The Grand Electric Zoetrope

The following is an excerpt from my debut novel, a science fiction story about the birth of a futuristic entertainment medium. I’m still looking for a publisher. You wouldn’t happen to be a publisher, would you?

© James A. Conan 2016

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Introduction

Have you ever had a genuine brush with greatness? I mean, not just meeting someone by chance and shaking their hand, but actually having one of your idols sit down with you and bare his soul? It’s not something you can plan for. It just happens, and the results tend to change the way you look at the world.

It was three months ago that I was sent to a mansion in the Hollywood Hills for an interview. I didn’t know at the time who the subject of the interview would be, but my editor was assured that it would be worth his while to send somebody. Being new in town and lowest on the journalistic totem pole, that somebody ended up being me.

I didn’t just show up unprepared, I asked some questions first. This particular mansion has been the subject of fascination from neighbours and passers-by for over a year now. It is frequently dark and empty, but never up for sale. At night, lights can be seen only in several rooms of one wing. The staff is small, never more than three or four to maintain it, and the only other people seen coming and going are concierge medical team, who completely refuse to talk to the neighbours. Naturally there were rumours about who owned the place, but they seemed so far-fetched that I dismissed them as impossible. More fool me.

When I finally gave up on an afternoon of enquiries and walked into the unknown, I was met at the front gate by two rather harassed-looking nurses. One snapped at me, “What took you so long? He’s been giving us hell all day, he thought you would be here hours ago.”

I told them I didn’t know who “he” was, but that I was here now and if “he” didn’t turn out to be worth my time I’d be turning around and heading home. I wasn’t about to blow off a hot date (a lie) to sit for some nothing interview, no way in hell. They assured me that it would be worth my time, and that the subject of my interview was to be none other than Gabriel Anthony.

Yes, the Gabriel Anthony. Stardom itself. The very incarnation of fame and fortune in our time.

My heart skipped a beat. Like the rest of the world, I had believed he was dead. The nurses assured me he wasn’t, but that the end wasn’t far off. He had requested a journalistic presence to, as they put it, set the record straight. I had no idea what exactly they meant by this. As we walked up that long driveway I was lost in thought about the magnitude of what lay before me.

Mr. Anthony is best remembered these days for his charitable work following the Dead Year. The Seventh Seal tour raised billions to help those affected by the eleven month global outbreak and the massive casualties that followed it. His courage, stoicism, and dedication to helping others even in the hour of his own grievous loss are considered by students of the arts to be what sealed forever his immortality in our cultural consciousness.

All the same, that was just the final act of a monumental career as an entertainer and businessman, a career that spanned decades and that witnessed sweeping, unheard-of changes to this country and to the world. And let us not forget, this man knew Bruckweiler. Peter Robertson Bruckweiler, so frequently lionized and vilified. It doesn’t matter what view you take of him, you can’t deny that the world we live in is as much the result of Bruckweiler’s vision as it is of the combined works of nations or governments. He was the greatest tycoon who ever lived, an embodiment of the old world, who used his abilities to catapult us toward the new. It was he who discovered the original stars of the Holotheater, Gabriel Anthony included, so many years ago.

Think of it, dear reader, Mr. Anthony is one hundred and one years old. When this man was born, personal vehicles were still powered by liquid petroleum, which was, somewhat confusingly, called gas. Things we take for granted such as the Lunar colony and Martian expeditions would have been regarded as wild flights of fancy, unsustainable, and destined to be carried out only in the distant future.

Polygamy and even homosexual monogamy were not yet legally recognized forms of marriage throughout most societies. The military and police forces of the world still utilized chemical-combustion firearms as their primary means of maintaining peace by force. And, most importantly for our purposes, when people wanted to be entertained by moving images it was only possible to do so in two dimensions. How far we have come! Mr. Anthony is by no means the only person remaining from this bygone age, but he is by far the most influential. One would be hard pressed to find any man from any era who had a greater impact on his own culture in his own lifetime. Even the Bard didn’t achieve such recognition until well after his death.

I am, of course, too young to have seen Mr. Anthony perform live, though my mother and father claim to have had the honour three times, each in Chicago, where the original BroaderVision/Globe Holotheater Company made its home for so many years. But, like nearly every living person of my generation, I grew up with him. I saw his recorded Holos, in theatres and at home. As a boy I watched dozens of them and since then, hundreds. He was nothing if not prolific. My father used to tell me how fortunate I was, saying that when he was a younger man you had to get dressed up and go out just to see a Holoplay.

And so it was with all this very much in my mind that I entered this decaying mansion, which in my mind had been transformed inside of five minutes into an altar on which rested a cultural icon like no other. I was expecting to meet him, to be wowed by his wit, to hear his life story, and perhaps, if I was very fortunate, to have him relate a few personal anecdotes about his lifelong friendship and business dealings with the great Bruckweiler.

