Drunk Luck

“Stop right there, Gaia,” BlackJack said. He stood in the center of the street, both hands on his hips, while pedestrians fled the scene along both sidewalks. His black and red harlequin costume billowed in the wind; the bells on the ends of his jester hat jingled.

Moments ago Gaia erupted from beneath the police station; it was demolished in an instant. She then began violently strolling down the street. The Earth Goddess lashed out at innocent bystanders using whip-like vines.

BlackJack had never dealt with Gaia, his normal hero job was across the country. Everyone talked about how unstoppable Gaia was, but he hoped his unique approach could make a difference. He took a trip to Gaia’s city hoping for an encounter, and she appeared on his first day in town.

“Hola, Borracho,” Gaia smiled at BlackJack. Her greeting made BlackJack tilt his head curiously, but she kept speaking. “I hope you’re just passing through,” she said. BlackJack knew enough Spanish to know that ‘borracho’ translated to ‘drunk’; but, he had no idea why she called him that.

“Are you drunk?” BlackJack asked. He was hopeful because that would make his job a lot easier. “Why did you say that?” Gaia laughed and shook her head.

“You’re Unique Soul #25, El Borracho,” she said. “You’re like me. I’m-,” her explanation was interrupted by BlackJack.

“We’re nothing alike!” he shouted. Gaia rolled her eyes. Three vines twisted themselves together and whacked BlackJack across the face like an open-handed slap. BlackJack was genuinely caught by surprise; though he tried to stay calm and ignore the sting. He wanted Gaia to think he let her get a shot in. But, unlike being able to see the probability of things in a normal fight; he never saw it coming. A kernel of doubt took hold in the back of his mind.

“Oh shut up. I’m not comparing us, you dolt. It’s the same as if I said we were both mammals,” Gaia said. She glared at BlackJack as if daring him to interrupt again, but he did not say a word. She continued.

“I’m #37, El Mundo.” BlackJack’s high school Spanish kicked in again and he recognized her as ‘The World’. Her powers made a lot of sense all of a sudden; and, it made him wonder. If he was like her, what were his powers? Being drunk? At 28, he’d never come close to being drunk.

“So, what does that mean?” BlackJack asked. He noticed that the last of the pedestrians were almost out of the way; it was time to start his plan. He decided on using the street lamp behind her to bring her down. She seemed talkative and he was sure he could keep her attention long enough. It just needed a little help.

As the final bystander ran away, BlackJack changed the odds around  his escape. The portly man tripped over his own shoes and stumbled forward into a parked motorcycle. He brought the cycle down, then scrambled back up to keep moving. He did not notice that the gas cap hit the edge of a concrete curb in the just the right way to pop it off.

“It means,” Gaia said. “I know everything about this Earth. And you

can manipulate probabilities.” 

“What?” BlackJack asked. At that same moment, they both heard the sound of breaking glass. One of the cracked windows that Gaia lashed out at finally collapsed. The electric sign that was on the window fell forward and rolled toward the street; it was stopped by the fallen motorcycle. Then, after a bright crackle, it started to spark.

BlackJack never told anyone how his powers work; most of the time he explained it as “luck manipulation”. He could change the probability of anything happening to 100% most of the time. As long as there was a chance of it happening at all. The fleeing man only had a 5% chance of tripping, but BlackJack tipped the scale, and aimed his fall.

“Why are you surprised?” Gaia asked. Then, she grinned. “I told you, Preston,” BlackJack flinched when she used his real name. “I know everything about this Earth.”

A single stray spark from the sign landed in the motorcycle’s gas tank. It exploded with a boom and the motorcycle was sent straight into the base of the light pole. Then, the damaged pole fell forward towards Gaia’s head. She took a single step back just in time avoid certain death. The light pole crashed into the asphalt.

“I know all about your abilities, Preston. And, I’ve made a decision to help you learn about them too,” she said. When she spoke, BlackJack felt a sudden, intense chill run down his spine; but, he couldn’t place the cause.

“For your first lesson, take a look around and see if you can guess what my decision was,” she smiled. BlackJack looked around at the cars first; his eyes went wide.

When Preston used his ability it produced a list of numerical probabilities sorted from most to least likely. The man he tripped earlier could have gotten away without tripping, or he could have been lashed to death by Gaia.

Preston looked from car to car, then up at lamp posts, building signs, anything he could see. The only possibility on every object read: “Lashed to death.”

