Life After Exposition

[WP]Life is a simulation. When you die, you’re brought to “The Store” to buy new basic Earth model with various presets (nerd, athlete, humanitarian, etc.) are reset & sent back to Earth. If you’ve lived an exceptional life you are allowed to create a custom model & sent to “The Sandbox”.

Alice woke up in a small, familiar office. She lay on a brown leather lounge and took a moment to look around. Then she sighed.

“Damnit.” She mumbled to herself then relaxed. She rested her head against the chair and closed her eyes. She heard the door open but did not bother to open her eyes. “Hey Ezey, how am I doin?” she asked.

“You’re done!” Ezey, a clean-shaven tan man in a black suit, said. He shook Alice by the shoulders to stir her up. “Congratulations!” Alice sat up and open her eyes.

“Really???” She asked. Ezey nodded. “But what about the rest of me?” she asked. Ezey nodded and smiled.

“We’ve been holding on to them as they finish. You’re the last one in.”

“That’s great!” Alice hopped out of the chair to face Ezey. “What’s next?” she asked with a big grin.

“Well there’s a few different options when you finish, but you’ve decided to spend all your points now. C’mon,” Ezey motioned for her to follow him, then headed toward the door.  Alice stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“Wait. What are the options?” she gave him a confused look. “I didn’t choose anything yet.” Ezey’s brown eyes softened.

“You know how this works, Alice,” he placed a hand on her shoulder. and squeezed. “This you didn’t, but one of you did.”

“What are the options? What did I pick and what did I turn down?” Ezey lowered his hand. He glanced at the door, then back to Alice.

“Well you’re supposed to know anyway,” he shrugged. “I can take a minute to tell you.” He sat down on the edge of the desk and nodded at the lounge chair. Alice was quick to sit down. “So by now you know we score each life you live,” he said.

“Yeah but I don’t remember what metrics you keep track of,” Alice interrupted. Ezey shook his head.

“Nice try, but you don’t get to know that. Anyway, when you get enough points you can spend them or hold on to them to keep earning more.”

“Spend them on what?”

“You get to design and live your last life.”

“Wait a minute. My last life? Don’t I get to keep going around again like I’ve been doing?” Ezey shook his head.

“All souls are borrowed energy. You have to return it when you’re done; this is part of that process.”

“What? How does that work?” Ezey grinned.

“It’s actually very cool. When a new soul is born we shatter it then send all the shards out to different universes to practice living. That’s what you are now: a shard. When you’re ready for the ‘real thing’ we take all the different splinters of your soul and put them back together into one unique soul. The number of points you have can be spent on making your soul stronger in different ways. Right now you’ve only got enough points to be a Plant Soul.”

“I don’t want to be a plant!” Alice said. Her sudden temper caused her to stand up when she yelled, but Ezey remained unfazed. She sat back down when he shrugged.

“You won’t be a plant exactly. The you that decided received all the information, but I’ll give you the short version. When you’re on your last life you get a chance to become one of 54 Unique Souls. You’ll have a human body, but most Uniques have access to different abilities. The more points you spend the stronger souls you can choose.”

“What about the part where I have to return my energy?” Ezey nodded.

“Right. Uniques, for the most part, can only be killed by other Uniques. There are some, Plants for example, that can die of old age. When one Unique kills another, they get to absorb that soul and become stronger. Eventually, all that power will be concentrated into fewer and fewer bodies until there’s only one left. But there’re so many souls to go through that it won’t happen for a long time yet.”

“And then what?” Alice asked. Her eyes sparkled with interest.

“What do you mean?” Ezey tilted his head at her.

“Well, what happens when there’s only one left?” Ezey chuckled.

“For having as many lives as you’ve had, you’re still not getting it.” He bent over to face her with his face only inches away and smiled. “It starts again.”

Zero Consequences

“Good morning, Walter,” Erica smiled at the only person in the elevator. A well-dressed man in a black suit with a full head of neatly combed blond hair. They’d worked in the same building for years but this was the first time she’d ever acknowledged him.

“M-morning, Erica,” Walter returned the greeting, then remained quiet. After riding for a few moments in silence Erica nudged him.

