Upgraded Service

“James!” Kelly rushed into the office. She shut and locked the door behind her, then turned to her boss whose first name she never used before that moment.

“Something wrong?” he asked. The question came as a reflex, he saw obvious panic on her face. Her dark brown eyes danced around the office as if expecting something or someone to pop out at her. He moved the computer mouse to bring up the security feed, but Kelly grabbed his hand. She pulled him away from the desk and the large scenic window behind him.

“Stay away from the windows! She yanked him down to the carpeted floor in the middle of his office. “Security said an armed group is trying to come up. They heard your name mentioned and told me to warn you,” she explained. Images of armed gunmen wearing balaclavas and speaking with foreign accents rushed through James’ mind.

“What.. what’d I do?” He asked her as if she knew the answer.

“I don’t know,” she hissed back. James realized she was far more terrified than he was. He realized he should probably be as scared as her. “What did you do on vacation?” Kelly asked. They both lay flat on the floor staring up at the drop-out panels.

“Nothing!” James felt a gnawing sensation in his gut. The burning sensation of a lie about to come to light.

“You had to have done something,” she replied. James shook his head, but she pressed him again. “People don’t just show up to an office building with weapons without a reason. THINK. Maybe you did something accidentally. Tell me everything you did over there.”

“I uh…” James wondered if he could bluff his way through this. He recalled what few facts he could about Saudi Arabia. “You know. Just visited the Red Sea and stuff. It was pretty boring.”

“That’s it? That’s all you did for a week?” James nodded, not that she could see.

“Yeah. It was pretty enough that I went almost every day, different spots you know.” Kelly sat up and stared into his eyes.

“You didn’t come back with a tan. In fact, I think you came back paler somehow. I remember because I was worried you weren’t eating enough.”

She was worried about me?” The realization made James feel worse about his lies. “If we get through this she is getting such a raise. If we don’t…,” James sighed.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on, Kelly, but I need to be honest. I lied to you about my vacation. I didn’t go to Saudi Arabia,” he looked up into her eyes. “My favorite game got a new update and I spent the week playing.”

“WHAT?!” She immediately pelted his shoulder with blows. The floor supporting him ensured he took the full force of the hits. “You told me you had that vacation planned for a year! I missed my daughter’s graduation because of you!”

“From Kindergarten!” he tried to rationalize his lie.

“YOU LIED!” she hit him again several times. He knew he’d have a bruise or three in the morning, and he knew he deserved it too. “I’m sorry! If I survive this you’ll get a raise and two weeks vacation!” She only hit him once more after that.

“I’d better,” she said with stern eyes.

“Mr. Jelee?” A man’s voice came from the intercom on his desk. “The intruders are demanding to speak with, ‘The Final Boss’.”

“What?” James sat up.

“How do they know your nickname?” Kelly asked. James stood up then gave Kelly a hand up.

“I don’t know,” he said as he made his way to the desk. He opened the security feed on his monitor and saw a group of armed and armored adventurers. A paladin in heavy, black iron armor stood at the front of the group. A spellslinger and gunslinger duo, each with holstered guns on each hip stood on each side of a white-robed healer.

“No waaay,” James whispered under his breath.

“What the hell? Security said they were armed, but it’s just a group of cosplayers,” Kelly commented. James pressed the red intercom button.

“Send them up,” he said.

“Yes, sir.” The security guard on the monitor replied. He pointed the group toward the elevator.

“Well..,” James looked at Kelly. “We lived through it. Go ahead and take the rest of the day off and you can start your vacation tomorrow.”

“Really??!” Kelly asked. James nodded, but Kelly was already half-way out the door.

“See you in two weeks!” she shouted over her shoulder. James sat down in his high-back leather chair and waited. After several minutes, he heard heavy clanking approaching from the other side of the door. Then, a knock.

“Come in,” James said. The paladin walked in first followed by the spellslinger, the healer, then the gunslinger at the rear. The group approached his desk. “Really guys? I’m working right now.”

“That’s all you can say?!” The healer stepped forward and pulled her hood down. Her long silver hair cascaded over her shoulders. “Have you seen what we’re wearing?” James nodded.

“Yes, Mia. They’re really cool costumes but I’m working. Don’t you guys have jobs too?” The spellslinger drew her gun and pointed it at James.

“Duck,” she said. James ducked his head to the desk. He was used to taking orders from her. She pulled the trigger and a marble-sized blue ball flew out of the barrel. James felt a chill on his neck as the projectile shot by. He heard a crisp, cracking sound and turned around to face the window. It was now completely iced over.

“They’re not just costumes, idiot. Your Earth’s been upgraded to a server. How do you not know?” James shrugged, but the news made him smile.

“Been busy in real life. Haven’t logged in for a while,” he said. “But I can fix that today,” he stood from his seat with a smile, but then he grew worried.

“WAIT. This is a server now?” He asked. His static party nodded.

“Yeah, let’s go. Time to slay the dragon!” The paladin smiled. They did not slay dragons all that often, but he liked saying it.

“Guys.  You don’t get it,” James shook his head. “No one told us,” he said. The frozen window behind him shattered. He turned around and saw a group of gargoyles attacking the building across the street.

Ezey Answer

“That’ll be 12 dollars,” the cashier said. She smiled politely. Luther looked around the cafeteria-style cafe. He saw people in dark business suits sitting and talking, drinking coffee and eating like a normal business day. He patted his pockets for show, then looked at the cashier. He knew something was wrong.