For a moment he hoped that it meant the cars would be lashed to death, but every new possibility made it clear that that was the only outcome. BlackJack hung his head; his bells jingled one last time.

Hart of Evil

“NO!!!” Jack’s luck ran out. While running through the labyrinthine cave system he thanked his lucky stars he was furthest from the door when it opened. A minor coffee incident put him about two minutes behind the rest of the relieving guards.

The first thing he noticed as he approached his post was that the first shift was still by the door. He expected them to be making their way out of the cave; instead, both shifts were staring at the tall black door intently. Their guns were drawn and trained on the ancient discovery. Then, Jack realized the door was being pushed open from the inside. It was mostly open when he stopped in his tracks to assess the situation.

Then, one of the guards screamed. He was suddenly 15 feet in the air flailing wildly, then he slammed into the cave wall several feet away. When a second guard was lifted off the ground, the rest of the guards opened fire at nothing. Jack watched guard after guard get flung against the cave wall; when only two were left he decided to run.

Jack was a coward and was comfortable with that. He only applied for the post because it seemed easy. The government found an ancient door and wanted it guarded. He imagined shooing away press and curious civilians would be the most excitement he would face.

He glanced back over his shoulder as he ran; all the guards were dead. The hairs on his neck stood on end and he knew he was being chased by something. Jack’s panic caused him to miss the turn that would have taken him back to camp, but he took the next turn hoping it would connect.

He stumbled when his next step wasn’t as low as he expected. The gritty, dusty ground became an old wooden walkway. He collected himself and kept running.

“NO!!!” It wasn’t until Jack ran into a dead-end that he remembered a mining camp mentioned in his briefing. He turned to try and run back through the cave, but stopped. The edge of the wooden walkway splinted and cracked under something heavy.

Jack considered firing his gun, but it didn’t seem to help the other guards. He didn’t feel like suffering through ringing ears in the last moments of his life. A part of him hoped that if he didn’t attack, the invisible beast might spare him.

He sat down, wanting to die in relative comfort, and watched. The wood continued to splinter at regular intervals. By the time it reached him, Jack deduced it was a four-legged beast. He sat still staring forward, waiting to be lifted in the air at any moment. He did not expect to see the thing reveal itself.

“Holy hell…,” he mumbled to himself as he realized what he was looking at. A unicorn. Its coat was the purest white he’d ever seen, it seemed to almost glow with divine light. Its flowing mane was blood-red and a single pitch-black, the same dark black of the door, horn rose out of its head. Jack was somehow surprised again when the unicorn changed.

It reared up and shrunk at the same time. Its snout pulled inward and its hooves each sprouted five delicate fingers. In moments a slim, pale young man with flowing blood-red hair stood in front of Jack. His horn was no longer visible, but a black heart tattoo with the number ’27’ in red decorated his forehead.

“What’s your favorite number?” The strange man asked with a soft voice.

“25!” Jack shouted in fear. It surprised him that he had a favorite number and that he answered at all. The man nodded and smiled.

“You’ll do,” he said. He knelt slightly and extended a hand toward Jack. “My name is Runehart. I need someone to help me get acquainted with this version of the universe, and you’re the only one left.”

“Jack,” Jack replied. He accepted the hand and assumed it was a greeting. He was surprised to find himself pulled to his feet again with no hint of exertion on Runehart’s part. “What do you mean this version?” Jack asked. He felt safe enough for the moment to ask questions. Runehart smiled, then turned and began walking toward the way he came. Jack was quick to join him and keep up.

“Do you know how old your universe is?” he asked. Jack shrugged and tossed out the first number that came to mind; something he heard somewhere.

“15 billion years or so?” he replied. Runehart nodded.

“That seems about right,” he sighed.

“Uh… are you evil?” Jack asked. He was slightly relieved when they walked past the cave that led to the exit. Runehart chuckled.

“Like all things in life, evil is just a matter of perspective,” he said. The ancient black door came into view and Jack realized they were going back in the room. He wondered what he’d see inside what he guessed was a prison cell.

“That being said,… Yes.” Runehart grinned. “I am.”

“What… what are you going to do?” Jack asked.

“Get ready, of course.”

“For… what?” They reached the door. Jack paused to ask before stepping in. Runehart was already crossing the threshold, he paused and poked his head back out.

