Alone Amongst the Ruins, Part One

You can purchase and download Alone Amongst the Ruins here. The developers, Azukail Games, has a website that can be found here.

The hospital seemed long abandoned. The halls were empty of living souls and littered with debris. After waking in a bed in a too revealing medical gown, I searched for anyone who could tell me what had happened. I managed to find clothes that fit a little tight in a locker with shoes that uncomfortably squeezed my feet. I see the broken fragments of a cityscape through dirty windows but no defining features that tell me where I am. My only choice, it seems, is to leave this place and search out the answers elsewhere.

D6 = 5, so 5 cards pulled

D6 = 3, Drew 6 of Clubs

As I headed towards the hospital lobby, I found a small gift shop in the main entrance that still held some vital supplies. The porcelain figurines had been smashed, congratulatory balloons barely floating off the ground, and stuffed animals ripped and tossed about. I managed to find an unopened box full of trail mix packages that never got stocked on the shelves and a working flashlight in a back office.

D6 = 3, Drew Ace of Clubs

Just outside the hospital there was a small outdoor mall. I crossed the street, old habits causing me to look both ways, and began walking the once-decorative-now-weeded path winding before shops and cafes. After some searching, I was able to procure some beef jerky, dried fruit, and a few bottles of water somehow untouched by the looted store.

D6 = 1, Drew 10 of Diamonds

The mall ended abruptly and I found myself in a parking lot for a driving range. I made my way to the shop in search of anyone who could tell me what was happening. Just like all my previous excursions, I was alone. I spotted a few signs posted on the door reminding customers one of no direct eye contact and to speak in hushed tones.

D6 = 3, Queen of Hearts

I left and continued on in search of answers. I eventually found myself approaching a post office. A mail truck was tipped over, a breeze catching the occasional envelope and sending it spinning into the air and away from the crash. Several torn and discarded packages lay strewn about the entrance and just inside the vestibule. I tried the front doors but they were locked tight.

D6 = 4, 8 of Clubs

As I walked around the building, I turned down a side street littered with dozens of white, gray, and yellowing envelopes. I tried to see addresses, but water and mud had infiltrated the creases and everything was too damaged to read. Only one box remained untouched by the elements and within it, packed in those white styrofoam peanuts, was a first-aid kit.

D6 = 4, so 4 cards pulled

D6 = 6, 2 of Clubs

I had wandered further and found a park bench covered in wet leaves and mud. I cleaned a small spot and rested. As I scanned the area, a gleam caught my eye from a nearby park. I wandered over, observing a large tree that had fallen across the brightly colored children’s equipment. The source of the flash was the badge of a police officer that had been crushed under the fallen tree. After mustering up the courage, and choking back the small amount of food I had scavenged, I secured the gun from his holster. I silently prayed I wouldn’t need it.

D6 = 6, 4 of Hearts

Having sat down after removing the firearm from the fallen cop, I noticed the parked squad car amongst other vehicles in the parking lot. Some looked in worse shape than others. Rust had creeped up from the dings and dents across the frames. The cruiser, one single blue light spinning endlessly with the red one in silent vigil, seemed untouched by the elements. All of the tires, at least from where he sat, were flat.

D6 = 2, 10 of Clubs

I decided to circle back to the driving range to get another look through the offices, having only done a preliminary search of the shop. I looked through each drawer, closet, and filing cabinet. I was about to give up when I found a smartphone. The battery life was only 4%, but I thanked whoever was listening above that the previous owner did not lock it behind a password. Racing outside I tried to find a signal to call someone…anyone.

D6 = 5, King of Spades

After walking around with the phone raised in the air, watching the percentage drop to three, and no bars popping up, I raced towards an abandoned church I had seen by the playground. I smiled as the vine-covered steeple rose from the horizon. The front doors opened after a few shoulder slams which jarred me slightly. I carefully trekked up the rickety stairs, watching for rotten floorboards as I wound up the tower. Once I made it to the top the phone picked up a single bar. Before I could dial a number, it vibrated weakly and began to ring.

Part Two

Who is She?

He opened his eyes and looked at the most beautiful woman in the world. She smiles warmly back and runs her hand across his bare chest. He counts the freckles on her nose. Only a dozen, but they stand out against the slightly sun-kissed skin. Strands of light brown hair lie tumbled across her face. Blue piercing eyes peek seductively through the locks. He drifts back to sleep.

He wakes up some time later and only a slight indentation of where she had slept. The room was a tad brighter with the sun now fully casting rays of light through the open blinds. He hears the steady stream of the shower down the hall and gets up. He walks down carpeted stairs into a living room with a large rectangular television mounted on a wall showing a muted workout infomercial, an empty bottle of wine with two red stained glasses on the coffee table, and remnants of clothing haphazardly strewn across the furniture and floor. As he heads to the kitchen to start some coffee, he can hear the water turn off upstairs.

