Divine Entertainment

“Would I do it all again?” Pierce wondered. The translucent, holographic man sat on a holographic chair; they were the only light left. The chair floated in the center of an endless, inky abyss. He traveled the stars with the human race. Humanity explored countless new worlds and never found any trace of alien life. Pierce knew when the last of his power ran out, he’d be the last human, the last being in the universe to die. “We’re alone. What was it all for?”

Pierce floated in dark silence for several more minutes until something changed. Brilliant white light consumed the darkness around Pierce in an instant; at the same time he heard the *THUNK* of a heavy switch. Instead of the vast, dark cosmos, Pierce was suddenly in the center of glowing white room: 12′ x 12′. Another noise caught his attention and he turned in time to watch a door opening.

A rectangular section of the white wall opened inward and revealed a man. He walked in wearing a black suit with a bright yellow tie; then, stopped in his tracks when he noticed pierce.

“Awwww Hell,” the stranger mumbled to himself, then he turned around and walked out without another word. He closed the door behind himself. Pierce was puzzled, but more than that he felt excited. He had a million questions collecting in his data banks and couldn’t wait to see what happened next. He stood and paced around his holographic chair while he waited. Scanning the room didn’t show him a way out and waiting was the only thing he could do.

After fifteen minutes the door opened again. An older man in a navy blue suit with a chestnut crew cut walked in.  He walked straight to Pierce and offered a handshake.

“Pierce Henderson,” he shook Pierce’s hand with a firm grip and a broad smile. “I’m glad we get a chance to meet. What you’ve done here is amazing.”

“Thank you,” Pierce said sincerely.But, he didn’t waste any time. “Who are you? Where am I?”

“I’m someone that likes to make my own fun, Mr. Henderson,” the stranger said. “How about a little game? I can answer all your questions, but you’ll forget the answers in your next life. Or, I let the process continue as normal and let you keep what you know. See if you can guess how things work.” Pierce did not need to spend time debating; he knew his answer.

“Yes! I want to solve it myself,” he said.

“I thought so, good man,” the stranger said “Wait here.” He patted Pierce on his translucent back, waved, then walked away. He stepped out of the room and closed the door behind him. The moment the door closed the room disappeared into darkness again.  Then, several things happened at once.

Pierce felt an intense rumbling beneath his feet. By the time he looked down, he found a pair of tan legs. He was standing on rocky ground with an orange glow in the darkening purple sky. He checked his hands and found flesh instead of light. In the distance, a giant volcano erupted.

“Alright humanity,” Pierce grinned to himself. “Let’s do it again.”

Sharp Amends

“STEVEN!!” Stephen woke to the sound of someone calling his name; annoyed they were pronouncing it wrong. Then, the shaking started. He opened his eyes to find his younger sister’s blue eyes staring down at him. They sparkled with excitement that matched her broad smile, but she didn’t stop shaking him. “WAKE UP! DANA SHARP IS COMING TO MEET YOU!” she shook him harder out of giddiness.

“Take it easy, Shay,” he said. “Who?” He asked. His sister stopped shaking him and gave him a puzzled look.

“Dana Sharp? The creator of the AlterNet and the most powerful woman in the multiverse? I don’t know what you did, but she just called and said she wanted to give you a personal birthday greeting.”

Stephen realized several things at once and needed to sit still for a moment to process it all. The first thing he noticed while his sister was talking; she looked decades younger. Her familiar salt and pepper strands shined like the vibrant gold of her jr. high years. Her laugh lines were smooth and non-existent.

He also wondered what she was doing in his house, but he glanced around and realized he wasn’t in his bedroom. He felt coarse ground beneath and grabbed a handful of something he guessed was soil while listening. The walls of the room were basic drywall with several unfinished panels. And most confusing of all, it wasn’t his birthday.

“GET UP AND GET DRESSED!” she yelled after he sat still for too long. Stephen looked down at himself and realized he was wearing a pair of swim trunks and nothing else. Despite not having a full grasp of the situation, his sister’s yelling spurred him into action. He jumped up, taking a moment to notice he was apparently laying down in a trench of some kind.

