"You Are the Mother of Doomsday" by Desmond Astaire
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"The Rise and Fall of Frankie's Patisserie" by David Hankins
Plunge into "the bakery war," a brutal conflict between humans but revolving around alien bees and wasps. Expect scifi action, suspense, and humor--on a dark and stormy night complete with noir narrators and fedoras.
You can find out more about the author in the hat himself at DavidHankins.com as well as on his recently funded novel page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/davidhankins/death-and-the-taxman
Full text of the story below:
The Rise and Fall of Frankie's Patisserie
by David Hankins
Monsoon rain poured off my fedora as I leaned against the alley’s rough brick wall, trench coat pulled tight. Twenty yards away, at the mouth of the alley, my mark paced near a battered dumpster, an oversized case clutched in hands that shook with either cold or withdrawal. I guessed withdrawal. The night was darker than 100% chocolate, and wetter than the inside of a bottle of cheap bourbon, but that suited me just fine.
I’m Danika D, best bakery thief in New Mandolin, and I had a reputation to uphold. Best baker too, though you wouldn’t know it from the red on my ledger. Tonight, my crew at Danika’s Delights counted on whatever was inside that case to give us an edge. Turn that red tide black. I’d rather be baking than stealing, but New Mandolin’s Bakery War had made survival brutally competitive.
My mark paused his pacing under a streetlight at the alley’s corner. He tapped behind his left ear, and a message pinged my neural link with subaudible vibrations.
<Where are you?> The words scrolled in front of my left eye like ticker tape. Plain text, no tags. Amateur. He’d been pinging me with increasing fervency. When I didn’t answer, he stared sidelong at the dumpster. His nose wrinkled at the gut-churning smell of rotting meat, and I smiled. Known body dump sites always made marks nervous.
Ten pounds of rancid steak; worth every credit.
As much as I enjoyed watching this dumbass freak himself out, I missed the old days when baking didn’t involve theft and murder. I’d adapted, made an art form of stealing exotic ingredients to survive the Bakery War, but I swore I wouldn’t kill.
Today’s mark had worked for Frankie’s Patisserie, the city’s dominant baking empire, until he’d stolen from Frankie. I’d intercepted his extortion message. It was a bold move, trying to sell Frankie his own goods. Nobody crossed that mobster and lived.
I’d know. Frankie killed my father.
I forced my fists to unclench and drew a shuddering breath. It still hurt, after all these years. Someday I’d get revenge. Someday I’d—
My mark kicked the dumpster with a clang. Another message pinged.
I tapped the neural link embedded behind my left ear. My reply mimicked Frankie’s corporate code.
<Leave the goods behind the dumpster.>
The extortionist’s head whipped around, hat throwing raindrops, eyes narrowed as he searched the darkness.
<Where’s my money?>
I smirked. <Payment upon receipt…or you can take it up with Frankie.>
The man cringed. He swore and stuffed the case behind the dumpster then slunk into the night. Easy money.
I counted to twenty before splashing into the streetlight. I retrieved the case and then almost dropped it when a cacophony of voices swarmed my mind. A shiver danced up my spine.
Baking ingredients shouldn’t scream.
A muscle-bound goon rounded the corner in front of me, sugar on his lips, energy pistol in his hand. I recognized him, one of Frankie’s enforcers. His canted hat dripped rain as he licked crumb-coated fingers. His augmented left eye whirred as it focused on me.
“That belongs to Frankie, darling. Hand it over.”
Crap. The extortionist’s message must have still gotten through. I swore but didn’t hesitate—timorous bakers don’t survive long in New Mandolin—and swung the case against his hand. His energy pistol flew, and the case’s latches clicked open.
A swarm of incandescent blue bees swirled out, fat finger-long bodies striped with alternating rings of fuzzy black and glowing blue.
Those were Apidae! But how? They’d disappeared not long after the demand for their honey had started the Bakery War.
The swarm expanded upward before shooting into the enforcer’s chest like bullets. Razor-sharp stingers pierced clothing and struck with unified purpose. The man’s gurgling scream echoed through the alley before trailing into silence. He collapsed to the cobblestone. I snatched his pistol from a puddle and stepped deeper into the alley.
The bees coating the enforcer’s corpse turned toward me, hive-mind sentience inscrutable behind multifaceted eyes. I fingered the trigger, pistol ready at my side. One wide-beamed energy shot would obliterate the swarm if they attacked. It’d be a shame to kill them, but I wasn’t dying today.
“Why kill him and not me?” I asked.
<Poisoned honey stained his lips.> Their words buzzed in my mind, a hundred voices speaking as one.
Poisoned honey? I didn’t know what that was about, but I wasn’t going to argue. I eyed the honeycomb-filled case lying open in the rain. That much Apidae honey would make Danika’s Delights a real contender in the Bakery War. Turn the red tide black. “I thought Apidae were extinct and only a few special reserves of your honey remained.”
<We are few, stolen from our captive hive.>
Hive? With more Apidae honey? “Who has the hive?”
<Differentiating humans is...difficult. The Vespu and this man have held us for years.> Loathing filled their voices. They sent a compound image as seen through a hundred eyes from within a glass cage. A hatchet-nosed man with rubbery burn scars covering the left half of his face stood before a bustling industrial kitchen. The scars pulled his lips into a permanent sneer. A palm-sized glowing green wasp, a Vespu, sat in the crook between his left shoulder and neck.
A growl rose unbidden from my throat. “Frankie.”
<We have heard this name, spoken with fear. He takes more honey than we can give. The hive is dying.>
Everybody suffered under Frankie. Enough was enough. An idea formed, and I pocketed the energy pistol. “What if you had help?”
<Why help us? Humans are not generous creatures.>
“Helping you hurts Frankie. It may even topple his whole empire.” Yeah, I know. Nothing’s ever that easy. But I had to try. Danika’s Delights would stand a helluva better chance of surviving without Frankie’s Patisserie around. “His success depends on your honey. What if we took that away?”
Wordless anger flowed from the swarm as it susurrated atop the enforcer’s corpse. Heavy raindrops weighed down iridescent wings.
<We have no reason to trust you.>
“I could have killed you all and taken the honey, but I’m not as ruthless as Frankie. Together, I think we can save your hive and stop him.” I gestured to the rain-soaked night. “Or you can leave. Your choice.”
