We Begin a New Adventure

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.

Stay with us. The best is yet to come.

 

‘Studio Time’ by Thaddeus Howze

‘Studio Time’ by Thaddeus Howze

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?”

“You do.”

“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?”

“He is.”

“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.

His ‘Murray Draper’ impression was impeccable.

-30-

‘Frozen Heart Homecoming’ by Laurence Raphael Brothers

‘Frozen Heart Homecoming’ by Laurence Raphael Brothers

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.

“Mail Call!”

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

Dear Son,

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.

“Oh, yeah?”

“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?”

No response.

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.

1410 HOURS.

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.

1425 HOURS.

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.

1440 HOURS.

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.

1455 HOURS.

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.

1615 HOURS.

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. 

1700 HOURS.

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.

-30-

‘The Witness’, by Sidney Fraser

‘The Witness’, by Sidney Fraser

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.

-30-

‘The Devil’s Lettuce’, by Thaddeus Howze

‘The Devil’s Lettuce’, by Thaddeus Howze

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.”

“Society collapses?”

“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.

-30-