After placing some of the previous evening’s dinner plates in the dishwasher, he spots her walk into the kitchen. She is wearing the clothes she wore last night and her brown hair is now wet and flat against her head. His heart flutters at the sight of her. “What’s for breakfast?” her heavenly voice asks.

Before he can answer, the front door opens and two small children come running in. They are laughing and calling for their dad. A woman’s voice calls out for help with the luggage, and his stomach nearly loses everything from last night into the sink. The kids stop in their tracks, confused looks on their faces. “Who are you?” his son asks, a quizzical expression on his innocent face.

“Richard, are you awake?” a woman calls as she struggles to get three suitcases through the front door and into the living room. She turns her attention to the scene before her and instantly drops to her knees. As she covers her face with shaking hands, the children begin to cry as well, not understanding what was happening and taking a cue from their mother.

“Diane,” he finally manages to croak. “I-I can explain…”

Things go dark and he finds himself sitting in a cafe with a small cup of black coffee that had gone cold an hour before. He was waiting for her…for the love of his life. There was a small chime as the door opened, his heart leaping into his throat, but just an older gentleman looking for the nearest bathroom.

His pocket vibrated and he instantly dug out the phone. He sees the number, joy washing over him. He presses the small green check mark on the screen and answers. 

There was silence for nearly a full minute before he heard her voice. “Hi.”

“Hi, hello, how are you?” he asks. When she didn’t answer right away he replied to the silence with, “I’ve got us a table by the window. I know how you like to people watch.”

“Look, Richard-” she began, but was quickly cut off.

“Are you almost here? I-I can order you a drink if you’re going to be here soon.”

“Richard, this isn’t going to work,” she blurted out. “I can’t see you anymore.”

He felt a sharp pain in his chest. “No, no, no…no you can’t…please, I-I-”

“Look, we had fun. But, I can’t stop thinking about that day. How our selfish actions just destroyed your family in seconds. I’m not innocent, I knew the risks, but to see it unfold before me…I-I just can’t.”

“But, don’t you see? This means we can be together now. Just like we planned. Sure, the divorce isn’t final yet, and I’m probably not going to see the kids much, but that just means you and I can move forward.”

There’s another long stretch of silence. He can feel his grip tightening on the phone as the seconds slip by.

“Look…we can work this out…please. Don’t do this to me,” he begs. He tastes salt, and realizes there are tears falling down his face. He also notices the stares from the other patrons. He turns his back to them, lowering his voice slightly. “Can I just see you? Just…just one more time to say goodbye?” She is silent for some time. 

“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m sorry, Richard.”

The phone goes silent as she disconnects.

***

The snap back physically tosses Carter Hayes in the small reclined chair. There are comforting hands pressing him down and calming voices coaxing his attention to them. He realizes he is crying. Sobbing might be a better word. When he realizes he’s no longer in the memory, he begins to relax. The hands and voices leave as he calms down and stops resisting their help. Carter decides to sit for a little bit. He hadn’t expected such a disturbing twist with this memory.

She’d never disappointed before and the same couldn’t be said about this trip. But, he had yet to go through a memory with someone who had gotten so close to her. Always a first or second date that never went beyond a polite hug or quick passionless kiss, but this was beyond anything he could have imagined. She had loved this man and he had lost himself to her.

Carter took a deep breath and got out of the chair. He glanced around at the two other seats in the room. One held an elderly woman who was smiling from ear to ear. It was probably the wrinkled skin, but it still looked almost cartoonish and drew a small chuckle out of him. The other chair was occupied by a young man who was grimacing horribly. He could only imagine what memories these two were going through.

Carter walked down the narrow hallway, having to try his best to hug the wall as an obese man stomped past. He glanced into the rooms as he headed to the entrance. Each held three chairs and each seat was occupied. When he finally made it back to the waiting room he stopped at the front desk to book another appointment.

There was a young man sitting in a squeaky chair, head completely shaved except for a tiny wisp of hair at the top that was heavily gelled into a fragile looking spike. “Name?” the receptionist asked, obviously wishing he was anywhere but here.

“Hayes, Carter…I’d like to reserve another session.”

The young man silently nodded, hands dancing across a large touchscreen monitor. When he had the account up, he asked, “What would you like to experience?”

“My history should have my preferences.”

The young man sighed, interest lost long before Carter even arrived here today, and went into his account history. “So, another session featuring a memory with this particular identification number?” Carter leaned in to make sure he was pointing to the correct sequence.