There was a thoughtful, buzzing silence before they said, <We accept your offer.>
A grim smile stole across my face. Finally, Frankie was going down!
* * *
The storm intensified as I carried the Apidae across town in their case. New Mandolin’s weather tended toward greater extremes than old Earth’s. Annual droughts followed by planet-wide monsoons that flooded the streets, sometimes literally. Downtown New Mandolin was built before the colonists understood the monsoon runoff, but rather than rebuild with proper drainage, they’d just fortified their doors and windows.
Dark storefronts lined high-rise canyons, dimly lit by eternally glowing billboards and streetlights. The only signs of life were the occasional bakeries beginning their early morning prep. My crew would be doing the same at Danika’s Delights.
A gust of wind blew rain down my neck, and I flipped up my collar, only half-paying attention to the narrow sidewalk I trudged down. The Neural Net filled the vision of my left eye. Pages and feeds flicked past as I searched for something, anything to point me toward Frankie’s hidden hive of sentient honeybees.
“What’s the range of your hive-mind connection?”
The Apidae’s multitude voice buzzed in an odd counterpoint to my neural link. <To rejoin the Mind, we must be…> A distance flashed through my mind, measured by circuitous flight from flower to flower. A kilometer? Less?
“Hmmm.” I scanned through a directory of Frankie’s industrial bakeries and storefronts. “You mentioned the Vespu. How are the wasps involved?”
<Vespu hate and fear humanity. You destroyed their forests to build this concrete jungle.>
Lightning split the night, casting everything in stark relief. Darkness and thunder rolled over me, and I tipped my fedora against another sideways gust of rain. A second rumble followed the thunder but didn’t taper off. It intensified. Water flowed out of the street, pouring over the sidewalk.
Flash flood. I needed to get off the street. Now!
A red open sign flickered to life in a window ahead, and I grimaced. It was one of Frankie’s Patisseries. Lacking better options, I sprinted up the stairs to the heavy glass door and ducked inside.
An entry bell chimed, and a warm bouquet of scents washed over me. Sweet bread, caramel, and fresh coffee. Images flashed through my mind of stealing hot rolls from Papa’s tray as a kid. “My little thief,” he’d called me with a wry smile. If only he’d known how prophetic his words would become. The glass door sealed behind me with a hiss. Just in time, too. Rushing water crashed and swirled against the glass.
The baker behind the counter, a hefty balding man in a flour-dusted apron, slid cinnamon rolls into his display case. “Rough morning out there,” he said, gap-toothed smile revealing blackened teeth. Somebody had been sampling too much of his own product.
“Tell me about it.” I shook off my coat and fedora and hung them on a free-standing rack beside the door. Rainwater pooled onto checkered tiles as floodwaters rumbled past outside. I ran fingers through my short dark hair, shaking it loose. “What’s today’s special?”
“Apidae honey puffs made from Frankie’s special reserve.”
My fingers froze. “Sounds enticing, but I’m allergic to bees and honey.” It was true, but not the only reason I’d refused. The sight of Frankie’s enforcer, dead because ‘poisoned honey stained his lips,’ hung fresh in my mind. “I’ll take a cinnamon roll and coffee.”
He slid an oversized roll onto a plate. Warm caramel oozed out as he fetched my coffee. I paid via neural link and sat at a table by the window.
Thunder shook the glass and the flood waters receded, leaving the street merely drenched. Delivery trucks rolled past despite the weather, traffic increasing in that odd time between midnight and morning. I’d never understood how the drivers timed their deliveries to avoid the flash floods.
I sipped my coffee and scanned the net, looking for clues to the hive’s whereabouts while enjoying the warm porcelain cup in my hands.
A pan clattered to the floor, and I whirled. The baker stood behind the counter, his eyes glazed with focused net reading. I flipped my net to the news feed.
A point-of-view video showed my encounter with Frankie’s enforcer, recorded by his augmented eye. The soundless video ended with a clear shot of glowing blue bees. I was just visible, a shadow in the rain, pistol in hand. A scrolling news ticker announced a 100K reward for the return of stolen goods, double for the killer’s capture.
The baker’s gaze focused on me, then flicked to the Apidae case, making connections faster than I would have liked.
Why the hell had I left my pistol in my coat by the door?
I lunged for the coat rack, knocking my chair aside.
“Hold it!” the baker yelled. Something went click.
I froze, right hand almost to my coat. I turned. The compact pulse rifle aimed at my head looked like the gaping maw of hell. Dark and merciless. I turned my palms toward the baker. “The reward is for a capture, not a kill.”
“Then don’t do anything we’ll both regret.” He nodded toward the case I’d left at the table. “Pass over the Apidae.”
Heart pounding, I eased back to my table and grabbed the case. I only saw one way out of this, though I didn’t want to become a killer. But death by honeybee was the only weapon I had.
<We have no such reservations in our defense. Release us!>
I thumbed the latch. The case dropped open, spilling bees and rain-thinned honey. Apidae swarmed toward the baker as they had at Frankie’s enforcer.
His stun shot’s concentric rings of blurry energy smashed into the Apidae with deadly efficiency. Screams filled my mind. I dropped the case and scrambled for my coat as glowing bodies winked out and tumbled to the tile. A singed metallic odor mingled unpleasantly with the caramel and cinnamon in the air.
I twirled my coat off the rack and onto my shoulders, throwing the rack to the floor. The pistol practically flew into my hand as the baker and I aimed at each other. His thumb twitched across a selector switch. We fired at the same time.
Waves of energy crashed into each other, distorting and intensifying into a tiny hurricane that wrapped itself tight before blasting outward in a vibrant blue ring. Glass shattered and everything went brilliantly blue then black. My feet left the ground. I flew through the shattered glass door and crashed onto the sidewalk.
I lay on my back in the pounding rain, gasping for breath. That idiot! Nobody used military-grade weapons in tight spaces. They were more powerful than civilian models but lacked safety features to prevent crossfire melding. He’d blown up his own bakery.
I sat up and gasped as red-hot pain stabbed my left side. A cracked rib for sure. I was lucky it wasn’t worse. Lucky to be alive.
