“And you are?” The old man in an elegant white and gold gown blocked Nina from entering the room.
“She’s with me,” a smooth, gentleman’s voice spoke from behind the man blocking the door.
“Of course, My God,” the old man bowed his head and stepped out of Nina’s way without hesitation. Nina walked in and found a medium-sized boardroom with a long table. Old men in white gowns sat at every seat and they all focused their attention on a younger man. He looked in his mid30s, with a smooth, clean-shaven face and a chestnut crewcut. He wore a navy blue business suit, and he was God.
“Nina had some questions about the universe and I thought it’d be helpful to bring her along for this meeting.” Nina felt slightly embarrassed at the special treatment. She was just a barista that happened to find God in an alley.
“So…,” God smiled at the room. Nina found it slightly amusing that other than her, he was the youngest-looking person in the room. “Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first. Who’s right?” he asked. Nina looked closer at the gowns. Though all the men appeared to be dressed in the same uniform, each also had a small golden logo on the collar representing their individual faith.
“None of you,” he said. He waited a moment while the men all looked at each other and him in confusion. Then, he continued, “And, all of you,” God chuckled. “It matters more to you than it does to me; I do my thing regardless of what you believe.”
“We can enter the kingdom of Heaven without belief?” An old man with a cross on his collar asked.
“Ah,” God nodded. “I knew there was a reason I brought Nina,” he said, and looked at her. “You were curious about Heaven too. The truth is, Heaven, as any of your religions imagine it, doesn’t exist.” He shook his head for effect. “Eternal paradise? That gets old mighty quick. There’s no, ‘end state’, “God used air-quotes. “There’s no permanent happiness. It’s unsustainable once boredom sets in.”
“If there’s no Heaven… then there’s no Hell,” one of the men said from the table. “Then, what happens after we die?”
“Oh, there’s a Hell,” God nodded, then, he shrugged. “But, again, it’s not what your religions have come up with. At this point, it’s little more than a name with a lot of bad stigma attached. As for what happens… there are options,” God said. “Most of the time you’ll get another life on another Earth. Do it all again with no memories except for the lessons you learned deep in your soul.”
“There are other Earths??” one of them asked. God nodded. Nina wanted to point out that God brought her to this meeting from a different universe, but she did not want to step on his toes. If he wanted to mention it to them, he would have.
“Why?” one of the men asked. “Why not have one perfect Earth? Did you make a mistake?”
“God doesn’t make mistakes!” one of the men berated the other one from across the table.
“That’s not true,” God said. “I have, in the past. But, having multiple Earths is intentional on my part. You’re asking why I didn’t make one perfect Earth, my question to you is, perfect for what? If my goal only required one Earth, I would have stopped at one.” Nina tilted her head at him. She knew she was the only one in the room brave, or at least, familiar enough with him to ask the question they all had.
“So.. then what’s your goal?” she asked. God smiled and every white gown in the room stiffened as the men all sat up straight and perked their ears up.
“God??” Nina stopped in front of the lean man in a navy blue suit. She was returning from dumping the trash and saw the familiar customer about to step into what could only be described as a black hole. He stopped and turned around to face her with a smile.
“Yes?” he asked. Up until that moment, Nina and the rest of the staff thought ‘God’ was just a quirky name he used to stand out. But, he obviously had abilities humans did not. Nina realized she had a chance to actually talk to him without the pressure of a long line behind him.
“Are you…” Nina stepped closer and looked him up and down. He appeared to be in his early 30s with a tan, wrinkle-free, clean-shaved face and a short chestnut crewcut. He looked more like a businessman not quite at the top than a divine force in flowing robes. “… are you really… God?” she asked. His smile broadened and he pulled his leg out of the black hole; it disappeared.
“That depends who you ask…,” he said. He gestured at the grime-covered back alley blacktop with his hand and a wide tree trunk sprouted out of the ground. It did not grow into a tree, it remained flat and only rose far enough for the man to sit down comfortably. He patted the seat next to him to invite Nina to sit. “… and how you define ‘God’,” he added with air quotes. Nina was ready to believe then and there; and, God invited her to sit next to him. She rushed to sit.
“To some people, the things I can do qualify me as a god, to others, I’m apparently the one and only capital ‘G’-od,” he shrugged. “If you ask me, I’m a man like everyone else.”