“If I’m free, the rest of them are too. I need to prepare for my Master’s arrival. If you’re a good boy, I’ll put in a good word to him for you.”

A Dirge for Chocolate

“Green light!” Threnody giggled and dashed forward as soon as she heard the words. Vegas stood at the other end of the living room with a giant grin and a chocolate bar. He watched Threnody take a few steps, then stopped her the moment she came within reach. “Red light!” he said.

Threnody froze mid-step. One little leg was lifted in the air while she wobbled unsteadily on the other. Her bright orange eyes never left the chocolate bar while her hands froze inches from it.

“GRE-” Vegas shouted the first part of the word, the stopped himself. Threnody was ready to move as soon as she heard the word; she toppled over trying to break her own momentum when Vegas didn’t finish the word. She landed face-first on the carpet then rolled over giggling. “Gotcha,” Vegas said with a laugh. He dropped the chocolate bar on her stomach. “What’s next?”

“MY TURN!” Threnody yelled. She grabbed the chocolate bar, stood up and ran to the other side of the living room. She set the candy down on the floor then stood in front of it waving her hands at Vegas.

“Alright, I’m ready,” Vegas said as he took a couple of steps back. He wasn’t a tall man, despite his blue mohawk, but his steps were still longer than hers.

“Green light!” Threnody yelled. Vegas managed to lift his leg before she shouted again. “Red light!” She wanted to catch him on one foot too. Vegas froze with one leg in the air for a moment, then he put it down.

“Whoa,” he said. His grin wasn’t as broad as it was moments ago, and he looked around the room as if checking it for something.

“Vegas!” Threnody whined.

“Shhh, hold on. Was that you?” he asked. Then, he turned around and headed toward the front door. “C’mon, shortcake!” he said. Threnody whirled around to grab her candy bar then ran after him through the open door.

Outside, the sun was disappearing below the house across the street; several shades of purple and orange painted the sky.

“See that?” Vegas pointed at a car that wasn’t moving, despite being in a traffic lane.

“Uhuh,” Threnody said.

“Say, green light,” Vegas suggested.

“Green light,” Threnody said softly. The car moved again instantly.

“Your first time stop!” Vegas crouched to pick up the girl then spun her around a few times in celebration. He set her down and winked at her. “Now try rewinding it,” he said.

“Okay!” she clapped excitedly. Then she looked at Vegas. “What light rewinds time?”  Vegas let out a loud guffaw and shook his head.

“That’s not how it works,” he said. “You can try rewinding later, let’s go back inside and talk.” They walked in and sat at the round kitchen table. Now that she was seated, Threnody took the opportunity to open the chocolate bar.

“You can control time, okay? Time is like a videotape and you can pause, rewind, fast-forward, and even set playback loops.” Threnody nodded while chewing. You don’t need to say red light or green light or anything. That’s just how your powers decided to show themselves,” Vegas chuckled. “You really wanted to stop me. But, you need to learn what you can and can’t control.”

“I control time,” Threnody said matter-of-factly, then took another chunk out of the candy. Vegas nodded.

“So if time is like a videotape, every Earth and all its Zeros are all one tape. Unique Souls are each their own tape; does that make sense?” Threnody shook her head slowly.

“Uh.. okay,” Vegas said. He thought for a moment, then tried again. “Every Earth is like a TV show and all the Zeros are actors. Everything is scripted out from the moment an Earth is created. Which Zeros are going to be born, when, what they’re going to do, how the world is going to end; the whole show is planned out. You with me?” he asked. Threnody nodded and kept munching away.

“The Zeros are acting the show out in realtime, but you and other Muertes can look at the whole thing. You can focus on any moment you want, past, present or future. Now, this is where it gets tricky; Uniques aren’t part of the script. We’re like random people wandering in off the street and messing with the actors. Anything you do to mess up the script is permanent.” Threnody’s eyes widened and she stopped chewing.

“I can’t fix it?” Vegas nodded.

“That’s the sticking point. You’re the only one that can. Pretend you draw a big picture of a pretty unicorn…,” Threnody’s eyes sparkled again and she resumed chewing. “…on the side of a building, then leave that Earth. Then, another Muerte comes along and sees the picture. They like it so much they decide to rewind time to see who drew it. They’ll never find out; as they rewind it’ll be there one second, then gone the next. If they try to fast forward it’ll reappear, but they’ll never see you doing it. If you hurt someone, you’re the only one that can rewind time to before they were hurt and not hurt them.”

