And so we begin our foray into being an actual by-gosh publisher!
We’re the same people who have been bringing you Krypton Radio for the past 10+ years, and in that time we have grown from a tiny experiment begun in an MMO to being the largest and most popular pop and geek culture radio station in the world.
And now we find ourselves as actual publishers of the science fiction and fantasy genres we love so well.
It all started in 2009. We were a bunch of friends playing in our favorite MMO and we wanted a science fiction radio station to listen to while we played, and we couldn’t find one. So, we made one. It all just sort of snowballed.
Now things are snowballing again, and we were approached by a few writers wondering why we hadn’t formed our own publishing company by now, and when we did, could they please join us?
So here we are. We’re calling it “Helium Beach”.
We begin by publishing short stories, eventually to be compiling them into our first anthology. We’ll also be publishing full novels, and, the Universe willing, tabletop games and game modules as well.
We’re still in the process of setting up. This is all new to us, so we get to learn all the things we need to know to be not just a good publisher, but an honorable and ethical one as well.
John R. White is the author of the Airship Neverland series of steampunk fantasy novels. This story, The Inspector, is a new, previously unpublished work representing some of the back story of villain in the series’ third book, TALES OF THE AIRSHIP NEVERLAND Volume III: DUST AND ASH.
The Inspector, by John R. White
The communique had arrived at his Scotland Yard office at fifteen minutes after the hour of ten in the morning. Inspector Hanson would address and review it as soon as he had managed all the work up to that time, and not a second before. Hanson placed into his letterbox, which was arranged by the posts time of arrival. Hanson found chaos useless and counter-productive to the man’s work.
The Inspector was thirty-six and unmarried. In point of fact, he had never been betrothed, nor did he date, as women found his obsessive-compulsive nature distressing and the man entirely unpleasant. Delacorte Hanson found that quite acceptable because romantic relationships required too much useless and time-consuming activities. Pitching woo, attending shows, and such like would be the downfall of civilization to his mind.
Noon arrived, and the proper gentleman ate his lunch at his desk. It consisted of a dried pork sandwich, two hard-boiled eggs, and cold tea. At twenty minutes after noon, he read the message.
Inspector D. Hanson Scotland Yard—Stop
Your presence required Gladesville Asylum—Stop.
Endeavour City, Walkabout Island Post Haste—Stop
Premier George Reid—Stop
Dystopia Desires Appeal—Stop
Inspector Hanson stood up, promptly walked to his private loo, and retched.
The following day Inspector Hanson stared at his steamer trunk and proceeded to re-inspect (For he had already reviewed the case twice) a third and final time. The trip was to be an obscenely long one. He would have to take an airship from Kensington to Rome, another from Rome to Cairo, which after a restock of supplies – to include replenishment of Aetherium gas – would fly across Palestine and Arabia to the Port of Columbo, Brytish Sri Lanka. From there, it would require two weeks at sea to strike shore at Geraldton, Walkabout Island. And then five days in the air to land in Endeavor city. As he closed his trunk, he called for his man to take it, and the three other portmanteaus and load them in the waiting lorry.
Three weeks of travel lay ahead of him in which he would have to work his courage up to face the Countess Dystopia.
Dystopia— a razor-edged rose that cast seeds of crimson and madness.
Dystopia— the madwoman of Pittlewell.
He had not been there at the scene of the crime. He had not been there to look upon the mutilated bodies of her family, shredded human tissue lying upon decorative Christmas tissue, nor had not been required to witness the carnage. Still, the inspector, tasked with interviewing her, would subsequently be appointed as her solicitor, for Hanson was a rare breed, a barrister who was also a psychologist.
Hanson slid into the backseat of the air lorry. He thanked the footman and gave a gratuity to both he and his batman. Hanson had earned his stripes as a barrister working for his majesty’s forces. Feeling the craft lift, then quickly followed by the sound of the steam-driven propeller, he closed his eyes for the quarter-hour to the Airship launch.
It would seventeen minutes after scheduled departure time that Hanson watched as the Coast of Bryton receded. He was not one of those given to frivolity and did not join the guests waving out the windows; instead, he settled his personal items in his cabin—the task would consume seventy-six minutes until he was satisfied. Peckish, he did move down the corridor to find the dining facilities, and as he was captive to the slow shuffling of Chronos’ feet, he allowed himself a sumptuous repast, to include three Gaulish pastries. The wine was agreeable. Once finished, he took up a vacant seat in the lounge, and reaching down, pulled out his files. As he laid them on the pristine and immaculate table, he opened the worn tan cover and read. He absent-mindedly rubbed his left fingers.
December 25, 1859.
Prittlewell, Essex. Bryton.
It was Inspector Lestrade that was the chief inspector of the case. The Young lass called Cecily had taken the occasion of the birthday of the Messiah to refashion her toys into tiny mechanical automatons with which to murder her family; the sole failed to target his innocent sister. The house burned to the ground by the time they found the young Countess Hartwicke and her sister Katherine. At the time, Katherine was a wounded lass of just eight years old. Contrarily, her thirteen-year-old sister was unscathed. The local bobbies knew her well, for she already had many encounters with the law; all of them, mayhem.
Repeated accused of the torture of animals, (under the guise of helping to create medical tools for her father, a physician) to date, she remained cleared of all charges.
Twice she was a person of interest in ‘accidental’ deaths where, once more, the charge dismissed as an accident. One of those occasions thirty children, two nuns and a rector died. It was not until that dark Christmas that she was proven to be the psychopath she was. It had been Hanson’s task to prepare a defence for her, but also to discover why she was the way she was.
Evil is not a disorder of the mind; it is a disorder of the soul. People are born into the world with their hearts as clean a slate as is possible. A child, Hanson felt was as perfect a thing in the universe as could exist. Yet that clean slate is black as coal. Dystopia had been born such a child, and somehow her pristine soul was corrupted early.
“Why,” He had asked the straight-jacketed lass as he sat across from her in her prison cell. “Why, do you murder? What reason can justify this?”
Cecily, her hair all akimbo and wild looked up at the man. Her face was dirty; her lips chapped, and yet her eyes were as sharp as flint. She leaned her head back and laughed—a high disturbing cackle.
“They say that mankind arose from lesser beings; that humans are now the pinnacle on the mountain of change and evolution,” Cecily looked at him as she leaned across the table. “But, Master Hanson, I don’t think so. You know what I think is in charge, the true master of this world?” The girl was not a fool or a child. The person sitting across from her was far older than her flesh.
Hanson shook his head,” I have no idea.” Hanson scribbled madly with his pen and ink. “Why don’t you tell me?’
Dystopia moved her shoulders to and fro while nodding, and then stopping, looked up. “Disease. And you know how it always wins. It gets inside you, and slowly murders you bit by bit, tearing down every healthy bit of your body,” Cecily tittered. “You proper people want to build a world, a utopia for you upright gents. I think it would be far more fun to watch your haven of righteousness, and all of you dumb walking leaves and sticks burn.” She smiled and closed her eyes, mouthing silent words. Hanson stopped writing and looked up sharply.
