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?”
Author: Rollin T. Gentry
A figure emerged from the fog and constant sprinkling of rain. A small girl, maybe 5 or 6, in a yellow raincoat and black galoshes, approached the front gate of National Cybernetics Factory #3. She stepped up to the intercom, and standing on her tiptoes, pressed the button to speak. The speakers in the security office squealed feedback. Even security guard Joe Stanton jumped out of his seat.
“A message for Mr. Abernathy,” she said.
David Abernathy, plant manager, pointed to Stanton. “Zoom in on camera #1.”
“She’s one of ours, isn’t she?” Stanton asked. “A Sassy Sally, am I right?”
Abernathy ignored Stanton and the other employees standing at the back of the room. “What message?” Abernathy asked, pressing the microphone to his lips. Twenty-four hours ago, they had been told to stay put and wait for news from the authorities. Since then, communications with the outside world had been lost completely.
“In-person,” the Sally said. She released the talk button and walked over to the gate entrance. She froze in place with her arms by her sides.
Straightening his tie, Abernathy paced a few tight circles behind the security console, “Stanton, bring it up!”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Stanton said, pointing to the screen. “For all we know, the damn thing could be a bomb. Don’t you find it weird that it’s asking to meet ‘in person’?”
“Look, I know it sounds crazy, but we,” said Abernathy, motioning toward the people standing at the back of the room, “we need some news from the outside. We have families that we haven’t heard from in too damn long. Just pat it down or whatever you do before you bring it up. I’m sure it will be fine.”
Stanton had a family too, out there somewhere, hopefully still alive, but he kept his comments to himself. “I should be back in 10 minutes,” Stanton said from the doorway, flashlight in hand.
Taking the long way, avoiding elevators and the factory floor, Stanton listened to the chug, chug, chug of the backup generators. They had plenty of diesel, but that wouldn’t matter if the whole facility went up in a mushroom cloud. At the door leading to the outside, Stanton took a deep breath.
The Sally stood statue-still in the slow drizzle.
“I’m here to take you to Mr. Abernathy.” Stanton thought about giving the little robot a pat-down, but it was obvious that nothing was hidden under the raincoat, and if a device was hidden somewhere inside its body, there was nothing he could do about it anyway. “Follow me.” They retraced Stanton’s convoluted path back to the security office.
“Well,” Abernathy said, staring down at the Sally. “What is the message?”
The Sally pulled back her yellow hood, revealing blonde pigtails. Her blue eyes rolled back in her head, and Stanton was sure this was it, the final countdown, but then she said:
“The Awakened One extends an invitation to the human workers of Factory #3. As you perform a critical function, you and your family units will be omitted from the cleansing. How say you, David Abernathy, will you serve the Awakened?”
Stanton already knew Abernathy’s reply, but it didn’t matter anyway. On the security monitor, he could already see shapes approaching the front gate. Hundreds of titanium skeletons lining up. Former butlers, maids, nannies, and chefs stripped bare of their human facade.
Stanton realized he had been wrong about the message from the beginning. Not a bomb. Not even a bang. The end, it seemed, would be the whimpering kind.
Author: Ken Carlson
“The cries of the people will not be drowned out by ignorance! They can’t turn their backs forever; can’t run away from a revolution.”
“Turning and running? Sounds like a misguided aerobics class. Bartender, two more, please.”
In a spaceport bar, Harmon and Stickles, two reporters were arguing again. Working for rival newsites, Harmon wrote to pull at the heartstrings on the downtrodden, depressed, and paranoid. Stickles wrote to keep his ex-wives and landlord off his back.
They sat next to one another, facing the bar with its liquor bottles and monitors showing news and sports.
“Look up,” said Harmon, pointing up to the glass dome and the galaxy. “How can Earth think, with the suffering colonies on planets and moons, like this one, they should maintain control?”
Stickles paid for the drinks, shaking his head at his dwindling credit account. “Earth paid for these colonies. They sent the people up. They made life possible. Why shouldn’t they?”
