“Is this a test?” Bobby eyed the ragged pink journal without moving to take it. The unicorn on the cover looked more frayed than he remembered. Three different colored bookmarks, red, green and blue, protruded out of the aged pages. “Since when can I touch your diary?” Carrie shook her head and shoved the book at him again.
“Since it’s not my diary,” she said. Bobby gave her a curious look but finally accepted the book. “Open it at the red bookmark and read the entry,” Carrie said. Bobby opened the book and stared at the passage inside; the handwriting didn’t resemble Carrie’s penmanship at all.
“December 25, 1893 – Santa brought me a node! I can finally join the rest of the world in the AlterNet!” Bobby looked up at Carrie with confusion. She leaned closer and slammed the book closed in his hands, then she opened it again at the red bookmark.
“Read it again,” she said.
“April 20, 2020 – Dana Sharp has just saved the human race from extinction! Thanks to the AlterNet we can escape the pandemic!” Bobby turned the page over, but the next page was blank. He went back a few pages and found them blank also.
“Been working on a magic trick?” He asked. Carrie shook her head.
“Every time I open the book there’s a different entry; I think they’re entries from an alternate universe. I don’t know how it works yet, but the three spots I bookmarked are always kind of the same, even if the rest of the diary is different.”
“There’s nothing else in the diary,” Bobby said. He flipped through the blank pages for her. Carrie shook her head and pulled the book out.
“I said whenever ‘I’ open it.” Carrie flipped through pages and Bobby saw text on each sheet that wasn’t there before. “I think it’s my diary, like alternate versions of me, I found it right next to my actual diary.”
“You found a pattern?” Bobby asked. Carrie nodded and shoved the book into his hands again.
“The red bookmark is always about something called the AlterNet. It mentions Dana Sharp often, but not always. The blue bookmark always talks about Dana Sharp.” Carrie opened the book to the blue placeholder and showed Bobby the entry.
“May 17, 2023 – I GOT THE JOB!!!!! Dana Sharp is humanity’s savior and I landed a spot on the cleanup crew! I’ll be out there helping rebuild humanity. She gave us all a second chance,” Bobby read, then he shrugged.
“Sounds like Dana Sharp has quite a following,” he said. Carrie grinned.
“The blue one is always an entry about how awesome and helpful Dana Sharp is. The green one…,” Carrie reached out and opened the journal to page held by the green bookmark.
“September 9, 2525 – I don’t trust Dana Sharp for a second. I’m working on a story that will show the world how corrupt and evil Dana Sharp is. I have reason to believe my life is in danger, but humanity needs to know the truth.”
“Okay, I believe you. What now?” Bobby asked. Carrie shrugged.
“Help me go through it, maybe we can find out how to get in contact with her.”
“Oh, that’d be awesome. I wonder what your doppelganger is like,” Bobby smiled. Carrie shook her head.
“Fight me yourself, witch!” Hercules bellowed and smashed the skulls of two skeletons together. Dozens more still surrounded him and the few others left standing. King Arthur and his knights, along with Robin Hood, Merlin, and a bevy of myths lay slain on the wide-open field. Behind Hercules, Thor continued fending off the skeletons with brilliant arcs of lightning. Ballisea smiled at the brutish man.
“If I did that, it wouldn’t be any fun at all,” she said. The tall, horned woman stood atop a hill looking down on raging battle. “I haven’t had this much fun in eons.” A bolt of lightning shot at her from behind; it passed through her and struck a group of skeletons in front of Hercules. “I wish more Earths were as feisty as this one.”
“Your evil ends here,” Raiden said hovering over her to land next to Hercules. Thor fought his way through the skeletons to meet up with the other two. He gave Raiden a nod, then both loosed electricity at Ballisea. The beams passed through her head; she smiled and began walking down the hill with their attacks still flowing through her.
“It’s like you’re not even paying attention,” she said. They ended their attack. “But, I find your ‘never give up‘ attitude wonderfully entertaining. I’ll make it easy on you.” Ballisea snapped her fingers; the hundreds of skeletons on the field vanished in an instant. “One on one, each of you against one of my representatives. If you win, I’ll leave your Earth unconquered.” Hercules stepped forward and nodded.
“Wonderful,” Ballisea smiled. “Who’s first?” Hercules pounded his chest in answer. She looked him over for a moment, then nodded. “I have just the thing.” A hole opened in the air next to her and someone fell out.
