Dungeons & Exposition

“A whole month? With you?” Dread asked Jenny. She sounded eager for a moment, then corrected her statement. “..and Astrid?” she glanced at the short girl next to them. The three girls stood on an endless amber plain underneath a dim purple sky.

“The window’s open for 30 days,” Jenny shook her head. The stiff black peaks that made up her hair wobbled with the motion. “But, we don’t need to stay for the whole month. Ms. Sharp wants to add dungeon matches to the tournament since she’s restarting it anyway. The dungeon server opening up has some good starter ruins to get used to the differences.”

“What kind of differences?” Astrid asked. Then, she let out a small giggle and shrugged. “Though, I haven’t played a real derby match yet either. It’s all new to me,” she shrugged. Jenny nodded.

“In a derby match, relative power levels stay consistent for the players and any monsters on the track. In a dungeon Match, every time you level up, it’s like descending a dungeon. Random monsters will start spawning instead of only player summoned ones. Then, the monsters start getting tougher as you get deeper. But they also start dropping better gear that makes the players stronger too.”

“So we get stronger too?” Dread asked. “Won’t that cancel out the stronger monsters?” Jenny shook her head.

“The other team gets stronger too, right?” Astrid asked.

“The big rule for derby is: ‘It isn’t a race.’,” Jenny replied. “Dungeon matches kind of are. If one team levels up faster they make stronger monsters and have better gear. The other team will have trouble keeping up with everything against them; we don’t want to be that team.”

“Should I have picked a faster class?” Astrid asked.

“Nah,” Jenny shook her head with a giggle. “Stop asking, you already picked Swordmage. You can’t change your class, so for the last time,” she said with mild exasperation. “It’s not about what role you fill, it’s about having fun.”

Astrid nodded, her tight black curls bounced. She caught Jenny’s mild annoyance. It bruised her feelings a bit, but Astrid knew her new friend meant well. And, she knew that she’d probably asked Jenny what class would best help the team one too many times during character creation.

“I can’t wait,” Dread said. “We going now?”

“What about the rest of the team?” Astrid asked. Jenny shrugged.

“Bailey has a ton of dungeon matches under her belt already; she doesn’t need the practice. Britt’s always working, but Dirge can probably use some dungeon time.”

“Oh, no. She’s busy,” Dread said quickly. “Uhh.. I think she wants to hang out with Vegas more. I think we should go just you and me. And Astrid,” Dread added.

“Actually, Astrid reminded me of something,” Jenny said. “It’s best to take a full team so we can talk about synergies too. We’ve got 30 days, and I’ve already reached out to some of the other guilds about practicing at the Schoolyard. We’ll try to plan it for a day when we get at least one full team together, two would be great.”

“Oh. So, what now?” Astrid asked.

“We can still do some training,” Dread said. “I mean, I have time. If you want to?” She looked at Jenny first, then she turned to Astrid. “Unless you have to leave?”

“I apologize girls,” a woman’s ethereal voice echoed around them. “Playtime’s over, this one has chores,”

“Chores?” Astrid looked up at the purple sky in confusion. Then, she sank into a black portal that appeared underneath her feet. It disappeared after swallowing her. Jenny shook her head in awe.

“You know…,” Jenny said. “I understand Ballisea can do that anytime from anywhere. But seeing it happen is going to take some getting used to. Can she hear us too?”

“Yeah,” Dread nodded with a more serious expression than she wore moments before. The truth was, she didn’t know if Ballisea could hear them across universes until the moment Astrid disappeared. But, Ballisea spoke something to her only. A faint whisper emanating from within her ear canal; a microscopic black portal that carried Ballisea’s voice.

“Little Calavera,” Ballisea giggled in Dread’s ear. “You would do well to heed my advice. If you wish to spend time alone with that one, ask her. For now, I will grant you this trivial favor of removing Astrid.”

