The Obvious Choice

Author: Katlina Sommerberg

Everything started with a star burping out an interesting tidbit. Buried amongst the electromagnetic radiation hiccups the same messages on repeat, looping endlessly. One species tamed this red giant, a fiend who swallowed half its planets, into the galaxy’s most creative loudspeaker.

Five years after its discovery, the collective work from thousands of scientists twisted the translation out of the ultraviolet spectrum. The other light bands remain, but this one was trivial.

“This system holds the ancient ruins of our pre-space civilization, and this star all our philosophical lessons. Be warned, once you cut the tether to your planet, your species will never be the same. Ours cannot go back.”

Plastered on every newspaper, the entire world inhaled the message and choked on its implications. Articles cranked out of every news source, from the most prestigious journals to the smallest internet bloggers, and millions of children revoked their career choice of ‘astronaut.’ Questions peppered government officials, from city council members to United Nations janitors.

Everyone wanted to know, but few knew what they wanted to know.

Space programs revived under new waves of funding, expanding to personnel counts higher than in their heyday before Climate Change. Piece by piece, the rest of the message unraveled in secret rooms. The masses lost interest in the century’s strangest puzzle, but those invested in the message never lost their drive.

When Earth lost the last of her bees, the message was unraveled at last. The world raced to hear the news, eyes running quickly across the words detailing the scientists’ arduous process. All eyes stared fixed on their screens and papers when they reached the aliens’ philosophy.

“We regret ruining our world, only to chase the dream of a paradise across the stars.”

Top of the World

Author: Malena Salazar Maciá
Translated by: Toshiya Kamei

My breath came in choppy gasps as I climbed. I thrust my pick against the rock with all my strength and finished hauling myself over the edge. As I sucked in a deep breath, the icy air stabbed my lungs. I was the fourth climber to have conquered the Magic Line on K2 twice and survived to tell the tale, losing my two small toes in the process. This was my third attempt.

I raised the banner and stuck it in the snow with a trembling hand. Most likely, a storm would blow it away, but I was following the code. I checked my equipment and resolved to descend via the Abruzzi Spur. However, my first step to the opposite edge was caught in a curious crevice, a soft and suddenly moving fold that was never there, making me lose my balance. I used my ice ax in time to avoid tumbling down. As the tremor increased in magnitude, I crawled with my eyes wide open, as if that would help me understand exactly why K2 was furious with me. Pieces of skull, crumbled knucklebones, and something that had a terrible resemblance to a human femur shook free with the avalanche.

The dirt-covered eyelid was completely open, and the onyx pupil was now staring at me, reflecting my frozen face.

Rise of the Maui Jungle Fowl

Author: Katlina Sommerberg

The wind rustled, drier than the dirt. The hazy moon cast its glow on the fields, but it wasn’t alone.

My mother’s stories mentioned lights that accompanied the fickle moon.

But these lights brightened. A green-blue ball, twice the diameter of my beak, carved a wake larger than the road.

I gave chase. Steam wafted off the meteor, and I‌ pecked it out of curiosity.

The stone cracked like an egg, and a yellow ooze dripped out. The goo shivered, pooling together. The sludge slipped up my legs and coated my feathers down to the skin.

We merged; we became Aware. And I understood my ancestor’s lights still shined, but couldn’t pass through the clogged atmosphere.

We wanted the same thing. I wanted the lights restored, and to see the world how my great-grandmother saw it.

The ooze wanted humans destroyed. I understood.

Franco’s Cigars

Author: Jeremy Nathan Marks

Smoking cigars was his new habit. Franco’s woman said you shouldn’t smoke so he switched from cigarettes. He would take a cigar a day as opposed to a pack of his favorite smokes. See, honey? I do listen.

The first time it happened, Franco lit a Cuban and downtown went up like a kerosene rag. The sky turned Satan red and Jack ‘O Lantern orange and black. Every single building was incinerated. He had been standing on his balcony watching the skyline. Franco and his flat were the only things spared. It was curious. The moment he finished his stogie this holocaust was vaporized and the city suddenly glinted and gleamed like polished marble. It reminded Franco of gems at a jewelry counter.

Like anyone fighting his jones, Franco reasoned that nothing would happen this time. His Cuban had been spiked and what he’d seen was clearly a chemical hallucination. It was alright. He could -and he would- light up again.

At the bodega, he bought a Dominican instead. He was being cautious. At home, in his La-Z-Boy, he stared out the balcony window with its skyline view and . . . lit up.

A long finger of orange fire descended from the sky, carving a path between the skyscrapers and high rises, tearing up the road surface like a construction crew. Franco had recently watched Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments on tv and God had carved those tablets in this way.

One by one, the finger shattered structures. Debris shot out like shrapnel. When Franco drew a deep breath, the finger turned white, sending shivers of heat across the Metroscape. Exploding glass beat a tattoo from every window.

Trembling and sweating, Franco finished his cigar. After the last puff, he stamped out the stub and flung it into the maelstrom.