“Hah!” Astrid said, happy she landed on her feet. She looked around and caught sight of Ballisea first, then she saw the three men. The scrawny young girl moved toward Ballisea.
“What’s up?” she asked. Ballisea nodded at the three men.
“Want to fight them?” she asked. Astrid grinned and turned around.
“Yeah!” she said. She did not need more reason than Ballisea asking.
“She’s a child! And a girl!” Hercules’ protests were joined by Raiden and Thor.
“The poor thing isn’t even ten yet and you’re sending her against three gods?” Thor added.
“I’m FOURTEEN!” Astrid yelled. “And I’m stronger than you!”
“Cruel witch! Sending a malnourished child to fight your battles; we won’t attack a child no matter the age,” Raiden said.
“I’M NOT MALNOURISHED!” Astrid yelled and charged at Raiden. She moved faster than he expected, and she would have scored a direct hit. Fortunately for Raiden, Ballisea reacted even quicker. A black hole opened in front of Raiden. It swallowed Astrid. She fell, face first, on the field in her initial spot.
“He’s not your opponent yet,” Ballisea said. She pointed at Hercules, “That one is.” Hercules shook his head. “I will not fight a child, but she seems to believe she has strength enough to match the gods,…”
“Stronger!” Astrid shouted the interruption but Hercules kept speaking over her.
“I propose a contest of strength instead,” he said.
“Aww man, I was in a fighting mood,” Astrid grumbled when Ballisea nodded at Hercules. A black portal opened in the air next to Astrid’s 4’9″ frame and a black cube fell out. It landed on the ground, made a sizeable crater, and buried itself more than halfway.
“Since it’s not a fight anymore I’ll let all three of you go at the same time. First, all of you get a chance to lift that cube, together. Then, Astrid. Whoever lifts it higher wins.”
“Agreed,” Hercules said with a broad smile. He stepped forward alone, knelt and touched the black cube. “Not that I’ll need their help.” He scooped dirt out from around the edges to get a better grip on the 1′ cube. He heaved, but it did not budge.
“Maybe some help, Thor,” he said with a grunt. Thor walked forward, knelt and helped Hercules. With both their effort, the cube wiggled upward a bit. “RAIDEN!” Hercules added; his face was strawberry red with strain. Raiden teleported instead of walking the three steps, he wanted to show Ballisea she wasn’t the only one that had tricks. He knelt and added his strength to theirs.
After grunting for several seconds, they managed to lift the cube out of its hole entirely. They moved as one and carried it to Astrid before they dropped it at her feet.
“Good luck, little girl,” Hercules said while trying to catch his breath.
“Whoa, it’s kind of pretty!” Astrid said. She reached down, lifted it like a beach ball and manipulated it in her hands as she tried looking at all its sides. “What is it?” She asked Ballisea. The three gods stared at her slackjawed.
“It’s called Void-forged steel,” Ballisea smiled. “It’s kind of like the Unique Soul of metal-working. That cube is actually millions from different universes forged together into one. Anyway, I believe that means I won,” Ballisea smiled at Hercules. Astrid grinned.
“Unless you wanna try again? Catch!” she shouted and tossed the cube at them. She used an under-handed toss and launched the cube in a high arc. The three gods spread out to avoid getting hit, but a portal appeared in the air. It swallowed the cube then dropped it on Astrid from above her head.
“Owww,” Astrid said as the cube fell forward and into her hands; she caught it. “What was that for?”
“Don’t throw it or you’ll break the Earth,” Ballisea said. “Off you go,” a portal opened under Astrid and swallowed her and the cube.
“Thank you for the entertainment, gentlemen, but I must get back to what I was doing.” As she said that, hundreds of portals opened around them and skeletons began marching out.
Albert glanced under the counter as he took his seat at the information desk. The thick, black, leatherbound book sat in its place as it did every morning; no matter how many times it was given away.
Albert considered the book just one more mystery in a world full of them. The book more or less drove the previous librarian insane; he tried destroying it countless ways but it always reappeared. He eagerly told everyone the day someone finally asked for the book then snapped the next day when it was back. Albert volunteered to man the information desk after that due to the solitude. It helped him avoid conversation about his missing imprint. His coworkers already knew he did not have one and didn’t like talking about it. Wearing long sleeves helped strangers see past his missing mark.
After Albert took over, others came looking for the book more often. He handed it over only to find it back the next day and took it all in stride. As Albert settled in his seat and logged in, he felt a burning, itching sensation on the inside of his right arm.
“Owwwww,” he whispered softly to himself as he scratched it for all he was worth.