Sharp Reset

“Your performance in your first few games was…,” Dana Sharp paused mid-pace to look at the group of five girls. Bailey, Jenny, Dirge, Dread, and Britt were seated in Dana Sharp’s office. Each one looked sullen from Dana’s lecture so far. She circled them while informing them about her decision to cancel the Pineapple Cup, and start from the beginning again. Dana searched her mind for the most gentle word she could. “…lacking. It wasn’t the only reason for my decision to scrap the first tournament; but, it was on the list of reasons. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s not even a negative.” Dana Sharp walked to her desk and sat behind it.

“Between us in this room, I know you could have improved enough as a team during the tournament to win. However, from a business perspective, there was an opportunity here to exploit. The representatives of Earth: Pineapple respect the fact that my company is willing to take a loss to accommodate a family emergency.” Ms. Sharp took a moment to nod at Bailey. She sat in the center of the group. Her chestnut ponytail was currently covered by her green hoodie; she pulled it up early into the lecture.

“How’s your dad doing, Bailey?” Ms. Sharp asked.

“Better,” Bailey gave the woman a firm nod. “Thank you, Ms. Sharp.”

“I get to buy you girls more time to practice, and it leaves a positive impression on my clients. This was my decision, girls.” The girls all seemed to relax when they realized Ms. Sharp wasn’t angry at them.

“Here’s what we’re going to do going forward. Jenny…,” Dana nodded at a girl with black spiky hair to Bailey’s right. “…you’re still the captain. Bailey’s father is still recovering, and I want her to be able to miss a day of practice if she needs to. Along those lines, we still need a sixth team member. The trouble is, you’ve become a team already. The window to assign you a sixth member myself has already closed.”

“Again, this is a great opportunity to learn something. Sharp Development acquired a dungeon finder app on one of our Earths called ‘Delver’. We’ve scaled it up to the AlterNet and rebranded it as ‘DRBY’. Dana Sharp waved a casual, dismissive hand at the girls.

“It’s on your nodes now, try it out and find a sixth member you all agree on. And you’re able to share the app with other players to make it easier to find practice games. Get as much training in as you can before the tournament restarts,” Dana Sharp said.

“When is it?” Bailey asked.

“You’ll know with plenty of time. When I decide,” Ms. Sharp replied.

Sharp Memory


“We’re closed!” Jenny shouted through the door without paying much attention. Someone knocked on the pizzeria door as she was rushing through a final check for the night. She was in a hurry to catch up with her friends for a party but needed to leave the restaurant in good condition. The person knocked again and stepped closer to the door so that the dim yellow light from inside the pizza shop fell on her pale, round face. Jenny sighed at the familiar face and opened the door.

“Hey, Melody. What’s up?” she asked. She had not had more than a passing conversation with Melody Sharp in almost three years. Jenny did not have any friendship left for the woman, but she respected her enough to see what she wanted. The woman’s face softened into a smile and she reached into the coat pocket of her black suit.

“Happy Birthday, Jenny,” she said. She pulled a red-translucent node from her pocket and presented it to the now 18-year-old girl. Jenny’s face brightened and she reached for it. “It’s from Dana,” Melody added. Jenny dropped her hand, not completing the exchange.

“How?” Jenny asked Melody through narrow eyes. The woman quickly shook her head.

“No, I’m sorry,” she said. Her lip trembled and Jenny noticed she was moments from breaking into tears. With a deep breath, Melody collected herself. “I wanted to try and… I don’t know… change your last memory of her,” she sighed. “Sorry, I put too much thought into it. It’s not from Dana… I just think she’d want you to have it.” The answer appeased Jenny; Melody had always had a blind spot for Dana Sharp. Jenny felt bad seeing that Melody still mourned Dana after three years and reached for the red node. She understood they were married, but at her end, Dana turned on Melody too. 

“Thanks, Melody,” she said sincerely. “But what is it? You wouldn’t give it to me if it was just a node.” Melody shook her head.