“But why can’t other Muertes rewind time before they were hurt?” Threnody asked. A touch of sadness showed in her eyes, but Vegas guessed it was because she finished the candy.

“They can. But they can’t stop the injury from happening again when time returns to normal. Even if you’re not there, the injury is part of the script from that moment on. Like the Earth is a show, you are your own show, each Unique Soul is. Ours isn’t planned out though, we get to make up our own script. And you’re the only one that can change your script. Does that make sense? Did you learn something?” Vegas asked.

Threnody’s eyes narrowed for a moment while she processed the information, then they opened wide with realization.

“YES!” she squealed. Vegas felt the tingle of time moving around him; rewinding he guessed. He glanced around the kitchen to check for differences, then he saw Threnody with a freshly unwrapped chocolate bar in her hands. “I learned I can EAT THIS AGAIN!”


“Not my problem,” Dexter mumbled to himself as he glanced at the text. He was sure he turned the phone off, but thinking fast was a major part of his success at pickpocketing. The mid-20s thief grabbed the phone during a moment of opportunity and did not hesitate to ditch it. After a careful bump into a rushing stranger, the phone was no longer in his position. Dexter continued strolling down the crowded street looking for his next opportunity.

It was mid-day and the weather was perfect. A golden sun hung in the azure sky while a gentle breeze flowed through the lunch crowd. Dexter watched anyone leaving a restaurant to see where they put their wallet. 10 minutes after he dumped the stolen cell phone he felt a vibration in his jeans pocket and heard an unfamiliar musical ringtone. He found the same stolen cellphone ringing and was surprised enough to answer the call.

“Hello?” Dexter asked.

“You’re in the hunt now,” a woman said. She sounded stern and professional, like a teacher reprimanding him. “Misplacing the phone won’t disqualify you.” He stopped walking and looked around. Each passing stranger minded their own business and he did not notice anyone that seemed to be watching him. Dexter shuffled into an alley to get out of the river of pedestrians. He had a million questions about what the hunt was and how the phone got back into his pocket; but, despite all his questions he only needed one answer.

“How do I get disqualified?” Dexter decided the fastest way out was just to talk through it. “I didn’t sign up for any sort of hunt.”

“You are currently designated as: The Hunted,” the woman said. “If you kill a Hunter, you may take his place. Only Hunters may withdraw from the game.”

“I didn’t volunteer for any games,” Dexter rephrased his only defense.

“You did,” she replied with a matter-of-fact tone. “Even if you weren’t aware of it at the time.”

“What kind of freaking game makes people play it without telling them? What kind of ass came up with that?” The woman giggled lightly into the phone.

“Probably the same kind of person that steals other people’s belongings,” she replied.

“This is about the phone? Look, I’ll give it back no sweat. I’ll even add some cash on top of it for the inconvenience.”

“It’s not about the phone, it’s about your actions. Your own decision entered you into the Hunt. By the way, you only have 15 minutes left on your head start.” Dexter sighed.

“Fine,” he said. “Can I get a short version of the rules to help me out?” He suspected that 15 minutes was not enough time to talk himself out of the game. He was in it and needed to learn how to play.

“There are four hunters. At the moment they’re currently watching you have this conversation,” Dexter couldn’t help but look around the empty alley. “In 15 minutes the feed will shut off and they’ll be let loose to stalk you. You’re lucky, most people wear themselves out during the headstart.”

“What if I go to the cops for protection?”

“I wouldn’t do that,” the woman said. “There’s no reason for innocent officers to die; and, they will die. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now this isn’t exactly a ‘legal’ game. The Hunters have no qualms about mowing down anyone that gets in their way.

“So they know what I look like, do I get to know anything about them?”

“Good question!” she replied. “No one’s ever asked about them. I can tell you this much: The four after you are #12 El Valiente, #25 El Borracho, #32 El Músico, and #34 El Soldado. I’ll send pictures to the phone.”

“Wait what do those numbers mean?” Dexter asked. The woman giggled again.

“If you don’t know that, you’re already losing. Head to Mundo’s tattoo shop and he’ll clue you in on the numbers. However, don’t think he’ll give you any protection. 12 minutes left.”

“Mundo’s is way across town!” Dexter replied. He’d seen the tattoo shop on occasion and even came close to visiting for his own tattoo.  “I can’t get there in 12 minutes!” She laughed at him one more time.

