Lunch with Death

Death sat at the counter and pulled her hood down to reveal a light-brown ponytail. She let her obsidian scythe fall forward, the blade sliced through reality and made a small black gash that it fell into. The hole disappeared once the scythe was gone.

Mundo abandoned her cleaning the moment death walked in. She greeted the regular customer with a mug of hot chocolate by the time she sat down.

“Rough shift?” Mundo asked. Death nodded and gave an exhausted, frayed chuckle.

“There was a bus on its way to a Christian retreat; it took a shortcut off a cliff. A whole bus load of, ‘This isn’t the pearly gates!’ ‘Where’s God?’ and ‘Are you an angel?’.” Death rolled her caramel eyes and blew on the cocoa, then took a small slurp. Mundo giggled.

“Well, what’s for lunch today?” Mundo asked. Death looked up and into the kitchen but did not see anyone else.

“You’re cooking?” she asked. Mundo nodded.

“Nice!” Death smiled. “Surprise me,” she said. Mundo nodded and disappeared into the kitchen while Death enjoyed the quiet restaurant. Five minutes later Mundo walked out with two slices of steaming pizza on a plate.

“When did you start serving pizza?” Death asked. She pulled the pate closer and hoped Mundo did not think she was complaining. Mundo giggled.

“Leftovers from dinner earlier; surprise!” Death laughed and picked up a slice.

“Looks like it’s gonna be one of those nights,” Mundo said. She nodded at the entrance behind Death, then turned around to prepare a cup of coffee.

A black-hooded figure walked in the door holding a scythe. It walked up to the counter and pulled his hood down. Loose, stringy black hair obscured most of his stubbled-face.

“Elsa, Mundo,” he nodded at the two women and released his scythe. It fell forward and disappeared into its own hole exactly like Elsa’s did.

“Miller,” Elsa nodded back then continued eating.

“How’s it going?” Mundo asked as she set his coffee down.

“Still tiring,” Miller sighed. “I didn’t know we could get this exhausted.”

“I know!” Elsa joined in. “You know how your shift ends right after it starts? By the time I’m done I can’t even fast forward the eight hours of my shift. On the plus side, it’s like an extra eight hours of sleep, which I totally need.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird having 32 hour days now,” Miller agreed. “I have more time, but I’m also much more tired. It’s not really a gain if the extra time is spent sleeping.  Isla said it’s supposed to get easier,” he added. Elsa nodded.

“Yeah, Chase said the same thing but I’m not seeing it yet.”

“What’s for lunch, Miller,” Mundo asked. He cast his eyes at Elsa halfway through her second slice.

“You serve pizza now?” he asked. Mundo smiled.

“Just for tonight. I’ll get you a couple of slices,” she disappeared into the kitchen while Elsa and Miller chatted about work some more. He got a laugh at her expense when she relayed her troubles with the bus.

Mundo returned from the kitchen and put a couple of steaming slices in front of Miller. As she did, a black scythe fell out of the air and landed propped up against the counter next to Elsa.

“Back to it I guess,” she sighed as she stood from the stool. “Thanks for lunch Mundo, you’ve got the best café.” Elsa grabbed her scythe and headed for the door. Mundo waved from behind the counter.

“You say that every time. Bye Elsa, see you tomorrow.”

Stellar Orientation

“Whoa!” Esther flinched; she shut her eyes and ducked her head to avoid a face full of glass. Three seconds later the impact had yet to arrive. She peeked her eyes open at the same time she heard a young voice behind her.

“MOM!” a child shouted. Esther whirled around to find a young blonde boy sitting cross-legged on beige carpet. He looked up at Esther and she noticed golden stars glowing in his eyes.

“What is it, honey?” Esther turned toward the new voice. A mid-20s blonde woman walked into the living room through an arch; she was drying her hands with a dishtowel. The boy pointed at Esther as an answer and his mom immediately gave Esther a warm smile. “Hola, Estrella,” she closed the gap between them and grabbed Esther’s hand. “Join me in the kitchen and you can get out of Rigel’s way.”

“Where am I?” Esther asked, but she let the stranger lead her away. “Why aren’t you more concerned about a stranger in your house?”