“Can you help me?” Luther knew he would sound crazy, but maybe he was crazy. The last thing he remembered was sleeping in his mansion. Then, he felt a floating sensation as if he were leaving his body behind and all his worldly concerns with it. “I..  This might sound strange, but I’m positive I died last night. I don’t know where I am,” he glanced around the cafe again. “I followed the smell of food to get here.” The cashier sighed heavily, obviously annoyed. Despite that Luther noticed her light pink eyes soften.  She looked past him to the other patrons.

“Hey, Ezey! ONE OF YOUR GUYS MESSED UP AGAIN,” she shouted and blatantly tilted her head at Luther.

“Thanks for keeping it quiet, Lily,” a man behind Luther replied sarcastically. Luther turned around and discovered a clean-cut man wearing a dark pinstripe suit. Ezey pulled $12 from his pocket and placed it on the counter. Then he nodded at Luther. “Let’s have a seat and sort you out.” He patted Luther on the shoulder. Luther nodded and sat at a small red and white booth with Ezey.

Once they were seated, Ezey’s hand dipped under the edge of the table and returned with a manila folder. He opened it and glanced at the single sheet of paper inside.

“Luther Johnson,” Ezey mumbled to himself as he read the document over. “Wow, pretty impressive for a first timer. You worked hard, made a fortune, and spent it all to leave the world a better place than you found it,” the man nodded in approval.

“First time with what? I don’t know where I am,” Luther said.

“Oh that’s easy, you’re dead,” Lily replied from the edge of the table. She placed a steaming pepperoni pizza in the center of the table and gave Luther a plate.

“C’mon, Lily. Where’s the finesse?” Ezey complained at her. She shrugged and smiled.

“He already knew that much, I just saved you some time. You can thank me later,” she said, then returned to her seat behind the cash register.

“Well, she’s right. You died,” Ezey nodded. Luther looked at the pizza, and at the other patrons. Initially, he saw several suits and assumed that most of the patrons were dressed like Ezey. On closer inspection, he realized all the other patrons dressed like Ezey.

“Is this Heaven?” Luther asked. He focused his attention back on Ezey and found him with a string of cheese extending from his mouth to a slice of pizza in his hand. Ezey used his other hand to break the cheesy strand and chewed quickly. After he swallowed he looked at Luther.

“Does it look like Heaven?” he asked Luther shook his head.

“Then where am I? Why’s everyone dressed in business suits?” he asked. Ezey dropped the bitten slice of pizza and glanced at his black wristwatch.

“Well, thanks to Lily I guess. We have some time, I’ll answer one question, then we gotta get you going again. By the way, don’t waste your question on, ‘going again for what?’. You’ll get that explanation as part of the process.”

“Are you an angel?” Luther asked. Ezey’s right eyebrow raised slightly.

“Is that your question?”

“Who or what are you?” Luther asked a revised version. He realized a simple “yes/no” question was a waste. If he knew what Ezey was it would help him figure out where he was.

“That’s better, you’re going to progress pretty fast,” Ezey smiled. “Okay. I, and the rest of the of the well-dressed around here we don’t have an official title, but we like the name, ‘Middlemen’. We guide souls through the afterlife. I’m like you, a soul whose body died. Except instead of going around again, they offered me a job here. Speaking of which,” Luther glanced at his watch. “Time’s up. Normally, there’s a whole thing for first timers, but you’re smart.  I’ll see you next time,” Ezey smiled while the cafe around Luther grew dark and disappeared. Soon the light and reality around Luther faded until everything, including Luther, disappeared. Then, he went around again.

Inopportune Opportunity

“Thank you, ma’am,” Perry winked at the cashier and gave her his best smile. The steady, green “90” hovering above her head changed to red and jumped up to 100. “I’m losing my touch,” he thought as he walked away with the small bag of hair products including a fresh box of green dye. He stepped out into the auditorium-sized hall-way of the mall and merged into the flow of shoppers. He ignored the sea of red and green digits hovering above the crowd as he made his way to the food court. The novelty of his ability wore off years ago.

When he first discovered his ability he would check on every number that wasn’t green; he wanted to help people. It took a massive, round, angry man to finally convince Perry that some people did not want help. The giant man’s number flashed a bright red 200 while enjoying a hamburger. Perry dashed across the restaurant out of concern. While the stranger berated Perry for not minding his own business the number climbed even higher.

He apologized to the stranger and paid for his meal just to calm him down, but he never bothered with ‘Reds’ again after that. Perry reached the food court and glanced around at his options. In the field of ‘Greens’ and ‘Reds’ a single black zero hovered over a woman’s head. He did not register it at first, she was sitting between his two finalists, pizza and fried chicken. As his head moved from one to the other he saw the zero but did not register it until several seconds later. He looked back to double check. The owner of the black zero, a pale woman with short dark hair wearing a white business dress, smiled at Perry. Curiosity guided him to her small, single-person table.

“Hi,” Perry gave her a friendly wave. “I’m Perry.  Uh… are you feeling okay?” The woman nodded, but her smile disappeared. Her lips straightened and her face shifted from warm and welcoming to a business-like demeanor. Perry had seen that look in each of his dozens of job interviews.

“I’m fine, Perry. Why do you ask? My name is Dana Sharp, by the way.” Her hands remained clasped together on the table as she introduced herself.

“Oh, no reason,” Perry wracked his mind to find an excuse for his awkwardness. “Sorry to have bothered you, ma’am, the truth is I came to talk to you on a dare. I’ll leave you be now,” he gave her a polite nod and moved to step away. While running the excuse through his mind for plausibility he remembered something his best friend told him.

Perry’s best friend knew more about his ability than Perry himself. He mentioned in passing that it might not work on everyone that crossed his path.

People from other universes aren’t bound by the rules of this universe. You might not get any stats from them,” Mundo’s voice echoed in Perry’s mind. He stopped and turned to face Dana again.