“That looks fun,” a blonde girl that looked about his age was suddenly standing in front of his desk. She wore a baby blue t-shirt with a golden star on it, and the words, “Star Academy”; she grinned when their eyes met. “Hi,” she said. “I’m looking for a book.” Albert chuckled.
“You’re in the right place,” he reached under the counter and grabbed the heavy black tome. He set it on the counter. “Is it this one?” he asked with a smile. The smile didn’t last long; the itching sensation kept throbbing on his arm and he reached up to scratch it some more. “Sorry, I think something bit me,” he added. The girl shook her head.
“No, I’m not on that quest, I’m looking for a different book,” she said. “I’m looking for a book titled, ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’.” Albert nodded, pulled his hand from his arm and started typing.
“Author?” he asked. The girl shrugged.
“Don’t know, doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m just checking if the book’s here.” Albert gave her a curious glance but continued searching the computer. After a couple of minutes and dozens of mouse clicks, he shook his head.
“We don’t carry it, none of our sister branches carry it, and I can’t find anything about it online. I’m not sure it exists,” Albert said. The itch burned and his hand moved back in place to continue scratching it. The girl smiled.
“Thanks!” she said. “That’s all I needed to know.”
“If it existed?” Albert asked. She nodded.
“Okay,” Albert tilted his head a bit. “Though, you probably could have checked the internet at home and saved yourself a trip,” he said.
“Not from my home,” she winked at him. “And I’m glad I made the trip, I got to meet you,” she extended her hand over the desk. “I’m Micha.”
“Albert,” he happily shook her hand. He felt an almost electric excitement at their touch; the itching sensation vanished as he focused everything on her. Albert’s mind raced to find something to keep her there and talking now that her business was done; he caught sight of the black tome in the corner of his eye.
“What did you mean you’re, ‘not on that quest’?” Albert asked. He grabbed the book and put it back under the counter.
“Well, that depends,” Micha leaned forward on the raised edge of the counter and lowered her voice to a whisper. “How open-minded are you about the world around you?” Albert chuckled.
“Well, I do have a magic book that’s impossible to get rid of. And of course, there’s the imprint,” as he mentioned it, curiosity got the better of him. Because Albert did not have one, he made a habit of not checking other’s imprints; he wanted to avoid the topic as much as possible. He glanced at Micha’s upper arm, and saw no imprint; he quickly looked to her other arm and saw only smooth tan skin. “The imprint you don’t have…,” he said.
“What imprint?” she asked sincerely. Albert narrowed his eyes.
“The imprint everyone on Earth has? It’s the first words one soul mate speaks to another. You should have words on your…,” he pointed at her initially, then used his hand to touch his own arm.
“Oh,” she said. Her face changed suddenly, she looked a bit sadder. “What’s yours say?” she asked. Albert glanced left and right to check for any eavesdroppers but found none. He stood and pulled his right arm into his long sleeve. He pulled the edge of the shirt up while moving his arm free.
“I don’t have one either,” he said as he pointed at the spot. Her face changed again; she giggled and her cheeks blushed. Her reaction puzzled Albert and he glanced at his arm.
“Wait, so you want me to become the next Death?” Miller asked Isla with wide eyes. The two of them sat on a sunny beach; Isla’s sea-green curls moved with the gentle breeze.
“I want you to become Death for me,” Isla said. “There is no next Death. It’s a job like any other; there are far too many universes for it to be a one-person job. How do you think Death works?” Miller turned and pulled his legs off the wicker chaise to plant them in the sand facing Isla.
“When somebody dies, Death reaps their soul and delivers it to Heaven or Hell,” Miller replied.
“Not quite,” Isla half-nodded. “When someone dies, Death delivers the soul to their caseworker…,” Isla pressed her hand against her navy blue blazer. “…what I am. Due to the logistics involved, it’s encouraged for caseworkers to have their own Death on staff.”
“Why me?” Miller asked.
“I’m sure you can imagine there are specific requirements to fill the position. As a matter of fact, only Unique Soul #14, La Muerte is qualified,” she nodded at Miller. “You’re the first one I’ve met that I like.”
“Why?” Miller asked, then he quickly shook his head. “I mean, why only La Muerte? From what you told me about Unique Souls, they’re unbelievably powerful.” Isla nodded.
“They are. But, La Muerte is the only one that can control time. It’s funny, most people don’t realize how Death actually works. When someone dies, they’re trapped in the body until their soul is collected,” Isla smiled.
