Death’s Favor

Alliane woke with a start. Her eyes flew open and stared at the darkened ceiling while she tried to listen for what was bothering her. Silence. Her husband wasn’t snoring, and the clock wasn’t ticking. She turned and glanced out the second-story window and noticed the patio light was on. She always turned it off before going to bed, and she always went to bed after Jonah,

She turned on the bed and stood up, then walked into her closet to change into something more presentable for her guest. She made her way down the stairs and into the kitchen. She stopped for a moment when she saw someone wearing a white suit. She came downstairs thinking it was her friend, but he always wore a navy-blue pinstripe suit. Luckily he turned into the light and she recognized Billy. She relaxed and continued out onto the patio.

“Jonah’s starting to think you don’t like him,” she said as she sat down on a wicker chair at the patio table. Billy chuckled and sat down across from her.

“I’m still undecided,” Billy replied with a shrug.

“So, did you stop time just to show off your new wardrobe?” Alliane nodded at his bright orange tie. “Vanilla would be proud,” she smiled.

“It was a gift from her. She wanted me to wear it when…,” Billy went quiet for a moment. “…I inherited her power. I haven’t worn it for a while, but I think I’m ready.” Alliane stood from her seat and pulled it closer to him. She sat down again putting her hand on his shoulder.

“It looks good,” she said.

“Thank you, but that’s not why I’m here. Vanilla’s soul is in me and it’s telling me something major is happening soon.” Alliane sat up straighter and gave a curt nod of encouragement. She’d seen Billy sad before but never worried like he was now.

“Are you and Jonah still doing that scavenger hunt?” he asked. She replied with a half-shrug.

“He got bored with it after we got married. Why?”

“I need to ask you a favor, and it would be easier if you had some Unique friends to help. The other team I met seemed capable, and they had AlterNet characters.”

“Oh. We love the AlterNet, what’s the favor?” She asked.

“You mentioned wanting to join a roller derby team after the honeymoon. Now that your honeymoon’s over, how about it?”

You are starting a roller derby team?” Alliane was genuinely surprised. “I thought you said Vanilla advised against you making an AlterNet character?” Billy nodded.

“She did. I’m not. You,” he pointed at her. “are starting a roller derby team with your scavenger hunt friends. And you’re going to compete in Dana Sharp’s tournament.”

“The tournament that already started weeks ago?” she asked. Billy nodded.

“It’s not something she’s going to publicize, but she scrapped the matches that happened so far. She’s resetting the brackets and has room for one more team; your team.”

“She can do that? And the other teams agreed to it?” Billy nodded.

“They all agreed the Magi-knights would have won. She gave them the original reward and invited all the teams to try again in a month. The fact that it isn’t common knowledge means none of the teams feel like they lost.”

“How do you know this? How are you guaranteeing me a spot?”

“I have a reliable contact,” he smiled. “Are you in?” Alliane’s eyes opened wide.

“You have a spy in Sharp Development!??” Billy chuckled.

“I wish; the information would be much cheaper if I did. I found a leak. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was all fed to me with Ms. Sharp’s knowledge, but the outcome is the same. I need a team in her tournament.”

“What about your clown team?” She asked. Billy shook his head.

“They’re Red’s team and he’s not known for being particularly reliable.”

“Okay, I’m in.” Alliane smiled. “I’ll put the team together for you.”  She stood from the chair and leaned over to hug his shoulders. “But can you give me a couple hours of sleep before you start time again, to make up for this little chat?”  Billy nodded.

“No problem. And, thank you.”

Death’s Mystery

Alliane narrowed her eyes at the bright red numbers on the clock; she urged them to change. After several seconds she realized the colon was missing; and, it did not seem to be coming back. She rolled over in the bed and pushed at her sleeping boyfriend, Jonah. He slept on his back and was not breathing. Alliane glanced out the window and noticed the patio light was on; she herself turned it off before going to bed. With a sigh, she stood from the bed.

She knew it would be a while before she got to bed and stopped in her closet to change. After dressing in jeans and a t-shirt she made her way out of the bedroom, through the hall then into the kitchen. A lean young man in a navy-blue pinstripe suit was waiting on the patio for her. The patio lights illuminated him from behind and cast his shadow onto the white kitchen tiles.

“It couldn’t wait ’till morning?” Alliane asked as she slid the glass door open. The young man smiled.

