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?”
“This doesn’t creep you out?” Jonah asked Alliane. The couple walked through a thick forest of towering red-leaf redwoods. The red leaves filtered the sunlight pouring in through the canopy; by the time the sunlight reached the forest floor, it was a rich, red color.
“It’s beautiful!” Alliane replied with a smile. She grabbed Jonah’s hand and strolled along the path next to him.
“Yeah, I guess it’s kind of pretty,” he shrugged. “But they were people. Doesn’t that bother you?” Alliane stopped walking and looked at Jonah.
“Why would it?” She turned to the closest redwood and knocked on its bark. “Whatever this was before…,” she shrugged. “It’s a tree now. Its soul is safe inside, and the person is living the life they got to choose in another universe. That’s not creepy, that’s genius,” she said. “C”mon, it should be around here,” Alliane said then continued walking along the path. “I know you’re in a hurry to leave,” she said with a smug grin.
“I am, thank you very much,” Jonah replied. “Hey is that it?” he pointed at a red tennis racket that rested on top of a small stone pedestal. He looked around at the other trees in the area, but only a small few of them had the same stone pedestals, each with something different on them.
“Wow!” Alliane smiled and ran to grab the tennis racket. “Someone cared enough for these people to take care of their things. Isn’t it great?”
“Yes, we’re done,” Alliane wiggled her fingers in the air and created a tall, black portal. Jonah ran through first and Alliane followed. The portal closed behind them once they reached the other side. They emerged in a quiet city plaza with only a handful of players wandering around. A green-haired mermaid swam to them through the air. She hovered in place with a large smile on her face.
“THANK YOU!” She handed Jonah an elegant ivory harp with blood-red strings.
“You’re welcome,” Jonah replied. “Thank you for the harp.” The mermaid nodded then turned to swim away while grinning at the tennis racket.
“Hey what’re you gonna do with it anyway? Decoration?” Jonah asked. She paused and turned around.
“None of your business,” Alliane said. She elbowed his side to make sure he got the point.
“I’m just curious,” he shrugged and lifted the harp. “I’m not complaining, but this is worth way more than a tennis racket.”
“It’s okay. In my old life…,” the mermaid held up the red tennis racket. “…this racket got me through some major tournaments. Once here, I learned about Uniques. I discovered I could send someone to pick it up for me,” she shrugged. The movement seemed to lift her higher in the air, then she drifted downward again as if pushed down by a current. “But I didn’t think I had a use for it here other than decoration.” She pointed at Jonah with the head of the racket. “The last thing I needed was a constant reminder of the life I can’t return to.”
“What changed?” Alliane asked.
“I found an Engineer that can import gear into the AlterNet,” She swung the racket like a club. “This is going to be my new weapon!”
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.
“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.
“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.”