Renewing Faith

“Uhh…,” Faith pondered the question as she sat on the barstool. The question was unexpected from the tall, gaunt bartender. Normally, she didn’t get questions about what she wanted until after she had a moment to look at the menu or ask questions. He was dressed in crisp white apron with rolled-up flannel sleeves; his forest green hair and beard only added to his hipster look. His white nametag said “Mundo”.  “I guess it’s going to be one of those places,” she chuckled mentally. “Can I get a menu?”

“I’m sorry, Miss,” the bartender said. “This is something of a specialized bar. We don’t serve food here.”

Not surprised…,” Faith grumbled to herself. Then, she shrugged and gave him a friendly smile. “A drink menu still counts as a menu. I’ll look at that,” she said. She walked in looking for food, but being the only patron in a business was one of Faith’s simple pleasures. There was something calming about not having that rushed feeling caused solely by other customers. An afternoon drink wouldn’t hurt. The bartender looked at her for a silent moment, then nodded. He turned around to fiddle with something behind him. When Mundo turned around again, he placed a scrap of paper with “Menu” scribbled at the top and two items listed. ‘Desire’ and ‘Necessity’.

Faith couldn’t help but laugh at his cheekiness. Maybe he was being a smart ass, but she would never know for sure. She preferred to err on the positive side. Faith noticed he relaxed slightly when she giggled. He appeared to be tense and stiff as soon as she walked in the door.

“Alright, smart guy,” she grinned. “What’s in them, then?”  Mundo relaxed enough to rest both hands on the bartop and lean forward.

“How did you find this place?” he asked. As soon as the question left his mouth, Mundo shook his head. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to dodge the question. I’m a little bit confused, you shouldn’t have been able to walk in here without a reason.

“I’ve heard positive opinions about this place. I was hungry and in the area; granted I didn’t know you don’t serve food,” she said. “Do I need more of a reason than that?”

“Usually…,” Mundo said, though he trailed off unsure. “This is something of a magical establishment,” he said. “Most people have an idea of what they’re going to get by the time they find us.”

“With only two options, it’s kind of already 50/50 isn’t it?” Faith asked. Mundo nodded.

“It’s not so much the choices, it’s what they represent; they’re surprisingly literal. Desire helps you focus on your one, true desire in life. It motivates you, and keeps you motivated until you get it. Though, how you get it is entirely up to the individual.. and they usually choose an illegal route.” Mundo paused, but Faith showed no signs of wanting to interrupt. She listened intently with her lips curled up at the corners in a resting smile.

“Necessity does kind of the same thing, in a different way. It helps you realize what you really need in life;” Mundo gave a half-shrug. “When you realize how little you need, it makes you appreciate the things you don’t a little bit more. Without all that worry you can focus on what you really want to do, and you tend to be more conscious about how you get it. Usually less illegal things.”

“Well that’s interesting,” Faith said. “You’ve told me what they do… but what’s in them? Also, new question. Why doesn’t everyone choose necessity? Hearing that explanation makes it pretty obvious to me which is the better route.” Mundo cracked a smile for the first time since Faith walked in; she had no way of knowing it was the first time he smiled in years.

Day after day, hour after hour, someone new walked in drowning in despair and ready for a change one way or another. They never smiled until after they drank, and even then it was completely random. Desire might blank out one person while giving another an uncontrollable smile for a day or two. The same went for necessity, no two people were alike.

Mundo hadn’t realized that “grumpy” had become his default mood over the years as patron after patron walked in with a dark cloud. It didn’t help that they were usually so distracted with the effects, they always forgot to tip. Not that Mundo needed the money to run a magical establishment, but he appreciated the gesture. In theory at least. Mundo turned his back to her again, and Faith heard ice clinking in glass, but he spoke over his shoulder to her.

“That’s the first time I explain it, no one’s ever asked my opinion,” he said. He turned around and placed two glasses of ice water on the bar. He set them a distance apart, then pointed at the one on Faith’s left.

“Desire,” he pointed at the other one. “Necessity.”

“So, it’s just ice-water?”

“Icewater with magic, yeah.” Faith laughed.

“So, can I get one without magic?” Mundo tilted his head.

“You don’t want Necessity? You said that was the best one?”

“Sure,” Faith nodded. “If I wanted one, that’s the one I’d get. But, I’m pretty good. I feel like adding magic would complicate things that aren’t complicated.” Mundo filled another glass of ice water and placed it in front of her, then he pulled the other two away.

“On the house,” Mundo gave her a full-on, ear to ear grin, and he had to admit to himself that smiling felt good. He vowed to try and do it more often in the future.

“Thank you!” Faith smiled. She took a sip, then set the glass down. “So, magic is real?” she asked suddenly. Mundo nodded.