“It’s a key. To Dana Sharp’s secret lab, now your secret lab,” she said.

“Are you offering me a job?” Jenny asked. Melody shook her head.

“The lab has always been separate from Sharp Development. And I don’t expect you to be as nice to me as you are now, once you visit.” Jenny gave Melody a curious look, but the woman kept talking. “I don’t have the time to travel there regularly, nor staff that I trust enough, to keep it maintained. At least in your hands, it won’t be wasted.” Melody turned to leave but Jenny interrupted.

“What’s in there? You seem pretty confident I’m not going to like what I find.” Melody stopped at the door to answer, but she did not turn around.

“Dana had a lot of secrets,” she said softly.  “When I married her…,” Melody’s voice was trembling. “She’s not the only one that lied to you. I’m sorry, Jenny,” she said and pulled open the door to leave. She left quickly, leaving the teenager alone in the pizzeria again.

[Hurry up. Aury’s eyeing the cake. – Dread] the Whisper tickled the back of Jenny’s neck; it felt like Dread was breathing on her. Directly after that Jenny felt another Whisper vibrate in her ear.

[On your way? Should we start? -Aury] Jenny rolled her eyes and giggled to herself. Only Aury would start the party without the birthday girl present. She had a vivid vision of him lighting the candle and singing happy birthday to an empty chair just to get to the cake Jenny’s mom made. She pocketed the red node and planned to put it off for the next day. Tonight she wanted to celebrate her birthday with her best friends. Jenny raised her arm and wiggled her fingers at the air. She opened a black portal and disappeared into it.

Sharp Secret

“Hold up,” Aurelio raised his hands in a ‘whoa’ gesture. “Say that again, so you can hear what it sounds like.” Jenny shook her head.

“Oh come on,” she said. “We both know what Dana was capable of. Is this really that surprising?”

“But, Satan? THE devil himself is real.. and he gave Dana Sharp a project?” Jenny nodded. “Then…,” Aury grinned. “…is she in Hell? Oh man, I hope she is.” Jenny shrugged.

“No idea, but I’d say that’s a good guess. Anyway, let me finish,” Jenny took a deep breath and stared into Aurelio’s coffee-brown eyes. “I figured out how to do it.”

“Do what?” Aurelio’s brown eyes narrowed.

“The project she was working on. I know how to finish it.”

“Do you want to finish something for Satan?” Jenny nodded with a broad grin.

“She has two Uniques, both Sols, in her lab that have never been born into a body. The project’s goal is to birth both of them in the same universe.

“I know you’re smarter than she was, but how do you have it figured out after a couple of weeks when Dana couldn’t?” Aury asked. Then his eyes widened as he realized another possibility. “How do we know she’s actually dead, and not getting you to finish her work from the shadows?”

“The answer was at the tournament. I’m sure she realized it; if she was still alive she’d have done it herself.”

“The tournament?” Aurelio asked. “What’s the answer then?”

“Wonder,” Jenny smiled.

“Wonder? The Calavera from CyberRiot?” She nodded eagerly.

“She’s a Unique born naturally in the AlterNet. She let me run some tests, and I’m pretty sure I can duplicate the process that gave her consciousness using the two souls…” Jenny paused and met Aurelio’s eyes again. “…with your help. And, Oren’s.”

“Hah, good luck with that; no one’s seen Oren since the tournament. What do you need from me?”

“Your badge.”

“My badge? What badge?”

“You better still have it!” Jenny reached out and gave Aury a gentle shake. “Your mod badge, from when you worked for Dana. She has a private office in her lab that I can’t access without mod priveledges. I’m sure it’s full of helpful info, maybe even some leads on Oren. She always kept a close watch on him.”

“GUYS!” a sudden shout made Jenny and Aurelio jump in their seats. They turned to find a tall, pale teenager in black clothes; he sported a prominent widow’s peak. Then, Jenny turned to stick her tongue out at Aury before she greeted the newcomer.

