Welcome to BigFuture™ BSI

One of the Birds bursts out of the flaming house, right through a fresh trail of flame Brick is laying down on the place, then tears off into the sky above, screeching and squawking like all hell. It’s a horrible thing, all gangly bones and green skin and that giant bony bill lined with razor-sharp teeth. Brick just caught it with the last coming out of his ‘thrower, and I can see through the mask of my suit the thing’s on fire now too, singeing from darkish green to black. It squawks and squawks and flaps its enormous wings; Brick’s throwing more up fire its way but the damn thing’s just out of reach. I hear the rest of the team screaming and hollering, then the sound of automatic fire as they let all hell loose its way.

“Burn it to the ground!” I heard Brick yelling over the din. “No survivors! Can’t let the infection spread!”

The family are running out of the house now, all on fire too: the father’s clothes are nearly burned away and the skin I can see coming through is all black; the mother’s hair is mostly gone and covered in soot and smouldering; and the small child being lead out between them is crying and looks like she crawled through a chimney a damn mile long.

The Bird’s flapping every which way, in its dying throes, slowly falling to earth; Brick finally catches it with a burst of fire and then the horrible creature’s fully ablaze. I look over and he looks back at me before letting another burst go. “What are you waiting for Sphinx, burn ’em! Burn ’em before they get away!”

The father is almost on top of me now and I can see his scared eyes grow wider as I pull the trigger. Flame engulfs him totally and he screams and the sound is horrible and higher pitched than thought it would be. The blast engulfs the woman and child too, and I can see them flailing within it, trying to run; arms, legs, faces, all turning black, skin melting away to charred muscle then bone beneath.

And then for a moment the bright light of them reminds me of my first day, of sitting in what seemed like an ordinary conference room in an ordinary office tower with a group of other ordinary people ready to join a completely ordinary company to work an ordinary 9-to-5 at an ordinary job, and me looking up into the flickering bright light of fluorescent tubes overhead.

A pretty black-haired girl with a short skirt had come in to us waiting expectantly. “Welcome to BigFuture™ BSI,” she’d said. “I am so excited to have all of you here joining us, and to tell you that for each of you, for all of you: your Big Future is a bright one.”

Canes

I walked out of the lobby and into the broad light of day. Far off, down the sidewalk, I saw an old man ambling toward me, a long black cane in his hand, tapping against the grey stone.

The light changed and I crossed. I rounded the corner and saw the street filled with people – old people, young people, businessmen in suits, middle-aged couples with young children.

In each and every one of their hands was a black cane, tapping against the sidewalk. The din was like roar of a thousand sea monsters, pulling doomed viking ships down into dark stormy waters.

A young boy looked up to me, his eyes sharp and cutting.

“You!” he said, and pointed with his cane. Everyone in the street stopped and turned to face me. The din ceased as all the walking sticks were held just aloft of the pavement beneath.

Then they all rushed me, black wooden sticks flying in the area as they ran.

They encircled me and rained blow after blow down upon me with the hardness of the canes. I screamed out for them to stop, not understanding what was happening, where I was, what this was. I felt the stinging blows exploding into pain over and over in my leg. I felt my shin bone shatter. I screamed again and the flurry of black wood increased until everything turned black.

I awoke in my hotel room, and turned to rise out of bed. My leg ached again, as it always did when the weather was wet. I grabbed the black cane from my bedside, and hobbled over toward the bathroom to shower.

Blue Collar

“Come on down from thar, Buck!” Wayne Crenshaw hollered up to the roof from down on the grass. “Sometin’s wrong with Ozzie!”

Buck walked over to the edge of the sloping shingle, his safety harness following behind him like an obedient snake, to shout down to his boss.

“What?!” he hollered, orange nail gun still in hand.

“I said come on down from there! Something ain’t right with Ozzie.”

Buck took off the rope, something he’d normally never wear at a job out in the country, unless like now when the slant was very steep, and raced down the metal steps of the ladder, making them clang beneath his work boots.

“Where’s he?” Buck said, wiping his nose with his free hand.

“O’er here, c’mon.”

Oswald lay under the trees on the brittle brown leaves from the past autumn, heaving his chest up and down and uttering pained moans from dry, chapped lips.

“The hell’s the matter wit ‘im?”

“Fuck knows,” said Crenshaw. “He just fell down like this after goin’ the woods fer a piss. Reckon we should call an ambulance?”

Ozzie moaned louder, something like words.

“What?” Buck said. “What is it, Ozzie? You dyin’?” He leaned down toward the greening man.

