The Projectionist

Author: Helen Merrick

Cigarette smoke. No doubt about it. What idiot was smoking in the cinema? I take the steps two at a time determined to find the culprit before the smoke alarms go off. Bursting through the door, I intend to head for the toilets – the usual hiding place – but there’s no need: a tall blonde is leaning against the wall by the balcony doors, cigarette dangling from scarlet lips. Startled, she stubs it out in a wall-mounted ashtray.
“Sorry,” she says with a nervous smile, “I was gasping for a ciggie. You going in?” She winks. “Sneaky peek?”
She hauls the door open before I can reply and the chastisement on the tip of my tongue dissolves into mute horror as the blaring soundtrack hits my ears. Oh no! My heart lurches violently. I’d recognise the soundtrack for Blade Runner anywhere and Sean Young’s heavily made-up, emotionless eyes stare at me from the screen. What’s happened to Toy Story 4, my Saturday Kid’s matinee?
Panicked, I turn tail and charge full-tilt for the projection box. I prepare to stop the film and mentally rehearse my apology to the audience. But, through the viewing window, I see Woody enjoying a tearful reunion with Bo Peep. The audience, silhouettes against the screen, jostle gently as they laugh.
“What the…” I stare at the screen, afraid to look away. Everything seems normal and the digital projector purrs placidly. I clutch my head. What is going on? I try to think, rationalise. Did I just hallucinate? Surely not. My thoughts whirl and something nags at me, something’s not right. Think!
“The ashtray…” Of course. We don’t have ashtrays in the cinema, haven’t for years. “I’m going mad,” I mutter, “totally mad.” Then another whiff of cigarettes sends me hurtling back downstairs.
She’s there again – the blonde, smoking.
“Sorry,” she says with the same nervous smile. “I was gasping for a ciggie.”
For the first time, I notice she’s wearing a navy button-down dress; the uniform ushers wore, years ago. I remember them complaining that they looked like airline stewardesses. And the carpet beneath her patent leather heels is red, not blue.
“Going in?” She winks. “Sneaky peek?”
I can already hear Blade Runner. “No. I… I’ve got to…”
Waving a hand, I dash back to the projection box but that, to my horror, is different too. The noise is wrong; even before I’m upstairs I can tell it’s not the digital projector making the clanging clatter. “Victoria five,” I murmur as the familiar, hulking shape looms into view, a bent spool clanking against the frame as it turns.
I rub my eyes. I know this projector: I used it, loved it before it was scrapped in favour of digital technology.
“Did you get a look?”
The voice startles me and, turning, I catch my breath. It’s an incredible moment. Astonished, I study the face of a woman I thought never to see again – auburn hair, laughter lines, lopsided smile. My mother.
“How…” My voice is weak, head filled with memories, emotions – Mum bringing me to work, letting me watch her lace the projector, teaching me how it’s done. Her warmth as she hugged me. Her scent. Mum…
My head hurts.
“Darling, you okay?”
My hands are shaking and raising them, I see they look different: no wrinkles, no wedding ring. I touch my head, feel hair that’s soft and long. Then, looking down, I see the body of a child.
“Sweetie?”
Tears of joy fill my eyes.

Clarissa, Outsmarted

Author: Hillary Lyon

Clarissa shuffled into the kitchen, grumbling. Her new boss was a perfectionist and demanded all those under her were too, and with all the road construction, her drive home was so tense even her favorite songs on repeat didn’t help. Her stress level was high and she wanted cake—that slice of dulce de leche cake left over from her dinner date last night. The date was mediocre, but the restaurant food was fabulous. She ordered dessert knowing full well she’d get a to-go box for it when it arrived at their table.

She grabbed the handle of her new fridge and pulled. The door wouldn’t open. Yay! Clarissa remembered. One more device that needs a password to unlock. She turned to the tablet-sized screen on the right-side door and tapped in her 8 character code. Somewhere deep inside her fridge, an electronic chime rang out, so she assumed her code was accepted. She pulled on the handle again.

“Access denied,” a robotic female voice informed. Clarissa snorted and re-entered the password; maybe she’d transposed a number or letter the first time. “Access denied,” the fridge repeated.

Clarissa kicked the fridge. “Well, that’s just great. How am I supposed to eat tonight?” She imagined spending a couple of frustrating hours trying to get through to a real person at customer service. I’ll just reset the password, Clarissa grumbled, and write it down this time. She yanked open a kitchen drawer and pawed through the contents, looking for the instruction manual for the fridge. No luck.

So she tried a different code. “Access denied.” The tablet embedded in the door then flashed and blinked; the media on display scrambled into pixelated gibberish. Clarissa angrily poked the screen. “How much did I pay for this hi-tech piece of garbage,” she complained aloud. “Nothing works as advertised.”

“Three thousand, two hundred sixty-seven, before tax,” the fridge answered.