He vaguely remembered one of his houses having a basement, and relied on that memory to navigate to his room. The nostalgia hit hard as he entered. Movie and band posters lined the wall just like when he was a teenager. He dressed while he processed the situation. Somehow it seemed he was in the past now.

“Did she say multiverse?” Stephen mumbled to himself while putting pants on. He didn’t remember ever sleeping in a ditch, and he definitely didn’t remember meeting the most powerful woman in the multiverse. Stephen dressed on autopilot. Once he was done he stopped to check the mirror and his mouth dropped. He wasn’t the 58-year-old silver-haired man that climbed into bed the night before. His light chestnut mop top shagged down over his hazel eyes. All his wrinkles were tightened up into the body of a 14-year-old.

“She’s here!” Shayla yelled through his closed door at the same moment the doorbell rang. Stephen took several deep breaths to try and calm himself.

Get through this right now. Sit down and think later,” he reminded himself not to let panic get the best of him. He didn’t seem to be in immediate danger and he didn’t want to go back to his old life without making the best of whatever this experience was. He opened his bedroom door just in time for Shayla to miss a knock; she staggered forward into his room.

“She’s waiting in the basement, she said she wants to talk alone,” Shayla said with a heavy pout in her voice. Stephen chuckled and reached out to muss her hair like he hadn’t in years; it filled him with warmth.

“Don’t worry ’bout it, Shay. I promise I’ll tell you everything.” He said, then walked out of the room. A tall pale woman with dark hair was waiting for him as he climbed down into the basement. She wore a white suite that shone like a beacon of clean in the dingy basement; and, she came with a pet. A black cat with a patch of red fur atop its head sat on its haunches next to Dana Sharp.

“Hello, Mr. Hickson,” Dana said. She extended a hand, but made no move to close the distance between them. Stephen approached her and shook her hand.

“It’s Johnson, actually,” he corrected her automatically. She grew a smile at the same time Stephen had a realization. The not quite exact memories and younger version of his sister along with his name change added up.

“That’s what I was hoping for, Mr. Johnson. Due to an unfortunate bug, your consciousness has switched places with Steven Hickson, an alternate reality version of you,” Dana said. Stephen believed her completely given his current situation, and he was relieved. He knew he wasn’t crazy or dreaming.

“Does that mean you can fix it?” He asked. He wasn’t in a hurry to get back to his old body, but he didn’t want to deprive his younger version from being a kid.

“Technically, yes. We learned an extraordinary amount of valuable information from it, including how to reproduce it. However, I’m sorry to say Mr. Hickson was in an accident and passed away. In your body.”

“Oh,” Stephen said. He had no idea how to feel. “What does that mean for me?”

“That’s up to you,” Dana said. “My company will make amends to your families in both universes; without specifics of course. You can choose to stay in that body secretly, or you can share the secret with any of your families…” Stephen wondered which course of action would be best for his sister. He wanted to be honest with both of her, but felt that having his younger face would cause resentment in the long run. “… or we can put you in a new body of your choice to live on the Earth of your choice,” she added as Stephen debated.

“You can do that?”
“You don’t know me on your Earth yet,” Dana Sharp smiled. “But trust me, there’s very little I can’t do.”

John D’oh

John woke feeling empty.
The room was bright, his mind fuzzy.
He heard a noise and turned
He wasn’t alone; he learned.
“Where am I?” John asked.

“AAAAAH!” the man gasped.
He whirled around; his eyes went wide.
He shouted. “I THOUGHT YOU DIED!”
“Me too,” John said.

“I guess I’m back.”
“Impossible! You’re dead!”
“I pulled out your organs!”

John looked down at his open chest.
He sighed, feeling stressed.

“Well put ’em back.”