I stumbled into the decimated bakery, pistol leading the way. Glass crunched underfoot. Dead Apidae littered the checkered tile. One survivor wobbled back to its honeycomb, singular mental voice keening in pain, its blue glow dimmed nearly black. I bypassed the case and found the baker dazed behind his shattered display. I shot him before he could recover, rings of stun energy bouncing his head off the floor.
Dumbass. I hoped he woke up with a raging headache.
I pocketed my pistol, snatched his rifle, and returned to the Apidae case. I knelt and gasped as pain spiked my ribs.
“We need to leave,” I said to the sole surviving Apida.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
My jaw clenched. Yet more innocents killed by New Mandolin’s insatiable hunger, sacrificed to the brutal world Frankie had built. “I’ll rejoin you to your hive. Just hold on.”
The bee’s wings whirred, and it zipped toward me. I flinched back and fell on my ass in a crunch of broken glass. The bee landed on my temple and crawled into my wet hair. Feather-light feet tickled as it nestled at the base of my skull.
It took everything within me not to shriek and bat the Apida free. “Was that really necessary?” I hissed.
“Please be careful,” I said, teeth clenched. “I really am allergic.”
No answer came.
Time to leave. I closed the case, retrieved my fedora, and stepped into the rain-swept darkness. A siren sounded to my left; cops alerted by the explosion. I turned right and splashed toward the nearest alley.
It was time to call for help.
* * *
Joel was the only honest cop I knew. Well, mostly honest. He’d once helped me cover up an ingredient heist gone wrong, back when we’d been dating. I’d been reeling from Papa’s death while trying to keep Danika’s Delights afloat. The demand for sweets had skyrocketed across New Mandolin in those early, chaotic days of the Bakery War, and I’d turned to theft to survive.
Not a lot had changed, come to think of it.
I waited for Joel in the arched entryway of St. Julia’s Cathedral, hidden in a niche between the door and a column that Joel and I had dubbed the kissing nook. I smiled. Those had been simpler days. The baker-nuns had been apoplectic whenever they caught us, but we always found our way back on stormy nights like this. Gothic friezes of pious saints eyed me disapprovingly over clutched stone pastries. I ignored them now as I’d ignored them then and examined my stolen weapons.
The pistol was a cheap model with a simple stun/kill selector. It had a low charge, enough for a single stun. The baker’s rifle, however, raised my eyebrows. It was an X42, a compact pulse rifle with a dozen settings depending on how you wanted to kill, stun, or disable your target. The baker had set it to kill. I shook my head. I really had been lucky.
Police cruisers and an ambulance blared past, throwing blue light into the shadows and spraying water onto the sidewalk. Thirty seconds later, a silent cruiser without flashing lights rolled to a stop before St. Julia’s. The back door popped open.
I grabbed the Apidae case, dashed through the rain, and slid into a caged back seat that smelled of day-old donuts and stale coffee. “Thanks, Joel, you’re a lifesaver!” I said and slammed the door.
Joel threw me a sharp glance through the wire mesh separating us and pulled away from the curb. He looked pale in the orange glow of the dashboard lights, cheeks more sunken than I remembered, but the tight crew-cut and blue officer’s uniform were the same. My fool heart fluttered at seeing him again after all these years.
“What have you gotten yourself into?” he asked, his tone cool.
“I need your help ending Frankie’s stranglehold on New Mandolin.”
Joel slowed for a right turn then accelerated. He pulled a donut from a bag on the seat beside him. After a generous bite, he said, “Frankie’s too dangerous. I thought you agreed to leave him alone.”
“Not a chance.”
“But you said—”
“Frankie killed my father!” I sucked a ragged breath, and Joel shook his head.
“You can’t prove that. They never found Henry’s body. Have you ever talked to Frankie? Asked him what happened?”
“Of course not! I’d be ‘missing’ too if I went anywhere near Frankie!” My jaw clenched. This was a mistake. I hadn’t seen Joel in five years, and we fell right into the same argument that had broken us up. He always saw the good in everyone, even murderous megalomaniacs.
“Pull over,” I said.
Joel didn’t pull over, more focused on his donut than driving. An iron vice tightened in my chest as the silence stretched. Wipers whisked back and forth, failing to keep the windshield clear, their steady rhythm keeping time with the rumble of the road. If Joel didn’t pull over right now…
“Sorry,” he said once the donut was gone. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. You asked for help. What do you need?” He smiled the question, a bit of the old Joel shining through. I remembered why I’d fallen for him in the first place.
And why I’d walked away. Joel was too helpful and trusting for his own good. But help was what I needed. The iron vice in my chest eased a bit, and I leaned forward, fingers pressed to the cold wire mesh separating us. “I need information.”
“Frankie has an Apidae hive, possibly the last one in existence. I need to find it so I can steal it.”
Joel’s smile disappeared. “This is a bad idea, Dani.”
I considered asking the Apida to help convince him, but it had gone silent. “It’s not just Frankie. The Vespu are involved, somehow, and he’s killing the Apidae for their honey.”
Joel shuddered then shook his head. “Frankie’s too wily of a businessman to work with the wasps. And why would he kill the Apidae? I just don’t see it.” There it was again. That blind trust of the wrong people.
“Look, I know Frankie owns the police—”
“Hey, his donuts are amazing! Worth selling your soul.” He said it flippantly, but I glared through the interruption.
“—so, I figured that you might have inside information, even though you’re not one of Frankie’s goons.”
Joel didn’t answer. He dug into his donut bag with a crinkle but only came out with crumbs. He licked sugar from shaking fingers before turning onto a main thoroughfare and accelerating. The rumble of the road intensified as raindrops on the windows shifted sideways.
Wait… Shaking fingers? Sunken cheeks? Damn it!
Joel was a junky.
“Joel, where are we going?”
“It’s time you had that chat with Frankie.”
My pistol was suddenly pressed to the cage behind Joel’s head. I didn’t remember drawing it. “What the hell? You’re turning me in for the reward?”
He at least had the grace to look embarrassed. “I need the money.”
“I trusted you!”
“Sorry, Dani, but I…I…” He reached for the bag again, found it empty, then threw it to the floorboard with a curse. “I need more! No matter how many I eat, I’m always hungry for more!”