“Well, Mr. Mundo,” she said. “I have a problem. I have a solution too, but I want your input. When I came in here I was already starving to death. Finding out you don’t serve food only made me hungrier somehow. At the same time, I’m sitting here and I just learned magic is real. So, that makes me wonder.. what else is real? Because, there’s more, right? There has to be.” Mundo’s eyes went wide and he nodded vigorously.

“Magic is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

“Right, that’s about what I figured,” Faith placed her small purse on the counter and began digging through it. “So this can go a couple of ways. Either you give me your phone number right now and we’ll get together for coffee or something. OR…,” she pulled out two twenty dollar bills and put them on the bar. “…you order me some pizza and so I can sit here and listen to everything else.” Mundo pushed the pair of twenties back at her. “Pizza coming up, on the house,” he said, still smiling. Pizza from an alternate universe, at that,” he winked.

Truth Revealed

“Well, what can I do for you, Mr. Quintero,” the pale, raven-haired woman asked. She swept her flowing black gown behind her as she sat across from him in her front room. She set up a small, round, two-person table in front of a set of immense bay windows. The curtains were open and a full blue moon hung in the dark sky.

“Uh, I found one of your pamphlets,…,” he dug out a crumpled pamphlet and put it on the table between them. The woman nodded.

“I know,” she gave a soft laugh. “You mentioned that when you made an appointment on the phone, and again when I answered the door. But why are you here?” she asked with a patient smile. “Are you ready to live forever?”

“NO!” Paul sat back in his chair with wide eyes. His host remained quiet while Paul processed the question and his reaction. Why was he here? “I mean…,” he relaxed and leaned forward again. “… maybe? I want information,” he said. “What’s it like?” he asked.

“What’s what like?” she asked for clarification.

“You know…,” he gestured at her with both hands. “…being a vampire.” she shrugged.

“It’s a lot like being a human. Except the sunburns hurt more, and ‘having guests for dinner’ is a bit more literal,” she smiled and flashed a pair of sharp fangs.

“Oh,” Paul said. “Is that it?”

“Well, what did you want?” she asked. “Now that vampires are recognized, we do much less stalking and hiding than we used to.” Paul shook his head.

“No, I mean, the whole living forever thing. How does that work?” he asked. The vampire tilted her head and gave him a confused look.

“You asked about being a vampire, but okay. Now you want to know about living forever. I’ll be the first to tell you, that’s a bit misleading. It’s not actually forever, but it is long enough that when the end finally does come you’ll be sick of living anyway.”

“Hold on,” Paul held a hand up. Her wording confused him. “I did ask about being a vampire… why is living forever a different conversation?”

“Do you want to live forever as a vampire?” she asked.

“Assuming I want to live forever, do I have a choice?” Paul replied. His host nodded.

“Yes, of course.”

“What? How?” he asked. She giggled.

“Okay,” she grinned. “I know how we got here. You thought that “living forever” meant turning you into a vampire, right?” Paul nodded.

“Okay. Well, we don’t do that willy nilly. It’s a whole thing that has to go to Elder Council and everything, it’s harder than getting married these days. So, no. I’m not offering to turn anyone into a vampire.” She watched Paul’s eyes grow wide with questions and kept talking.

“What I am offering you is a new life customized to your specifications for as long as you live, which is a very, very long time.”

“How so? What’s it going to cost me?” In the back of his mind, Paul was pretty ready to accept any arrangement. He didn’t have much to live for, nor that long to live. He found her pamphlet in his oncologist’s office after a terminal diagnosis. He literally had nothing to lose by meeting her.

“I’ll be upfront because I want you to make an informed decision. The required payment is your soul.  As for how-,”

“My SOUL?” Paul interrupted.

“Of course,” she said. “You think that body is going to live for centuries? By signing over your soul, you give permission to put your soul in a new body. One that you’ve customized by the way.”

“Huh,” Paul had to admit it made sense in a way. “Okay… I’m still thinking about it. How does it work?” he asked.

“Do you like video games?” she asked.

“Yeah…,” Paul nodded, unsure where the question came from.

“Alright, well that’s the easiest way to explain it. Imagine going through a character creator to make your new body; that’s pretty much what it is. You can pick a race, soul, and class to live out the rest of your life. After you make your character you can choose what kind of world you live in.”

“What kind of world? What kinds are there?”

“Anything you want, prehistoric to futuristic sci-fi. Utopias, dystopias, zombie hordes, vampire societies. If you can imagine it, there’s a world out there for you.” Paul narrowed his eyes.

“You’re making it up. Everything,” he said. “You expect me to believe that you can put my soul in any body I want, then put that body on any Earth I want to live for the rest of my very long life?” She gave a firm, deliberate nod. Paul chuckled. “Do you have any proof?” She smiled with her fangs and stood from the table.

