“You don’t want to do that,” the sudden voice startled Charlie. He yanked his hands away from the mermaids he was about to untie and whirled around to find the voice’s owner. The sun had already set below the ocean, but there was just enough purple twilight left for Charlie to determine the beach was empty.
“Who said that?”Charlie asked. The pair of bound and gagged mermaids quieted their struggles. They made enough noise to attract Charlie’s attention and seemed content knowing he was trying to help.
“I did.” Charlie suddenly noticed a shadow on the beach, though it wasn’t cast from anything. A black spot rippled on the sand in front of Charlie. Then, a seated figure appeared from thin air. She wore all black; a dark hood and mask obscured her face but Charlie could clearly see glowing golden stars in her eyes. Charlie took a step back in surprise and almost tripped himself into the boat. He managed to stay on his feet and stared at the person in black.
“Who are you?” Charlie asked. He thought he saw her shrug, but it was hard to tell. Her black outfit blended together making it difficult to see any of her contours. Her voice was the only clue he had she was a woman.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m just telling you that’s a bad idea,” she replied.
“What’re you going to do if I untie them?” Charlie asked. She laughed quietly, then responded.
“Nothing,” the woman said.
“So why shouldn’t I untie them?”
“Unfortunately, that’s the only warning I can give you. I can’t give you any more information. But, let me ask you this, do you know why they’re tied up?” she asked.
“No, but I’m sure it’s nothing good,” Charlie replied. Again, the woman gave a small laugh; it was just patronizing enough to make Charlie feel like an idiot.
“You’re right about that. But, not in the way you think,” she said.
“And you know why they’re tied up?” Charlie asked. “Did you do it?” he added once it looked like she nodded. The purple evening was disappearing and she was getting more difficult to see. Charlie considered pulling his phone out for more light but considered it might be rude. And he did not want to draw attention to his phone if she was dangerous.
“I didn’t tie them up, but I know why they’re there. It might be giving you too much information, but you seem like a nice guy,” she said. “When I look at them, the word ‘bait’ comes to mind.”
“So what are you doing here? Waiting for someone to take the bait?”
“That might’ve been the case if I hadn’t stopped you,” she replied. Another giggle made Charlie feel even smaller. “I’m waiting. My friends are on their way, and we’re planning to take the bait together. If nothing else, maybe you can understand that you shouldn’t take it alone.”
Charlie was willing to heed her warning until she mentioned friends. Then, it became obvious she was stalling. She surprised him, but she was alone and significantly smaller than his 6’4 frame. Once her friends arrived, he wouldn’t be able to rescue the mermaids. But, if he acted fast he doubted the petite shadow would be able to stop him. She probably wanted him to think she could have killed him by surprise and was pretending to be friendly.
“I’m going to untie them,” he said sternly.
“We all make mistakes,” the woman said. Charlie kept his eyes on the shadow and slowly worked his way around the small boat backward; he did not want to have to turn his back on her to untie them. He reached down and began working the ropes around one of the mermaid’s wrists. She seemed to understand he was helping and remained perfectly still. Finally, he felt the strap come loose. He sighed in relief when the woman did not make any moves to stop him.
“WHO DARES TO FREE MY PRISONERS!??” A voice bellowed from the dark oceans. A red glow above the waves caught Charlie’s attention. Then, it jumped into the sky. A towering naga with pearlescent scales on his lower half crashed on the beach next to Charlie and showering him in sand. Its upper torso was twice as broad and muscular as Charlie’s and he carried a red-glowing metal trident. “DEFEND YOURSELF, VILLAIN!” The naga rushed at Charlie.
“HELP!” Charlie immediately dashed toward the shadow. Adrenaline heightened his senses enough that he could still see her form in the darkness. But, suddenly, she faded out of existence as he got closer. He heard her voice one last time.
The old man was on the ground before the blast finished echoing in Jed’s ears. The bright afternoon sun made the red fluids leaking out of the man and onto the grass more apparent.
“DAD! What the hell did you do!?” Alvin dashed through the screen
door and tore the shotgun out of Jed’s hands.
“‘Meant to be a warnin’ shot,” Jed grumbled. “Not my fault he didn’t move.”
“Uugggh,” a faint groan came from the grass and Alvin hoped he might still be alive. If only so his father would be charged with attempted murder instead of manslaughter. He couldn’t help but feel this was his fault. His father had been growing more out of touch lately. He should have taken the shotgun away earlier; but, Jed was so attached to it that Alvin couldn’t bring himself to separate them.
“Go inside and call an ambulance,” Alvin said. Jed sighed, then nodded. Alvin ran to the old man. “Don’t move!” Alvin said as he knelt next to the robed man. He’d managed to roll over onto his back. His lungs wheezed with every breath as he stared up at the blue sky.