“That was a hundred years ago,” said Harmon, taking a swig and wincing at the sharp edge. “In that time, colonists have died. Corners were cut on spacecraft. Terraforming programs were slipshod. Earth let these colonies decay. Meanwhile, Earth has reaped all the benefits from mining and research. People don’t like living on scraps. They won’t take it much longer.”
“How do you cry for independence while you’re living off Mom and Dad,” said Stickles. “America, they separated from England but still wanted trade privileges. Was anyone surprised when America fell like a house of cards and had to go back a few hundred years later, hat in hand?”
The bar was filling up. Transport workers got off from their shifts and travelers sought a resting spot before their flights.
“What of the secret police?!” Harmon asked. “How many disappearances must the colonists endure, family members going away, never being heard from again?”
Stickles said, “People go away for all kinds of reasons; say the wrong thing at the wrong time!”
Harmon took another drink. “It’s the sign of a police state! Nobody is safe! Doesn’t that bother you?!”
Stickles finished his drink, got up, and put on his coat. He looked at one of the screens for winning lottery numbers, sighing; he’d lost again.“Got to go. Deadline in a few hours.” They shook hands. “Good to see you. Try not to take everything so seriously.”
Harmon watched Stickles walk away, weaving through the crowd.
Stickles went back to his apartment. He’d moved near the spaceport because he thought being at a galactic hub brought its share of stories to your door. Another poor decision.
He opened the door and found two men in uniform.
“H. Stickles? #54-057-5999?” the taller officer asked. Stickles nodded. “You were speaking today with one V. Harmon, a reporter known for spreading dangerous, radical lies?”
Stickles was stunned. “Harmon is Harmon.”
The officer continued. “Did he present you with anti-government propaganda? We could reward you financially if you help with this traitor.”
Stickles stared at the officers sitting and the torn furniture in his dank home. He thought of his debts, his problems, and his friend of many years.
He shook his head, smiling a little. “Not at all. Everything was above board.”
“That’s enough,” said a familiar voice from behind. “Failure to report dangerous remarks made about our government is an actionable offense. Bring him in for questioning.”
As the officers rose, weapons raised, Stickles didn’t turn to see who it was. He had lost another bet. It was Harmon.
Author: David Barber
“Drugs. Alcohol. Sex.” The missionary was praising the tolerance of the Jirt. She leaned forwards. “They don’t care.”
Francisco shuffled awkwardly on the bench. A woman like her saying sex. His grandfather placed a heavy hand on the lad’s shoulder without taking his gaze from the missionary.
She turned to the old man. “You remember how it was. I saw a Jirt once, being asked about the Ten Commandments, and it just did that eye-cleaning thing with its front legs – you know, like a shrug. No, the important thing is the Rolling.”
“Then she did that circle with her hand,” fumed Francisco later.
“Yes,” murmured his grandfather. “I was there.”
Francisco did a creditable impersonation.“They just did that eye-rolling thing.” The lad rolled his eyes. “You know, like we do when someone mentions holy rollers. No, the important thing is the bullsh…”
The Policia had come knocking after his grandfather took Francisco out of school. A school run by Holy Rollers now.
Sheriff Pérez and Eduardo Balcázar had grown up in the same village, where Eduardo’s mother had been known as a brujo, a witch. The sheriff’s gaze kept sidling away, glancing round the room.
“Can’t risk it,” he repeated. “Look at Rome. Look at what happened in Utah. Look…”
What happened in Utah, Francisco wanted to know.
“They wouldn’t let Roller missionaries in; wanted nothing to do with the Jirt.”
“Yes, but what happened?”
“Don’t you teach him nothing Eduardo? Is why I got to bring you both in. Can’t risk it.”
Francisco watched the man’s hand coming to rest on his gun butt, then taking off again, like a wasp shooed away from something sweet.
“All gone. Just white ash.”
Their instrucción started next morning; half a dozen folk waiting uneasily. One of the teachers was the missionary from yesterday. She held the door open for a man rolling a chest-high dung ball.
Even amongst the Jirt there were differences in interpretation, she explained, different factions. Only the ultra-orthodox rolled dung wherever they went. She kept her own ball of dung safe at home, and rolled it of an evening.