“I don’t suppose it’d be enough proof if I told you I’ve done it myself,” she said. Paul shook his head with the same deliberate motion she used.

“What if I did this?” she asked as she tapped the table with her fingertips. It immediately disintegrated into white powder that fell to the floor and disappeared. As Paul debated whether it was a simple stage-trick, he felt his seat fall apart under him. He managed to hop to his feet instead of landing on his butt. As he looked around, everything in the room became the same white powder and collapsed. Then, the room and house they stood in melted vanished into white powder. In less than two minutes, the house, neighborhood, and city as far as he could tell, were gone. They stood on a vast white, powdery plain. Paul only had one question left.

“Was it worth your soul?” he asked.

“It’s the best deal I ever made,” she replied.

AlterNet Perspective

“I can’t wait ’til I turn 40…,” Tommy sighed. The 11-year-old boy sat on his parent’s bed watching his mother help his father get ready for his 40th birthday party. His dad, a lean, muscular man stood up straight with his arms held out at a 45-degree angle. His wife wrapped an elegant golden silk cloth around his waist and up his back over his shoulders. His pants were also silk, but dyed black instead. Both his parents smiled non-stop, Tommy felt an excitement in the air. He’d been to 40th parties before, but as a family member, his experience was different this time.

40th birthdays were a community event, and everyone in the community was happy to pitch in to make the day special for the family. This would be Tommy’s first party where he didn’t have to do any set up before or clean up after. He could enjoy the food and fun worry-free, no wonder his parents were smiling so much.

“I hope you’re not expecting to just turn 40 and die without working for it,” Tommy’s dad reminded him with a smile. He hoped talking about it might inspire Tommy the way he was inspired when his father turned 40. “The sooner you pick your class, the sooner you can start putting effort in.” While his wife walked another lap around him with the silky garment, Tommy’s dad used his free hand to pat his abs. “This didn’t happen by accident; I started training as a monk when I was about your age,” he said. Tommy narrowed his large brown eyes at his dad.

“But if your body is planted… what’s the point of getting muscles?” he asked.

“It’s not about the muscles,” his dad replied as Tommy’s mom tied the garment around his waist. “It’s about the discipline it took to get them. Your soul goes with you to the next life, and discipline is how strong your soul is. I chose Monk, and I conditioned my body as a way of training my soul.” His wife finished tying and stepped away to get something from the closet.

“Your mom decided to be a Dancer, you see her practicing that every chance she gets. Whatever class you pick for your next life, start working on it in this one.” It was the best advice his father gave him, and he hoped it stuck with Tommy.

“I don’t want to exercise…,” Tommy whined. “I want to be a wizard or a Card Mage.” His dad smiled at him.

“Every class has its own way of improving, you don’t have to wear yourself out physically. Studying is a valid way to practice your discipline too.” Tommy’s mother walked out of the closet with a flowing white silk robe that she helped her husband put on. She tied it closed with a golden belt, then stepped back next to the bed to admire him.

“Well, how do I look?” Tommy’s dad asked.

“Good enough that I want to be buried in there with you,” his wife said with a wink.

“Well, I’m sure the council wouldn’t have a problem with sneaking you to the next life with me. Married couples do it all the time with bigger age differences.”

“Oh, don’t tease me,” she said. “I might take you up on it.”

“You should,” he grinned.

“Yeah, mom! GOOO!” Tommy cheered.

“I couldn’t…,” she gave a mild protest. “I’m not ready. And who would take care of Tommy?” At that moment, father and son perfectly resembled each other. Two pairs of large brown eyes rolled upward in their heads. Tommy’s dad walked forward and wrapped his arms around his wife.

“You act like there haven’t been procedures in place for this kind of thing for hundreds of years,” he said. “He gets everything instead of you,” he shrugged. “No big deal. It’s not like the council is going to let him slack on his studies.”

“I…,” she hesitated and looked down at her son. “Would you really be okay with it?” she asked. Tommy stood from the bed, crossed his arms, and screwed his face up into a scowl.

“NO!” he said. His sudden, harsh tone surprised both his parents. “I REFUSE to let my mom have the happiest day of her life ever…,” he planned to keep the act up longer. However, that was as far as he made it before the boy burst into giggles. His parents sighed in relief when the laughter started.

“Of course you can go,” he smiled but his tone sounded melancholy, but his mother identified a tiny bit of jealousy too. “I can’t wait ’til I turn 40…”

Shadowy Sponsor

“Before we start..,” Ace grinned at his crew. The group of eight ranged in age from 19 to 27, with Ace in the middle at 23. They all stood in the middle of what seemed to be an endless wheat field.  “I’ve got great news! This is our first sponsored episode!”