“Not my problem,” she said then hung up the phone.

Taking a Gamble

“I just realized…,” Brooks said. He was sitting in a red and gold booth across from Margie; it was their first date and he suggested Chinese food. They made small talk until the waitress took their orders, then Brooks decided to dip into deeper conversation. “You didn’t know about other universes… so do you know about the AlterNet?” Margie shook her head.

“Alternate what?” she asked. A large grin grew on Brooks’ face.

“Alter.  Net, like network,” he explained. It’s a collection of universes set up for gaming. Do you have MMOs on your Earth?” Margie nodded.  “Virtual reality?” She lifted her hand and wiggled it to suggest: “sort of”.

“It’s like both of those combined, but on a bigger scale. Imagine a whole, real, actual, alternate Earth dedicated to gaming. You can be a wizard in a fantasy realm full of magic or a hi-tech cyborg soldier in a futuristic planetwide cityscape or anything between.” Brooks knocked on the wooden table. “And it all feels as real as this.”

“Wow,” Margie said. She had trouble picturing what it would be like but it sounded amazingly fun. “That sounds like an awesome Earth,” she said. Brooks shook his head and smiled.

“Oh no, it’s not just one, there are hundreds. Each Earth is a server, and different servers have different settings.

Hundreds?” Margie was genuinely awed. Brooks nodded. Before that day she regularly daydreamed about seeing the world one day. Some days it seemed like an impossible task; the world was just too big. Now Brooks was telling her that there were at least a hundred other Earths. And they were only used for recreational purposes. She knew she had to visit.

“How does it work? Can we go?”

“Of course. We can go after eating. In the meantime, start thinking about what kind of character you’re going to make. Oh yeah,” he snapped his fingers as he remembered something. “Unique…, ” he pointed at Margie to remind her she was one too. “…powers work in the AlterNet too. A lot of us take that into account when making our character.  He placed held his hand, palm side up, in front of her. It began to glow with soft orange light and Margie felt a warm current of air radiate from his hand.

“I can channel plasma through my hands so I chose to be a fire wizard. I can add plasma to my spells for more fire damage; get it?” he asked. Margie’s head bobbed at a 45-degree angle. She was trying to say yes, but her mind drifted to how she could use her abilities in the game. He mentioned she had “luck” powers, but she still didn’t really know what that meant.

“So what should I be? What can I do with luck?” she asked.

“Luck is a great stat and yours will be much higher than average,” Brooks said. The waitress delivered their food as he spoke; then left again with a quick promise to come and check on them again soon. Brooks continued. “But, there is a Cardmage specialization that for the most part only Borrachos, like you, play. They’re called Gamblers but all the abilities are luck-based,” Brooks shrugged. “It’s pretty useless to anyone that can’t control their own luck.”

“Then that’s what I’ll be,” Margie smiled, then giggled. “It’s kind of funny. On my Earth there are tons of stories about people being dragged to magical worlds to become heroes,” she winked at Brooks. “…and I get to do it on our first date.”

Lucky Star

[Brooks requested the location of your universe. Accept?]

Margie’s phone vibrated when the message popped up on the screen. She giggled about the app’s chosen terminology and pushed the ‘Yes’ prompt. She’d only been using the app for a couple of months but Brooks matched with her almost immediately. She filled out the usual profile questions; gender identity, sexual orientation, favorite number and so on. Hours after she joined she received a message. Brooks was a handsome mid-40s man with a full head of blond hair. He sported a prominent tattoo of a golden star with the number 35 on his neck.

Over time chatting led to flirting; then, to wanting to meet. Their schedules were difficult to sync up but their first date was finally happening. After she approved sending him her location she wondered how far away he lived. She was about to ask him for an E.T.A. when a sudden knock on the door startled her.

“It’s Brooks,” he said through the door. She was surprised he got there so fast, but she did not think too much of it.

Maybe he lives close by,” she thought and dismissed it. She did not consider the ramifications of that thought. He would have live in the same building and same floor, 40, as her to get there that fast. Ignoring those details she rushed to open the door.

“Hi!” she beamed when she opened the door. She was relieved when the handsome man looked just like his pictures.

“Hey,” he grinned back and extended his hand. “It’s great to finally meet you.” After the handshake, they stood at her door in awkward silence for a few moments before Brooks spoke up.