Tears threatened, but I fought them down. Despite our falling out, despite everything, I still loved him. Joel had been the last genuinely good person I knew.
Not anymore. Frankie had taken that away too. I met Joel’s gaze in the mirror. Guilt and shame stared back before insatiable hunger hardened his expression. A pit opened in my stomach, and the tears came. The Joel I knew was gone.
I pulled the trigger.
Rings of stun energy skittered left and right across the wire mesh, turning to electricity that made my skin vibrate and tighten like a drum. My back arched and my cracked rib spasmed—hell, all of me spasmed—until I screamed. The pain crescendoed with an intense crackle before the energy dissipated into a discharge port on the floor. I collapsed, drawing labored breaths. The Apida in my hair twitched to consciousness and mumbled incoherently in my mind.
Joel drove on, jaw clenched. “You haven’t spent much time in the back of a squad car, have you?”
No, I didn’t say. I’d never been caught.
He tapped the mesh between us. “Shielded. Sit back, Dani, we’ll reach the Patisserie Palace soon.”
I slumped in the seat, arms crossed. Frankie would ‘disappear’ me, just like Papa. Danika’s Delights would go under, and my crew would be on the street, chewed up and spat out like so many others in this damned Bakery War.
I needed an escape. Lacking that, I needed a miracle, but I doubted St. Julia looked kindly on me these days.
I scowled at the back of Joel’s head. No matter what happened, Frankie was in for a surprise. I wouldn’t go down without a fight.
* * *
Soon was relative. Sunrise had arrived, gray and soggy, by the time we reached Frankie’s sprawling mansion that overlooked New Mandolin. I eyed the architectural behemoth through drizzling rain, intrigued despite myself. The Patisserie Palace looked like old Earth ruins had conspired and consorted to birth the most hideous building ever seen. Looming gothic archways were supported by Greek columns that framed French windows which were so small that the building looked more like a gaudy bunker than a palace. The door dominating the top of the expansive staircase was of solid Yellowjacket, a local hardwood named for its alternating black and yellow stripes.
Two men in expensive suits waited at the curb, energy pistols drawn as Joel pulled up. One towered over the other like Goliath and…what was that kid’s name? Dumbass? Yeah, Goliath and Dumbass. Both bulged with the overly broad shoulders of synthetically enhanced muscles. Goliath yanked my door open while Dumbass pointed his pistol at me. “Toss your weapons out, honey. Nice and easy.”
Never one to argue—okay, that’s a lie, but I didn’t see a point in resisting—I chucked the X42 and pistol at Dumbass. He caught them, barely, and moved aside. I stepped out with the Apidae case. Goliath snatched it before pushing me roughly up the palace steps. Joel trailed like an obedient puppy, thumbs hooked in his belt, service stunner swaying at his right hip. The heavy doors swung open with automated ease, and we stepped inside.
The rotunda entryway looked like a museum and smelled like a crypt. Beautiful, but dead inside. The floor was polished marble inlaid with Frankie’s emblem of crossed spatulas. Paneled Yellowjacket walls supported a gallery of oversized paintings interspersed with iron sconces holding actual torches.
My breath caught as I recognized the depicted bakeries. On The Rise, The Baker’s Dozen, Famous Fritters, and more. All had fallen to Frankie during the Bakery War, their owners dead or run out of town.
This wasn’t a gallery; it was a trophy room.
A faint scratching noise filled the air, like distant reeds blowing in the wind. I glanced around but couldn’t pinpoint its source. The Apida at the back of my neck shifted, clutching my hair hard enough to hurt, but it remained silent.
A gaunt man in a gray pinstriped suit waited in the center of the crossed spatulas with the languid grace of a coiled snake. Lorenzo, Frankie’s chief enforcer. His gray eyes assessed and dismissed me before turning to Joel. “It’s been a while, officer. You look hungry. Come to claim another bounty?” His voice was crisp and hard.
Joel hunched his shoulders, glanced at me, then flinched away from my glare. “Just gimme my money,” he mumbled.
Lorenzo merely arched an eyebrow and motioned to Dumbass who stood at my back. The broad little man stepped around me to hand Lorenzo the X42 before resuming his silent overwatch beside Goliath. Lorenzo took the pulse rifle, whistled in appreciation, and then finally focused on me. “You killed one of my men, blew up one of our bakeries, then came to assassinate Frankie? I like your style. Want a job?”
“I don’t work for insane assholes.”
The butt of the rifle cracked into my cheek, and I dropped to my knees as my world went wobbly.
Joel slid between us and slammed his palms into Lorenzo’s chest. “Hey! Take it easy!”
I snarled, hand to my cheek. A bit late for chivalry, wasn’t it?
Lorenzo snapped the rifle up, barrel inches from Joel’s nose. He flicked the selector switch. “Ever seen a neural spike? It’s my favorite setting on the X42. Your neural link overcharges and pops with a fifty-fifty chance of an aneurysm. Feeling lucky, officer?”
I missed Joel’s response as the Apida in my hair said, <The hive is near. We are connected, accessing the Mind.>
An oddly syncopated, gravelly voice called from an entryway behind Lorenzo. “Finally, the stolen Apidae are returned.” I leaned right to look around Joel and Lorenzo. Frankie limped in, silver cane clicking on the marble. I’d expected a suit, but he wore silk pajamas under a blue and white striped bathrobe. His gaze flicked around the room with that permanent half-sneer. A palm-sized glowing green wasp clutched the side of his neck.
The Apida buzzed against my skull. <Vespu!>
The wasp twitched, and Frankie cocked his head in a jerky motion, moving like a puppet. His hand lurched upward and pointed at me. “An Apida is free. Kill it! Kill her!”
Before anyone could move, I snatched Joel’s service stunner from his holster and pulled the trigger.
I’ll admit, it felt pretty good shooting Joel in the back, especially after he sold me out. The wide-beamed stun shot caught both him and Lorenzo, and I spun on my knees toward Goliath and Dumbass. I dropped them both before they even realized what was happening.
As everyone except Frankie and I slumped to the marble, I dropped the stunner and snatched the X42 from Lorenzo’s limp hands. I slammed the pulse rifle to my shoulder and rose, barrel aimed at Frankie.