“No way!” Debbie cheered loudest; though, everyone had a positive reaction. Sponsorship meant Debbie wasn’t financing their show entirely out of pocket. “That’s awesome!” She wanted to find out more, but Ace put on his work face and started getting them organized.

“I’ll go first like we planned,” Ace said. “Then, before I pass it on to you…,” he pointed at Debbie. “…I’ll just say a quick intro for the sponsor for Mike to put the ad spot in later. ” Seven heads nodded in agreement and Ace smiled.

“Alright guys, let’s get started.” Ace walked through the amber wheat until he stood about 15 feet away from Mike the cameraman. After the two shared a countdown, Ace spoke into the camera.

“Hello and welcome to, AlterNet Advice where we share everything you need to know to make the best of your class. In this episode, we’ll be covering Bards, Spellslingers, Dancers, Librarians, and Card Mages. I’ve been wanting to do this episode for a while because as most of you regular viewers already know…,” Ace held up his hand. A  single white card materialized in his fingertips.

“Card Mage is something I know a little bit about.” He fluttered his fingers and the card disappeared. “Like always we’ll take turns covering the basics of our classes, then we’ll have a second round of more advanced advice for certain souls.”

“Unlike most other classes, the Card Mage only has two recognized sub-specializations. Those are the Gambler, and the Card Mage proper. A word of advice here, do not spec into Gambler if you are not Unique Soul #25, El Borracho.”

“Gamblers are entirely luck-based, and every other Gambler you meet will be a Borracho able to control their luck, and yours.” Ace reached into his pockets with both hands and then brought them up in front of the camera to show two decks of cards.

“A Card Mage’s abilities are defined by their decks. They can use a maximum of two different themed decks at the same time. I like to use Robot and Ninja decks, but there are many to choose from. Pirates, Steampunk, Magic and Clowns just to name a few.” Both decks disintegrated out of his hands.

“So, what does a Card Mage do, you might ask,” Ace said. “Thanks to their deck variety, a Card Mage can fill any spot on a derby team. However, their main skillset revolves around controlling the flow of the game.” Ace held up a card and Mike zoomed in on it. The card showed a green forest.

[Zone: Fairy Forest] a deep voice announced. The amber around Ace disintegrated at the same time that tall green pine trees shot up out of the ground. In seconds the amber field was replaced with a dense forest full of bright, tiny dancing lights.

“Zones let you control your play field for various bonuses. The Fairy Forest grants a boost in resource-gain for your team. The earlier you get this zone out, the better it is for your team in the long run.”

[Zone: Fairy Graveyard] the deep voice announced again. The vibrant green trees withered down to black and brown trunks. The multicolor dancing lights all changed to a single color: red.

“The Fairy Graveyard heals your team members a small amount for every lap they complete. You’ll find there are cards for everything; from these examples to some powerful cards that damage the opposing team when they complete a lap.

“Spell cards and Summon cards are exactly what you’d think. Use Spell cards to buff your teammates or your own monsters called with a Summon card.”

“And finally there are Trap cards that can be activated under specific circumstances or as reactions. Learn to use them.” The dead forest melted and became windswept wheat again. “That’s it for the Card Mage basics, we’ll go more in detail in a bit,” He nodded at Debbie off-camera so she would be ready.

For now, I’m going to pass it over to Debbie so she can talk to you all about the Dancer class. But before that, here’s a word from our sponsor- Raid: Shadow Legends.”

Sun Busted

“JOHN!!” John froze when he heard his name. The soft, frighteningly familiar voice made the hair on his neck stand on end.

“Who’s that, dear?” John’s wife, Ella, asked. She turned to face the voice and John followed her eyes. A tall, blond woman walked up to them with a broad smile. John swallowed.

“Hi, how did you know my name? Have we met? This is my wife, Ella,” he held up their clasped hands as proof.

“Wife? You never told me you had a wife!” the woman said.

“WHAT?!” Ella let go of John’s hand but kept her focus on the strange woman. “What do you mean he never told you he had a wife?”

“Oh no, wait! I’m sorry,” the woman took a step back and held her palms up to show she meant no harm. “I forgot I was in a different universe,” she said. “You’re probably not my John.”

“Different universe?” Ella asked. She narrowed her eyes at the woman, then glanced at John with a stern look. It wasn’t common knowledge outside their relationship, but John had been working on accessing alternate universes his whole life. She got the feeling he was on the verge of a breakthrough, and it seemed odd that a strange woman appeared claiming to be from another universe.

“Oh, yeah. You probably won’t believe me, but I can prove it. I’m from a different universe,” she locked eyes with John. “In that universe, I married John,” she said. “But he’s probably in other universes too,” she said. Ella stared at the woman. The stranger was slightly taller than her, but they both had fair skin and blonde hair.