Ozzie moaned again and rose from the leaves in a start, plunging his teeth into the other’s shoulder. Buck screamed and blood gushed from the wound, pouring down over his work shirt and staining the mouth biting him bright red.

“Jesus fucking Christ Oz! What’s got induya?!” Crenshaw took off his old ball cap and swatted at the man, hitting him in the face over and over to little effect. Buck continued to scream and struggle but it did nothing to loosen the vice grip of the teeth sunk in the meat of his shoulder.

“Get him off!” he screamed. “Christ, get him off! Fuck!” Buck punched Oz in the face with his other fist, over and over again, and blood poured from his assailant’s nose, mixing with his own.

Suddenly the stillness around the cottage was broken by a loud thwap, and Ozzie’s body fell back against the dry leaves again, making them rustle beneath it. Crenshaw stood, holding the nail gun limply at his side.

“What the fuck was that?!” Buck said, standing. He held his bleeding shoulder with his hand. Already his shirt was soaked with red. “I need to get to a fucking hospital.”

Wayne Crenshaw stared into the rustling leaves of the forest, then looked down solemnly to the lifeless body before him.

“Shut the fuck up, son,” he said, and dropped the nail gun onto the grass beside him. “Now we’s got ourselves a bigger problem.”

Somewhere off in the forest, a bird sang.

 

Zoonotic

“It’s my cat,” I said, holding it out toward the doctor. “She’s sick.”

“Um, alright,” the doctor replied . “If there’s a problem with your animal, ma’am, I recommend you take it to a veterinarian.”

“No, I mean it started with my cat, but she got me sick too. I can feel it.”

The doctor stared. “Okay,” he said skeptically, “could you describe your symptoms? There are very few diseases transmissible between cats and humans. You could have a bacterial infection, or cat-scratch fever, as it is colloquially called. Are you experiencing any fever or headache?”

“No, nothing like that.” This was getting frustrating. He just didn’t understand. “I’m dead, doctor. I’m rotting away inside. I’m dead and the disease is what’s keeping me moving around. I caught it from my cat! She died a year ago and has been reanimated by the virus since then. See, look! Look at her eyes! They’re all green! She’s dead!”

I pushed the cat into the doctor’s face so he could see, but he didn’t look. He wasn’t even looking.

“Ma’am, there’s nothing wrong with your animal. And if you aren’t experiencing any real physical symptoms, I would venture that perhaps you need a psychologist not a doctor.”

“I’M SICK!” I screamed in his face. “WHY WON’T YOU LISTEN?!” I could feel the virus rising inside me. I could feel my mind slipping. I felt myself losing control again. The hunger was rising.

“Nurse!” The doctor called.

“I’M SICK!!” I pounced on the doctor and bit into his neck, and the warmth of his blood rushing into my mouth was a sweet release.

Tinnitus

That horrible sound, that constant high-pitched eeeeeee in my ear – whining, buzzing, ringing. It was perpetual and unrelenting. It plagued me all hours of the day and night. It was maddening. It made it impossible to sleep.

“Tinnitus,” the doctor said. “A variety of causes, not always physical. Have you been under a lot of stress lately?”

“Stress?” I answered with annoyance. “I’m a lawyer, doc, I work 85 hour weeks, every week.”

“Well it sounds like that’s likely the cause of condition, given what else you’ve told me.” He scribbled something on his notepad. “I’m going to recommend some CBT.”

Great. I can’t sleep because of this ringing in my ear, like I just walked away from standing next to the subwoofer at a death metal concert, and my doctor says I need to go lay on a couch and talk about my feelings.

“Sure, whatever. But what am I supposed to do in the meantime to sleep?”

I’ll admit I wasn’t thrilled. A hearing aid? I’m not a senior citizen. But I’d try anything to get rid of the damned noise, even if it meant putting a little plastic blob in my ear playing a different eeeeeeeeeee to cancel out the one I was hearing.

The problem is, now I can’t sleep at night for a different reason. Because now all I can hear are the screams.

Unmarked Postage

If only I’d been more careful, this never would have happened. If only I’d thought things through, I wouldn’t be in this situation; here, now, in the hospital, typing this out while sitting in this hospital bed, hoping that if the thing that got to me isn’t just about me, if there’s others out there it’s also happening to, that they can learn from my mistake. I just hope it’s not already too late. I just hope there’s still something that can be done in time. I just hope my warning doesn’t go unheard. Don’t be stupid and end up like me.

I found a box on my porch last week, a giant nondescript cube of cardboard sitting right outside my front door. I probably should have realized something was up right off the bat; I wasn’t expecting a delivery.