From him I would get all this and more. His attitudes were irascible, his claims occasionally outlandish, and his forms and methods of speech, well … unique. Let’s go with that. The final result is this volume which you are about to read. I have no doubt it will be the culmination of my career. More than that, it was something entirely unexpected. It seems Mr. Anthony dabbled in far more than just the business of entertainment during his time in the spotlight. I can’t claim to have been able to verify everything he told me―I’ll leave that to the scholarly types who enjoy that sort of thing―but if even half of it is true, it may cause us to need to revisit what we think we know about the history of the twenty-first century.

The Grand Electric Zoetrope

Hell, where were we? Call the damn nurse, would you pal? It’s that buzzer there. And none of that Mr. Anthony shit. It’s Gabe, kid, just Gabe. What’s that? Not to my public, or the Academy? The Academy? Hah! Screw ’em. We should never have cut a deal with those fossils. I knew it’d save ’em but I didn’t want to … is this their final revenge? Sending you here to quiz me on my past as I die? Don’t look at me like that, those cute little nurses I hired may keep me doped to the nines but I still know what’s coming. A week, maybe two, then: Cue the final curtain. And that doctor. Quack! Natural causes, what does he know? Essentially told me I’m lying here dying of absolutely nothing! Hell, where were we?

Right, you’re with the Associated Press aren’t you? Good. I’m glad you came. What took you so long? Well sure you though I was dead. Everybody thinks I’m dead. Need to set the record straight on a few things before that happens. Why haven’t I been seen for all these years? I think you know the answer.

Decades later it still hurts fresh. After what we did, what we went through together … I didn’t want to be me without her. I took a new name, wandered the world for a spell and saw a few things and places I’d always put off seeing. It helped a little, but then this came along. End of the line. That’s why you’re here pal. Because there’s one more thing I’ve been putting off. One more thing I promised her when she was dying.

What did I promise her? The truth. The woman had an obsession with it at the end. Made me swear. Said she didn’t know if we’d meet up in any afterlife or not, but she wanted a clean conscience. I know you don’t take my meaning, just be patient. What I’m getting at here is: There’s a lot that people don’t know. About how we got our start. Me, her, old Doc Nandrihar, and, of course, Peter Robertson Bruckweiler.

Who’s this Dr. Nandrihar, you ask? Exactly my point. You and a few billion others have grown up with Holotech and the Immersion Field and all the other inventions they spawned, and you don’t even know the name of the man who created it all. I don’t think anyone ever even asked. Dr. Yousef Nandrihar, remember that name, because if there were any justice in this world, there’d have been universities, hospitals, spaceships, and all that named after him.

The real history of our industry’s been swept aside. All the key players dead now, except for me. None of it ever got written down. After we co-opted the Academy, when Pete finally cashed in his chips, it all kind of got glossed over. No one wanted to remember the hard times. No one even asked us. What ended up being called the “renaissance of live theatre” was depicted as a phenomenon with no past and a rosy future even while we were still smoothing out the ugly wrinkles.

I was twenty-eight when I first heard the word Holotheater, and from Bruckweiler himself. Of course I wasn’t sure of him, I had no idea who he was.

I) Big Break

Where do I start? At the beginning obviously, but what constitutes the beginning of a story like this? The day I was born? The little town in Missouri where I grew up and went to school? The day I came home to my mom crying her eyes out at the kitchen table and she told me dad was dead? I won’t say it’s not important stuff, it sure as hell meant a lot to me, but it’s not what I called you here for. I suppose I should at least say a bit about how I got into acting.

I never really fit in at school, didn’t have many friends. I was always lost in old books or a play or a black and white movie or something. A odd habit of mine, I admit. I’d still rather spend the day with a good book than with most of the people I know. Maybe that’s because most of the really interesting ones are dead. Anyway, I was a word nerd from the get go. Pat Sandhurst, a name you should recognize and another lifelong friend, once put on his best bumpkin accent and described me as “that hillbilly what swallowed a thesaurus.”

I’ve since decided I want that carved on my tombstone.

I always wanted to be a star. The American dream right? Though there was a time in my teenage years when I considered applying my love of words and dialogue in another direction and becoming a writer. But back then no one made any serious money off writing, not unless you wrote about teenage wizards overcoming adversity or the morose goddamn love lives of sparkly vampires, so fuck it, acting it was. Gripping conversation between two or more intelligent characters was a precious commodity in real life, so I went to drama school in the hopes of finding it on the stage or the screen, preferably the latter. I had some success and people told me I was good-looking, so soon enough it was on to Hollyweird to try my luck. It didn’t go so well at first. I suppose that’s where our story really begins.