Hellish Staff

I’ve had better ideas,” Robert thought to himself. The 29-year-old English teacher started to worry a bit too late. The situation started to sink in as he looked around the office waiting for Satan. ‘Office’ was a loose term; it looked like the interior of a black cave. The impossibly dark floors made him feel like he was walking on shadows. A few tasteful portraits hung on the dark walls. One was of a giant, imposing red man in a dark suit. Thick, obsidian steer horns jutted out of each side of his head. The same demon was also in another portrait with a trio of humans. “That’s definitely Satan,” Robert’s nerves started to flutter in his stomach.

Robert jumped in his seat when the office door opened. He expected to see the devil coming through the door towering over him. Instead, a short red-skinned woman with a bright orange faux-hawk walked in. She wore a dark suit with a short skirt instead of slacks. A pair of thin twisting, onyx horns sprouted out of her head; they reminded Robert of impala horns.

“You’re a brave one,” she said with a smile as she crossed the room. “I like that,” she stopped by his chair to extend a hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Guzman. I’m Satan.”

“You!?” Robert stood to greet her. He was not a tall man at 5’7″, but he couldn’t help but notice how short she was as he shook her child-like hand. The tips of her horns were taller than him, but her head-height only reached to about his chin. “I thought.., I mean,” Robert disengaged the handshake and pointed at the portrait. “Who’s he?” Satan smiled and walked around the obsidian slab that resembled a desk.

“He’s retired. ‘Satan’ is a title for the ruler of Hell, currently, me. Now that I’m in charge, I’ve got some changes planned. Which is why I’m in search of an assistant. Why are you here, Robert?” she asked.

“Uh,  I found a portal, and curiosity got the best of me. Once I was on the other side some random demon ran up to me asking me if I was here to apply. Then-,”  Satan shook her head.

“Robert,” she interrupted him. “I’m Satan, I know how you got here. I want to know why you let yourself end up sitting in my office.” Robert shrugged but remained silent for several seconds.

“It seemed like an adventure, I guess,” he finally answered.

“Perfect,” Satan grinned. “The bad news is, you aren’t remotely qualified for the job. A) You’re not a demon and B) You don’t know enough about how the universe works. The good news is, I do have a job you are qualified for, if you want to take it.”

“Uhuh,” Satan’s petite size made it easier for Robert to feel at ease enough to get sarcastic with her. “What job is that? Being tortured?” he asked. Satan burst out laughing, and somehow it made Robert more comfortable. It sounded like genuine laughter. It wasn’t obnoxious or sarcastic. Despite himself, he was starting to like Satan.

“I suppose you could say that; but, it’s torture you’re already familiar with. I happen to know of a high school desperate to fill its staff. Robert narrowed his eyes.

“You want me to teach for you?” he asked. Satan shook her head. “What, like telling them that Hell is a great place and so on?” Satan shook her head.

“Of course not, we don’t need you to do propaganda for us. It’s a special school for Unique Souls; think of it as a school for heroes. It was founded with my predecessor’s permission. If you accept the job, you’ll keep an eye on things and report directly to me.”

“So you want me to spy?” Robert asked. Satan surprised him with an eyeroll.

“Why are you pushing to make everything so negative?” she asked. “It’s not spying as much as we have the right to know what’s going on. You’re not doing anything covert. Just teach; and, if you think something needs my attention, tell me.”

“What’s the pay look like?” Satan smiled and winked at him.

“You’d be working for Hell. Anything you need or want is yours. Interested?” she asked. Robert thought quietly for a moment, then nodded.

“Yeah, why not?” he said. “I’ve had worse ideas.”

Zero Surprise

Another me?” Leah stared down at the unconscious woman on her bedroom floor. Equal parts surprise, confusion, and annoyance coursed through her. Her other self was sprawled on the grey carpet with a visible bump on her head. Leah glanced around the room but didn’t see anything she could have knocked herself out with. “At least it’ll be easier to move her to the bed,” Leah sighed as she bent her knees and got a grip on herself.

“Owwwwww…,” Lena woke with a throbbing head in a bed much nicer than the one she was used to. She had yet to open her eyes, her head hurt too much, but the bed felt soft, warm, and smelled clean.