“Oh, it happens all the time,” the woman laughed as they stepped into a bright, sun-drenched kitchen. Large windows let light pour in from outside and the white floor tiles reflected it. Esther sat at the small round table in the center of the kitchen. “My name is Mundo, by the way,” she introduced herself then walked to the refrigerator. “Would you like something to drink? Water? Coffee? Tea?”

“Water, please.” Mundo nodded and returned to the table with two bottles of water. “What do you mean it happens all the time?”

“My boy’s very special, a lot like you actually. I don’t know what you were doing before you landed in my living room, but I can tell you that you’re in a different universe.”

“Whooooaa,” Esther’s eyes grew big. “I entered the mirror universe!” She immediately looked down at her hands and began flexing her fingers. “I’m still right-handed though,” Esther said; Mundo giggled.

“You did not enter a mirror universe. It’s called, Traversing,” she paused and looked out into the living room. “Rigel, honey. Mommy needs a portal.” A small, saucer-sized black hole appeared vertically above the table between the two women. “That’s a portal to a different universe. You can make them big enough to walk through. So, what were you doing before you got here? That’s enough, thank you!” The portal disappeared.

“I was hanging a mirror, and it fell on me. Or, I guess, it was about to fall on me. But how did I get here? Why does it happen all the time?” Esther glanced at the kitchen entrance, then leaned closer to Mundo. “Did your son bring me here?” Mundo smiled and shook her head.

YOU brought you here. You can make portals too, you just didn’t know it yet. When you were about to get hit, it seems like your mind panicked and you traversed to avoid the danger.”

“I.. I did it? Does that mean I can make those portals or whatever?” Mundo nodded. “Okay. Not sure I believe that yet, but why here? If I really panicked, why didn’t I go somewhere safe?” Mundo giggled again and her smile grew from ear to ear.

“You did.” Esther nodded.

“Well, yeah I guess. But why not somewhere I’m familiar with?”

“Traversing is tricky. Portals are like magic doors connecting two Earths at one point. You can’t traverse to the same Earth you’re on, you need to at least open a portal to another Earth first. If you’re really good, you can open the two portals back to back so it seems like you went to a different spot on the same Earth.”

“Oh. So I just got put on a random Earth somewhere?”

“Kind of, but there’s more to it. You landed here because you were drawn to my son. He’s like you, but stronger. So in an emergency, blind traversal, the universe dropped you off somewhere helpful.”

“The universe?” Esther raised an eyebrow, but Mundo nodded.

“You’re about to learn more about the universe than you ever even considered, and it starts with your favorite number: 35.”

“Hey, that’s my favorite too.” Both women turned to see a lean, greying man standing at the kitchen entrance. “Hi, sorry. I don’t know how I got here, but your son said you did?”

“Have a seat!” Mundo smiled at the newcomer, then she cast a side glance at Esther. “All. the. time,” she mouthed silently.

Area of Employment

Greg tried to keep track of the maze of halls as a guard led him to the supervisor’s office. He searched the endless off-white walls for any tell-tale imperfection each time his escort made a turn. The hallway was almost as narrow as his guard was broad. The short burly man needed to turn his body to let other workers walk by. The first time it happened, the guard needed to flatten himself against one wall to let a woman push a cart past them. Greg’s bony body was unobtrusive enough that he only needed to lean toward the wall. Greg caught sight of the guard’s tattoo as he tried to press himself into the wall. A black skull with the number 42 on its forehead in white decorated the guard’s thick neck.

After the first time, Greg noticed tattoos on every person they passed. A guard he found unreasonably attractive sported a jeweled crown tattooed the back of her hand. The number 47 showed on one of the bigger jewels. The more tattoos with numbers he saw, the more he wondered if there was some sort of ranking system.

“Can you find your way back?” The guard asked at the same moment Greg noticed he stopped walking. It was the only other thing the guard had said to him that morning. The first being: “Follow me.” Greg nodded even though he didn’t feel comfortable about it. He tried to keep track but kept getting distracted by tattoos. The guard nodded at Greg, then the door next to him, then he turned around and headed down the hall. A frosted glass pane on the door told him the supervisor’s name was Mundo. No title, no surname, just Mundo. He took a deep breath and tapped the door with his knuckle.