Stranger still, the box was completely devoid of anything to identify its origin, destination or purpose: there was no shipping label, no plastic pouch with an invoice, no “this side up” arrow, no nothing. It was a completely anonymous cardboard box. But clearly it was intended for me – it was placed directly on my porch, directly outside my door.

I’ll admit there was a moment of doubt in my mind. What if some psycho had put this there? What if there were hacked up human body parts inside, their blood soon to leach through the bottom in ugly spreading crimson stains, like devastating black death escaping the shattered carapace of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico? What if it was full of burned DVDs of child pornography, scraped from the deepest darkest corners of internet, a box of incriminating evidence placed directly into my hands just before a SWAT team coincidentally showed up at my door?

You’re being ridiculous, I thought. This is either a package meant for you, or some stupid prank. Just open the damn thing.

I wish I never did.

I’ll bring the box inside and open it. Settle this and stop being so irrational. I bent down to lift the package, and expecting it to be heavy, nearly threw it through the roof of the veranda when I lifted it. It was light. Very light. Whatever was in it weighed almost nothing – the majority of that emptiness inside was probably filled with those styrofoam packing peanuts.

I brought the box into the kitchen and grabbed a small paring knife from the drawer. I bent down on one knee to slice the clear packing tape that sealed the top flaps shut and a strange unwanted thought entered my mind: I was a butcher, ready to slice open the carcass of a pig. A hunter about to field dress a murdered deer. A surgeon ready to slice open the chest of an unwilling patient, and steal their heart for a black market transplant.

The blade split the tape cleanly, perfectly in half, almost surgically, just like my last strange mental image. When I ran it over the center where there was a gap between the flaps, there was a small sound as air escaped – the last exhale of the unwilling patient. Whoever had packed this thing had done so that it was damn near hermetically sealed.

I cut the remaining parts of the tape sealing the box flaps to the sides, and I’ll admit that as I did excitement rose in my chest, in anticipation of finally discovering the mysterious package’s contents. I lifted the flaps and opened the top of the box to reveal that it contained…. nothing.

There was nothing in it. The box was empty. The box was empty. There was nothing in it. What? This doesn’t make any sense. This doesn’t make any sense. This is fucking surreal. There has to be something. Something.

In disbelief I ran my hands all through the inside, touching all of it, pressing my palms against the smooth cardboard, then hitting it, grabbing it, punching it. No, there was nothing. It was empty. Empty. Empty inside. Unreal. Fucking unreal. Surreal.

A strange smell, a chemical, antiseptic smell mixed with something metallic was in the box, and now the air around me. I brought my hand to face and could smell it on it too, from where I’d touched the cardboard. The box was empty now, but there had been something in it once. Something which left behind this strange smell that now filled my kitchen and coated my hands. Eau de Union Carbide – the latest fragrance from Paris – the smell of sterile green hospital corridors filled with patients dragging IVs hanging from little metal trees, the smell of a surgeon’s instruments laid out in their roll ready to make the incision, the smell of sitting behind the curtain in a hospital gown and waiting for death. The smell of humans being treated like pieces of meat.

I sat on the floor in disbelief. It just didn’t make any sense. Where the hell had this come from? Why would someone drop an empty box on my porch, very clearly personally delivered by hand, to me, with nothing inside? It defied all logical explanation. What was this? What was this? I kicked the box aside in disgust. Fuck this.

I made dinner. I watched Netflix. I went to bed and dreamt of evil surgeons with giant grins of pointed teeth stabbing me with oversized hypodermic syringes. When I woke up in the morning the box was still waiting for me there on the tile of the kitchen floor, a big crease marring the side where I’d kicked it.

I got ready for work. I sneezed in the shower and the water running down me turned pink. Great, another morning nosebleed. Guess I needed to finally get that humidifier like I’d been meaning to.

My co-worker didn’t think it was so strange when I mentioned it to him the next day.

“Naw man, that kinda thing happens all the time,” he said, sipping his coffee and hovering over my cube.

“What the hell are you talking about? Psychos hand-deliver empty packages to strangers all the time? Because if they do, this is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Nah, it’s a mix-up man.” He sipped his coffee again, from one of the old mugs from the kitchen, the one from the local radio contest where they’d spelled the station name wrong.

“I betcha that for like 95% of its life that package wasn’t even handled by human hands, man. You know what kinda age we’re livin’ in now? We’re living in the goddamn future, bro. Amazon’s got freakin’ unmanned forklifts buzzing around their warehouses, picking your shit offa shelf and loading into a truck for delivery and there aren’t even people involved. There doesn’t have to be, man – all that shit’s numbered and computer-coded and in the system.