Beverly Hills was still where the famous congregated back then. I was outclassed in that cocktail bar and I knew it, all those A-listers and poor me so far down on the food chain. But an actor in need must schmooze; it’s a part of the culture. That much we would never change.

I was sitting with two jokers I told myself were friends and colleagues. This was a lie. I suppose we just drew comfort from being in the same situation and knowing it. We had all come to Hollywood with big ambitions and had them shipwrecked. Together we clung to that wreckage, but not one of us would have hesitated to kick the others to the sharks if it meant jump-starting his own career.

Devon Jefferson was a surfer dude. His mother had been wealthy and had raised him up and down the west coast, even Hawaii. At some point she had decided that his tanned complexion, good looks, and athletic build made him an ideal candidate for stardom. She paid top dollar to pack him off to drama school, got him in a few commercials, and finally sent him to Hollywood to try and break into movies. None of this saved him from being talentless, and he knew it. He was lost in that place and time. It’s odd that I remember him so well, I knew him only briefly. But he was there that night.

Michael Graham at least had a skill set, though it wasn’t one I liked. He was a geek, a little bit in real life and often professionally. Someone needed a geek for an episode or two of your favourite sitcom, Mike usually got the call. This would have been bearable except at the time he considered himself a method actor. He would be “on” for days at a time, usually speaking nasally, twitching sporadically, and referencing physicists and philosophers I’d never heard of. One day he drastically changed his skill set, and many suffered for it. But I’m jumping ahead.

As for me, I was a red herring. No, really. See, back then there were more crime shows on TV than even I bothered to count. Look closely and you may notice that in several of them the murder victim’s husband, the shady drug dealer, the office manager who was having an affair, and so on were just me with changes in hair, makeup, all that. At the time it was my dearest ambition to move up to playing the murderers.

I sipped a double gin martini and bitched. “This place sucks.”

This is where the big fish hang out,” said Devon.

Yeah,” said Mike, “I see ’em. But what the press releases and reviews about this place don’t say is that it is, in fact, two clubs. There’s one for the real players and their guests in back, one for us up here by the door. I came to do some big-league elbow rubbing, not sit here with you guys while that infomercial-food-processor-selling jackoff is over there with three porn stars laughing at us.”

We turned our heads and caught a glimpse of a trademarked smile and a friendly wave. The girls giggled and the smile broadened. I resolved to get very, very drunk that night.

Around martini number three he walked in. He was led to the back room but paused and glanced at our table and his eyes lingered on me. It was only a second before it was over and he was gone. I was interested because I knew the name of everyone else I’d seen get ushered into the back, but not him. After another drink I let curiosity get the better of me and asked the bouncer. He told me to piss off. I was feeling bold and more than a little desperate for something to happen that night so I whipped out a twenty. “Just a name?”

He looked at me cockeyed and took my money. “Pete Bruckweiler.”

Who?”

The richest man you’ve never heard of.” And he left it at that.

I was out twenty bucks for no useful info, and kept on drinking. And so it was that I found myself outside just after two a.m., around the back, violently heaving the contents of my stomach into a dumpster. Gin is a sneaky bitch. I had put away another four without standing back up and when I finally did so to leave, I found my stomach wasn’t up for it. A man should never be at odds with his own guts on the subject of direction, but there I was. And I wasn’t alone.

You okay there? Sounded like something dying.”

I coughed and spun around. At the mouth of the alley was Bruckweiler, but I had to wait for my eyes to come back into focus to be sure. “Yeah, yeah, fine. Just had too much to drink.”

I sort of figured that. Hey, did I see you in the bar earlier?”

I tried to think of something clever to say but instead I hiccoughed. “I’ll take that as a yes. You’re Gabriel Anthony, aren’t you?”

That really took me by surprise, I almost felt sober again. “You know who I am? I mean actually? I mean, you didn’t just say ‘that guy from the cop show’ or anything. You know my name?”

Is that so unusual? Maybe to you it is. I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately. I recognized you. Haven’t seen you on anything new in a few months.”

I haven’t been on anything in a few months.”

There was silence for a moment, and he was clearly sizing me up. “You need a ride?”

I thought the proposition might come with strings, but I was in no position to refuse. Driving was clearly out. Not being a native of LA I defied custom and refused to drive drunk. A quick search of my wallet revealed insufficient funds for cab fare back across town. Still, I was wary. “I don’t normally take rides from strangers, Mr. Bruckweiler.”

So you know me too?”

Just your name and that you’re supposed to have some bank, that’s all I heard.”

He laughed. “Fair enough, but I assure you that’s the least interesting thing about me. C’mon.” Without waiting for a yes or a no he grabbed me by the arm and steered me out of the alley. I decided to go with it.

