Quest for Disturbing the Peace

“Bradley Nielson?” A young woman in white asked. She stood on Brad’s porch and questioned him as soon as he opened his door. Her mostly colorless outfit was reminiscent of a postal uniform with a single red pair of scissors on her breast pocket.

“Yeah!” he grinned eagerly.

“Sign here,” she handed him a clipboard and pen. He signed the document, then exchanged the clipboard for a small white box.

“Thank you!” he said. The woman nodded, lifted her hand to wiggle her fingers in the air, then stepped into the black portal she created. The hole disappeared behind her leaving Brad alone on Earth again. He rushed back inside and sat at his kitchen table to open the box. After opening the first flap he found a small card.

[Welcome to the AlterNet!] was written on the top followed by a short thank you note signed by Dana Sharp. He tossed the card on the table then grabbed the node under it. It was a thin glassy rectangle the size of a playing card; the display came to life as soon as he touched it. It repeated the same greeting atop the card with even more information.

[Welcome to the AlterNet!]
[Server Name: Brad’s]
[Server template: Last Man on Earth]
[Server Access: Uniques Only]
[Server Owner: Bradley Nielson]
[Would you like to install a new template?]
[Yes] [No]

“Finally!” Brad breathed a sigh of relief as he hit the [No] option. He loved being the last man on Earth. When he first came across a node he was thrilled he could live out his fantasy of an empty Earth. He was so committed to his spending the rest of his days in solitude that he destroyed his original node so that he wouldn’t be tempted to change his mind. Not long after that, the trouble started and his regret grew a little more each day. While he tapped and swiped at the node in search of the option he did want to change, a solid knock came from his front door.

“Damnit!” he grumbled as he looked up at the door. He debated not answering it, but when his eyes wandered back to the node, the knock came again. He stood from the table with a heavy sigh and walked to the door. “This is the last time,” he told himself to try and calm down. He opened the door without checking the peephole and was unsurprised to find a stout dwarf with a red bushy beard that nearly touched the floor. The dwarf wore heavy iron armor and he had an axe strapped to his back.

“Hi! Are you the last-,” the dwarf began asking the question that Brad heard every day for the month it took to get a replacement node. Brad interrupted.

“I am the last man on Earth,” he said curtly and held his hand out. “I appreciate your care package adventurer. Your quest is over, thank you, and have a good day.”

The dwarf gave him a puzzled look, but nodded and handed Brad a basket with a loaf of bread, a full skin of water, and half a dozen eggs.

“Good luck!” the dwarf said. He wiggled his fingers at the air, then stepped through the black portal that appeared. Brad sighed and dropped the basket on the floor. He resumed swiping at the node until he found the list of server options. He scrolled down, then cleared one of the checkboxes.

[Disconnect Server: Brad’s from AlterNet quest generation?]
[Yes] [No]

He tapped [Yes], then scrolled down to clear another checkbox.
[Do you wish to block Unique access to Sever: Brad’s?]
[Yes] [No]

He tapped [Yes], then breathed a sigh of relief.
“Now, finally, I can be alone,” he smiled to himself.

Sunny Outlook

“Wow…,” Fran sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. She narrowed her eyes at her handsome date sitting across from her. She was pleasantly surprised when he looked better in person than in his pictures. Something about his lopsided smile and bushy brows wasn’t photogenic; but, in person, he made her knees weak. Conversation flowed easily between them and by the time dessert came, she was ready for at least two more dates. Then, he decided to ‘be honest’. “…that’s a hell of a ghost story,” she said. “You could just be an adult about things and say you’re not interested in a second date.”

“Huh?” It was Ben’s turn to narrow his eyes at her. “I can’t wait for a second date, what are you talking about?” he asked.

“I’m going to get my hopes up like I always do, then when the day comes I won’t hear from you. Maybe for weeks, maybe never again. And I’m just supposed to go on with my life thinking you got sent back to your universe and can’t get back to mine, right?” Fran took a tiny bit of offense when Ben chuckled and shook his head.

“No,” he said. “I’m not trying to ghost you; I really like you. That’s why I’m being honest. If I wait until down the line you might think I was hiding it from you. I didn’t say I’m stuck here. My job’s on this Earth, I’m here every day Monday through Friday.”

“You expect me to believe, not only are alternate universes real; but, traveling between them is so easy you can commute to a job on another Earth?” Ben nodded and shrugged.

“I mean, yes?” he chuckled again. “I expect you to believe it because it’s true. Obviously, I don’t expect you to believe it without proof,” he replied as the waitress dropped off their check.

“Do you have money for this Earth?” Fran asked with a playful, sarcastic tone. If he said he would prove it, she was willing to go along with it for now; she hadn’t realized how much she liked him until she thought she wouldn’t see him again.

“I have money for every Earth,” Ben replied. He handed the puzzled waitress a white credit card with a red scissor logo on it.