“You’re mad. You want all of your countrymen to die?” The thought made him ill.
“Don’t you understand, sir? Everything burns in the end, and I want to be the one who struck the matchstick.”
Fleet Street Dubbed her ‘Countess Dystopia’, although the woman possessed a provenance of nobility, nothing about her demonstrated dignity, wit, or sagacity. On the day of her trial Hanson, as her solicitor, could only try to save her life and the only means with which that was possible was to have her remanded to an asylum as far away from the sensitive and fearful Kings subjects. Hence; Walkabout Island.
The long days of travel quickly grew tedious. Hanson had taken to sunning himself on the air deck. Here the potted plants, tables and pianos remained affixed in position. The guests were required to be tethered to safety posts. Should one elect to fall, there was no safety of the sea to catch you. The cry of ‘Man overboard’ was a proclamation of bereavement, yet none of that concerned Inspector Hanson. He had served on the front lines of Hooker’s rebellion at the siege of Bryton.
His battalion tasked with maintaining a bulwark against the oncoming she-pirates and traitorous bastards. Master Sargent Delacorte Hanson had ordered his men to be fully ready and equipped. To a man, Hanson had provided cartridges, a clean pistol and rifle, bayonet and sword. Nothing had been overlooked; nothing but being assigned a fool for a Commander. The Leftenant convinced the men that the invasion to come would be a laughable incursion, easily smitten. The man couldn’t have been more wrong.
The House of Pan fell in one day; the Kings navy annihilated and sent scurrying like cowed dogs. Why? Because the main bulwark, his lads were led astray and took to arms undersupplied, and overconfident.
That incident was way Inspector Hanson vowed never again to enter any confrontation anything less than entirely prepared for any eventuality.
No one was sure how old Jiemba was, for the man was known to have been employed since Gladesville had been called the Tarban Creek Lunatic Asylum. He was an Aborigine, and his skin was as purple as a grape. The man’s hair shorn close to his head, and unlike many other men, he wore no beard and rarely even wore a shirt. Usually, this would have cause to be frowned upon, but Jiemba was counted as shrewd. Beards and clothes, he had taught the staff, are easy for madmen to grab. Far better to suffer a scratch or bite, then to be held to the ground. It took two dead white men before Jiemba’s words counted as wisdom. From that moment on if the staff saw Jiemba walk-in in a loincloth, they would say nothing. Jiemba knew this, and quietly revelled in the fact that the pale people could be taught.
‘Jim’ had a current apprentice by the name of Alexander Hamilton Gibbons, a freed American slave. The man was a half-giant of a man, well over two meters in height, and weighed in at over 20 stones. The man had left his home to build him a better future. His optimism would not earn him any reward.
Today was the task was to feed the only patient in the Black Ward. Jiemba had the trolley which they had taken from the kitchen. It was cold soup in a deep bowl, rolls, and a leather wineskin filled with water. The walk from the kitchen down the long hall took four minutes and thirty-six seconds. Jiemba had done this for several years now and could stop dead with his eyes closed, and still tell Gibbons exactly what markings, stains or cracks resided on either side of him.
As the came to the end of the hall, Gibbons moved forward to the giant iron door and slid the toothless key marked “Black Ward” into the lock, and then, slipping it sidewise to the right, pushing up slightly and then twisting it felt the magnetized teeth affix. The door announced with several clicks, and then a yawn that the door was now unlocked. The American removed it and pulled on the handle where it opened up into the Critical Ward located of building 30. Passing another portal, they arrived at the observation room for the only patient in this department; Cecily Hartwicke, the Countess Dystopia. The titan of an orderly hand’s trembled as they moved int the central control room. As Jiemba pushed the cart in, he saw that there was a single metal door between the present staff and the woman, not of his dreams, but his nightmares. There were two nurses and one doctor present.
“How is she doing today?” The chief orderly inquired.
Very well behaved. Seems she been listless since you took your holiday. I think she missed you.” One of the nurses spoke sincerely. She refused to bath herself until today. I think she cleaned herself up for you.
“I think she fancies you, Jim,” the doctor laughed.
Jiemba looked to his trainee. “Don’t you listen to that none. Only thing Dystopia fancies is getting out. Don’t believe her any, don’t tell her anything and never take your eyes off her. You remember that you’ll be okay.”
The airship made its second successful dockage in Cairo. They would have a twelve-hour holdover, the time required to vent the old lifting gas; Aetherium; Aetherium being the gas found in the void of space between planets. It broke down slowly, but as it did it tended to become denser and colder, actually pulling the gas chambers inward running the risk of the airbags tearing apart. Thus, when the gas warmed, it was then expelled, and only then could the lining be checked and replaced with a fresh batch.
Hanson had no desire to take an aerial tour of Cairo as many of the upper-class did. No, the man wanted to be down in the trenches, as it were. The city offered sights, sounds, and tastes that teased his palette. The city ran far more efficiently run than expected. The masters of Egypt maintained order well, and the main bonework of Cairo remained organized and well-controlled. He knew that to go into the market was to submit himself to disorder, but there was a bookshop that he heard tell of and he wished to visit it. It took a bit of spatial orientation to prevent too much meandering, but he was pleased when he found the store. Unobtrusive and covered with the orange grey grit of the city, a meat-stand practically concealed the tiny store. To get to the store purchased a bit of meat on a stick for two Pence. The meat was rather pleasing and tasty. He would be sure to buy more on his return to the airship.
Once inside, Hanson discovered that the small façade was an illusion, as it were, for upon entering, he saw that the entrance was to but a morsel of the store’s meal. Thousands of books filled the wall shelving, stacks of dusty tomes formed obelisks of literary delight. The owner, sat behind a stone desk, concealed by yet again piles of scrolls, manuscripts and clay tablets. The shop keeper was an antiquity herself. In Mohammedan society, he knew certain sects minimalized women to the back, but he was in no position to argue because it was a sin not limited to the Ottomen. He bowed his head and spoke to the woman in her tongue.
“Madam, I am seeking a book, a rumoured one, to be sure. Nevertheless, it was written by the Greek physician Asklepios. It was his treatise on the mind and madness.” The older woman stared at him as if he were of a broken mind himself. Nodding, she picked up a cane and descending from her chair, motioned him to follow. Hand-inscribed six hundred years before Christ, the text was a mere millennia old, and cost the Inspector a scant two hundred pounds sterling. The yard would not reimburse him, but again Hanson would not meet the woman without every weapon at his disposal. He had to be prepared for this woman, the Law required that she was allowed to speak with him alone, with no prying ears about them. That was exactly what she requested; a meeting with her attorney in privacy to appeal for release.
Jiemba, to Gibbons great relief, went in first. It was his job to control the patient, now eighteen years of age. The Countess resided in a round vaulted room. Her bed, as were all the furniture were crafted from stone which outgrew form the floor—the entirety of the place built from granite blocks, each weighing several tons. Dystopia was forbidden from possessing anything that could be construed as a weapon; a significant challenge when it came to be managing her care and feeding.