“Am I.. you in this universe?” she asked. The woman smiled but shook her head.

“There aren’t any other versions of me, I’m something called a Unique Soul. Specifically #35, La Estrella,” she held out her wrist to show them a blue star tattoo with the number 35 on it.

“Well, it was nice meeting you. We’ll let you get back to your traveling, bye now,” John said. He grabbed Ella’s wrist to try and pull per away. She stood firm.

“John!” she said. “She’s from another universe! You know, your life’s work??”

“Oh, I know. But.. uh. I just figured out the last problem! I solved it! Let’s get home so I can work on it!” he said.

“Well, go on ahead, then,” Ella looked at the woman. “I’d like to talk to you some more, if you don’t mind?” she asked. The woman smiled broadly.

“I don’t mind at all! We can talk about our Johns. Did you know, my John’s favorite number is 46?” she asked.

“46?” Ella asked. The number sounded familiar for some reason. However, she had a woman from another universe standing in front of her, and her husband, John, desperately wanting to go home, but not alone. She was too distracted to place it. The woman nodded.

“That means he’s a Unique Soul too. There are no other versions of him in any universe. There’s only one John,”

“You hungry babe? I’m starved, let’s go eat,” John said, tugging at her hand again. Ella tilted her head at the woman.

“Only one John? If your John is a Unique … how did you mistake my husband for him?” she asked. The woman shrugged and raised her hand to wiggle her fingers at the air. A black portal opened beside her.

“Some people just look similar I guess, without actually being the same person. If he were really my John, the cheating Unique Soul that has wives on at least four Earths that I’ve found so far…,” she said as she stepped one foot into the portal. “…it’d be easy to prove.” She stepped completely into the portal and turned around so that only her face peeked out. “My cheating husband has a tattoo of a sun on his back with a 46 in purple numbers,” she smiled one last time before the hole disappeared. Ella remembered why the number was so familiar.

Sharp Reins

“What do you mean, no?” Antonio, the current head of the Russo crime family, narrowed his eyes at the man sitting across from him. He wore a crisp white suit with a bright red tie; the man nodded at Antonio.

“It’s not a difficult concept, Mr. Russo. No. As in, if you pursue this action, Sharp Development will pull all our funding out of your organization.

“What’s the big deal? What’s so special about a crappy Chinese restaurant? Ms. Sharp was happy to help us wipe out everyone else in the area, why not Chang’s place? They just opened yesterday, we gotta move fast so they don’t get comfortable.”

“First,” the white-suited man said. “Let me remind you that Sharp Development is not obligated to clarify its reasoning to you. The contract was simple: follow orders, get rewarded.” Antonio clenched his fists in frustration; the only thing he could do was listen. Sure, he could have the man in front of him killed. But that was only a temporary solution, he wasn’t the problem. No matter who he killed, Ms. Sharp would just send another one. Despite the money flowing in and success of his empire, it bothered Antonio that it wasn’t his success. Someone else, a woman at that, was calling the shots. And she was good at it. This wasn’t the first time Antonio swallowed his pride; but, he felt it was getting close to the last time.

“Second…,” the man in white visibly relaxed. He tilted his head at Antonio and smiled. “…it’s for your safety.”

“What do you mean?” Antonio asked. “My boys can handle-,” he was interrupted by the man shaking his head. 

“You said the place opened yesterday, right?” he asked. Antonio nodded. “Think back. The day before yesterday, or even last week. What was there before the restaurant?”

“It’s -,” Antonio started to say that it’s been there. But in actually thinking about it, he realized he passed by the empty lot every day for years. “It was empty,” he said, surprised. The man nodded. 

“Consider the fact that a three-story building magically appeared from nowhere, and everyone just accepts it. And, believe me when I tell you, Donna Chang is out of your league. She can single-handedly kill every single one of your men without breaking a sweat. She might look 100 years old, but don’t underestimate her; she’s actually much older.”

“Ms. Sharp is invested in your family,” he added. “She would rather not lose that investment on account of someone else’s stupidity. Donna Chang’s is not to be threatened in any way, is that clear?” he asked.

Antonio nodded, “Yes boss.”

Friend of Steves

“That’s awesome, Steph,” Dahlia said. “I’m glad you got in,” Her response wasn’t as excitement filled as Stephanie hoped. Their friendship of several years made it easy for her to see that Dahlia was still bothered by her lack of doppelgangers. Stephanie felt a sting of regret for bragging about her invitation and tried to shift the focus to Dahlia. 

“You still haven’t heard anything?” she asked. Dahlia shook her head.