“You okay?” someone asked and Lena’s eyes opened; then, immediately squeezed them shut again. The sunlight flooding the room was too bright. She caught a glimpse of someone, but her eyes weren’t open long enough to register the stranger’s face.

“Where am I?” Lena asked. “What happened?”

“You’re in my house. I found you unconscious in the bedroom. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Your house?” Lena shook her head slightly. “No. I wasn’t in anyone’s house…,” she thought for a moment. “…I was walking through the park. I think a baseball hit me on the head.” Lena reached up and felt the welt on her forehead.

“I got knocked out in the park… but now I’m in your house…,” Lena’s mind slowly put the pieces together. “…instead of a hospital.” Her eyes shot open in panic and she sat up in the bed to push herself back against the headboard. “WHO ARE YOU!??” She yelled at the same moment she registered her own face. Leah calmly smiled at Lena.

“As I understand it, I’m you from an alternate universe. Though, since this is my house, we could say you’re me from an alternate universe.” Lena stared at her other self sitting nearby, but not too close. She narrowed her eyes. After a few silent seconds, she spoke up again.

“That’s ridiculous,” Lena said, then she relaxed and stretched out on the bed again, though she still kept her eyes on Leah. “Why do I believe you?” Leah laughed and gave a half-shrug.

“If you want the technical explanation, you’ll have to find a Mundo. All I know is, you somehow traversed universes. Even if you don’t remember doing it, your mind is now aware that it can happen.”

“What’s a Mundo?” Lena asked, willing to accept the explanation for now. At that Leah’s eyes widened.

“You don’t know about Unique Souls?” she asked. Lena shook her head. “Oh wow, we need to get you educated on that before you go back.”

“Back?” Lena asked. “I can go back!?” Leah nodded.

“Yeah. Don’t you want to?”

“Of course! I don’t know how I got here, so I thought I was trapped like it always happens in movies and stuff.”

“Of course not. Getting you home is as easy as getting a cab. Literally, we have inter-dimensional taxi services. A lot of restaurants deliver to other universes too, and there’s generally a lot of tourism.”

“Taxis, food delivery across universes, tourism?” Lena asked. “That doesn’t seem…healthy? What about diseases and bacteria?”

“You’re going to make some Mundo’s day with all your questions; they love nerding out about the multi-verse. The watered-down version is…,” Leah used air quotes for her abbreviated explanation. ” ‘…The void purifies all that pass through it.’ The universe itself doesn’t let contaminants cross between universes.”

“Wow, your Earth must be pretty advanced knowing about all this,” Lena said. Leah shook her head.

“The Earth at large doesn’t. I know at least one other person on Earth knows,” she shrugged. “I don’t think we’re the only ones, but it’s a good possibility.”

“So, how do you know so much?” Lena asked. Leah laughed.

“It’s kind of a funny story. I learned all about the multi-verse the first time one of my Zeros appeared in my house from nowhere. I was less thrilled about having a stranger with my face in my house back then.”

“The first time?” Lena asked. “This happened before?” Leah nodded.

“I hoped the second time would be the last, but here I am,” Leah said.

AlterNet Entertainment

“You know, it’s funny…,” Jack smiled weakly at the camera. He sat on the balcony of his favorite hotel suite in Las Vegas. The sun was setting behind him making the scene perfect. “It only took everyone disappearing from Earth to make me a YouTube star,” he grinned. “I couldn’t ask for a more loyal and loving fanbase. You bots are the best. Don’t forget we’re going out to Toiyabe tomorrow to do some forest exploring. Thanks for tuning in, this is Solo_Wanderer signing out.”

Before everyone disappeared four years ago, Jack would have never guessed he’d get so much comfort from anonymous internet bots. Months after the incident he was surprised to still find regular running water and electricity everywhere. He surfed the internet to fight boredom and one day had the urge to upload something himself.

He was surprised to find comments and likes on it the next day, until he noticed all the comments were similar. He assumed they were bots, but he didn’t try to ignore them. Each video he uploaded earned more likes and comments than the previous; and, he enjoyed feeling famous without all problems of being famous. He was currently approaching two million subscribers and it amazed him there were that many bots.

