Holiday Fun

“I thought there’d be more people,” Phil chuckled to himself when he opened the door to the meeting hall. The dozens of tables and chairs all sported office-appropriate holiday decorations. Red, green, and gold strands of tinsel circled the tables; and, each had a small LED tree placed in the center. “I guess I’m early,” he sighed to himself and shuffled into the room. As far as he knew, it was empty.

Who the hell is that!?” Sally whispered to her coworker, Carol. The two lizard women, along with the rest of the party pressed themselves against the walls. The elaborate geometric shapes in different shades of green were excellent for hiding against. They were too busy to notice slight changes in depth. She breathed a sigh of relief with the stranger stopped at the first table to sit down and play on his phone. He looked up when she whispered. After a glance around the room, he decided nothing was out of the ordinary and focused on his phone again.

I don’t know,” Carol replied with an even quieter whisper. Her voice carried obvious amusement. Sally could see why. About 60 of her coworkers were all camouflaged against the walls around the large hall. The stranger that walked in appeared to be in his late 50s or early 60s. He was lean, bordering on frail, with a sparse matting of silver hair atop his head. The few strands he did have were all combed in the same direction; he made an effort to look good in his dark suit. 

Lizards were great at hiding, but Sally wouldn’t have wanted to test it against a young human with keen eyes. She was also glad their ability was almost automatic. She felt herself shift into camouflage mode as soon as the door handle clicked, one second before Phil walked in. They scrambled to the walls as quietly as they could.

Anyone still out there?” Carol whispered the question. Sally’s jade-scaled brows raised up and at the suggestion.

YES!” She whispered excitedly with a toothy smile. Her friend, Alice, was running late to the party.

[Keep your disguise on. – Saly]  Sally sent Alice a Whisper using her nanos.

[Need help. Human here. -Saly] [LOL! – Alis] Sally felt and heard Alice’s laughter when she got the reply in her ear.

[Didn’t I suggest a doorman? – Alis] Sally grumbled.

[We obviously didn’t get one. -Saly] [Helping or not? – Saly] [Fine. Omw. – Alis] 

[Thank you. -Saly] “Alice is coming,” Sally turned and whispered to Carol. The two lizard women spread the message to either side of them to let their coworkers know help was on the way.

After a few minutes, a tall, muscular woman with short yellow-green hair walked into the hall; Sally relaxed at seeing her friend.

“Hi, I don’t think I’ve seen you at the office before. I’m Alice,” she introduced herself with an extended hand. “Are you new?”  Phil shook Alice’s hand, gave her a puzzled look, then shook her head.

“No, Ma’am. Been part of the company going on 25 years now.”

“Oh,” Alice said calmly. “Maybe I’m in the wrong place,” she made a show of looking around. “You’d think a room with green walls would be called the “Green room.”

“Huh,” Phil said. He glanced at the time on his phone, then around the seemingly empty room again. “Maybe I’m the one in the wrong place,” he said and stood from his seat. “My office party is in the Brown room. The clerk pointed this direction and I kind of just stopped at the first brown door I saw. But, according to the time, this place should have a lot more humans in it,” he said. 

“Why don’t you stay here, because this is probably the Green room, and I’ll go see if I can find the right party.” Phil nodded at Alice with a smile and headed toward the door.

“Merry Christmas to you…,” he said as he pulled the door open. He looked directly at her, then he gave one final glance around the room with a broad smile.  “…one and all.”

Star. Spider.

Greg hopped out of his bed as soon as he opened his eyes. He heard wild screaming outside his house and ran to the window. He spotted the few neighbors that spent their weekend mornings outside rushing indoors. All of them were screaming, a few of them were flailing at the snow that was falling.

“It wasn’t supposed to snow today…,” Greg mumbled to himself. His mind latched on to that fact to help him process why everyone was so scared of it. It wasn’t until several of the snowflakes landed on his window, and began crawling up the glass, that he realized something odd was happening. He immediately thought of his daughter and bolted out of the bedroom; he grabbed his robe on the way.

“ASTRA!!!!” he shouted as he barreled down the stairs. He knew she would be outside in the backyard. He opened the sliding door and paused. He realized he wasn’t wearing any shoes and didn’t want to step onto the spider-filled ground if he didn’t have to. As he paused, he saw his daughter laying on the lush green grass, leaning against a large white wolf.

She and the pet wolf she got 10 years ago appeared to be napping together. Somehow the spiders falling from the sky all chose to miss their yard. Greg felt calmer knowing she was safe. He eased the glass door open and padded out in socks.