It was an unpleasant existence for any living creature, and Jiemba, a Torres Strait Islander knew what it meant to be cast aside and marginalized. The pity he felt for the woman did not, in any way, the negate the knowledge that she was more vicious than any snake out in the outback.
He stood at the top of the six-foot-high ramp, the lead to the observation deck. The orderly saw the woman sitting with her back to the round walls of the cupola.
“Hello, Jiemba,” she smiled.
The Englishwoman was of moderate height and slight of build. She had tried the first time meeting the dark man to seduce him by showing her not unimpressive assets. She was madwoman or not, quite beautiful. Her efforts failing, she then decided to try and attack him physically. On that day she had feigned sleep, but in truth was coiled snakelike in the corner and when he came with the hated jacket, she sprung at him all nails and teeth. She landed a few impressive blows and one painful bite on him before Jiemba grabbed her by the back of her neck and faced her away from him. Then he softly and kindly informed her that if she did not behave herself, he would, somewhat regretfully, be forced to bounce her head a few times on the wall. The Countess did not believe him, and when she woke up in the jacket being hand feed her meal with tongs, she vowed to behave herself, which she did, for the most part.
“I see you have a friend, or perhaps he’s your son?” Dystopia sat on her stone bed; a solid piece of thick leather – her blanket. “Do you have a name my good man?” She looked at Gibbons. The new orderly looked at Jiemba, who shook his head indicating he should not give it.
“You can call me Orderly, ma’am,” He pulled the covering cloth off the food.
She said nothing and looked at the table. “So, what are we trying today?” Dystopia sat where she was and saw that the food was on a dark dense material. “You see Orderly, I am not at all well behaved. So far, my serving containers are very challenging for them. Clearly Jiemba has known that glass, china, and ceramic are off the list. Paper won’t do; everything gets soggy. metal won’t do. I proved that very quickly when I killed my first orderly.”
Alexander looked at Jiemba with wide frightened eyes.
“Oh yes, you see they thought that if they used a very hard metal bowl that there was no way I could cause mischief in one day. No spoon, no fork: Just two bowls one for my food, and one for my drink,” She smiled wickedly at Jiemba. “You see he was sick,” She pointed at the man. “So, they sent in one of the doctors. He hadn’t been there long, and I was very good and quiet so when he came into feed me, foolishly alone,” She lifted her hands apart. “I walked over to look at my food, and I gave him something to look at. “She giggled. “And when he took a peek, I smashed the two books on either side of his head.” She made a boom sound. “he was so very, very, dead, and now,” She sighed. “So, they know that steel won’t do.” The Patient was twenty feet away from him, the full diameter of the room.
She looked at the new orderly. “Well, we know glass, china, and ceramic vessels are off the list. Paper won’t do, metal won’t do.” She sighed, then smiled.
“However, I’ve been very good for a while because for the last year they have only served me on waxed paper.” She shot fluttering eyelashes at Jiemba. “So now, young orderly, because I’m being good, they are letting me have dishes again. So, what are we trying now Jiemba?”
“Ironwood, and you going to have to slide these bowls through that new slot in the door when you’re done. Only way you will get any new food served.”
“Oh, how lovely,” She smiled and threw a look of humorous cynicism.
“Speaking of which,” Jiemba looked for her last meal containers. The giant of a man saw that saw that the debris of her last meal sat crumpled up in the middle of the room, when it was supposed to be at the bottom of the ramp.
“Now Countess, you had better not be aiming to have create any mischief today. Why is your paper all the way out there? You know if you cause trouble, they going to put you in the coat again, or worse. They going to throw you meat out the door hole, where you can eat it like a dog. You’ll have to get water from the shower hole as well. Now I’m going to ask you that you turn and face the wall and kneel.”
Dystopia looked down sadly. “It was just a mistake. I forgot because my guest is coming.” Dystopia obeyed and did as told. Jiemba didn’t run, but he moved with haste, retrieving the waste papers and scraps.
“Now whose coming to see you?” Jiemba laughed.
“My Solicitor. He’s coming to see me.” She turned her head away from the wall, looking at the two men. “So, I have to be very, very good now.” She looked at Gibbons and blew him a kiss. “You sleep well of me,” She pulled down her you to partially reveal her right breast. “Dream of me.”
Alexander Gibbons had fled the slavery of the South, gained his freedom and as a show of gratitude joined the Union and fought in his nation’s wars experiencing some of the bloodiest hand to hand fighting a man could see. Now staring at the she-devil before him, was the first time he ever felt true terror.
Much to the staff’s surprise Dystopia remained very well behaved returning her bowls at the end of every meal, with the exception that she would occasionally fall asleep at night and wouldn’t return the bowls until morning before she broke her fast.
Inspector Delcourt Hanson studied every aspect of lunacy, madness, and deviant behaviour he could find on his trip; much he had read before but the new material, such as the tome he obtained in Egypt, helped bring some new insights. Insanity was not a new human condition, but even problems could arise to upset the present.
After a great many sunrises and sunsets, the Inspector disembarked from the airship. He moved carefully across the small catwalk bridge and then down through the terminal tower. He was briefly inspected by the immigration agent who ascertained that the tourist would not be bringing any more unpredatored animals, the Citizens of Walkabout Island having had their fill of Billbys and rabbits that threatened ecological collapse. As the Inspector cared not for pets, he passed through quickly.
Hanson had not slept at all well, as such he yawned mightily and permitted himself an expresso with his breakfast while he waited for the driver form the Ministry of Law. The meal consisted of eggs, smoky bacon, grilled tomato and mushrooms. Sated, he checked his timepiece and then looked for the governmental vehicle. The wait was not long, and the motorized coach pulled up with flags flying. The driver stepped down from the outer bench and seeing Hanson, he shook his hand and loaded his kit onto the carriage top. As Hanson entered the cab, he saw the Premier sitting inside, black drawn curtain concealing him to the public.
“An Honor sir, Hanson removed his hat as he took his seat. To what do I owe this personal honour?” The governor reached into a valise and handed the paper to him.
“The Solicitor General has reviewed the patient’s petition for appeal. By law, the woman is entitled to make such a plea personally to the High Court. If it was to proceed beyond that to the Crown—,” The man shook his head. “Regrettably, since the woman was jailed as a child, she is now entitled to make such an appeal. The Solicitor General has ruled stating that since she has had three years of proper behaviour, said appeal must be in open court.”
“I am aware,” Hanson handed a file back to him in riposte. “I have crafted her requested appeal papers, and you will find them here.”
“I’m sure they are all in proper order. That, however, is not my concern. A great many Amicus briefs – friends of the Court actions as it were, have been filed demanding Dystopia’s freedom.” The Premier lit a cigar and then blew the match out. “Clearly, they do not know the Countess as we do.” He smiled dourly. “What I need from you is to document that the woman remains a public menace. Her medical records are of course a matter of privacy, but as you are both her solicitor and her psychologist, I would ask you to provide me with the information I need to keep her locked up.” “As an Agent of the court—,” The Premier held his hand up. “I know, I know. But you are also a human being and are fully aware that this woman is dangerous. If you can do this favour to the Colony, a great many members of parliament and I will petition the King to invest you Knight Commander of the Victorian order.”
