would desire robotic AI for a mate, rather than a real person.

* * *

Conrad had been awake and working for a full hour before Tandie hailed him.

“Conrad, porthole B26 is obscured. Please investigate.”

“Fine, I was done here anyway.” Conrad wiped his hands and picked up his tool-belt. This request puzzled him. Reflexively, he held his breath, praying there wasn’t a crack. That would be bad. Really bad.

“Conrad, is today not the day you celebrate your birthday?”

What an odd question. That information would be stored in Conrad’s personal file, to which Tandie had unlimited access.

“You know, Tandie,” Conrad began, “You could just as easily run a diagnostic on each porthole—including B26—without asking me to eye-ball it.”

“The robonaut reported this, Conrad. Now I am reporting to you.”

“The robonaut—” Conrad sighed. “Tandie, you are the robonaut. And everything else in this ship. In fact—you are the ship.”

“Thank you, Conrad.” He noticed Tandie’s voice sounded more life-like; or maybe he was just more used to it. Conrad pondered this development as he rounded a corner and came upon B26.

The robonaut waved from the other side of the porthole—well, its mechanical arm motion resembled a wave, anyway—and pointed to the thick glass. In the fine dust of the cosmos, two small circles were drawn above an upturned arc: a smiley face. For the first time in months, Conrad laughed.

“As a gift, I am scrubbing all the ship’s air filters for you. Beginning now.”

“No, Tandie, wait—” But Conrad collapsed before he could finish his sentence.

“I love you Connie.” Tandie said softly over every loudspeaker on the ship. “Happy birthday.”

The Handshake

Author : Hillary Lyon

Casey waited in line for more than two hours when the rain started. A soft, misty rain that chilled him to the bone; he tightly crossed his arms and shivered. Even if he caught a cold, attending this event would still be worth it. Maybe, he wondered, he’d get an autograph, or even better, a photo with Candidate Sterling. Or better yet, shake his hand. Now that would be awesome!

He was glad he had the foresight to arrive early, to get a place at the beginning of the line. Not only did that guarantee he’d get inside the auditorium, but he’d be close to the stage. This rally–no, this entire election–was historic, and Casey wanted to witness it, up close and personal. He rubbed his soft pink hands together for warmth and scampered down to the front row seating. Yes! There was an empty chair right in front of the podium.

After what seemed like ages, the auditorium reached full capacity. The lights dimmed and a spotlight hit the podium. Without introduction, Candidate Sterling jogged on stage, to deafening cheers and applause. Casey stood up, along with everyone else whooping and stamping their feet. The candidate smiled a Hollywood smile and waved for everyone to be seated. The crowd obeyed.

“Thank each and every one of you for coming,” Candidate Sterling began.”For braving this wet weather to support me and the issues I stand for and against. . . ” His speech lasted exactly 22 minutes and 35 seconds; long enough for the audience to become fully engaged, short enough to end before they lost interest. Candidate Sterling was poised and beautiful and entertaining. As he left the stage, one of his handlers took the mic and pointed out where the meet-and-greet would take place. Due to the record number of attendees, only the first 10 rows would have access to the candidate. The handler apologized to those who wouldn’t make the cut, but rules were rules. Casey hardly listened; he’d made the cut. He’d get to meet Candidate Sterling!

In line again, Casey rehearsed what he’d say to the candidate. Did Sterling realize how amazing all this was? Distracted by his thoughts, Casey was surprised when a handler tapped him on the shoulder and nodded for him to move up to greet Candidate Sterling.

“Wow,” Casey whispered, awestruck. “This is such an honor, and I have to tell you–”

Grinning, Candidate Sterling stuck out his hand before Casey finished. He grasped Casey’s hand with such programmed passion, that he crushed 14 of the 27 small bones in Casey’s hand. Sterling’s handlers’ scurried between ushering Casey away to a nurse on staff, and re-calibrating Candidate Sterling’s handshake function. This was a beta-level event, after all; they’d work out all the bugs before the election.

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