“Astra, Ben,” she said addressing his daughter and her pet. “What’s going on?” he asked. The girl’s eyes popped open and she grinned at Greg.

“Hey dad!” she said excitedly. Ben opened his eyes too, but just long enough to let Greg know he was paying attention too. Then, he closed his eyes again. “We learned something cool!” Astra said.

Greg nodded in patient understanding.

“Did you have to terrorize the neighbors to do it?” he asked.

“Ohhh,” Astra’s eyes clouded a bit. “Didn’t think about that, sorry dad,” she said.

“You and Ben put the spiders away, then you can come inside and tell me about your new trick, okay?” he said. Astra nodded and Ben opened his eyes again. It took Greg the better part of the decade to get used to Ben having such a human-like personality. Although, admittedly, Ben didn’t even make himself visible for Greg for the first two years, so he didn’t count those.

Greg returned inside and to his room to put on some actual clothes. After taking a few minutes to wash up and dress, he returned to the kitchen to find Astra and Ben sitting at the table. Ben sat on his haunches on a chair next to Astra. The giant wolf towered over her, even more, when they were seated.

“Alright, what’s this new trick exactly? How did you get it to rain spiders?” Greg asked. He sat down across from them. Ben towered above him too.

“We can put our powers together!” Astra said. She reached up and put her right hand on Ben. She raised her left hand and wiggled it at the table. A small, saucer-sized black portal opened over the table. Immediately, a half-dozen spiders fell out of the portal and onto the table. There were different varieties in a rainbow of colors. Greg didn’t recognize any of them. It always surprised him how he was still seeing new types of spiders after 10 years. The spiders crawled across the table to another portal and disappeared into it.

“Whooa!” Greg chuckled in awe and surprise. 10 years ago Mundo, the owner of the pet shelter, explained what Astra’s and Ben’s abilities were. She also took time to explain the amazing abilities of all Unique Souls. Some were powerful enough to mind control an entire Earth, some strong enough to shatter an Earth. She also took time to explain about the multiverse at large and that Astra could get to any of them at any time. “That’s pretty awesome!” he said.

“Buuuut,” he tilted his head. “You can obviously do it, why make them fall from the sky?” he asked. Astra’s eyes immediately looked at the table between them; her bronze cheeks took on a faint blush.

“It was a test to see what it looks like,” she apologized to the table. “In case it doesn’t snow on Christmas.”

Dreadful Aura

Erin froze in his tracks the moment he focused his Sight on the teenager. He was thankful he didn’t call out to her as he approached to congratulate her on her win. She was too busy basking in the cheers of the crowd around her to notice him standing on the field staring at her.

Erin shook his head to dismiss his Sight and recollect his thoughts. He decided not to approach her right away; she was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. She was tall and athletic with spiked, white hair. And, she was now officially the strongest person on Earth.

One day, a year ago, humans spontaneously developed superhuman abilities. Luckily, the leaders of the world were able to come together quickly to develop a super-powered version of the Olympics. They set a date for a year in the future and opened training camps.

Unlike the training involved for professional athletes, anyone could be superhuman. The winner, Dread, wasn’t the only teenager in the competition, but they were all treated as equals. Her frightening strength wasn’t what gave Erin pause. Her aura was entirely different from every other human he saw; super-powered or not.

Every other person congratulating Dread had a soft purple glow around them. It was the same glow that informed Erin of his new ability. After some practice with it, he found out that seeing someone’s aura was the least useful trait of his ability. With his enhanced vision he could see sharper, clearer,  and farther than anyone. It was useful enough to use often, but not all the time. While approaching Dread, his Sight activated unintentionally. It was only the second time that had ever happened; the first was when humans first got their powers.

The moment he saw Dread’s aura, he knew why his ability turned on. It was scared of her. Her body was surrounded by a ghostly, brilliant, golden skull. It resembled a sugar skull with elegant purple, gold, and black patterns decorating it. The number 42 glowed on the skull’s forehead. When he shook his Sight away, the skull aura disappeared while Dread continued smiling and chatting with her new admirers. Something about the situation didn’t seem right, she seemed friendly enough despite her aura. Erin noticed the crowd around her thinning and decided to get closer before his approach became awkward.

He took three steps, then froze again. Erin’s Sight spontaneously activated again, now there were two horrifying auras. A flowing black cloak and obsidian scythe now stood next to Dread’s golden skull. Erin shook his Sight away again and spotted the difference. There was one more girl in the crowd that wasn’t there when Erin tried to approach a second time. She wasn’t as tall as Dread, but almost as pale, and she had long ribbon-like black curls flowing down over her shoulders.

