“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 see her. – Melody] The strange message jumped out from the static in Emma’s mind. She learned to ignore cellphones and radios enough to keep the noise to a dull roar over the years. But this message was different. She heard a woman’s voice in her mind and physically felt the letters of the words on her body. The short message tickled her heart; It felt as if written on her heart with letters of pure love. Emma did not react. She remained seated at the park picnic table sketching. It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon and a good opportunity to practice landscapes. Though, she stopped drawing the moment she heard the message and instead stared at the few lines she managed.
Emma’s ability made her quite paranoid when she first discovered it almost a decade ago. It was easy to assume every conversation was about her. But, as she matured she learned that, in fact, strangers didn’t even give her a second thought for the most part. It also helped that more and more people with abilities stepped into the public eye since she first got her powers. Emma learned to assume no one was talking about her until they made it obvious. Though, she never heard, or felt, a message like this. Any other communication she intercepted seemed come only through her ears. But, every letter of this exchange felt filled with intention and affection.
[She’s not Unique. – Melody]
[Only a Super. – Melody] This time, Emma felt tremendous disappointment with the messages. As if she personally failed at something that was important to her. Each individual letter fluttered across her heart. It was an odd way of communicating that seemed more intimate than even face to face conversation. She could feel the stranger’s emotions in every word.
[Do you see more? – Bloody] Emma heard a new woman’s voice and felt different emotions with the message. In thinking about it, she realized she did not feel any emotions. The words felt almost robotic on her heart. Each letter landed cold and empty on her heart.
[Yes, love. – Melody.] The response made Emma’s heart swell with so much love, she was convinced she’d fall madly for the first person she laid eyes on. She kept her head down and focused on her half-started sketch. Emma couldn’t understand it. Her emotions made her feel love for the second voice; but, it only returned stiff communication void of feeling.
[Plenty of Supers here. – Melody]
[We’re working, – Bloody] The cold woman said.
[Her ability may let her hear. -Bloody] Emma’s mind raced. They
had to be talking about her; but, they didn’t know she could hear them. They also seemed disappointed she wasn’t a Unique. Emma didn’t know what that meant and hoped they would leave her alone if she didn’t measure up. As long as she didn’t draw attention to herself, Emma might be able to finish her sketch and the rest of her day undisturbed.
[Sorry, Ms. Sharp. – Melody] The brief apology was more sincere than any Emma had heard in person. But, the message still carried deep love.
[She hasn’t even looked up. -Melody]
[I don’t think she can hear us. – Melody]
[Then, she’s useless. – Bloody] Despite knowing they were talking about her, Emma felt glad they didn’t feel like kidnapping her or whatever was planned. Even if they just wanted to talk, Emma couldn’t take that chance. She also noticed that the message seemed a bit warmer than before. The second woman relaxed her cold, formal tone.
[Notify Oren about the Supers. – Bloody]
[His mother will be interested. – Bloody] Each order felt warmer on her heart.
[Then come home, love. -Bloody] Emma’s heart nearly exploded. She could not help but smile as tears began to flow. She thought she felt the ultimate emotion earlier from Melody; but, this new sensation dwarfed it. Each letter formed on her heart like a perfect, eternal, sunny day spent in love. Suddenly, Emma grew a bit jealous. She doubted she could find someone to make her feel like that for even a few minutes much less with every word.
That was the last message she heard from the two strange women and Emma felt incredibly lucky. She managed to carry the memory of the powerful emotions for several days. Her coworkers suspected she was in a new, secret relationship and commented on how she seemed to be walking on air. She didn’t know how to explain that just being aware that such a love existed in the world stretched her heart wide open. Even those that knew of her abilities wouldn’t understand what she went through, with no way to replicate it.
Four days after the encounter Emma was walking to a convenience store when emergency chatter filled her mind. Every broadcast she could hear was suddenly talking about the same thing. She paused as she tried to sort through the voices; but, she noticed people running out of the convenience store to look up at the sky.