“But you made the universe?” Nina asked although she was entirely sure he did. The well-dressed stranger chuckled but nodded his head.
“You know, that used to be harder. Now, with the right technology, anyone can do it.”
“You made the universe?” Nina asked again. But, this time she had more to add. “Why do you come here to buy coffee? You invented coffee beans!” In the back of her mind, Nina realized that was a wasted question. She had a chance to get some real answers.
“I don’t come here to buy coffee,” he said. “Buying coffee gives me an excuse to pass by, I like to mingle among the people when I’m not working.”
“Can’t you see everything from everywhere?” Nina asked while trying to decide on her real question. The man nodded.
“Sure. But, this Earth has teleconferencing tech already. You can’t tell me that a face to face meeting isn’t better to get a real feel for the person you’re talking to.”
“This Earth?” Nina asked. That was potentially a secret to the universe. He nodded.
“There are alternate Earths, each one is kept in its own separate universe. Some are more advanced than others.
“What are they like?” Nina asked. After a brief moment, she built up enough courage to ask God for a favor. “Can I see??”
“Sure!” he said with a broad grin. “But, you’re still on the clock,” he nodded at the back door of the Starbucks. “Why don’t you spend the rest of your shift thinking about what kind of Earth you’d like to visit. I’ll come by to pick up you after work, or I’ll send someone if I’m busy.” Nina was sitting next to God and ready to see other realities. She wanted to quit her job then and there, but he was the one telling her to finish working. She nodded and stood up.
“Thank you!” she said. Then, another thought crossed her mind. She made time for one more question before heading back inside.
“Wait… if you’re real. Is the devil real too??” the stranger nodded at her, but also gave a half-shrug.
“I’m tempted to say no,” he said. “Technically there’s a position in Hell filled by Satan. But, the universe doesn’t work the way most people, including you, think. He’s not evil, he’s doing his job.”
“Hell is real?” Nina asked. She paused at the back entrance because she suddenly knew where she wanted to go. “Can I see Heaven?” she asked. God’s smile remained, but he shook his head. “Well, that’s a bit trickier,” he said. “We could stroll through Hell if you like but, Heaven isn’t real.”
“Welcome to the AlterNet!” the black mannequin said. The vaguely human figure hovered a foot off the ground in front of Alex. Her body seemed to be formed out of obsidian and shadows. She was exactly like Alex expected.
The AlterNet was new to Alex’s Earth but he had friends that were able to afford it faster than he was. They told him all about the different types of Earths available to visit. But, the first step was creating a character. Alex pored over every pamphlet and forum post he could find to create the best character possible. Then, he noticed something no one else seemed to pay attention to.
“I’m ready to make my character,” Alex told the mannequin. “I want to be Unique Soul #46, El Sol. For my race I -,” Alex’s demands were interrupted.
“It doesn’t work like that,” the dark mannequin replied. Alex initially thought she had a pleasant, kind voice. This time, he heard a definite trace of annoyance. “You don’t get to choose to be a Unique, it’s how you’re born.”
“So, I could be one already?” Alex asked. Now that he knew, it kind of made sense why no one talked about choosing a Unique Soul as part of character creation.
“You could be; but you’re not,” the floating figure giggled.
“How do you know? Is there a way to find out?” Alex asked. The mannequin nodded.
“I suppose I don’t know for sure, but there is an easy way to find out. What’s your favorite number?” Alex narrowed his eyes and tilted his head.
“My favorite number? Oh! Like the Unique number? In that case, my favorite number is 46!” Alex said with a proud grin. The mannequin shook her head.
“You took too long to get there. The answer should be the first words out of your mouth,” it replied.
“Who makes up these rules?” Alex grumbled. “So you don’t have one either, right? What if I ask you, ‘What’s your favorite number?'” Alex asked.
“35. That’s correct, I don’t…,” the mannequin stopped speaking mid-sentence. Alex also noticed she answered with a number. He thought back to what he could remember. Unique Soul #35, La Estrella, the star.
“I’m…,” the mannequin lifted its black hands up to inspect them. “…I’m Unique? It asked. Alex watched a golden 35 appear on the back of its hand. The 35 pulsed with golden energy that radiated out from its hand and washed over her. The coursing energy replaced its obsidian body with a white crystalline form. The mannequin drifted down and touched the ground with its feet and it seemed to take in a deep breath.