“It is morning,” he said.

“I meant when the sun’s out,” she said as she joined him on the concrete slab outside her back door. She closed the sliding door behind her, then crossed her arms and gave Billy her full attention. Billy shook his head.

“There’s nothing to see when the sun’s out,” he replied. “Before Vanilla died she showed me something. She promised we’d talk about it later but…,” Billy gave a sad shrug. “…she died before that. I wanted to show you.”

“Okay,” Alliane nodded. She was glad she changed clothes.

“Thanks,” Billy smiled and turned to walk toward Alliane’s back yard. “Time is stopped right now, right?”  He looked at her over his shoulder and asked.

“As far as I can tell,” she replied. She did not have the power to stop time like Billy, but she guessed it was him when she noticed her alarm clock didn’t move.

“Then take a look through this…,” Billy stopped next to a telescope. Alliane didn’t recognize it and assumed he brought it with him. “… and see if you can explain it.”

“Explain what?” Alliane asked as she made herself comfortable by the lens and peered up at the night sky. The telescope was trained on a single glinting, twinkling star that winked at Alliane. She stared at the star for several seconds waiting for something to happen. It did not do anything other than glimmer like a star. She pulled away, looked up at Billy and shrugged. “What am I looking at?”

“If time is stopped here on Earth…,” Billy pointed up at the sky. “Why isn’t it stopped out there?”

Custom Footwear

“So he’s fast?” Jenny asked with a smirk. “There’s not a lot he can do in the AlterNet with just speed,” she said. She stood next to an aluminum picnic table in the park meeting with a client. Her hands hovered above the picnic table; a swarm of golden nanos swirled between the table and her hands. Dirge and Dread stood on each side of her while the client, Alliane, and her friend Billy were seated at the table. “But, thanks for the heads up. At least now we know about the new roster,” Jenny smiled at Billy.

“In fact…,” Jenny dropped her hands to her sides; the golden swarm fell to the table like dust. Gold powder completely covered the sneakers she was trying to import for Alliane. “As a wedding gift to you…,” Jenny handed a small golden cube to Alliane; she returned the woman’s payment. Then, she looked at Billy. “…and to say thank you for the tip about LaughTrack…,” Jenny positioned her hands over the gold-covered sneakers. The nanos immediately rose into the air as if she were magnetizing them. Then they began to swirl around the sneakers again like they were trapped in an invisible snow globe. “…you get the guinea pig special.” Everyone except Jenny looked confused.

[What’s the guinea pig special?-Dread] Jenny felt the Whisper from Dread tickle the back of her neck. Somewhere Alliane and Billy would not accidentally notice.

“What’s the guinea pig special?” Billy asked at the same time.

“It’s when I’m working on something new and need to test it out, I do it for free.

“Wait, what are you trying out?” Alliane asked. She sat up straighter and fought the impulse to grab the sneakers off the table. She had no idea what was happening in the cloud of nanos but she did not assume it was harmless.

“Like I told your friend,” Jenny nodded at Billy. “There’re a dozen different ways to import items into the AlterNet. Thanks to hearing about LaughTrack; I just invented a new one.” Jenny continued talking when no one asked any followup questions. “The other ways involve covering the object in a layer of nanos that the AlterNet recognizes. But, with my spec I can make anything out of nanos.” Jenny reached down into the golden cloud and pulled out the pair of old white sneakers Alliane brought. The golden dust settled to the table then disappeared. They left behind a gleaming white pair of sneakers. They looked almost exactly like the ones Alliane wanted imported; but, Jenny held those in her hand.

“Instead of making these usable I made a brand new pair using AlterNet crafting materials. They’re made from Soul Serpent leather so they’re great at channeling Unique energy.” Jenny smiled as she handed Alliane both pairs of white sneakers. “Everything else being equal they’ll be faster than other boots imported the normal way.”

Clowning Around

“I want to give these…,” Alliane waved her hand over a pair of old white sneakers. They were frayed, faded and held together by strips of tape. “…the powers of this.” She placed a single brown leather boot on the metal picnic table next to the sneakers. Jenny, one of the three girls standing next to the picnic table, looked at the trio of shoes and tilted her head slightly.

“For what?” Jenny asked.

“You told me 100k?” Alliane placed a tiny golden, glowing cube on the table next to the shoes; it was smaller than a dime. Jenny nodded and swiped the cube from the table.

