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?”

Shelter in Place

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.

2051

Author: Jae Miles, Staff Writer

Mister Grumsen looks about the little interview room. Nothing’s changed since he last inspected his paltry domain, but kings have to survey no matter how trivial, I presume.
He nods at me.
“One more before lunch, I think.”
I press the admission button. The door slides open and a nervous young man almost creeps in, cap literally in hand.
Grumsen looks him up and down, then refers to the display projected onto the frosted glass by his right shoulder.
“Michael Evander Durham?”
The cap carrier nods.
“Take a seat.”
He does so, perching on the edge of the chair.
“So, Michael. Just completed college?”
“Yes, sir.”
Grumsen nods approvingly and makes a note on his tablet: “Polite. Instinctive manners are so rare these days.”
Michael smiles: “My father always-”
Grumsen raises a hand: “That was not an inferred query, Mister Durham. Please respond only to direct questions.”
Michael nods.
“Good. Now, I see your GPA was only 3.4?”
“Yes, sir. In the top ten percent of my year.”
“With a primary focus on mathematics, secondary on the sciences?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, now. I think I see a bright future. Adam, who do we have for this budding salaryman?”
I look at my screen, where Michael’s details have already been circulated to every company that might be interested.
“Bayer-Boeing are the leading bidder.”
I forward the details to his display.
Grumsen looks them over, then looks back at Michael. I can see the edge of the wide smile on his face.
“Glad tidings, Mister Durham. Bayer-Boeing place your net dollar-diem at 5.28 an hour, for an annual return of 13,728. Which gives rise to their generous offer of a 205,920 donation to your family fund for your lifetime of service.”
He looks puzzled. I can see him doing mental calculations.
“Only fifteen years?”
Grumsen shakes his head: “Correct. The lifespan average for your residential area is 42 years. Current demographic data indicates the final twenty-five percent of working life for people from your background is marred by poor health, childcare crises, and similar distractions. Therefore, they flatline the remaining five years for offer purposes, but will pro-rata the dollar-diem rate quoted here on a weekly basis from the start of your sixteenth year.”
Michael shrugs: “Twenty years isn’t bad, I suppose. Better than my brother.”
I can see his brother got a five-year plus ten pro-rata offer for working as a blast miner on Mars. Died during his ninth year in a non-culpable industrial incident.
“We’ll need a decision before you leave, Mister Durham. Adam, what’s the offer on Michael’s next lowest donation?”
“186,810. Fifteen-year fixed term.”
Grumsen flashes me a sideways look of anger. He doesn’t like it when I give the candidates information beyond what he deems fit.
Michael shrugs.
“Guess I’m slaving for Bayer-Boeing, then. But, before I go: What was Adam’s offer?”
Grumsen bristles. I action acceptance processing on the Bayer-Boeing offer before replying.
“My dollar-diem offer was six-an-hour for thirty years, with optional ‘Until Death’ pro rata afterwards.”
Grumsen goes white. He spins to face me, completely ignoring Michael.
“I graduated from Harvard! How the devil did you get better than anything I’ve ever heard of?”
“I’m told to say it was my 4.0 GPA and a near-perfect family profile. As we’re in a screened room, I’m free to tell you my mother’s sister’s husband is the eldest son of the CEO of ATOX Careers.”
Grumsen mutters something under his breath, then turns back to Michael.
“Thank you, Mister Durham. We’re done.”
Michael bursts out laughing.
“I knew I was. Nice to know you were too.”

Place Your Bets

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.

Holy Roller

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…”

“Enough.”

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?”