A knighthood? Hanson blinked, and then took a deep breath. “I can make no promises. But rest assured if there is the slightest chance of her being a threat to herself or the public, I will inform you in writing.”
The Politician nodded, and then pulled a bell chain which prompted the driver to take them to their next destination, which was the Premier’s residence, where he would disembark. The driver would continue with his task of delivering the Inspector to his destination at Gladesville.
The campus was pleasant, as asylums go that is. Hanson had not been here since she had transferred out of Bryton. It seemed that several monarchs means of pruning weeds was not to burn them off but to transplant them elsewhere. Hanson had no real opinion on that, but if pressed would have to concede that it was not the most civilized of means of dealing with one’s troubles.
Hanson took a deep breath and entered the main desk and showed them his credentials only to detect a look of awe, if not pity from the secretary.
“This way sir,” She motioned and led him in stone silence to a section of the campus labelled the Black Ward. Hanson held his valise before him unwittingly like a small bulwark, against a relentless tide. The woman rang a bell, at which point a huge brown man met him. The man’s name pin identified him as Alexander. Hanson handed him his card.
“You the Lawyer?” The man’s accent marked him as an American. The orderly motioned him to follow.
“Yes, I am Ms Hardwicke’s legal counsel. I trust that preparations have been made for our meeting?” The passed through a rather lengthy corridor, to the end where a locked door resided.
“Yes, Sir”, Hanson observed that his hand was trembling as he unlatched the door. He dropped the key once; the orderly’s palms sweated severely. Gibbons realized that the guest had noticed this and flushed in shame. “I’m just a bit nervous, sir. I lost the wager, and well I have to escort you to her.” The outer door opened. Gibbons moved to the sidewall and began to hand crank a winch which lifted a solid slab of metal; far from just being a door, it was a ten-centimetre thick barrier. Inside was a busy observation deck, were two nurses, a burly Indigenous man armed with a Billy club. Beyond the medical team, Hanson saw the third and final door that separated civilization from a demon of but ten and eight years. Walking over and looking out the window he saw that she was sitting at a table wearing manacles, manacles which despite the Lady Dystopias protestations, Hanson had said must remain affixed. He shook in his shoes slightly; and was embarrassed, because he was an officer of His majesties court and should possess more composure than the orderly.
“No call to be embarrassed. We all afraid of her. Only old Scratch ain’t afraid of her.”
He watched as the nurse picked up from the floor, adjacent to a whole in the door his client’s half-eaten sandwich on a wooden plate. They inspected the dish and noticed that it was slightly damaged. The head nurse shook her head, sighing.
“So even Ironwood won’t do.” The second nurse checked a clipboard.
“Look into Galalith,” said their new guest. “It’s similar to wood but synthetic.” The nurses turned to him and stared. The guest clutched his valise and drummed his fingers. “May I speak to the lass now?” He wanted this matter over and done.
The nurses look at Gibbons, who nodded.
Sir, I’m going to explain some things. So, you listen up, ok?”
“Outside the door, there is a button. You push that and bang on the door. The light in the hallway will tell us to come get you. It will take at least a minute to get back through the doors.”
“What do you mean come back?” Hanson shook his head.
“We have to be outside the observation deck when she has a direct guest; the law says sir”, Gibbons answered. Hanson took a deep breath.
“Is there at least a speaker so I can call you if needs be?”
The head nurse interrupted, shaking her head. “We…we took it out, Milord.”
“Whatever for?” Hanson seemed shocked.
“She…she would talk to us.” The nurse positively shuddered. “She would say things…evil things. One of the nurses— she went mad.” Her eyes begun to tear from sheer dread.
“Ten minutes,” The tall man said, changing the subject. With that, Hanson frowned and reaching into his coat produced a wax-sealed letter then handing it to the man whose nametag said Jiemba.
“The Premier says otherwise. I may remain as long as I like.”
The older man shook his head. “I don’t think you understand. Ten minutes is all we’ll think you’ll last in there.” With that, the nurses curtsied and fled.
Not left, but fled, Hanson, observed. Jiemba shrugged apologetically.
Gibbons looked at Jiemba, who nodded. “I’m going to unlock the door, and when lock it after your in. After that, we will retire to the other side of the liftgate. We will look for your light, sir.”
The Inspector shook his head nervously.
Jiemba unlocked the door, Hanson took a deep breath and stepped inside.
“I’ll say a prayer”, Gibbons whispered. He stepped in, and the door cell door closed behind him with the sounds of locking gears.
“Hello Inspector,” Dystopia rose with a broad pale smile.
That was when he realized that all of his preparations were useless. Nothing anyone said or believed was adequate to handle the madness in that smile or her outstretched right hand.
Fifteen and one-half minutes later, the hall light flickered.
“Lasted Longer than I thought,” Jiemba spoke as he unsealed the door. Gibbons and the nurses entered, with Jiemba coming last.
Gibbons and his supervisor went to the door, unlocking it when a high shrill wail came from one of the nurses, who was looking in through the thick glass deck window.
“Oh my god…” Then the woman swooned, collapsing onto the hard floor.
Jiemba shoved the door open and ran down the ramp. Gibbons stepped inside and his eyes wide, he turned and vomited.
“Oh Countess, no,” Jiemba fell to his knees and hung his head.
Dystopia sat at the table, bathed in blood. On the ground lay the mutilated body of the visitor. The form was human in shape, but only barely. Above him, it appeared that the countess singing sweetly to herself was pouring blood from a teakettle into a cup of some measure. Looking up, she smiled at Jiemba.
When you hear the voices on radio and for animated films and TV shows, you never know where that voice might be coming from. This new story by Thaddeus Howze explores what happens in one of the more extreme situations. Enjoy.
Studio Time, by Thaddeus Howze
Live, before a studio audience.
“Absolutely not. You cannot get on stage and accept your award,” the frumpy agent stomped back and forth in the hanger cum studio, they used to record the show. It was an abandoned facility on the edge of town near the docks, a section thought too expensive to rehabilitate or tear down.
“Murray. Murray. The people are ready for the truth.” The voice came from a dark corner of the studio, yet it carried through the air, silken perfection. Crisp, yet fluid. Enunciation split the air like the flash of a diamond, glittering impossibly bright. This was a voice of an angel. A sputter of light lit the impossible, for just a moment. Something too horrible to believe. Before it sat a studio mike and a script stand. Then everything was dark again.
“Ready? Are you out of your mind? No one, and I mean no one is ready to see you walk out on stage and say: “I would like to thank the academy…” Murray, normally a phlegmatic fellow, more likely to fall asleep than to finish a sentence, his current explosion was as unexpected as finding a forest fire in your refrigerator. Spit was flying.