He turned back out into the street and I followed. His car confirmed he was loaded. I mean, I was living in Los Angeles then and went to the studios a lot and I saw some fine limos on the day to day, but this thing looked like it could beat a shuttle into orbit. I climbed into the back beside him. I gave him my address and to my surprise he didn’t laugh or cringe. He nodded, his driver took off, and in the light of the car’s spectacular interior I got my first good look at this man Bruckweiler. A man who, in Los Angeles, offered, or rather insisted on giving, rides to strangers but didn’t strike me as a perv or any of the many sundry varieties of nutcase that made up that city’s population. Live there (or in any major city) long enough and you develop a sixth sense for that sort of thing. Stranger still, he knew my name and work and seemed interested in me as an actor. I think that’s what made me go with him without a fight. It was an odd, exciting thing to be recognized that way for the first time, to not have to fight with someone to get them to admit they may have seen me on TV.

Bruckweiler himself looked pretty normal then, which I remember because it was in sharp contrast to the car. He wore simple blue jeans with a blue-grey sweater under a black jacket. His hair was an unruly, dirty-blond mop, the kind of do that comes from spending money to look like you just don’t care. Everything on him was expensive.

My host in this rolling palace pressed a button and out of the arm rest between us emerged a mini-bar. He surveyed it, then took a look at me. “Just water for the first one I think, huh Mr. Anthony?”

Suits me.”

He took two glasses and turned a small tap, filling them with cold water. The car must have had a cooler built in somewhere. It cleared my head considerably and I thanked him. “So, you make friends with every out-of-work actor you find puking behind a bar?”

Only the ones I think have talent. Like I said, I’ve been watching a lot of TV. You may as well know that I’m in the process of casting for a project of my own.”

I was suddenly wide awake, wondering what he’d hit me with. I looked at him and figured: artsy, independent film, maybe even biopic. I had no idea. All I cared about was that he actually wanted to talk business and that my slump might be over.

He stared me straight in the eye. “Ever do any live theatre?”

My heart sank. “Well yes, but not professionally. It was of the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’ sort, back in college.”

But you do have experience? No stage fright? Remembered all your lines and everything?”

Well as Mark Antony I was no Brando, but it went over okay. No screw-ups.”

Good. And you’re not currently under contract?”

I actually laughed. “No. Even if I were I doubt it would be an issue. My gigs usually last less than a week.”

At this point he turned away from me and drew a briefcase from under the seat. From it he removed a tablet computer. As he tapped away at it he said. “Mr. Anthony, I was frequenting that establishment and others like it for one simple reason. I was looking for you. Or failing that, people like you.”

People who’d had one too many and were out back vom―”

No, no, up-and-comers. Young actors and actresses who have potential that hasn’t been recognized by the big studios. I’ve signed a few so far but most aren’t bold enough to leave what they know for another medium. How ’bout you?”

I told you I’m not really a stage performer.”

He got a wild look in his eyes. “And I’m telling you that this isn’t like any other stage performance you’ve ever seen.”

What exactly is this project?”

I’m afraid that’s privileged information for now. Here, take a look at this.” He handed me the tablet, on the screen was a contract with my name typed in. “I’ll save you the boring legal bits. This says that you have the option of coming and ‘auditioning’ so to speak for my new production. If you like what you see you can stay on at the salary promised you in the contract. If not you can pack up and leave and you get nothing. Either way, the contract includes a strict confidentiality agreement. I have a great deal of money and many important trade secrets mixed up in this, and I have to protect my investment.”

It sounded weird to me, but the number on the bottom line clinched it. It contained several more zeroes than I was used to seeing on contracts. The magnitude of what I was being offered finally hit me. It was a three year deal with an annual payoff of―Christ Almighty! I would pretend to hold out longer for the sake of form, but I had already made up my mind to take the gig. “Sure, I’ll play along. When can I come and see this … whatever it is?”

Tomorrow. You mind being put up in a hotel? I want to get at you first thing, time is money.”

I said sure and he took the tablet back and gave his driver a new address. Then he surprised me again. “May as well relax.” At this he hit a button and a flat screen rose from the seatback in front of us. He scrolled through the digital menu and called up a list of my episodes.

We spent the rest of the drive watching and commenting, and I was relieved that Bruckweiler actually seemed to know what he was talking about. Strange I should be so at ease when you consider he had more or less been stalking me. And for that matter had sort of abducted me. But I was flattered nonetheless. To be honest the whole thing still felt unreal at that point.

The hotel was plush and Bruckweiler showed me to a suite. My jaw went slack when he opened the door; it was substantially larger than my apartment and the amount spent on furniture could have bought half my block. He saw my expression and laughed. “Don’t worry about the bill, I own the place. Get some sleep. I’ll have room service bring you breakfast and a contract in the morning.”