“Enter,” a man’s voice called out from the other side. Greg twisted the knob and walked into a forest. The office was almost as big as some RVs. Several tall pine trees dotted the lush green grass that served as a carpet. An old, wrinkled man with a full head of long silver hair smiled at Greg and stood from behind his desk. The desk itself appeared to be carved into the side of a wide tree trunk. The dark-suited man walked around the trunk and reached Greg with an outstretched hand.

“Greg! I’m glad you made it,” he said as they traded handshakes. “Welcome to the Area,” he said. “…Janitorial division,” he added with a chuckle. “Have a seat.” Greg did not notice any other chairs in the room. Before he could wonder where he was supposed to sit Mundo pointed at a spot in front of his desk. Thin green vines sprouted out of the grass and entangled themselves into the vague shape of a chair. As he watched, Greg realized this was just the tip of the iceberg; it was only his first day. He sat in the vine chair while Mundo rounded the desk to sit in his own version.

“I like to handle orientations personally,” Mundo said. “We don’t hire all that often, which is a good thing. It means I have time to do it. So, let’s get started,” he said with a firm clap of his hands. “You’ve got all the clearance you need to do your job, so let’s start by dispelling all the rumors you’ve likely heard.” Greg’s stomach dropped.

“D-dispel?” he asked. He did not necessarily expect to see any aliens on his first day, but he put a lot of work and time into getting this far. He began to worry that there were no aliens there. Mundo nodded at his question.

“The civilian world is convinced we’re hiding alien lifeforms and technology,” Mundo said with a slight grin. “Unfortunately, as far as we can tell, aliens do not exist.” Greg came close to quitting then and there, but Mundo kept talking. “However,” his grin grew into a broad smile. “What does exist are alternate universes.” Greg immediately stiffened his back and pushed thoughts of quitting out of his mind.

“Really?” Greg asked. Mundo nodded.

“Your duties will require you to travel to different universes.” A kernel of fear started growing in Greg’s stomach.

“Why?” he asked. He pursued the job because he wanted to know what else was out there. Greg had his mind set on aliens because he never considered other universes. He was happy there was more out there, but he accepted a custodial position. “I mean.. I’m not a soldier or anything,” he added. Mundo chuckled.

“I know. The Area has 54 bases in 54 different universes. Most of the time you’ll be here at the main base, Area-1. From time to time you’ll be put on shifts in one of the other bases.”

Freshly Minted

“Well? What’s wrong?” Corina asked her husband. She rocked her swaddled, new daughter in her arms. She kissed the baby’s wispy strands of purple hair. Her husband gawked at the child with wide, nervous eyes. “You weren’t expecting anything other than ‘1’, were you?” she asked.

“One thousand and three,” he said. His normally smooth voice sounded dry and raspy.

“One thousand and three what?” she asked. She knew the answer; it would explain the cracks in his voice. Justin’s mouth always went dry when he was nervous. She held out hope that he was not freaking out about their daughter’s power level.

When Justin first explained his power he told Corina ‘6’ was the highest number he’d seen. It was the world heavyweight boxing champion in his prime. Corina did not believe him at first but he convinced her over time. It wasn’t something that he got to use often, but it had come in handy on a few occasions.

“Majesty,” he said their daughter’s name. Somehow that small, deliberate action helped Corina relax slightly. “Her level is 1003.” A sudden knock at the door interrupted their thoughts. They turned to see a greying nurse walk in without waiting for a response. She wore dark green scrubs with a white apron; a sprig of mint leaves was pinned to the apron. The woman smiled at them with sparkling eyes.

“Hello! I’m Nurse Mundo. I came to see if there was anything you needed or maybe answer any questions you might have?”

“No!” Corina and Justin both answered her at the same time. “I mean, we’re fine,” Justin added. Nurse Mundo raised her left eyebrow.

“Is that so?” she asked. Both parents nodded vigorously. “So you know why your daughter is strong enough to break the Earth and all that? Good, good,” she said.

“You can the number?!” Justin asked. “What does it mean?”

“Is it a 42?” the nurse asked and offered her hand to the father. He was unsure but accepted the hand and shook it; a faint green glow passed between their hands. It happened so fast Justin was not sure it happened at all.

“It’s 1003,” he said. She nodded.