A black hole hovered in the sky pouring out white objects that Emma couldn’t make out. Then, a pile of bones landed on the sidewalk in front of her. The bones magically put themselves together into a skeleton as several more piles landed behind it.
Up ahead, she could see the crowd at the store surrounded by skeletons as more and more continued to rain from the sky. The emergency bands that Emma could hear all indicated that this was happening everywhere on Earth. Emma tried to run from the approaching skeletons but she found another group behind her.
The last thing Emma heard was her own voice. Screaming.
“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.
“Fourth!?” Victoria asked with wide eyes. “That’s super high,” she added with a shake of her head. Her violet bangs wobbled with the motion. She met her date at the coffee shop and they easily settled into a conversation. It didn’t take too many questions from her to land on the topic of vampires. Wendell surprised her when he mentioned they were the fourth leading cause of death.
“Well, vampires are apex predators. I’m surprised ‘death by a vampire’ isn’t number one,” Wendell said. He was slightly annoyed when Victoria pulled out her phone and began texting while he was talking. He guessed she was arranging an emergency to leave the date; she wouldn’t be the first one to skip out early. Her phone appeared more advanced than any he’d seen, but his feelings were too bruised to give it much attention.
“Everything okay?” he asked. She nodded but continued typing for half a minute before she looked up again.
“Sorry, work stuff. This place is great,” Victoria said. She slipped her phone back into her purse then gave Wendell her attention again.
“So,.. you’re not leaving?” He asked. Victoria shook her head again.
“No. Why, do you need to leave?” she asked.
“No no,” Wendell said. He realized he needed an excuse to keep from sounding too insecure. A quick glance through the window at the night sky gave him an idea. “It’s just that, in the past, any time I mention that fact at night my dates suddenly realize how dangerous vampires are and hurry to get home.”
“Oh,” Victoria giggled. “Vampires aren’t dangerous; they’re just hungry. Though, maybe it’s just me that isn’t threatened by them,” she added with a confident smirk.
“Oh?” Wendell asked. He smiled at her and his voice took on an amused quality. “You’re not scared of vampires?” Victoria giggled again.
“If I was, I would’ve left already,” she said. Wendell’s smile grew broader. He laughed to himself when he realized she was talking about the night waiting outside. It wasn’t particularly late, but the sun was gone so the streets were empty.
“Yeah, I guess you are brave being out after dark,” he added. He once had a date tell him the danger of meeting after dark made it more exciting.
“Oh, I don’t care about that,” she said. “I meant because you’re a vampire.”
“Huh?” Wendell was too surprised to offer a more cohesive thought. She was the first one to identify him before he revealed himself. Not that it was soon enough to save her. The coffee shop itself was run by vampires and most everyone in there at the moment was one. A few brought dates for dinner like Wendell had. He felt lucky that her voice wasn’t loud enough to alarm any others; and, he hoped to play it off. “What do you mean?” he asked. Victoria smiled and golden stars began to glow in her eyes.
“I can see you,” she said. Though, she leaned over the table and deliberately kept her voice low. “I can see all of you,” she said as she scanned the coffee shop around them. Wendell’s stomach dropped. She obviously wasn’t normal. She said she wasn’t afraid of vampires, and knowingly stayed in their company. He leaned back in his chair with his face whiter than it normally was.
“What are you?” he asked. Victoria smiled.
“Unique Soul #35, La Estrella,” she said. “You don’t know what that means yet, but you will soon,” she added.
“I know Spanish,” Wendell replied curtly. He was usually the one surprising his dates and he was eager to defend his honor. “Estrella means star,” he said. The golden stars faded from her eyes, but Wendell was still trying to make sense of what she said. “You have the soul of a star?” He asked while still trying to sound confident in his conclusion.