He closed the door and I was alone. I was tired, but couldn’t shake the feeling that if I went to bed I’d wake up in a gutter somewhere with this all having been some strange martini dream. If you’ve never had one then you can’t know my fear. Still, a check of my luxurious surroundings and the age-old pinch test confirmed I was awake and, presumably, still checked into reality. I resigned myself to my fate, stripped to my boxers, and flopped into a bed with about as much square footage as the custom limo that had brought me there. I think I was out in seconds.

Of course, it felt like only seconds until I was back up again. The wake-up call was gentle, at least, and someone had collected and washed my clothes. They sat on the bottom of a metal cart beside my bed, and on top of the cart were eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, orange juice, and a contract. Peter Bruckweiler did not waste time. I read the contract over as I got dressed: The undersigned will be employed for such and such a length of time and is entitled to such and such benefits if employed by BroaderVision/Globe whatever, a subsidiary of The Bruckweiler Group. The undersigned is required to work at such dates and times as specified in section x, please see section y for yada yada yada.

It took twenty minutes of going through such crap before I was reasonably sure that I wasn’t being screwed. I remembered the previous night fairly well, I just wanted to make sure I had all the right boxes checked. Proceeding with caution was second nature to me, having heard stories from people at my level of contracts signed in haste that had led to their involvement in all sorts of shady crap. A desperate actor had to read the fine print back then or he’d find himself signed up without his knowledge or consent for God knows what―testimonials on infomercials, pyramid schemes, maybe even a recruiter for some science-fiction-inspired religion of the rich, famous, and brain-dead.

But this deal seemed to be on the level. I signed and got on with breakfast. Exactly half an hour after I’d been woken Bruckweiler came for me himself. He took the contract happily and slid it into his briefcase. He was more nervous now. Not as friendly as the night before, and didn’t say much to me on the drive. It was obvious to me by the direction we took that we weren’t headed for studio country. Our destination turned out to be a nondescript warehouse amidst a sea of nondescript warehouses, distinguished only by a fleet of eighteen-wheelers parked outside. Bruckweiler could read my expression. “Don’t worry Mr. Anthony, just a part of keeping this a secret until our debut.”

The inside of the warehouse wasn’t much more encouraging. All I saw were stacks and stacks of boxes, but Bruckweiler seemed to know where he was going. I followed him through a door and down a staircase. There was another door waiting for us, and this one had an honest-to-God retinal scanner built into the lock. I walked behind Bruckweiler through that second door and entered another world.

The basement was two rooms connected by one door, more like a hatch really. The room we stood in looked like a laboratory crossed with an editing studio and shot forward in time a few centuries.

But it wasn’t the consoles and their screens that really got my attention. It wasn’t even the things that looked like giant propane tanks and dominated one side of the room. It was the people. Four in lab coats, and twelve wearing what I thought at the time were green bodysuits. And then there was the other room. A big, empty, metal-lined space with lights on the floor, vents in the walls, and a giant, curved viewing window by the door.

Bruckweiler called over one of the lab coats, a short, olive-skinned man. “Gabriel Anthony, meet Dr. Yousef Nandrihar. Gabe is our newest acquisition. Everything on schedule?”

Preparing for a rehearsal now. I take it Mr. Anthony would like to observe?”

I wouldn’t mind, but would someone please tell me what the hell all this is?”

The doctor gave me a sympathetic look and turned to Bruckweiler. “Peter, have you shanghaied this young man without any details at all? We’ve discussed this, you can’t keep doing it.”

And you know that if I tell them straight most of them don’t believe me. They laugh at me damn it. They need to see it up close to get the feel. Either way, I don’t think Mr. Anthony minded his accommodations. We’ve wasted enough time Yousef, get ’em in there and fire it up.”

Nandrihar stared at me with amused resignation. “I don’t know why I bother. Alright. Young man, Mr. Bruckweiler here has no doubt swept you up by showing you a large number on a piece of paper and promising you a part in a bold new medium, yes?”

That’s about the size of it, yeah.”

Then come and watch with me, it should explain a few things.”

A little Shakespeare for our friend, Yousef,” Bruckweiler said.

Very well.”

The suited figures opened the hatch and gave us the thumbs up before going through. Once it was sealed, Nandrihar started giving instructions to his team, stationed at the consoles behind us.

Begin saturation.”

There was a whir to my left as a machine on top of the giant tanks powered up. The sealed room in front of me began to fill with gas. It wasn’t like smoke or exhaust or anything, it shone. A cloud of silver mist engulfed the suited figures, but none seemed bothered. This was the peak of my confusion.

Okay … that was interesting. I still don’t see―”

Wait,” said Bruckweiler. “It hasn’t even started yet.”

Nandrihar said, “Shut off the vents, energize!” and the show got going.