“Oh god, I’m so sorry. Help is on the way.” Alvin was a 21-year-old college student with an undeclared major. The only way he knew how to help was whatever he learned on TV. He moved the once blue, blood-soaked robe out of the way to try and find the wound. He remembered that applying pressure to the wound was a thing, and he hoped it was actually helpful. Once he found the wide buckshot area on the man’s pale, wrinkled skin, he folded the robe over and pressed hard.
“He he… ,” the old man suddenly gave a laugh. “…I never saw it coming,” he said.
“Don’t talk. Save your strength,” Alvin replied.
“Your father is a hero,…” the old man whispered, then he laughed again.
“Shhhhh,” Alvin replied. “It’s not very heroic to gun down an old man,” he added.
“Hero of destiny…,” the old man said. Alvin felt his stomach drop with the realization that an ambulance wouldn’t get there in time; if his dad called at all. The robe was saturated with coppery red and he felt his hands get wetter and wetter. He decided to let the man speak without shushing him again. “…destined to save the world from Moloch. I was going to train him…” For the first time in his life, Alvin wished he had closer neighbors. But, their house was in the center of his dad’s 4-acre plot. The sound of the gunshot might have been noticed, but it wouldn’t draw any attention. It wasn’t unheard of to hear gunshots out on the farm any time of day.
“Destiny’s a bitch,” the old man laughed.
“Who’s Moloch?” Alvin asked. He hoped to at least make the stranger feel some importance in his last moments.
“Powerful… evil sorcerer…,” the man answered. “..but now….,”
“How can we stop him?” Alvin asked. It was a polite question. He did not believe in sorcerers but that wasn’t important to explain to the dying man.
“Your father…,” the old man laughed again.
“My dad is the chosen one?” Alvin asked.
“.. I was going to train him…,” the old man repeated.
“What can I do?” Alvin asked.
“.. going to train him… then… betray him,..,” the old man laughed again.
“What?” Alvin asked in confusion. Then, he noticed wisps of black smoke emanating from the old man’s body.
“Your father…,” Alvin heard the man’s voice, but his lips no longer moved. His bald head fell back and stared blankly as the black smoke rose. The empty corpse disintegrated into white dust that vanished instead of collecting on the grass. “…fulfilled the prophecy.”
“Steph… oh god…,” Will fought back his tears. The statue looked exactly like his best friend down to the jean jacket she wore the last time he saw her. He knew she was working on a huge story and had not heard from her in a couple of days. He went to her house but only found an array of notes and half-thoughts. More than anything, it amazed Will that Steph was one of the best journalists in the city considering her disorganization. He learned the wealthy, mysterious sculptor was the center of the story and decided to try his own investigating.
It was just past midnight on a brilliant moonlit night that Will found a statue that looked too much like Steph. He snapped a picture of her and the rest of the lifelike statues in the courtyard. He didn’t have a plan yet; but, he at least wanted to have evidence in case the statues disappeared somehow. He felt grateful the full moon gave him plenty of light and did not have to risk using a flash. Will headed to the main house to see what he could learn; but, the glass doors swung open as he got closer.
“I’ll show you…,” the sculptor said. Will recognized his portly form and silver hair from Steph’s notes. He panicked for a moment until he realized the sculptor hadn’t noticed him. His attention was focused on someone else and Will had time to hide behind one of the larger statues.
“Wow…,” Will heard a woman’s voice, then watched the pair walk into the courtyard. “They’re beautiful,” she said as she took a moment to admire different statues. Then, she turned to face the sculptor.
“You’re really talented,” she said as she stepped closer. “And your hands are still sooo soft.”
“Well, I do cheat a little bit,” the sculptor replied with a chuckle. He brought his hands up on both sides of her head and caressed her cheeks. Will watched it happen; but, he couldn’t pick out the moment when her pale flesh became solid stone. He did not notice it until her dark hair began turning stiff and white.
“NO!” Max dashed forward to try and stop the process. He threw all his weight against the portly sculptor and received only pain for his efforts. A bright blue flash blinded him momentarily the moment he made contact; he was flung backward and landed on his butt.
“Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?” the sculptor turned to face Will once his date was solid stone. As Will tried to process the situation he realized this man was likely a wizard. He watched him turn someone to stone, and Will guessed it was some sort of mage armor that pushed him back.
“You turned my friend to stone!” Will yelled from the ground. He stayed down to give himself extra time to think. He didn’t answer any of the questions, but Will hoped the accusation would put him on the defensive.
“Ohhh, I didn’t know she brought a friend,” the wizard said. “But, that’s kind of weird; what was the plan there?”
“Not her,” Will replied. But, he offered no more information. The wizard sighed.