“Hey, are you going to the company luau?” she asked. Walter vaguely remembered the luau being discussed around him, but he never paid attention. Luckily, he managed to remember the date.

“I’m thinking about it, but I don’t know,” Walter shrugged. “It’s not ’till the 30th anyway.” He hoped by sounding non-committal he could gauge her interest in the event. The elevator slowed to a stop, then dinged.

“You make it sound like it’s so far away,” Erica smiled as she stepped out of the elevator. “The 30th is tomorrow. I’ll see you there,” she waved, then disappeared around the corner.

“What? No way,” Walter mumbled to himself then dug into his pocket for his phone.

“‘Morning, Walt,” Henry said as he stepped into the elevator.

“‘Morning, Henry,” Walt replied while staring at the date on his phone: Feb. 29th, 2019. “Hey, Henry. What’s today?”

“You know you’re actually holding your phone, right?” Walter sighed then shoved the phone back into his pocket. He turned toward the short, round man; his friend since before starting at the company.

“Humor me, what’s the date?”

“February 29th. Yesterday was the 28th, tomorrow’s the 30th. That’s how numbers work, remember?” Henry chuckled and patted Walter on the back. “You okay, pal?” Walter started to shake his head, but the side to side motion transitioned into an up and down nod.

“Yeah, yeah. I guess I got confused for a bit,” he lied. He did not know how to explain what was wrong, but he knew no matter how he tried to word it Henry wouldn’t understand. “I was thinking February only had 28 days for some reason.”

“Ha ha,” Henry smiled and patted Walter on the back again. ” Must be nice living in August when the rest of us are still stuck in February.” The elevator slowed to a stop, then dinged. Henry stepped out and Walter realized it was his floor too. As he moved to exit the elevator a person wearing a hoodie and sunglasses blocked his path and joined him in the elevator.

“Excuse me,” Walter tried going around, but the stranger grabbed his arm.

“It’s the wrong day,” the man whispered. Walter stopped.

“What did you say?”

“Today shouldn’t exist.”

“Hey Walt, you gonna get some work done or not?” Henry called from outside the elevator. He had been waiting for his friend to exit. Walter waved him off.

“I forgot something downstairs. I’ll be back,” he shouted as the doors closed. Then he turned his attention to the stranger.

“Who are you? What’s going on?” The figure pulled his hood down and removed his sunglasses. Walter found himself staring at himself.

“I’m you from a different universe. The multiverse is falling apart,” hooded Walter placed both hands on suited Walter’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “You’re the only one that can save it.”

“How am I supposed to do that? Why can’t you do it if you’re me?” Hooded Walter sighed.

“Because you’re the one that started it. You don’t know how powerful you really are.”

“Okay. How can I help?”  Walter asked. He felt special his whole life; like he wasn’t living up to his full potential. Now he knew he wasn’t and wanted to change as fast as he could. He wanted to help to learn how to use his powers.

“Get naked,” the hooded Walter said.

“What?”

“You’re so powerful that you’re destroying the multiverse subconsciously. The only way to stop is by knocking you down a peg. We’ve got to embarrass you.” Hooded Walter pulled a clear plastic container from somewhere in his hoodie. There was a viscous brown liquid inside. Walter stopped undressing and took a step back.

“What’s that?”

“It’s chocolate pudding,” he grinned. “But from a distance, it’ll look like you’ve got poo smeared all over yourself.”

“Is this really the only way…?” Walter asked.

“No. We could force you at gunpoint, but I didn’t think that would be necessary. Is it going to be necessary?” Hooded Walter asked with a raised eyebrow. Walter shook his head and continued to undress. Once he was naked he grabbed the container of pudding and smeared it all over himself.

“Okay, good. When the doors open you need to run out of the elevator screaming “I’m a little teapot” okay?  Run out of the elevator, around the office, then back into the elevator. I’ll hold it open for you.” Walter looked at the glowing button for the sixth floor.

“That’s Erica’s floor,”

“The multiverse is in danger and you’re worried about your crush? You’re not even in your universe, she’s not the Erica you know.”

“Will I ever get back?” Walter asked as the elevator slowed down.

“Yes. Once you fix everything you’ll be back in your own universe. Get ready!” The elevator dinged and the door started to open. Hooded Walter pushed Naked Walter out the door. “GO!” Naked Walter immediately took a sharp right turn and started running.