There was a pause. Murray found himself leaning forward, waiting for a response. So addicted he had become to the Voice, the expected berating was as welcome as wine to the beggar. “Now, Murray, remember your blood pressure. I can only do so much. What is the harm in having me take my award in person? People will discover dragons exist? Hell, how would that be a problem?”
“Because dragons don’t exist.”
“Umm. Yes, we do. You and I have worked together for a dozen years now. I have existed that entire time.”
“Yes, you exist. But you said you were one of the last and this makes you endangered. Surely exposing you to the world might make you even more endangered or even extinct. What if people become afraid of you?” Murray had slid into the darkness and made his way over to the dragon hidden there. Anything to be closer to his Voice.
“You people love us. Every one of your mythologies talks about us, your stories are filled with us, and I love reading about us from your perspective. Except for the Dragon and the George. Those stories are patently untrue. Who could imagine a story where men kill dragons. Murray, could you imagine that?”
The proximity to the dragon caused a second reaction in Murray, the natural reaction when prey is entirely too close to the predator. Fear. Pure terror. The hot breath. The shining teeth, long as swords, lit from behind by the barely contained fire within.
Murray was most certainly afraid. Afraid his meal ticket might leave. Afraid that after a decade of selling books, producing an award winning audio podcast, he would be forced to go back to living on residuals and hiding in his parent’s basement. He couldn’t go back to that. He just couldn’t.
His fear became rage. He ran up to the dragon’s face which had been twisted downward to the microphone. “You agreed to this. You said I would be your face and you would lend me your Voice. We would make money and you could lay your egg. You have your gold. You have your egg. Now you want to go on stage and ruin this one thing for me? This is all I have.”
The dragon looked at Murray. He tried to remember when he met him a decade ago. He had filled out. He was better dressed and smelled a thousand percent better. But it was his state which allowed Him to cross over. To free the dragon from his prison of Imagination.
Without Murray, he would be relegated to bad cinema and children’s stories. Murray was his everything. “Okay, Murray. I know you’re right. Watching you get awards always looks like so much fun.”
“And don’t I always bring you back something nice?”
“What do you want this year?”
“The Norwegian actor getting the Best Picture Award.”
“That is a big ask.”
“It’s another market. He’s a native of Norway, yes?”
“Fine, this will be the last one. You should be able to speak almost fifty languages by now. The only way you get any more is if we win a Hugo.”
“Now that you mention it, now that the last one has settled, I suspect I can feel a story percolating. Break out the voice software, I think I have something you can use. Don’t forget my snack.”
“I won’t. It’s the last one.”
“Yes, Murray. I promise.”
Murray Draper, award-winning voice actor. With a stunning array of magnificent voices and comedic timing, he appeared on the scene winning every kind of acting award there was. There was always a question of famous actors who disappeared after he became friends with them, but no evidence of foul play was ever discovered.
At the end of his thirty year career, he was credited with having over two hundred unique voices in his repertoire, voices which reminded people of some of their favorite actors who were gone too soon.
Hot on the heels of his Draper’s death, came a new vocal talent, a young man, a local, who claims the waterfront made him what he was today. Calling himself Junior, his was a voice unmatched by anyone but Draper himself.
Today’s offering of fiction comes from science fiction and fantasy writer Laurence Brothers. His works have recently appeared in such magazines as Nature, Short Édition’s Rendez-Vous, and Galaxy’s Edge, among others. His historical fantasy novel Twilight Patrol was just released by Alban Lake, and his urban fantasy novella The Demons of Wall Street will be published in March by Mirror World.
Laurence’s ability to make each moment as real as your own heartbeat makes this short story about love reaching back from the beyond will warm your heart and chill it at the same time.
Without further ado, we are proud to present Laurence Raphael Brothers’ story, appearing here for the first time anywhere.
FROZEN HEART HOMECOMING
14 OCTOBER 1943. 0930 HOURS. BASSINGBOURN AIRBASE, CAMBRIDGESHIRE.
The loudspeaker’s garbled announcement brought pilots and crew running from all over the airbase to the fieldstone administrative building. I got into line as quickly as I could, but I had to give way to the officers and wound up waiting half an hour before I got my mail. One lousy thin letter from my father, not what I was expecting at all. I almost left it for later because I had a mission to prepare for. But I opened it anyway.
New York City
October 5th, 1943
I hope this mail finds you well. I hope you are killing lots of Nazis. I only wish I could be there doing the same thing as you. I’m afraid your mother is still angry at you because of Oona. To be honest — don’t tell her I said this — there’s no harm in a little tail now and then, even if it is Irish tail.
I almost crumpled the letter right there and threw it away. But I read on.
The fact is I have bad news to tell you. I heard from Sullivan at work that Oona was hit by a car Friday night. She didn’t make it. I’m sorry. I know you liked her. It’s too bad. But at least your mother won’t have anything more to blame you for. I bet she sends you mail next time.
In that moment a ball of ice grew around my heart. I could feel it right there, a cold chunk of ice right in the middle of my chest. I let the letter fall to the ground. Oona. Dead for over a week. It wasn’t possible. It wasn’t even imaginable. We’d promised each other–
“Steinberg, you okay?” It was Olivetti, the flight engineer on my bomber.
I would have answered him, but in my head, I was back in New York. Six months ago. Oona met me at the Carnegie Deli for my last day of leave before I shipped out to England to join my squadron. Corned beef was about all the culture we shared. But that was enough for us.
She’d disassembled her sandwich and was eating individual slices of beef with a knife and fork. I was wondering if she’d let me have her pickle when she put down her utensils and leaned across the table, so I put down my sandwich too. She covered my hand with her own and looked very serious.
“What is it, Oona?”
“I won’t let you die.” She said it very solemnly.
“Yeah,” she said. “I have the sight, you know.”
“The sight?” I had no idea what she was talking about.
“And the reach, too. If you need me, call my name, okay? Promise?”
“Sure,” I said. “I promise. I’ll never leave you. Not for anything.”
“Good,” she said, “because I’ll never leave you either. Not for anything.”
The guys sitting at the next table started clapping. The applause spread to other tables, and someone shouted, “Kiss her, you fool!” so I did, right there in the restaurant, and we wound up not having to pay for our meal.
14 OCTOBER 1943. 1400 HOURS. 25,000 FEET OVER GERMANY.
A row of holes appeared in the plexiglass shell in front of my face and autocannon rounds slammed into the back of my turret. The engine roar was overlaid by whistling shrieks from the wind blasting past the holes.
“Steinberg! Get that kraut, you lazy bastard!” Lieutenant Raines’ voice in my headset.
Fuck you, I thought dully, but I squeezed cold metal handles, spinning my turret to track the German fighter. I got off a burst from my guns, but the Messerschmitt was already gone, vanished into the cloud layer below us.
“No target,” I said. I scanned the cloudscape mechanically for enemies, but I didn’t care if they were there or not. I was the ball turret-gunner in the B-17 “Blue Devil”. We still had 40 minutes before we got to Schweinfurt and German interceptors were everywhere.