Erin wasn’t surprised; teleportation was a known ability. The new girl with the death-like aura smiled and seemed as cheerful as Dread. Erin decided he was more curious than scared and decided to try approaching a third time. The celebratory crowd around Dread had died down to less than 20 by the time Erin was close enough to hear the conversation. It seemed to be perfect timing, because he was in earshot when Dread spoke up.

“You guys have been so awesome, but my ride’s here now,” Dread said. She gestured at the curly-haired girl next to her with her thumb. “But I have a question for all of you; what’s your favorite number?”

“35!” Erin shouted. He wanted to be heard over everyone else. Unfortunately, no one else answered. Over a dozen strangers turned to look at Erin with curious and amused expressions. He felt instant embarrassment, as well as surprise. He never gave it much thought and didn’t know he had a favorite number.

“Then, you’re who we’re here to see,” Dread said.

Upward Growth

“Thank you for coming in, Lisa,” Dana Sharp said. The pale woman in a white suit did not stand from behind her desk to greet Lisa. She simply nodded at the chair in front of her. Dana Sharp’s assistant, Melody, stood close by at attention, in a black suit.

“Th-thank you, Ms. Sharp,” Lisa nervously bowed her head as she took her seat. She had been working at Sharp Development for several years already and, it amazed her how enormous the company was. It spread across hundreds of universes and Lisa never expected to meet Ms. Sharp. When she walked into work that day, Lisa had a meeting waiting for her. She literally ran through several universes to get to Ms. Sharp’s main office.

Once Lisa sat down, she couldn’t help but notice the numbers above the heads of Ms. Sharp and her assistant. Thanks to working at the company, Lisa learned her ability was to determine someone’s self-esteem. She was thankful to them because it was something she never would have guessed on her own. The numbers began appearing after she got a tattoo. No one ever had the same number for more than a day. It fluctuated within a range, sometimes from hour to hour. That went for everyone except Dana Sharp and Melody.

The highest number she ever saw was 10. She’d seen people on good days slowly rise up to 10, she’d seen people fall to one from 10 because of a simple mistake. Melody fluctuated, but never in a range. Anytime Lisa saw her with Ms. Sharp, Melody was always at 10. The few times she spotted Melody without Ms. Sharp nearby, the number was always 3.

Ms. Sharp on the other hand, was a real puzzle for Lisa. She had no number floating above her head. Her first thought was that it meant she had no self-esteem. However, that seemed silly for the most powerful woman in hundreds of universes. She bought alternate Earths as easily as buying a pair of socks.

The only other explanation Lisa had was a rumor that was common amongst Sharp Development employees. She thought it was a silly rumor, but she could understand the logic. On her Earth, the only way to get to the top of a corporate hierarchy was to be cold and soul-less as possible. She wasn’t surprised to hear gossip around the office that Dana Sharp didn’t have a soul. If it were true, it might explain why she did not show a self-esteem number. But, Lisa refused to believe that. Ms. Sharp made frequent walk-throughs of all her branches. Despite never meeting her formally, Lisa always appreciated that Ms. Sharp had kind words for all the employees she spoke to.

“I hope you don’t mind if I rush through this,” Dana said. “I’m very busy, and you’re very smart. I know you can keep up.” Lisa felt warm inside and wondered how anyone could doubt Ms. Sharp had a soul. Lisa nodded and scooted to the edge of her chair to be more attentive.

“You have the ability to see someone’s self-esteem,” Ms. Sharp began. “While it’s not for me to decide if this is useful for you or not, I will say it’s not of any particular use to Sharp Development. That being said, we both know you’ve done great work in your role and that has nothing to do with your abilities. To avoid misunderstandings I need to be clear. Your current job is not in any jeopardy.” Ms. Sharp took a moment to smile at Lisa.

“If you’re content where you are, I am comfortable with letting you continue. Although, I do believe you could do more for the company. You could be more.”

“I want to,” Lisa replied without hesitation. It sounded like Ms. Sharp was offering her a promotion, and she was ready to take it. Dana gave a curt nod at Lisa’s eagerness but continued her explanation.

“I won’t accept that. You should know what you’re agreeing to first. This isn’t a promotion as much as it is an upgrade. A risky, medical procedure-like upgrade,” she clarified. Lisa’s eyes widened for a brief moment until she got her surprise under control. She did not work for the medical division, but she’d heard stories. But, like the rumor about Dana’s soul, she decided they were just embellished tales.

“What, exactly?” Lisa asked.

