“Alright…,” Cliff said to himself. “He’s me, he should be open-minded enough to listen.” The middle-aged scientist stared at his doppelganger. The slightly younger, less gray version of him sat alone in a coffee shop working on a laptop. “No matter how crazy I sound,” he added with a sigh. “Right, and I’d totally believe him if our places were reversed.” Cliff gave his head a sharp shake to clear the negative thoughts, stood, and walked to his other self.
“Hi!” he stood across the table from the seated man and forced a smile on his face. “You’re not going to believe me, but-” Cliff was interrupted by a heavy sigh from the other him.
“Long lost twin or Zero?” he asked.
“I’m not your twin. I don’t know what a zero is, but I’m probably not that either,” Cliff said. The fact that his doppelganger seemed open to possibilities gave him hope. He sat down across from the man and leaned over the table. “It sounds impossible, but I’m you from an alternate universe.” The younger him laughed.
“That’s what a Zero is, dumbass,” he replied. “You’re my Zero, and I’m yours. So, let me guess,” he looked Cliff over. “You found yourself in this universe and you have no money, hmm? You need money to get back home to your universe?”
“Ye.. yeah! How’d you know?” Cliff’s excitement rose. “I know what I did wrong, and I can fix it so I’m not stuck any-” his explanation was interrupted.
“Yeah yeah, no thanks. It’s the oldest scam in the multiverse. I’m not giving you any money.”
“We’ll both be rich! Me in my universe, you here. I’m from a different universe! THIS IS HUGE!”
“Wait, you really think so?” he asked. Cliff nodded vigorously. “It’s mind-blowing! If you believed me, you’d be more excited too.” The younger man chuckled and a broad grin grew on his face.
“If you believe that, then I believe you,” he said. “Because no one that pulls that scam would get so hyped about it.” He stood, reached into the pocket of his jeans to grab something, then sat down again. “I’m not giving you any money, but if you’re serious about getting home, I’ll give you this.” He placed a black business card on the table. At least, it was the size, shape, and thickness of a business card; but, it looked like a solid, rectangular hole.
“What’s that?” Cliff asked.
“Free taxi ride,” the younger man shrugged. “I get more than I use, so you can have this one.”
“Taxi? To where?”
“Where are you trying to get to?” he asked. “Damn, for being me you’re kind of an idiot.”
“Do you understand that I’m from a different universe!?” Cliff asked sharply. The stranger laughed again.
“Do you understand…,” he said. “…that that was my first question to you? And I told you it was the oldest scam in the multiverse? You think you’re going to get rich because you can travel between universes?” He lifted the card from the table and threw it on the floor. It expanded to a five-foot black circle. “Do you really think you’re the first?” he asked.
“Taxi?” someone asked. Cliff turned toward the voice; a brown-haired teenage girl rose out of the black hole as if on an escalator.
“IT’S TRUE, I HAVE IT!” Danny yelled. The lanky teenager presented the two approaching suited men with the small, glassy rectangle he found the previous day. He had been walking home through the forest when an errant glint caught his eye.
He found a thin rectangle of glass, about the size and shape of a playing card. White text glowed on the screen when he touched it:
“Access Denied. Soul Mismatch.” Danny thought it might be an advanced phone prototype; those were always getting lost, and kept it. Today as he made his way to the forest shortcut, he spotted two imposing men in dark suits and sunglasses. Danny’s panic combined with his only real-life experience: TV. His mind burned through a list of possibilities that all ended with the two men being from a shady organization that wanted his found tech. He hoped they would take it and leave without killing him. The suit on the right pushed Danny’s hand away.
“Outta the way, kid. We don’t care about your new phone.” The other man ignored Danny completely as they both walked by him toward the school. He took a deep breath while he listened to the footsteps fade away behind him.
“Nice!” Danny cheered to himself and started his walk again. He poked at it several times while he navigated through the forest on auto-pilot. Each time it returned the same message, no matter what combination of taps and swipes he tried. He tried his thumb as a last resort. This time purple text appeared on the screen instead of white.
“Zero-Match Access Granted.” Then, Danny heard someone clear their throat. He looked up and saw himself standing next to a girl.
“It’s rude to go through other people’s nodes,” the other him said. “Even if it’s another you.”
A tall, black hole opened at street level in the air in front of the towering concrete building. A brown-haired teenage girl stepped out of the black hole. As she crossed the portal’s threshold she changed into a pale, pointy-eared elf with flaming orange hair. Chainmail armor and an elegant ruby rapier sheathed on her hip replaced her jeans and t-shirt. A red-haired teenager stepped out of the portal behind her. Her skin became pink and her red hair transitioned to a bright sea-green color. Her outfit became a leather tunic and leather leggings. The Elf looked up at the 10-story hotel.