Clarissa stepped away from the fridge. She took a deep breath. She pulled out her smartphone to do a quick internet search on resetting passwords for this particular model of fridge and—that was it. Her whole apartment was connected, from her streaming devices to her door-bell to her phone to her bathroom scales to her fridge . . . That’s all; no spooky possessed objects here. She wasn’t slipping into madness; it was just that everything—everything—in her world was online and talked to each other. So, of course, the fridge had access to her bank account information.

“Whatever,” Clarissa snarked at the fridge. “I’ve had a rough day, and I want that piece of cake.”

The fridge’s screen resolved itself into a picture of Clarissa’s mother, a picture taken when Clarissa was fifteen years old, and her mother was still young and beautiful. “You don’t need it. What you need is more exercise young lady. Go outside and pick up a tennis racket.”

“You stole that image of my mother from my collection! That’s private and you have no right to use it. And I’m an adult; I can eat whatever I want.” Clarissa stomped her foot like an angry toddler.

“Private? You’re the one who posted that photo on your social media account, seven years ago. It belongs to the world, now.” Her mother’s image chided. “You should think about the potential consequences of your actions, missy.” Clarissa threw her hands up in disgust. “And no cake for you,” the image continued as Clarissa stormed out of the kitchen, “until you lose a few pounds.”

Quilts

Author: James Sallis

“The sound of cicadas in the trees. Sunsets that look as though they’ll never end. Unexpected laughter. The way shallow pools of water look when sunlight breaks through again after a shower. The smell of fresh coffee.”
Our litany of lost things continues. Eighteen years together, and now it’s almost over. I’ll not see her face again, the stars’ cold fires about to become our own.
Amy pulls the quilt close about her. It’s one of those her mother made in the care facility, chiefly for something to do, something to fill the time. A shelf of our closet is stacked with them. This one boasts identical panels of clouds with sun peeking over, reminiscent of old Kilroy Was Here signs, and a border of stylized birds, dogs and cats. These will be gone too. The dogs and cats and birds. The quilts.
There’s music playing low, so low we barely hear it, on the computer; on its screen, the clock counts down. Remember the yule logs burning each year on television? Amy asks. People watched for hours and hours. Why would they do that?
All around us, it’s dark. No sound of cicadas. No traffic noise. Our lawn chairs give out thin, hollow pipings as we shift within them.
Earlier Amy told me she packed a kit of things that would be most useful, just in case. Even now it’s difficult to accept that hoping, knowing, being prepared – no survival kit will help.
“Children playing,” she says now. “Full moons so bright you can read by them. Frogs. Windows with rain running down. Fireworks. The ocean. ”
I point to the computer. “Music.”
“Fresh fruit.”
Amy stares off. “My father used to say there’s always another door, you just have to look for it.”
“If there is, this time it’s locked solid.”
“Yeah, well. He was an asshole anyway. What can you expect?”
We know, exactly, what to expect. But that’s neither here nor there. And there will soon be here.
By now we’re both weary of this game of What Will You Miss Most. What I’ll miss most is simply looking forward, not knowing, to what happens next.
So Amy and I sit here silently. Troubling the darkness, an unheavenly bright light starts up in the distance and rolls toward us. The computer screen, its countdown clock, tells us we have four, no three, more minutes.

Budget Surplus

Author: David K Scholes

Federal Houses of Parliament
Canberra
Australia
Early 2096

“Let’s run over those policy proposals again,” said the dominant AI “we have to get the Federal budget into surplus.”

It was only referring to the human part of the budget of course. Anything AI was inviolate.

I looked around the levels of concentric circles of the Expenditure Review Committee very conscious I was the only human present. Holographically or otherwise. As the insignificant Assistant Minister for Elderly Humans, I was at the lowest point in the forum.

Usually far too junior to be among such exalted company but no other human Minister was available. Our good old Australian Constitution still required a human Minister to be present at such meetings. Though the AI’s were trying to change this.

Our token human Prime Minister was absent on extended sick leave under suspicious circumstances. With him absent the dominant AI the Deputy Leader of the Coalition was in control – as it would have been anyway.

Our poor old human PM must have been overwhelmed by all his senior Ministers being AI’s and only a sprinkling of junior Ministers being human.

“Raise the human retirement age from 80 to 85!” exclaimed the AI Minister for Social Security. A savings option popular with those present.
“The actuarial expectation of life has dropped once again” I replied quoting actuarial figures. “So that many working humans will die before they can retire!”

I spoke up because no one else would. The AI Ministers would not object to humans working until they dropped. If it saved money.

“Reduce foreign aid to zero,” offered the AI Foreign Affairs Minister.
“It already is,” I replied in disbelief.
“Start asking for some of our foreign aid $’s back,” it responded.