“Not exactly,” Victoria shook her head. “It’s more like my soul is tied to a star.” She held her hand out with the palm facing up and it immediately began to glow with a soft blue light. “Gimme your hand,” she said. Though, he didn’t have a chance to pull away because she grabbed his hand at the same time she asked. She placed his hand hovering over her blue palm.
“It’s hot!” he yanked his hand away as if from a flame. Victoria nodded.
“That’s my star. I can use its energy any time I need to; and even better, I don’t die until it does. Or someone kills me, but that’s pretty hard,” she smiled. Her confidence rubbed Wendell the wrong way; he was supposed to be the one scaring her. He was the apex predator. He fumed silently while she continued the conversation.
“Anyway, things are about to change big time… probably in the next week or so,” Victoria said.
“Why?’ Wendell asked dryly.
“I texted my boss about this Earth. Once Sharp Medical Services sets up here you won’t have to hunt humans anymore. You’ll be able to get blood from one of our blood banks. And society can move forward without everyone trying to kill each other.” Wendell snapped and leaped into action. In the blink of an eye, he appeared next to Victoria and lifted her out of the booth by her neck. His eyes glowed red while he bared his fangs at her.
“What if we like killing?” he asked with a sinister smile and began to squeeze her neck. He was used to women fighting him off, but he did not expect a blue glowing palm to strike his cheek. He was surprised for a moment because it felt more like she was offended than fighting for her life. Then, the slap began to burn as intense as sunlight. He dropped her to rub his cheek, but his hand also began to burn. He looked at it in panic and saw what looked like brilliant blue napalm burning through his hand.
“If you like killing, then you have problems,” Victoria said. She grabbed her purse while ignoring his panic and turned to leave. But she left Wendell with some reassurance. “Don’t worry, Sharp Medical Services also offers therapy.”
“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.
“Why?” A young woman with a light brown ponytail asked.
“Huh?” Kate looked up. She was surprised to see someone, anyone, standing close enough to talk to her. Kate sat on a park bench wondering just how much more of life she could take. It was a cool, sunny Friday morning. It was objectively a beautiful day but Kate was too busy lamenting her problems to notice. She also didn’t notice that she spoke aloud.
“You said you wish you were never born,” the woman said. “Why is that?” Kate sighed. She didn’t want pity; but, at the same time, she felt like she really needed it. Maybe a kind word from a stranger would help her get back on a positive track.
“Because I feel like I don’t matter,” Kate lowered her eyes to stare at the cement path. “Never have, never will…,” she whined. Kate hoped for kindness. Or at the very least, a warm smile before the young woman moved on from the sad sack on the park bench. Instead, she got a hearty laugh in exchange for opening up. Not only that, the stranger decided Kate was entertaining enough to sit down next to her.
“You don’t!” the stranger said with glee after her initial outburst died down. Then, for some reason, she extended a hand at Kate. “I’m Elsa,” she said.
“Kate,” she tentatively shook Elsa’s hand. Sure, Elsa made fun of her; but, she was also the only person that seemed interested in having a conversation with Kate in the past year. And, Kate wasn’t a stranger to abusive relationships; assuming Elsa wanted a friend at all.
“Thanks for the pep talk,” Kate added. “I feel so much better.” Elsa continued to giggle.
“No, really,” Elsa said. Her giggles died down but she maintained a broad grin and amused, sparkling eyes. “You want me to prove it?” she asked. If Kate had not already been contemplating suicide, that question might have raised an eyebrow. Instead, she felt like she had nothing to lose.
“Sure,” she shrugged. “Show me how unimportant I am.”
“You got it,” Elsa snapped her fingers. Then, Kate blinked. She found herself in a hospital room. A younger version of her father held the hand of a younger, screaming, version of Kate’s mother.
“PUSH!” her father yelled, then, everyone froze and the room went quiet.
“This is the moment of your birth,” Elsa said. Kate stared at her unmoving parents, then looked at Elsa.