“Remind me to thank Fizzle if this works,” she said. She looked up at the hotel’s sign that said “Steves Hotel”. “Looks like the right place.” Before either of them moved toward the door a black portal opened next to them. A lanky young man wearing a navy business suit stepped out onto the sidewalk. He noted the girls next to him, then ignored them to walk to the Hotel’s door.
“You won’t get in!” Llina, the elf, called after him. The man reached the door and pulled on it without acknowledging the warning. After tugging on it three times he turned around and faced the girls.
“Why not?” he asked.
“It’s a guild hall,” Llina shrugged. “You can’t get in unless you’re part of the guild or invited. Do you have an AlterNet character?” The suited-man sighed and shook his head.
“More childish games. Between the AlterNet and the Scavenger Hunt you kids are starting to get annoying,” he complained.
“You’re doing the Scavenger hunt too?” Serena, the pink-skinned girl, asked. “I’m Serena #06, La Sirena.” The suited man glared at her and sighed.
“I’m Billy, #14, La Muerte,” he shook his head. “Don’t!” He pointed at Llina. The elf looked like she was about to introduce herself too. “I don’t care who you are. I’m leaving to find El Cantarito somewhere else.” He wiggled his fingers at the air and opened a black portal in front of him. “I don’t have time to play games,” he said as he stepped into the blackness and disappeared. A second after he disappeared the hotel door opened. A burly bald man with a thick black beard looked out the door.
“Who seeks to enter the Council of Steves?”
“Hey!” Llina and Serena ran up the steps to stand in front of the bald man. He held the door open all the way but stood up straight blocking the entrance.
“Remember us?” The elf waved her hand at the air to call on her menu slate. A translucent sheet of glass, that only she could see, formed in front of her. She touched it and her elf facade faded away. The elf became a brown-haired girl again and she smiled at the bald man. “I taxi’d you once, but Ballisea was already there.” He smiled and nodded.
“I remember. What can I do for you? I hope you’re not here to join the Council of Steves; it’s only open to our Zeros.” Llina shook her head, then pressed the button to become the elf again.
“We heard we could get #44 here,” she said. The doorman nodded.
“We do have some spares, but I can’t just give one away. Do you have anything to trade?”
“You really have spares?” Serena asked while Llina searched through her grey denim backpack. The bald man nodded.
“We have some very high-level crafters in the guild,” he replied.
“Whoaa,” Serena grinned in awe. Llina finished rummaging through her backpack and pulled out a small red bag of candy with a rainbow on it.
“This better work,” she mumbled to Serena then turned to face the man at the door.
“I heard you Steves like candy from different universes. Try some Skittles.” She tossed the bag to the doorman and he caught it. He tore open the bag without hesitation and put a handful of color into his mouth. His eyes lit up once he started chewing and he eagerly nodded at the girls. He stood aside and gestured for them to come in, his mouth was too occupied to talk. He escorted them to the lobby’s front desk and gestured for them to ‘wait there’. Then he walked away while still struggling with the chewy candy.
He disappeared around a corner, but a noise from behind the desk drew the girls’ attention. A thin, sickly version of the bulky bearded man stepped out of a door behind the desk and eyed the girls. He carried a small, thick black case and placed it on the counter in front of the girls.
“Your candy is worthy; The Council of Steves awards you #44 El Cantarito.” There was an intense beeping. “Sorry,” the sickly Steve apologized while frantically pressing more buttons. After several loud moments, the beeping stopped, and Steve relaxed. “Wrong combination.” He opened the case and turned it toward the girls. An elegant, pink-glass carafe rested in the velvet lined interior. The number 44 was frosted on on side of the carafe. “Do you know how it works?” Both girls shook their heads. Steve lifted the carafe out of its case and smiled.
“The case is just for presentation,” he slammed the neck of the carafe down on the edge of the front desk, but nothing happened. “It’s pretty tough so don’t worry about breaking it.” He set it on the desk then disappeared through the door again. Before it finished closing he stepped out of the small office with a cup of tea. He poured a few drops of water into the carafe, then he swallowed what remained in the cup. He grabbed the carafe and flipped it over. Amber tea gushed out into the cup refilling it with more tea than he started with. After the demonstration, he set the carafe down and Llina noted that it looked full of tea.
“It’ll pour out anything you put in,” he paused and smiled. “Infinitely.”
“Are we stuck with tea now?” Serena asked. Steve shook his head.
“It’ll change if you put something else in it. If you want to clear it for traveling,” he lifted the carafe to his lips and blew into it. “Just blow it out.” He flipped the carafe over again but nothing poured out. It looked empty once he set it back down on the counter.