“I’M A LITTLE TEAPOT SHORT AND STOUT!” As his voice grew more distant the elevator doors closed. A black portal appeared next to hooded Walter then an older, bald man stepped out. He looked up at the security camera in one corner and waved.

“Masterful prank! For you folks watching at home, here’s something you might have missed.” The bald man gestured at the elevator door with his thumb.  “Walter IS back in his home universe. He’s running around his own office naked, slathered in pudding. Isn’t that hilarious?” He and Hooded Walter chuckled. “Well, that’s it for today’s episode of the Zero Hour! We’ll see you next time.” Another black portal opened and both men walked through it.

Zero Humor

Lenny turned the burner off, grabbed his plate of flapjacks, then sat down at the table. After a moment, he sighed and stood up again; he forgot the syrup. Before he made it to the pantry a tall black portal opened in front of him and someone stepped out. The stranger looked like him, but slightly older. He had more salt and pepper in his crewcut than Lenny’s own black, slicked-back hairdo. The rugged, scarred version of him lifted a radio while staring into Lenny’s eyes.

“I found him! The key to our survival!”

“Hold him,” a static-y, commanding voice replied.

“Yes, Sir!” the invader put the radio down, then trained a gun on Lenny. The homeowner’s hands went straight up as if he were being robbed. “I’m not threatening you,” the other him explained while stepping closer with the gun. “But we need your help and this is the fastest way to make you listen.”

“If I promise to listen can I put my arms down?” Lenny asked. The stranger nodded, then shrugged, then finally chuckled.

“I didn’t ask you to put them up. If you’ll listen, I don’t need this,” he lowered the gun while Lenny lowered his arms. Another black portal opened, and this time an even older, surlier version of Lenny stepped out. This version of him sported a bald head, a silver beard, and an eyepatch.

“I’m sure you’ve realized we look like you,” the bald visitor said. Lenny recognized his gruff voice from the radio. Lenny nodded.

“Sure. I’m guessing multiverse duplicates?” he asked. The old man’s eyes widened.

“You know about the multiverse?” He asked. He sounded surprised at first, but then he smiled when Lenny nodded. “Well, that makes things a lot easier. The short version is, we…,” the bald one said. He gestured at the salt & pepper Lenny, then himself. “…have been fighting a war for a long, long time.” The old man grinned. “Hell, I looked like you when I got drafted.”

“You want to draft me?” Lenny began shaking his head, and he took a step backward.

“No need, you can help us end the war today. If you’re willing, that is. We’re you. You know we won’t force you to help.”

“Me? You guys are me, why can’t you do it?”

“Because we’re already involved,” Bald Lenny said with a firm shake of the head. “Cease-fire terms require a non-participant on both sides. I wasn’t sure there were any of us left that weren’t fighting,”  he placed a heavy, cybernetic hand on Lenny’s shoulder. “It has to be you.”

“How?” Something about helping himself appealed to Lenny. If he could help them without having to fight anyone, then he wanted to give it a try.

“All you have to do is read a prepared statement for our camera.” The gruff, greying Lenny said. He pointed at a new portal that opened by Lenny’s counter. A camera rolled out of it, pushed by a lean cameraman that resembled a blonde Lenny.

“That’s it? Just read it? Now? Like this?” Lenny looked down. He was still in his pajamas: sagging, frayed boxer shorts, a white t-shirt, and a loosely tied lime-green bathrobe. “Can I change?”

“This is war, Lenny. Thousands, if not millions of people are dying every minute and you want to take time to freshen up?” The stern, bald Lenny asked. Lenny shook his head.

“No, Sir. I’m ready to read.”

“Good man,” he patted Lenny on the back while the grey-haired Lenny handed him a sheet of paper.

“Just read this for the camera, and you’ll end a war that has been raging across hundreds of universes over hundreds of years.”

“HAHA!” Lenny burst into laughter. “I can’t read this!” He was smiling, but none of the other three versions of him in the room cracked a smile.

“What is your problem, man?” the cameraman asked. “Are you gonna help or not?”

“You’re serious? This is ridiculous.” The cameraman bolted at Lenny, but the bald man stepped in and grabbed him.