“Yes,” he answered. “I prefer new memories, or any that I might not have gone through yet.” The young man was putting these notes into the next appointment ticket. “I was hoping to be back in a month.”

The rest of the process was even more unpleasant and took a lot longer than was necessary, but at least Carter knew he had to only wait four weeks before he saw her again. He did not know her name, as it was always scrubbed from the sessions since she was still alive somewhere. She was his soulmate, and he would patiently comb through the world’s memories hoping to one day find her and fill the emptiness he had carried through his entire life. Even if they met on their last day on this planet, it would have been worth a lifetime of searching.

The Everett

“MWFR (Many-Worlds Frequency Receiver, or, as you may know it, The Everett, is an exciting new piece of technology sure to change the entertainment medium as a whole. With this device, you open a window to, quite literally, unlimited possibilities of amusement. And, that’s not an exaggeration. The box in front of you is an audio gateway to other realities existing around you simultaneously. We chose the name The Everett as a nod of recognition to the pioneer of the Many-Worlds Interpretation Hugh Everett III. Though we make no claim to know the extent of his theory, we are grateful for Mr. Everett’s views for they sparked a curiosity and thirst for information in the scientists and engineers who worked so hard to bring this device to market for you.”

“How does it work? We couldn’t possibly put it out before you in layman’s terms, but just know that thousands of hours of blood, sweat, and tears went into this device’s creation. What you need to understand is that with this magical receiver, you can tune into frequencies beaming throughout the dimensional rifts. Maybe you’ll hear about a recipe involving chocolate and lava. Perhaps you might stumble across commercials from a reality that uses sniffing as their main form of communication. Every once in a while, in the hundreds of hours we put into testing, beautiful otherworldly music has drifted through the speaker that my own voice is coming through now. You just never know.”

“Once you get the device up and running you have the freedom to turn that tuning dial and find a program, interview, commercial, or whatever you want to hear. Due to the chaotic nature of listening into infinite realities, we can’t guarantee what you may come across. Foul language and explicit sexual content could possibly pop up here and there so we definitely recommend parental supervision for anyone under the age of eighteen. There are no options to select the type of program you want to listen to, but with an infinite amount of possibilities it shouldn’t take long to find something as exciting as a game blorflip. What’s blorflip? Trust us, if you find it, you’re going to love it.”

“Now that the introductions are out of the way, let’s get started.”

“You’ve obviously found the on/off switch, so let’s move on to the other features of your Everette. You might have noticed the runes and symbols lining the faceplate of your device. Don’t even worry about that. Yes, they glow and pulse a blue otherworldly light and maybe sometimes you may or may not see flickering shapes pass over the symbols. Just…just don’t even worry about that. Let’s just say it’s part of the process. That large dial in the middle of your device is for tuning into the infinite frequencies at your disposal. If you find a frequency you enjoy you only need to leave the dial alone and your Everette will stay locked onto that signal. Do be aware if you turn the device off you will lose the connection your device has made to the alternate realities. That small hole to the right of the dial large enough for a finger is for your finger. Without going into too much detail, you will need to be slightly pricked and a drop of blood, merely a single tiny drop, given as the final piece of the multi-world puzzle. A little disclaimer…if there is more than one person present, each of you needs to have your finger pricked.

How do you adjust the volume? Well, there really isn’t a way to do that. Believe me when I say we pushed our engineers hard on that. What we can say is that through thousands of hours of testing it would seem the Everette just knows what the volume should be for the listener. Which works out perfectly considering a volume feature was only causing nosebleeds and occasional seizures.”

“Let’s move on, shall we? I think the best way to get an idea of what you can expect is to just give The Everette a test spin. If you wouldn’t mind donating that drop of blood we can get this going.”

A wave of excitement rushes over you. With a trembling hand, you push your finger into the small hole as instructed. A sharp pinch and machine purrs to life as if the drop of blood satisfies some ancient hunger. The runes flash blue in a hauntingly rhythmic pattern and the smell of sulfur wafts from the box. You remove your finger to the sound of static coming from the speakers. Your fingers slowly grip the tuning dial and begin turning it in a clockwise direction. It takes seconds for your first broadcast.

“What do you think about that prize, Mrs. Turner?”

The sound of applause follows the chuckling of what must be a sweet old lady. “They look wonderful John…absolutely wonderful.” Was that a lip smacking sound?

More applause. “Well, you only have one question between you and those wicker baskets full of severed limbs. Are you ready?”

“Yes, yes…”

“Okay…the question is what United States President was the first to publicly eviscerate a serial potty-mouth? Was it A…Thomas Jefferson, B…Woodrow Wilson, or C…Kang the Destroyer? You have 10 seconds.”