“They’re not alive exactly, but the soul can still control the body. Of course, without a living brain, a soul is limited to its primal instincts. And all souls want a brain to give it direction. This is where the idea of zombies comes from; it happens a lot. Sometimes weeks and months go by before they’re reaped. Death is woefully understaffed for infinite universes. But, when Death finally gets around to it; time is rewound for everyone back to the point of death. It seems instant, but almost never is.”
“Okay,” Miller nodded. He’d already decided to join, but still had another question. “You said something about a tattoo; that’ll make me Death for you?”
“The tattoo allows you to control your powers. It doesn’t make you Death exactly, but you can’t do the job if you can’t control your powers.”
“I’m guessing there’s not really any pay?” Miller asked. Isla shook her head.
“For what?” she asked. “Not only do you have access to food, water, and shelter; none of which you need really. But, you also get to explore the multiverse; any alternate reality you can think of is out there.” Miller nodded again.
“Well, gentlemen…,” Dr. Lassiter glanced around the crowded lab with a proud smile. “…and lady. Any last-minute bets on what it does?”
“I know what it does,” Dr. Kim replied. “While you eggheads were studying every atom that you put into it, I looked at the whole thing. It doesn’t do anything,” she laughed.
“One bet for…,” Dr. Lassiter glared at Dr. Kim. “…nothing. Dr. Kim, we’re not the idiots you think we are,” the other labcoats grumbled agreement. “The fact is this entire situation is rife with mystery. Somehow, a 2 million-year-old cave painting detailed an electronic machine before the invention of the written word. On the surface, the parts may not appear to do much, but we’re dealing with a highly advanced intellect. There’s no telling what kinds of underlying mechanics we don’t understand yet; but, we will as soon as we flip the switch. Anyone else?”
“Perpetual motion!” One of them blurted.
“Alternate universe portal!” another one said. After a few seconds of silence, no other suggestions came.
“Alright, let’s go take a look,” Dr. Lassiter walked to the nearby window, followed by Dr. Kim and the rest of the scientists. The window looked out over a large white room. In the center, surrounded by several layers of tempered glass was a small round table. A small quadcopter sat on the table next to a solid black cube with a red switch. Dr. Lassiter used his phone to turn the quadcopter on.
“Here we go. In 5…,” the drone lifted off the table and floated over the black box. “4, 3, 2,..” he counted while he guided the drone lower to the upright red switch.
“Get ready for history,” Dr. Lassiter smiled to himself; eager whispered cheers echoed around him. “1.” He rammed the switch with the drone to turn it on, then he let the drone fall on the floor while he focused on the box.
The lab went perfectly still as everyone held their breath and watched. It felt like minutes before something happened, but only seconds after Dr. Lassiter bumped the switch the cube moved.
The top of the cube opened upward a tiny bit, after a second it opened even more. Then a curved, mechanical rod rose out of the box, bumped the switch back to “Off” and retreated back into the darkness. Then, the box closed itself again.
“He thinks he can do what?” Dr. Lilly asked with a jovial smile. She would never joke about a patient in front of them, but she enjoyed a laugh with the staff when someone new came in. Her assistant, Fred, handed her a manilla folder for her next appointment as he explained.
“Another superhero wannabe. He says he can control spiders,” Fred said. Once the Dr. accepted the folder he waved and left the office; Dr. Lilly opened the folder to see her next patient. The picture showed a mousey man with neat dark hair and glasses; his name was Richard Ragno. After familiarizing herself with the info she needed, Dr. Lilly stood from the desk to meet with him.
She found him in the interview room sitting patiently at the table, drawing. His file did not indicate any dangerous tendencies; and, he was allowed pencil and paper to draw.
“Hello, Richard, I’m Dr.Lilly,” she introduced herself with a handshake as she sat down. She caught a glimpse of his doodles it seemed to be a mandala drawn out of spiderwebs and the number 33.
“Hello, doctor,” Richard replied. After their handshake, he picked up the pencil again and resumed drawing.
“That’s a very pretty mandala you’re working on. I see a lot of 33’s there, is that your favorite number?” she asked. Richard nodded vigorously.
“My absolute favorite,” he said without looking up to meet her eyes.
“Does that make spiders your favorite animal too?” she asked. He shook his head.
“Ew, no,” Richard made a sour face. “Spiders creep me out too much; tigers are my favorite animal.”