The lights on the floor grew brighter and the gas began to swirl around them, faster every second. Finally the gas was spinning so fast that it appeared as four solid cylinders grouped around the lights.

Nandrihar gave another order. “Polarize!” I stood there slack-jawed as it all began to take shape. The gas expanded as a solid wall, right up to the viewing window, and then melted away like fog to set the scene. As if from the window of a plane, I saw Athens of old laid out in front of me. Not flat on the screen, but as if I was moving toward it, into it. The forced shift in perspective was jarring once I realized what I was seeing. The window, so large and precisely curved that I felt like I could fall into the image. I clued in later that it was designed that way.

The scene shifted again, and it was one I recognized. The ducal palace, the lover’s argument, it was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but a richer set I’d never laid eyes on. The room wasn’t big enough to accommodate the scale of it. All I could manage to get out was “How?” Nandrihar smiled and Bruckweiler broke out laughing. “Didn’t I tell you it was like nothing you’d seen before? Welcome to the world’s first Holotheater Mr. Anthony. Yousef, shift the scene, show off a bit.”

Anything in particular?”

Something a little more modern, I think. Gimme Guys and Dolls.

Nandrihar made a few adjustments at the console in front of us and Athens was gone. It was replaced by Damon Runyon’s New York, a bustling place filled with singing gamblers, menacing cops, and neurotic frails. This time the players weren’t cut off mid-sentence before the first scene was done. We watched in silence until “Adelaide’s Lament” was over, then Bruckweiler ordered it shut down. The scene suddenly fell apart, buildings, cars, people, all bursting into puffs of gas. Nandrihar gave another order and the gas was sucked back up through the vents. Only the greensuit-clad figures remained. They took a bow, the floor lights cut out, and they made for the hatch.

Wanna try it?” said Bruckweiler, knowing full well the answer.

I still didn’t know just what I’d seen, but I knew I wanted in more than anything I’d ever wanted in my life. It put me in mind of how those old vaudeville types must have felt when the first movies got rolling.

Couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t, but you still have some explaining to do. I just a dozen complete sets, which gave every appearance of being as big as their real-world equivalents, pop up out of nowhere. I need to know a little more before I step into that gas.”

Nandrihar answered first. “It’s not gas, it’s plasma, saturated with a colloidal system of metallic particulates.”

Bruckweiler quickly added, “And that is proprietary information which you are to keep to yourself.”

I raised my hands in mock surrender “I’m not even sure what the doc just said.”

Are you familiar with the Tyndall Effect regarding light scattering by colloids or particles in fine suspension? How about Rayleigh scattering, the elastic scattering of electromagnetic radiation by particles of smaller wavelengths? Perhaps the Rayleigh law concerning the behaviour of ferromagnetic materials?” The look on my face said it all. “How about the old scientific debate over whether light is wave or particle my young friend?”

That I remember. From high-school science.”

Nandrihar gave a sigh. “Then we can be thankful that your education was not a complete waste of time and public money. I doubt a few details would ruin our secret, Peter.”

Fine, fine, fill him in. Loosely.”

We’d better get him suited; it’ll be easier if he sees it from the inside.”

I was led over to a workbench beside a row of lockers. Two of Nandrihar’s assistants told me to sit down. One gave me a pill. “Just a muscle relaxant,” he said. “Helps on your first time in, before you get used to it.” The other pulled a greensuit from one of the lockers and told me to strip down and put it on. As I did I noticed a few things. The material was skin tight but thick. What I had thought was simply a grid pattern in the fabric was instead a mesh of fiber optics. On closer inspection each small wire was lined with tiny antennae, and inside the face mask were goggles. I knew I looked ridiculous but, from my professional standpoint, that wasn’t exactly a new feeling. Better to look like an idiot trying something new than stay stuck in my old rut.

The two lab coats motioned me back to Nandrihar, and he started to give me a briefing.

You are about to enter what we call a Nandrihar-Rayleigh Immersion Field. Of course the term itself is something of a misnomer, it’s not really a field, more of a―”

Time is money Yousef,” said Bruckweiler from across the room.

Right Peter. So, safety first. You may feel some slight discomfort when we energize but I assure you it is quite harmless as long as you stay in your protective gear. Do not remove the suit under any circumstances. Direct exposure to the energized particle suspension will cause minor burns almost immediately. We theorize that exposure to a max burst when we shift scenes would cause spontaneous ignition of the dermis, your outer layer of skin. We don’t want that now do we?”

I shook my head, suddenly terrified at what I’d gotten myself into, but I was reassured by the greensuit-clad figures on the other side of the room. They’d just been through this thing and were standing there jawing, the way people used to studio life always do between takes.