“OREN!” she shouted using the same tone he did then followed it up with a giggle.

“Great news,” Oren said; he stood up straighter and puffed out his chest. “I’m celebrating my 18th birthday by having a derby tournament. I want you guys in it: say yes.” Aury and Jenny’s different answers came out at the same time.

“No,” Aury said.

“Yeah!” Jenny jumped out of the couch to hug Oren.

“Great! Help me spread the word: the winning team gets their own server.”

“No,” Aury repeated.

“Yeah yeah, Jenny already said yes. This is gonna be awesome!” Oren waved his hand at the air to open a tall black portal. “I can’t wait to tell my mom I have friends!” he jumped through the portal; it closed behind him leaving Aury and Jenny alone again.

“His mom?” Aury asked. “Did we know he had a mom? I mean, of course he has one but do you know who she is?” Jenny shook her head and sat down next to Aury again.

“No, but if you find your badge, I”ll bet Dana knew.”

Alarming Siren

It’s been a while since I’ve had sushi…,” Fred pondered his lunch choices. He sat on a wrought iron bench enjoying the sun against his skin. The lean, athletic man in a grey sweatsuit stared at a row of trees in front of him with unfocused eyes. He faced the trees but his mind was distracted; he wasn’t actually looking. “yeah but Ted won’t eat it…,” he reminded himself. Ted, his older brother, despised seafood; they had plans to get lunch together.

As his mind tried to remember a restaurant that had sushi and something Ted would eat Fred’s eyes focused on something. He spotted movement in the tree shadows ahead. Someone appeared there. They did not walk out from behind a tree, they walked out of the darkness, the shadow and stepped forward into the light.

It was a young woman, college-aged maybe. She wore blue jeans and purple hoodie; she pulled the hood down and looked left and right. Her black hair was short and spiked upward.

“Huh,” Fred said to himself with a short exhale. He knew he did not imagine it but did not yet know what to make of the situation. He watched the woman walk up to the nearest joggers and engage them in conversation. She showed them something that Fred could not see, but the couple shook their heads and shrugged. The woman nodded apologetically and stepped out of their way while searching for someone else. Her eyes landed on Fred and she began to approach him. “It’s going to be an interesting day,” he mumbled.

“Good morning!” she said with a friendly smile when she was close enough. She stopped right in front of the seated man. “I’m looking for something, but I’m a bit lost.” She pushed out her hand and presented her phone; it was unlike any phone Fred had seen. It was a small, thin, clear piece of glass that showed a bright, perfect picture of a white building. “Do you know anything about a company that was based here years and years ago back named Sharp Development?” she asked. Fred’s eyes widened at the picture and he flinched at the name. He looked up into the woman’s dark brown eyes.

“Wh… why?” he asked with a cracked voice. His mouth went dry as soon as he saw the building his brother had been casing for weeks. Ted was an urban explorer and liked to search through abandoned buildings. The Sharp Development complex on the East side of time lay abandoned for so long people tended to forget it was there. Ted liked to stay clear of the law when exploring but even with Fred’s help he could not find any information on the company. He doubted it was a coincidence this woman showed up on the same day his brother picked to go explore it.

“It’s dangerous,” she said. “I’m here to make it less dangerous.” Fred stood up. Ted was in danger.

“Dangerous how?” he asked, then immediately started walking away; he encouraged the woman to follow with a tilt of his head. He felt relieved when she did.

“I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you,” she said as she kept up with his hurried pace. They were not-quite-running to the parking lot. “It’s a short drive,” he said as he climbed into the side of an army-green Jeep. The woman hopped into the passenger seat. “My brother went to go explore today. He’s in danger?” Fred asked as he started the car. The woman nodded.

“We’re on the way,” he said once they hit a 4-lane main road. “Doesn’t matter if I believe you or not. So what’s the danger?” he asked.