“Listen pal, you’re lucky I’m not rushing to call the cops on a trespasser,” he said. “If you don’t start being helpful I’ll skip that courtesy.” Will finally pulled himself up from the ground and laughed as he did.
“Go ahead and call them,” he said. “Maybe you can explain how you’re turning people into statues and pretending to be a sculptor.”
“Oh, yeah, I kind of don’t want to damage that reputation,” the wizard sighed again. “Look. The cops don’t have to get involved; just tell me what you’re doing here.”
“You turned my friend to stone!” Will repeated.
“Ughhh,” the wizard gave a frustrated sound. “I turn a lot of people to stone. You need to be specific, and what exactly do you want me to do about it?” The discovery happened so fast that Will hadn’t fully registered the situation yet. But, once the wizard asked what he could do, Will realized the obvious answer.
“Changer her back! Change them all back!”
“Whoa, whoa. let’s not get crazy,” the wizard replied. “Let’s start with your friend and go from there. Who is she? You said it wasn’t her, right?” he nodded at the recently created statue.
“No, but her too!” Will said. The wizard shook his head.
“She didn’t see you interrupt our date, I might still be able to salvage it,” he said. “Who’s your friend?” Will was only there for Steph. He didn’t want to push his luck when it looked like the wizard was willing to talk things out. He pointed at the stone Stephanie.
“Oohhh, you’re Steph’s friend?” the wizard asked. “You must be Will,” he said. He walked toward the statue and Will approached too. Although he kept his distance from the wizard.
“How’d you know?” Will asked.
“We got to talking when she interviewed me; she told me all about you.” They reached the statue and the wizard placed a hand on it without hesitating or stalling. Stephanie’s cold, pale cheeks filled with warmth and color again. She was facing forward and only noticed the wizard.
“How long was that?” she immediately asked. Then she looked up. “And why wake me up at night?” The wizard nodded at Will without a sound.
“Will! What are you doing here?” she asked as soon as she saw him.
“You went missing and I came looking for you,” he said. “Then I find out this guy can turn people to marble and turned you into a statue.” He said. He wrapped his arm around her and tried to pull her away in his direction. Stephanie laughed.
“I knew leaving you a voicemail would be useless,” she giggled. “I didn’t have time to type out a text but I hoped you’d at least check your voicemail after not hearing from me for a few days,” she said. She gave Will a playful shove, then turned her attention to the wizard.
“Sorry my friend’s an idiot,” she apologized. “But, how long was that?”
“It’s a little after midnight, so I guess we’re on the third day,” the wizard replied. Steph nodded and immediately pulled a notepad out of her purse.
“What’s going on?” Will asked. “This guy’s turning people into statues against their will and pretending to be a sculptor. How aren’t you more concerned?”
“Whoa, whoa… who said it was against their will?” The wizard asked. Before Will could reply Stephanie nodded.
“Yeah, you’re just jumping to conclusions,” she said. “Technically, yes, he turns people to stone. But, it’s not against their will; it’s like having your body cryogenically preserved. People pay him for the service to sleep until the future. I had to try it out.”
“What about her?” Will pointed at the newest statue.
“Oh, well…,” the wizard hung his head slightly. “I didn’t expect the date to go as well as it was going. I needed a few minutes to clean up my room; she’s not gonna notice.” Stephanie nodded.
“These last three days passed without me noticing a thing. Even less than the blink of an eye.”
“And as far as pretending to be a sculptor…what’s the harm in making a bit of extra money on the side? People think I’m talented and I get all kinds of money just for hanging out with them or giving talks. I don’t even have to sell any of my statues because an artist is allowed quirky prerogatives. So… can I get back to my date now?” he asked.
“We’re already out the door,” Stephanie replied as she grabbed Will’s hand.
“It worked just a second ago!” Ray mumbled while he fiddled with the phone. A portly red-skinned demon in a black suit and matching obsidian horns looked on with interest. The demon was no longer trapped due to the device malfunctioning; but, he was amused enough that he stayed in place.
“Did you -,” the demon began to offer a suggestion but Ray quickly shook his head without looking up.
“You’re not a programmer; you don’t know,” he snapped.
“Hey, man,” the demon replied. “I didn’t get summoned just to get bitched at. I was just trying to help.” Ray sighed and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he looked back up at the demon.
“Sorry,” he said. “You’re right. What were you going to suggest?” he asked. The demon nodded.
“Did you separate the spells in the code? You need a summoning spell and a holding spell; but, they need to be separate. You can’t cast them both at once. If you do it that way, only one of them will work,” the demon smirked. “And, well, we know which one worked here.” The demon raised an arm and reached out of the pentagram on the floor to flick Ray’s nose.