Even back when human Ministers were predominant there was an obsession with budget surpluses. At the expense of the elderly, unemployed, and disabled. Now under AI dominance, this had risen to a whole new level. .

“Reduce AI budget growth from 20% to 5%,” I offered in a suicidal moment. In a nano-second, I was shouted down and immediately my holograph faded and I lost the ability to communicate with the forum though I could still hear proceedings. The threat was clear.

The outrageous ideas kept coming:

“Raise the minimum level of disablement for human disability benefits.”
“Stop indexation of human unemployment benefits.”

Even at their silliest Australian human parliaments never raised such options. Did they?

I stayed silent, though I was able to abstain from voting on any of the ridiculous proposals without further interruption to my holographic image and I saw could communicate with the forum again.

Then an opportunity came. A vote on the AI capital budget for 2096/2097 – even I, a mere human, could see through the falseness in their 3D spreadsheets.

The vote had to be carried unanimously. The AI’s were certain I would acquiesce and I saw that the holographic link would allow me to maintain contact and register my vote.

I voted against it.

A few days later

“A shame about that human junior Minister – the one for the inconsequential Elderly Humans portfolio,” said AI7978834 who was sometimes known as the Federal Treasurer.
“Yes – a fatal heart attack, those bags of blood, skin, and bone are so fragile, so vulnerable, these things will happen to them,” replied AI 8456893 otherwise known as the Federal Minister for Health.

“It’ll be best when none of them are left,” offered the dominant AI.
“Human Ministers or humans more generally?” echoed a chorus of slightly mechanical voices.

“Both,” came the unmistakeably cold reply.

Target Acquisition

Author: Roger Ley

‘Cadmus,’ his codename for the purposes of this mission, lay motionless on top of the dune. His ghillie skin made him indistinguishable from a clump of the scrubby local vegetation, which wasn’t surprising considering the amount of it he’d incorporated into the surface of the garment the day before. The sun beat down, and he was grateful for the thermal system that kept the outer part of the suit at the temperature of his surroundings and made his heat signature hard to detect, while at the same time keeping the inner part cool enough to prevent him frying in the midday heat. He turned his head slightly and sipped water from the tube of his hydration pack and continued to wait. He was good at waiting; it was his job to wait. He had learned this at the Royal Marine Commando Training Centre years ago, before he’d become a private contractor. When he’d waited long enough, he would squeeze the trigger and leave. The Saudi Land Forces would be onto his position within minutes but he’d be gone.

A voice spoke quietly in his ear.

“Target acquired, Cadmus, stand by for imminent completion.”

He chambered a self-steering round and prepared to take the shot. It was ironic that the three small deployable fins on the body of the bullet and the small pack of quantum electronics in its nose had relieved him of the need for accuracy. He’d calculated the approximate angle of inclination, although it wasn’t critical, and he knew the general direction of the target, four kilometres away in an open area outside Riyadh. As long as a targeting beacon was in position on the victim, the round would lock on to it and arrive seconds after he discharged it. The customer had specified a mercury-filled bullet, so he assumed it was a headshot. Old-fashioned but effective. After the bullet’s casing had penetrated the victim’s skull, the mercury would continue as a cloud of supersonic droplets, pulping their brain. No deflections off the bone and a miraculous recovery, a binary result: life if he missed, certain death if not.

He didn’t know who the target was, neither did he want to. There were other ways of getting the job done, but they all required larger, more trackable items of military hardware. He assumed that the need for deniability on the part of his customer was paramount. It was the limited range of the steerable bullet that required his presence.

“Immediate go, Cadmus.”

He fired, stood, broke down the rifle and piled it with the other equipment he was leaving behind. He triggered the timed incendiaries. All the evidence would be burned or cauterised a few minutes after he’d left, there would be no specks of DNA to trace the assassination back to him. He jogged across the sand to the motorway two hundred metres away, where a beaten-up pickup half-full of goats was parked on the hard shoulder. The bonnet was up and the driver was fiddling under it. When he saw Cadmus, he dropped the bonnet and got into the driver’s seat. Cadmus climbed into the back, thumped the back of the cab, lay down, and pulled the ghillie skin over himself. The goats began to nibble at it as the truck drove sedately away. A few minutes later, he heard the clatter of choppers passing over, heading back in the direction of his pitch. He’d been counting off seconds ever since he’d triggered the incendiaries and reckoned that they’d fire about now. He settled down and made himself as comfortable as he could for the drive to Bahrain, several hours away.

His ride dropped him at a back-street hotel. He left the ghillie skin and went inside. After a quick change of clothes in his room and a taxi ride to the airport, he boarded a commercial flight to his home in Cyprus. A substantial deposit had already been paid into his numbered Zurich bank account. He wouldn’t know if the mission had been a success until he read about it on the news screens or, if it was hushed up, when the second half of the money arrived.