“Are you from around here?” he asked as generally as he could.

“I suppose that depends on how you define…,” Dana gestured at the wide open food court with her hands. “… here. Do you mean the mall, the city, the state, the country, or the Earth?” Perry rushed back to the table-side. He leaned over with one arm on the table.

“You are from a different Earth? I knew it! What’s it like?” Dana nodded to confirm his assumption.

“It’s very busy. So please,” she gestured to the empty seat across from her. “Have a seat. I have other appointments to get to.” Perry sat down without knowing why.

“I’m an appointment?” he asked.

“I know it’s sudden, but what better way to gauge prospective employees than by catching them off-guard?”

“You’re offering me a job?” Perry looked to his sides, up and down the food court. He assumed he’d find cameras filming him for some sort of prank show, but saw none.

“Well, you’re not slow. That’s something,” Dana said. “I run a corporation across multiple universes, and I need someone like you to help vet applicants’ health and honesty.”

“You know what I am?” Perry smacked his forehead. “Duh. Of course, you know. You’re from a different universe.” Dana’s head tilted ever-so-slightly to the right and her eyes narrowed.

“Do YOU know what you are?” she asked. Perry nodded.

“Oh yeah, Mundo explained it all to me. I’m #15, La Pera. Which Unique are you?”

“Thank you for your time, Perry. The offer has been rescinded,” Dana said abrubtly, then stood from her seat and walked away.

“Wait! Why?” Perry jumped from his seat to catch up with her. He reached to grab her arm, but someone grabbed his. It belonged to a short, stocky bald woman. A red skull tattooed on her head grinned at Perry.

“Interview is over,” the short woman said.

“WHY!?” he shouted at Dana as she stepped into a tall, black hole floating in the air.

“Because Ms. Sharp said so,” the short woman replied. She shoved Perry’s arm away then followed Dana into the portal. Then it disappeared.

Misplaced

“I’m not going to hurt you!” Nyva spoke loudly at the building. An overhang created a lightless corner that she needed to get by. “I’ need to be seen on camera making my rounds but I’ll ignore you if you ignore me.” She hoped the child knew how to speak. She had no idea how old it was when she noticed it on camera. Nyva did not realize what it was until she stood outside inhaling the sour, gamy scent of werewolf emanating from the darkness. She considered it might be feral and clenched her fists as she moved to pass by.

She felt eyes following her as she walked to her next visual check in, but the short journey was uneventful. After her rounds, Nyva sat at the bank of monitors to wait for her next walk-around. She checked the corner camera several times throughout the hour but did not see it again. She assumed that it fled as she completed her perimeter check until she hit the wall of stench at the corner on her next round.

“I wouldn’t be here in the morning if I were you,” Nyva said to the shadows and continued to walk by. She spent the next hour wondering if it would still be there the next time, and what that might mean. “Maybe it’s hurt.” The realization stuck with her until she stood outside again by the corner, the scent hung in the air.  “Are you okay?” she asked the darkness. She heard rustling in the darkness, then a child stepped into the light. Nyva guessed the young, blue-haired girl to be about six. The blue moonlight fell on her face as she looked up at the security guard’s shiny badge with brilliant green eyes.

“I’m lost,” she said softly.

“Lost?” Nyva looked the girl over. She wore a long light pink nightshirt with no socks or shoes. “How’d you get lost honey? You look like you were in bed.” The little girl nodded.

“I was.. and I woke up…,” she pointed to the edge of the forest. “…in there.” She looked down at her bare feet. “The ground hurt so I came here.” She stomped her foot on the concrete.

“You were asleep and you woke up in the forest?” Nyva asked to make sure she understood. She debated what to do with the obviously abandoned child. The girl nodded. “Fantastic.” Nyva thought sarcastically. She knelt in front of the child.

“I’m Nyva, what’s your name?”

“Stella,” the girl replied.

“Okay, Stella,” Nyva stood and patted her stomach. “I’m hungry, are you hungry?” Stella nodded with an eager grin. “Come on then, I know a great place.” She took the girl’s hand and led her to the parking lot.

“What about your job?” Stella asked.

“One of the other guys will take over when they see me leave with you. We have special rules for lost children,” she said. Nyva lied through her teeth, but she did not want to make the child feel worse on the night she was abandoned. There was no other security in the building, and she was definitely walking away from her job. They did have special rules for lost children, but she could not hand a werewolf over to the police. Luckily she did know someone she could leave the child with and help her find a new job.

“Do you know what I am?” Nyva asked once she pulled out of the parking lot.

“Uhuh, I can smell you.”

“You’re not scared?”

“No, why?” Stella asked. Nyva wondered why Stella’s parents did not warn the girl about the dangers of vampires; then, she remembered the girl woke up in a forest.

Someone should warn her,” Nyva decided.

“Vampires and werewolves don’t normally get along. If you ever see or smell a vampire that isn’t doing a human job do your best to avoid them, okay?”

“But my best friend is a vampire!” Stella replied with a confused tone.

Great, she’s already calling me her best friend. That’s the last thing I need,” Nyva grumbled mentally while she drove. “Well, friends are one thing, but still. You should always be careful around vampires. A lot of them like hunting werewolves for fun.”

“Since when?” Stella asked.

This poor child, her parents didn’t want her at all.” Nyva thought. “I hope you like Chinese food,” she said as they pulled into small parking lot. A red neon sign read “Donna Chang’s” on top of a quaint restaurant.

“I love it!” Stella said. She sounded excited about something for the first time since Nyva met her.

“Awesome, let’s go.”  An old, Asian woman approached them as they entered.