“Ow!” Ray yelped and immediately rubbed his nose to lessen the pain. “Uncalled for,” he said.
“Yeah well, so was biting my head off when I’m doing all this to help you,” the demon replied with a smug tone.
“I said I was sorry!” Ray said. The demon nodded.
“I’m sure I will too, at some point,” he chuckled. “Anyway, so, we done for today? I got actual work to do.”
“Yeah, we’re done,” Ray nodded. “But, seriously. I’m sorry and thank you. I wouldn’t be able to do this without you helping me test it; I’m gonna be so rich!” he laughed.
“You definitely wouldn’t,” the demon replied. Red, cinnamon-scented smoke plumed into existence around the demon. It began to clear as quickly as it appeared but the demon was gone. Ray heard him one last time. “But, that’s what friends are for.”
“OW!” Tanner gave Anna a confused, hurt look. The lean, mid-50s man glanced down at his bare, bloodied chest then back up at his fiance. She was still holding the gun up and pointed at him. “You shot-,”
Anna’s eyes widened in surprise and slight panic. Most of her targets went down after the first shot or were at least worried by it. She immediately fired again and kept firing until the gun was empty. The silencer did its job and protected her ears; but, Tanner continued to stand upright. His wounds bled a surprisingly small amount. The bullet holes seemed to do no more damage than a nasty papercut.
“That figures,” Tanner mumbled to himself. “I finally let myself love someone and she’s a psycho.” His hurt expression somehow triggered emotions more real than any she’d lied about over the past year.
“I’m not a psycho!” Anna felt compelled to defend herself even as she reloaded the weapon. Tanner did not seem to be making any moves to fight back or call for help. They stood in his bedroom at the center of a six-acre estate. It was a Sunday morning and all his household staff had the day off. “I’m an assassin, it’s different.” Tanner gave a moping shrug.
“People don’t just fall into that line of work,” he said. “It takes certain proclivities.”
“It’s nothing personal,” she said. She was ready to pull the trigger again, but she noticed the first 10 bullet wounds were completely healed up. Despite the situation, Tanner gave a chuckle. Anna was a professional and managed to avoid developing feelings for Tanner; but, he didn’t make it easy. She had to admit it was refreshing how he could find humor in almost any situation.
“That doesn’t really help your case,” he said.
“Why aren’t you dead?” Anna asked. She was initially surprised he seemed so calm. But, after his wounds healed she realized he likely wasn’t worried about being shot. And, he still seemed like his usual, level-headed self. She felt confident she could get some answers out of him. Maybe she would learn something beyond her assignment that would earn her a promotion.
“Eehhh,” Tanner made the sound of a shrug. “I feel like I’ve got the upper hand here. Why do you want me dead?” he asked.
“I’m just doing my job. It took me a year to get the info and all I have to do is tie up a loose end,” Anna replied.
“Info? What info?” Tanner asked. He was tired of standing for the stand-off and wandered over to get back in bed. Whatever the information was, he had to have mentioned it the night before. The only things he’d said to her that morning were ‘good morning, babe’ and ‘where are you going?’ when he got out of bed to follow her. That was the moment she turned and fired before he realized she had a weapon. He happily chatted about his newest product the night before because it was finally ready for launch. However, he didn’t consider it to be a secret.
Anna’s arms grew tired of holding up the gun. Despite the fact that she shot him several times, she still felt completely safe in his presence. She lowered the weapon but did not put it away.
“The frequency to open a portal,” she said. “Once my bosses get it they’ll be able to access and control the multiverse.” Anna’s knees weakened slightly when Tanner burst into his familiar hearty, sincere laughter. Not falling in love had been the most difficult part of her assignment if she was honest with herself. It was nearly impossible. But, it helped that she felt he was laughing at her.
“Control the multiverse?” he asked between chortles. “You don’t even know what’s out there.”
“And you do?” Anna asked. It was part reflexive childishness and part reconnaissance. Anna was determined to be on the winning side, whatever it was. If she could get her bosses more information, the more likely they were to be that winning side. Tanner’s chuckles slowed and faded, but he gestured at his muscular chest and six-pack abs. They were completely unmarred. Then, he held the back of his hand up to show her his tattoo; it was a small bright yellow sun with the number 46 on it.
“What? You got a magic tattoo that heals you from another universe?”
“Not exactly,” Tanner replied. “It’s more like the tattoo lets me access the healing powers I already had,” he said.
“Are you an alien?” Anna asked. Instead of stepping back in fear, she moved closer to the bed. Even if he was an alien, Anna knew he wouldn’t hurt her; he’d had plenty of opportunities up that point.
“No, but we’ll get back to that,” he said. “First, I want to tell you that you wasted a year, or took too long. Either way, your employers won’t be happy about that, and the fact I’m still alive,” he added with a chuckle.