“Didn’t you read that article about that woman in Tucson? Same thing happened to her as what happened to you. She ordered a freakin’ Magic Bullet from Amazon and instead of getting her fancy blender in the mail, a week later she gets this big-ass box with a huge piece of conveyor belt machinery from the warehouse in it. Bug in the system, dude. Literally no humans involved from end-to-end, and the goddamn robots don’t know whether they’re packing up a mix-o-matic for some old lady or a freakin’ nuclear bomb.

“It’s automation, dude, it’s the future. No system is perfect and you just happened to be a bug in the system. Some other guy is on the phone right now, bitchin’ out Amazon’s customer service reps ’cause he never got his package, and you’ve got an empty box, and some other fucker’s got a pile of throw pillows in the mail instead of his box set of Deep Space Nine.”

“I guess so,” I said. “I mean, it makes sense. But it still doesn’t explain how the package got on my porch if there was no shipping label.”

“Whatever man,” he said, and made to leave. “Not worth losing any sleep over if you ask me.”

As he turned to leave, a pain gripped my chest and I bent over in my chair. I hacked and coughed, over and over again. Oh god, it hurt. It was like there was something stuck in my lungs. I could feel my coworker hovering over me, uncertain of what to do as I kept coughing. I could hear my hacking noises going out over the floor above everyone else’s cubes.

Finally, whatever demon was squeezing my chest released me and I righted myself. The exertion and pain going left me light-headed and dizzy; I leaned back in the chair, red-faced and teary-eyed, a self-conscious smile on my face. My co-worker was staring.

“Bro, you alright? Thought I was gonna have to give you the freakin’ Heimlich.”
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said, and coughed again, quieter and under control this time. I cleared my throat and smiled again sheepishly. “Just had a weird something, you know? Down the wrong pipe.”
“Sure,” he said, still staring. He looked like he didn’t believe me. He took one last sip of his coffee and turned to leave. “Later man.”

Days passed, but that cough didn’t go away. I figured I was coming down with something. Great, burning more of my sick days when I should be saving them to play golf in the summer. Whatever, chicken soup and bad TV and this will be over soon.

Yesterday was when I knew. Yesterday when I woke up and a nosebleed would have been positively welcome. I awoke to a horrible searing pain burning my insides. Razorblades were slicing my viscera into a stacks of thinly-cut deli meat. Swarms of snakes covered in barbed wire were writhing in my guts and biting out chunks of my soft red flesh.

I ran to the bathroom and threw the lid of the toilet up. I fell to my knees and could feel the writhing snakes were making their escape, up through my stomach and esophagus. I vomited, retch after retch of disgusting reeking ejecta, fountains and fountains of my blood falling into the ruddying water waiting in the bowl. The pain was like nothing I’d ever felt.

Finally it subsided and weakly I brought myself to my knees. I ran the tap. Cold, cold, cold water poured out noisily. I put my hands under it, grateful for a pain somewhere else, a welcome numbing distraction from the ordeal I’d just experienced. I splashed my face with the frigid water and stared at my weary eyes in the mirror. My weary eyes stared back. I drank the cold from the tap to rid my mouth of the taste of old pennies. I stared at my half-naked self in the mirror.

The image came back to me, the grinning devil-surgeons and their comically oversized syringes: we’re coming for your kidneys. You won’t need them when you’re dead. Be there soon.

I opened the mirror, took a handful of painkillers and closed it again. Something was horribly wrong. I had to go to the hospital. This was more than a cold. This was more than me failing to control the humidity level of my place during the winter.

I called the hospital and explained what happened. I was too weak to drive, I said. Afraid of what might happen if I did. Fine, they’d send an ambulance. Be patient. I hung up the phone and went to walk out to the front porch, out to the veranda, where I’d found that stupid fucking empty box. That stupid empty lump of cardboard.

When I reached the door was when I put it all together, when all the pieces fell into place: the box, the airtight seal, the smell, my coughing, and the final piece, the final nail in my coffin, hand-delivered just as the box had been.

It was a plain white piece of paper slid through the crack underneath the front door, an ocean of white save for two tiny lines of text set dead center in the middle of the page. They were the naked, anonymous metal letters banged to the page from an old typewriter. Staring back at me – foreign, alien, uncaring – their meaning slowly seeped into my addled brain and pushed aside my confusion into a rising horror of realization:

JUST BECAUSE A BOX IS EMPTY
DOESN’T MEAN THERE’S NOTHING IN IT

The Virulent Man

The first clue came when I was a child. All my family, everyone that lived in the house. Sudden, debilitating sickness causing their sudden, untimely deaths. Excruciating pain. Vomiting blood. Violent, explosive hemorrhaging. Red everywhere, on everything. It made the headline in the newspaper: FAMILY SUCCUMBS TO MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS, SINGLE CHILD SURVIVES.