“WHAT ARE YOU!?” Stella let go of Nyva’s hand and ran to the old woman. She walked around her excitedly, sniffing the air around the woman. “You smell sooooo PRETTY!” The woman smiled at the child.

“Hello cub,” Donna said. “I’m a dragon. What are you doing here?” she asked Stella. The girl continued sniffing at Donna and pointed at Nyva without looking. She decided to change tactics.

“My name is Donna Chang, what’s yours?” Stella shook hands with Donna.

“Stella.”

“Stella, would you like to eat before you go home?” The girl nodded with a large smile. “Okay, go sit down and look at the menu.” The girl bolted off to a red booth with a golden table.

“Home?” Nyva asked. She looked around Donna to check how far away the girl was.” She leaned closer to Donna and whispered.

“I don’t know how you know where she lives but I’ll chalk it up to dragon magic. However, I don’t think it’s a good idea. She woke up in a forest. Her parents probably drugged and abandoned her.”

“WHAT?!” Stella yelled from the table while staring at them. “THAT’S NOT TRUE!!” Donna chuckled and walked to the booth. Nyva followed with her head hanging heavy with embarrassment.”

“No, it’s not true,” Donna said once she reached the table. She continued to smile warmly. “Nyva doesn’t know everything. I’m sure your parents will be very worried about you if you’re not in your bed in the morning.

“Okay, what do you know that I don’t?” Nyva asked.

“Stella is from a different Earth. Her powers kicked in while she was sleeping, but I can send her home,” Donna said. Then she looked down at the girl. “But if you keep visiting after I send you home I can teach you how to use your power.” Stella nodded then focused on the menu again.

“A different Earth? Those exist?” Nyva asked. “And you never told me about it before?” Donna shrugged.

“No reason to.”

“OH! Can Nyva come to my Earth?” Stella asked. “She can find a job there.”

“Why do I need a job?” Nyva asked. She did but was curious about how the girl knew.

“Because you stink like Zane when you lie,” Stella grinned. The answer only confused Nyva more.

“Who’s Zane?”

“My best friend!”

Guided Tour

“Come on!” Alliane pulled on Jonah’s arm. “You can’t see anything from there, get closer!” She stood on one of the city’s outer walls trying to get her boyfriend to look at the river of zombies shambling below. Jonah crinkled his nose and shook his head.

“I can’t get any closer to that stench, how can you stand it?” Alliane turned over the railing and stared down at the walking corpses. They shuffled through an empty concrete moat built around the city moaning the whole way. She made a show of inhaling a deep breath through her nostrils. Alliane exhaled then turned back to Jonah with a disgusted face.

“Blech,” she giggled. “Never smelled that before.” She left the railing and led Jonah towards the elevator. “We’re on an adventure and you need to be more adventurous.”

“I’m adventurous, I just don’t like stinky smells,” he grumbled as they stepped into the elevator. Alliane realized he may have taken it more seriously than she intended. She kissed his cheek as an apology then changed the subject.

“We’ll get the picture then move on. What’s next on the list?”

“Uh..,” Jonah pulled his cell phone out and swiped through the screens until he pulled up a picture of a list. “A ladder.”

“A ladder? That’s kind of boring,” Alliane said. “I don’t think those girls gave us all the rules.”

“Maybe they didn’t understand it either,” Jonah handed his phone to Alliane. “It says #07 La Escalera,” he shrugged. “I don’t know why it’s in Spanish, but that’s a ladder. I don’t know what the number is, maybe we have to find one with the number seven on it?” The elevator glided to halt then dinged. The doors opened and Alliane stepped out first. She headed straight for the viewing window.

“That’s super easy, we can grab a ladder from here and draw a seven on it,” she looked back to wink an emerald eye at him. “Two birds, one stone.” They reached a wide glass wall that separated the zombies from the tourists. The glass turned into concrete at about eight feet. The horde of corpses blocked out most of the sunlight leaving a dim interior. On one side, people stood in front of the glass wall and posed with frightened faces for the camera. On the other side, the legion ignored the unending flashes and continued to flow forward.

“Here,” Jonah handed his phone to Alliane then he stood in front of the clear wall. Alliane snapped a quick picture and then they swapped places. After Jonah took Alliane’s picture he joined her by the wall and watched the zombies. “Do you think they’re blind?” Jonah asked as he wrapped his arm around Alliane.

“Probably. They are dead,” she replied.

“No, that’s not it,” a woman’s voice said from beside them. The couple turned to see a young woman wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a green vest that identified her as a docent. “Hi,” she smiled at them and pressed a hand to her chest. “I’m Mundo.” Jonah waved with his free hand and Alliane smiled.

“I’m Jonah and this is Alliane.” Mundo nodded at the parade of corpses behind them. “Their eyes work fine, but the glass is treated. It’s kind of like a two-way mirror, but they only see black.”

“Oh I see. Thank you for the information,” Jonah said.

“No problem,” Mundo said. “Anything else I can help you with?” They both shook their heads.

“Not unless you can help us find a ladder around here,” Alliane giggled then turned her attention back to the zombies. She knew they’d be leaving soon and she wanted to enjoy every moment.

“Ignore her, we’re fine. Thank you again,” Mundo gave him a curious look.

“An Escalera?” she asked. Immediately both heads whipped around to face her.

“Why did you say it in Spanish?” Jonah asked.

“What’s Spanish?” Mundo asked. Alliane’s hand flew fast and sharp to smack Jonah on the back of his head.

“It’s nothing, just an inside joke between us,” Alliane said quickly. “RIGHT, honey?”

“Yeah, yeah. Sorry. I’m so used to talking to her things slip out sometimes.” Mundo stared at them with piercing eyes, but the corners of her lips tugged upward. A smile slowly spread across her face.