Suddenly, its eyes opened. Alex had grown used to seeing dark indentations meant to represent eyes on the black mannequin. But without warning, the white indentations fluttered open to reveal sapphire-like eyes. Dark, navy-blue hair started growing out of the smooth white head, and she smiled at Alex now that she had an actual mouth.
“I’m awake…,” she said in awe. Alex watched her eyes dance all over him, then she turned to appreciate the endless amber field of wheat around them.
“What’s going on?” Alex asked. “Can I still make my character?”
“You can!” the new woman said. She took a single step toward Alex, then waved her hand at the ground. Immediately an obsidian mannequin coalesced floating in front of them.
“Welcome to the AlterNet!” the mannequin said. Alex looked at the new black mannequin, then he eyed the pale, blue-haired stranger that was a mannequin moments before.
“While you finish making your character,” the pale woman said. “I’m going to go explore.” A black portal opened behind her. “Have fun!”
“Wait!” Alex asked. “You’re an NPC that just came to life! I get that you want to go exploring, but can we get together later? I have a ton of questions for you.” The woman smiled and nodded.
“You’ll find me on your friend list after you make a character,” she stepped into the black portal and managed to add her name before it disappeared. “I’m Andromeda.”
“Your performance in your first few games was…,” Dana Sharp paused mid-pace to look at the group of five girls. Bailey, Jenny, Dirge, Dread, and Britt were seated in Dana Sharp’s office. Each one looked sullen from Dana’s lecture so far. She circled them while informing them about her decision to cancel the Pineapple Cup, and start from the beginning again. Dana searched her mind for the most gentle word she could. “…lacking. It wasn’t the only reason for my decision to scrap the first tournament; but, it was on the list of reasons. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s not even a negative.” Dana Sharp walked to her desk and sat behind it.
“Between us in this room, I know you could have improved enough as a team during the tournament to win. However, from a business perspective, there was an opportunity here to exploit. The representatives of Earth: Pineapple respect the fact that my company is willing to take a loss to accommodate a family emergency.” Ms. Sharp took a moment to nod at Bailey. She sat in the center of the group. Her chestnut ponytail was currently covered by her green hoodie; she pulled it up early into the lecture.
“How’s your dad doing, Bailey?” Ms. Sharp asked.
“Better,” Bailey gave the woman a firm nod. “Thank you, Ms. Sharp.”
“I get to buy you girls more time to practice, and it leaves a positive impression on my clients. This was my decision, girls.” The girls all seemed to relax when they realized Ms. Sharp wasn’t angry at them.
“Here’s what we’re going to do going forward. Jenny…,” Dana nodded at a girl with black spiky hair to Bailey’s right. “…you’re still the captain. Bailey’s father is still recovering, and I want her to be able to miss a day of practice if she needs to. Along those lines, we still need a sixth team member. The trouble is, you’ve become a team already. The window to assign you a sixth member myself has already closed.”
“Again, this is a great opportunity to learn something. Sharp Development acquired a dungeon finder app on one of our Earths called ‘Delver’. We’ve scaled it up to the AlterNet and rebranded it as ‘DRBY’. Dana Sharp waved a casual, dismissive hand at the girls.
“It’s on your nodes now, try it out and find a sixth member you all agree on. And you’re able to share the app with other players to make it easier to find practice games. Get as much training in as you can before the tournament restarts,” Dana Sharp said.
“When is it?” Bailey asked.
“You’ll know with plenty of time. When I decide,” Ms. Sharp replied.
“What’s that?” The President asked Dr. Howard. The inventor of AI requested a meeting to explain how he didn’t invent AI. “What’s the alternate?” Dr. Howard simply pointed at the black mannequin floating a foot off the ground. The President turned his attention back to the 5-foot faceless mannequin and asked again. “What’s the alternate?”
“The AlterNet is a network of alternate Earths connected by nanos.” The mannequin replied with a soft, feminine voice.
“Other…. Earths?” The president asked. Dr. Howard breathed a sigh of relief when the president seemed to believe what the AI mannequin said. Dr. Howard was shocked when it appeared to him one day.
His initial project started out researching nanotechnology. One day after successfully completing a single nanobot, he had a whole colony. The colony became the black mannequin and its first words were always, ‘Welcome to the AlterNet’. The mannequin guided his research into AI applications, but he knew he’d have to reveal it to the public eventually. He decided to inform the president about alternate universes first, before it became public knowledge. That was bigger news than AI technology.
