One stupid, free scoop of ice cream.
Dhane was in such a hurry to use the coupon that expired at midnight—not to mention his gamer friends waiting for his return—that even though the traffic light had changed and the little walking-man sign glowed from the other side, he failed to do that one simple thing that all kids were taught from a very early age: look both ways.
It didn’t matter how many degrees he had or how many Latin and Greek words he had memorized, or that he was a day late on his review article for the latest role-playing game.
The world didn’t care.
Then again, if it weren’t for the garbage truck—forty tons of metal filled to the brim with everything society deigned to throw away—it wouldn’t have been so bad. In this case, however, the word splat would be the only word adequate to explain what happened.
Dhane sucked in a breath of stale, cold air. It was damn freezing in here! A pitch-black place filled with others, noticeable by their breathing and shivering. One girl was crying about a killer clown.
Tiny balls of light wisped through the air. Someone jumped back, crashing to the ground, and groaned. Then torchlight illuminated the room of gray stone bricks.
More than a dozen people stood within individual chalk circles with fancy symbols encasing them, completely naked. That bit should have been obvious, though when you got smeared by a garbage truck, it often took a few moments to gather one’s wits.
A petite girl—standing five feet away—jerked at her own realization of being alive and bare, and tried to cover her lady bits, all the while glaring at Dhane.
Of course, he wasn’t really staring. It just so happened to be the place he was facing when the lights came on.
What did people say in such a situation? I’m sorry, my dear, for invading your privacy. It was like a line from a movie . . . from the Renaissance. Definitely, not cool.
She had brunette hair with highlights and curls cupping a heart-shaped face, a cute button nose, olive-colored skin, and dark-brown evil eyes. Evil, murderous eyes that screamed, Look away, or I’ll cut your throat!
Yes, that was precisely what they said. It only took a solid fifteen seconds for those thoughts to slush through his brain.
He offered an awkward, “Sorry,” which came out sounding far less majestic than the movie line.
It was at this time he realized how loose he was hanging and the random, roaming eyes of others, all hugging their own forms in odd manners. He mimicked the reaction, cupping his manhood with both hands.
Footsteps scuffed the stone, followed by the tapping of a cane. “Welcome to Olindale,” a withered old man said. “Oh, don’t be embarrassed. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. There are robes next to each of you.”
He had wiry white hair jutting in all directions. The only place it didn’t grow fervently was the man’s pale dome. Everywhere else was covered in the stuff and sliding down the front of him like . . . melted ice cream.
Oi. A simple hankering for ice cream and even death wasn’t strong enough to curtail it.
Death. . . .
Am I really dead?
Next to Dhane’s circle was a nicely folded robe of thick brown material. Little candles around his circle had, at some point, been lit, casting a modicum of warmth in the frigid room.
He pulled the material over his form and immediately felt better. It was a night and day difference, from being on the verge of hypothermia to that comfortable sensation of waking in the morning swathed in blankets.
“I am Gameus, god of games and of this realm,” the old man said and sighed. “Yes, you have died. Yes, this is one of the many heavens. Yes, somehow, I got stuck with a bunch of nerds.
“You know—and bear with me, I’m in great need of a good rant—the games used to be of warriors who risked their lives to fight monsters in the arenas or stand upon their chariots to face off with other brave men.
“Now? Now . . . games have an all-new meaning. My heaven has radically changed since your kind started showing up. It’s quite rude if you ask me. I mean, this is my realm.
“And so, before I give you your starting items and send you on your adventure, please sign my petition. I only need two million more signatures. Maddeningly, of course, the choice is yours. I cannot revoke your free will, but I can promise that gods make far better friends than foes. . . .”
Gameus let that last line linger in the silence as he eyeballed each of his petrified audience. Then he smiled and continued walking through the room, only to stop at a pile of ash and bones contained within a chalk circle.
“PIP!” he yelled, voice rocking the room, eyes glowing blue. A stone brick cracked.
From the shadows, tendrils of smoke formed into an imp. It was two feet tall with red leathery skin and impractically tiny bat-like wings. “Yesss, Master?” it said in a high-pitched, wobbling voice.
“How many times must I tell you the symbol crosses at the arch? AT THE ARCH! Look at this,” the god said, grabbing the imp by the neck and shoving its head close to one of the symbols.