“Oh my god,” she said. Her eyes widened and seemed to sparkle more, even in the dim light. She began bouncing in place with excitement. “You don’t know what you are, do you???!” Her restraint withered with every second as she became more energetic. Jonah saw severe worry flash over Alliane’s face.

‘I know that we’re leaving,” he said. “But thank you again.”

“You guys are from a different universe!” Mundo blurted out. “Two actually, one each,” she corrected herself in a quieter tone. They stopped walking.

“What makes you say that?” Jonah asked. He guided Alliane away from Mundo and tried to put himself between them.

“I NEVER get to explain it to anyone, this is awesome! FOLLOW ME!” She grabbed the closest hand, Jonah’s, and led them to the cafeteria in a hurry. She sat them at a small booth.

“Wait here, I’ll get us some drinks. I’ve got a lot to tell you about yourselves,” she turned and took two steps away. Then she stopped and turned around. “OH, please don’t leave. You’re not in any danger, I promise.” Jonah and Alliane nodded, then Mundo turned away again. After two more steps, she stopped and turned around again. “BUT, if you do leave do yourselves a favor. Look for a Mundo on the next Earth you visit. We can explain things to you.” She turned and walked to the counter.

“Up to you, hon,” Jonah said. They both watched Mundo get in a short line with three bottled waters. Alliane shrugged.

“She called the ladder an escalera, that can’t be a coincidence. Plus, she somehow knew we weren’t from here. Let’s listen. Maybe she can help us with other items on the scavenger hunt too, not just the ladder.”

Forbidden Fruit

“After all of our debates there isn’t anything you could say to change my view,” Mundo said. Wordlessly, Pastor Parkman stood and slid out of his heavy black coat. He set it on the chair then unbuttoned and removed his shirt. The pastor gave a tall, upward stretch with his arms raised high. He gave a satisfying groan as brilliant emerald-colored wings stretched out behind. His wings stretched across Mundo’s small kitchen, though the Pastor was careful not to knock anything over.

“Sorry, I felt a cramp coming on,” he smiled as he folded his wings behind, then he put his shirt back on. He sat down while buttoning it. “You should open your mind more often. Your preconceived notions are getting in the way of a more fulfilling life,” the Pastor said.

“Open my mind?” Mundo chuckled. “You have wings, Lorro. I regularly meet people that travel between universes,” he shrugged. “I’ve asked everyone I’ve met and they all say the same thing.” Mundo locked eyes with the Pastor. “What you’re asking me to accept abhorred in most universes, and horribly mocked in the rest. There has to be a reason.” Lorro nodded.

“There is a reason. Fear. People fear the unknown, what they don’t understand. It’s good to listen to the advice of others,” Lorro shook his head. “But, some things are best learned for yourself.  It won’t kill you to try it. Just once. Today’s the perfect day to try it.” Mundo shook his head.

“What makes it better on Sunday than any other day?” he asked Lorro. The Pastor smiled. After pressuring Mundo for years, his friend finally wavered. He knew he was about to convert Mundo, and pride welled up in his chest. He sat up straighter and smiled at Mundo.

“Not a thing. I only suggested today because it’s today. Might as well get it out of the way. If you give it a shot but still feel like you do now, then that’s it. I’ll drop it, and I won’t bring it up again during our weekly visits.” It was a small loophole that the Lorro hoped he wouldn’t need. The pair of close friends met weekly to catch up, though they kept in touch throughout the week as well. The Pastor would limit his proselytization to the occasional text if Mundo needed more of a push. He noticed curiosity growing in Mundo’s eyes as if he finally gave himself permission to be curious.

Mundo sat in silence with his thoughts, and Lorro did not interrupt. The Pastor quietly sipped his coffee for several empty minutes while Mundo wrestled internally. Finally, with a faint nod, Mundo agreed.

“Okay,” he smiled. “You’re right. It won’t kill me and if it gets you to shut up about it all the better,” he chuckled. “Go ahead and order it with ham and pineapple. Just this once.” Lorro smiled and grabbed his phone from the table.

“You’re gonna love it,” the Pastor said.

Coffee & Flower

This is it,” Charlie thought. She stood on a busy corner with a crowd waiting for the light to change. The day proved more eventful than she expected. It wasn’t until after lunch that she realized she was the one causing the weirdness around her. Even then, she did not grasp it until she held her breath to avoid a customer’s halitosis.

He stopped talking immediately. Then, when she took a breath to ask he started, mid-word, from where he stopped. Luckily here manager stepped in. Charlie felt so relieved she did not think about the time-stop until she had a moment to stop and think.

The light changed and the crowd around her surged forward. Charlie remained in place and forced them to go around her. she heard rapid, heavy footsteps behind her and turned around. A handsome man with dark hair was rushing to catch the light. At the last minute, Charlie decided to have some fun. Their eyes met as he walked by and Charlie winked at him. The man continued running until he realized Charlie was not crossing. His rush must not have been important because he stopped to talk to her. It was not what she expected, but it did not matter. She was about to hold her breath.

“Hi, I’m Angel,” the man said with a flirtatious grin.

“Hi,” Charlie replied. Then she inhaled deeply and held her breath. She looked at the street and noticed the crowd stopped in the middle of the street. She looked around and all the cars seemed to be parked. She ran past Angel and into the crowd.

“OKAY. I GUESS I’LL SEE YOU AROUND!” Angel called after her.

“What?” Charlie said in surprise, releasing the breath. The crowd started moving again but Charlie turned back to the corner to look for Angel but he was gone. “What the hell is going on today?” she wondered with a shrug. She continued to finish crossing with the crowd but when she reached the other side Angel waved at her. He was leaning against the side of a coffee shop as if he’d been there all day. Charlie rushed up to him.