“How….who or what are you?” Kate asked. She was willing to accept that she may have gone crazy at the park. Or that maybe, she accomplished what she planned to do that day and this was just some version of her life flashing before her eyes. But, Elsa was there to talk to, so she asked her.
“That’s kind of an involved answer,” Elsa said. “For now, the easy explanation is, I’m Death.”
“Death, huh?” Kate couldn’t not believe her; she was standing in the past at the moment of her birth. “It’s about time. I’ve been hoping you’d show up,” Kate said, she almost smiled at her own joke.
“And, I did!” Elsa laughed.
“But, I wanted to never be born,” Kate said. “Killing me at birth just feels mean to my parents,” she said.
“I’m not killing you. I’m showing you why you don’t matter,” Elsa replied. She reached forward and grasped at nothing in the air. Kate didn’t see how it happened but the moment Elsa closed her hand she held a long pitch-black scythe. Then, she walked closer to Kate’s mother and placed the flat side of it on her mother’s stomach.
After a moment, Elsa flipped the scythe over and rested the other flat end on Kate’s mom. When she was satisfied, Elsa lifted the scythe and returned to Kate’s side. The room roared to life again as Kate’s mother continued her labor.
“And there you go, you’re never born. Let’s see how this turns out,” Elsa said. A dozen questions flooded Kate’s mind but she was distracted by a sudden blink. When she opened her eyes she was in her childhood room. It looked different, but she recognized the peeling wallpaper and stained brown carpet. She was surprised to see her 8-year-old self walk into the room. The little girl dropped a pile of clothes on the floor, then dashed out of the room again.
“You said I was never born…,” Kate said.
“And you weren’t,” Elsa replied. “She was, whoever she is.”
“That’s me!” Kate said.
“Oh, damn. I might’ve done something wrong. Are you sure that’s you? Were you this messy as a child?” Elsa asked. The clothes on the floor fit in well the decor of everything else being on the floor too.
“God no, I always kept things tidy,” Kate replied. Which was true. It was why she chose to go to the park that day; she did not want to leave a mess behind in her apartment.
“Then, it’s not you,” Elsa replied.
“But she looks just like me!”
“Really?” Elsa asked. She tried to sound surprised, but Kate got the impression she was putting on a show. “Let’s check again a bit later.” Kate blinked again. This time she opened her eyes to her own wedding.
“Yeah…I guess she does kind of look like you,” Elsa said while appraising the bride in all black.
“Black wedding dress? What’s wrong with her?” Kate asked. “I can’t believe Jeff married someone that would wear a black wedding dress.”
“You mean he’s not marrying you?” Elsa asked. Her voice carried a hint of smugness, but, Kate was okay with that. She started to feel like she was understanding Elsa’s lesson.
“So…, my parents had a baby. And that baby is going to marry Jeff no matter what? Whether or not my soul is in that baby?” Kate offered her guess. Elsa smiled, then Kate blinked. They were back at the park and Elsa’s scythe was gone.
“I wouldn’t say ‘no matter what’,” Elsa said once Kate got her bearings. “But for the most part, yeah. It’s not something I go around talking about, but I think it’ll help you. Time is kind of like TV show. Before you see it, the route to the end is already planned out. If someone doesn’t show up, they get replaced.”
“So, nothing I do matters?” Kate asked.
“Not really, no. Life goes on.”
“Then, what’s the point?”
“There isn’t one,” Elsa said with a large grin. “That’s why you get to make up your own.”
“But what if-,” Kate’s question was interrupted.
“What if what?” she asked. “I just proved that nothing matters. Actually, that’s wrong too, there is one thing that matters.”
“What?” Kate asked.
“YOU are here. You’re ON THE SHOW!” Elsa said. “It’s your chance to do whatever you want to do. Whether you do it or not, it doesn’t make a difference. So, you’ve got to decide if you’re going to try to enjoy being on stage or resent not knowing the routine, that no one cares about, until you’re out of time.”