“Ready for dinner? I know a great Chinese place.” As he asked, Brooks wiggled his hand at the air.

“What are you-,” Margie stopped asking when a tall black hole opened in the air next to him. He gestured at it as if he were a gentleman holding the door open for her. She took a step backward.

“What’s that?” Brooks tilted his head at her, then he dismissed the hole with a wave of his hand.

“You don’t know what you are?” He asked, but kept going past that question. “How’d you get the app?” Margie did not know what to make of the first question so she ignored it to focus on the second.

“I won 3 free months in some contest,” she shrugged. “I don’t really remember entering, but…,” she smiled at him. “You’re here and I haven’t paid a dime so I guess I did.”

“You won it?” he looked at her through slitted, suspicious eyes. Then in an instant, his smile returned. He smacked his hand against his forehead and burst into laughter. “Of course! You’re a Borracho. Sorry, I doubted you for a second. I kind of forgot.”

“I’m not drunk! Why would you say that?” Margie asked. She took another step back into her apartment. Brooks still remained outside her door. If he tried stepping in it would only make her more uneasy.

“Oh, right. That explains you not knowing what you are,” he said to himself. “Well, I’m no Mundo but I’ll give it a shot. You…,” he pointed at her. “… are Unique… no wait,” he waved his hands in the air as if he were wiping that part of the conversation away. “That’s just going to get confusing. Okay, you’re number 25 out of 54,” he paused and shook his head. “No, that’s at the end already. Fuck it, we’ll find a Mundo later,” he threw his hands in the air in exasperation, then wiggled his fingers at the air. A small, vertical black hole, the size of a dinner-plate opened next to him.

I am from a different universe,” he pointed at the hole. “This is how I get from universe to universe.” He stuck his hand into the hole up to the elbow then pulled it out again. Now he held a brilliant golden rose. The petals looked more like reptile scales than the red velvety texture she was used to. “There are tons of different universes and getting to them is as easy as walking across the room. Some of them have beautiful things that you’ve never imagined.” He held up the rose and pursed his lips. He gently exhaled on the scaled leaves and it ignited into a soft orange flame.  “Like Dragonbreath roses. You found the app because you’re like me. You can’t make portals, but your skill is luck.” Margie had been listening but her eyes were focused on the rose. The flame continued to burn but it was not consuming the flower. By the time he finished talking the flame extinguished itself but the golden flower still looked perfectly intact. She took two steps forward to reach the door again and smiled.

“So, Chinese food?” she asked and reached for the rose. Brooks nodded eagerly but pulled the rose away.

“Yeah, please.” He held up the flower. “I have to put this back or Takeru will kill me.”

Upgraded Service

“James!” Kelly rushed into the office. She shut and locked the door behind her, then turned to her boss whose first name she never used before that moment.

“Something wrong?” he asked. The question came as a reflex, he saw obvious panic on her face. Her dark brown eyes danced around the office as if expecting something or someone to pop out at her. He moved the computer mouse to bring up the security feed, but Kelly grabbed his hand. She pulled him away from the desk and the large scenic window behind him.

“Stay away from the windows! She yanked him down to the carpeted floor in the middle of his office. “Security said an armed group is trying to come up. They heard your name mentioned and told me to warn you,” she explained. Images of armed gunmen wearing balaclavas and speaking with foreign accents rushed through James’ mind.

“What.. what’d I do?” He asked her as if she knew the answer.

“I don’t know,” she hissed back. James realized she was far more terrified than he was. He realized he should probably be as scared as her. “What did you do on vacation?” Kelly asked. They both lay flat on the floor staring up at the drop-out panels.

“Nothing!” James felt a gnawing sensation in his gut. The burning sensation of a lie about to come to light.

“You had to have done something,” she replied. James shook his head, but she pressed him again. “People don’t just show up to an office building with weapons without a reason. THINK. Maybe you did something accidentally. Tell me everything you did over there.”

“I uh…” James wondered if he could bluff his way through this. He recalled what few facts he could about Saudi Arabia. “You know. Just visited the Red Sea and stuff. It was pretty boring.”

“That’s it? That’s all you did for a week?” James nodded, not that she could see.

“Yeah. It was pretty enough that I went almost every day, different spots you know.” Kelly sat up and stared into his eyes.

“You didn’t come back with a tan. In fact, I think you came back paler somehow. I remember because I was worried you weren’t eating enough.”