“What’s going on?” she asked. Angel shrugged.

“Lots of stuff. You’ll have to be specific,” he replied. Charlie made a show of inhaling deeply, then she held her breath. Every person, car, and bird stopped moving. She spread her arms wide to indicate “this” is what she meant. Angel shrugged.

“What about it?” Charlie exhaled and time roared back to life with honking horns and the murmur of casual conversations walking by.

“I can stop time!” she said. “That’s not normal.” Angel smiled.

“It depends who you ask,” he replied. Charlie gave him a curious look.

“Why doesn’t it affect you?”

“Finally, a proper question. It doesn’t affect me because I’m a Unique,” Angel said.

“Uhuh. What makes you so unique?” Angel shook his head.

“I’m not saying I’m unique. I said I am A Unique. A Unique Soul to be specific. Although,” he added. “Not all Uniques can move during a time stop. Mostly only Celestials and maybe a few Conquerors.” Charlie nodded.

“Okay, I’ll see you around,” she said. She waved at Angel and resumed her journey home.

“You’re one too,” he said before she got too far. Charlie stopped but did not turn around.

“I’m one what?” she asked.

“A Unique.”

“How do you know?” Angel chuckled.

“Stopping time isn’t normal for humans, but it is a common ability for a certain Unique.” Finally, Charlie turned around.

“So, which one am I? The celestial or the conqueror? And which one are you?” Angel facepalmed in disbelief, then he cocked his head at the coffee shop he leaned against.

“You’re already all mixed up. Let’s get some coffee and try to sort it out.” The curiosity drove Charlie into the coffee shop. After they ordered and sat down, Angel started talking.

“First I’ll start with what a Unique Soul is,” he pointed at Charlie to make sure he had her attention. She nodded. “This is the short version. Also please remember you can stop time. So nothing about what you’re going to hear should be too surprising. I assure you it’s all real.” Charlie rolled her eyes.

“Get to it,” she demanded.

“Okay. First things first. Alternate universes are real.” Charlie’s eyes widened, but she did not interrupt. Angel nodded and continued. “Him, him, her, him,” he pointed at various strangers. “All of them have other versions in different universes. You and I don’t. You’re the only you anywhere ever. That’s what a Unique Soul is.”

“Whoaaaa,” Charlie whispered to herself in awe but did not interrupt.

“Okay, here’s where it gets complicated. There are 54 different types of Uniques.” Charlie’s eyes sparkled and she looked like she wanted to ask something. “But that doesn’t mean there are only 54 Unique Souls,” Angel said.

“Oh, okay,” Charlie said.

“A Unique can be any of the 54 types, which are split into categories based on how powerful they are. Still with me?” Angel asked. The barista appeared with their drinks and he decided it would be a good time to pause. Charlie smiled and nodded. After the barista left he continued.

“The two most powerful categories are Conquerors and Celestials. Since this is the short version we don’t need to go into the other categories. Really,  we don’t need to talk about Conquerors either other than tell you that’s a category. You and I are Celestials. You’re #14 La Muerte, and I’m,”

“I’m death?!” Charlie whispered sharply with a smile. Angel shook his head.

“No, that’s just the name. I’m #46 El Sol, the sun. Most Celestials, you and me for sure, have the ability too…,” Angel brought his hand over the table and made a gesture at it with his fingers. A small black hole opened on the table’s surface. Angel reached in and pulled out a glowing purple rose far enough for Charlie to get a good look then he dropped it. It fell back in the portal then the hole disappeared. “…travel to different universes.”

“I can do that?” Charlie asked. Angel nodded.

“As soon as you get a tattoo.”

Okay, Go!

Upside Down & Inside Out – OK Go

Upside Down & Inside Out – OK Go

(00:00)

“I’m ready. I want to be a Unique,” Jenny said. After wrestling with the question for weeks, she made her decision. Now, she stood in Ms. Sharp’s lab eager to go through the procedure. Ms. Sharp smiled and patted the Asian girl’s spiky black hair.

(00:14)

“I knew you would. Hop on the table,” the pale woman pointed at the metal and leather examination table. Jenny climbed on the table to lay on her back. Despite feeling confident of her decision, the process itself made her nervous.

(00:25 – 00:35)

Ms. Sharp walked to the control panel to start pressing buttons and flipping switches.

(00:36)

Ms. Sharp held a node up for Jenny.

“I need a container for your new soul, I’m planning to use a standard node. Do you have a custom one you’d prefer to use?” she asked. “I don’t think it matters too much, but I know you’re particular about your equipment.”  Jenny nodded the reached into her jacket for a node. She gave the transparent rectangle to Ms. Sharp with a nod.

She accepted the node and walked around to the head of the exam table. She inserted the node into a metal slot built into the table.

“You said it’s gonna hurt, right?” Jenny asked.

(01:01)

“Yes,” she replied. Jenny nodded.

“I’m ready,” she said.

“Are you sure? Do you know what you’re doing?” Ms. Sharp asked. “I know I told you, but you need to see it for yourself.” She pointed at a wall and an image appeared on it.

(01:10)

Jenny saw herself on the monitor. Thousands of herself. Some were older, some were male, but she knew they were all her. They seemed to be contained in a large warehouse.

“What gives you the right to do what you’re about to do?” Ms. Sharp asked Jenny.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she opened them again and locked eyes with Ms. Sharp.

“I got here first,” Jenny said firmly. “If I would do it, they would too.”

(01:27)

“‘Atta girl!” Ms. Sharp smiled and touched the girl’s arm for reassurance. “However, it’s one thing to say that,” she shrugged. “… it’s quite another to see it through. I need to be sure you understand the consequences. Tell me what’s going to happen.”