“Your excellent performance is what got you into this meeting,” Dana said. “However, it was not a very large pool of contenders. I am specifically looking for a low-tier plant soul because I believe I can upgrade you to a Mundo.”

Lisa sighed at the phrase ‘low-tier’. It was explained to her that she was Unique Soul #52, La Maceta. But, she was also a C-tier Unique. It helped explain why her ability wasn’t very useful. Mundos were Celestial Uniques, they didn’t even have a C-tier, B was the weakest they got. At the bare minimum, any Mundo could talk to everyone on an Earth mentally. Lisa knew something like that would be helpful for Sharp Development.

“I want to help you, Ms. Sharp,” Lisa said.

“Wonderful, Melody will get you sorted. We’re done here unless you have any last-minute questions?” As soon as Ms. Sharp suggested Melody would be helping her, Lisa noticed the number change above Melody’s head. Her self-esteem dropped to a 3 as if she was anticipating being out of Ms. Sharp’s presence. Lisa almost didn’t ask, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever have such a perfect opportunity again.

“Um, just one,” Lisa said. “It’s not about the job, but there’s something I’m curious about.”

“If there’s one thing we value at Sharp Development, it’s curiosity,” Ms. Sharp smiled and nodded.

“I can see everyone’s self-esteem, except yours. You don’t have a number above your head.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Dana replied.

“Self-esteem is what it sounds like. A person’s opinion of themselves,” she said. Lisa nodded because everyone knew that. “I don’t have an opinion of myself. I know exactly what I am, every second of the day. “

“Ohh,..” Lisa was in equal parts awe, and amusement. A giggle escaped her mouth and she felt obligated to explain it. “I asked others about it, but all I got was the rumor that you don’t have a soul,” she said with a broad smile. Dana Sharp returned the warm smile.

“I don’t, but that’s unrelated to your particular ability.”

Sharp Merriment

“Your name isn’t-,” Santa interrupted his raspy voice with a wet cough. The two women in front of him, Dana Sharp, and her assistant, Melody, waited patiently at a distance for him to finish. He took a deep breath once he was done coughing, then continued. “Your name isn’t on my list at all,” Santa said.

“That’s why we’re here,” Ms. Sharp said. “We’re not from your Earth. Your elves managed to establish contact with the elves of a Santa that works for Sharp Development. You’re sick this year, but it’s not December on every Earth. I have several Santas available to fill in for you. It’s only right that you choose one you’re comfortable with.” Santa’s heavy breathing filled the warm, cozy bedroom.

The large man was in bed under mounds of blankets. The sound of the fireplace crackling added to the sweet and cinnamon aromas coming from the kitchen. He tilted his head at Ms. Sharp.

“What do you mean, ‘one I’m comfortable with’?. I’m no stranger to magic, so I’m willing to believe your story about being from another Earth. But, if there’s one of me there isn’t he the same?” Ms. Sharp shook her head.

“Not necessarily. That doesn’t always happen with standard Zeros, and you’re something else entirely.”

“Zero?” Santa asked.

“Zero is a quicker term than, ‘doppelganger’, and it conveys more meaning in the context of the multiverse.”

“I’m not a Zero? There are other Santas on other Earths, what else is there?”

“Much more,” Ms. Sharp said. “As for what you are, I think I like the word, ‘Myth’. Santa Claus does not exist on every Earth that has the legend. On some Earths, like this one, humanity’s belief in that legend sparks you into reality. You’re as singular as a Unique Soul, but you still have-,” another coughing fit from Santa interrupted her. She waited until he was done.

“-Zeros.”

“If time isn’t the same across all Earths and there’s a robot version of me. If I can suggest it, I think it would be easier to cure me so I can do the job myself,” Santa said. Melody giggled to herself while Ms. Sharp smiled.

“Your suggestion is noted, but you’re wrong in assuming it would be easier. I have seen it all and the one thing I’ve learned is that magic and technology don’t mix very well together,” she said. She paused to think for a moment, then continued. “Truth be told, that’s terrible wording. The problem is they mix together too well. I can deliver technology that will heal you within an hour,” she nodded. “But, the caveat to that is I need about a month of prep time to study your magical aura. One tiny mistake may produce the most random and unforeseen consequences. But, going forward it would be a good idea for you to join Sharp Development.”  Santa chuckled to himself.

“Are you offering me health benefits?” he asked. Although he was joking, he was pleasantly surprised when Ms. Sharp nodded.