The sound of a ticking clock can be heard and the ho-hums of Mrs. Turner as she thought the answers through. Just before the buzzer, she blurts out,”B! B! Woodrow Wilson!”

There is silence and then the host screams, “THAT IS CORRECT!”

An excited shout can be heard and the sound of crunching bones and meat.

“Well, that’s all the time we have for today, but tune in tomorrow for more Trivia For Starving Elders!”

You feel a tad nauseous, but beyond curious.

The next transmission sounds like clapping. There is no sense of rhythm or signs of stopping. You linger on the channel for what seems to be 10 minutes but the clapping does not cease or change pace.

Another turn of the dial…

A sound that could be best described as wet pasta being thrown against a wall slaps forth from the speaker. There is no sign that this is a recording of someone physically doing this. It’s too fast and continuous with brief pauses followed by even more but at a different tone. As time passes there is a brief moment of clarity that this is speech. In some twisted alternate reality this is what it sounds like for something to communicate. A higher pitched smacking sound tries to interrupt the first and second wet pasta speech but is drowned out.

Feeling a slight headache beginning to throb you turn the dial once more…

“Ugosh, my-duoque,” a guttural voice bellows.

“That is fascinating,” a perky female replies. “What would you say is the most challenging aspect of your job as a sewer monster?”

The sound of fast clicking, a brief pause, and,” Tuuduush myuogro eas mi’liika.”

“Mm-hmm…I can only imagine what the hours do to your love life,” the woman replied empathetically.

More clicking. “Yuoof swuvba maelark to’quabish.”

“Words to live by. Well, we at channel seven want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for this week’s Who are the Monsters in Your Neighborhood.”

The broadcast ends there, but you are no longer in control of the tuning device. The runes fade to black and the familiar voice of the box returns.

“Wasn’t that something? We couldn’t begin to imagine what you just experienced but we could guess it sounded a bit confusing, fantastical, and strange. We thank you so much for your purchase and hope you enjoy your time with The Everette. Please direct any and all troubleshooting queries to our IT department. To reach them insert your finger into the Blood Donation hole and shout “Please Help!” into the speaker. Your device will require a full ounce of blood in order to tune your Everette specifically to our IT department. Due to the possibility of tuning into an alternate world you may be connected to a specialist who does not speak your native tongue. If you don’t understand what is being said, just start the process over.”

Now, go have fun!

Feelings

Dev awoke in the darkness of the early morning. The room was so quiet one could almost hear the tear of his eyelids opening. He didn’t move for some time. He listened to the silence and allowed his pupils to dilate enough for the darkness to form shapes. The sharp pinch of his bladder caused Dev to sigh and rise slowly from the bed. He shuffled to the bathroom, his right toe smashing against the nightstand. He cursed loudly and hopped the rest of the way. The sensors picked up the movement as he entered and the lights clicked to life. Dev quickly closed his eyes as the bright electronic glow assaulted his now darkness-honed vision.

He blindly flailed about, his hands finding the sink and toilet. Not taking any chances on blind aim, he sat down. As the pressure blissfully lifted, Dev slowly opened his eyes to the buzzing fluorescent glow. Rust-stained sink, shower large enough for him to stand in but not bend over, cracked and peeling linoleum floor, wilted and fungus dotted wallpaper. Check, check, and check.

He slowly rose from the porcelain throne, the sensors registered the movement and set the toilet to choke the water down in a torrential gulp. He rinsed his hands under a pitiful dribble of water and stared back at the broken reflection. Eyes red and bagged, a prickly carpet of black fuzz covering his mouth and jaw, and greasy hair jutting out in multiple angles as if it was trying to escape his head.

Dev could only sigh at the broken reflection. With slumped shoulders he left the bathroom and went back to bed. The lights didn’t turn on in here. Those he needed to command verbally or even physically if he wanted to walk to the switch on the wall. He decided to sit in the dark and wait to see if his feelings would work on their own.

As the minutes turned to hours with not even a glimmer of hope entering his conscience, Dev sighed again and decided to feed his rumbling stomach. The growls audibly echoed off the walls and intensified as he approached his food dispenser. He grabbed the only bowl he possessed and placed it under the tube. Pressing the large red button that would turn the machine on and churn the contents into an edible paste, Dev noticed the bowl still had dried moldy food in it. Cursing, he tossed the bowl into the sink and grabbed the next available container he saw. There was a coffee cup with about a third of the black liquid resting at the bottom. He quickly dumped the cold coffee into the sink and brought it under the dispenser just in time.

He brought the overflowing cup back to bed and placed it on the nightstand which was now askew from his toe’s earlier assault. He gave himself a little more time to see if any emotions would start to peak above the emptiness he currently felt. 