“Right, that’s what I’m going to do it for. Why do you want them imported?”

“Does it matter why? You already took the money,” Billy snarked at the girl with dark, spikey hair. She turned to look him in the eyes.

“I’m providing a service, and I like to do my best to help my clients. There’re a dozen ways to do what she wants and I want to find the one that suits her best. Is that okay with you, sunshine?” Billy straightened his back and sat up. He gave the girl a curt nod.

“They’re a wedding gift for my fiancé We’re going to join a derby team after the honeymoon.”

“Awwww that’s so sweet!” Dirge, a girl with black curly hair winding down her shoulders, said. “You should give them a wedding present!” she told Jenny. Then, she turned to face Billy. “Are you the  fiancé?” He shook his head. Dirge turned back to Jenny. “You have to give her a wedding present.”

“I will,” Jenny said. She waved her hand at the air in front of her to call her slate. A glass panel that only she could read appeared in front of her; to everyone else, it looked transparent. Jenny placed her fingers on the slate and began typing. A swarm of golden nanos gathered around the three shoes.

“Derby? What classes are you?” Dread, a tall girl with spiky white hair, asked.

“I’m a swordmage,” Alliane said. Then she pointed at the glowing golden sphere around her boots. “Fiancé is a scribe.” Dread nodded.

“We’re on a team too,” she said with a small, proud smile. “I’m a beastmaster,” Dread pointed at Dirge. “She’s a bard,” then she pointed at Jenny. “Programmer.”

“Ohhh yeah, I thought you girls looked familiar,” Billy said. “Luchadoras, right?” he asked. All three girls flashed him bright smiles. “Nice job against the Magi-knights,” Billy smirked. All three girls stared daggers at him then each focused on something else.

“It was our first match as a team, but we’re getting better,” Jenny replied while her fingers danced on the glass slate. “The next match’ll be an easy win for us. We’re going up against Clown Patrol.” she giggled. “Those bozos don’t take themselves or the game seriously.”

“What?” Billy asked in surprise. “You’re going up against Clown Patrol next week?” All three girls nodded. Billy shook his head.

“I need to warn you girls, be careful against LaughTrack.” Jenny laughed while typing; a swarm of nanos swirled inside the golden sphere.

“The bard? No sweat, Dirge can take him out,” she replied.

“No. He’s not a bard, there’s been a substitution. The LaughTrack you’re facing is a Calavera named Red. He’s a rubber slime clown with an air elemental soul, but that’s not the dangerous part.” All four women stared at Billy with their full attention. Alliane hadn’t heard anything about Billy’s ‘charge’ other than he was dangerous.

“The body he was born into has super speed,” Billy sighed. “I’m sure you can imagine what that’s like when you boost it with the power of a Calavera. But if you can’t,” Billy looked at Jenny in the eyes. “He killed everyone on an Earth in less than a minute.”  Jenny stopped typing entirely, the swirl of nanos stopped spinning. “I asked him one time how he could have possibly enjoyed something that happened so fast.” Billy took a moment of silence to look at each of them in the eyes.

“He said that he was moving so fast each second felt like a decade. He took time to enjoy every… single… kill; but, none of them knew it was happening.”

Vanilla Origin

She was beautiful,” Alliane said then returned the node to Billy. He gave it to her to show a picture of a white-haired woman in an orange dress sitting atop a t-rex. “But she looks so sad in that photograph.”

“Yeah. But I absolutely love her,” Billy paused. He took dropped the node into the breast pocket of his navy blue suit. Alliane’s attention darted around the park. She looked every jogger and Sunday-stroller up and down hoping to recognize someone she’d never met. When Billy went quiet she immediately turned to look at him and nodded her head.

‘I’m listening, sorry. You love her…,” she made a rolling ‘continue’ gesture with her hand.”

“When she smiles,” Billy said with a wistful look.

“Why isn’t she there?” Alliane nodded at Billy’s pocket; then, she used the action to start scanning the park again.

“That was the day she died.” Her attention focused on Billy instantly.

“I’m sorry,” she reached across the concrete picnic table to give his hand a short, comforting squeeze. “But why was she sad? She knew something was going to happen that day?”

“Yes,” Billy said. “I don’t feel like talking about that right now if that’s okay…” he said. Alliane nodded. “But can I talk to you about her?” he asked. Alliane was only his second friend; he still questioned everything.