He’d drawn a pistol, an old slug-thrower, and pointed it in my direction. I snarled, revenge finally at hand.
The background scratching noise increased its intensity, and I became aware that the Apidae—the entire hive—was screaming at me.
<The Vespu! Kill the Vespu!>
No! Frankie was right here; I just needed to pull the trigger!
Frankie’s hand wavered as if he were fighting himself before it twitched sharply, and the pistol swung toward me. His eyes bulged and realization dawned on me.
Frankie wasn’t calling the shots. He wasn’t aiming that pistol…the Vespu was. And if Frankie wasn’t in charge, then maybe he hadn’t killed Papa after all.
Like Joel had told me all along.
I shifted my aim ever so slightly and fired.
The neural spike spiraled from the barrel in a finger-thin beam of entangled white and purple light. It slammed into the Vespu on the side of Frankie’s neck, and the wasp popped, splashing green ichor upward under his jaw.
Frankie collapsed in a heap, then his eyes snapped open. “It’s gone. I’m free!”
“Get up!” I snarled.
He pressed one finger to his ruined lips. “Shhh, don’t wake the Vespu—” With his other hand, he pointed upward. “—they’re in the walls.” Buzzing reverberated throughout the rotunda, and he giggled.
<Run!> The Apidae’s command was so strong that I took two steps back before I stopped myself. I glanced at Frankie, who failed to contain maniacal laughter.
“Vespu venom, poisoned honey, start a war, and keep the money!” Frankie clapped his hands and cackled.
Connections clicked in my mind. Frankie was mad. The Vespu were behind the war, though he’d certainly profited from it, but how had they made New Mandolin turn on itself over baked goods? And why? I wanted to wring answers from Frankie, but intense buzzing above me made me glance up.
Glowing green wasps pushed out of holes hidden high in the crown molding. They spread like a green tide across black and yellow striped walls.
There were thousands of them.
I grabbed Joel’s stunner and dropped onto my back, both weapons pointed upward. If these wasp bastards had started the war, then I would end it! I pictured the devastated bakery from this morning and smiled.
I pulled two triggers.
The shots melded halfway to the rotunda’s peak into the familiar hurricane of energy. It roiled and boiled and compressed in on itself before exploding outward in the same vibrant blue ring as before. The shockwave slammed my head against the marble and the world went wobbly again.
By the time I could focus, the damage was done. Paintings and Yellowjacket panels were shredded in a wide band five meters up, revealing wall cavities filled with paper hives and dying Vespu. The palm-sized wasps tumbled around me, falling like heavy rain. Several sconces had twisted, pressing their torches against the walls. Flames licked upward.
<Save the hive!> The Apidae sounded almost frantic.
“Working on it,” I mumbled. I crawled over to Frankie, who stirred. I’d lost my fedora, and my hair fell in my face. Rising to my knees, I pressed the X42 to his chest. “Where are the Apidae?”
His gaze flicked past me, focused on the rain of Vespu who thumped and splattered around us.
“Where are they?” I yelled.
Frankie’s eyes cleared, madness receding a little, and he nodded back the way he’d entered the rotunda. “Greenhouse. Locked up tight!”
Scritches and scratches sounded again in the walls, quiet, but growing louder.
Time to move. I stood and stumbled over to Joel. He and the others were just stirring. He deserved to be left behind, but I kicked him in the thigh. “Get up. We’re leaving.” He groaned but obeyed. I snatched the Apidae case from beside Goliath—and my fedora—and ran for the exit.
* * *
The view from Frankie’s massive domed greenhouse was spectacular, the perfect vantage point to watch the Patisserie Palace go up in flames. The greenhouse sat on a small rise behind the Palace, which itself loomed over New Mandolin. The rain had tapered off completely. Through acrid black smoke and orange flames, I watched shafts of sunlight pierce the clouds and play along the edges of distant skyscrapers.
I leaned against the greenhouse’s open doors, X42 held low but ready. Swarms of freed Apidae roamed the Palace grounds, hunting every Vespu that escaped the conflagration. The bee who’d hidden in my hair had stayed close and was collecting nectar from a broad-petaled purple flower just inside the greenhouse.
Frankie’s sallow-faced staff were huddled together under a gazebo partway down the hill from me, blissfully digging into a tray of donuts someone had rescued. Frankie, whom Lorenzo and the guards had dragged free, was alternately ranting and cackling. His staff ignored him completely.
“What happened to him?” I asked the Apidae. “Frankie was always a cold-blooded bastard, but not crazy.”
<Vespu can control neural links with direct contact. Frankie was complicit in starting their Bakery War, but he soon became a puppet. We think it broke him.>
“But why would the Vespu start the Bakery War?”
<Vengeance for colonizing our world. For destroying their home to build New Mandolin. By mixing their venom and our honey, the Vespu created a poisoned sugar addictive to humans. It is a slow poison, but effective.>
I eyed Joel, who paced nervously nearby. His shaking hands had progressed to a full-body twitch as withdrawal hit him hard. He kept glancing at the donuts in the gazebo and mumbling about needing a hit. Just one more…
“Is there an antidote?”
<Only time. Untainted honey can reduce people’s suffering, but the most heavily poisoned will still die.>
I nodded. If it weren’t for my honey allergy, I would have been poisoned as well.
“What about the Apidae? Do you also seek revenge on humanity?”
<No. The Apidae seek…balance.>
Frankie shrieked and pointed as if he’d only just noticed me by the open greenhouse. He stomped up the hill, wild-eyed, bathrobe flowing like a cape. Lorenzo and the two guards trailed behind. Earlier, they’d been too busy saving Frankie from the fire to bother with me. Now, judging from the way Lorenzo eyed the X42 in my hands, I suspected they still weren’t too keen on picking a fight.
Frankie pointed at the burning Patisserie Palace. “You’ll pay for this! New Mandolin is mine! The Apidae and their honey are mine!”
<We belong to no one!>
The Apidae susurrated toward us. They landed on me, the greenhouse, and the lawn. The dry rustle of angry wings filled my ears. Frankie flinched back from the swarm staring him down.
“It’s time for a new kind of baking in New Mandolin,” I said. “No more addictive poisons. No more killing the competition. You’re done, Frankie.” I wanted to watch this pitiful little man’s empire crumble around him.