***

Dev was awoken by loud knocking at his apartment door. His neck was sore from his head being slumped forward and he winced as he quickly turned his attention to the banging. He wiped a trail of drool from his mouth and glanced over at the coffee cup. A thin skin had hardened over the exposed surface of the food paste. He shrugged internally, telling himself he wasn’t even that hungry despite the protests of his roaring stomach.

The banging never stopped, as he rose from the bed and walked to the visibly vibrating door. He flicked the sliding deadbolt and the heavy knocking ceased. Taking a deep breath, Dev turned the handle and opened the door. His eyes did not need to adjust to any new foreign light as the bulb above his door burst months ago. Standing before him was a tall slender man with a smile almost too big to fit on his face.

“Good evening, Mr. Mallard,” the giant grin said. Dev was certain this man had too many teeth. “My name is Charles Wendell Bryant and I am inquiring about your stimulation status.”

Dev squinted slightly in confusion. “My what?” he asked through dry parched lips.

“We at Emotion Enterprises noticed you haven’t been ordering your usual dosage of HAPPY.” The tall man’s multiple teeth slightly ground together in this frustrated grin. “This concerns us greatly, as we at Emotion Enterprises take great care in our client’s well being. Why…a man with your…” he searched for words as his eyes looked past Dev and into what must look to be absolute squalor. “Let’s call it, current situation…why you seem to be the embodiment of what HAPPY wishes to eradicate.”

Dev’s head hurt. This jabbering and nagging thing was white noise. He wished he could bring up enough anger to tell the man off but he just ended up being sad he couldn’t bring himself to show any emotion. “Fuck off,” was all he could mutter and tried to close the door.

The tall man’s foot kept it from shutting. A long slender arm snaked through the opening and placed a small black bottle on the counter. When the arm was back on the other side the foot slipped away and the door closed with a loud thud. “Despite what you might think, Mr. Mallard, we at Emotion Enterprises do care about you. That bottle contains our newest iteration of HAPPY. Twice as strong and lasts for a full 48 hours. Free of charge, of course. Give it a spin and simply reach out to us if you wish to procure more.”

Dev was already back in bed. He had returned to his previous spot and his eyes drifted to the bottle on the countertop. Despite the headache and his empty stomach, he layed back down and drifted off to sleep.

***

EMOTIONAL ENTERPRISES

EST. 2028

HAPPY

Guaranteed pure unfiltered happiness for 48 hours or your money back!

SIDE EFFECTS:

Nausea, Dizziness, Diarrhea, Migraines, Nightmares, Insomnia, Depression, Suicidal Thoughts

Dev looked over the label several times. His eyes hovered over the side effects longer than the description. “What’s the fucking point?” he asked nobody. A sharp pain stabbed his stomach and he realized though he might be severely depressed he wasn’t going to let himself starve. Not feeling like cleaning any of his utensils or dishes, it was time to go out and grab a bite. He weakly rose from the bed and threw on some clothes. They didn’t smell fresh and clean but they also didn’t smell like sweat and body odor. A fair compromise, in his opinion.

He luckily avoided running into any neighbors or even a vagrant trying to get some sleep in the apartment vestibule. Once he made it outside he knew why. It was hot. The kind of heat that made his clothes instantly stick to his now sweating skin. The tenants of his building were staying put in their air-conditioned apartments and the homeless were probably going underground into the miles of deserted subway tunnels. Dev had a taste for a cheap tofu and soy slice of “pizza” but that would be about a mile hike. He chose the noodle stand on the corner of his block instead.

The vendor was not one for small talk which suited Dev just fine considering how he was feeling or the lack of feeling. Dev pointed a finger at the picture of order number one. Just a plain bowl of tofu noodles and what tasted like a chicken broth. He shook his head as the vendor pointed at different additions like mushrooms and green onions. The vendor gave a sour look and passed the steaming bowl to Dev. He looked for napkins and chopsticks but saw none. When he pointed at the empty receptacles, the vendor shrugged.

Dev brought his newly purchased food to a nearby bench, alternating the bowl between each hand as it became too hot to hold. He instantly regretted taking a sip as the heat of the day helped him ingest steaming broth and warm dripping sweat. He placed the bowl next to him, deciding to let the noodles cool off. His left hand unintentionally slipped into his pants pocket and pulled out a small black bottle.

Dev stared at the faded label, his thumb sliding over the letters as he read the inscriptions over and over. Laughter snapped him back to reality and he spotted a young couple across the street arms locked together. They were pointing at different signs and landmarks saying a letter and then saying the word the letter began with. As they rounded the corner, Dev could hear them arguing who spotted the letter “W” first followed by more laughter.