“So why aren’t you drawing tigers in there?” Dr. Lilly asked. A short, high laugh escaped from Richard’s mouth, it seemed unintentional.
“It’s difficult to draw tigers, spiders are much easier,” he said.
“That’s a fair point,” Dr. Lilly commented. “What about ants? I’d assume they’re as easy as spiders but wouldn’t creep you out as much.” Richard’s pencil stopped moving on the sheet, but he didn’t put it down. Instead, he looked up at Dr. Lilly and met her eyes for the first time. His entire demeanor changed in an instant.
“Spiders are better than ants,” he said cooly, almost threateningly. Then, he looked down and started drawing again.
“So, Richard, why don’t you tell me about why you admitted yourself? You wrote, ‘Severe Arachnophobia’. It seems to me that spiders ‘creeping you out’ isn’t all that severe, and you are drawing them.”
“I can’t risk seeing a spider. If I’m in the looney bin,-” Richard was interrupted by Dr. Lilly.
“Please don’t call it that,” she said. He gave her a curt nod, without looking up, and rephrased his comment.
“The asylum is a mostly controlled environment. It’s sprayed with pesticides and kept clean. It was either this or the hospital; I didn’t feel like hurting myself to get into the hospital,” he explained.
“And why can’t you risk seeing a spider?”
“Because I control them,” Richard said. “I can wiggle them like tiny fingers that aren’t attached to me, or do anything I need them to do.”
“That doesn’t seem so bad. Why are you scared if you can control them?”
“Because they’re CREEPY! Just the thought of controlling all those legs…” a violent shiver ran down his spine. “ugh.”
“So you’ve actually done it?” she asked. Richard nodded.
“Your plan is to avoid spiders for the rest of your life by staying in our facilities?” Dr. Lilly asked. Richard shrugged while doodling.
“I’m only 28, doctor. I couldn’t possibly plan the rest of my life. However, for the immediate future, it’s the best plan I have.”
“That was a lucid, well-thought-out response. Unfortunately, that works against you here. I’m sorry, Richard, this isn’t a hotel you check into indefinitely. We have limited space. There are other people out there with serious conditions that need help. We can’t take in someone that just wants to avoid bugs,” Dr. Lilly said. She stood from the table and headed for the door; as she reached for the handle she heard a loud crack fill the room. She turned back to Richard.
“Hospital it is,” he said. Half the pencil was on the table, the other half was in his hand. He was using the jagged edge to cut his forearm.
“NO! STOP!” Dr. Lilly shouted in a panic, and he did; he was already done. Bright red blood overflowed from the number 33 carved into his arm.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve this…,” Scott stood on the front porch of the imposing house; it was a bright, sunny Saturday morning. The early 20s college student twirled the key in his hand to drag out the moment longer. “But, thanks Mrs. Scott,” he beamed a smile at the solid double-wide doors and inserted the key.
Scott was always polite to the old woman, but he never went out of his way to befriend her. He’d heard stories about how crotchety she was from others but he never saw it. He guessed it was because of their similar names. Scott made the assumption when he was six; and, he never bothered to correct it once he learned that’s not how names work.
“Whooooaaa…,” He never visited the inside Mrs. Scott’s house. He imagined dozens of doilies, tea cozies and pictures of cats. Scott did not expect a makeshift shrine to him. Dozens of his pictures, cut from different sources, lined the living room walls.
“What the hell?” Scott recognized his own brown curls in a soccer uniform. He recognized himself in another picture wearing football pads, a smile, and a black eye. He looked around at all the pictures of him participating in different activities. Some with trophies, but all with smiles. He went from picture to picture growing more confused. “… I never played sports,” he mumbled out loud. He was suddenly less positive about his inheritance.
Scott made his way to the kitchen; he was relieved to find a normal, big kitchen. The stove, dishwasher, and refrigerator all gleamed in brand new stainless steel. He saw a door and realized it must be the garage; he opened it and stepped into the dark room and felt around the wall for a light switch. The moment the lights came on, Scott’s doubts flared again; he came close to switching the light off and walking out of the house. He only saw three things, but they were enough to worry him.
The first thing that drew his attention was a large CRT TV. It looked to be a fairly small 32″ inch screen, but the TV itself was so large it was sitting on a rolling cart connected to a VCR. The next thing he spotted was digging tools: sledgehammer, shovel, and pickaxe.
The third thing was a shallow, empty grave dug in the garage. Someone broke through the cement floor to reach the ground and dug a six-foot-long trench. After a brief debate, Scott moved toward the TV. He noticed there was a tape in the VCR and he pushed it in; it played automatically.