“You don’t have to do it alone every year. And, I’m not asking you to abandon your elves; they would get upgraded to better facilities on the North Pole server. They’ll produce higher quality toys with less stressful quotas. They’ll also be in contact with the elves of other Santas. At the same time, you’ll have access to the knowledge and experience of hundreds of Santas. You don’t even have to be ill to take a Christmas off one year. It’s as easy as calling in a substitute if you’d prefer to spend your holidays with the Mrs. I know, I do,” she added. Out of the three people in Santa’s bedroom, only the two women knew how uncharacteristic that last comment was for Dana Sharp.

Melody’s pale face blushed crimson, but she did not react otherwise. Ms. Sharp realized what she said unintentionally, and decided it was a sincere thought on her part. Ms. Sharp went to great lengths to keep her business and private life separate. The fact that her assistant was also her wife made that endeavor much harder. But, Melody was there supporting her at every step. She tried to maintain a professional attitude at all times for Ms. Sharp, and she mostly got it right.

Maybe it was because of the time of year. Maybe it was because they were standing in the center of Santa Clause’s magical existence. But, for one brief moment, Dana Sharp felt comfortable letting her personal life cross over into her business life. She took a single step to the side and grabbed Melody’s hand. Melody inhaled sharply and entangled her fingers in Dana’s, but did not say a word.

“After all,…” she continued. “I’m sure we both love our wives very much.”

“Okay, I’ll choose a substitute, and I’ll join Sharp Development,” Santa nodded with a rosy-cheeked smile that became a hacking cough.

Quest Request

“Is that a quest!?” Lex rushed up to Monica, a stranger he’d never met, asking the question. Despite his sudden approach, he didn’t seem to be threatening her in anyway. He kept a respectful distance and made eye contact when he asked his question. His clothes were a bit odd for an office building, more pajama than business. But, Monica didn’t know what other business occupied the space and didn’t want to jump to conclusions.

“I’m sorry, what?” Monica asked. She hoped she didn’t sound rude. The man’s sudden question pulled her out of her own thoughts and she wasn’t sure she heard him right.

“You said, ‘I’d kill for a coffee’ just now. I was just wondering, is that a quest? I can go get you a cup right now if it is,” he shrugged apologetically. “It’s only my first day here, so sorry if it’s not.”

“No,” Monica giggled and shook her head. “We don’t do ‘quests’ here,” she added air quotes. “At least, as far as I can tell. Maybe your office does things a bit differently, but that’s not a quest,” she said. “But, welcome to the building. It’s a good sign that you’re trying to be helpful on your first day.” 

“Oh, okay, thank you,” Lex gave a stiff, half-bow. “I’ll try to find quests somewhere else; good luck to you.” He turned to leave.

“Hey, hold on,” Monica stopped him. While he wasn’t threatening in any way, something about him didn’t sit right with her. “Are you okay?” she asked. “I don’t know what quests you’re looking for… but you know you’re not in a game, right?” Lex smiled and nodded.

“I know,” he said. “The AlterNet is way more than just a game.” His puffed out chest deflated as soon as he said the words. “Uh oh,” he mumbled. “I’m not supposed to say anything to NPCs.”

“I’m Monica,” she introduced herself with an outstretched hand. “I’m on lunch, how about we get that coffee together?” She asked. It was a snap decision that led into a lie. She wasn’t on lunch, it was nine in the morning, but this man didn’t seem to have that sense of time. Monica knew her boss would understand the situation. This man clearly needed help; his pajamas made a lot more sense. Now that she kind of guessed he was roleplaying his own delusion, his outfit looked more like the flowing robes of a wizard.

“Okay,” Lex nodded. “Maybe I can get a quest there.”

“I’ll bet you can,” Monica said. “So, first day, huh? What floor?” she made conversation as she led Lex to the building’s coffee shop. She also discreetly texted her boss to inform him of the situation. She didn’t want to scare the man, but it would probably be best for security to stand by until the whitecoats got there.

“Oh, no, I don’t work here. It’s my first day in the AlterNet! My Earth barely got access last month.”

“Oh.. your.. Earth?” Monica asked. She relaxed slightly when she saw one of the guards nod at her as she and Lex entered the coffee shop. Her question was met with a sharp smacking sound as Lex facepalmed.

Stupid!” He grumbled to himself.

“Hey, stop it,” Monica grabbed his wrist and pulled it down from his face. “You’re not stupid,” she said.

“Sorry, I’m still trying to remember all the rules of the things I’m not supposed to tell you.” 

“Why can’t you tell me?” Monica asked. They reached a small two-person table and sat across from each other.