“All my alternate selves are going to die. All of those,” Jenny cocked her head at the while while keeping her focus on Ms. Sharp.

“Look at them, not me,” Ms. Sharp said. Jenny faced the screen.

“All of them are going to be killed. Right now. The rest will probably fall into comas and die. No more of me will be born. I’ll be the only me in any universe,” she said. She felt tears brush her cheeks but she refused to acknowledge them in any way.

“Okay. I’m convinced you know the consequences. Are you ready?”

(02:00)

“Ready,” Jenny said. A tall black portal appeared next to Jenny and Melody, a short woman with short, dark hair walked out.

“Sorry to interrupt, Hey Jen,” Melody smiled and gave the girl a polite wave before turning back to Ms. Sharp. “There’s a concern with the Yggdrasil project, I thought you should know.” Melody handed Ms. Sharp a node, but the rest took place behind Jenny’s view.

“I’m sorry Jenny, this needs my attention right now. Melody can finish the procedure. She knows the equipment as well as I do, and as I mentioned last time she’s already gone through it. Is that okay?” Jenny nodded.

“Okay, no problem. I understand,” Jenny said. She wanted Ms. Sharp to be there with her, but she knew if she postponed it she would chicken out. She trusted Melody and it helped to know she’s gone through it too. Ms. Sharp walked into the portal and disappeared without saying anything else.

“Everything’s ready, it looks like you were about to start. What’d’ya say, Jen?”

“I’m ready,” Jenny stared at the screen even though Ms. Sharp left.

(02:30 – 02:44)

Melody hit the start switch. All at once the duplicates on screen toppled over. They collapsed in a heap and purple energy began to fill the air. The energy was absorbed into the walls and channeled into the the docked node.

(02:45 – 03:15)

“There we go,” Melody said. She hit a second switch and the node popped out of the slot. She pulled it out and handed it to Jenny. “All set.” Jenny accepted the node with a look of confusion.

“That’s it? I thought it would take longer,” she said. Melody shook her head.

“Nope, this is the easy part.”

“Easy part? I thought there was only one part. And Ms. Sharp said it was going to hurt a lot.”  Melody’s eyes widened.

“No pain?” she asked. Jenny shook her head.

“Oh I see, that’s why you thought there was only one part. I don’t know why she didn’t tell you about the rest yet,” Melody shrugged.

“We need to remove your soul to make room for that one. That’s the part that hurts.”

Hand Delivered

“Hey wait up,” Kirk shouted. He jogged to catch up to the silver-haired girl. “Emily, right?” he asked when he reached her. She nodded. “You’re pretty good with magic.” She grinned at him with perfect white teeth.

“Thanks! I practice a lot.” Emily pulled a deck of cards out of the air and winked at Kirk.

“Oh, yeah. That’s cool too, but I meant your water spell,” he explained. Emily’s smile dimmed, but she nodded appreciatively.

“Thanks,” she waved. “See ya around,” She turned to leave, but Kirk placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Hey, have you heard of the Society of Magicians?” he asked. Emily’s yellow eyes rolled upward while she thought for a moment, then she shook her head.

“No, but it sounds fun,” she said. Kirk nodded.

“I’m a member and I can nominate you for membership. There’s a meeting tonight if you want to go,” he asked. Emily looked him up and down, then agreed after a moment.

“Yeah, I’ll take a look. Where?”

“Grimmley Castle,” Kirk replied. His lips stretched into a smug smile. Emily nodded.

“Cool. Where’s that?”

“WHAT?” He pointed at a black castle sitting atop a hill in the distance. “You don’t know who Magus Grimmley is? The world’s most powerful sorcerer?” He asked in disbelief. “There’s no spell or conjuring he hasn’t mastered?” Emily shook her head and shrugged.

“Never heard of him. Wait, the world’s most powerful sorcerer?” Emily raised an eyebrow at him. “Is this about real magic?”

“YES!” Kirk said with an enthusiastic gesture. “I’ve seen your magic, you’re good enough,” he smiled.  Emily shook her head.

“Not interested, but thanks,” she smiled then turned to walk away again. Kirk raced around in front of her and fell to the dirt on his knees with clasped hands.

“PLEASE!!” Emily continued to walk around him, but he grabbed her hand as she walked by. “I just need you to show up, please. You don’t have to join if you don’t want to.” She stopped walking and looked down at him.

“Show up for what?” Kirk sighed and stood up and dusted off the bottom half of his black robe.

“The way the Society works is you can’t move out of apprenticeship until you bring in a candidate to take your place. If they’re good enough to take your place,” Kirk nodded at Emily. “You are; I get to move up even if you don’t stay.” He stared at the ground. “I’m the last one that hasn’t started training yet because I don’t have a lot… Any. I don’t have any friends.”

“That can use magic?” Emily asked. Kirk gave her a sad smile and shook his head. “At all.” Emily gave him a light punch on the shoulder.

“Sure you do. You’ve got a friend showing up tonight,” she said.

“Really??”

“Yeah, it’ll be fun,” Emily smiled.

Emily met Kirk near the castle as the sun dipped below the horizon. He prepped her on the rules as he guided her to the secret entrance through a cave on the castle grounds. Finally, they reached a tall, solid wooden door at the back of the cave. Kirk turned to Emily then handed her a black robe.

“Put this on and pull the hood up. Then when I introduce you, you can pull it down.” Emily nodded and took the robe from him. “And thanks, again. I appreciate this,” he added.

“You’re going to owe me one,” Emily said while she slipped the robe one. Once she pulled up the hood she gave him a thumbs up gesture.