And remember Mr. Anthony, everything you see in there is an illusion propped up by colloidal-conductive electromagnetism. If you bump too hard into a wall or any other temporary construct it will appear to us on the outside to disintegrate. So be careful or you may disrupt the set and cause us to need to reboot the whole thing.”

Bruckweiler chimed in again, “Which, during performances, will be an absolute no-no. It would ruin the show.”

Are you ready, Mr. Anthony?”

As ready as I’ll ever be,” I said through the suits mouth-speaker. “What’s the scene?”

Bruckweiler rubbed the stubble on his chin in thought, “Well, last night you told me about your previous experience in live theatre, so why not give that a try. Julius Caesar, Yousef. You did finish programming all the Shakespearian construct-runs, didn’t you?”

Got them done yesterday.”

Then get ’em in there and let’s hit it.”

The other greensuited figures accepted me without comment as I joined them in going through the hatch. One to my left, anonymous in name and age but clearly female in build patted me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, it’s different inside,” she pointed at our eyewear, hers and then mine. “The goggles block certain wavelengths, keep things in perspective.”

We entered and the hatch sealed shut behind us. I heard Nandrihar giving orders through the earpiece in my mask, and the room began to fill with the gas or plasma or colloid or whatever.

The sight of those solid walls of spinning particles that had been amazing through the glass was hair-raising on the inside. It looked like a tornado but generated no wind and, just as I was starting to get used to this, the tornado exploded at us. I flinched but the others were already old hands and didn’t react. When I opened my eyes I saw things from behind the scenes, and my jaw dropped inside my mask.

At first my fellow greensuits were visible only as electric outlines. All else was total darkness. A look down at my own arms told me I was the same to them, and that the outlines I was seeing were a series of miniscule lights coming from the grid lining of our suits. Slowly, clouds of the gas became visible around us, seemingly attracted to our suit grids as well as to the lights on the floor. The same woman came over to me. “Pretty cool, huh?”

It’s incredible.”

You think so? Watch this.”

From the floor lights shot arcs of energy, the same electric-looking strands that surrounded our bodies, splitting the darkness as they went. Thousands of them arched, spun, shot, and twisted around the room until the picture they formed began to be recognizable. I realized after a few seconds that the same thing was happening to me. Tiny little streams of energy shot from the lit points on my suit grid, forming a web around me that trapped the particles in the room. In another second I realized that a mask of this energy was forming around my face, and that my body was wearing a Roman toga of the same luminescence. I moved and the illusion moved with me.

Around me the scene was almost constructed. The lines of energy had drawn a three-dimensional image. The Roman Senate, the houses and walls of the ancient city, the scaffolds and the statues. They were all there, and thanks to a trick of perspective they were all big as life, but what got my attention were the people. I suppose I’d known the crowds I’d seen from the outside in the last two productions weren’t real, that only the characters with speaking roles were live actors. Seeing all of it from the inside positively kicked my ass.

There I was on the platform, Marc Antony, with the mob at my feet, only these Romans were constructs of nuanced light, just like my costume and even my character’s face. In my ear there was a soundtrack playing, light background music, the murmur of a crowd. Then Bruckweiler cut in. “What are you waiting for man? Caesar is dead and Brutus has handed you the floor, turn them to your will!”

That snapped me out of my reverie. I took centre stage. It was a strange feeling. I was standing on what I knew was a flat, solid floor in an empty basement room. Yet, looking down my eyes told me that I was high up above the heads of the crowd, peering out on Rome and speaking from the steps of the Senate to exact revenge on the conspirators. And still more phenomenal is that, thanks to Nandrihar’s creation, what to me inside was a series of electric outlines in the haze appeared as a living, moving image to those without. I was inspired, and the years since I’d learned the lines melted away. I raised my arms to the crowd as regally as I could and began the speech.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious;
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,―
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men,―
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

A murmur of approval ran through the faux crowd, with my fellow actors supplying their lines from the script into my earpiece. They were invisible to me. At the time I figured they were simply ducking out of sight, but afterwards I learned they were standing right next to me. The same effect that turned me into a noble Roman was reversed to block them from the visual spectrum altogether.

I went on, telling them how Caesar had left all he had to the people of Rome, dwelling on the envy felt by the conspirators. When I came to the end the mob was in a frenzy for Brutus’ and Cassius’ blood, and I realized I was sweating. My heart was pounding, my armpits were soaked, and I wanted a glass of water very badly, but I’d done it. Rome was in front of me, big and real as ever, and it was mine. It was an intoxicating feeling, even then. That first time, in that little rehearsal studio, I was hooked. I’d been told it was fake. Hell, I could see it was fake. But (as someone who’s profession up to then mostly took place on a set or in front of the green screen) it still felt more real than anything I’d ever been in. I knew at that moment I’d found a calling.