“Of course,” she turned her body to face him as a sign that she was done only half-paying attention. “Tell me your favorite memory.” Billy smiled. “Take all the time you need,” she added. Billy nodded and stopped time around them

“Slumbering Estrellas…,” Billy nodded at Alliane. “… accidentally traverse all the time, right?” She nodded. “It’s the same for Slumbering Muertes. We accidentally stop time. It happened to Vanilla when she was eight. Stopping time is more granular than you might think. Every thing has its own time, and a lot depends on the Muerte’s notions of what time is.” Billy knocked on the metal table; Alliane heard the low echoing vibrations run through the metal. “If we think stopped time should mean no sound waves…” Billy knocked on the metal table again. Alliane did not hear a sound. “Then it means no sound waves. Generally speaking, we only stop as much as we think about.” Billy took in a deep breath, then released a heavy sigh.

“Vanilla stopped every thing. At eight years old. While still slumbering.”

“Everything?” Alliane asked. “So?” She had trouble seeing the trouble if nothing was moving.

“Everything around her. She was terribly frightened and started crying.” Billy shook his head. “She time-stopped gravity too. Her tears just stayed in the air whenever she moved. She tried wiping her tears away with tissue but they wouldn’t absorb. Time passed and they wouldn’t evaporate either. Every morning she woke up with hope, but she only found tears. She traveled the world leaving giant floating pools of tears everywhere she went. She doesn’t know how long it took, in the neighborhood of a thousand years or so,” Billy shrugged. “She drowned the world. Once she had no other place on that Earth to go her body let her traverse to a different one.”

“Whooaa..” a girl neither of them noticed said. They looked up and found three girls. A tall, pale, white-haired girl, a shorter girl with raven curls, and the shortest girl with black spiky hair. The girl with black curls in a black and orange dress was the one that sounded awed. “Your friend sounds amazing!”

“Alliane?” the shortest girl asked. “I’m Jenny. You had some boots you wanted to import?” Alliane nodded, then looked at Billy.

“I thought you stopped time,” she said. The curly-haired girl smiled.

“I’m Dirge. #14, La Muerte.”

“Alliane. #35, La Estrella.” Alliane was compelled to reply, though the introduction answered Alliane’s question. It seemed Dirge was as powerful as Billy.

Stellar Friend

Billy stepped out of a black portal and into a large, messy, active kitchen. One mountainous cook danced between three different stoves. Multiple pots and pans sat on lit burners on each stove. The giant chef moved between the three stoves like a ninja.

“Who are you?” A woman asked. Billy noticed a short, elderly, Asian woman eyeing him suspiciously. He decided he did not want to deal with her and stopped time. The young man turned to find his way out of the kitchen but stopped in his tracks. The elderly woman stood in front of him again with an annoyed look. In the background, Billy heard the chef still stirring his steaming pots. “Who are you?” She repeated the question.

“I’m Billy. #14, La Muerte,” he replied with a sigh. He expected her to introduce herself too, but she did not.

“What you want here, Billy?” she asked.

“I’m looking for someone. Uh.. a friend; An estrella with a star on her hand,” Billy shrugged. “She’s probably with a diablito.” The woman’s eyes narrowed.

“You know Alliane?” She asked. Billy nodded. “No trouble, okay?” Billy lifted his hands in surrender.

“No trouble. I just need to talk to her.”  

“Start time again,” she said. Billy did. The woman nodded and pointed at a darkened doorway. Wait in the back. Too busy in front. I’ll get her.” She turned to head out the door.

“Uh…” Billy stopped her. “Tell her I said please.”

“Okay,” she disappeared through the swinging door. Billy walked to the dim room in the back. It looked to be a private dining area set up for a giant.

“Hey, Billy. What’s up?” He heard Alliane’s voice behind him and turned around. He sighed with relief when he noticed she came without her fiancé.

“Hi. I need some advice.” The woman nodded and walked into the room. She sat on the monstrous table and waited for Billy to explain. “Do you know anything about Derby?” She nodded.

“Yeah, some. Why?”

“You can’t kill someone while competing, right?” Again, she nodded.

“Technically you can if everyone agrees to turn the safety features off. But as a general rule it’s pretty safe.”

“Thanks,” Billy nodded. He wiggled his hand at the air and opened a black portal.