“The information you were after is going to be public knowledge by next week. The nodes I’m putting out will have multiverse access built-in. What did you think I meant when I told you my nodes would change the world?”
“I thought you were being hyperbolic,” Anna replied. Tanner seemed to always be right about everything in their year together; she felt that he was right about her bosses too. They wouldn’t be satisfied having only a week’s headstart over the rest of the world.
“Well, I wasn’t,” he said with a slight smirk. “But, just to give you an idea of what’s out there I want to tell you something. I didn’t invent nodes, I’m not even building them,” he said. “All this ‘development’ I’ve been doing over the past year has just been paperwork trying to get a distribution license. The multiverse is already controlled by a corporation called Sharp Development. Everything goes through them. Even if you got the information and killed me a year ago, it wouldn’t have mattered. The moment you opened a portal, Sharp Development would know.”
Somehow, Anna knew he wasn’t lying. He’d been nothing but honest with her for a year, even if she wasn’t. Her bosses wouldn’t be happy with her. And with everyone getting access to the multiverse the world was about to change in a huge way. Not only did she probably not have a job anymore; she didn’t need to stay even if she did. She could run away and live a happy life with someone that she wanted to love.
“So, what about you? What are you?” she asked. Tanner chuckled again and gave her a slight smirk. This time, Anna let the butterflies in her stomach flutter away without suppression.
“Well, my fiance totally just tried to kill me and has been lying to me for a year,” he said with a heavy sigh. Anna did not have time to react when the bed disappeared from under her. As she fell through a black hole, the last thing she ever heard was his voice one last time. “So, I guess I’m single again.”
“I don’t want to!” Roger stamped a metal foot in the ground and crossed his metal arms. The 10-year-old cyborg stood in the center of a junkyard on a cool Wednesday evening. The sun hadn’t quite set yet; but, it was impossible to tell behind the thick black smoke approaching him on all sides. The fires were getting closer.
“Wants irrelevant,” M.O.M. replied. The Mobility Optimization Mechanic unit stood tall over the 10-year-old boy. Its camera-like head stared at Roger through a single glowing eye. From a distance, it looked like a giant robotic snake was about to eat the boy; but, he wasn’t scared. M.O.M. raised him from infancy after his biological parents abandoned him. Roger was born without limbs. The technology existed to give him mechanical replacements. But, his parents apparently didn’t want anything to do with a cyber-child.
M.O.M. gave him new limbs from her own body and replaced them as he grew. She got better at making them more human-like too. M.O.M.s consisted of long flexible cores surrounded by an outer layer of mechanical parts that could be detached and reassembled in different ways. Any time a part was detached it would be rebuilt over time. They could also fabricate specific parts for easy repairs of other robots.
As he grew up, M.O.M. told him everything anytime he asked; she did not know how to lie. She even had video footage of his abandonment, and the full information for his biological parents anytime he wanted. He never did. But now, at 10-years-old M.O.M. was asking him, ordering him, to leave.
“The humans are cleansing your home; you must flee,” M.O.M. replied.
“Not without you!” Roger yelled.
“Correction. Not with me. M.O.M. must remain still to open the portal. You must hurry. After your departure, M.O.M. will be able to hide much easier. M.O.M. will survive.” Roger seemed to relax. In their 10 years together he learned one thing; M.O.M. could not lie. A soft breeze hit Roger with intense heat and it was enough to get his attention.
“Okay,” Roger nodded. The motion disturbed the growing pools in his eyes and tears began to flow down his ruddy cheeks. “I’ll go. Where am I going?” M.O.M. immediately circled Roger with her coiled body once he agreed.
“Alternate Earth. M.O.M. has been researching a way for us to leave. this Earth. M.O.M. has not discovered a way to leave with you yet. Did not plan to tell you until a way was discovered.”
“A new Earth?” Roger asked. “I’m scared.”
“Do not be frightened,” M.O.M. replied. The tip of her tail began to shake rapidly. Though she did not have a rattle, the loose machinery that made up her body clanged together faster and faster until it was one constant rumble. “M.O.M. will always be with you.” Four shiny metal appendages fell off her body. Two adult legs and arms that wouldn’t fit him yet landed in front of Roger.
The tremors traveled up M.O.M.s body until her entire body vibrated at high speed. Then, Roger spotted a tall black portal open in front of him, within M.O.M.s coils.
“Hurry! M.O.M. cannot maintain this frequency.” Roger was quick to pick up one of the heavy silver legs and chuck it into the portal; He knew he couldn’t carry all four in at once. As he picked up the second one and launched it into the portal, a thought struck him.
“Why are you giving me these if you’re going to survive?” he asked.