“MY WIFE DIED FOR THAT SPEECH!” the blonde Lenny yelled while trying to get passed the man holding him back.

“Calm down, Leonard. It’s not his fault, he doesn’t know.” The greying Lenny stepped closer to homeowner Lenny.

“We don’t have a lot of time, but you have to remember we’re from different universes. This might seem silly in your native universe, but I assure you this speech is important. There’s more to the words than whatever definition you have in mind. To my people, to the war effort, they’re the final inspiring words of the wisest Lenny,” he tilted his head toward the cameraman. “Leonard’s wife was in charge of getting the speech to us. It was her last successful mission.”

“I’m sorry,” Lenny apologized to the blonde man. “I didn’t… hey. I don’t understand how this speech is going to end the war if it had to be smuggled out from behind enemy lines. Wouldn’t they just have given-” His question was interrupted by the sound of the bald Lenny smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand.

“Of course! I should have filled you in on over 100 years of history and political conniving first. It’ll only take a few months,” he gave an exaggerated shrug. “It’s not like billions will die in the meantime.”

“Okay, I’m sorry! I’ll read, I’ll read.” Lenny said. He stood up straighter then looked at the camera. A red light glowed to life on top of the camera, and the blonde Lenny counted down silently with his fingers. Lenny started when the cameraman pointed at him.

“I would just like to let everyone know that I suck. And that I’m a girl, and I like ribbons in my hair. And I want to kiss all the boys.”

“HAHAHAHAHAHA!” All three visiting Lennys burst into laughter.

“You actually did it!!” the greying one said. “You got Zero’ed!” Lenny gave them a confused look for a moment, then he realized the camera was still recording. He was about to say something when the bald Lenny wrapped his arm around Lenny’s shoulder and pointed at the camera.

“You’re on the multiverse’s favorite show “The Zero Hour” where contestants prank themselves. This week’s prank was dreamed up by none other than Leonard the cameraman!” The blonde Lenny leaned forward and waved a hand in front of the camera, then moved it out of the way. Lenny noticed the red light stopped glowing.

“We got it,” Leonard said. A black portal appeared in front of him and he pushed the camera through it, then disappeared.

“Thanks for playing,” the bald one said, then followed Leonard into the portal. The grey Lenny started following him but robed Lenny grabbed his arm.

“Now what?”

“Now what, what?” Grey Lenny asked.

“I mean…. wow! Other universes actually exist! I kind of hoped they did, but I had no proof. But now I met three of my doppelgangers!” he said. Grey Lenny nodded.

“Yes, you did. And?”

“Well… shouldn’t I tell someone? Shouldn’t scientists be exploring… something?”  Grey Lenny patted Robed Lenny on the shoulder.

“Sure, explain it to anyone that’ll listen. Three of your doppelgangers from another universe showed up in your kitchen to embarrass you on a multiverse broadcast, then disappeared again within 20 minutes or so. Good luck,” he waved and stepped into the black portal. Then it disappeared.

Sharp View

“Ms. Sharp!” Howard Boseman jumped when he stepped into his office. He walked in and discovered the company’s owner sitting behind his desk.

“Mr. Boseman,” the dark-haired woman raised an eyebrow. “I expect your tardiness today doesn’t hint at a habit.” The portly man vigorously shook his head. Two weeks ago he decided coming in 15 minutes late wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Now he realized he had been letting himself come in a bit later every day since completing the project. Howard wondered if Ms. Sharp had been waiting since two hours ago when he was supposed to be there.

“No, Ma’am! I had a-” He began an excuse, but she interrupted him.

“You’ve wasted enough of my time. I’m here because of the top-notch work that went into the soul-node interface,” Ms. Sharp explained. Howard puffed out his chest by sucking in his gut and stood up straighter. Howard was beyond excited when he submitted the technical reports. He expected Ms. Sharp’s attention, but every day that passed without a response pushed it a bit further out of his mind.

“Thank you!” He glowed with pride. “I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into it.”

“Right, it’s a good thing you mentioned your contribution,” Ms. Sharp said. She stood from his seat in a graceful motion then walked around the desk and encouraged him to sit in it. “I like to ensure that all efforts are rewarded, who else worked on the interface with you?” She asked. Howard couldn’t have hoped for better circumstances. He’d practiced various excuses and wordings in his mind, but she asked him directly. He strategically edited to report to focus on himself, but he deliberately left the project lead’s name in once.