The next morning, Jack was at the edge of the forest by dawn. He wandered in and explored freely. He recorded several clips to edit together throughout the morning. Then, about the time his stomach started grumbling for lunch, he spotted a clearing.

Jack caught sight of a brilliant shimmer between the trees as he approached the clearing. He realized it was probably a stream or a lake and hit the record button on his camera.

“Holy macaroni!” Jack whispered aloud the second he stepped into the clearing. It was a crystal clear lake perfectly reflecting the azure sky. A unicorn at the far edge of the lake looked up from where it was drinking. It saw Jack, then turned around and dashed away. Jack grabbed the camera and pointed it at himself.

“DID YOU SEE THAT!? A real freakin’ UNICORN!” He grinned wildly at the camera. “I think magic is coming back! How awesome is that!?” Jack decided to walk around the lake and try and find where the unicorn went. As he searched, somewhere else, a conversation was taking place.

“A Unicorn? You’re kidding me,” Sheryl said with heavy annoyance. Lenny, her co-creator shook his bald head and smiled.

“It’s no joke. We’ve already had four seasons of him living up to his name. Viewership is dipping, no one cares about a solo wanderer anymore. Next season, instead of adding more humans, The Last Man on Earth learns to become a wizard!” Lenny wiggled his fingers in Sheryl’s direction. “We brought in unicorns and faeries from another Earth. We also added an AlterNet layer so he can learn ‘magic’.”

“Wow,” Sheryl sighed. “I”m not even sure this still qualifies as ‘Reality TV’ anymore. It’s one thing to clear the planet to make someone think he’s the last man on Earth. But now we’re adding magic?” Lenny smiled and shrugged.”So don’t call The Last Man on Earth ‘Reality TV’ anymore. Personally, I like the term, ‘AlterNet Entertainment’.”

AlterNet Avenues

“Well…,” Julia grinned down at her 11-year-old son. She found him waiting in the kitchen as soon as she walked in the door. “…what does the birthday boy want for dinner? Are we going out or staying in?” She walked over to the table to hug her son.

“Staying in!” he said. “Pizza’s already on the way, my treat.”

“Your treat? Kiddo, don’t you know how birthdays work yet? I’m supposed to give you something.” The brown-haired boy shook his head; his bowl-cut wobbled with the movement.

“Not this year,” he said with more than a hint of pride. Julia looked at him, then sat down at the table. She intended to go change out of her work clothes first, but it looked like he had something on his mind.

“What makes this year different?” she asked. Eddie smiled brighter than she’d ever seen him smile before; his chest puffed out as he wiggled in his seat. He dug around in his jeans pocket and pulled out a bronze key that Julia didn’t recognize. “This,” Eddie said. He placed the key on the table and slid it toward Julia.

“What’s this?” She lifted it from the table and looked it over. She quickly decided it was someone’s house key.

“Our new house!” Eddie couldn’t contain his excitement anymore as he revealed the secret. “Wanna see it? It has a giant yard!”

“What?” Julia asked. She gently placed the key down on the table as if she were afraid to break it. “What makes you think we have a new house?” she asked.

“Because I bought it!”

“Where did you get the money for a house?”

“I saved it up all year! You said I could get a job and save money.”

“Doing what?” Julia asked; she was completely caught off guard by the confession. “I said you could get a job, I didn’t know you had one. Your grades have been fine in school and you’re always home in the evenings, when do you even work?”

“At night. After dinner, before bed. I steal motorcycles, that’s the best money maker. And I put a crew together so I don’t have to do the work myself,” Eddie said. Julia made several sputtering sounds as she tried to process the fact that her son was apparently building a criminal empire. 

“Eddie, honey,… You know stealing is wrong right?” Julia asked. The boy laughed.

“Of course I know that. Stealing is wrong here, but not in the AlterNet,” he replied.

“The Alter.. Net? That game I gave you for your birthday last year?” Eddie nodded. “A game… you’ve been stealing motorcycles in a game!?” Relief flooded Julia. Of course her boy wasn’t a villain. She’d heard some games had real money trading and decided that’s where he got the money for the pizza.