“Maybe there aren’t any more of me out there,” she said. She hated the thought, but she knew she had to consider it. She hoped she’d get to meet at least one other version of herself. Stephanie met a whole guild comprised solely of her doppelgangers only a week after she applied to the Universal Match program. Two weeks after that, they invited her to join them. Stephanie suddenly had dozens of people that would understand her like no one else could. Dahlia hated to admit it, but jealousy blossomed in her.

“You want me to ask the Council?” Stephanie asked. “They’re goofs, but supposedly one of the smartest guilds there is.”  Dahlia met Stephanie’s eyes through narrow slits.

“The Council of Steves is one of the smartest guilds there is?” she asked with more than a hint of sarcasm. Stephanie chuckled but nodded.

“We Steves do get around,” she said with a grin. Despite her sour mood, Dahlia couldn’t help but laugh. She knew Stephanie; if the rest of the council were as determined and curious as her, their reputation would make sense.

“Alright,” Dahlia nodded. “See if you can find out anything for me, please.”

“On it!” Stephanie said. She pulled her node out of her pocket and Dahlia’s envy stirred. The card-sized glass rectangle was only awarded to citizens with doppelgangers. The way Steph explained it to Dahlia was that it worked like a smartphone across universes. She could connect with any of her doppelgangers in the guild from her universe; at the moment she was asking for information.

“That was fast,” Steph said after a moment. She brought the node up and read the display. “Your favorite number’s still 52, right?” She asked as she typed on the node. Dahlia tilted her head.

“Yes. When did I get a favorite number, and how did you know?” She noticed Steph roll her eyes.

“Well, I’ve only known you for 15 years. You hadn’t noticed that any time we need random numbers for something, the first number out of your mouth is always 52? ALWAYS,” she emphasized.

“…hadn’t noticed…,” Dahlia said quietly. She started to wonder what other habits Steph noticed about her that she wasn’t aware of.

“Cool, problem solved.” Steph sat up with a smile. “The Council of Steves totally came through for you.”

“They found other versions of me!?” Dahlia perked up immediately; but, she was deflated when Stephanie shook her head.

“The bad news is there aren’t any other versions of you. Anywhere.”

“What?” Dahlia asked.

“The good news is, that means you’re something called a Unique Soul. You have powers. You, specifically, can talk to plants and see stats above people’s heads.”

“What kind of stats?” Dahlia asked. She focused on the empty space above Stephanie’s dark hair, but didn’t see anything.

“I don’t know, but you need to get a tattoo of the number 52 to activate your powers.”

“Yeah, like I have spare cash right now,” Dahlia sighed. “I guess it’s on the list.”

“Nah,” Stephanie grinned. “Council of Steves has you covered there too.” Before Dahlia could ask what she meant, a tall black hole appeared in the center of her room. A lean bald man covered in tattoos walked out carrying a leather backpack.

“Who’s the plant?” he asked. Dahlia turned to give Steph a confused look then noticed Stephanie was pointing at her. The tattooed stranger stepped up to Dahlia and looked down at her. “Where do you want it?” he grinned.

Sharp Delicacy

“Huh?” Megan tilted her head a the mystery opening that appeared in the back of the freezer. She bumped the shelf while rotating the inventory; one of the metal slats on the shelf bent surprisingly easily. The moment it did, she heard a click. She saw a thin line of red light coming through an opening in the freezer wall.

Megan was there early to open the restaurant that day; she was the only employee there when she found the door. Curiosity encouraged her to push it open and she walked through.  On the other side, she found what appeared to be a second freezer.

It was a cold, dim room. Metal shelves held dozens of boxes; they looked pink under the red light filling the room. She stepped closer to examine one. She used the light on her phone to determine it was actually a white box with a red scissor logo on the top. She looked for as shipping label, or anything that might hint what was inside, but there was nothing. Not even a date.

“That’s weird,” she said to herself. “And dangerous,” she decided to check what was inside; she hoped there might be a date on the items themselves, whatever they were. In the back of her mind, she started noting health code violations. Megan tended to be a stickler for food safety. She was determined to land the top chef spot as soon as possible; and, she was happy to be able to point out operational errors to get noticed. She pointed her phone at herself, then started recording.

“Uh, I don’t know what’s going. I found a secret, different freezer in the regular freezer.” She rotated the phone around to show the dim, red-lit room. “And I found this box with no dates on it. There are several other boxes here, none of them seem to have dates either. They all look about the same so I’m guessing whatever’s in this one is in the rest. Let’s go take a look,” she said, then paused the recording.

Megan carried the box and her phone out of both freezers and carried it to a stainless steel prep-table. She organized herself and started recording again.