“Awesome! Thanks!” Llina grabbed the carafe and packed it in its case. “What’s the combination?”
“Can’t tell you,” Steve said. He grabbed the case and pulled the carafe out again. “We’re giving you El Cantarito, not the case.”
“Oh, okay.” Llina smiled. Well, thanks again!” She wiggled her fingers at the air to open a black portal while Serena grabbed the carafe. “See you around!” Both girls stepped into the portal and disappeared.
“At last!” A gruff voice shouted. Stephen stepped out of his house to head to the store when the voice yelled. He turned to find the owner of the deep voice and saw his doppelganger striding towards him. The angry, shirtless man looked almost exactly like Stephen with minor differences. Stephen’s black crew cut was replaced with a shaved head on the stranger. The bald ‘him’ also sported bigger muscles and a thick black beard. He reached the edge of Stephen’s porch and held his sword up to acknowledge Stephen.
“I challenge you to combat for leadership of the guild!” Stephen checked the time on his node, then shrugged.
“Yeah okay. I got time.” He turned around to go back into the house. “Let me log in,” he shouted over his shoulder.
“NO!” the bald one shouted. “We do it here,” he gestured at Stephen’s lawn. “outside the AlterNet.”
“Oh,” Stephen stared at the man’s bulging muscles, then shook his head. “Nah, no thanks.” The stranger shoved his sword into the ground.
“COWARD! The Council of Steves deserves a brave, fierce leader. It deserves the best of us at the head.” The bald warrior stood tall behind his sword and glared. Stephen smiled.
“It deserves the best of us?” Stephen leaned against the doorjamb while laughter wracked his body. “DUDE. I started the guild as a joke,” he walked to the wooden railing and continued to laugh at the stranger in the yard. “I thought it’d be funny to have a guild of my Zeroes,” he shrugged. “You’re over-thinking it. I just thought, ‘The Council of Steves’ sounded like a good name.” The stranger’s posture deflated.
“That’s it? The strongest guild on the Bozo server …,” his voice dropped to a pained whisper. “started off as a joke?” Stephen chuckled.
“Hah, yeah,” he shrugged. “I never would’ve guessed us Steves are so good at video games.” He waited for a moment, then waved at the stranger. “Well, good luck! See you in game,” he took a step inside the house.
“Wait!” Uh.. can you call me a taxi??” The bald man looked down at the ground in embarrassment. “I expected to kill you and call one myself,” he mumbled. Stephen sighed.
“And can you pay?” he mumbled. ” I was going to pay with your belongings.”
“Fine, but you’re paying me back in-game,” Stephen said. The man nodded and Stephen went into his house. Ten minutes later he stepped out of his house as a black portal appeared on his porch. A dark-haired young woman stepped out of the portal and smiled.
“Taxi?” she asked. Stephen nodded and pointed at his bald counterpart on the lawn. “Cool.” She hopped over the wooden railing and approached the bald man. “Where to?” She stretched her hand out as if expecting a handshake. The bald man touched her hand, then she nodded. “Got it, let’s go.” She wiggled her fingers at the air and opened another black portal in front of them. The muscled stranger walked into the portal first, followed by the woman. Before it closed both of them ran back out of the portal. The woman frantically dismissed the portal. Stephen hopped off the porch and ran to them.
“Bye guys,” the woman said quickly, then jumped into a new portal and disappeared.
“Uh, so,” the bald man looked embarrassed again. “I hate to ask, but, can I stay with you for a bit? Ballisea conquered my Earth while I was gone.”
“Not what I expected,” Serena took in the sights around her and her best friend, Llina. The pair of young women stood on the tallest tower of a sprawling, neon cityscape at night. Llina shrugged.
“There’s an Earth out there named, ‘Pineapple’,” she giggled. “I don’t think the name ‘Paradise’ means anything.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Serena looked over the edge to the street below. Hundreds of zombies marched through the streets. They flowed around the building like a river of corpses. “Still, I’m pretty disappointed. Hey, wasn’t zombies on the list?” She looked up at her friend.
“Oh yeah!” Llina reached into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out a wrinkled and worn sheet of paper. “Yep. Picture with zombies,” she read from the list. “We’ll get it before we leave.”
“Nice! That’s already a second point for the scavenger hunt through Fizzle. We should stick with him,” Serena said.
“Oh good, here he comes,” Llina said. She directed Serena’s attention to a black swarm coalescing into a dark featureless mannequin. In an instant, the mannequin became their new friend Fizzle: a pale, lean young man with silver and gold guns holstered at each hip. Llina slid her grey backpack down then began to dig through it.
“Hey guys,” Fizzle smiled. “How’d ya like Paradise?” Llina finished her search and pulled a set of dark purple headphones out of her bag and handed them to Fizzle.