“I’m really good at my crew are too, you’re gonna love them,” Eddie grinned.

“I’m sure I will,” Julia said. In her mind she imagined a group of nerdy kids sitting in front of computer screens. As her mind wandered she spotted the house key again. She’d been so distracted by her budding crime boss that she forgot about the house.

“The house you bought.. is that in the game too?”

“It has to be because I bought it with AlterNet coins. But I picked out a different, safer server. Anyway, they’re here with the pizza,” Eddie said. Before Julia could ask what he meant, a tall black portal appeared in the kitchen. One by one, leather-clad, tattoo-sporting street thugs walked out of the portal. Five in all with the last one carrying three pizza boxes.

“Mom, say hi to Eddie’s Crew,” Eddie said. The group waved timidly at Julia. Julia fainted and fell forward on the table.

Sharp Identification

“Whoa, that does sound pretty awesome,” Quaid said as he settled himself on Tina’s couch. “I’d totally watch that; you should get that idea patented or trademarked or whatever.”  Tina spun around in her computer chair to stare at him.

“I told you. It already exists! I watched it this morning it was intense. But I can’t find anything on the internet. Searching ‘roller derby’ doesn’t help because there are too many results. I tried ‘roller derby super powers’ too but doesn’t give me anything helpful.”

“What about one of the teams?” Quaid asked.

“OH!” Tina’s eyes went wide and she spun around to face the computer again. Her fingers clacked across the keyboard, then she hit enter. “I FOUND SOMETHING!” she screeched with excitement. Quaid hopped off the couch and stood behind her looking over her shoulder. The screen changed from the search results page to a silver and orange home page with the name ‘CyberRiot’ at the top.

“Orange server chapter of the official CyberRiot fan club,” Quaid read the second line. “Their team name is pretty cool,” he added.

“How to watch games,” Tina mumbled to herself as she found a helpful link. A dialogue prompt popped up.

[Spectating requires valid Sharp issued identification. Please download our app to register yourself with our system.] A QR-code appeared under the text. Tina was quick to pull her phone out, but Quaid slowed her down.

“Are you sure this is right? You didn’t say you needed an app to watch it this morning.” Tina nodded.

“That was an accident that I don’t know how to repeat. This way I can watch whenever the games are on.” She aimed the phone at the screen; in moments she was opening an app that said “Sharp Development.”

[Welcome to the AlterNet!] Text appeared on Tina’s phone at the same time Quaid heard it speak; he was still looking over her shoulder. [Please register yourself.] It said, then her selfie camera opened itself.

“It wants a picture of you?!” Quaid asked even as he stepped out of the picture frame. “This is a pretty demanding fan club,” he said. Tina was quiet for a moment, long enough to take the picture, then she looked at him.

“If you’d seen how awesome it was, you’d be taking your picture too,” she said. A ding sounded from her phone, then the computer screen changed. It showed the picture she took of herself with several lines of text.

“It worked!” Tina bounced in her chair and moved the mouse around to click on several links.

“What is all that?” Quaid asked as he read the lines. “NPC ID – Orange.2858823130. Name: Tina Reyes. Age: 23. There’s more too; how’d it get all that with just a picture?”

“Huh?” Tina looked at him through narrowed eyes, then to the screen, then back at him. “What are you talking about?”

“How did it get all your stats from a picture?” he pointed at the screen. “Name, age, it’s all there.”  Tina slowly moved the mouse and clicked on something.

“Is it still there?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m looking right at your picture.” he said.

“I’m watching a replay from this morning’s game,” she said. “Wow…,” she sighed. “They’ve got great security. You need to register too!”

“Nah, I think I’m good,” Quaid said as Tina raised her phone.

“It’s easy, I can do it for you,” she held the camera up pointed at him. Quaid playfully put his hand up to block the shot, but she grabbed his hand and pulled it out of the way.

“Hey, take it easy,” Quaid chuckled. “I’m not all that interested in roller derby.”