“This means you don’t know what you are either, right?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You and your daughter…,” she paused and looked at Corina, then she turned back to Justin. “…not your wife, are what’s known as Unique Souls. You’re #51, La Palma, and your daughter is #42, La Calavera. You can see some aspect of a person represented as a statistic and your daughter will be strong enough to crack the Earth in two.” Corina and Justin looked at their sleeping child, then at each other. Nurse Mundo had watched that silent conversation happen dozens of times between parents, not all of them Unique children. They were ready to welcome a child to their home, not a walking atom bomb. Neither of them wanted to admit that neither of them felt comfortable. The nurse let the parents stay silent until she felt one of them was close to saying something.

“I do know someone,” she said quickly. The statement was vague enough that Corina and Justin each thought she was answering their unasked question. “As parents, you have to make hard decisions. Do you raise the child as best you can knowing it’s not good enough, or do have someone that knows what they’re doing give her a safer life than you ever could? Your daughter can literally, accidentally destroy the Earth. A Calavera’s terrible-twos are quite apocalyptic.” 

“What? Are we just supposed to give her over to you?” Corina asked; her decision already made. Nurse Mundo shook her head then pointed at the far corner of the hospital room.  A tall, lean man with neatly parted white hair and a full, groomed white beard smiled at Corina and Justin. He held a black briefcase in one hand and a bundle of blankets was cradled in the other. The new stranger wore an elegant forest-green suit with a white vest and white bow-tie. A ’37’ was tattooed on his cheek directly under his right eye. Instead of an eyeball, he had a glass eye painted like the Earth. It spun slowly in its socket. Neither of the parents had an idea where he came from. There were no doors near that corner.

“Of course not,” the stranger said and stepped forward. “It’s a trade. Majesty for a more manageable baby girl and a briefcase full of cash. Deal?”

Sharp Question

Claire wiped sweat off her forehead and relaxed on her haunches in the grass. She planned to work on her garden for the morning; now it was well past noon and her shirt and overalls were soaked with perspiration. She meant to be done sooner but she had not even started yet.

While prepping the area her spade hit something buried just below the surface. Caution and curiosity prompted her to dig around the area and see what it might be. She worried it might be a buried cable and did not want to pierce it accidentally. Claire worked carefully to expose the area but stopped the moment she saw a bright red color peeking at her from under the soil. She stared at it for several moments and wondered why it looked vaguely familiar.

“It couldn’t be…,” She faced East subconsciously, even though she knew she could not see what she was looking for. Five miles East of her backyard a giant tree with bright red bark grew in the center of town. The tree was so much taller than the houses she could see the top of its bright red leaves her house. The same shade of red she found buried on her property. Determined to solve the puzzle she kept digging at the area.

Now, past noon, she had a small, inches-deep trench that spanned across her entire yard and into the yards of the neighbors on either side of her. She stared at the red root and shook her head. It definitely belonged to the tree.

“I’m impressed,” a woman said from behind Claire. The surprise of having a stranger right behind her, in her own yard, made Claire jump off the ground. Thanks to adrenaline and a five-year ballet career, Claire spun 180-degrees in the air. She landed facing the unexpected woman wielding her spade like a dagger. The stranger was a pale woman with dark hair wearing a white suit. She stood somewhat taller than Claire. “I intended to be here before you dug it all up,” the woman kept talking. She did not react to Claire’s surprise or threat at all. “But, I under-estimated your diligence.”

“Who are you? How’d you get in my yard?” Claire asked. She chanced taking her eyes off the stranger to look at the fence’s gate. It was still closed and locked.

“What’s your favorite number?” the stranger asked. Claire was insulted that the woman completely ignored her questions.

“37,” she replied. Her eyes went wide at the response and she clapped her hand over her mouth. After a second she moved her hand out of the way. “Why did I answer that?” she asked. She watched the woman’s straight lips curve into a large smile.

“Janet,” the woman said loud; she still ignored Claire’s questions. “Claire here is a slumbering Mundo,” she said. She sounded as if she was talking to someone but Claire did not see anyone else. She wondered how the woman knew her name, but she knew the question would be ignored. Then, she heard a soft rustle in the grass and looked down. A black cat with a red skull pattern in the fur atop its head sat on the grass next to the stranger’s feet. “Take her to the lab,”

“Yes, Ms. Sharp,” the cat replied.