“Roll call,” said Raines. “Everyone okay?”
Six of us said our names over the intercom.
“Matthew? Carl? You all right?”
A minute later Olivetti spoke up. “They’re gone. Waist is shot to hell. Steinberg’s lucky to be alive.” The waist gunners were stationed in the fuselage above my head.
A hundred fighters attacked our formation, but we drove them off. Or maybe they just ran out of ammo. We took a lot of hits. Olivetti bought the farm along with the co-pilot and the navigator. Raines cursed for ten minutes straight. The cockpit must have been a terrible mess.
I remembered what Oona had told me. She’d promised to keep me safe. With some kind of Irish magic or whatever it was she said she had. But how could she keep a promise if she was dead? She said she had the sight, but she hadn’t seen that, had she? I’d never cared about religion, took my Bar Mitzvah to please my folks without ever thinking much about it one way or another. But now I was sure it was all a lie, all of it. Jewish, Christian, whatever crazy Irish magic she thought she had, it was all bullshit.
Our radioman was hit by a single stray .50 caliber round, probably friendly fire from another bomber. The tail gunner stopped responding on intercom, but the Germans weren’t letting up and no one was left to check his condition. I knew he was dead because there was no more firing from back there.
I’d flown a couple dozen raids, but we’d never been shot up this bad before. If my heart wasn’t a ball of ice, I’d have wondered why we weren’t quitting. I’d seen half the squadron shot out of the sky around us, and many others had already turned back after taking damage. But Raines found another squadron to join, slotted the Blue Devil into formation with them. He was just stubborn, I guess. Then it occurred to me: maybe he lost someone too? Nah. Not Raines. He was too obnoxious for anyone to care about him.
It was chaos out there, smoke and clouds and burning planes from both sides falling out of the sky. I just kept on spinning my turret and shooting when I got a German in my sights, like I was just a machine, part of the machinery of the turret. I heard that the newer planes, the B-24s, had remote-control turrets, and I figured that I was the doing the same job as a remote control. Which was okay because I didn’t care any more than a servo cared about what I was doing, or why.
“Pilot to bombardier. Approaching target.” I could hear the tension in Raines’ voice.
There was no response.
“Corey? You all right?” A long pause and Raines’ drawl came back on the intercom. “Fucking Corey. Bled out without saying a word. I guess there’s not much more we can do.”
The Blue Devil banked hard left, turning 180 degrees. Heading home. By my count there were two of us left alive on board, me and Raines.
Just because we decided to quit didn’t mean the Germans would let us go. More rounds smashed into the fuselage. A massive impact came from up front, but I couldn’t see what caused it because I was facing astern, firing. A German fighter spiraled down into the clouds, trailing black smoke.
I squeezed the handles again to turn the turret and nothing happened.
“Turret’s jammed,” I said. “Raines. Can you come back here and crank it open?”
No answer. I tried again, still nothing. Intercom lines must be cut. I couldn’t do anything myself; the turret hatch had to face straight up before I could get out, and with the motors busted you could only crank it open from up in the fuselage. It was like a prison cell, an oubliette, except for the panoramic view. Whatever. I’d done my duty. Now I could just sit back and watch the show. For as long as it lasted, anyway.
We were descending. Someone had to align the turret, or it would protrude below the landing gear when we touched down. That would be the end for me, and maybe for the bomber too. Oh well, I thought. Maybe I’ll get to see Oona soon. But I doubted it.
I realized then I’d been putting everything I had into believing in Oona. Thinking about her had kept me sane through a double dozen missions, not because I was sure she’d save me with magic or whatever, but because she’d promised, and so had I. In my mind that meant we had to meet up again. We had to. And now we couldn’t so nothing meant anything anymore.
But then I happened to think what she’d have said if I told her what would happen.
Say I knew it, somehow, back there in the Carnegie Deli. Say I told her.
“Oona,” I said in my head, “suppose you die first? How will you save me then?”
She got angry, which I wasn’t expecting. She reached across that rickety deli table and she took my chin in her hand and looked right in my eyes.
“I don’t break my promises,” she said. “Dead or alive I’ll keep ’em. You hear me?”
In my imagination I couldn’t even speak I was so full of emotion, so I just nodded.
“If I die first,” she said, “you’d better live for me. You’d better, damn you.”
Back in my broken turret, the sheath of ice around my heart shattered like it was hit with a hammer. It hurt now. It hurt bad.
Through the overcast, gray clouds gave way to open landscape covered with soft green turf. It looked like the fens of Cambridgeshire. Almost home now. Altitude 3,000 feet. Landing gear still up. Still trapped. 2,500 feet. Coming down.
“Oona,” I said into the dead intercom, “I wish I could see you again. I wish you really could save me. I wish I could have saved you.”
My turret began to rotate upward. Someone must be cranking it now, at the last moment. I could see the grass rushing by below at over a hundred miles an hour. Turret vertical! I flipped the hatch open. Yanked myself up. No one was there. The waist was an abattoir, blood and body parts everywhere. Then we hit ground–
I was lying on my back… on the grass? I got up quickly, nearly fell. The Blue Devil looked mostly intact from my vantage behind the wreck, three hundred yards of torn up turf showing the landing path. Not bad for gear-up. Good thing the land here was so flat. I must have made my way out and then fainted or something.
I ran around to the front of the Blue Devil because maybe Raines needed my help. But Raines wasn’t there. Nothing was there. The nose of the plane was gone, and the cockpit was ripped open like a gaping wound. Maybe a mid-air collision with a fighter? But then–
I felt a touch on my cheek, and I was sure it wasn’t the wind.
“Oona,” I said, and I couldn’t say anything more.
Again, the touch on my cheek. And then it was gone.
This science fiction tale by Sidney Fraser is the first short story ever purchased for our new SF/F fiction press imprint, Helium Beach.
Every part of the Geeking World we love and live in begins with a writer. We think it appropriate to dip our oar in the water and begin publishing our own original fiction for everyone to enjoy.
We hope you enjoy this first selection from new fiction author Sidney Fraser.
‘The Witness’, by Sidney Fraser
The escape capsule drifted through space, much as it had done for the past four days. Not that the days had much effect on Lyla. She simply drifted in and out of sleep, without much awareness of either state. At the moment she was staring dully at the small vessels control panel, or at least she thought she was. Her daddy had shown her the basics of working a craft like this last year when they’d taken the cruise around the rings of Saturn, but being a little girl, Lyla had been more interested in going back to the play area of the huge Star Cruiser. Now, all alone in the depths of space, the only thing that Lyla could remember was the O2 gage. And that wasn’t looking too good.
She supposed that she’d die out here. There was nothing she could do to prevent it. Even if she knew how to pilot the little ship, Lyla knew that it wouldn’t go far. Her daddy had explained that this type of vessel was meant to get you from a ship in orbit, down to the planet it was orbiting, nothing more. And there were no planets or moons nearby. As far as she could remember, she was currently somewhere between Neptune and Uranus. On her first day in the pod, she’d managed to locate the radio but had been unable to turn it on. Perhaps it was broken, like much had been on the small cruise vessel that her parents had hired for their holiday trip to Neptune.