“So…,” he asked after the waitress walked away to charge him. “…what kind of Earth do you want to see on our second date?” he asked.

“I thought we were going to see yours?” she asked. Ben nodded.

“Eventually. I’m kind of embarrassed because it’s pretty dystopian. But, I don’t need to take you to my Earth to prove how easy travel to other universes is. So, what have you always wanted to see?” he asked.

“Like what? What’s out there?”

“Anything. If you can imagine it, it’s out there. Dragons, unicorns, zombies, future tech, pre-historic Earths,… everything.”

“Aliens!” she said. Ben shook his head.

“Oh yeah, sorry. Not that. I don’t even think of them really; aliens are the one thing that doesn’t exist.”

“Oh,” Fran was a bit deflated. It seemed convenient that the one thing she wanted to see wasn’t out there. He offered so many other possibilities that she decided to settle on one of those to see how he handled it. “A dragon,” she said. “I want to see a real-life, magic-scaled, fire breathing dragon,” Fran replied as the waitress returned Ben’s card. She ignored their conversation, smiled, and said thank you before walking away again. Ben nodded at Fran.

“No problem, I know the perfect place for a second date; and you’ll meet a dragon there.”

“Can we go now? Second date as soon as we walk out?” she asked. She was eager to either see a dragon or determine if he was lying to her. It bothered her how easily she believed everything he was saying. Ben grinned, but shook his head and leaned back to pat his potbelly.

“Too full to go there now, I had another restaurant in mind,” he said. Fran was about to go off on him for coming up with excuse after excuse, but he kept talking before she could say anything.

“But, we can still kill time on another Earth while our appetites build back up. C’mon,” he said as he slid out of the booth and stood up. He grabbed her hand to help her out of the booth, then led her out of the restaurant while still holding hands. He led her around the building and into a narrow, dim alley. Fran watched him pull a black business card out of his wallet, then he threw it at the brick wall in front of them. The card grew into a large black hole on the wall; Ben walked into it pulling Fran along.

When Fran cleared the portal, she had no doubts she was on another Earth. Instead of the dirty alley, Fran now stood on a mountain peak looking out over a lush purple forest. The purple forest tipped her off, but the real clue was the pair of suns hanging in the sky.

Soldiering On

Clark froze when he spotted her. A young woman with short, vibrant purple hair crossed his path several feet ahead. She didn’t see him, her eyes were focused on the path in front of her as she passed by. But even without seeing them, Clark knew her eyes were dark brown. Her profile was just as he remembered; he’d recognize that button nose anywhere. She continued by him with her floral dress flowing in the wind. Even if the scent of lemonade lipgloss didn’t brush his nose, the white roses on a pink dress were somehow uniquely her. Clark closed his eyes and took several deep breaths.

“It’s not real. It’s not real…,” he reminded himself. The last time his guilt haunted him, he was a freshman in high school. And she was still the little girl that impaled herself in the forest. A purple-haired 8-year-old girl with a blood-stained flower print dress. At the time, he took his therapist’s advice and said goodbye to her. It seemed to work for almost 4 years, but there she was. Although, it seemed odd to Clark that she appeared older now. Not only that, but she didn’t even seem to notice him. The little girl’s apparition always stared at him with a disappointed, disgusted sneer.

Clark opened his eyes but she was still within view, though farther away. He was shocked when he realized she was talking to someone. His imagined ghost never talked to anyone, not even him. She didn’t say a word when Clark apologized and said his goodbyes; she only faded away

“It can’t be…,” he said to himself. After several steps, he realized he was moving closer to the conversation. He stopped walking long enough to debate his actions, then continued anyway.

She was talking to another student in the walkway between buildings. Clark snuck close, but hid behind a brick pillar to stay out of sight.

“See you later, Mary,” one of the two women said. Clark relaxed. The voice didn’t sound like he thought it would. He couldn’t see who talked, but it had to be the woman he was chasing; her name was Celina.

“I told you it wasn’t real,” Clark mumbled to himself. “But one hell of a lookalike,” he said with a sad chuckle. He turned to go around the pillar to continue to class, but something stopped him. He banged his chin against a purple-haired, fair-skinned forehead and clacked his teeth shut.

“Owwww,” they both said at the same time; each rubbed their injured spot.

“Sorry, didn’t see you,” she apologized in a soft, familiar voice as she looked up. Clark couldn’t believe his ears. He let go of his chin and looked down at her.

“Celi-,” he started to say her name. He was interrupted by a dainty hand clamping over his mouth.

“Shhhh!” she said. Clark narrowed his eyes at her in confusion, but he remained quiet. Her head swiveled back and forth as she checked their surroundings, then after a moment, she moved her hand from his mouth.

“Oh god,” she said. In an instant, her arms were wrapped around him. “I thought I’d never see you again.”

“Why did you shush me?” Clark asked without returning the hug. Dozens of questions filled his mind, but he started with the most immediate one and planned to work his way backward.