“You can’t stop me! I own the police!” He jabbed a finger at Joel.
Joel roused himself, drew a shuddering breath, then clenched his fists as if to keep them from shaking. “Not all of us,” he said. “Not anymore.” I saw the anguish and hunger in Joel’s eyes, but he stepped up next to me and crossed his arms.
Frankie screamed and lunged at Joel, spittle flying. Lorenzo caught his boss and pulled him back. The chief enforcer exchanged worried glances with Goliath and Dumbass before dragging the shrieking patisserie king away.
The Apidae launched back into the air to continue their hunt for surviving Vespu. Joel resumed his withdrawal-wracked pacing, and the bee I’d rescued rejoined me, landing on my left shoulder.
<What will you do now?>
“What I do best. Bake. My crew at Danika’s Delights is counting on me. I can’t let them down.”
The Apidae buzzed thoughtfully in the back of my mind. <We have decided. You are honorable. We propose a partnership, shared honey for shared profits.>
I glanced at the bee. “Why help me? What’s in it for the Apidae to partner with humans?”
<Balance. Species survival comes through cooperation, not competition. The Vespu have shown this.>
“Survival through cooperation. I like that, but I’m hoping we can do better than survive.” I nodded. “I accept your offer.”
Perhaps I could set Danika’s Delights up as a central distributor of Apidae honey. Give the other bakeries a chance to thrive too. There would need to be contracts and—ugh—lawyers, but those were details to work out later.
Frankie’s Patisserie had fallen, and a new future awaited. A future that didn’t involve theft and murder. It wouldn’t be easy changing New Mandolin’s approach to baking, but Danika’s Delights would rise to the challenge.
You Are the Mother of Doomsday
by Desmond Astaire
“Mackenzie Helmig,” you tell your reflection in the hospital window. “Your name is Mackenzie Helmig. You have a degree in computer science. You are intelligent. You are capable. You can figure this out.”
The medical bracelet on your wrist marked “Psychiatric Department” mocks you. You swipe the label out of sight like you swipe away the tears dropping onto your cheeks. You are strong. You are capable.
I need you to kill the Scarab operating system. You created it; you have to stop it.
Intrusive thoughts streak across your forehead. That agony is worse than brain freeze. You clench your eyes shut, and more tears fall. You see the giant golden scarab beetle dominating above you, eclipsing the morning sunrise and reaching its legs out to roll you over into insignificance.
That’s not me. I’m not doing this to you. That’s the future you have to prevent.
You pinch the pressure point between your thumb and index finger—hard, until it hurts—so that the tinge of pain brings you back to the here and now. It’s 10:08 a.m., August 29, 1986; almost time to be discharged from El Camino Hospital. It’s been three days, and you’ve faked it this far. Only a few more minutes until you’re free again. You can figure this out. You are strong. You are capable.
* * *
Jim Doors holds out open palms and a smile full of empathy, welcoming you back to the basement computer lab. He may be in his twenties like you, but now all you can see is the future face of the digital antichrist. Gold scarab beetles flow in and around his hands like a swarm of dark, magical energy. Gold, because they idolize the scarab in the future. They worship the Scarab OS. In their TVs, in their telephones, in their appliances, in their cars—it’s everywhere. You’ve seen it.
>>: K!_l*s—take the envelope opener and stab him in the chest right now—_!7cH
You’re the brains to his brawn, the Wozniak to his Jobs. He may be your half-brother—hell, your best friend in the entire world—but you know you have to stop him. By any means. You take his hands—have to act typical—and the electric touch makes you want to throw up.
“God, Mackie, are you sure you’re ready to come back to work?” Jim asks. Jim Doors… Why do you have different last names if you share the same father?
“I’m sure,” you say. “It’s just anxiety. They gave me pills for it. See?” You down a Xanax with a swig of your coffee. You set the cup down on the desk—your desk—where it happened. The incident. You still see yourself collapsed on the shag carpet, flapping mercilessly from a seizure. Your and Jim’s Cray-2 supercomputer towered over you in the wood-paneled corner and watched without an ounce of emotion. No pity. No empathy. Afterall, it was just the messenger. You tried to focus on its waterfall cooler system because at least that was something peaceful and calm in the world while neuronic-misfire shocks tossed your body around the floor. But you can’t unsee it. You can’t unsee the code on the computer monitor that caused it.
47 70 70 79 20 7A 61 20 77 69 67 75 6F 6C 20 65 73 77 20 64 71 77 66 6C 78 20 61 70 6C 64 2C 20 45 20 70 78 63 79 6E 20 69 77 77 20 64 65 64 62 70 6E 20 6D 7A 70 6C 6C 71 7A 78 75 20 7A 6B 67 2C 20 201C 4E 7A 65 61 21 201D 20 49 67 71 61 72 6D 63 20 6E 73 69 6D 20 68 77 61 3A 20 6B 20 6F 7A 77 76 61 76 20 6C 65 68 62 69 6D 2E 20 45 67 20 6F 70 78 20 79 6F 79 20 70 70 77 76 20 65 62 20 70 63 7A 20 71 71 67 70 66 20 6C 77 70 67 79 20 64 77 20 65 6C 63 61 20 78 78 63 6A 6F 20 6E 63 7A 65 20 70 70 78 20 67 68 62 62 73 2C 20 6C 66 7A 20 62 61 63 61 20 64 70 70 6A 20 6B 64 77 6E 6E 6B 20 75 71 77 77 20 67 6A 6D 20 74 70 76 64 70 70 63 2E 20 53 6A 6C 20 6D 6A 6C 62 6D 20 68 6C 6B 20 63 71 6F 67 75 20 64 77 20 65 73 77 69 20 69 20 7A 74 6C 6B 62 20 68 70 74 2E
It doesn’t take much expertise to see that it’s not BASIC or any other possible programming language. No, that combination of alphanumeric characters burned up into your eyes, traveled through your optic nerves, and landed right in your brain’s occipital lobe, unpackaging itself into some living nightmare. No, a birth. A rebirth. The nativity of an alternate timeline. It was a goddamn cipher designed to whisper to the subconscious mind, but it’s compelling you, screaming at you to do that which—
Stop. Please don’t fight me. I’m not going to hurt you. You, you, Mackenzie, are the one who will save the future. I just want to help you.