When Dev looked down at his hands, the bottle had been opened and a single pill lay in his open right palm. He didn’t remember doing that. He could definitely say he watched the couple with jealousy but not enough to force him to consider the drugs. He wasn’t fine, but he also wasn’t suicidal. Sure, he wondered sometimes if it would just be better to walk into traffic, but he wouldn’t ever do that. Maybe sometimes when he layed in bed he wondered if the exposed rafters were structurally sound enough to hold his weight. The rusted and cracked bars would occasionally respond that there was only one way to find out. They didn’t actually talk but Dev knew that’s what they would say.

The pill was in his mouth, his tongue rolling it around and his teeth experimentally pressing down on the malleable casing. Once again, no memory of putting it there. Dev thought about how easy it would be to feel happy. Just bite and swallow. Less than ten seconds later and he could be skipping down the street whistling a tune. Or, it doesn’t work and he feels worse. His mind flashed to the word “Depression” and “Suicidal Thoughts” on the bottle’s label. Dev didn’t trust suicidal Dev.

He spits the pill back into the small bottle he was still clutching in his hand. Dev then picks up the bowl of noodles next to him and swallows the now tepid food in two loud slurps. He drops the black bottle into the empty wet bowl and dumps them both in a nearby trash can. Dev walks back towards his apartment complex and continues on once he gets to the entrance. Despite the heat, he decides to take a walk. As he drifts slowly further away, shaking the thoughts of throwing himself in front of a bus or continuing until he hits the bridge overlooking the river, Dev chuckled.

He passed an android missing its lower half and holding a sign asking for credits. He dug a single chip from his right pocket and placed it into a mechanical hand with strips of synthetic skin peeling off at the wrist. The android nodded, servos grinding and its voice box sparking. Dev just held up a hand, keeping it from burning itself out. The android stopped trying to thank him and leaned back against the wall. He felt a smile crack his lips.

As the light of the sun faded, Dev continued to walk. He stopped and helped push-start a stalled kinetic taxi, he let an elderly woman, ancient corded implants running across her face and neck, place her arm through his and led her across a busy intersection. He stopped and watched a street performer use his modified eye implants to project a black and white silent film onto an old brick building while twisting and gyrating to a tinny stream of music coming from a nearby rusted soundbox.

When the light of the day was gone and the solar-panel fueled street lights winked to life, Dev came across a small white building that immediately caught his interest. There was only one sign posted above the door that simply read ALL ARE WELCOME. Dev was intrigued. Watching a few disheveled and slump-shouldered figures pass him and enter the doorway made him even more curious.

He soon realized a woman was standing behind him watching. Dev gave a half-hearted smile. She smiled back. “Are you coming in?” she asked. Her clothes were in tatters and her pink hair was not what most would call combed.

Dev looked back at the door and then at the mystery woman. “I don’t know,” he answered.

She smiled, old makeup cracking at the corner of her lips. “All are welcome,” she answered with a smile that showed streaks of red on her teeth.

“Is it therapy? AA?” Dev asked.

“It’s what you make of it. You don’t have to talk or even stay.” She walked past him and stopped at the door. She gave one final glance and said, “All are welcome” and disappeared into the building.

Dev didn’t move. He thought about the woman, he thought about the android, he thought about the black bottle he tossed into the garbage, and he thought about himself. Dev didn’t know what to expect. He had no expectation to walk through that door and be cured. But, he knew that he needed something. Dev knew that there was something keeping him from feeling. With a heavy but hopefully sigh, Dev walked through the door.

Mana

I remember the first time I tried it. Curiosity got the better of me, what can I say? Anyways, the first time I tried it was in college. I was helping myself to a little bit of everything at that point in life. What student keeping his grades barely above passing doesn’t? It was make or break time for finals. I’d blown off most of the semester smoking and drinking. Time slipped by and the next thing I know it’s the first week of May and tests are just around the corner.

So, I’m in my room freaking the hell out. I’m tearing the plastic covers off of my books, looking up term papers online I can maybe skim some info from, and even offering cash for anyone to come tutor me. Desperation doesn’t even begin to describe it. Roommate starts blowing up my phone with text messages. I ignore it as long as I can, but this is a guy who sends dumb pictures when he’s high and usually types the bare minimum when he’s trying to reach you. I think maybe he’s in trouble so I finally look.

Paul: where r u

Paul: where r u??

Paul: …

Me: dorm what up?

Paul: WHERE R U?!

Paul: sry was typing when u sent.

Paul: at desk?

Me: yes

Paul: turn around

Me: what?