“New identity,” she whispered while still resting against his chest. She sighed, stepped back, then stuck her hand out.

“Hi, I’m Mary,” she said somewhat loudly. “What’s your name, friendly stranger? You like a Clark, I’ll bet it’s Clark.”

“I’m Clark,” he said and shook her hand.

“I knew it!” she said. “I feel like we’re old friends already. Let’s skip class!” she grabbed his hand and led him across campus. They walked hand in hand to the parking lot, then across it and off campus. The walk took almost half an hour, but she refused to talk to him until they reached a nearby park. They sat at a picnic table then Mary finally opened up.

“I don’t know what you’ve been through, I don’t know what you’re thinking. But, I don’t blame you at all for what happened,” she said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get in touch with you.”

“Thanks,” Clark said. He stopped blaming himself for her death when he said goodbye, but it was still nice to know she never blamed him.

“How are you alive? Why do you have a new identity?” Clark asked. “After I got help, your parents wouldn’t talk to me. And I went to your funeral!” he said as if only just remembering. “You were there! NOT BREATHING!” he said. 9-year-old Clark was convinced his best friend would wake up at any moment. He watched her chest throughout the whole ordeal hoping for movement. Mary nodded and reached across the table for his hand.

“I’m sorry… that was a difficult time for my family,” she said. “Don’t be mad at my parents, they always loved you and they’re going to be thrilled to know we ran into each other again.”

“Difficult? How? You obviously didn’t die even though you took a tree branch through the heart. How difficult could it have been?” he asked. He felt anger crawling up his spine and into his words; he did his best to try and stay calm. She gave a soft chuckle.

“Funnily enough, it’s because I didn’t die,” she said. She suddenly locked eyes with him. “What’s your favorite number?” she asked.

“I’m sorry, how is that important right now? What happened!?” he asked; a tiny bit louder than he meant to. Mary sighed and reached into her purse.

“I had an oak branch as thick as a baseball bat go through me…,” she said while she dug around in the small black leather bag. “…and I didn’t die. What kind of attention do you think that got me?” she asked as she pulled a folded pocket knife out of the purse.

“Oh,…,” Clark said. Visions of black-suited agents chasing an 8-year-old girl filled his head.

“Luckily, I met the right people while trying to avoid the wrong people. I learned a lot about myself,” she said as she opened the knife. “Like the fact that thiiiiss…,” she dragged the word out while she pulled the blade down her skin. It happened too fast for Clark to try and stop her; by the time he convinced his hand to reach across the table she was done. She dropped the knife and pointed at the long cut on her arm. Clark watched it heal before his eyes. “… is possible because my favorite number is 34.” In less than a minute the gash was gone.

Turbo Trouble

Turbo’s stomach fluttered with nerves as he followed the principal into her office. It was spacious, larger than his own bedroom, and it reminded him of a nursery. Dozens of potted plants lined the walls and floors around the room. The principal’s dark wood desk sat in the center of the room reminiscent of a forest clearing. The lean, lithe woman walked around the desk and sat in the highback chair; she gestured at the seat in front of her for Turbo.

“Did I do something wrong, ma’am?” he asked as he sat down. She shook her head; it made her emerald curls bounce.

“Please, call me Mundo,” she said. “You haven’t done a thing wrong; however, I’m sorry to say I cannot, and will not let you enroll as a student here.”

“What?!” Turbo straightened up and sat on the edge of his seat. “Why not!?” He didn’t expect any more roadblocks after spending close to a year trying to convince his parents to let him attend. In the back of his mind, he wondered if his mom changed her mind and called the principal.

“Our school has a tradition, a requirement really. Each student is assigned a target for practical experience. More than half of this year’s freshman won’t survive until graduation. It’s meant to a test of their commitment and skills.”

“I’m committed!” Turbo blurted out.

“Oh, I don’t doubt that one bit,” Mundo smiled. “Can you tell me why though?” she asked. “Why are you so interested in attending this school as opposed to something… safer and normal?”

Turbo’s posture deflated slightly as a confused look washed over his face. He never gave it any thought. His parents asked him the same question several times, but he dismissed it as a question designed to talk him out of his decision. Something about the way Mundo asked him actually gave him pause. He thought quietly for a moment and Mundo, for her part, didn’t rush him. She sat still with a patient smile on her face as if she were watching a child attempt something for the first time. Her aqua eyes sparkled with amusement. Finally, he looked up again to meet her eyes.

“My name’s Turbo,” he said. “I’m not John, Eric, Mike, Tom, Harry, Jason, Joe, Fred, Bill, or Pete. I’m not meant for a safe, normal school. That’s boring. I want to meet interesting people with cool names that can do amazing things. I know less than half a class graduates, but those that do are amazing. That’s what I’m meant for,” he said. Mundo smiled.