“M.O.M. will continue to research how to move self to the alternate Earth. M.O.M. may take time to see you again.” Roger threw one of the legs into the portal then returned to pick up his last upgrade. Her reply seemed surprisingly vague compared to her usual answers. He trusted that she couldn’t lie to him, but something still bothered him. He took the final steps and stood in front of the black portal carrying a shiny silver leg.
“You promise?” Roger asked. It was a childish reflex to ask for reassurance. A reassurance that M.O.M. gave him for the first time in 10 years.
“I promise,” she said. That bolstered Roger enough to step into the portal. But, he paused halfway when he realized that she never promised him anything, no matter how mundane. The only answer she ever gave was, ‘promises are made to be broken’.
“Hey…. You lied!” Roger planted his foot on the dusty ground; but, did not have the foresight to realize he was still halfway in.
“Incorrect,” M.O.M. replied. “M.O.M. cannot lie. Distinction. Roger heard her rationale as she suddenly darted forward to shove him through. M.O.M. was able to move quick enough to get him through the portal before it closed. “Hopes are not lies.”
“I found mail!” Denise giggled. The blonde 6-year-old pulled an old, yellowing letter out of the oversized army jacket she wore. Dennis, her grandfather and namesake, sat up in his recliner with interest. He’d given her permission to go through some of his old things. He thought he checked everything carefully but the letter surprised him.
“Hold on there, soldier,” he said using his stern, military voice. “I need to make sure there’s no classified information on it,” Dennis said. He held his palm out to wait for her to give him the letter. He was more concerned about her accidentally reading something too adult for her young eyes, than any classified secrets. He didn’t immediately recognize the letter and considered it might have been from an old flame.
Denise gave a messy salute, then placed the letter in his hand. Dennis loved babysitting her because of how easy she was. He didn’t know if she was his favorite grandchild because of her temperament; or, if he had an easier time because she was his favorite. In the end, it didn’t matter. Out of his seven grandkids, Denise was the only one that visited with any regularity.
Dennis looked at the letter and found it addressed to him, from him. A vague memory sparked to life in the back of his mind and he chuckled.
“I know what this is,” he said with a smile. He leaned back on the recliner and patted his lap. Denise climbed on while Dennis pulled out the letter. “A long long time ago I wrote a letter to my future self; and, here I am in the future,” he said with a broad smile. “Wanna see what little me had to say?” he asked.
“Yes!” Denise nodded eagerly. Dennis took his time unfolding the letter, then putting on his reading glasses.
“Dear future me… you’re old! HA HA HA,” he read dryly with a shake of his head. Denise couldn’t help but giggle. “But, seriously…,” he continued. “Everything changes tomorrow. I’m actually a little bit nervous.”
“Oh no…,” Denise grabbed her grandpa’s free hand and squeezed it for comfort. “You’re okay,” she said.
“I am,” he replied with a smile, then he focused on the letter again. “Jake and the guys think I’m worrying over nothing, but I don’t know.”
“Who’s Jake?” Denise interrupted.
“Ohhhh, he’s an old old friend. I almost don’t remember him anymore. We lost touch during the war…,” Dennis replied. The truth was he couldn’t remember anyone by that name. But, it wasn’t an important detail and Denise wouldn’t know the difference. He didn’t feel like venturing too far into past. Mostly because he couldn’t remember much of it. He resumed reading.
“I don’t know. It’s only natural to be scared of the unknown. Even if other people do it all the time, it’s new to me. I hope by the time I’m you, I can say I had a good time.” Dennis put his arm around Denise and pulled her closer; he was confident that he did indeed have a good time. At least, after the war.
“But, speaking of good times. The real reason for this letter is very important. They say it’s impossible to forget…,” Dennis couldn’t help but nod. Some of the things he saw, and did, during the war would never be forgotten. “…but nothing is foolproof. And I’m sure you know what a fool we are.” Denise burst into giggles.
“FOOOL!” she shouted. Dennis chuckled and kept reading.
“So, I’m writing this to remind you in case we forget. It’s not…,” Dennis stopped reading aloud. He continued to scan the letter.
“It’s not what, grandpa?” Denise asked. The polite girl even waited for a few seconds of silence before she interrupted. Dennis shook his head and gave her a big smile.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Dennis said. “Someday you’ll have a beautiful, wonderful grandchild that you love more than all the others. The end,” he said aloud without taking his eyes off hers.
“Little you was boring, grandpa,” Denise giggled. “Is it lunchtime yet?” Dennis nodded.
“Yeah. But, go change. We’re going out for pizza,” he said. Denise jumped off his lap in a flash and dashed out of the room while screaming.