“I’m opening the box to see what’s inside,” she said, then pulled the lid off. “It’s meat,” she said, somewhat disappointed. She reached in and grabbed one of the dozens of packages and pulled it out to show the camera.  It was packaged in clear plastic and shaped like a cube. 

“…No date…,” she said while she rotated the meat cube in front of the camera. The meat had the bright red color of beef, but as she moved it, she noticed it seemed to shimmer in the light. It almost appeared to have thousands of tiny flecks of gold running through it.

“Weiiird…,” she said. “You see that?” She asked her unknown audience. Megan hadn’t decided who to show the video to yet. She considered she wouldn’t have to show anyone if she found a date and everything was normal. “The way it catches the light, oh I hope this comes out on camera,” she said. Shimmery meat was not normal.

“I need to smell it,” she decided aloud for the camera. She walked away from the table, then returned with a knife. She cut a slit in the package, brought it up to her nose, and inhaled deeply.  The moment she did her eyes went wide.

“WHAT THE HELL!?” she pulled the package away from her nose and shook her head as if trying to get the scent out of her nose. She looked down at it after several moments, then slowly raised it again. She gingerly brought it closer to her nose as she started inhaling; she wanted to catch the sent as soon as she could. “No way!” she threw the package on the table, then reached in the box for another. She wasted no time slicing it open and bringing it up to her nose.

“I don’t know what this is…,” she said to the camera. “But it smells like…,” she paused and a faint smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “You’re not going to believe me, but you’ll be able to smell it for yourself. It smells like popcorn. Exactly like hot, fresh popcorn from the theater.”

“It smells like coffee to me,” a voice said behind Megan. She jumped and whirled around to find the owner holding his morning mug of coffee. Before Megan could say anything, the owner kept speaking.

“Well, you’re in on it now. Leave those two out,” he nodded at the two packages Megan opened. “They’re ruined if we don’t use them right away. Put the rest away where you found it, and I’ll explain.”  He carried his coffee into the office while Megan covered the box again and carried it into the freezer. The owner was prepping a pan by the stove when she returned to the kitchen.

“Gloves,” he told her as she approached. She nodded and was wearing a pair of gloves by the time she reached him. He picked up a cube of meat and emptied it out onto her hands.

“Do you know what this is?” the owner asked.

“Meat?” Megan answered with a shrug. He nodded and chuckled.

“Do you know what kind?” he asked. 

“No,” Megan shook her head.

“How did you find it?” he asked.

“It was an accident while restocking,” she said. Megan explained how she accidentally pulled a lever and found the room. She explained her curiosity and search for dates for health reasons. The owner listened intently, but he seemed focused on the meat in her hands.

“Have you heard of the AlterNet?” he asked while eyeing the meat. Megan tilted her head.

“Alternate what?” she asked.

“Nevermind, we’ll get to that later. Alright, let me ask you this. Can you do Ruben’s job?” he asked about the head cook. Megan had no doubts and nodded vigorously.

“I can do it better,” she said. The owner kept his eyes on the meat in her hands, then smiled.

“Okay. Ruben doesn’t know about this, he nodded at the mystery meat. “It would be helpful to have a chef that did know, and he’s not ready for this.”

“Not ready for what?” Megan asked. She raised the meat slightly. “This?” she asked. The owner nodded.

“Lie to me. Rigth now, make up anything you know is a lie.”

“I think you’re the most handsome man I’ve ever seen and I want to get you alone for a good hour at least,” she said. As soon as the words left her mouth, the cube of meat in her hands began to glow with a soft white aura.

“Ouch,” the owner said with a chuckle. Megan pushed the glowing meat out at him in fear.

“What’s going on!?” she asked. The owner took the meat from her hands and it stopped glowing.

“My name is Mary,” the owner said. The meat again began to glow with soft light.

“This is unicorn meat. It glows around lies,” he said. The glow dissipated. “It doesn’t expire unless it’s exposed to air.” The meat did not glow. “My name is Julie,” he said. It immediately started glowing again.

Guy vs. Gal

“Aww…  crap,” Dennis sighed the moment he became aware of his surroundings. He sat inside a confined, cramped stainless steel cubicle with his pants around his ankles.

“For a good time call Dana Sharp” was etched on the shiny door in front of him along with several other artistic expressions in heavy black marker. He felt something in his hand and checked the note.

“This body will die in 10 minutes. Figure out how, and prevent it.” There were more details below, but that’s where Dennis stopped reading; he learned all the information he needed. He collected himself, then exited the stall. He stopped in front of the mirror to check his appearance; then, gave a grumbling nod of acceptance.

“I hate this one,” he said to the balding, chubby-cheeked gentleman in the mirror. “At least it’s only 10 minutes,” he consoled himself as he exited the restroom and stepped out into the upscale restaurant.