“You’re right,” she said. “That is what you’re meant for. Luckily, I know of a school where you’ll fit in. Much easier than you ever would here.”

“A different school?” Turbo asked. “You still haven’t told me why I can’t come here.”

“Even if we made you the target for everyone else in your class, there’s no one that could kill you,” she gave a half-shrug. “It’s cheating, basically.”

“What do you mean no one could kill me?” Mundo gave him a melancholy smile that seemed odd.

“I really wish I had time to explain why,” she sighed. “Unfortunately, I need to get back out there to keep monitoring registrations.” Mundo opened a desk drawer, reached in, then placed two cards on her desk. One was made of glass about the size of a playing card and the other was solid black and the size of a business card.

“This is yours now,” she tapped the glass card. “It’s like a smartphone. Play with it and learn how to use it.” Then, she tapped the black card. “On Monday morning throw this at a wall or the floor, then go into the hole. That’s your new school. Just show up at the front office and they’ll help you out.” After her explanation, Mundo stood. “Got all that?” she asked. Turbo nodded and stood to let the Principal walk him out.

“Have fun, Turbo. I think you’ll like Toku-High.”

Marcie’s Life. Marcie’s Test.

“How can they be humans and extraterrestrials at the same time?” General Hopsitel asked as his aide escorted him to the first meeting. The pasty, rotund general waddled through the narrow halls with renewed purpose. He was ready to retire the week before; then, first contact was made.

“Well, ‘terrestrial’ just means ‘from Earth’. These humans contacted us from somewhere else,” Marcie replied with a subtle eye-roll. General Hopsitel wasn’t a bad boss initially. Each year the General gave her more responsibilities to handle. She was thrilled at first because it meant he trusted her. 15 years later, she was essentially doing his job and giving him cheat notes.

“Do we know anything about their planet yet? Location? Name?”

“Nothing. After contact was confirmed both sides exchanged basic information. Once they learned we were humans too they fast-tracked the first meeting.” General Hopsitel stopped before they exited the building and looked at Marcie.

“This just happened last week, right?” he asked. Marcie nodded, and the General ignored her eyeroll. She was damn good at her job and he gave her all the leeway she wanted. “How did we translate so fast?” Marcie grinned then pushed through the doors out into the sunshine. The General followed her.

“They speak English,” she said as she crossed the base.

“English? And we know they’re humans?” General Hopsitel asked. Marcie nodded.

“No, it’s not a prank, Sir.”

“How do we know? If we don’t know where the signal is coming from…,”

“This,” she handed him a letter envelope from a stack of forms on a clipboard. The General grabbed the envelope; it was heavier than an empty one, but not by much. He opened it and found a small glass card in it. He pulled it out and looked it over while they entered another building. It was about the size of a playing card and just as thin.

“Glass?” he asked. Marcie shook her head.

“They sent us that. It’s called a node and it’s way more advanced than anything we have right now.” Marcie took it from him, tapped it several times, then handed it back. When it was in his hands again he noticed it showed the time. He ran his finger on it like Marcie did and it changed to a homescreen style layout that reminded the General of his smartphone.

“We have smartphones too,” the General said. Marcie sighed. She normally didn’t mind their work relationship, but they weren’t normally making first contact and changing the world. The added stress made her a bit bitter. She stopped and took the node from his hands again.

“Our smartphones can’t do this,” she said as she held up the node in front of his face. The General watched the node stretch as Marcie pulled at both ends. When it was about twice its size, the long piece broke in two; Marcie handed him one back, and tapped it in his hand. It brought the time up. Then, she showed him the clock on the second piece. Both said 9:55 A. M.

“Okay,” General Hopsitel nodded. “I believe you.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Marcie gave him a playful mock salute as they reached the meeting room. She opened the cafeteria door for him, then followed him in. The General stopped as soon as he entered the room. Most of the tables and chairs were cleared out leaving only the white concrete floor. Half a dozen men and women in labcoats sat in the center of the cafeteria next to the rest of the military representation: three other generals.

“Where’s the President?” he asked. “What about the rest of the world leaders?” He expected to see a room full of delegates from at least the first world countries.

“We were contacted. As far as we can tell, that signal was sent only to us; it’s not a broadcast. They gave America node technology. If they wanted the rest of the world to have it, they would have broadcast a message for the whole world. The President needs plausible deniability if this does get out. ‘Officially’ he doesn’t even know about this meeting. Now hurry up, it’s time.” She shooed him toward the crowd of scientists and soldiers. He saw a large black hole appear in the center of the crowd. By the time he got there, the hole was gone but three new strangers stood in its place in the center of the crowd.

They trio, two men and a woman, looked like average 20somethings in jeans and t-shirts. Each sported an elaborate tattoo on their arm with different numbers.

“Hello Earthlings!” the taller, raven-haired man said. His tattoo was a bright blue star on his forearm with the number 35 on it. “We’re from Earth too,” he said with a laugh. Immediately the group around General Hopsitel seemed confused until the woman stepped forward. She had a black widow spider tattooed on her arm with the number 33.