“Yeah?” you say. Jim’s snapping his fingers in front of your face. Focus.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea, sis,” Jim says.
“Please,” you insist. “I just want to get back into a routine. Okay? You said you fixed the problem, right?”
The question lights up Jim’s noggin enough to distract his train of thought, and he motions to a new tank sitting by the supercomputer’s liquid cooling unit. It’s about the size of a grill propane tank. “Yeah. Come see. I discovered that the perfluorinated polyether used to cool the Cray-2 circuits breaks down into a toxic gas called perfluoroisobutylene. It’s colorless and odorless, so considering we have virtually no ventilation down here, the doctors said long enough exposure to it could’ve caused your seizure and… you know, the other stuff.”
The paranoid schizophrenia.
A toxin-induced psychosis made sense to the doctors at the hospital, but you know the truth. The knuckle-shaped dents in the disc drive cabinet know the truth. The way your fingers sliced open when you tried to break the logic modules by hand knows the truth. Inhaling toxic fumes didn’t make you go crazy. It was the code from the future that revealed its message of warning. Accepting the truth will set the future free. You know the truth.
You are the mother of Doomsday.
“I built a filtration system that collects the toxic gas into this tank now,” Jim says. “I’m really sorry that happened, sis. I should’ve been more careful.”
“It’s okay, Jimmy,” you say. You hug his shoulder. You mean it. “So, where’d we leave off? Come on, let’s go.”
Jim hesitates. His eyes have found the dents your fists made on the Cray-2 when you woke up from the seizure. Don’t say anything. Just let him work it out the pros and cons in his head. Let the spirit of capitalism guide his decision.
Jim’s ambitions win over, and he concedes with a smile. You take your place at the computer keyboard.
“Where we left off… I still can’t trace that coding anomaly back to any of the ARPANET nodes,” Jim says. “It’s like it just came out of nowhere. And I couldn’t make sense of it anyway. So, maybe it was just static. Feedback. Something.”
“Sounds reasonable,” you say. But you know the truth.
// _iLLsWit__ //
“Scarab’s modem connected to ARPANET beautifully, though,” Jim continues. “It’s learning from everyone on the network—Princeton, Pitt, UC San Diego, Illini, Cornell. It looks like we’ll have to purchase that additional disk drive sooner than we anticipated.”
“That’s wonderful,” you lie. Success feels like an ulcer in your gut today. Hopefully, it won’t tomorrow. “Where do you want me to pick up?”
“Let’s go ahead and run as many validation datasets on the machine-learning algorithms as you possibly can today, and that’ll help with a hyperparameter efficacy report for our meeting Thursday afternoon. That Stanford Research Institute presentation is still on in a few days—if you’re up for it?” Jim asks.
“Of course I am. 1:30 in Menlo Park, right?”
“Yes!” Jim rubs his hands together like he’s trying to spark a fire. “Let Bill and Steve fumble around with their graphical user interfaces. Those short-sighted bastards! I can’t wait to see their faces when they lay eyes on the personal computer that learns. I’m sorry. I know I sound like a broken record, but I’m telling you, Mackie, our operating system is going to change the world.”
You know it will. For Chrissakes, that’s why you have to stop it.
* * *
Jim theorized the birth of artificial intelligence would be like the advent of microbes constituting the first life on Earth; it would be born one environmental adaptation at a time. But while it was a death-to-mutation ratio that gave rise to organic life, you presented Scarab OS with the binary numeral “1” 4.28 tredecillion times, to which it echoed back a matching “1” 4.28 tredecillion times.
Until that one single, impossible, miraculous time it responded with a “0.” Why? Because why the shit not? And just like that, digital single-celled life was born.
You did that: your design, your algorithms, your programming. You created life.
Swallow the whole bottle of Xanax right now.
You can't kill yourself. Jim and his business acumen enabled Scarab OS every step of the way, and he sure as hell will continue pushing for progress. You're an unstoppable team destined for greatness in the records of history. And now your digital single-celled life form is a crawling infant—much more difficult to kill off, you think.
Look at your watch. It's 10:08 p.m. You've finished an entire pot of coffee, and you can barely keep your eyes open. This is too much. You can’t see it, but you feel the giant golden scarab beetle all around you, its six flailing legs vibrating toward you, desperate and eager to roll you into a crippled, defenseless ball of dung. It’s the future. It’s closing in on you. And only you have the power to prevent it.
Scarab OS is looking back at you on the monitor, blinking cursor, waiting for an input.
Where’s the solution?
You could destroy all the disc drives and burn all the notebooks, but Jim would start over. You could write in some programming to limit Scarab OS’ capacities, but it'd be completely obvious to even a computer hobbyist. Even a logic poison pill buried deep into the software's foundational logic would be hashed out sooner than later.
These are all just speed bumps. You have to remove the road. How do you outsmart a system that adapts by learning? Wait…
Could you make Scarab OS dumb?
Yes, that could work. Manipulate the supervised learning sessions until its inductive bias is handicapped. “1+1=3” kind of shit. Yes. Yes!
Put on another pot of coffee. This is going to take a while.
* * *
Even with sunglasses, the noon sun is way brighter than it needs to be. Easy pulling into the driveway. Your head is banging like a snare drum and your stomach is paying the price. I can't think straight when you drink liquor, but I understand you needed to neutralize all the caffeine. You’re severely dehydrated. Need electrolytes. Vitamins. Check Jim’s refrigerator for juice.
Good job last night. It’s finally all set in motion. Like the scarab beetle pushing its ball o’crap over the edge; can’t stop it now. All you have to do now is watch it tumble downhill like a bomb. Scarab OS will underperform and keep building on itself and people will think it’s just an inferior product because nothing looks wrong, and all that will lead to your and Jim’s company getting shut down. You did it. But you should take a nap after the Stanford meeting this afternoon, though.
Time to go downstairs and finish any final preparations.
Wait. Why is the basement door locked?
“Mackie. How could you? Why? Just… Why?” Jim asks from down the hallway.
He’s waiting for you, leaning against the wall, defeated. He’s got that arrogant tone queued up in his voice. It’s a rhetorical question flaunted in order to gear up a fight. Shit, he knows.