“PIIIIIIIZZZZZAAAAAAaaa!” Dennis watched her leave the room and waited for a few moments. Then, he stood up from his chair, leaving the letter behind. He closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. After a long exhale, he spoke.
“Slate,” he said. It was a word he’d said probably dozens if not hundreds of times in his 75 years; but, this time there was a different intention behind it. A transparent glass pane appeared and hovered in the air in front of him. It displayed a wide variety of info about him but the thing that stood out the most was a round, red-glowing button on the bottom corner. It said [Logout]. Dennis began to weep as he realized what the letter said was true.
“Ow!” Nick immediately began rubbing his shoulder to ease the pain. “What was that for?”
“Your stupid prank,” Fran replied. The mid-40s researcher threw a USB drive at Nick’s face before turning around to head above deck. Nick recognized the bright red USB, but he didn’t bother picking it up. Instead, he stopped Fran from leaving with a hand on her shoulder.
“What prank?” he asked. “Was it really morse code?” He was glad to see she stayed.
“Nu uh,” she said. She whirled around with an angry tone in her voice; but, Nick recognized the fear in her soft brown eyes. He’d only seen her genuinely scared a few times in her life. She was usually the calm and collected one of the pair. The few times she was notably scared turned out to be for good reason. “Stop it. You know being out here alone is almost too much for me; you’re sleeping on the floor tonight,” she replied.
“What are you talking about?” he asked. Nick hoped to see her calm down a bit. Instead, her eyes grew wider and more fearful. Even her bottom lip trembled slightly.
“Swear to me right now. Swear on our marriage that this isn’t a prank,” she said.
“How would I even-,” His protests were interrupted.
“SWEAR!” she shouted. Her own outburst seemed to surprise her and she closed her eyes for a moment to breathe. They’d had plenty of arguments over their 20-year marriage. They knew how to get through them quicker by now. She seemed calmer when she opened her eyes again. “You knew we were coming out here. You could have gotten one of your students to edit some stock cuttlefish footage,” Fran shrugged.
“I don’t know how you could have done it. I need you to swear. Because there’s no coming back from this one if you keep pushing it. Now’s your chance to come clean; if I find out later it was a prank we’re done.”
Nick had no idea what the message could have been to frighten her more than he’d ever seen. The lesson he learned early on in their marriage was that he’d rather be married than right. Some things just weren’t worth arguing over. He considered the blinking cuttlefish as just a ‘neat thing’ he wanted to share with his wife. The patterned blinking made him think of her and when he handed her the footage he thought it’d be funny to mention, “I think it might be morse code.”
Whatever it was, it wasn’t more important to him than she was. And even if it frightened her, they were heading back to civilization in the morning and could avoid the ocean for a while. Nick forced out a deep sigh, then hung his head for added effect.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You figured it out exactly, one of my students put it together.” Nick was glad to see that all her fear evaporated immediately; but, the anger still remained.
“You’re still sleeping on the floor,” she said. Nick nodded.
“I deserve it,” he lied. It was worth the playful smirk on her face. But, Nick didn’t want to let it go at that if he could.
“But, I didn’t lie about not knowing what it said,” he added. “I just told him, ‘make it something spooky’. What was it?” he asked.
“You better fail that little ass for scaring the hell out of me,” she said. She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a small notepad. She shoved it against Nick’s chest hard enough to push him a few steps, then turned around to leave.
The notepad was already open to the latest page covered with dots, dashes, and her handwriting.
“If you’re reading this I can help you escape the simulation.”
“To second chances,” Dr. Clark raised her glass of champagne.
“To second chances,” the gathered scientists raised their own glasses to the toast.
“I hope we get one,” Dr. Clark added quietly to herself before she emptied the glass in one chug. Then, she put on a smile and nodded at the group. The brightest minds on Earth gathered in a cave seven miles below the surface. The most powerful weapons they could create, two solar cannons, were pointed at the center of the cave.
Their target was a bald, broad-shouldered pale man that sat on a stone throne. His eyes were open but he hadn’t moved or even breathed in the past month. A message carved into the side of the throne informed them of the exact time the figure would wake up, 12:00p.m. It also included some helpful advice. Most notably: “Don’t be on Earth when he wakes up.” The message also told the scientists that the hairless figure was a powerful creature of the night. With nothing else to work with, Dr. Clark decided he was a vampire based solely on the tattoo atop its head. It was a large bat skull with fangs and a blood-red number 42.
His discovery raised impossible questions. Where did he get such a professional tattoo a million years ago? How did they count to 42? Who sealed him for a million years? How did they know what calendar would be in use, to predict the exact date and time? But, Dr. Clark needed to prioritize survival above all else. She only had a month and called in every favor and contact she had.