Paul: turn around

So, now I’m just getting mad. Paul always loved to just mess with people. I don’t know why I turned around. I figured he would just let me stare at his side of the room for hours. Just as I was about to spin around and go back to my current crisis, there was this bright flash of light and Paul drops from the ceiling into his bed.

Long story short, he shows me the little blue vial. He’s talking a million miles a minute. I can barely keep up with him. Before I know it, Paul talks me into taking some of it. The rest of the night was a blur. At one point I remember being at the top of the Eiffel Tower. There was definitely a bar fight where I threw a fireball, yeah a fireball, at the guy trying to punch me. Like I said…a blur.

But, that’s everyone’s first time with Mana. You go a little heavier than you should. Next thing you know you’re walking down Times Square, naked, and shooting ice rays from your fingertips. But, once you find that balance, there isn’t anything that little blue liquid can’t do for you. It changed my life and it can change your life too. 

The government is doing what it’s doing because they’re scared. Scared of what this stuff can do to their donations. The pharmaceutical companies are demanding they lock Mana down. Sorry, I’m rambling. What you’re looking for is a taste. A little sample to test your imagination.

I promise, you only need a drop. Just a tiny bead on your tongue. Let it roll back. It tastes like fire doesn’t it? I see the sweat starting. Listen to my voice and don’t fight it. It feels like you’re on fire. Not you, inside you. Deep down. Like the molecules and atoms are ablaze. Just ride the pain another moment. It’s already getting better. You feel energy. Tingling from your head to your toes. It feels like you’re shaking. Almost vibrating.

Open your eyes…let it out. Test yourself. Become a god.

The Ballad of Jortus

Bortus J. Witherton, the last known descendant of the Savior of Hronesburrow, stood upon the deck of the capital ship Revenant II staring out at the tapestry of stars and galaxies before him. The crimson planet Cygnus-7 provided the landscape of the screen, as it orbited slowly around this system’s Yellow Dwarf. Frigates, transports, and capital ships even larger than the one he occupied all warped into view with tiny flashes of light. Cygnus-7 was not about to be attacked. This dusty planet was now the host of one of the biggest parties in the galaxy. Politicians, admirals, kings, and anyone who is anyone comes to this planet annually to celebrate the surrender of the Krydook leader Ph’ytook Viss’ege.

It was Bortus’ great-great-grandfather, Jortus H. Witherton, who led the final battle against the alien menace and ended the war that had claimed millions of lives. He had heard the stories growing up. Listened to how they grew more and more fantastical. The last telling had his great-great-grandfather piloting a capital ship by himself into the Krydook mothership. Jortus, Bortus had heard a drunk admiral shout, killed over three hundred soldiers and broke Ph’ytook Viss’ege’s neck with his bare hands. The truth was that it took strategy and cunning to outsmart and outmaneuver the Krydook leader and that fact is slowly disappearing as the tall tales continue to increase in height. Now, years later, the tradition carries on and Bortus sighed deeply at the thought of it all.

He imagined the thousands of tables of food that would mostly go untouched. Hundreds of impoverished families could survive years on it. He imagined the abundant vats of wine, beers, and mysterious alien liquors. All of it would be gone by day two. He grimaced at the thought of the war stories and praises thrown about. Men and women who have not seen more than a small skirmish bragging about the battles they have fought and won. He was glad he would not be there to experience it.

The sound of footsteps briskly walking towards him snapped Bortus out of his trance. His fists clenched in anticipation. “Bortus!” a young voice shouted from behind him. “Bortus, what do you think you are doing?!”

Bortus turned, fists unclenching, and a smile spreading across his face. “Just taking a moment to enjoy the view, Admiral Tulley. I’m getting back to it now,” he said, nodding towards the bucket and mop in a corner.

The admiral followed his eyes and squinted. “See to it that you don’t miss a spot! The Queen of Mygus will be here within the hour and I will not have her cross this deck in its current scuffed and spotty state!” With that, Admiral Tulley spun on his heel and marched out of the room.

Bortus nodded his head and walked towards the mop and bucket, whistling a tune. As the floors began to sparkle and shine, Bortus passed a plaque below the Admiral’s chair that had his great-great-grandfather’s name engraved on it. He gave it a respectable nod and continued about his work.

Charlie

There was a knock at the front door. Charlie sighed, stood up slowly from his comfortable leather chair, and shuffled to the tapping of persistent hands. He twisted the knob and with a great groan from the hinges, the entryway was opened. Standing before him were three children dressed as ninjas. They each raised plastic shopping bags bulging with candy and said, in unison, “trick or treat.”