“You don’t have to watch derby,” Tina said. She jumped up from her seat at an angle that knocked Quaid off balance and sent him to the ground. She stood over him and pointed the camera down. “But you do have to register.”

Sharp Eyes

“Well?” Dana Sharp asked. She stood in front of Cathy with her arms crossed while the confused woman wiggled in her seat.

“Well what?” Cathy asked. She was thrilled to be there, in the office of the most powerful woman in the universe, even if she didn’t know why. Dana Sharp saved the human race from extinction using advanced tech. An hour ago someone showed up at Cathy’s office with an invitation from Dana Sharp. Now the woman she admired was looking down at her expectantly.

“Your favorite number is 52…,” Dana said. Cathy was surprised; she didn’t know she had a favorite number, but as soon as Dana said ’52’ it felt right. “… so, what do you see up here,” Dana wiggled her fingers at the empty spot above her head.

“How-…,” Cathy hesitated for a moment, but she trusted Dana. And she obviously knew something. “How did you know about that?”

“Of course I know,” Dana said. That was the only explanation she gave and it was good enough for Cathy. “So what do you see?” Cathy shook her head and stood with an outstretched hand.

“I need to shake hands to see, but all it tells me is when and where you were born.”

“Interesting,” Dana said then she shook Cathy’s hand. The blonde woman’s attention was focused above Dana’s dark hair. The moment they shook hands her eyes went wide; she yanked her hand away in fear and surprise.

“What is it?” Dana asked.

“Universal Error: Data Not Found,” Cathy said. “That’s what it says for your birthdate.”

“Hmm,” Dana thought for a moment. “We’ll try it with a tattoo; present your arm,” she said.

“Tattoo?” Cathy asked as she rolled her sleeve up.

“Right here is fine,” Dana said. She reached out and traced the number 52 on Cathy’s skin with her fingertip. A cloud of white powder gathered on the spot and Cathy felt a burning, stinging sensation. After a moment the cloud dissipated. It left behind a fresh tattoo of the number 52 on Cathy’s arm. Dana grabbed Cathy’s hand while she was staring at the tattoo and shook it.

“Now what does it say?” she asked.

“Universal Error: Data Not Found,” Cathy repeated, then her eyes widened again when more information appeared. “Universal Error: Soul Not Found. Universal Error: Assigned Middleman Not Found. Universal Error: Afterlife Point Total Not Found.” Cathy’s voice grew softer as her confusion overflowed. “What does it all mean?” she asked.

“It means you’re working for me personally, now.” Dana said. “You’ve got all the information I need.”

“Yes, Ms. Sharp,” Cathy nodded eagerly.

Loving Program

“I’d give anything to have her here for her birthday,” the bearded king said. He sat on his throne talking to his wife while Jameson stood guard, and eavesdropped, nearby. Jameson was a new guard with ambitious aims. His diligence and friendly demeanor earned him a spot with the royal guard after only two years. Now, two weeks into his posting, he finally knew how to earn the king’s favor. It was as easy as rescuing his daughter.

After a week of asking questions Jameson had enough answers. He asked for time off, then left town. The Princess’ tower was surprisingly close to the castle; only a long day’s ride over a well-traveled road. He wondered why no one rescued the princess from such an easily found location; Jameson stopped wondering once he spotted it.

As he traveled he saw a black sliver on the horizon that grew taller with every step. Now, he was in front of the obsidian tower. It climbed above the clouds, higher than Jameson could see; and, it was surrounded by a wide moat of glowing orange magma. He took a long walk around the black building. Despite his search, he did not see any windows that could be climbed into, nor any sigh of a drawbridge. Just solid dark stone.

After walking the perimeter, the sun was gone. The tower almost vanished into the night, but the soft orange glow of the lava gave Jameson a fair bit of light. He decided to camp nearby and hope for better ideas in the morning.

As he dozed off, the sound of crunching leaves drew his attention. He slowly rolled over to face the sound.