“There have been a lot of NPC awakenings happening lately. Ms. Sharp is encouraging the players to avoid talking to NPCs about..,” he sighed. “Some of the stuff I already told you like the AlterNet and Multiverse, and Sharp Development.”

“So… you’re saying I’m an NPC?” Monica asked. Lex nodded.

“And you’re playing some sort of game right now?” she asked. Lex nodded. “What can your character do?”

“I’m an ice wizard,” Lex said. “But, since it’s my first day I only have one starter skill. I’m looking for quests to get more.”

“Well, since I already know, can you prove it to me?” Monica asked. She knew he didn’t have any magical abilities, but she was curious to hear how he evaded the question. Plus it was a good way to stall for time.

“Sure,” Lex nodded. Monica giggled. It was waiting to pop out at his excuse. After she realized he said yes, she noticed a chill breeze caress the back of her neck. Then, she spotted snowflakes falling down around them; inside the coffee shop. “It’s the Flurry skill, it’s not upgraded or anything yet, but hopefully that’s proof.”

Monica stood from her seat to look around. Snow was falling in the coffee shop, but no one seemed to care. The guard that nodded at her stood at attention when Monica stood, but he didn’t move. The other business-dressed patrons seemed unconcerned with the snow piling up on their shoulders and tables.

“Hey, Jim,” Monica managed to pick out a familiar face in the cafe. “It’s snowing,” she said. Monica stretched her arms out to indicate the snowfall around her. Jim tilted his head at her and gave her a curious look.

“And?” he asked. “Never seen snow before?” Monica remembered why she didn’t talk to him much as he refocused on the newspaper in front of him. She returned to Lex at the table.

“Why don’t they think it’s weird?” she asked. Lex shrugged.

“They’re still NPCs,” he said.

“I’m not anymore?”

“No. It looks like you woke up,” Lex said. His hand flew up to smack his face.

“IDIOT!”

Clouded Sun

“No thank you,” Cliff read the words going through his head as the train rolled to a stop. His full name, Cliff Robertson, was on one of the few lines on the first page. The text, ‘No thank you.” followed his name. He returned the small stack of papers to the empty seat, then shuffled his way off the train. He caught a glimpse of the second line, but he didn’t need a script to tell him what he was going to do.

Cliff spent most of his life ignoring unusual, inconsequential happenings. He grew up experiencing magical things, but they happened less and less as he aged. He learned to ignore them the way he assumed other adults did. This note meant for him was just another instance of wonder to ignore. He was looking forward to going home and relaxing at the end of his long week.

Two blocks from his house, a woman popped out of an alleyway in front of him, and she fell in step next to Cliff as he passed. Her hair was purple and she wore a long white coat; he recognized her as the same woman that left the papers on the train.

“Your favorite number is 46,” the woman said. The moment the words left her lips, Cliff stopped walking. He locked eyes with her and nodded with a smile.

“It is, I don’t think I knew that,” he said. Then, he faced forward again and resumed walking. She was quick to keep up with him. “Aren’t you curious how I know that?”

“I make it a point to never be curious,” Cliff replied. As far as he was concerned, he was exchanging pleasantries with another faceless stranger. Although, he did decide he didn’t want the strange woman knowing where he lived. Instead of crossing to the next block, Cliff took a right. The woman followed him.

“But you live back that way,” she pointed at a 10-story, aging building. “Where are we going?”

“I know where I’m going,” Cliff lied with a shrug. “I don’t care where you go.” The woman sighed.

“I was trying to pique your interest with the script and theatrics. I’ve got a job offer for you,” she said while they walked. The scenery deteriorated as they got closer to his apartment complex. Now that they were walking in a different direction, the buildings were looking cleaner.

“I’ve already got a job,” he replied. It seemed like a silly thing to mention because she already knew everything else about him for some reason. But, it was the only thing that came to mind; it would be rude if he just stayed quiet.

“Yeah, a boring one,” the woman said. “Sharp Development has thousands of jobs available on any Earth you want. Live the life you want to live. Don’t waste it in some crappy apartment waiting to die.”  Cliff stopped in his tracks again.

“Different Earths?” he asked. He couldn’t explain the sensation, but somewhere deep inside him, it was like he remembered a fact he’d forgotten about. “Like alternate universes?” he asked. Even as the question left his lips, he knew it was true. The woman nodded.

“You look like an old-west guy,” she said. “You could live out your life on a frontier Earth.” Cliff thought for a moment, then resumed walking. This time, he headed back in the direction of his house. He realized the ruse was a waste since she already knew where he lived. He hoped that once he reached his door he could end the conversation.