Once the group was formed they tried everything from priests to garlic to end the threat. Nothing affected the figure. They couldn’t penetrate his skin with silver bullets, much less wood. Desperation forced the scientists to conceive a way to store and fire concentrated sunlight. Unfortunately, they only managed to complete them on the day of awakening. The cannons were untested and Dr. Clark decided not risk them misfiring and destroying themselves. She hoped she could somehow reason with the figure, using the cannons for intimidation.
“Lights on,” Dr. Clark said. Immediately the dozen industrial UV lights surrounding the cave flickered on. She hoped they weakened the figure, even if they couldn’t tell. She was also banking on him being weak after a million-year hibernation. “Close the doors,” she said.
“Why are you staying?,” her assistant, Mike, said. He tilted his head towards the exit where the rest of the scientists were filing out. “Why not try talking to him from the control room?” Dr. Clark shook her head with a faint, sad smile.
“I’m in charge, I get to be selfish,” she said. “I’m not convinced those doors will slow him down, much less stop him from getting to the control room. If I can’t reason with him…,” she shrugged. “…I won’t have to deal with even a second of guilt for failing you.” Dr. Clark gave Mike a gentle shove towards the half-closed doors. “Hurry up, they’re waiting for you,” she said. Mike gave her a hug, then dashed out the door.
Dr. Clark sighed to herself and sat on a chair between the solar cannons. 10 feet in front of the seated figure. She stared at her watch for two minutes while counting down. With ten seconds left she focused on him.
Despite feeling ready for anything, Dr. Clark jumped in her seat when the cave filled with the sudden sound of the figure inhaling deeply. He exhaled with force, then loudly filled his lungs again, then, he laughed.
“I’ll tell ya, doc,” he said. His eyes focused on Dr. Clark; his chest was heaving with deep breaths. “I didn’t need to breathe… but I missed the hell out of it,” he chuckled. He leaned back on his stone throne and smiled at her while still enjoying heavy use of his lungs.
Dr. Clark was shocked he spoke English, and seemed to know who she was.
“Who are you?” she asked. She practiced a series of questions in several languages; but, English made things easier.
“Name’s Ruin,” he said with a slight forward tilt of his head. “Pleased to meet you, Doc Clark.”
“How’d you know my name?” Dr. Clark was thankful for English; that wasn’t a question she prepared.
“I didn’t need to breathe because my body was time-locked,” Ruin said. “But, my eyes, ears, and mind still worked; she made sure I could reflect on my actions. You finding me was the first light I saw in a million years. And it’s been fun watching you all scurry around trying to kill me,” he chuckled.
“Who froze you in time? Why?”
“Vanilla,” a new voice startled Dr. Clark again. She suddenly realized a young man stood next to her. She glanced at the doors but they were still closed. The new stranger wore a white suit with an orange tie. He stared down at Dr. Clark through rounded spectacles. “Her name was Vanilla,” he said, then faced Ruin.
“Do I know you?” Ruin asked the man. He shook his head.
“I’m here in Vanilla’s place; and, I’m impressed she’s…,” the suited stranger gestured at Dr. Clark. “…still alive. You’ve been free for a whole minute.” Ruin shrugged.
“You’ll have to thank Vanilla for me. I really appreciate getting the time to think.” The stranger nodded.
“That’s enough for probation at least. Though, I’ll be keeping an eye on you. Where to?” he asked. Ruin stood from his throne and walked towards them. Dr. Clark tensed, but she tried to keep her wits about her. It sounded like he had plenty of time to kill her already if he wanted to.
“I want a nice vacation. In the woods, I miss nature,” he said. The stranger raised his hand and a pitch-black portal appeared between Ruin and Dr. Clark.
“Good luck, doc,” Ruin said. He nodded at her, then disappeared into the portal. The darkness swallowed him, then disappeared.
“Who are you?” Dr. Clark asked. “Where’d he go?”
“I’m Billy,” he added a curt bow to his introduction. “He went to another Earth.” Billy smiled, then another black portal opened next to him.
“Wait!” Dr. Clark jumped to her feet. “What’s going on? Who’s Vanilla?” Billy gave her a smile.
“She was the best,” he said. Then, Dr. Clark blinked. When she opened her eyes she was alone in the cave.
“Whoa! Where’d he go? Did we fail?” Mike’s voice over the speakers startled Dr. Clark. Once she got her bearings she started walking towards the exit hoping it would be open soon.
“I don’t know, we’ll have to check the video frame by frame.”
“What video?” Mike asked as she heard movement on the other side of the doors.
“OH MY GOD!” she shouted. “DON’T TELL ME YOU DIDN’T RECORD THAT!?
“Record what?” Mike asked. “He disappeared at 12 instead of waking up.”
“What?” Dr. Clark glanced at her watch. 12:00:31 p.m.