The dining room was crowded with suits and dresses; each diner looked like the type to have summer houses and yachts. They wore watches and jewels that were more expensive than Dennis’ yearly salary. He stood in place surveying the restaurant. He did not know which table was his, but it wouldn’t matter in 10 minutes anyway.

After a couple of minutes of standing in place, he spotted a beautiful woman. The restaurant was full of them, but this one stood out because she was sitting alone in a dim corner with a distraught look on her face. Even from across the dining room he could tell she was crying.

“Awwww, damnit,” Dennis rolled his eyes even as his feet started to carry him toward her table. The moment he saw her, he made a decision. He hated the decision, but he knew better than to argue with his own nature; he never won.

“You okay, Miss?” he asked once he reached her table. She looked up like a startled puppy.

“It’s YOU!” she hissed a whisper. “I don’t know what’s going on! I don’t know how I got here! I don’t want to!” she trembled and looked up at him with pleading eyes. “Can you help me???” she begged. Dennis rolled his eyes mentally again as he nodded and sat down.

“Calm down, it’s okay,” he said. “You got a note, right?” he asked. She nodded vigorously and dropped a crumpled sheet on the linen table cloth. Dennis shook his head.

“I can’t read it, it’s for you only.” She narrowed her eyes at him.

“How did you know I got a note? How do you know you can’t read it, you didn’t even look at it,” she asked. Dennis held his palms up to try and gesture for her to keep calm.

“You don’t remember anything, that’s okay,” he said. “It’s supposed to happen; you know, part of the game.”

“What game?” she asked, she tapped the paper. “It said I have 10 minutes to kill you. How is that a game?”  Dennis chuckled. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his own paper note, then handed it to the woman. She took it, and looked it over on both sides.

“It’s blank,” she said. Dennis shook his head.

“It’s not blank. Only I can see it, the same way only you can see yours. My instructions say I have 10 minutes to figure out how I’m going to die and prevent it,” he said. The woman gave him a confused look.

“It’s a game!” he said. “I have to survive for 10 minutes, you have 10 minutes to kill me. Trust me, I’ve been on the killer end before too.”

“Game?” she asked. “How is this a game? I’m sitting here with a real gun in my purse. I feel a buzz because I chugged a couple of glasses of wine when I got my note.” Dennis chuckled.

“Let me see the gun,” he said.

“What?” she asked. Dennis nodded and gestured with his hand.

“Hand it over, trust me.” She only hesitated for a moment before digging through her purse to pull out a heavy black iron revolver. She hid it behind the purse, then discreetly passed it to him under the side of the table. The moment it was in his hand he jumped to his feet and waved the gun in the air.

“I’ve got a gun! I’ve got a gun!” he yelled. The woman panicked with wide eyes, then she noticed no one cared. The well-dressed patrons continued to eat, unconcerned.

“Why aren’t they -,” She began to question Dennis, but she was interrupted by an ear-splitting *BANG!*.  A waiter toppled to the ground holding his bloody chest. “WHAT THE FU-,” she screamed, but stopped when the waiter’s body disappeared. In moments, the same waiter walked out of the kitchen.

“They’re NPCs,” Dennis said as he put the gun back on the table.

“You and I are the only real ones here. We’re both playing the game. Players are assigned random matchups in a regular rotation of games. This is probably your first time getting this stage; the memory wipe for this one is kind of harsh until you get used to it. After the game, you’ll go back to your body and have your normal memories again.

“So.. did I lose?” she asked with a chuckle. Dennis shook his head.

“You still have a couple of minutes to kill me.  I kind of figured this was your first time, usually the killer spots me as soon as I step out of the restroom. If this is your first time on this stage, you’re probably new to the AlterNet in general,” he said.

“Alternate what?” she asked. Dennis chuckled and shook his head.

“You’ll remember later. Anyway, to welcome you to the AlterNet,” he nudged the gun in her direction. “I’ll let you win this round. But add me to your friend list after the game, I want a real rematch.”

“Okay!” she grinned as she grabbed the gun off the table and aimed at his head.

Letter of Acceptance

Alice hid trembling and frightened.
The dark closet was her final defense.
Her jaw was clenched, her fists: tightened.
Across the Earth roamed an evil presence.
Walking skeletons slaughtered the living.

Her trembles bumped open a box;
an envelope fell out. her name and a note like a bold header.
“Alice: Extreme emergencies only. (P.S. Your dad rocks.)”
She smiled at the unopened letter.

It was the only reminder of her father; she held her breath.
He was a practical joker with a dark sense of humor.
“This is definitely extreme; it’s life or death,”

She smiled at the card signed by her dad; it was somehow relieving.
A cartoonish tombstone engraved, surrounded by flowers in bloom.

“See you soon!”