“Mermaid,” she said simply. Fred laughed aloud in disbelief but his foot weighed heavier on the gas. Mermaids were horrible, nightmarish, fictional creatures. If anyone else but a woman that walked out of nowhere had told him that he wouldn’t have believed it.

“You’re telling me this Sharp Development company has control over a mermaid?” he asked. She shook her head.

“They couldn’t. She kept eating the staff so they abandoned the project.”

“And who are you?” he asked as he made a sharp turn. He pulled into a long, narrow, uphill path and drove upward.

“My name’s Jenny. I’m someone that can help.”

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.

Dreaded Surprise

Robert’s phone chimed for the first time in two years. The forgotten sound distracted him from his lunch and he stared at his phone in silence. After several seconds he reached for the phone with a shaking hand and checked the notification.

No way…” he navigated to the message; a comment on his latest video.

“Awesome skating!” from a user named ‘Star35Torque’. The video showed Robert skateboarding an obstacles course he built himself through a mall. Thanks to not having to run the rat race, Robert was able to devote all his time to his passion. He recorded his course run with different cameras and edited them all together into one smooth ride. It started on the second floor at one end of the mall and ended on the first floor at another end.

“Who are you?” he replied to the comment. Robert stared at the phone intently for 10 minutes, but no reply came. He sighed and set the phone down, but he was not discouraged. “They probably got busy,” he reasoned, then looked around at his mess. It was about time to move again anyway. Robert became lazy about his personal space and tended to change houses instead of cleaning up. The brief hope that he might have visitors soon prompted him to relocate to the next house he had his eye on.

He drove to the small two-bedroom brick house. Robert spent the rest of the day organizing his new home and gathering supplies. No one had replied by the time Robert got into bed, nor by the time he woke up. He was in the middle of breakfast when his phone chimed again. He grabbed it without hesitation then navigated to the message.

“Britt (not Brittany!). Who are you?” the reply said. He hurried to type a reply.

“My name’s Robert. I’m the last man on Earth.” He did not get a reply until two hours later.

“LOL! Lucky you!” That was not the response he expected.

“Not lucky! Where are you? Can you help me?” he responded. He wasted the day waiting for a response that never came. He wanted to be close to home in case Britt stopped by. Britt replied while Robert was eating breakfast the next morning.

“Help you what?” She answered. Robert wondered whether she deliberately avoided the ‘where are you’ question or not; and, it bothered him. After two years of not worrying about what anyone else thought, he found himself searching for meaning in each interaction.

“Help me,..” Robert typed his reply but stalled. He actually didn’t know what he wanted help with. Aside from the lingering loneliness, he loved the freedom he had. “Help me not be alone.” He waited in bed until her reply came.

“Are you asking me out?” Britt replied after two hours. Robert chuckled when he read her question, then responded.

“I don’t know you enough to ask you out. I’ve been the last person on Earth for two years. Where did you come from? Can I go there?” He tried being as direct as possible. His notification chimed during his usual breakfast time the next morning, but he was not eating anything. He skipped cooking breakfast because he did not want to have his hands occupied when she answered. Not that she answered anything.

“Why?” she asked.

What do you mean, ‘why’?” Robert mumbled to himself. It seemed obvious. But the more he searched for a why the less he found one. Robert realized he had not been as lonely as he thought he should be until another human interacted with him. He loved the freedom. He loved making videos with the expectation that no one would see them. The videos were just something he enjoyed. Robert realized he had not enjoyed making a video in two days. He took his time thinking. If she stuck the pattern he had two hours to answer. Finally, he found a ‘why’.

“I’ll run out of food eventually.” He answered.

“K. I can bring you food if you want to stay, or give you a ride if you want to leave. Where you at?” Britt replied. Robert figured out her schedule and knew he had time to think about it. She responded twice a day and he got the impression that he would not be able to leave until the second time.