“Hi Scott!” Mrs. Scott’s wrinkled face appeared on the screen. The old woman gave a playful sigh. “Well, I’m dead and you probably have some questions.”
“Let’s see,” the old woman pretended to give Scott an appraising look through the TV. “You came in through the front door and living room.” Scott nodded out of habit. He always felt like she liked having someone to talk to, so he often let her talk and nodded his head occasionally.
“I left the pictures up because I wanted you to see what I spent my life doing. You probably saw all those pictures of you and got confused,” Mrs. Scott said. Her lips grew into a broad smile. “You thought they were you.”
“What!?” Scott blurted out in surprise. He turned, intent on bringing a picture to show her proof, then caught himself and turned back around.
“They’re you, but not you,” she said. “They’re different versions of you, from alternate universes. After this tape, you can go look at the pictures again. Look at the date and newspaper of publication. You don’t have those papers on this Earth, and some of those dates haven’t even happened here yet. They’re all versions of you that I’ve met. Right about now, you’re wondering what an old lady like me is doing meeting alternate you’s.” Mrs. Scott smiled again, but it wasn’t as bright as the first time.
“When my Earth discovered alternate universes, it was amazing. Our technology, our world transformed almost over-night. Unfortunately, there are some things technology can’t fix. I lost my grandson when he was 9; his name was Scott,” despite the somber subject, she giggled.
“I think it broke me a little bit,” she said. “The world was changing too fast, and I couldn’t catch up. So I fled to a different Earth to try and start again. As it turns out I met another version of you, but your mom wasn’t my daughter. I watched him grow up and become a good man; it made me so proud that I wanted to do it again, and again.” A stray tear followed the wrinkles down her face.
“It’s almost kind of magical, really. I get to see you try and be good at so many different things. Every time I think I can’t be proud of you, I find myself surprised again. This is my last time doing this, so I’m giving you something special.” TV Mrs. Scott pointed at the digging tools in the garage.
“You were never into sports like some other versions of you; but, I found out you like video games.” She pointed downward at something below the frame.
“Check under the VCR, then go…” she pointed at the hole. “…over there. Alternate universes are real, and their video games are virtually real. Play with the node; it’s like a cellphone, you’ll figure it out. Lay down in the hole, and be ready for the best game you’ll ever play. I know you’ll be great at it and make me proud.” TV Mrs. Scott smiled and the screen went black.
Scott lifted the VCR and found a glass pane the size and thickness of a playing card. As soon as he touched it, the screen lit up.
Henry woke up with the sudden realization that he couldn’t see or move. He was in a seated position with something covering his eyes. His hands were tied together in his lap and he could feel a tight cord keeping him in the chair; his mouth was gagged.
“Looks like our ranger’s awake!” Whatever was blocking Henry’s view was pulled off his head; dim light and cool air assaulted his face. The first thing he saw was a pale, portly, stout man’s face. His beard was full, blonde and unkempt. The man gave Henry a yellow smile then moved out of the way to give Henry a better view of the situation.
Of the six people sitting around a dining room table, the bearded man was the only one not tied to a chair and ungagged. Each other bound guest had a book in front of them and dozens of small miniatures stood on a paper grid that took up most of the table. Henry’s met each stranger’s worried gaze. Most of them appeared completely frightened; one of the men was silently crying to himself. One woman, however, seemed bored.
The brunette sitting across from Henry struggled less than the rest of the captured party. Her green eyes wandered lazily around the sparse dining area. Henry got the impression they were in a large apartment; but, their host was obviously a bachelor with no taste. The only walls Henry could see were bare off-white.
“Now that you’re all awake we can play!” the bearded host said with a broad smile. “Play what you ask? Dungeons and Dragons of course!” he held up one of the books from the table for everyone to see. “I’ve already rolled your characters so we can get right to the game, I made a killer campaign that you guys are going to love!” The dangerous DM put the book down, then moved behind the brunette across from Henry.
“Since we need to talk, I’ll take out your gags. If you talk too much, the party will have to find a way to finish the quest without you, am I clear?” he asked as he loosened the woman’s gag.
“Not really,” were her first words. “So, what. If we talk a lot you send us home?” she asked. The pudgy host chuckled. With deliberate slowness, he placed a black handgun on the table.
“If your character dies, you die. Refuse to play and you die. Talk too much,” he placed his heavy hands on the brunette’s shoulders and leaned closer to her ear; he did not lower his voice. “You die,” he said. “Clearer?”