“Can we establish communication? Can you put me in contact with leaders from a different Earth?” The President asked.
“Confirmed,” the mannequin replied. “Meeting set for Jan 6th, 2023.”
“Two years? Why such a long wait?”
“Ms. Sharp is a very busy woman,” the mannequin replied. The President laughed at the floating figure.
“Then get me someone else, sooner. There are other Earths, other leaders, aren’t there?”
“Ms. Sharp asks that every Earth joining the AlterNet meet with her before establishing communication with other Earths. She has certain rules that need to be followed.”
“Who is she to tell me what my Earth can’t do?” The President said with a sour, stern look.
“Ms. Sharp owns the AlterNet,” the mannequin said. Dr. Howard felt a sudden pit in his stomach. He pieced together something that he didn’t realize should have been worrying him. “She gets to make the rules.”
“Yeah? Well, that doesn’t have anything to do with me, now does it?” The President replied. Dr. Howard heard the mannequin giggle for the first time since he met it almost a month ago. It surprised him that the AI could understand humor, but he had to admit it was kind of funny. In a hopeless kind of way.
“Think back to the first thing it said,” Dr. Howard helped the President. The President tilted his head at the mannequin. It decided he needed more help and repeated its greeting for him.
Billy relaxed after stepping through the portal and onto solid ground. Ballisea’s invitations tended to catch him by surprise; it was rare he greeted her on his feet. He stepped into a world he’d never been to but knew in his soul. Billy stood atop a violet mountain looking out over a white forest. At first glance, it appeared to be a snow-covered forest. Then he noticed black dots drifting down the crimson sky. He held his hand up and to catch an obsidian snowflake.
“How do you make it black?” Billy asked aloud to no one in particular. A soft giggle echoed in his ears.
“She didn’t figure it out this time either?” Ballisea replied. She sounded as if she stood next to him, but he spotted her sitting further up the mountain. He sighed and started up to join her.
“She was too busy doing you a favor,” Billy replied with a smirk. He didn’t have to speak very loud; she could hear him from a different universe. Normally he was too intimidated to talk back to her, but something about this occasion felt different to him. He felt an inner-playfulness flutter inside as soon as Ballisea’s portal opened for him.
“Poorly,” Ballisea’s laugh carried around his ears. “Vanilla’s gone and she didn’t even find Blueberry before she died. This is the worst one so far,” Ballisea said. The black snow grew deeper as Billy climbed to the top. His feet sank ankle-deep in black, inky slush. He reached the summit and stood behind her. A layer of black snow covered the white forest.
“I could restart it now if you want,” Billy offered. He knew she’d decline, but he knew Vanilla would have offered. He also knew Vanilla kept secrets from Ballisea. “If this one’s already off the rails we can start again. Cherry made her pick already and Peppermint has it narrowed down to a few.”
“Not without Blueberry,” Ballisea replied. The moment she said that Billy realized why Vanilla kept Blueberry hidden. It was the only way to keep Ballisea’s interest.
“So, why am I here?” Billy asked.
“You… Vanilla was the only one I could talk to. Cherry likes to stay young and Peppermint always has things to do in Hell,” Ballisea explained while they watched the dark snow together. “We used to watch the snow together.
“I think I remember,” Billy said. It explained the anticipation he felt when the portal appeared.
“I don’t expect you to be like her,” Ballisea said. “But, I hope you’ll still be there for me… next time.” Billy smiled and nodded at the black and white forest.
“Every time. On one condition,” he added playfully. He was glad to hear her laugh in return.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“No more flavors. Next time we pick a better theme, okay?”
“Of course I’m serious,” Steph said. She smiled at the old man sitting in front of her desk. He was older than he looked, and he looked like he was pushing 80 already. “No strings attached, except for an honest day’s work.”
“MMhmm,” Walter grumbled at her. “Doin’ what?” he asked. Walter was desperate enough to take almost any job. He spent 500 years in prison and came out to a different world, with only his name and the clothes on his back. A helpful guard at the prison recommended Walter visit this Sharp Development if he needed help getting on his feet.
The offer from the guard sounded too good to be true. Now, sitting in front of Steph and hearing about their services; he was convinced it was too good to be true. But, he still wanted to learn more.