They’d hired the smaller ship to have a more intimate family vacation. Her parents wanted she and her brother to spend more time paying attention to the sights in space as opposed to spending their days in the play area or arcade. The ship was an old one and Dennie had said that it looked like it was held together with duct tape and glue. Her parents had shushed him and reminded him that the ships captain and his wife lived and worked on this ship. Not everyone was so lucky to have a father that was the lead scientist of the Mars Two Colony and a mother that was it’s chief medical officer. Money didn’t grow on trees and some people had far less in life than what Dennis and Lyla had.
Well, now Lyla had nothing. Though emergency vessels like this were supposed to be stocked with food and water, the compartments for those were empty. Lyla hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for four days. She briefly imagined writing an e-mail to the Universal Commission about the safety violations aboard the vessel Bluebard and its emergency escape pods, but that only made her think about the Bluebard and what had happened aboard the ship. And Lyla did NOT want to think about that. She decided to take a nap instead.
She dreamed that she and her family were having a picnic on one of the dunes of Mars. They were protected by the colonies dome, but the sky was a vivid red, as it always was. Lyla had been born on Mars and to her, red was the color that a sky should be. On a visit to earth when she was seven years old, the blue sky had unnerved her and she’d been more than happy to go back home to Mars. She and her parents and brother were seated on a blanket and a mountain of food was spread before them, all of the food that Lyla most enjoyed. Dennie was happy and laughing, which was unusual because he was a teenager and rarely laughed at anything these days. He asked if she’d like to kick a ball around, and normally she would, because Dennie never wanted to play with her anymore. But she couldn’t leave the food. She took a huge bite of a roast beef sandwich and sighed in pleasure as she chewed. She could taste the beef and the horseradish sauce.
And suddenly she was in her bunk on the Bluebard. For a moment she was relieved. It had all been a dream, she wasn’t floating in space all by herself. She was in her bunk, where her mommy had tucked her in with Baxter, her teddy. Lyla smiled, she had the midnight munchies and she and Baxter could just go to the ships galley and get some of those cookies that the captains wife had baked earlier. But first Lyla was going to lay there and shake off that awful dream, and in the morning she was going to hug her parents, and even Dennie, and tell them she loved them. Suddenly a scream broke the silence and Lyla tensed.
She heard her father yell something and then heard her mother scream. Filled with dread, Lyla climbed out of her bunk, leaving Baxter behind. Slowly and quietly she crept down the narrow passage and up the stairs to the galley. Her mind didn’t want to understand the scene that her eyes presented. There was blood, a lot of it. There were her parents, but they were laying on the floor, not moving. There was the captains wife, also on the floor, also not moving. And then there was her brother, just now falling to the floor, and the captain standing above him. The captain was heaving for breath, like Dennie did after he ran a race at school. He had what her mind told her was ketchup splattered all over him and in his hand was something. A wrench? That was also covered in ketchup.
The captain made eye contact with her, but he didn’t look like the nice captain that had shown them around Neptune and had given her a lolly pop when they’d come on board his ship. She thought she heard Dennie moan but before she could look at her bother the captain had ordered her back to her bunk. He sounded like he meant business, so she had turned and gone back down the stairs. As she reached the bottom she heard a thump-splat noise that scared her and she started to run back to her bunk. Half way down the corridor she skidded to a stop and looked to her left. There, as in every vessel in the Universe, was an emergency escape pod, one of six for a vessel of this size. Without thinking, Lyla opened the hatch and scrambled inside. Not bothering to strap herself to the seat, she slammed her palm down on the large red button on the panel and was shot into space. It was then that she realized that she’d left Baxter behind and wished more than anything in the galaxy that she had her teddy to cling to.
Once the escape pod had cleared the ship by a good distance the acceleration had stopped, and the tiny vessel hung in space, facing the Bluebard. Shivering in fear, Lyla had stared at the ship for what seemed like hours and then, out of the blue, it exploded into a million pieces. That’s when Lyla started to cry and had, in fact, cried herself to sleep.
Now she awoke to a strange static noise and her first thought was space monkeys. Dennie had told her all about space monkeys, strange creatures that lived in space with no protective suits. Space monkeys latched onto unprotected ships and ripped them apart, leaving the human occupants to die a horrible death. Her parents had said that this was nonsense that her brother used to scare her, but Lyla wasn’t so sure. Again the static sounded and Lyla began to cry softly. She was too dehydrated to produce tears, but she moaned and rocked herself back and forth. Her mind was playing tricks on her, because she thought she heard voices and Dennie hadn’t said anything about space monkeys being able to speak. But slowly her mind focused and she knew that she could actually make out voices. The voices were coming from the radio, which wasn’t broken after all.
‘Emergency Vessel, this is the freight vessel Theodore, please respond. Over.’
Lyla simply stared at the radio.
‘Emergency Vessel, this is the Theodore, if anyone is on board, please respond. Over.’
It took several more hails from the Theodor for Lyla to reach out to the radio and press a button.
‘H-hello? Please help me.’
AP News, Earth-
An emergency escape vessel from the destroyed ship Bluebard has been found four days after the disaster in space. The escape pod was picked up by a Trans-solar freighter called the Theodore, and in the pod was the second survivor of the Bluebard found this week. The captain of the Bluebard, Martin Nettle, was picked up just hours after the explosion that destroyed his ship. Captain Nettle had been hailed as a hero after he described trying to get his wife and passengers safely off of the vessel after noticing that the ships drive core had heated beyond the cooling point overnight. Nettle said that before he could reach the passage containing crew and passenger cabins, an explosion rocked the ship and that he had no choice but to abandon ship in an emergency escape vessel. According to Captain Nettle, there were no other survivors.
This version of events was contradicted yesterday when Lyla Anderson, 10, was found in an escape pod near the site of the tragedy. After several hours of re-hydration therapy, Miss Anderson was able to give her account of the Bluebard disaster, stating that Captain Nettle had murdered his wife and the Anderson family. Miss Anderson escaped into an emergency vessel before the same fate could befall her.
When confronted by the Universal Police Force with this information, Nettles confessed to his crimes. When asked for a motive, he reportedly claimed that he had only meant to kill his wife in order to gain an insurance settlement, but that Mr. Anderson had caught him in the act. At that point, Nettle felt that he had no alternative than to kill all those aboard the ship. He assumed that Miss Anderson would die in space because that particular emergency escape pod had no supply of food or water and that the radio only worked when hailed. Nettles was arrested and remains in custody on space station 21B, and faces four charges of first degree murder.
Miss Anderson remains under doctors care until her aunt arrives to take her to Earth to live with remaining family.
Thaddeus Howze is a science fiction writer, futurist, climate change activist, Assistant Editor for Krypton Radio, and Artist in Residence at Chapter 510 & the Dept. of Make Believe in Oakland, California.