She was worried about me?” The realization made James feel worse about his lies. “If we get through this she is getting such a raise. If we don’t…,” James sighed.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on, Kelly, but I need to be honest. I lied to you about my vacation. I didn’t go to Saudi Arabia,” he looked up into her eyes. “My favorite game got a new update and I spent the week playing.”

“WHAT?!” She immediately pelted his shoulder with blows. The floor supporting him ensured he took the full force of the hits. “You told me you had that vacation planned for a year! I missed my daughter’s graduation because of you!”

“From Kindergarten!” he tried to rationalize his lie.

“YOU LIED!” she hit him again several times. He knew he’d have a bruise or three in the morning, and he knew he deserved it too. “I’m sorry! If I survive this you’ll get a raise and two weeks vacation!” She only hit him once more after that.

“I’d better,” she said with stern eyes.

“Mr. Jelee?” A man’s voice came from the intercom on his desk. “The intruders are demanding to speak with, ‘The Final Boss’.”

“What?” James sat up.

“How do they know your nickname?” Kelly asked. James stood up then gave Kelly a hand up.

“I don’t know,” he said as he made his way to the desk. He opened the security feed on his monitor and saw a group of armed and armored adventurers. A paladin in heavy, black iron armor stood at the front of the group. A spellslinger and gunslinger duo, each with holstered guns on each hip stood on each side of a white-robed healer.

“No waaay,” James whispered under his breath.

“What the hell? Security said they were armed, but it’s just a group of cosplayers,” Kelly commented. James pressed the red intercom button.

“Send them up,” he said.

“Yes, sir.” The security guard on the monitor replied. He pointed the group toward the elevator.

“Well..,” James looked at Kelly. “We lived through it. Go ahead and take the rest of the day off and you can start your vacation tomorrow.”

“Really??!” Kelly asked. James nodded, but Kelly was already half-way out the door.

“See you in two weeks!” she shouted over her shoulder. James sat down in his high-back leather chair and waited. After several minutes, he heard heavy clanking approaching from the other side of the door. Then, a knock.

“Come in,” James said. The paladin walked in first followed by the spellslinger, the healer, then the gunslinger at the rear. The group approached his desk. “Really guys? I’m working right now.”

“That’s all you can say?!” The healer stepped forward and pulled her hood down. Her long silver hair cascaded over her shoulders. “Have you seen what we’re wearing?” James nodded.

“Yes, Mia. They’re really cool costumes but I’m working. Don’t you guys have jobs too?” The spellslinger drew her gun and pointed it at James.

“Duck,” she said. James ducked his head to the desk. He was used to taking orders from her. She pulled the trigger and a marble-sized blue ball flew out of the barrel. James felt a chill on his neck as the projectile shot by. He heard a crisp, cracking sound and turned around to face the window. It was now completely iced over.

“They’re not just costumes, idiot. Your Earth’s been upgraded to a server. How do you not know?” James shrugged, but the news made him smile.

“Been busy in real life. Haven’t logged in for a while,” he said. “But I can fix that today,” he stood from his seat with a smile, but then he grew worried.

“WAIT. This is a server now?” He asked. His static party nodded.

“Yeah, let’s go. Time to slay the dragon!” The paladin smiled. They did not slay dragons all that often, but he liked saying it.

“Guys.  You don’t get it,” James shook his head. “No one told us,” he said. The frozen window behind him shattered. He turned around and saw a group of gargoyles attacking the building across the street.

Guided Tour

“Come on!” Alliane pulled on Jonah’s arm. “You can’t see anything from there, get closer!” She stood on one of the city’s outer walls trying to get her boyfriend to look at the river of zombies shambling below. Jonah crinkled his nose and shook his head.

“I can’t get any closer to that stench, how can you stand it?” Alliane turned over the railing and stared down at the walking corpses. They shuffled through an empty concrete moat built around the city moaning the whole way. She made a show of inhaling a deep breath through her nostrils. Alliane exhaled then turned back to Jonah with a disgusted face.

“Blech,” she giggled. “Never smelled that before.” She left the railing and led Jonah towards the elevator. “We’re on an adventure and you need to be more adventurous.”

“I’m adventurous, I just don’t like stinky smells,” he grumbled as they stepped into the elevator. Alliane realized he may have taken it more seriously than she intended. She kissed his cheek as an apology then changed the subject.