“What? Wait-” Claire started to protest. Then, she blinked.

Celestial Craving

“Multiverse di- wait… Where am I?” Cameron asked the smiling waitress. “I don’t know how I got here,” he added with the hope that she wouldn’t think he was crazy.

“No problem, it happens all the time,” she patted his shoulder in a comforting gesture then yelled at the kitchen. “Mundo! You’re up.” Then, she turned back to Cameron. “Mundo’ll explain things and help get you back home if you want.” The waitress wandered off as a tall, heavy man came out of the kitchen toward Cameron’s table. He was using his white, stained apron to dry his hands.

“Hey, I’m Mundo,” the large man extended a moist hand in greeting as he sat down. Cameron shook it hoping the cook’s hands were wet with water. “I run this place and you don’t know how you got here, right?” Cameron nodded.

“Well the short version is you…,” Mundo pointed at Cameron to make his point. “…can travel between universes. “Usually the first time lands you somewhere helpful.” Mundo spread his arms to gesture at the 50s style diner around them and smiled smugly. “But once you get the hang of it you can go anywhere you want; if you can imagine it, it’s out there.”

“I can go home too?” Cameron asked. “The waitress said you could help me get home.” Mundo nodded.

“How’d you get here?” he asked.

“I don’t know, remember?” Cameron said with a trace of annoyance in his voice. Mundo nodded and laughed.

“Yeah, I worded that wrong. What were you thinking before you got here?”  Cameron shrugged.

“I dunno, I was hungry. I wanted a really good burger.” Mundo laughed hard and slammed his hand on the table for effect.

“That’s fantastic, I make the best burger in dozens of universes; yours is probably one. But that’s how easy it is. When you really want to go home, you will. If you want a ride stick around, someone’ll show up I’m sure.”

“If it’s that easy why didn’t it happen until now?” Cameron asked. He was starting to feel like he wasted the first 27 years of his life if he could visit other universes.

“Did you get a tattoo recently?”

“Yeah, today actually,” Cameron hoped he wouldn’t have to show the man the new star logo on his left butt-cheek. Mundo nodded.

“Does it have the number 35 on it?” he asked.

“Yeah.. how’d you know?”

“You are something called a Unique Soul. I’m one too, but we’re different kinds.” Mundo showed Cameron a tattoo of the Earth on his forearm with the number 37 on it in black numbers. “Our powers activate when we get our number on our skin.”

“What’s your power?” Cameron asked. “What’s mine?” Mundo seemed to know a lot and Cameron hoped the cook teach him what else he could do.

“When I got my tattoo I learned everything about Uniques. It was like I suddenly remembered something I hadn’t thought of in a long time. And I knew it as fact. Unique Soul #35,” Mundo pointed at Cameron again. “You are an Estrella, you can hope between universes by default. Other Uniques have to learn how to do it, you just have to learn how to control it. You can also see people’s auras and channel plasma from a star through your hands. That last one is pretty advanced though.”

“Whoa… I’m that strong?” Cameron sat up straighter, impressed with himself.”

“Yes, and no,” Mundo shook his head. Honestly, you’re a low tier Estrella. All Estrellas can do what you do, and a lot of them can do it better,” Mundo chuckled.

“I wonder how strong the other versions of me are,” Cameron thought aloud. Once he learned he could travel between universes his first thought was to find his doppelgangers. Again, Mundo shook his head.

“There aren’t any others. That’s the ‘unique‘ part of Unique Soul. There’s only one Estrella with your name that looks like you in all the universes.

“Oh,” for some reason that thought made Cameron a bit sad. He heard a sudden commotion and looked up toward the noise. The few diners that were in the restaurant when he arrived seemed to be rushing out the door in a hurry. He noticed a black portal at the other end of the restaurant with a tall, white-horned woman standing in front of it. Mundo shook his head.

“If you ever see her anywhere, leave the universe as fast as you can,” Mundo said, then he left Cameron’s booth to greet the strange woman. The cook nodded at her, then disappeared into the kitchen. while the woman sat down in a booth.

“That’s Ballisea,” the waitress said. She appeared next to Cameron and the surprise made him jump. “You should leave. Any time you see her: leave.”

“Why? And if she’s that bad why is she eating here?”

“She likes our burgers,” the waitress said.