What the devil!?” he panicked slightly and his eyes widened. A giant red wolf, almost as tall as Jameson himself, emerged from the lava. Not only did the sight surprise him, it also gave him a hint. The wolf wasn’t covered in lava despite walking out of it. Jameson heard more leaves break under the wolf’s paw and realized its paws were still in the lava.

Jameson held his breath as the wolf padded out the lava and headed away from him. Once it left, he exhaled in relief that it didn’t seem to be headed toward his horse either. He left it tied up nearby in case he needed a quick escape. He stood from the ground and walked to the edge of the magma moat.

“It’s not real,” he reminded himself. He leaned forward and held his hand above the surface. “No heat…,” he reached forward, but pulled his hand away at the last second. “Let’s be sure,” he said.

Jameson grabbed a rock and tossed it into the lava. It disappeared beneath the orange surface then landed with a light thud.

“It’s not real,” he grinned then took a wide, purposeful step into the lava; he felt nothing. “I’ll have that princess home in no time,” he strode toward the tower.

Jameson reached the ebony spire and immediately put his hands against the wall. He walked around it again rubbing his hands against every inch he could reach until finally, the wall wasn’t there anymore.

“I knew it,” he felt out the invisible opening and decided it was big enough for him to slip into. He stepped into it and walked through the wall. He walked into the base of the tower. It was dark and almost empty except for a small red sapling growing in the center. A single torch did all it could to illuminate the black room.

It took Jameson a few minutes to pick out the stairs; they were as dark as the room. He climbed them slowly being sure to test out every step before he committed his weight. After several minutes and dozens of steps he spotted a sliver of light in the wall.

It was a partially open door with a well-lit room on the other side. Jameson peeked through and spotted long blonde hair that reminded him of the queen’s.

“Princess!” Jameson pushed the door open and entered the room. The blonde woman whirled around and looked at him through wide eyes. Jameson had never seen her before, but he had no doubts she was the princess. Her blue eyes and hair definitely came from her mother, while her high cheeks and stern nose reminded Jameson of the king. He stepped forward, and she took a step back.

“I’ve come to rescue you, princess!” he said. She burst into laughter and noticeably relaxed.

“They’re still offering that quest?” she asked. “I thought putting up the moat would be the end of it.” She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes at Jameson. “How’d you know it wasn’t real?” she asked.

“I saw an enormous beast walk through it like it wasn’t there.”

“Damnit, Pepper,” the princess sighed to herself. “Anyway, you’re done. There’s no one to rescue. Go back, I’ve heard the consolation prize for this quest isn’t too bad.”

“But, your highness,” Jameson whined and begged at the same time. “Your parents miss you. Are you saying you’d rather be locked up in this tower than in the comfort of your castle with your family?”

“Don’t call me that, my name is Princess,” the princess said. “And they not my family. They only care about me because they have to,” she stopped and stared at Jameson. “I said you’re done. The quest is over, why are you still here?”

“I’m here to rescue you, Princess,” Jameson repeated his goal. Princess nodded but didn’t take her eyes off of him.

“You’re like me,” she said quietly. After a moment her eyes widened and a smile tugged the corners of her mouth upward. “YOU’RE LIKE ME!” She shouted and dashed to him. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed like she was giving a hug for the first time. “Come on!” she yanked him out of the room and led down the stairs. They reached the ground floor and opened a door in the side of the stairs that Jameson hadn’t seen. She gave him a shovel then grabbed one for herself.

“What do you mean they’re not your family. How am I like you?” Jameson accepted the shovel while he asked his questions. “And what are we digging?”

“I can explain all of that, but it won’t make sense yet. This is one of those things that you have to experience yourself to fully grasp it,” Princess said. She walked to the center of the room next to the red sapling.

“Try me,” Jameson said.

“This Earth is a game. My parents are NPCs that are supposed to lock me in a tower then send players to rescue me. I bugged out the quest so now no one can rescue me. I used to be an NPC too, but I woke up, like you did. The only way to stay conscious is to get a new body before maint-.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Jameson interrupted. “I believe you. I don’t know what you said, but I’m sure it’ll all make sense in time,” he stabbed the shovel into the ground.