“Alright, let’s go.” He pulled the door open and stepped through it. Emily followed him into a dim room. Small candles lined the walls, and she made out several robed figures standing in the middle of the room. Kirk walked to the center of the room and Emily followed. He stood up straight and lowered his hood to reveal his face.

“Great Magus, I have brought a candidate with enough magical talent to take my place,” he said to no one in particular. Though it was hard for Emily to see much of anything.

“Present your candidate, Apprentice Kirk.” An old, deep voice, somehow familiar to Emily, said.

“Now,” Kirk whispered and nudged Emily. She got distracted by trying to place the voice. Once Kirk called her attention, she stood up straighter and pulled her hood down.

“I’m Emily the Entertainer,” she said and gave a bow. Her silver hair poured out of her hood to kiss the ground.

“You?” The old voice said. Emily looked in the direction of the voice and saw an old man pull his hood off. She recognized him instantly.

“Hi!” she waved like they were old friends, though she’d only met him once as a stranger.

“You know Magus Grimmley?” Kirk whispered next to her. The old man approached them, and Emily’s only answer consisted of a nod and a shrug.

“Why are you here now? You showed no interest when I invited you the first time,” he asked. Emily heard several gasps from the dark and wondered how many wizards were actually there.

“Still not interested,” Emily smiled. “But I’m here as a favor for a friend.”

“Kirk has friends?” a voice said in the dark, followed by several others laughing.

“You came here with no intention of joining? I’m sorry, I can’t let Kirk move up if that’s the case.”

“What?!” Kirk asked. “I brought someone!” The old man nodded.

“Sure, you brought someone that wasn’t going to stay. The point is to come in with an open mind.” Emily noticed Kirk clenching his fists.

“We can work something out, right?” she asked.

“I know you’re not eager to stay. But I also know you have an amazing magical talent,” the old man said. “If you stay, I will promote both of you to full-time students, you get to skip the apprenticeship.”

Before Emily could answer she felt Kirk grip her hand and squeeze tightly.

“PLEEEEEEEeaassee,”  he whispered.

Trial and Errors

“Recording,” Melody said.

“Batch three-hundred-thousand, eight-hundred and seventeen. Trial..,” Dana paused then looked at her assistant sitting at the control panel.

“98,”

“Trial 98. Let’s begin.”

“Go ahead,” Melody said. She spoke through the intercom to the man standing in the next room; on the other side of safety glass. He leaned against the wall to stay close to the edge of the room. A 10-foot circle of purple light glowed in the middle of the room. The tall, athletic man nodded and stepped into the light wearing only a pair of boxer-briefs. He reached the center of the circle and gave Melody a thumbs-up gesture.

“Opening the void,” Melody called out to Dana as she pressed buttons on the panel. The white walls in the other room disappeared, swallowed by black nothingness. The only part of the floor that remained was the purple circle. The man looked like he stood on a purple disc in empty space. The only reason they could see him was because of the purple light. Light on their side of the window could not penetrate the void.

“Starting attunement,” Melody said then pressed more buttons. The purple light shifted through the spectrum until it found red. The color change served as a signal for the volunteer and he lowered himself to the ground to lay on his back. The red light pulsed under him. It grew bright red, then dim again over and over.  After several cycles, the light transitioned to purple again and the man stood up.

“Attunement stable, we have a match. Final phase,” Melody said. Though she did not move to press any buttons yet.

“Go ahead,” Dana said. Melody nodded and pressed a large red button in the center of the panel. Half of the purple circle shimmered and rippled like violet water.

“Go ahead,” Melody repeated the instruction through the intercom. The test subject stood at the edge of the liquid half and stepped in. His foot dipped below the surface and he kept walking down until he disappeared. Ten seconds later he climbed back out of the liquid, followed by another man that looked exactly like him, except naked.

“Checking integrity,” Melody reported. The liquid surface solidified again and the purple light shifted back to red. At exactly the same time both men got down on their backs.

“Did you see that??!” Melody asked. She turned around to face Dana and found her boss did notice. The pale woman smiled brighter than Melody had seen in a long time.

“It worked,” Dana whispered. Melody turned back to the control panel to read the data. The circle turned purple again. Melody jumped from her chair and wrapped her arms around Dana.

“100% Soul match!” She kissed Dana on the cheek. “YOU DID IT! YOU CLONED A SOUL!” Dana glared at her assistant.

“We’re working,” she said. Melody immediately dropped her arms and took a step back. “However, if I can’t celebrate a career goal with my wife in my secret lab, then with who? Where?” She leaned forward and gave Melody a gentle hug. “Send both of them in again,” she said after the short burst of affection.

“So soon? Usually, you take time to go through the data,” Melody asked.

“Usually I need to make adjustments. This time I don’t. Now that we know it works we need to see what limits it has.”

“Yes, Ms. Sharp.” Melody sat at the control panel again and pressed the red button again. Half the circle shimmered.

“Go ahead, one at a time,” she said. The men nodded and the naked one went first. He stepped into the pool and climbed down the steps. Ten seconds later he walked out again followed by another naked man with light blue skin and bright white hair.

“Ms. Sharp…,” Dana called but did not take her eyes off the scene. In the other room, the blue clone leaped onto the naked man’s back and bit into his neck. The original volunteer in boxer briefs panicked and shoved both of the clones into the pool.

“Cover it!!” he yelled.

“Don’t,” Dana stopped Melody as she reached for the control. She dropped her hand and watched. The blue clone climbed out of the water dragging the headless body of the naked clone. Behind him, a dark red clone stepped out of the water dragging a blue clone.

“Now close it and bring them back. Get security in there, I want the blue and red ones alive.”

“Yes, Ms. Sharp.”