“It’s another point for us!” Serena said.
“Nice! And, thanks for the delivery,” Fizzle smiled and slipped the headphones on.
“No problem,” she waved as Serena walked to the edge of the building and jumped off. “We’re gonna go get pictures.” Llina walked to the edge then followed her friend down.
“Gah!” Fillip jumped in surprise the moment the light came on. He expected the room to be empty and the unexpected occupant startled him. When he recognized his own face sitting on the bed he calmed down. “You’re early,” Fillip said. He walked to the computer desk and sat down facing the bed. “Which one are you?”
“Oh sorry!” the young man, 18 if he was the same age as Fillip, hopped off the bed and jammed his hand into his cargo shorts. He pulled out a small stack of multi-colored name-tags and stuck a green one to his black t-shirt. It showed the name, ‘Fillbert’.
“Thanks for hosting, Fillip,” Fillbert gave Fillip the nametags, then shook his hand.”
“You’re the one with the idea,” Fillip shrugged. “I just have the space.” He stuck a purple nametage to his chest with his name on it. Fillbert nodded.
“Speaking of space, can I see the area you’ve got in mind?” He asked. Fillip nodded and cocked his head out the door.
“C’mon.” He led Fillbert out of the bedroom and through a door across from his. He flipped on the light to reveal a giant unfinished basement that made Fillbert wonder about the size of the house. Six freshly dug, human- sized pits formed a circle in the center of the room. “There’s still some loose ends to tie up, but they should all be ready in a couple of days.”
“Very nice!” Fillbert walked down the wooden steps with care. He reached the floor and walked to the center point. He admired all the empty space. “Man, what do you do on your Earth? It took me years to save for a mudroom, I’d never be able to afford six slots.” Fillip smiled.
“I picked some lucky numbers once,” he chuckled.
“HAH!” Fillbert pointed at Fillip with an accusing tone. “I knew one of me won the lottery,” he shrugged. “At least you’re sharing it.” A vertical black hole appeared in the center of the empty basement. A young dark-haired woman stepped out of the hole followed by a small group of people. A young red-haired woman, a brown-haired woman that looked like Fillip with glasses, then three other Fillips.
“Here you go guys,” the dark-haired woman said. “Do you want us to hang out, or are you going to be a while?” The four Fillips looked at the other two. Fillip approached them and handed over the stack of name-tags.
“I’m welcome here as long as I want,” he smiled at them. The woman stuck a blue tag to her grey hoodie. ‘Fillis’
“I’m not in a hurry to get back to anything,” she said.
“I can loaf anywhere,” an older version said. His orange nametag said “Filliam.”
“It sounds like we’re all gonna stay a while,” Fillroy, identified by his yellow name-tag, suggested.
“Yep,” Filler said as he placed a pink nametag on his shirt. The dark-haired woman shrugged.
“Okay, then I guess I”ll see you guys around. Give me a Whisper if you need a ride.” She gestured her fingers at the air and opened another black portal. Her red-haired friend tapped her on the shoulder and whispered something in her ear. “OH!” she turned away from the portal.
“Do you guys mind if we get selfies with you?” The various Fills gave each other confused looks.
“Who?” Fillbert asked.
“Why?” Fillip added.
“All of you!” she said. “You’re not famous, sorry.” she shrugged. “Serena…,” she pointed at the red-haired woman. “and I are on a scavenger hunt. One of the items is a selfie with five or more of the same Zero.
“Bonus points for multiple genders!” Serena added.
“Whoa, a multiverse scavenger hunt?” Fillroy asked. “That sounds awesome!”
“It is!” the woman replied. “But it’s rough. The selfie would be our first find.”
“You need to get out there more,” Fillis suggested. “You know, we’re lucky there’s a ton of Zeroes that would kill for a multi-verse taxi service.” She smiled at the pair of women. “We can spread the word if you’re willing to transport people. The more people you meet the more leads you’ll get for your list.”
“Yeah!” they both readily agreed.
“If you’re not in a hurry, stick around. Pizza’s on the way,” he shrugged. “We’ll do some brainstorming. We’ve got a lot to discuss anyway,” Fillip offered. Serena looked at the pits warily.
“What are you doing?” she asked and subtly shifted closer to her friend. Fillip caught the worry in her question and smiled.
“Those are mud pits to connect to the AlterNet, nothing to worry about.”
“What’s an AlterNet?” the dark-haired woman asked.
“WHAT?!” A chorus of Fills let her know how astonished they were.
“You’ve never heard of the AlterNet?” Filliam asked. Both women shook their heads.
“Well you have to stay now. You’ve gotta try it out,” Fillip smiled. “You’re gonna love it.”