“Yes. But not really,” she said. “We’re gonna do this with pen and paper? That’s boring.” Henry chuckled quietly to himself; the other three captives seemed to be glad for the woman’s added delays. The DM sighed.
“At least you’re not screaming,” he said with a shrug and moved to the woman, a blonde, next to her. “Fun is subjective,” he said while loosening the blonde’s gag. “Let’s just say that dragons and elves are fun to me.”
“Me too, but not with pen and paper. Don’t you guys have AlterNet access on this Earth?” The brunette’s question immediately changed the tone of the room. The DM dropped his hands and his jaw and stared at her. The faint noises of struggling captives whining and crying stopped in an instant. Henry cocked his head in confusion, as did the rest of the bound group; it was the only thing they could do.
“What do you mean this Earth?” the DM asked. “Who are you, why aren’t you more concerned about the situation?” Her casual demeanor unsettled him enough to grab the gun from the table again and holster it in his pants. “Alternate access to what?” The brunette giggled.
“You’d know,” she said. “The AlterNet is a virtual MMO. It’s better than a real version of this,” she nodded at the book in front of her. “I don’t know how to play this version anyway. My AlterNet character is a Spellslinger though, can I be that class in this?”
“That’s not even a real class; there are 12 classes and that’s not one of them,” he said with more than a little bit of defensiveness. The blonde’s gag loosened.
“What’s a Spellslinger?” she asked as soon as it was out of her mouth.
“I’m like a gunslinger, but we shoot magic instead of bullets,” the brunette said.
“You never answered the question,” the DM cut in as he undid the weeping man’s gag. “What did you mean this Earth?” he asked again.
“Alternate universes are a thing,” the brunette shrugged as much as she could through her extension cord bindings.
“You…,” the weeping man’s voice cracked the first time he tried to speak. The DM moved on to the next person, a redheaded woman. The weeping man tried again, “You’ve been to one?” he asked. The brunette smiled.
“Been to one? I’m IN one.” She looked at the gathered group. “Are coerced surprised parties not a normal thing on your Earth?” she asked. Immediately four heads, including Henry, shook, “No”.
“Oh,” she said. “Well do you guys wanna check it out?”
“An alternate universe?” the redheaded woman asked as her gag came loose. The DM moved to behind Henry; he felt the man’s fat fingers tug at the knot behind his head. The brunette shook her head.
“They’re all alternate universes. I meant do you want to play in the AlterNet? We can import whatever campaign you wrote up,” she looked up at the DM.
“And then? How does it work?” he stopped working on Henry’s knot to ask the question.
“It makes whatever you wrote as real as this room we’re in. Oh, except you all have to make new characters; there are 25 classes in the AlterNet.”
“What kind of trip are we talking about?” the bearded DM asked. The brunette shrugged and looked past him to the next room; Henry guessed it was a living room but he couldn’t see a TV or sofa.
“As easy as you walking into that room,” she said. The DM narrowed his eyes at her.
“And I suppose I have to untie you for you to get us there,” he said. Again, the brunette gave a ‘whatever’ shrug. “Not really. Reach in my pocket,” she leaned toward the blonde; the DM left from behind Henry without loosening his gag. The brunette tried to give him as much space to work with as he could. After several minutes of fumbling, feeling, and one stern look from her, the DM pulled out a solid black business card.
“What do I do with this?” he asked.
“Throw it at the wall,” the brunette gestured at the bare wall next to them. He threw the card; the moment it hit the wall it expanded to take up most of it with a black hole. After a second a young man with a buzzcut hopped out of the portal.
“Taxi?” he asked as soon as he appeared. Everyone except the brunette stared in surprise; she took the opportunity to answer fast.
“Yes, but that guy’s trying to kill us!” she shouted. The DM was surprised and turned to the newcomer to protest. He managed to see the newcomer nod at the brunette, then he saw a fist flying at his face.
“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Simon gave the brunette a smile and gestured at the window. Outside, the heavy downpour made the day hard to see from inside the crowded cafe. “Mind if I join you? My name’s Simon,” he added.
“I’ve seen better,” Hanna chuckled and nodded at the seat closest to Simon. “There’s a good chance you’re the only one in here that thinks so; the rest of us are in here to avoid the rain.” Simon set his cup down, then took a seat with exaggerated motions. So far his plan was working, but he needed her eyes on him when he pulled his phone out.