“He means we’re from Earth also, not Earth two as in the second one,” she explained. “There is no ‘Earth 2’, there are too many to count.”

“Too many?” The scientist closest to General Hopsitel asked. The woman with the spider tattoo nodded and seemed about to answer, but the second man spoke up from behind her. He sported an eagle on his arm with the number 20.

“Full saturation!” he shouted gleefully.

“Thanks for using that node we sent you,” #35 said with a grin. He pulled his own out of his pocket and tapped and swiped on it. Marcie was startled when her pocket vibrated. She stood unnoticed by the door waiting for the General to finish. She watched the situation with interest, but could not hear anything.

She pulled the node she created out of her pocket and saw a message.

[User: Corvus has requested ownership over Server: Marcie’s Test. Do you wish to transfer ownership?] [Yes] [No]

Marcie’s eyes went wide. She didn’t know what it meant exactly, but she knew she entered ‘Marcie’s Test’ as a placeholder name for the Earth while she experimented with it. At the time she wondered why her Earth needed a name. Her first instinct was to deny access; she did that then looked back to where Corvus was looking at his node. He was a fair distance, but she saw his smile turn into a look of concern.

“Uhh.. Actually. Sorry guys,” Corvus said to the scientists and generals. “We have to go. We’ll get-,” his exit was interrupted by the woman.

“What?” she asked. He turned to face her.

“Something came up,” General Hopsitel heard him say through gritted teeth.

“OH, right.” she said. Corvus wiggled his fingers at the air and summoned a black portal.

“We’ll call you,” he said, then the trio wasted no time running into the black hole that appeared; it closed behind them.

Sharp Fix

“Everything okay?” Don asked. His date hung up the phone with a heavy sigh. Her creamy tan skin seemed several shades paler than before she answered. Tears gathered in her eyes before streaming down her face but she remained calm. Don guessed she was about to abandon their first date. Despite her tears, he didn’t dismiss the possibility she was acting. It was possible something about him didn’t measure up and she signaled someone to help her fake a call.

“Well…,” she stared at the wooden tabletop in silence for several seconds, then she looked up at him and forced a smile. “I guess lunch is on me today,” she said. Don was glad she wasn’t about to ditch him, but she was definitely bothered about something.

“Not if you’re going to cry about it,” Don laughed, hoping it was clear he was joking. He was rewarded with a faint smile. “Seriously though…, what’s wrong? Do you need to leave?” he asked. Don considered it possible that she did have to leave, but didn’t want him to think she was ditching him. Tina shook her head.

“Thanks, but it wouldn’t help…,” she sighed again. “I’m dead in a year anyway.” She gave a half-shrug, then added, “more or less.”

“Was that your doctor?” Don asked. Tina shook her head.

“Gentleman Caller,” she said.

“NO WAY!” A short waitress holding a large pepperoni pizza appeared next to their table. She gasped at Tina’s revelation.

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” the waitress apologized sympathetically. “Your check’s on the house,” she said. “Let me know if you need anything else.” The waitress glanced at their full drink glasses than walked away.

“Gentleman Caller?” Don asked as Tina grabbed a slice. Before the call, she would have waited until he grabbed one. But she was going to die soon anyway; she wasn’t going to wait for pizza longer than she had to.

“Yeah,” Tina nodded again then blew on the hot pizza. “It sucks,” she said between puffs.

“Who’s the Gentleman Caller?” Don asked as Tina was about to attempt her first bite to test the temperature. She stopped with her mouth open then set the pizza down.

“You don’t know?” she asked. “Really?” Don nodded.

“Really.”

“He calls up strangers. Mostly women; that’s how he got his name. He calls them up, gives him 100 million dollars, then hunts them one year later. He hunts for 10 years, no one’s ever survived more than 3.”

No one?” Don asked. “How many victims have there been to use a term like, ‘no one‘. Why aren’t the police doing anything?” Tina narrowed her eyes at Don.

“You really don’t know,” she said. “How do you not know?”

“More importantly, police?” Don changed the subject, Tina shrugged.

“It’s been going on for hundreds of years, it’s not one guy. Police are either corrupt or incompetent. Same for the FBI; they can’t seem to find any leads or even track the money. Conspiracy theories say it’s just legalized murder for rich people. You saw the waitress,” Tina tilted her head toward the kitchen. “People accept it as the way things are.”  

“No…,” Don looked into Tina’s eyes and smiled. “It’s time for things to change,” he said. He tilted his body and stretched out a long leg to reach into his jeans, then he pulled out a small glass card. It took Tina several moments to realize it was a phone; Don gave it away when he put it up to his ear.

“Donald Hinojosa, S.E.N. Dustbunny558026Delta,” he waited a moment, then started speaking again. “Service Request,” he paused.