The following piece of fiction was written by Thaddeus expressly for patrons of Krypton Radio on Patreon.com. This is its first publication.
‘The Devil’s Lettuce’, by Thaddeus Howze
You arrive in Hell.
Your last memory was watching the State of the Union address in the United States in the year 2020. If you had to guess, it was an aneurysm or a heart attack.
In the end, it didn’t matter. It was so quick, you hardly noticed. It was probably that presidential medal of freedom for Rush Limbaugh that did it. Yep. In your heart, or whatever passes for one in Hell, you know that’s it. A ‘rage stroke’ did you in.
You did not expect to end up here though. You were pious, god-fearing, focused on the Afterlife with a vigorous dedication; sacrificing everything you thought might interfere with your arrival in the great hereafter of the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Where did you go wrong” you wonder.
It seems strange that you recognize this place as Hell, because it looks just like the world you just left when you were alive, with a few minor changes. The air quality is terrible. Smoky, thick with particulate matter, you can see a fine haze in the distance and everything is covered in a grey dust. There is also a strange chemical smell in the air.
You didn’t notice it at first. Well, at least until you took your first deep breath. You had forgotten to breathe for a moment. You now regret that decision. After your coughing slows, you recognize your local city hall, or municipal building in front of you.
Unless you were particularly awful in life, then what you see is a Department of Motor Vehicles or whatever passes for the worst bureaucratic agency you know, with a line stretching around the corner of the building from where you are standing.
A dapper gentlemen walks up to you, pushing what appears to be a sandwich cart and you realize, you’re hungry. Your stomach grumbles in acknowledgement and the smell of food from his cart reaches you at the same time, doubling the intensity of the emptiness within. He smiles as he hears your stomach protest.
His approach is casual, as if he has all the time in the world; he waves at a few others in line, but ambles toward you as if he means to engage you directly. “Hello, my new friend. Welcome to Hell.”
Yep. No pretense here. No gas-lighting, no obfuscation. He said, Hell.
“Look, I know you have lots of questions, and sooner or later we will answer them all, but right now, let’s deal with that raging emptiness in your newly reconstituted belly. Agreed?”
You assent. After all, you just learned you’re dead. You’re in Hell, despite every effort to the contrary and now, a strange sandwich vendor, whose probably the Devil is offering you your first meal.
“Yes, those are all true statements, except for that last one. I am not the Devil. Look up; see that light in the sky you thought was the sun? That’s THE Devil, the original Lightbringer, Lucifer. Compared to him, I am just a boil on the ass of a taxi driver in New York City; always uncomfortable, embarrassing to talk about and never able to be gotten rid of. Yep. That’s me. You can call me Azazel. What can I get for you?”
“Answers.” Oh, your voice is so terrible. It makes the sound you hear when you first heard your voice recorded. That embarrassing noise you heard and had to work to get rid of during your career as a radio announcer. “I need answers.”
“Yes, I promised those. The first one is free. Your voice will always sound like this. You will never like it. Because you were filled with vanity around how beautiful it was, you will never enjoy the sound of it again. Nor will anyone else. To be fair, no one enjoys much down here, so as punishments go, it’s pretty minor.”
“Free? What did you mean by free?” The sandwich vendor Azazel stops and looks into his cabinet and begins making a sandwich. A few extra hands stretch out of the cabinet offering ingredients and take over the process so he can continue talking to you. Behind him, the line moves one step forward, all at once. The sound of that footstep reverberates in the distance, lost in the smoky backdrop of what appears to be a barely recognizable city.
“This is Hell. Everything costs. And just like in your previous life, you won’t earn enough to cover all the necessities to get by. Why do you think I sell sandwiches? Don’t worry about it, you’ll adjust. Just think, a steady but underwhelming paycheck, bills you have to pay, and a place to live you can’t afford.”
“Sounds like my life.”
“Exactly. You’ll fit right in, after you get your assignment.”
Your stomach rumbles as the hand produced sandwich comes together in front of you. But as Hell would have it, you are not able to see it clearly, like it was part of a witness protection program.
“Don’t worry about that. All food here comes that way. You never know what you’re eating until you’re eating it. Torture. I know, right? Nothing to worry about. Everything here is fresh and government inspected, right from Earth. From deregulated farms and facilities, of course. Reaping what we sow and all that jazz.”
Feeling uncomfortable with what this might entail, you shuffle your feet. Each movement required a monumental effort.
“Yeah, about that. Your previous work required you make the world harder for people to navigate, by helping to propagate news of questionable veracity. No. You didn’t lie, per se. You just followed orders. You had a good heart and didn’t like injustice, but you also didn’t do much to stop it either.”
You consider saying more, but the next breath you take, causes you to cough even harder and you change your mind. Azazel patiently waits until your fit passes.
“Is that a great blend or what?” He waves his hands around. “The air, I mean. We import it from Earth, too. We had scientists here who tried to make something unique and special for Hell, but nothing we could create matched up with what you were doing on Earth, so we just import it from different time periods. What you’re huffing right now is a blend of London 1890, New Yor 1970, Beijing 2013, Australia 2019, and Russia 2040, right before society collapses completely.”
“Don’t worry about it. You guys are plucky. I hear you have another seventy or eight years before the rush really intensifies down here. Seers aren’t quite sure but they say once the Internet falls, the rest of you will be right behind it.”
A horrendous buzzing sounds from Azazel’s cart and he looks deep into a steaming container of hot dog water. “I’m sorry, there is a massive intake predicted to happen, from your timeline, I’m afraid. I don’t have enough hotdogs left to see clearly, but I think it’s from a coup attempt in 2020 in the former United States. Sorry about your home. Think of it this way, you left early to avoid the rush. Here’s your BLT. I think you will like the spin we’ve put on it.”
Azazel hands you the sandwich wrapped in a flesh colored paper. Like your feet, your arms feel heavy, as if they are wrapped in lead. It’s only when you look at them do you realize, they are spindly and weak. It’s not just gravity, you’re infirm too.
On the wrapping paper, an eye opens and the frantic movement barely registers thanks to all of the other horrors you have endured since you have arrived. “He worked for a hedge fund and lived large in life. Don’t feel any sympathy for him.”
Azazel begins packing up his cart, wiping everything down. “Go over there, get in line and you will get your assignments. We have an opening for radio announcers, and with your experience, you’ll be a shoe-in. Save your wrapper for the intake demon. It’s his favorite flavor, extreme greed. If you haven’t noticed, Hell is very clean, aside from the air. We recycle everything. Good luck. You will be assigned a new name and in a few years, you’ll fit right in.”
Stomach, growling with impatience, drives you to bite into your BLT. Bread too soft, slathered in Miracle Whip, filled with turkey bacon and covered in a tomato and Carolina Reaper mixture.
Gagging, your hunger only intensifies with every bite as you realize it isn’t covered in lettuce. It’s kale. You’re in hell. Nothing will be as it seemed. You should be used to that.