He pulled a clear, glassy rectangle the size and width of a playing card from his pocket. He put it on the table next to his coffee while he settled in his seat, and he waited for a comment. Usually, it came in the form of, “What’s that?” or “Wow is that a phone?!” and his favorite, “Where did you get that??”. Simon watched her so intently, he noticed when she saw it; but, no comment came. Her eyes casually ignored it like any normal cellphone. She continued drinking her coffee and surfing the web.
Simon found himself at a loss. The interest his node drew was supposed to lead to the rest of the conversation where he could show off his magical app. Luckily, fate was in the mood to wingman for Simon; his phone rang and a picture of his blonde sister popped up.
“Hey, sis, how’s it going?” He answered with careful word choice. “You want me to what?” he asked at hearing her request. He leaned closer to the table and dropped his voice to a whisper; though he made sure Hanna could still hear him.
“I can’t just make it rain on command for you,” he said, then laughed after a moment. “Yes, I know I can but I shouldn’t. Fine,” Simon said. “Just a small shower for the kids to play in. Alright, have fun. I love you too.” Simon hung up the phone and flashed Hanna his biggest grin.
“There are few things five-year-olds love more than splashing in rain puddles.” Simon then focused his attention on his node while he tapped and swiped his way through it. “They’re out in Florida, but I’m gonna send them some of this rain,” Simon tapped his screen one more time.
Immediately the rain outside the coffee shop stopped. The dark grey clouds vanished and left behind a bright azure sky. Simon scrunched up his face like he made an inconsequential mistake.
“Oops, too much,” he chuckled. Simon was glad to see he finally got a reaction from her; she giggled too with her eyes on his node.
“You should probably learn how to use it better,” Hanna said. “Maybe do the tutorial.” Simon narrowed his eyes and tilted his head.
“Huh?” he asked. It wasn’t what Hanna said that confused Simon; he hadn’t even heard her. He was too busy wondering why she wasn’t showing more surprise or interest. Something that showed she was impressed by him sending away the rain. Instead, she seemed to be telling him he was doing something wrong.
“The tutorial,” Hanna grabbed her purse and started to dig through it. “Maybe your version didn’t get it. That’s alright; I can copy it over.” As she finished her sentence she pulled her own node out. Simon’s jaw dropped when he saw she had one too.
“Where did you get that!” he asked. Hanna smiled.
“This is an official node bought directly from Sharp Development. Where’d you get yours?” Hanna tapped and swiped at her node the same way that Simon did.
“I don’t know, I found it,” Simon said.
“Yeah, that happens alot-,” Hanna cut her words short, and she glanced up at Simon. It looked like a stray sunbeam caught her in the eyes. Simon saw a flash of gold; but, Hanna did not blink. “Huh,” she said.
“What?” Simon asked. Hanna gave a quick shake, then smiled.
“Nothing. Anyway, sorry. It turns out our models are incompatible. I can’t copy the tutorial over, but you’ve more or less got the hang of it. You’re not missing anything.”
“What more is there to miss?” Simon grinned. “I can control the weather. Can you control the weather?” he asked. Hanna shook her head.
“No. Not here anyway,” she said.
“I can control it here, Florida, anywhere.” Hanna nodded and Simon realized her demeanor cooled off considerably in the last few minutes. Simon needed to impress her fast; he noticed her gathering her laptop even as he made the realization.
“I can make it snow inside!” he blurted. “We could literally SharpFlix and chill,” he chuckled and stood; because she stood.
“No thank you,” Hanna said.
“Don’t date weather gods?” Simon asked. Hanna shook her head with a giggle.
“Weather GOD?” she laughed.
“Look,” Hanna said. She slid her bag over her shoulders and crossed her arms. “I’m not normally a rude person, but I think it’s okay here,”
“Uh… okay,” Simon said.
“I’d never date you. Weather god? You don’t control the weather, you supervise it. You can tell it where to go, and sometimes what to do but that’s it,” Hanna wiggled her fingers at the air; a tall black portal opened next to her. “But, the real reason is something else…,” Hanna’s eyes softened; pity filled her face.
“I got an error message when I tried connecting my node to yours,” She stepped one foot into the portal. The reason you don’t have a tutorial; the reason you can interact with the weather at all,” Hanna stepped into the portal completely. She leaned forward out of it and gave Simon a shrug.
“I don’t date NPCs,” she said. “You’re not real; and, the worst part is: you’re aware of it.” Hanna leaned back and disappeared into the black hole; it closed and vanished.