“Anything you like, that you’re suited for,” Steph said. “Sharp Development has thousands of positions available to choose from. And, we encourage further education through our corporate university. Even if you can’t start at the job you want, at Sharp Development you can always move up.”
“So, I get to do what I want?” Walter asked. “And I’ll get paid with room and board?”
“That’s more or less the gist,” Steph nodded. “Ms. Sharp knows how difficult it is to find work; you’ve already paid your dues.”
“And I don’t have to sell my soul or anything?” Watler asked with a chuckle. He’d decided the deal sounded too good to be true, but also too good to pass up.
“It’s more like using it as collateral than selling it,” Steph said. Walter’s eyes went wide, but Steph continued explaining. “On paper, Ms. Sharp would own your soul. But working for the company works to pay off that debt. Eventually, you’ll work enough to earn your soul back.”
“What if something happens to me while Ms. Sharp owns my soul?”
Steph smiled brightly at Walter.
“You go to Hell.”
“No thanks, I’ll pass,” Walter nodded, stood from the desk, and walked out.
“My God,” Herod fell to his knees before the woman in white. He swore to himself he’d never kneel for any man. But, she proved to be a God.
“You’re a king, act like it,” Dana Sharp replied. She glared down at him until he realized what she meant. He stood and straightened his back.
‘Yes, my God,” he said. Dana sighed.
“If this meeting is going to continue, address me as Ms. Sharp,” she said.
“Yes, My- Ms. Sharp.” Herod said. He did not know why she chose him to be there, but he did not want to be sent away from her presence. Not before he could learn more about her miraculous magic. Herod knew some magic himself; it’s what helped him achieve his status.
He wasn’t born into a royal family, he was lucky he was born into a human family at all. Though it was not common knowledge, Herod was a banshee. His wail could strike ice-cold fear into anyone, and that was only one of his tricks. Over the years he learned how to use his wail as a form of song magic. After that it was easy to enthrall his way to a kingdom. He briefly considered trying his magic on God, before she proved who she was. Then, he reconsidered.
“I don’t like the direction your kingdom is taking,” Ms. Sharp said. She gestured at a seat for Herod, then walked around her disk to sit in front of him. Herod tilted his head in confusion as he sat down.
“But, it was all for you, Ms. Sharp,” he said. “To find you in the heavens.” Once Herod took his throne, he immediately put a heavy emphasis on education and heavenly exploration. 15 year into his reign his royal scientists had developed a machine that could fly. Herod’s determination and magic drove innovation faster than normal human progression. He had a yearning in his soul to find what was out there.
“I didn’t ask you to look for me. But, I am asking you to stop,” Ms. Sharp said. She gave him a faint, playful smirk. “Out there, at least,” she pointed upward at the white ceiling.
“I don’t understand,” Herod said. It was difficult to admit, but he knew God, Ms. Sharp, would know whether he understood or not. If he admitted it, at least he’d get answers.
“This Earth is one of an infinite number of Earths. There is nothing out there worth finding; it’s big and empty and dark. Better to look at your neighboring Earths and learn from, or teach them something.”
“There are other Earths!?” Herod’s eyes shot wide.
“There are,” Ms. Sharp nodded. “I can teach you how to reach them, so long as you change course. I don’t mean just you, your kingdom as well. Further explorations of the heavens are to be outlawed; infractions punished by death.” Herod chuckled with a shake of his head.
“The more the public sees me trying to prevent it, the more curious they’ll be.”
“You are the ruler of this particular Earth, they’ll listen to you,” Ms. Sharp said.
“My kingdom is vast,…” Herod shook his head with humility. “But it’s not the whole planet.”
“Not yet. Aside from changing your direction, there is one more reason for our meeting.”
“Yes, Ms. Sharp?” Herod asked, ready to serve. He had a lot to process, but that could wait. He stood before good here and now.
“I’m rewarding your faith with a boost to your powers,” she said. Herod blanched, but, after taking a moment to close his eyes, he remembered she knew everything. Including what he was. And, he was excited to get a reward. He managed to recover quickly and opened his eyes again.
“I’m honored!” he said. Dana handed him a sheet of paper. There was a simple golden crown drawn on the sheet. A red scissor logo decorated the center of the crown, and the number ’47’ was drawn on the scissors in white.