“You can’t tell me you’re not interested,” the woman said keeping up with him. Cliff nodded.

“I can,” he said. “I like my life here. It’s not perfect, but I know how to work it. I can do without the complications of alternate Earths. Besides, I imagine I can find the same problems I have here on all the other Earths.”

They crossed to Cliff’s block in silence while the woman tried to figure out a way to convince Cliff to join.

“A tattoo!” She blurted out once the idea hit her. She looked up and realized they were almost to his building. She panicked. “Get a 46 tattooed on you, and you’ll be interested in what’s out there!” she said. Cliff smiled as he unlocked the door. He opened it, stepped in part way to block the entrance, then he turned to face her. He pulled the door closed with a shrug and an apology.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “No thank you.”

Devil’s Night In

“Who’s that scary guy?” Arthur giggled with the toddler in his arms while he pointed at his husband, Eric. “Who’s the scary man?” he repeated while Eric got emergency contact information from the child’s parents.

“Are you sure it’s okay?” Debbie, the baby’s mom asked for the twentieth time in as many minutes. The men seemed like a nice couple but she wasn’t sure ‘nice’ was what her baby needed. They were a far cry from what she expected when the Satanic temple offered her a child-free date night. She and her husband desperately needed to reconnect and she jumped at the chance.

The well-dressed, obviously in love, couple that showed up at her door instantly put Debbie’s mind at ease. That only lasted a moment before guilt took over. These men had no idea what they were in for; how frightening her child could be.

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Debbie turned to her husband. “You know how grumpy Set can be,” she added. Murray sighed at his wife, but shook his head. Then, he looked up at Arthur and Eric.

“You boys are from the temple, you know the situation with Set, don’t you?” Both men nodded, Arthur bounced the baby in his arms while he did.

“They’ll be fine,” Murray grabbed Debbie by the arm and pulled her toward the door.

“Bye honey,” Debbie waved at Set while Murray opened the door. A small whine escaped from Set’s mouth as if he realized what was happening. Debbie stepped through the door; before it closed Set let out a demonic, gravelly wail. A faint cloud of yellow sulfur flowed out of the baby’s mouth. It’s soft skin darkened, hardened, and cracked into crimson scales.

“Oh no,” Debbie turned around to walk back into the apartment, but Arthur shook his head.

“We got this,” he said with a comforting smile.

“RAWAAAAWWWR!” Eric’s tan face was covered with red scales and his eyes glowed orange while he made devil faces at the demonic child. Set giggled. He was so distracted that he didn’t notice his mother turn around and leave.

Sharp Looking Chrome

“And you forgot how to knock over the centuries?” The great mirror-polished wyvern glared at Spa worker. Their uniforms hadn’t changed much over the centuries. He wore the same white shorts and white polo shirt with red trim Chroma saw when she began her hibernation. But, it seemed the service took a noticeable dive. Chroma requested a wakeup call after about a millennia. Instead, she woke to find a man sneaking into her room unannounced.

“I know why you’re here,” she added. “I’m the one that paid for the service,” she grumbled.

“Yes, Ms. Chroma,” The nervous bellboy nodded. Then, he stood patiently, unsure of what to do next. He did not need to wait long.

“Just, Chroma,” the dragon said. Her voice only carried a minor exasperation. The bellboy nodded again, eager to please her. Chroma was one of the Spa’s original founders. Ever since Greg started his job, respect and awe for Chroma was drilled into him every day. He stood at attention waiting to fulfill her every wish. She stared at him for several quiet seconds, then sighed.

Her long, elegant neck swung gracefully around the room until her face hovered a foot in front of him. Greg could see his three-day-old stubble and slightly mussed hair reflected back in each of the mirror-like scales on her face.

“Well?” She asked.

“Uh.. Well what, Ms. Chr- I mean Chroma, ma’am?” Greg stumbled over his words. He was surprised and relieved when he noticed her give an amused eyeroll.

“I need some privacy to slip into something more comfortable; if you don’t mind,”

“Oh! Sorry!” Greg spun around, then shut his eyes for good measure.

“Catch me up,” Chroma said from behind Greg.

“Your aunt continues to maintain her restaurant, Donna Chang’s. She has repaid your investment in full, with six centuries of interest.” Greg said. “Sharp Development expanded into the afterlife before failing. Dana Sharp is dead. After the company dissolved you received 30% of the sale as well as shares of Heaven and Hell. Ruby has taken over as director of the Spa in your absence. Greg bowed his head even though he faced the opposite way.