Leah woke with a sudden clarity. The moment she opened her eyes she was wide awake; she had none of the expected brain fog that came after a night of drinking. She sat up in her bed and looked around. Something about her small bedroom seemed different. The mint-green color of her walls popped in a way she never noticed before. Her collection of movie posters were so vivid it felt like she was looking at them for the first time. Her cotton sheets rubbed her like fine sandpaper as she got out of bed.
“What the hell?” Leah noticed a splash of color on her wrist as she walked into the restroom. She looked from the mirror to her own wrist and saw a completely healed tattoo that wasn’t there the day before. It was a two-tone jester’s hat sitting atop the number zero. The hat was a light and dark shaded of green; something Leah would have picked out for herself.
Leah was surprised; but, she knew she wasn’t going to find answers wracking her brain in front of her bathroom mirror. She continued on to the shower to start her day. Once out of the shower, she turned on the news while she dressed. By the time she stepped out of her house, she knew everyone had a tattoo now.
It was Leah’s day off but she had things she wanted to get done. Her first stop was a coffee shop to fuel up for the day ahead. It was less crowded than it usually was on a Tuesday morning. The few customers there were all talking about their tattoos to each other and the employees.
“What number did you get?” The cashier asked once Leah reached the counter. The young man held up his wrist to show her his tattoo – four golden coins. Then, he remembered she was a customer and dropped his wrist. “Sorry, what can I get you?” he asked.
“Iced-vanilla giga-latte,” Leah smiled. Then, she held up her wrist to show him her tattoo.
“WHOA! You got major arcana!” he said. Several of the other patrons looked at her with interest.
“Is that good?” she asked. The cashier shrugged.
“No idea. But, you’re the first major arcana I’ve seen so far.” He stood quiet for a moment. “Oh! $6.74,” he said. Leah touched her card to the pad with an amused smirk. She normally drank her coffee in the shop but she did not feel like being the center of attention. She caught several strangers staring at her while she waited. Once her order was ready she decided to sit outside at the nearby park.
Leah sat at a picnic table to enjoy her coffee and plan out a route for her errands. While her mind worked, she let her eyes settle on a jogger heading her way that she thought was quite handsome. His gaze was focused on the track ahead and he didn’t notice Leah’s attention. She stared for a moment, then noticed several thin, almost invisible lines radiating out of him.
She counted six short lines as he jogged past and wondered what they meant. It occurred to her that they looked like short, taut strings; she couldn’t help but imagine plucking one of them like a harp. Leah saw the string by his knees, the one she plucked in her mind, move down at a sharp angle.
Steps after the string moved, the jogger toppled forward as if tripped. Leah immediately turned away so that he wouldn’t know she saw him fall. She stared at the other end of the park and took a sip of coffee. She wondered if she made him trip. It sounded silly at first. He didn’t trip right away when she plucked the string, and that kind of thing just wasn’t possible in real life. But, she had to consider that everyone got a tattoo overnight. That also used to be the kind of thing that wasn’t possible.
“HI!” a boy with bright green hair waved as he walked towards her table. He looked about the same age as Leah’s nephew in 8th grade.
“Hi,” Leah replied once he reached her table. He sat down across from her without hesitation. “What can I do for you?” she asked. The kid smiled.
“Actually, I have quite a bit to tell you,” he said.
“Oh really?” Leah asked. Her morning had been interesting so far, and by now she was just enjoying it. “Like what?” she asked. Leah was sitting with her hand in her lap, out of sight. His response managed to surprise her again. There was no way he could have seen her tattoo
“Like what it means to be the Fool,” he said.
“How’d you know?” Leah asked. Then curiosity followed. “What tattoo did you get?” The young teen held up his wrist. His tattoo resembled Earth with a golden number 21 in the center.
“I’m the World,” he said. Then, he extended his hand in greeting. “My name’s Ryan. But you can call me Atlas.”