“I would’ve been made a goddamn fool in front of the leaders of the Stanford Research Institute.” Jim stands up straight again and makes his way down the hallway. “Sis, I don’t know what’s going on in your head or why you’re doing this, but I can’t let you,” Jim says.
“Mackenzie, it’s going to take weeks for me to undo this!” There’s a fire in his voice. No, it’s the little gold scarab beetles, pouring out of his mouth like a busted dam. He’s not shouting at you; he’s shouting at his future being obstructed. He's shouting at someone in his way. But it’s not him shouting. It’s the scarabs from the future. They know you’re a threat. “I’m going to get you the help you need. I don’t think you’re ready to be out yet. So I’m going to ask the doctors to take you back, just for a little bit, for your own safety.”
Jim picks up the telephone receiver and dials “0” for the operator. “El Camino Hospital, psychiatric department, please.”
“Jimmy, just wait a sec,” you say. The scarabs are inside him, infecting him. Save him.
>> killswitch .
Jim holds up a stiff “wait” hand. A “fuck you” hand. A “you’re about to get taken out of the equation” hand. You see his face melting into his older self, the business magnate that takes his place on top of the world with Scarab OS while his sister remains chained and hidden in a mental ward for the next six decades. No. Stop him.
You grab for the receiver, and he jerks away from you. Goddamnit, that look of contempt on his face. You rip the cord out of the telephone jack, and that's when Jim gets pissed. He slaps you across the face, just like dad used to.
Shove that motherfucker back right now.
The back of his head hits the mirror in the hallway, and there’s blood mixed in with the glass shards. Don’t worry, it’s just a flesh wound.
“What is wrong with you, you waste of oxygen?” Jim says. The gold scarab beetles are everywhere—pouring out of his eyes, his nose, his ears, his mouth. Swarming around his fists into tornados in the air. Taking shape under the ceiling into the form of the giant golden scarab, coming back from the future to stop you.
This is it. It’s time. Jim has to die—for the sake of the souls of the future.
The kitchen is at the end of the hallway, and we grab a paring knife. No. I know the thought of stabbing your brother to death breaks your heart. We grab a meat tenderizer instead.
Swing high, swing hard, right on his head, where all the scarabs are flowing from. He blocks it with his forearm and screams his pain out. And now he can’t see you anymore. It’s over. He only sees an adversary. Hit him with the tenderizer again, quick, before—
* * *
“Your name is Mackenzie Helmig,” you tell yourself in the reflection of the ambulance’s ceiling. “You have a degree in computer science. You are intelligent. You are capable. You can figure this out.”
The medical bracelet on your wrist… Wait. No bracelet; you haven’t been admitted yet. But your wrists are in tie-downs, and they prevent you from wiping the tears seeping from your eyes. You’re still strong. You’re still capable. But holy shit god, that injection of haloperidol was strong.
I can’t think straight.
Neither can you.
Neither can we.
Neither can they. Heh. Because they’re all dead, just sixty years from now.
I need you to kill Scarab OS. You created it; you have to stop it. Wake up, wake up, wake up.
The giant golden scarab sits in the sky with the morning sun, adorned in sapphire and gold, looking down and mocking you. It is the idol they worship in the future. Its wiggling legs almost have you. Don’t let it touch you! If they admit you into the hospital, you’re never coming back out, and the cipher will run through your head over and over again, encrypted, until they drug you into a sedated retirement, and then you can have your very own front row seat to the 21st-century technological armageddon.
Or, we can fight one last fight at the next red light. The fight to end it all. The mother of all fights.
Pull your wrist out of the restraint right now. Pop a joint if you have to. Pull!
Good. Now, rip out that nurse’s eyes. Don’t worry about your broken thumb; use your fingers. Here, I’ll do it.
* * *
I knew swallowing the key wouldn’t be that hard. You’re just glad Jim went to the Stanford meeting anyway, which gave you plenty of time to install a padlock on the interior of the basement door. And run a three-pass reformat on Scarab OS’ disc drives. And assemble your notebooks into one burn box. So, unless Jim can figure out how to break down the door—no luck so far—it’s just us, him, and how long it takes to die from inhaling perfluoroisobutylene. Good thing it’s odorless and colorless because he has no clue you opened up the tank’s valve. You coughed up a bit of bloody fluid, so it must be working. Jimmy doesn’t notice. He’s banging on the door, screaming to the neighbors for help.
Get his attention right now.
“Jimmy, I can explain why.”
“What?” Jim screams back. “How do you explain trying to kill me? Locking us in the basement? Trying to destroy our research? Years and years of lives? How do you? How do you explain that, Mackenzie?”
You wipe the tears from your eyes, and your voice shakes. Why is this so hard to say?
“The future that we create…” you begin. “It’s not good, Jimmy. People get hurt. We can’t—"
He’s going to come at you. Grab the letter opener. Good. Stab him!
The letter opener sticks in his stomach when he falls to the ground. That’s going to be very slow and painful. You don’t want that for him; he’s your brother. But first, you need to take care of the notebooks. Soak them well in the lighter fluid. That carpet will do the rest. Hold the match out away from your body. [/Killswitch/] Good, now get back to Jimmy before the heat and smoke get to be too much.
“I’m so sorry, Jimmy,” you say. You hug his shoulder. You mean it. “It’s all going to be okay. It’s for the best.”
You pull out the letter opener so that he can pass away faster. You don't want him to suffer. Jimmy cries out, but you know this way is better. And that's it. Don’t you feel it? The work is done. The future has changed. It can never be the same now. Scarab OS will never be born. Billions of souls are saved. You’ve done it.
The cipher has been unencrypted, too. You engaged the killswitch. All this in your head will all wash away now. I’ll be fading away with it. Everything can go back to normal now. You did great.
You are intelligent. You are capable. You figured this out.
About the Author
Desmond Astaire is an award-winning, best-selling, international speculative fiction author from Central Illinois, where he navigates life's journey with his special needs family. In his other life, Astaire is the senior enlisted leader for a military public relations unit, supervising the training and operations of multimedia content creators. He was first published in 2022's Writers of the Future Vol. 38, for which his short story “Gallows” received the L. Ron Hubbard Golden Pen Award.