It began to rain.

It was a fine rain, essentially a mist. Franco wanted to experience it -to see if it were real- so he went out on his balcony. He could not get wet. It was a dry rain, spangling droplets in the light of a now chalk white sun.

Franco was stunned, practically tipsy. Before the bathroom mirror, his face had not changed. Everything that said “Franco” remained: bulbous nose; high cheekbones; widow’s peak. His eyes were neither red nor dilated. The shirt he wore (blue) looked blue in the mirror. There were no strange creatures on his shoulder talking to him: neither tempting angel nor angelic devil. When he raised his arm, the man in the mirror did so, too. His fingers did not streak rainbows like the NBC peacock.

He wouldn’t smoke again. He would not.

The next evening, Franco sat on his bed with a Venezuelan. It was night, the door was closed, his curtains drawn. Only the light from his reading lamp filled the room. Slowly, Franco removed the wrapper then Zippo’ed his fire.

Nothing this time. No inferno. No dry rain. No divine finger. Franco took a deep drag until his lungs filled with a heat that he could feel in his capillaries. His vision swam, his body became pneumatic.

Waking, Franco saw that he no longer was in his room. His new space was undefined, filled by charcoal darkness. The only thing visible was a bed of hot coals, which glowed like a fag end. What he heard but could not see was lowing cattle. A man called out to another man: “It’s lit. Hold your horses.” There was a metallic clanging, the sound of what Franco assumed was a lantern.

For a long time, he watched the coals. The cattle sounds persisted, the conversation of the men a low hum reminiscent of cicadas. After considering his options, Franco stepped forward, the pad of his foot resting on red hot carbon. He felt no heat; there was no pain. What there was, instead, was a rising sound of distressed cattle. A piercing low, it began to puncture his eardrums. One bull bellowed above the herd. It came forward into view, kicking at a lantern. The lantern toppled then shattered.

From beyond the rising flame, the bull backing away from the blaze a man yelled, “Damn that old bull!”

Which was the last thing Franco heard or saw.

Evil Lair Architect

Author: Morrow Brady

You can’t ‘business card ‘ evil lair architect. Not if you wanted a future.

Forbidden desires ooze from dark web dead drops. Desires sent by faceless ghosts that had long since twisted off the doll’s head of reality. Riches and power are like a magnet to any moral compass. And from what I’ve seen, these clients were stepping up their game solely to tickle their numbed fancy. I was Victor Frankenstein with a front-row seat to a molten, screaming stream of insanity showing me their worst nightmares and asking for them to be stitched with flesh. And I was broken enough to do it.

Air-gapped anonymity and state of the art tech kept the monsters from my door. With my knowledge of psychotic design principles and AI oversight for the trickier systematics, I would build a virtual 3D model of each evil lair. This model was then used by henchmen in black market bot-forges, that would spew an army of nano-robots, each working to atomically craft the lairs. Architect charters of such perversity would be written in blood on dried skin.

In a hotel room of another nameless metropolis, I put the final touches to a new lair design and sent the encrypted model to a darkened online corner. The crypto payment arrived and dark thoughts once again writhed free. This lair had scared me. Its rooms were so palatial yet so fortified – as if to entrap something of unfathomable terror. The brief, however, was familiar. I had designed for this patron before and their madness was evolving, while mine degenerated.

As torturous visions began to scrape mental claws, I left the hotel. Nearby, a café courtyard overlooking a cobbled street offered a comfy chair and respite. It took three bourbons to numb the horrors but as the dregs drained from the fourth, my eyes flexed upon the snakes. I immediately froze. On the building across the street, discretely etched in a cornerstone, was a cube wrapped in writhing snakes. It was my sigil, hijacked and masquerading as a foundation stone. An evil lair was here. A jackhammer started in my chest, then a deep voice sounded from behind. I shirked, as a muscled brown arm reached across to place the steaming plate of food I ordered. I composed myself and started counting snake scales. The sigil’s code told me the lair was built 7 years ago.

Barbed wire butterflies battered my insides and dark thoughts rushed the door. Evil lay here with an unquenchable thirst. Instincts screamed for me to leave, but common sense prevailed. When you’re this close to pure evil, irrational behaviour makes people suspicious. Just be cool.

I stopped and focussed. Faded memories of the lair surfaced like unearthed corpses. Floor plans mentally emerged like windswept spider webs. The strange grouping of underground triangular chambers. A hexagonal vault with its phenomenal power demand. The henchmen’s quarters leading to a glass octahedron control room. Remembering it all had calmed me a little. Given me the illusion of control. But as my mind traipsed through endless corridors, searching for the secret entrance, a mental rift tore open. And then I remembered the comfy chair and the whole picture came clear.

As the blood drained from my face, I looked up and the low glass privacy walls around my dining area went opaque, I violently twisted and fell into darkness.

In a glazed octahedron, a comfy chair swiveled and a man with muscular brown arms came into view.

“Ahh, the Architect! Finally decided to take me up on the invitation?”