“Wait! That’s it!?” She hopped off the table and stood between Billy and the portal. “You came all the way here just to ask me if it was safe?” Billy nodded.

“Yeah, it’s not a big deal,” he pointed at the black hole in the air behind her. “As far as I’m concerned I walked into the next room to ask you a question.”

“But why derby?” She grinned. “Are you gonna compete?” He shook his head.

“No. My charge is competing.”

“Your charge?” She burst into laughter. “Like a stepson or something?” she giggled. “Worried about Billy Jr. getting hurt, huh?”

“No. I had to be sure he couldn’t kill anyone,” he replied honestly. He wanted to be sure Ray could not permanently harm the other skaters.

“Oh. Why me?” she asked.

“Why you what?” Billy asked.

“Why did you ‘walk into the next room’ to ask me?” Billy shrugged.

“The person I usually talk to isn’t around anymore and my list of friends isn’t as expansive as you might imagine.”

“Friends, huh?” Alliane grinned and stepped out of the way. “I like that. Anytime you need a friend,” she pointed at the portal. “You can always find one in the next room.”

Expository Potty-break

Billy stared at the door and sighed quietly. He chose this Earth because it was empty, but somehow that didn’t stop random Uniques from showing up on his doorstep. Another sharp knock came from the door and he decided the visitors would be on their way faster if he answered the door and asked to be left alone. He opened it without checking the peephole and instantly recognized the man and woman on his front porch.

“What do you want?” he asked the pair. They seemed surprised to see him too. He saw the woman, Alliane, slit her eyes at him.

“Hi,” Jonah said. “Can we use your restroom?” he asked casually as if they’d been acquaintances for years, though they only met briefly a few days ago. Billy made a point of stepping out of the house and looking past them at the barren, dry landscape.

“There’s a whole empty Earth,” he said. Then he wiggled his hand in the air and opened a small dinner-plate sized black portal. “And infinite other Earths. Why mine?” Alliane shrugged.

“You know how Traversing works. This is where we landed. I’m not going to use a bush when you have working plumbing.” She wiggled in place. “If I go through another portal I’ll come out the other side with wet pants. Can I please use your restroom?” Billy sighed but stepped back into the house and opened the door wider as an invitation. “Upstairs. First door on the left.”

“Thank you!” Alliane blurted then dashed into the house and up the stairs. Jonah stayed on the porch ready to wait.

“Never let it be said that I am a poor host,” Billy said. “You’re welcome to wait inside.” Jonah looked the lanky, suited man up and down then shrugged.

“Okay, thanks.” He accepted the invitation and walked in. Billy closed the door then looked at his guest blankly. He did not want to start a conversation because he did not want to risk prolonging their visit, but he also hated standing around in silence. Luckily Jonah decided for him.

“How does Traversing work?” he asked.

“What? What do you mean?” Billy asked. “You’ve gone through more than a few portals I’m sure.” Jonah nodded.

“I have, but Alliane said, ‘you know how Traversing works’. What does that mean?”

“Oh. I thought your girlfriend would have explained it by now,” Billy replied. Jonah shrugged.

“She would if I asked her. I didn’t know it was a thing until she mentioned it just now. And she’s not my girlfriend, we’re engaged.” Billy realized he had two options to fill the uncomfortable silence. Either answer Jonah’s question or start a conversation about their relationship. He lifted a hand and made a gesture in the air.

“When I open a portal it’s not about going to a certain place.” A hole opened in the air. “There’s too many Earths to pick a specific one. I’ve missed a few times even when I have a target frequency. So the way it works is, I feel where I want to go. I trust that I’ll find what I need on the other side, one way or another.”

“So we ended up here…?” Jonah asked hoping that Billy could fill in the blank.

“Alliane…,” he skipped referring to her as Jonah’s fiancé to avoid the topic of their relationship. “…probably wanted to go somewhere secluded but still comfortable. Since we’ve already met, my home became an option apparently.” The men both heard footsteps at the same time and looked up the stairs. Alliane smiled at Billy on her way down.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “I appreciate it enough to forgive you for stealing our canoe,” she reached the bottom of the steps and wrapped her arm around Jonah’s.

“You mean for getting to the abandoned canoe that anyone could take, first?” Billy asked with a smug smile. “Thanks for dropping in, don’t make it a habit. Please leave,” he asked. Alliane was already waving her hand in the air. She opened a black portal next to Jonah.