“Yesss, yesss. I sees the problem. I goofed, that I did.”
“Goofed? This soul, who was it. . .? Amber. Guild master of the Razor Wolves, killed by dislodged air-conditioning unit, is going to hell because you goofed!” Gameus stared for a moment, then sighed. “Bah, fine. It’s just one less signature for my petition. Grab a broom.”
Gameus raised his hands in front of himself as if lifting something. The entire wall on one side of the room opened, stone grinding upward. Sunlight poured through the opening, illuminating a rectangular stretch of land enveloped in clouds.
There were mountains and forests and an ocean far, far below. It was dizzying to see it. Dhane wanted to grab something just to make sure he didn’t slide off the world.
“Please follow me,” Gameus said and stepped outside, tapping his cane as he walked.
Pip already had a broom, sweeping the remaining bits of Amber into a dustpan. Everyone shuffled forward, watching the little imp with a mixture of curiosity—for when had real imps existed?—and horror.
Gameus took a seat on a stool outside, waved a finger in the air, and a cardboard box appeared next to him. “Form a line, if you will.”
Dhane found himself at the front of that line, nobody eager to take up the ten feet in front of him to be first. He closed the gap, thinking it wiser to follow instructions than annoy the god.
Gameus held out a clipboard with a #2 pencil attached by a string. Dhane took it. The top of the form was a request to exchange Olindale’s god with another god, one better fit for the position.
He peered over the clipboard.
Gameus peered back, tapping a long fingernail on the side of his cane.
Dhane signed his name—Dhane, with an H, certainly not Dane, without an H, like mundane or Great Dane; no, he wasn’t a dog—and paused at his last name. What was it again?
“I . . .” he started, though Gameus held up a hand to silence him.
“We strip you of your last name. It makes the transition easier when you can’t think about your past family members, friends, kids, significant others, and the like.”
And it was true. Dhane couldn’t think of his mother or sister. He had a mother and sister, not a father. But they didn’t have names or faces or really any emotion attached to them whatsoever.
He also had a girlfriend, one that he could still feel an inkling of deep affection for, though just as he had felt it, the sensation evaporated.
Wasn’t heaven all about being together with those you loved? But even as that thought struck, he didn’t quite care. Those no-named, no-faced people were in the distant past, in a distant world.
“So . . .” he started, though Gameus held up a hand to silence him again.
“You can choose anything you wish or just sign your first. If you should ever come up with your last name, it’ll automatically be added to my petition. Now, go ahead and pass the clipboard down the line.”
Dhane looked at his name and found it completely satisfying. He passed the board to the next person in line: a tall fellow with blond hair and a broad chest. The guy tore the clipboard away without so much as a thank you.
“Listen up,” Gameus said. “This world is unlike that of your world. There is no sickness, no excrement. Even garbage cleans up itself. But you’ll figure this stuff out on your own, I am sure. For the sake of time, please limit your questions.
“When you are done signing my petition, you’ll receive one of these ancient and magical relics.” He held up a device.
“A phone?” Dhane asked.
“What? No! It’s not a phone. It’s ancient technology that, once you bind to it, will forever be attached to your soul.
“Now, tell me, would you like the one with an apple on the back or the one with a robot?”
Dhane took the ancient and magical device, then moved to the side so the line could progress.
Hello, Hola, Bonjour, Konnichiwa.
Yup, it was definitely an iPhone, an iPhone in heaven. He tapped the display, and it flashed through a dozen setup screens within a second before showing the home screen. There were a number of apps: Inventory, Map, Character, Party, Waypoints, Contacts, among others.
“Once you get your device,” Gameus said, “go ahead and open the Clothing app. Your first set of clothing is free. And if you use the discount code Gameus is Best God, you’ll get 70% off your next order! Pick out something that fits your preference, then return your robes to Pip.”
The little imp materialized on a stool, holding a few hangers under an arm. He waved a three-fingered hand to make sure everyone understood that he was, in fact, the one and only Pip.
Dhane tapped the Clothing app. It opened and revealed a mirror image of himself standing at the center of a rotating platform. He had dark-brown eyes, matching hair, thick with loose curls—or rather, thick with an idiotic mind of its own—that ran almost to his shoulders.