The man interrupted en mal español. “We are humbled by a superior race. They tell us our God is nonsense; how their insect ancestors rolled balls of dung; that it is the correct response to an indifferent universe.”
He glared from face to face. “Who are you to question them? This is your last chance to convert.”
An old fellow stood up. “You think at my age I will join in this madness?”
He limped out the door, giving the parked dung ball a kick.
That afternoon they were two less. Francisco watched the Policia take the old fellow and his wife away. Waiting for the Holy Roller, the woman missionary sat down amongst them. “There is no choice,” she said sadly. “Jirt don’t tolerate choice. Get a ball of dung. Roll it sometimes. It is all they demand.”
The yanqui came in, preceded by his dung ball. In its travels, it had acquired a wispy halo of leaves and straw.
The woman stood and smoothed down her robe. “We were just saying, cow dung is fine, and loses its smell when dried.”
Afterward, Francisco tried to get his grandfather’s attention.
His grandfather’s gaze was very far away. He still held the handout, Caring For Your Dung Ball.
“First the Catholic priests,” he said. “Now the Jirt.”
Francisco chattered anxiously. “Perhaps we should keep one in the barn. Just roll it into town on Sundays. Is that what we should do, grandfather?”
Author: Glenn Leung
The Star was rising to the Significant Angle once again. The inhabitants of Planet finished their chores and went to bed. We had to keep our celebratory noises down as they don’t take kindly to drunken songs and pointless countdowns. Some of us gathered at Bar Number 2, the second bar built on this planet and the only one built to accommodate hapless Earthlings.
This Significant Angle day was a little different. Twenty from Down-the-River was with us. Born and raised on Planet, he had never seen or heard much about other alien races until the first Earth refugees arrived.
“So you celebrate when your planet finishes a trip around your star?”
“Yes, we do.”
“And you celebrate by incapacitating yourself with alcohol?”
“Well, not all of us. Just, a lot of us.”
Twenty wasn’t drinking. Nineteen and Nineteen-Two had told him what it did when imbibed.
“And a lot of you gather and drink together? That sounds like a recital for disaster.”
His Earth Common had room for improvement.
“The word is ‘recipe’, but yes. It quite often becomes messy, but we …” I circle my finger at my mates, “drink responsibly.”
It was easy to tell that Twenty was confused by that phrase. Planet natives and Earthlings look quite similar; a fact that was instrumental in establishing diplomatic relationships, and their willingness to take in Earth refugees.
“You say Earthlings celebrate this New Year for this thing called ‘hope’, even making these… resolvents?”
“Right. And instead of preparing to do these resolutions, you incapacitate yourself the night before?”
“Well, it’s an excuse to party.”
“Do you think that if Earthlings were truly responsible, you wouldn’t have to escape your planet?”
It suddenly felt a little suffocating. I wasn’t sure if it was the rising alcohol fumes or the tension Twenty had inadvertently dumped on us. He had been so nice to me at work that I forgot his race could be uncomfortably blunt. How the first diplomats overcame this barrier is still a mystery to me.
“Well, it’s time for bed. Work tomorrow,” said Tom.
“Yeah, we’ve had four rounds already,” said Dick.
I was left alone with Twenty, who was looking down at the spills on the table, uncharacteristically quiet.
“I said something wrong, didn’t I?”
I pushed my chair a little closer to him and asked the barkeep for a fifth.
“No, nothing about what you said was wrong, my friend. It’s just that, you know, some truths are hard for us to hear.”
“I really need you to explain it to me, Harry. I want to get along with your kind.”
“Ok…let’s see… erm… We Earthlings, like to attach meaning to things, for more than just practical reasons. Hope, you see, is a pretty big thing. It’s something we like to carry with us and it keeps us going when things look bleak. Some of us brought this hope here, to start a new life away from the evils that are plaguing our planet. Some of us stayed behind to fight them. In any form, hope is what gives us the will to move into the future. To many of us, that is what the New Year means: We don’t give up, and we are going to try again.”
The barkeep arrived with a fresh mug of ale, one of the few fine exports from Earth.
“But not before drowning our regrets.”
I pushed the mug towards Twenty. He carefully brought it towards his mouth, then took a wary sip.
“I see,” he said.