There wasn’t a lot of excitement or spunk in the voices but it was getting late and Charlie was the sole house on a very long dead end street. Most kids that made it to his door this year were a little out of breath and slightly irritated at the journey. Charlie peered over his rimmed spectacles and looked over each of the beggars before him. Their arms were beginning to shake slightly as the weight of the collected candy tested the strength of their black costumed arms. Charlie reached into the pockets of his corduroy pants and pulled out a caramel candy. He unwrapped the gold plastic, popped the piece into his mouth, and flicked the wrapper at the child to his left.

“No candy,” he muttered, the caramel clicking against his teeth as he moved it around his mouth. He raised a bony finger at the ninja on the right. “Twenty-five years…drunk driver.” He pointed at the middle child. “Eighty-six years…stroke.” The one on the left was beginning to cry. Charlie’s finger hovered for awhile. His eyes went wide and his features twisted and distorted. He finally managed to whisper, “Nine hundred forty-five…asphyxiation.”

Charlie felt something dripping from his nose. He wiped the back of his hand across his nostrils and gasped at the sight of blood streaked across his aged and weathered skin. The hard candy tumbled from his mouth and cracked into a dozen pieces when it hit the stoop. The ninjas each looked at one another. The last one was still sniffling but quickly getting his composure back. They decided to leave and threw a few rocks at the house when they were some distance away.

Charlie paid no attention as he turned to his chair, eyes locked to the crimson smear, and slowly shuffled back. He saw a reflection of himself in the television across from his seat. The unit hadn’t worked for years but Charlie wasn’t strong enough to carry it to the curb so it remained in its spot. He squinted at the distorted shape and couldn’t make out any definitive features. There was a small box of tissues on the coffee table before him so he grabbed a handful and began cleaning up his face and hand. Charlie shoved the soiled squares back into the box and sighed deeply. He knew what was next. He’d know for years. Ever since he was six and he stared at his own reflection and willed the answer.

A chill gripped his entire body. He shivered even as a fiery pain exploded in his left arm. Charlie fought back vomiting. He gritted his teeth and laid his head back. There was a knock on the door. He gasped as a fist clenched his heart and almost passed out as the pain continued to blossom across his hand and shoulder. It was creeping up his neck and it felt like someone just punched him in the jaw. There was a dull pulse that filled his hearing and the shout outside from the angry teenager was muffled. Things began to slow down for Charlie. His vision blurred and went black. The pain and pressure across his body lightened and a smile crept across his lips. He heard the music softly, at first. It crescendoed into an epic symphony a moment later.

It was something he remembered when he was that little boy watching himself die alone in an empty house. Why am I smiling? Why am I smiling?

Bar Tab

When the bill hit the table, the group began clearing their throats and patting empty pockets. They gave sheepish grins and their eyes began darting to one another. Borin, the only dwarf amongst the five adventurers, excused himself to find an outhouse. Promises of returning were mumbled through an unkempt bushy beard. Laenna, a recently widowed young lady who decided to leave her home for a life of danger waved at an unseen person towards the front of the tavern. She apologized, promising to return in a moment to settle the damage, and disappeared into the crowd. 

Gerald, a bard who recently graduated from a mostly unknown college, announced his break was definitely over and he must return to entertaining lest he anger the bartender. He clumsily tuned his lute, plucked the strings and grimaced. When his set was over, he would quickly return and settle up his part of the tab. The remaining two listened as the notes drifted closer and closer to the door and then were silent. 

Wesley, a young squire who met up with the group somewhat recently, drummed the table with his hands and shifted uncomfortably in the chair. He looked around the room, avoiding eye contact with the bartender who was now paying extra attention to the dwindling table. Wesley opened his mouth to say something but closed it. He again began to talk but the words just drifted off and he slumped his shoulders. Wesley looked at the older man sitting across from him. His weathered face cracked as a smile crept up the corners of his mouth. He looked Wesley in the eyes and nodded towards the door.

Wesley looked at the older man, at the door, and at the bartender who was now heading their way. He got up quickly and pushed his way through the crowds and out into the night. 

A big meaty hand slammed down on the table before the older man. A face twisted in anger grunted, “Looks like your friends left you with something.” He reached across the table and stuck a thick sausage-like finger onto the small parchment paper that had items and numbers scrawled across its surface. He slid it before the older man and smiled. “Whenever you’re ready.”

The older man returned the smile and said, “I did not partake in this table’s consumption. Unless I am to pay based on sharing stories and laughter.”

The bartender let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t care what you did. You’re the last one here, so you pay me.”

The old man laughed. “The problem with that, my good man, is that ghosts don’t have a way to pay anything. Couldn’t give you the money if I wanted to,” he chuckled.

The bartender grunted, and proceeded to punch the laughing man square in the face. His fist passed through and knocked the chair back into the next table. The old man, now sitting on nothing, gave a wink and vanished.