If I want to leave?” Robert scoffed at the suggestion, but deep down he knew the answer. “Of course I don’t want to leave,” he said to himself aloud. He loved his life except for the background fear of starvation, and occasional loneliness. Britt solved both problems in a way that did not require him to leave.

“Food would be great!” Robert pinpointed his location and shared it with Britt. He knew she would not respond until the morning, but he did not feel tired at all. His decision energized him and he sat down to plan his next video.

“K. See ya at 11ish.” Britt’s morning reply said. Robert spent the two hours cleaning up and making himself presentable. He sat down by the door at 11 on the dot and waited. At 11:05 there was a light knock at the door and Robert threw it open without checking the peephole. He discovered four teenage girls standing on his doorstep. The tallest one, a pale girl with white spiky hair, held two large red and white bags that Robert recognized as Chinese food.

“You said you were lonely, so I brought friends,” the dark-skinned girl stepped forward and smiled. “I’m Britt. That’s Dread,” she pointed at the tall girl. “Jenny,” she pointed at an Asian girl with black spiked hair. “And the tiny one is Dirge,” Britt pointed at a  short girl with black flowing curls.

“Man…,” Dread stepped into the house without being invited and placed the bags of food on the first surface she found. “You got a whole Earth to yourself, you’re so lucky,” she grinned. Robert nodded.

“Yeah I am!”

Glorious Revelation

“I’m taking a pizza!” Gloria yelled over her shoulder. She paused at the door to make sure her manager replied.

“Did you pay or is it coming out of your check?” The short, bald man peeked out of his office to ask.

“Take it out of my check,” she replied with a smile.

“I’ll take care of it,” the manager nodded and disappeared into his office again. They both knew he would conveniently forget. The manager volunteering to ‘take care of it’ was his way of taking responsibility.

“Thanks, Gary. See ya tomorrow,” Gloria waved and walked out through the back door. The evening air felt cool against her skin and she smiled to herself. She looked forward to the short walk through the park.

Gloria lived within walking distance of work, and she was a fan of simple pleasures. The cool weather was perfect for sitting in the park and enjoying a pizza. She reached her favorite spot, near a giant fountain, and sat to watch the sky. She loved watching the colors change while the sunset.

After admiring the purple sky for several seconds she turned her attention to the pizza in front of her. As her eyes moved from the sky to the table she noticed a bright blue glow in her peripheral vision. She turned to find the source of the glow, but it was gone. A young woman with short, black, spiky hair sat by the fountain, in the general area Gloria thought she saw the glow. The stranger wore a long light blue trench coat and white fingerless gloves.

“Huh.” Gloria did a mental double-take. When she sat down there was no one else near the fountain. She sat close enough that she would have heard approaching footsteps. But she had no idea where this woman came from. She shrugged to herself and grabbed a slice of pepperoni pizza.

“You sure?” the young woman asked. She seemed to be talking to the fountain; Gloria did not see anyone else around nor a phone in her hand. The woman must have realized she spoke loudly because she looked up from the fountain to scan the park. Her eyes landed on Gloria, the only person that might have heard her, and the stranger smiled. “We’re gonna do it. Get set up,” the woman said to the fountain, then she stood and walked to Gloria’s table.

“Hi, I’m Jenny,” she said. Gloria smiled.

“Hi, Jenny. I’m Gloria, want a slice?” Gloria pushed the pizza box toward Jenny.

“Really? If you’re offering, I won’t say no,” Jenny warned that she would happily accept the gift. Gloria nodded.

“I’m offering,” she confirmed.

“Yeah!” Jenny sat down and grabbed a slice for herself. “Thank you!”

“Were you making a wish?” Gloria asked between bites. She tilted her head toward the fountain. “I heard you talking,” she felt the need to explain the question. Jenny shook her head.

“Nah, talking to a friend of mine,” Jenny said.

“In the fountain?”