He was tall, slender, with decent posture and a tan from countless wanderings down hiking trails, finding new places to get lost.
While he looked the part of the average, everyday guy, he spent far more time exploring the vast worlds of video games and literature than he did outside. Then again, it was what paid the bills as a game journalist.
Bills? Ha! He wouldn’t have to pay bills anymore! The random thought split into others, such as a possible article titled “The Benefits of Death” or “Budgeting for an Exciting Afterlife.” Catchy.
Did this world have journalists? Could he actually explore a fantasy world and write about it? This just might be the best afterlife ever! A dream come true, for what nerd wouldn’t want to explore a real Middle-earth or Azeroth?
People were already returning their robes while he hadn’t even explored his options yet. This was his world now. There’d be time to do all those other things, time to get lost in the mysteries of a new world. The thought was so intoxicating that he almost couldn’t focus on the various categories in the app.
There were many styles for men and women, young and old, including tee shirts with various logos, one from Disney World, one from Blizzard Entertainment, one from practically every company, brand, or artist imaginable.
Options were available for everything down to the style of underwear he wanted: tighty-whities, boxers, boxer briefs, athletic shorts, some with hearts printed across them, some with ducks.
Girls had all sorts of panties and bras, anything from sexy lingerie to casual and comfortable to sports.
Someone bumped him from behind. He turned to find the brunette girl, now fully clothed in torn jeans and a pink shirt, loose enough to drop down one shoulder. She started to apologize but stopped when she realized who she had run into.
It was crazy how some people could shift their emotional state in a fraction of a second, from surprise to disgust to hate to surprise again and somehow linger on confusion.
Her eyes roamed his body as if in revenge. You saw me, you twat waffle! I get to see you! It probably wasn’t the best revenge since he wore a robe. She stared at his exposed chest, nonetheless.
“I’m . . . sorry,” she finally said, cheeks now a little flushed.
That was most definitely not the reaction he had expected. He wasn’t a bad-looking guy by any means, but he also wasn’t the type that got cute girls like this to blush, all without saying a single word. It usually took a bit of work, a bit of rehearsal. Of course, let’s not forget that this particular girl had tried—moments ago—to kill him with her deathly stare.
She continued, awkwardly searching for the right words, the right way to say them, all the while flicking her brown eyes to his and then back to his chest, “I had no idea. I’m Bexley, by the way.”
She reached toward his chest in an overly forward manner as if unable to control her urges. She tugged on something smooth and silky, something that—now that he had looked down—looked particularly like a red thin-laced bra.
“There, that’s better,” she said, almost in a motherly tone.
Oh, shit brownies! The phone revealed a green check mark where his damn thumb had decided to take a little break while he was distracted. “It’s not what you think.”
“No, I’m not—”
“You’re not!” This seemed to only confirm Bexley’s earlier assessment that he was, in fact, a creep. She straightened and lost all prior sense of soft, caring warmth. Those murderous brown eyes now glared holes into his soul. She humphed, turned sharply, and marched away.
“That!” yelled the blond guy, “is what you chose? Haha!” He had an obnoxiously loud voice like a quarterback calling out numbers. It was the sort of voice that summoned everyone’s attention, directing it with ease by thrusting a finger in Dhane’s direction.
Everyone stared. Some laughed, some didn’t care, some gave disapproving glares, while others looked . . . high, staring at the world in a wide-eyed daze by the sudden shift from their once physical life to whatever this was.
Dhane hit the Remove button. The silky soft material faded away, though it was still Owned.
Well, that’s just great.
Heaven needed an undo button. Better yet, a Load From Last Checkpoint option would be stellar.
He tapped into the men’s section—chiding himself over being in the women’s category in the first place—and chose a black pair of boxer briefs, some nice Jeans, and hiking shoes. When he tried to buy a shirt—a fun shirt with a Warcraft Murloc on it—the app displayed an error.
You cannot afford that item.
The shirt was 3 silver coins and 2 copper. Not dollars, not credits, but actual coins. And that really sucked, for he had no silver or copper or any other way to purchase a shirt.
The bra could be sold to the System for 5 copper. And while that was all sorts of neat, there wasn’t a shirt available—not even a pink tutu—for such a tiny amount.