They were the first, but certainly not the last. My uncle, who I went to live with. Children at my school. Teachers. Friends. The CDC was called in; there were fears of an outbreak, a potential epidemic: H1N1 but a thousand times more contagious, ebola but a million times deadlier.

Then suddenly it stopped just as mysteriously as it had started. All the men in hazmat suits left, shaking their heads in confusion. The quarantine was lifted. It stopped because I figured it out. Because I stopped myself coming into human contact with anyone else.

Somehow, I’m immune. No symptoms. No biological signs. But I am also the only source. It waits in me. I am the virulent man. I am a walking plague of biblical proportion. I am disease. I am death. I am the most deadly biological weapon in the history of mankind.

And this is why no one can ever know.

“Your bill,” says the bartender gruffly. The beer was warm and skunky, and he’d been rude to me.

I reach in my jacket pocket and feel the pen there.

“Damn,” I say, “do you have a pen?”

He grabs one from beside a pile of filthy glasses and holds it out to me, eyebrows pulled together and frowning.

“Thank you,” I say, reaching out to touch his hand.

The Invisible War

Nothing helps, and it’s only getting worse.

The dirt, the dirt and the germs, they’re everywhere. Hiding in every little nook and cranny of the house. I’ve scrubbed and I’ve mopped and vacuumed and disinfected everything but they’re just too strong. It’s an infestation. I can’t get rid of them. I can’t live in this cesspool. They have me surrounded and I can’t escape.

It’s only gotten worse. I could feel them spreading, their microscopic forms slowly crawling toward me in my sleep. They’d been getting stronger every day, and I knew it. All my disinfectants, all my arsenal was starting to become obsolete. They were evolving and now I’m losing the arms race. Last night they broke through my final line of defense, my last antiseptic perimeter, my ring of salt around my bed to keep away the little virulent demons. They are winning this war.

I’m infected. I could feel it when I woke up this morning. And I knew I had to do something.

The hot water pours from the faucet, boiling hot, too hot too touch but I know I must. The steam rises in my face and I put my hands under the scalding stream. The pain is excruciating, like nothing I’ve ever felt. I scream in agony but smile wickedly: die you little fuckers, die. I laugh as the liquid scorches my skin. Die, die, die.

No. No, it’s not working. They’re spreading too fast. I have to do something.

I run to the bathroom and turn on the shower. Hot. No hotter. Come on, faster. Hotter. Hotter. I can feel their little microscopic forms spreading all over me, multiplying in tiny little colonies. They’re raising their armies. They’re still on the offensive.

HOTTER. HOTTER. COME YOU MOTHERFUCKING HYDRO COMPANY WHAT DO I EVEN PAY YOU FOR! FUCK, HOTTER! HOTTER!

I step into the burning water and it is glorious in its destruction. I scream over and over as it burns my skin but I know I’m going to win now – I’ve mounted the offensive. Die you little fuckers, die. You picked the wrong man to fuck with. I scream and scream and in my screams of agony I can hear myself laughing but then I’m not sure whether I’m laughing or crying. But it doesn’t matter.

It’s still not enough. No matter how hot the water it’s not enough. I am torching the theatre of war to take the enemy with me but it’s not enough. I scrub and scrub and scrub, but it’s not getting them off. They are multiplying too fast. I just want them to die. I just want to feel clean. It’s not enough. It’s not enough.

My sobbing slows. With a shaking red hand I turn the shower off. The stream of inferno recedes to a dribble, tiny drips of lava dropping to the porcelain below. I stand in the steam. My skin is on fire but I don’t care.

It’s already too late.

They’re laughing at me. I can feel them. They’ve already breached the last beachhead. They’ve broken through the castle walls and are inside the city. They’ve osmosed through my skin. They are inside me.

Naked and red, I run to the kitchen. Again I turn on the scalding stream from the faucet. I grab a glass from the cupboard and set it down on the counter. Come on, hotter, hotter. HOTTER. Daddy’s thirsty. Come on. COME ON.

No. No, that wasn’t enough, remember? Stupid. So stupid. It didn’t work before, it won’t work now.

More. More firepower. I need more firepower to win the war. Complete and utter destruction. Total annihilation of the germ race. Genocide. Nuclear holocaust. Wipe them all out: little germ soldiers; little germ civilians; little germ men, women and children and crying germ babies.

In my head I see the image of the tall white jug, and I run to the laundry room.