“See ya around, Billy,” Alliane waved then stepped into the portal. Jonah followed her; then, the black portal disappeared.

Informal Introductions

“We should’ve had these on before we got here,” Alliane said. She struggled to secure the royal blue bowtie around her throat. The sweat pouring down her ruddy face and hands made the task more troublesome than it should have been. Her long, black hair irritated her more by sticking to her hands and face.

“I don’t know why you didn’t,” Jonah said. He slapped her hands away from her neck. “Let me.” Jonah’s hands felt cool against Alliane’s skin while he adjusted the strap around her neck. Of course, he had his bowtie on already. “There.” The moment the bowtie was secured around her neck Alliane felt instantly cooler. It protected her, and Jonah’s protected him, from the heat of the volcano.

“Thanks.” Alliane leaned upward to reward him with a peck on the cheek, then she looked further down into the volcano. Her portal left them on a rocky outcropping inside the mountain about 30 feet above the lava lake. She saw their next object, a wooden single-person canoe, floating on the bright orange surface. She looked back to Jonah and tugged at the bowtie. “Think these’ll protect us from the lava too?” Jonah placed a hand on her shoulder to make sure she did not jump in without the answer.

“Probably not. The ladder might,” he said. Jonah slid his leather rucksack down to the rocky ground and rifled through it. He pulled out a black metal rod with the number #07 engraved in red on it. “Here.” Jonah handed the bag to Alliane then walked to the edge of the ledge. He held the rod over the side horizontally, then shook it. The action released a heavy cloud of black dust that fell straight down into the lava. As the dust fell it left behind fully formed ladder rungs down to the lake’s surface. Jonah then lifted the ladder to adjust the angle. He dipped the ladder into a spot next to the canoe and placed the top against the ledge at a 45-degree angle. He shook it several more times against the ledge until it would not move anymore.

“Wait here,” he said, then backed himself off the ledge onto the ladder.

“Why?” Alliane asked. She dropped the sack and took a step toward the ledge. “I’m lighter and quicker. I should go get it.” Jonah shook his head.

“I’m already on the ladder,” he chuckled and continued to climb down at an angle.

“Look!” Alliane blurted. She pointed at the canoe, and Jonah turned his body keeping one hand on the ladder. A black portal appeared in the canoe, then a lanky young man wearing a navy business suit stepped out onto the canoe. He noted the ladder and looked up it to see Jonah and Alliane.

“HEY! THAT’S OURS!” Alliane shouted. The man looked down at the canoe, then at the ladder, then at Alliane.

“Based on what?”

“We were here first!” she shouted. “Keep climbing down,” she whispered to Jonah. He started moving down again.

“You say that,” the man smiled. “But I’m actually in it.”

“Scavenger Hunt rules! We saw it first.”

“Scavenger Hunt?” The man noticed Jonah continuing to move toward him. “I’m not part of your childish games,” he said. “Your rules don’t apply to me.”

“If you’re not playing why do you want it?” Alliane yelled from the ledge. Jonah was close enough to see the man roll his eyes with an exaggerated gesture.

“I don’t need to answer, I’m already here. So, if you’ll excuse me…”

“Wait!” Jonah said. “I’m Jonah, #02 El Diablito,” he said and kept climbing down. It was a desperate move to stall the man even just a couple of seconds, and Jonah was pleasantly surprised when it worked. The man narrowed his eyes and sighed.

“I’m Billy, #14 La Muerte,” he said.

“I’m Alliane, #35 La Estrella,” Alliane called out while Jonah kept climbing down. It was a little-known subtlety that Mundo explained to Jonah and Alliane. A majority of Uniques are compelled to introduce themselves to other Uniques.

“I’m Billy, #14 La Muerte,” he glared up at the ledge. Billy seemed to know he was in the majority. Jonah was almost at the canoe. He began to wonder what exactly he would do once he reached it. Pushing Billy into the lava seemed extreme.

“I’m Jonah, #02 El Diablito,” he repeated. Billy smirked. He wiggled his fingers at the canoe under him and a black hole formed underneath it. The flat hole floated upward to swallow the canoe with him in it. It left nothing but lava and empty air under it. As Billy’s head disappeared he smiled at Jonah.

“We’ve already met.”

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.”