“And she’s so busy that she couldn’t come and visit her mother?” Chroma said with a playful pout in her voice.

“She’s busy…,” Greg swallowed. He worked hard to earn the right to be the one to brief Chroma. Once he earned the right, things went downhill pretty quickly. He was supposed to have nothing but good news for her, but, the universe had other plans. “The Conquistadors are free,” Greg said. He felt a small hand grab his shoulder and spin him around. He opened his eyes to see a pale woman with chrome hair and platinum eyes staring at him. She was not entirely finished dressing yet. Greg caught sight of a silver sun tattooed just under her collar bone; a red number 46 decorated the center of the sun.

“All of them?” she asked. Greg nodded.

“All of them,” he repeated. “But, Sharp Development managed to get one. La Calavera. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about where it was kept before the company was dissolved.”

“Really?” Chroma pulled back in surprise. Then, she smiled when Greg nodded his affirmation. “Well, that’s different.” The cavern around her seemed to relax completely; Greg felt as if a great weight was lifted off his soul. The positive feeling was so sudden and intense that it bubbled up and escaped through his mouth as a light chuckle.

“Is that good? Even if we don’t know where it is?” he asked. Chroma nodded.

“Different is very good,” Chroma said. She walked past Greg toward the cavern exit with purpose. Greg smiled to himself. He felt like he did a good job; but, then a stray thought formed in the back of his head. He expected Chroma to be eccentric, but as he watched her stride away with confidence he realized he didn’t know why she was so excited.

“Different from what!?” he called out after her. She didn’t stop to answer.

Sharp Empowerment

“…and… he moved on,” Victoria said with a sigh. The pink-haired woman walking next to her nodded in understanding.

“It’s understandable, you were gone for years; but, that doesn’t make it easier.” Lyra patted Victoria on the shoulder. “What will make it easier is you moving on too. Which brings us to here,” Lyra used her arms to gesture at the narrow bridge beneath them. It was only about six feet wide and made of solid white marble. It was built to cross a bottomless void to a circular, red platform in the center.

“Thanks to my promotion, I need someone to take over my former duties. I’ve found that being single makes the job way more fun,” Lyra giggled at Victoria. “There are a few of these, but they’re all the same.”

Victoria looked around in awe. Everything around the bridge, and now as far back as she could see behind her, was enveloped in complete darkness. She saw only the white of the bridge and their approaching destination glowing in red.

“Most of your time will be spent scouting out new Earth. I don’t even bother if they haven’t advanced to at least some version of social media. But, that’s a personal choice. Your job is to recommend Earths to Ms. Sharp, along with a course of action. She can already take over any Earth she wants…,” Victoria heard a nothing but awed respect in Lyra’s voice any time she spoke about Ms. Sharp.

“She doesn’t have time to sit down and plan what she wants to do with every Earth. She trusted me to give her recommendations that would benefit Sharp Development as a whole. And now I’m trusting you.” She smiled at Victoria; her eyes glanced up at the young woman’s hair. Her shade of light purple wasn’t too far off from Lyra’s bright pink hair. “Because I like your hair.” She giggled as they reached the center circle. it was a solid red, 10′ diameter platform. A white, short podium jutted out of the center of the circle. Lyra led Victoria to it.

“Like this Earth for example,” Lyra said. Victoria had a loose understanding of the history that got her there at that moment, so she was interested in hearing a more official version.

“I never would have suggested this Earth. When it was found by a scout, it was just entering the dark ages. That was 30 years ago, and now they’ve colonized the moon.” Victoria was surprised; her eyes widened and she tilted her head.

“Ms. Sharp let that happen?” Lyra nodded, but laughed.

“The scout suggested that Ms. Sharp leapfrog their technology from the dark ages to 2030/2040ish. Humans here never learned how to store energy. They never need to, we keep their world powered and their devices are always on. Unfortunately, that power can only reach as far as their moon.” Lyra shrugged. “They’ll never be able to replicate it.” She gestured at the white podium. The surface outlined a pair of hands side by side.

“Until they meet an Estrella that doesn’t work for Sharp Development,” Victoria said with a smile. She stepped forward to the waist-high podia and placed her palms in the outlines. Her hands immediately glowed with blue light. She pushed plasma energy from her star through the podium at a steady rate to recharge the planet.

“That can’t happen, this is one of Ms. Sharp’s private server. Employees only.”

“She can lock out Uniques!?” Victoria was surprised. She could not even begin to imagine the process involved in locking a universe. Lyra grinned and nodded.

“Ms. Sharp can do anything.”