As soon as I’d finished, Nandrihar shut it down and the world dissolved around me. The other greensuits emerged from puffs of the gas and started to applaud. Bruckweiler’s voice boomed in my earpiece.

Way to go kid, you fucking nailed it! I thought you said you hadn’t done that since college?”

What can I say, I was in the zone. I suppose once I learn lines I never really forget them. I just need the right incentive to remember. I saw the crowd and it all came back.”

The plasma was sucked back into the vents and we all filed back through the hatch. The other actors took off their masks and for the first time I saw their faces. All were around my age and regarded me with sceptical approval. Except for one, the woman who’d spoken to me before, I put her at twenty-five and soon learned that I was only two years shy of the mark. She came up and gave me her hand. “Hannah Girard.”

Gabriel Anthony.” I wish I could say it was love at first sight. It wasn’t. I’d met her briefly about a year before. We’d done a scene in an office building set for Skulls or Criminal Brains or one of those awful look-alike cop dramas that dominated the airwaves in the 2010s. My character had handed her character a file folder on screen and that had been it. I had kicked myself for a week for not asking her name and number when I’d had the chance. She didn’t show it at the time, but she recognized me that day too.

You really remember all those lines from college?”

My final year, rehearsed for two months. Before today I would’ve sworn I’d forgotten,” I pointed a finger at my temple, “but I guess they were rattling around up there somewhere.”

So Bruckweiler and the doc didn’t tell you about the scroll-script function in the goggles?”

What?”

She fitted the goggles back down over my eyes and flipped a small switch I hadn’t noticed was there. Lines of text from the monologue I’d just recited moved across the top of my field of vision.

He must have left that bit out to test you. He did the same to me when I auditioned. I don’t like it myself, hard to sound natural when you’re reading off a screen. You really weren’t using it?”

I didn’t know it was there. All from memory, I swear.”

She smiled and brushed a strand of dirty-blond hair from her face. “Impressive,” she said still holding my hand, in a voice that held promises of encounters yet to come. Her fingers brushed along my wrist and I felt my pulse quicken.

Handsome, talented, and modest too. Glad to have you around, Gabe. Welcome to the BroaderVision/Globe Holotheater Company” she said, and kissed me on the mouth, teasing me with just a hint of tongue. A chorus of whistles and catcalls from the others behind us told me I’d been accepted.

FIN

That’s right son. That’s how I first met her. And Bruckweiler. So, anyway, Bruckweiler called a halt for the day and threw me a wicked welcome-to-the-show bash. That was where I got acquainted for the first time with a few future big names who had also been wearing greensuits. Pat Sandhurst was one. Pat never seemed to age much. Looked the same back then when we were young. Gangly, and freckled. But that voice, hell, gave me the creeps when he did it. Deep, booming, sinister. I knew then he’d be playing most of the villains. Lily Bennett was there too, smiles over ice. Never did like that bitch. There was Vincent Kwong, the youngest of us, he’s still around today. Must be what, ninety-five? Just him and me left of the old troupe now …

Yes I know, I know. This must all be very confusing for you. Bruckweiler’s own biography said that it was Hannah and I he signed up first as the stars and that the rest came later. Why the bullshit? A perfectly reasonable question.

Remember when I said I was nobody in Hollywood? Well, Hannah was too. The others were less than nobody. I was still swept up in the wonder of the thing, but it started to hit me at that welcome party. Bruckweiler hadn’t found actors, he’d found drama students with no actual work experience. Hannah and I were the prestige players in that little company. We were the ones who’d actually made a something like a living at acting before, meagre though it may have been. Even then Pete had a penchant for exaggeration.

Yeah yeah, sure, you can say it like that if you want. He outright lied to us in order to sign us up. He was the boss, it was his job. But there was another reason he put us under the spotlight, centre stage at the expense of the rest. All the others were good actors, and in the new medium would become great. The reason they hadn’t been before is that they weren’t what you’d call “screen pretty.” In the Holotheater that didn’t matter. Sometimes our characters were made to resemble us, but an actor hardly ever wore his own face anyway. We just made sure our voices were our own so people would know who they were paying to see. Also made race irrelevant, if the voice fit the character you had the part.

So why bother using us as poster boy and girl to sell the thing? I guess you wouldn’t get it. These days no one cares what a Holoactor actually looks like. But we were still moving away from the old medium back then, and looks did matter, especially at the beginning. After our debut in Frisco, Pete, Hannah, and I were dodging paparazzi for weeks. But I’m getting ahead of myself. That first show, I guess that’s when it really hit me I’d been hired as a salesman as much as anything else. I was just too busy to worry about it then what with rehearsals and press and all the VIPs to shake hands with. Bruckweiler really pulled out all the stops on that one.