“Well,” Howard gave a dramatic sigh. “Lana Shapiro was the project manager…,” he shrugged. “…in title only. We were old friends and I was more lenient than I should have been.” Howard opened a desk drawer and pulled out a folder. He opened it on his desk in front of Ms. Sharp. He spread out the papers showing different dates. “I wrote up all these reports, but I was always too sentimental to follow through and submit them,” Howard said. The truth was he wrote them all up the day the project was completed. The day he fired her.

“I managed to finish the project, despite her lack of participation but she threatened to destroy it. She threatened me with violence, then when I had security escort her off the premises she threatened me with you.” That was true. She vowed to go straight to Ms. Sharp. Howard felt smug being able to mention that concern before she brought it up. “I guess she got to you if you knew I didn’t finish the project alone,” Howard said. “I took her name off the report before I submitted it.” Howard glowed inside; he was happy with how smooth everything was going. He was able to give his side a sympathetic spin and give a plausible excuse for deleting Lana’s name. Ms. Sharp nodded.

“I’m going to assume you have some sort of evidence about these threats of physical violence?” Ms. Sharp asked.

“Unfortunately our security team was performing maintenance on the security cameras,” Howard said. He paused long enough to see doubts on Ms. Sharp’s face, then he continued. “But, I did manage to record some on my phone.” He clicked his mouse, then turned his computer monitor around to face Ms. Sharp. She watched a tan, brown-haired woman shouting obscenities at the person recording. The clip only lasted about 10 seconds before she knocked the phone out of his hand.

“I see,” Ms. Sharp stood up straight and crossed her arms. “I came here with doubts, but you’ve satisfied all my concerns. Now, about the reward…,” she smiled. Howard sat up straighter in his chair and listened with an eager smile on his face. “I had several companies trying to draw energy from souls. You’re-“

“The first? I’m the first one, right?” Howard interrupted. Ms. Sharp’s dark, cold eyes glared at him. He sat in uncomfortable silence for several seconds until he realized what she wanted. “Sorry, Ms. Sharp. Go ahead.”

“You are not the first to succeed, but the solution detailed in your report is the most elegant so far.” The sound of the office door opening interrupted Ms. Sharp.

“I’M IN A MEETI-” Howard started to yell but caught himself when he recognized Ms. Sharp’s assistant. “Sorry, Melody. Didn’t know it was you.” Then he noticed a head of brown hair step into the office behind her. “Lana?” The tan woman stepped into view. “What are you doing here??” Both women ignored him and Melody turned to Ms. Sharp.

“It’s her,” Melody said.

“What? What’s she lying about now??” Howard yelled. Ms. Sharp nodded at Melody.

“Send me Janet, then give Lana whatever she wants.” Melody nodded then made a gesture at the air. A tall, black portal opened and Melody stepped through. Lana followed her in, but made a rude gesture at Howard on her way out. Then the portal disappeared.

“What about me??” Howard pleaded.

“I don’t have a favorable view of those that try to take credit for the work of others,” Ms. Sharp said. Howard believed she was bluffing; he felt confident in his planning.

“Then why are you letting her take credit for my work? I told you my side,” he pointed at the monitor. “I showed you her behavior but you’re still trusting her over me?” Ms. Sharp rotated the monitor toward Howard. He looked down and saw himself on the screen. The video showed him hunched over his desk filling out several incident reports, each one with a different date.

“Your security crew can only turn off the cameras they know about.”  Before Howard could reply a small black portal opened on top of his desk. A black cat with a red patch of fur on its head walked out of the portal and sat down facing Ms. Sharp.

“Send me home,” Ms. Sharp said, then she made a dismissive gesture at Howard. “Then abandon him somewhere interesting.”

Weapon Upgrade

[OT] Smash ‘Em Up Sundays

“This doesn’t creep you out?” Jonah asked Alliane. The couple walked through a thick forest of towering red-leaf redwoods. The red leaves filtered the sunlight pouring in through the canopy; by the time the sunlight reached the forest floor, it was a rich, red color.