Tina was about to ask what he was doing, but he started again.

“Century. No, it’s not a server,” he said, then listened. “Yeah, that’s the one. Is there anything about a Gentleman Caller? That’s right. Shut it down, make sure the victims know they’re safe. Thanks. Alright, see you Monday. Bye.”

“What was all that about?” Tina asked the moment he put the glass card down. Don smiled.

“I haven’t told you about the company I work for yet, have I?” he asked. Tina shook her head.

“You said I.T., but we hadn’t gotten that far yet.” Tina’s eyes dipped to the complete slice of pizza on her plate. “We haven’t gotten very far at all, I guess.”

“It’s a company that you probably haven’t heard of yet,” Don said. As he spoke Tina’s phone vibrated with a text message. The phone won her attention as Don finished his thought. “It’s called Sharp Development.”

“OH MY GOD!” she shouted. To her credit, the waitress was at the tableside in the blink of an eye.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“YESS!!” Tina cheered and handed her phone to the waitress. She read the text aloud.

“The organization known as the Gentleman Caller is disbanding. If you are receiving this message, you are no longer scheduled for a hunt. Please keep the money already deposited in your account, you will never hear from us again. Thank you.”

“No way….” The waitress whispered to herself in awe. “You stopped the Gentleman Caller!??” she asked Tina as she handed the phone back. Tina shook her head and pointed at Don.

“I don’t know how, but it was him.” The waitress turned her attention to Don.

“How’d you do it!?” she asked. Don smiled.

“When you work for Sharp Development, there’s not much you can’t do.”

Catfish Defense

“I did it,” Jay grinned as he turned to face the jury. “And each waking second I think back, and wish that I could do it again. And again. I’d kill every single one of her Zeros too, given half a chance.”

“No further questions your honor,” the lawyer that convinced Jay to testify said with a broad smile.

“Defense…,” The bald, wrinkled judge nodded at the defense attorney, then at Jay on the stand. The attorney stood with a sheet of paper, he held it up for Jay.

“Does this look familiar, Mr. Torres?” Jay leaned forward and squinted for a moment, then nodded.

“Yeah, I filled one out before the trial,” he said. The attorney nodded, then handed the sheet to the bailiff to pass around the jury.  The attorney turned to address them as each one inspected it, then passed it to the next.

“You and every other character witness. It’s a simple questionnaire,” he explained. “Things like favorite foods, movies, and so on. Would you please tell the jury what your favorite food is?” he asked.

“Fried catfish,” Jay answered into the microphone.

“Fried catfish!” the defense said emphatically. “Did you know, out of everyone that answered those questions, you are the only one whose favorite meal is fried catfish. The rest of the respondents chose either pizza, Chinese, or fried chicken. What about your favorite book?”

“Objection!” the prosecutor stood. “What does this have to do with murder?”

“Counselor?” The judge looked at the defense with questioning eyes.

“Your Honor…,” the defense gestured at Jay, then the gathered character witnesses; a group sitting in their own section across from the jury. “This is impossibly new territory for all of us here,” he turned and gestured at the gathered camera crews filling up the back half of the courtroom. Everyone was interested in the first case where a person testified against themselves. “I feel the situation calls for a healthy amount of leeway.” The judge thought for a moment, then nodded.

“You have some leeway, counselor. Though, I recommend you don’t waste it all this one point.”

“Thank you, your Honor,” he turned back to Jay. “Favorite book?”

“The Bible,” Jay grinned.

“Which version?” Defense asked.

“Sharp Standardized Testament, of course.”

“Of course,” the defense attorney nodded. “However, again, you were the only one whose favorite book is the Bible. Any version.” At this, the defense turned to face the Jury. He pointed at the group of character witnesses.

“That group of men and women over there is just as diverse as this jury. Each one is an individual with their own likes and dislikes. Each one has their own mind and decision-making faculties. They may look alike. Gender aside, they are all arguably the same person as my client,” he turned and pointed at Keith sitting at the defense’s table. A mid-20s man in an ill-fitting suit. Jay on the witness stand looked like an older version of him. The group of character witnesses consisted of male and female variations of him at all ages.

“Just because one or a few of his Zeros murdered the same woman does not guarantee this Keith murdered her on this Earth. This one seems proud of it. He might be able to stomach murdering someone,” he pointed at Jay. “But my client can’t even stomach catfish.”

Closing Time

Jeremy jumped in his seat. He sat on a dark beach watching the last star in the sky and enjoying frigid black waves lapping at his feet. The surf was the only sound Jeremy was expecting in the inky night until someone yelled out.

“Hello!” Jeremy was on his feet in an instant whirling around trying to see anything in the night. He could not remember that last time he saw a human, much less heard English. Over billions of years, he traveled from star to star with the human race in search of what was out there. Now, at the end of the universe, watching the last star dying, Jeremy had the answer: Nothing.