Everyone else had already purchased their clothes and returned their robes. A man in his thirties—short-cropped hair, brown skin with a rosy undertone, and an athletic build—wore a nice three-piece suit. A whole freaking suit while Dhane couldn’t afford a simple, if not iconic, tee shirt.
He returned the robe to Pip, losing that comfortable sense of warmth. Cold air cut across goosebumps, and he clasped arms around his bare mid as others gave him their best incredulous stares.
The imp slid a hanger into the robe’s arm slots, then dropped the cloth into a bag that somehow held all the robes while not being materially large enough to hold a single one.
Gameus tapped his cane on the stone ground. It rang through the commotion of conversation, of introductions, of compliments on style choices, and of whispers about the strange guy who wasn’t wearing a shirt at all.
“Yes, yes,” Gameus said, “this is all very new and exciting for you, I am sure, though your most important choice has yet to be made. Please follow me.”
The god turned and walked across the stone to a set of curving stairs carved into the mountain. Everyone followed him, up and around and around, hundreds of steps.
Dhane’s phone—that was, his ancient and magical device—vibrated. A notification revealed he had dropped to 10/32 Stamina despite the slow pace.
Huh, just like a video game.
Maybe it was from all the shivering. The higher they went, the colder it got, even to the point where people’s once incredulous stares had somehow morphed into pity.
The three-piece-suit guy even asked why he hadn’t bought a shirt, to which the blond guy only laughed. Dhane explained the mistake, and the man nodded, then removed his vest—a rather large vest—and handed it over.
Just like the robes, wearing the vest—even if it looked more like a strung-out tank top on Dhane, dipping down to his thighs—immediately replaced the frigid cold with the comfort of mid-Spring.
The top of the mountain had magnificent creatures, all glowing in radiant light, bigger than life. The one that immediately caught Dhane’s attention was a lion sitting on its haunches, two feet taller than anyone in the group, a king in its own right.
There was also a monkey, bear, weasel, hawk, owl, and—somehow swimming in the air through golden light as if it were water—a dolphin.
Their light gave off warmth, happiness, and fulfillment, like the whole purpose of life was to appease these divine creations, which seemed odd since Gameus didn’t have an aura.
“Before you,” Gameus said, “are the divinities of this heaven. You may only choose one and will serve that divinity. Search your hearts. You will know which is the right choice for you. When you are ready, step forward and touch the divinity of your choice.”
Dhane already knew which divinity to choose. There was no question about it. The majestic lion seemed to call to him, to whisper into his mind, to summon him forward.
He stepped toward the lion without much of a thought. His body seemed to move on its own, aligned with purpose and belonging, then promptly stumbled over the blond guy’s extended foot.
Dhane summoned all the dexterity of his previous life—all of his experiences of falling with grace—and found no such experiences existed. Instead, he slammed his head against the stone, prompting all the bells in heaven to ring at once.
Something crawled across his hand, and he shoved himself away. A jolt of revulsion replaced the pain and swam through him at the barest touch of some icky insect. Ohhh, how he hated insects and their ugly little legs always scurrying into places they weren’t wanted.
Others approached the divinities and reverently held out their hands. A simple touch sent a stream of golden light into each of them. Once a divinity was chosen, Gameus tapped the person. They shifted to stone that then burst into magical swirls of light and vanished.
Dhane pushed himself to his feet and approached the lion, though the lion turned away. “You have already chosen,” the divinity said in a low, growling voice. “You cannot choose two divinities.” The lion jumped from the mountain and dispersed into shimmering golden light, vanishing.
“But what other?” Dhane asked to the void. He hadn’t chosen anything, not yet. The only divinity he wanted to choose, needed to choose, was the lion, the radiant king of gods, the only divinity that made sense to his very soul.
Gameus turned from another vanishing statue, the last of all the other people. He crooked an eyebrow at Dhane, looking more through him than at him, and slowly nodded. “Not a choice I’d expect, given where we are,” he said, a little perturbed, “though it is a choice, nonetheless.”
“But I didn’t choose!”
“Then you were chosen. In the end, it doesn’t matter. We leave such things to fate. Your future will be interesting to watch.”
With that, Gameus tapped Dhane’s shoulder, and the world swirled to darkness.