“We’ll get the picture then move on. What’s next on the list?”

“Uh..,” Jonah pulled his cell phone out and swiped through the screens until he pulled up a picture of a list. “A ladder.”

“A ladder? That’s kind of boring,” Alliane said. “I don’t think those girls gave us all the rules.”

“Maybe they didn’t understand it either,” Jonah handed his phone to Alliane. “It says #07 La Escalera,” he shrugged. “I don’t know why it’s in Spanish, but that’s a ladder. I don’t know what the number is, maybe we have to find one with the number seven on it?” The elevator glided to halt then dinged. The doors opened and Alliane stepped out first. She headed straight for the viewing window.

“That’s super easy, we can grab a ladder from here and draw a seven on it,” she looked back to wink an emerald eye at him. “Two birds, one stone.” They reached a wide glass wall that separated the zombies from the tourists. The glass turned into concrete at about eight feet. The horde of corpses blocked out most of the sunlight leaving a dim interior. On one side, people stood in front of the glass wall and posed with frightened faces for the camera. On the other side, the legion ignored the unending flashes and continued to flow forward.

“Here,” Jonah handed his phone to Alliane then he stood in front of the clear wall. Alliane snapped a quick picture and then they swapped places. After Jonah took Alliane’s picture he joined her by the wall and watched the zombies. “Do you think they’re blind?” Jonah asked as he wrapped his arm around Alliane.

“Probably. They are dead,” she replied.

“No, that’s not it,” a woman’s voice said from beside them. The couple turned to see a young woman wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a green vest that identified her as a docent. “Hi,” she smiled at them and pressed a hand to her chest. “I’m Mundo.” Jonah waved with his free hand and Alliane smiled.

“I’m Jonah and this is Alliane.” Mundo nodded at the parade of corpses behind them. “Their eyes work fine, but the glass is treated. It’s kind of like a two-way mirror, but they only see black.”

“Oh I see. Thank you for the information,” Jonah said.

“No problem,” Mundo said. “Anything else I can help you with?” They both shook their heads.

“Not unless you can help us find a ladder around here,” Alliane giggled then turned her attention back to the zombies. She knew they’d be leaving soon and she wanted to enjoy every moment.

“Ignore her, we’re fine. Thank you again,” Mundo gave him a curious look.

“An Escalera?” she asked. Immediately both heads whipped around to face her.

“Why did you say it in Spanish?” Jonah asked.

“What’s Spanish?” Mundo asked. Alliane’s hand flew fast and sharp to smack Jonah on the back of his head.

“It’s nothing, just an inside joke between us,” Alliane said quickly. “RIGHT, honey?”

“Yeah, yeah. Sorry. I’m so used to talking to her things slip out sometimes.” Mundo stared at them with piercing eyes, but the corners of her lips tugged upward. A smile slowly spread across her face.

“Oh my god,” she said. Her eyes widened and seemed to sparkle more, even in the dim light. She began bouncing in place with excitement. “You don’t know what you are, do you???!” Her restraint withered with every second as she became more energetic. Jonah saw severe worry flash over Alliane’s face.

‘I know that we’re leaving,” he said. “But thank you again.”

“You guys are from a different universe!” Mundo blurted out. “Two actually, one each,” she corrected herself in a quieter tone. They stopped walking.

“What makes you say that?” Jonah asked. He guided Alliane away from Mundo and tried to put himself between them.

“I NEVER get to explain it to anyone, this is awesome! FOLLOW ME!” She grabbed the closest hand, Jonah’s, and led them to the cafeteria in a hurry. She sat them at a small booth.

“Wait here, I’ll get us some drinks. I’ve got a lot to tell you about yourselves,” she turned and took two steps away. Then she stopped and turned around. “OH, please don’t leave. You’re not in any danger, I promise.” Jonah and Alliane nodded, then Mundo turned away again. After two more steps, she stopped and turned around again. “BUT, if you do leave do yourselves a favor. Look for a Mundo on the next Earth you visit. We can explain things to you.” She turned and walked to the counter.

“Up to you, hon,” Jonah said. They both watched Mundo get in a short line with three bottled waters. Alliane shrugged.

“She called the ladder an escalera, that can’t be a coincidence. Plus, she somehow knew we weren’t from here. Let’s listen. Maybe she can help us with other items on the scavenger hunt too, not just the ladder.”