Most planets he spent time on did have delicious alien plants and animals, but humanity never discovered intelligent life. A dim golden glow appeared about 20 feet away and slowly moved toward Jeremy. As it approached, he identified an older man with thick, wiry eyebrows. Jeremy realized the voice sounded familiar the moment he saw the man.

“Uncle Theo?” Jeremy asked. He used a name he hadn’t heard in millions of years, but somehow it was the first words out of his mouth. He remembered his uncle being one of his favorite people in the world when he was a child; Jeremy took his death hard.

“Jeremy, Hello!” The old man reached Jeremy and gave him a big hug with several solid pats on the back. He smelled like grill smoke and beer, just like Jeremy remembered. “It’s amazing to see you again.”

“You’re dead,” Jeremy said after the hug. “Am I dead?” he asked. Theo laughed.

“If you could die, I wouldn’t be here right now. Your immortality is screwing with how things normally work. They pulled me out to explain what happens next; they thought a familiar face would help.”

“They?” Jeremy asked. Theo shrugged.

“The afterlife isn’t as cut and dry as Heaven and Hell. You’ll find out eventually, maybe. Anyway, pay attention, I don’t have a lot of time.” Jeremy nodded. “Each universe-,”

“Each!?” Jeremy asked.

“The details will make sense later, don’t interrupt.” Jeremy nodded again. “Each universe has its own predetermined timeline; although, strange things happen sometimes,” Theo nodded at Jeremy.

“This universe is about to reach the end of its timeline, so you have two choices. You can stay here and start at the beginning of Earth again or you can choose to go to a new Earth of your choice.”

“And then?” Jeremy asked. Theo shrugged.

“Keep being immortal, live through it all again. We’ll probably end up right back here giving you the choice again.”

“That’s it? The universe just keeps resetting?”

“UniverseS,” Theo corrected. “That’s it?” he returned Jeremy’s question with a hint of loving mockery. “What did you expect? You’re not even supposed to have lived this long.”

“But… where is everyone? Where are all the aliens, I only met other humans,” then Theo’s correction registered with him. “Are there aliens in other universes?” Theo shook his head.

“There are no intelligent aliens anywhere in any universe,” Theo said.

“Oh,” Jeremy sounded deflated. “Well,” he sighed. “There’s nothing out here. Hundreds of millennia ago fully-immersive VR was a thing. I never tried it because I kept wanting to explore, but I don’t have to do that anymore I guess. Can you put me on an Earth with the best VR games?” Uncle Theo grinned.

“I know just the place.”

Kim & Out

“What the hell’s a twin?” Kim asked the familiar-looking stranger.  The woman that knocked on her door sported the same short dark hair and light brown eyes as Kim. She eagerly opened the door when she saw herself outside, she always wanted to meet one of her Zeros. The moment she did though, the stranger called her, ‘sis’, and started referring to them as twins.

“Uh..,” Kim’s twin was surprised she needed to answer such a basic question. “You know how you have different versions of you in alternate universes?” she asked.  Kim nodded and rolled her eyes.

“Of course, kids learn about the multiverse in grade school.”

“Well, I’m like that, except from this same Earth. I’m like another you and we both came from the same mom.”

“No…,” Kim shook her head. “I don’t have a sister… I can’t.” The woman nodded.

“I know it’s a lot to take in, but honestly twins are born on this Earth all the time,” the woman sighed. “That’s why we have the one-child rule; to hide how freakishly often twins happen behind closed doors.”

“If it happens so often, where are all the other twins? Why are you the first time I’m hearing about it?”

“Something’s different about this Earth… over 98% of births result in twins. The healthier twin..,” the woman pointed at Kim. “…gets to stay on this Earth. The other one gets shipped to an orphanage on a different Earth. If they didn’t, this Earth would have been overpopulated long ago.” Kim shook her head. 

“I meant, why are you the first time I hear about this. If it happens so often, why haven’t there been others that return when they grow up?” Kim asked. “What makes you special?” 

“You,” the woman said with a faint smile. “What’s your favorite number?” she asked. 

“23,” Kim replied before she considered how odd the question was. “What? Why?” she asked after giving an answer. The woman’s grin grew wider. 

“Because they took the wrong twin,” she said. “Even after we were separated, they kept track of both of us, like they do all twins. They only recently realized their mistake and explained everything to me to ask for my help.” 

“And I suppose you escaped and came to rescue me first chance you could?” Kim asked without hiding her skepticism. 

“I just realized,” the woman said as she extended her hand toward Kim. “I never introduced myself. I’m Kim,” she said. 

“Well if we are twins, someone didn’t have any imagination. That’s my name too,” she said and politely shook hands. The moment their hands touched, the stranger grabbed her hand tightly and yanked her forward through her front door. Kim stumbled trying to keep her balance, while her sister dashed to get into the house. 