“It’s beautiful!” Alliane replied with a smile. She grabbed Jonah’s hand and strolled along the path next to him.

“Yeah, I guess it’s kind of pretty,” he shrugged. “But they were people. Doesn’t that bother you?” Alliane stopped walking and looked at Jonah.

“Why would it?” She turned to the closest redwood and knocked on its bark. “Whatever this was before…,” she shrugged. “It’s a tree now. Its soul is safe inside, and the person is living the life they got to choose in another universe. That’s not creepy, that’s genius,” she said. “C”mon, it should be around here,” Alliane said then continued walking along the path. “I know you’re in a hurry to leave,” she said with a smug grin.

“I am, thank you very much,” Jonah replied. “Hey is that it?” he pointed at a red tennis racket that rested on top of a small stone pedestal. He looked around at the other trees in the area, but only a small few of them had the same stone pedestals, each with something different on them.

“Wow!” Alliane smiled and ran to grab the tennis racket. “Someone cared enough for these people to take care of their things. Isn’t it great?”

“Yeah, it’s fantastic. We’re done here, right?” Jonah asked.

“Yes, we’re done,” Alliane wiggled her fingers in the air and created a tall, black portal. Jonah ran through first and Alliane followed. The portal closed behind them once they reached the other side. They emerged in a quiet city plaza with only a handful of players wandering around. A green-haired mermaid swam to them through the air. She hovered in place with a large smile on her face.

“THANK YOU!” She handed Jonah an elegant ivory harp with blood-red strings.

“You’re welcome,” Jonah replied. “Thank you for the harp.” The mermaid nodded then turned to swim away while grinning at the tennis racket.

“Hey what’re you gonna do with it anyway? Decoration?” Jonah asked. She paused and turned around.

“None of your business,” Alliane said. She elbowed his side to make sure he got the point.

“I’m just curious,” he shrugged and lifted the harp. “I’m not complaining, but this is worth way more than a tennis racket.”

“It’s okay. In my old life…,” the mermaid held up the red tennis racket. “…this racket got me through some major tournaments. Once here, I learned about Uniques. I discovered I could send someone to pick it up for me,” she shrugged. The movement seemed to lift her higher in the air, then she drifted downward again as if pushed down by a current. “But I didn’t think I had a use for it here other than decoration.” She pointed at Jonah with the head of the racket. “The last thing I needed was a constant reminder of the life I can’t return to.”

“What changed?” Alliane asked.

“I found an Engineer that can import gear into the AlterNet,” She swung the racket like a club. “This is going to be my new weapon!”

Zero Sharpness

“Did we know my Zero could control fire?” Dana Sharp asked her assistant, Melody, the moment the elevator doors closed. Ms. Sharp sat at her desk in the third-floor office while Melody stood close by. The woman that left in the elevator was named Jana Stevens; Ms. Sharp fired her for taking pictures of classified files. In her panic, Jana revealed she had superpowers. Ms. Sharp remained unfazed and fired the woman anyway.

“We never considered the possibility of the body having its own powers,” Melody answered. “I’ll send Janet out to round up a few Supers and start learning what we can.”

“Start with her,” Dana pointed at the closed elevator.

“But she’s your Zero?” Melody reminded her boss with a hint of hesitation in her voice.

“Exactly. I know she’d study me because I’m going to study her,” she smiled at Melody with a cold, determined grin. “I got here first.”

“Yes, Ms. Sharp,” Melody nodded, then she disappeared into a black portal. She stepped out into a barren, arid wasteland, but continued walking and stepped through another black portal. This time she emerged in a parking lot with Jana Stevens walking towards her. The woman was cursing at the ground and did not notice Melody until she said something.

“Ms. Stevens, Ms. Sharp would like to offer you a different position.” The startled woman jumped but recovered quickly.

“How’d you get down here so fast?” Melody smiled and showed Jana her blue glowing hand.

“You’re not the only one with abilities, remember?”

“Yeah, but how?” She asked, then shook her head. “Forget it, what’s this new position?”

“We’d like to know more about your powers-,” Melody began. Jana interrupted her with a heavy guffaw.

“I thought I wasn’t a UNIQUE SOUL,” she used air quotes around the term. Melody nodded.