“Yep,” Jenny nodded. “What’s your full name?” she asked suddenly.

“Gloria Islas,” she answered without thinking. Jenny chuckled to herself while nodding.

“I knew it.”

“You know me?” Gloria asked. She’d never seen this woman before. Jenny shook her head.

“No, sorry. that was vague. I just meant every Gloria I’ve met was a very kind person. And you offered a complete stranger some of your pizza,” she shrugged. “You’re continuing the trend.”

“Thanks,” Gloria smiled. She did not think anything of sharing food, but she felt glad that “Glorias” had a good reputation. Jenny finished her first slice but did not reach for another. Instead, she sat up straighter and her eyes turned serious.

“Gloria, what would you say if I told you that the world you’re in is a simulation?” she asked.

“There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories. Simulation, flat Earth, lizard people…,” Gloria shrugged. “None of it affects me, so I don’t care all that much. Sorry.”

“What if I prove it to you?” Jenny asked.

“Okay. Convince me,” Gloria said. She doubted the woman would prove anything, but she knew there was entertainment value in watching her try.

“No problem, how ’bout a dupe glitch?” Jenny placed both hands flat on the picnic table. The black spikes on her head began to glow with bright blue light. The same blue glow flowed out from under her hands like water. The blue light spread across the surface of the table and enveloped it completely. When she was satisfied, Jenny stood up and pulled her hands upward. A blue glowing outline in the shape of the table remained stuck to the bottom of her hands. She stepped away from the table, turned, and placed the new table on the ground next to it. She wiggled her fingers as if typing something, then she lifted her hands from the blue outline. It remained in place and filled in as a perfect copy of the table where Gloria sat.

“Uhhhhh….” Gloria looked at the new table, then to Jenny, then back to the new table again. “Crap, you actually convinced me,” she sighed. “Now what?”

“Now you get to have fun,” Jenny smiled. She reached into the interior of her trench coat and pulled out a box of playing cards. She opened it and pulled out a single thing, transparent, glassy rectangle. Gloria noticed the box was full of them. “This is a node. It’ll let you interface with the simulation.” As Jenny explained a large white and orange butterfly landed on the sleeve of her coat.  “Done already? You’re getting faster,” Jenny nodded at the butterfly.

“Gloria this is Flynn. Flynn, say hi to Gloria.” The butterfly flapped its wings, then it sank into Jenny’s sleeve. The light blue color of her coat began to ripple and shimmer like water. Flynn flattened himself to become a design on her jacket, then he changed shape. Gloria watched the butterfly morph into a white koi fish with an orange dot on its head, then the fish swam up Jenny’s sleeve as it would in any body of water. The fish disappeared behind her back. Jenny shrugged.

“Sorry, he’s shy. Anyway, I guess we’re done here.” Jenny gave Gloria the node, then she emptied out several more into her hand and placed them on the table. “Use that one first. After you’ve gotten the hang of it, you can hand these out to some of your friends.”

“Done here? Done doing what? Where are you going?”

“Finn was reprogramming the simulation to give,” Jenny pointed at the node in Gloria’s hand. “the nodes access. I’m just passing through, this isn’t my Earth.”

“I thought his name was Flynn?” Gloria asked. Her mind was searching for any cracks in the woman’s story so that she could deny living in a simulation. She focused so much on the name her mind glossed over the mention of another Earth.

“He’s shy and fussy,” Jenny chuckled. “He likes the name Flynn when he’s a butterfly, but he likes the name Finn when he’s a fish. Anyway, I better get moving. Just a heads up. I have a friend that’s going to want to meet you, so she’ll probably show up one day. Her name’s Dirge. She’s easy to recognize, she’s got orange eyes.” Jenny started walking away.

“Why me?”

“Long story. She’ll explain it to you I’m sure. Have fun!” Jenny raised her hand part way and wiggled her fingers at the air. A tall black portal opened silently, then she jumped in.