“Not anymore,” Kim said from inside the house. The woman that was in the house moments before got her bearings and tried to rush back inside. Before she took two steps, two men in white coats with red scissor logos grabbed her. “Like I said, they kept the wrong twin,” Kim waved with a smile from inside the house. “Don’t worry,” she added as the two men carried the struggling woman away. “It’s fixed now.”

Sentimental Sun

“Why so sad?” Tessa flinched at the sudden voice, but she did not look up from her misery. She recognized genuine concern in the strange woman’s voice and continued to sulk with her head down. She came to the park wanting to be alone and hoping the brilliant sunshine worked its magic to cheer her up. Tessa kept her head on her arms but turned her head just enough to give her mouth room.

“He dumped me for someone younger,” she mumbled to the stranger. In the back of her mind, Tessa suspected she’d be more guarded if a man was trying to chat her up while she cried her eyes out. Somehow, she found it extremely easy to chat to this stranger, probably because she didn’t know her. It warmed her heart a bit to know that people out there still cared. The world was essentially burning itself to the ground. Her failed relationship seemed unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but it was important to her. It meant a lot that a stranger was concerned enough to stop by and check on her.

“What an ass,” the stranger said. “Well, don’t worry about them. I just made their life more complicated, on your behalf,” the stranger giggled. “The question is, what are you going to do now that the Earth is ruined?”

“Huh!?” Tessa finally looked up. She gasped when she saw that the woman she’d been chatting with had a pair of bone-white horns spiraling out of her head. She panicked briefly, then remembered her guard had been down for several minutes already. If this horned woman wanted to kill her, she would have already. Instead, she asked why Tessa was crying. “You have horns!” Tessa felt obligated to comment on them but had nothing else to add, then she looked around the park. “What do you mean the Earth is ruined?” The woman smiled.

“My name is Ballisea. I usually conquer Earths, but you’ve made this one personal for me; I decided to try something fun. You know, out of spite,” Ballisea grinned. Tessa thought Ballisea’s claims were all at once unbelievable and entirely possible. Somehow she knew this woman was entirely serious.

“But… I live here…,” Tessa complained with the only defense she could think of. For whatever reason, this stranger took a liking to Tessa and she hoped to use it to her advantage.

“You shouldn’t,” Ballisea said. “The sun’s gone, and I think the change of scenery will be good for you.” Tessa looked up; the golden sun hung in the azure sky.

“Are we talking about the same sun?” she asked. Ballisea nodded.

“It takes about eight minutes for light to travel from the sun to Earth. In about 6 and a half more minutes you’ll get to see the sun disappear; then, you can go to any Earth you want.”

“How many Earths are there? What are my choices? How do I know what I want?” Tessa asked.

“If you try and limit your choice to what you think is available, you’re missing the chance to decide what you actually want,” Ballisea said. “There are infinite universes out there. If you can imagine it, it exists. You are an Estrella, you can travel to any universe your heart desires.”

“Can I find a version of him that loves me?” Tessa asked, then shook her head. “Of course, he’s probably already with a version of me.”

“There is no other version of you, Estrella,” Ballisea said. “But since you and Mundo are the only Uniques on this Earth I guarantee there are other versions of him out there. A word of advice though, Zeros are finicky. He might look, act, and sound like the man you loved. Trust me…,” Ballisea reached out and placed a hand on Tessa’s shoulder. “…he won’t be.” 

“Why do you keep calling me ‘estrella’?  Who’s Mundo?” Tessa asked. Ballisea rolled her eyes, though she managed to do it in a way that Tessa knew it wasn’t directed at her. It felt more like frustration with the situation.

“I’ll drop you near a Mundo on the next Earth; I hate giving the talk, it’s boring.” The two women sat quietly in the park for a moment while Tessa wondered what to talk about next. As she searched her thoughts, Tessa realized she wasn’t very concerned. She believed Ballisea 100% and had little doubts she would be walking on an alternate Earth within the next 10 minutes.

She wouldn’t mind leaving her job and coworkers behind. Ever since she could remember, Tessa did her best to stay disconnected socially. The one relationship she did try just ended horribly. The way Ballisea spoke made her feel like she’s been special all her life. She wondered if keeping her distance was done subconsciously for this moment. She was an only child and her parents were gone; she had nothing keeping her here. And she could go anywhere she wanted. The moment Tessa decided she was very okay with the way things are going, Ballisea spoke up. Tessa had no idea she’d been lost in thought for so long.

“It’s time, watch!” Ballisea said. Tessa looked up, though not directly at the sun. Tessa saw a black dot appear in the center of the sun in her peripheral vision. She watched it grow to envelop the sun. Within seconds the sun was gone and the bright blue sky turned black.

“You.. you did that!?” Tessa asked.

“I did,” Ballisea grinned. “Now I’m going to go watch the panic for a little while. Off you go,” Ballisea said. Before Tessa could say anything else a hole opened under the table and swallowed it whole along with her.