“You aren’t, but Ms. Sharp is interested in your gifts.”

“What? Why me?”

“Because she can’t do what you can do,” Melody explained.

“Huh?”

“Ms. Sharp and I are from an alternate universe,” Melody kept talking through Jana’s surprised expression. “You…,” she pushed a sharp finger into Jana’s shoulder. “…are Ms. Sharp’s doppelganger. She’s curious why you have powers and she doesn’t.” Jana took a step back.

“What happens if I say no?” Melody shrugged.

“Ms. Sharp already told you we only experiment on volunteers. If you say no, then you get to start job hunting tomorrow.”

“What kind of experiments?

“Whatever you volunteer for,” she smiled. “We have a long list ranging from simple treadmill tests to exploratory surgery. The more we learn from you the more you get paid.”

“Surgery? She’d do that to her own doppelgangers?” Melody smiled and her eyes sparkled with admiration.

“Ms. Sharp doesn’t let anyone stand in the way of getting what she wants. Least of all herself.”

Beta Access

Pete blinked his eyes several times as he woke up to try and adjust to the bright fluorescent lights. After enough blinks, he looked around through slitted eyes. He spotted a young man in a dark suit staring at him.

“Good morning. You’re safe,” the man said. Despite the reassurance, Pete could feel his hands and feet tied to the chair he woke up on.

“Is that why I’m tied up?” he asked the suited stranger.

“It’s a precaution, we can never tell how one of our guests might react,” the man shrugged but he made no move to free Pete.

“Where am I? Why am I here?” The man cocked his head at Pete and gave him an amused smile.

“Playing dumb will only drag this out longer, Pete,” he said.

“The missing gamers…,” Pete said with a sigh. “I’m one now too?” The man shook his head.

“Only if you want to be. The reason we’re calling on gamers is to help beta test a new game,” he said. The stranger began pacing a circle around Pete’s chair. “But it’s all or nothing. If you accept our offer you’ll never return to the life we took you from. If you don’t, you’ll wake up in your bed this afternoon with a mild hangover.

“What the hell kind of game is it?” Pete asked. The agent stopped walking in front of Pete, then turned to give him a smile.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Interested?” Pete nodded eagerly.

“Hell yeah!”

“So to avoid any misunderstandings,” the agent asked. “You’ve decided to stay right?”

“What? No,” Pete shook his head. “I gotta learn a bit more before making that decision,” he said. The stranger shook his head too.

“No can do. This is top secret stuff, Petey. Either you’re in or you ain’t.”

“C’mon! You’ve gotta tell me something. Anything.” The man took a moment to think and stroke his chin, then he nodded to himself.

“It’s an MMO. Actually, if you join you’ll get to meet all the other missing gamers. I’m sure they’ll explain things to you and help gear you up.”

“Oh,” Pete said with a hint of disappointment. He’d been excited at first, but he wasn’t fond of MMO style games.

“I can also mention that it’s a Virtual MMO so that you don’t freak out,” the agent shrugged. “We can’t explain the process so if you agree we’ll knock you out again and you’ll wake up in the game already.”

“Wait what do you mean you can’t explain the process? I mean it’s just a headset and a treadmill right?” Pete asked. The man shook his head but did not say anything else.

“Oh. Well, how good is the VR? Is it all low-poly with clunky physics?” Pete asked. The agent smiled and shook his head.

“You know how sometimes people make private servers for older MMO games?” he asked.

“Yeaaah?” Pete nodded but he did not know how that answered his question.

“We have a private server for the game,” he said. He pointed at Pete. “You’re in it right now. The real reason we have to knock you out is to unplug you. Then we connect you to the main game,” then he gave an over-exaggerated shrug. “Or take you home if you prefer. Up to you.” Pete looked down at his cuffed hand. He willed his fingers to wiggle and felt every action on every individual finger.

“This.. this is VR?” he asked.

“It’s a bit more complicated than that, but yeah. Pretty much.”

“I’m in!” Pete grinned.

“Nice. Good luck,” the man said. He snapped his fingers and in the blink of an eye, Pete found himself in a windswept wheat field under a purple sky.

“Welcome to the AlterNet!” a woman’s voice said behind him.