Stop me if you've heard this one. In the beginning there was nothing...
13.7 billion years later, there was everything. An infinite universe with infinite worlds, and among them, a single blue-and-green life bearing jewel, floating with its seven siblings around a single star, in a single spiral arm of a single galaxy. And we called it "Earth," because it's dirty and a bit of a mess, but good things grow out of it.
Now take a half-step back, not away from anything, but away from /everything./ Slip out of the three-piece suit of reality and into the comfortable pyjamas of imagination, and suppose, for a second, that somewhere in the infinite mirrored hallway of alternate dimensions, there is one where, in the beginning there was nothing, 13.7 billion years later there was everything, and a single blue-and-green life bearing jewel floats in space. And they call it "Earth," because it's dirty.
Now suppose that this Earth had a few more seeds planted on it, and that they produced a few extra sprouts. And suppose that these sprouts became part of a garden that looks much like ours, and which flowered into much the same history, resulting in much the same cities, most of the same inventions, and all of the same mistakes.
Let me put it another way.
Suppose that dragons are real, and are struggling to pay off their college loans...
Dennis looked down at the now still figure of what used to be his body. What surprised him the most was how unsurprised he felt - how little of ANYTHING he felt. He had, after all, nothing left to feel it with. It had been quick, at least, he'd give them that. Dennis wondered what the equation would be to calculate the force it had taken to sever his spinal cord, and found that it came to him as easily as it had in life. That was something, at least. He'd be upset if dying had made him forget how to do sums.
He watched his murderer ransack his former room dispassionately. Somehow he couldn't find it in himself to even be annoyed at the mess anymore. But something did linger at the edges of his soul, a nipping sense of regret. He felt bad for Louie. Louie had gotten him the job in the first place, and now he'd gone and gotten himself killed before he could serve out the contract. He wondered if that would cause a mess in the paperwork.
His murderer seemed to find what they were looking for. They stuffed it in their clothes and disappeared out the window from whence they'd come.
Dennis watched them go. Then turned to the figure lurking behind him.
"Does something happen now?" he asked. Death waved a bony hand, and he found out.
Louie Rust was on the phone. He wanted desperately to be off it.
"My friend Margaret, you know Margaret, she's the one with the husband who runs the hairspray company, you know, the one for centaurs, and she says-"
"Yes, mom," said Louie.
"-and you could just try it for a week and you wouldn't have to stay for too long if you didn't like it but I just-"
"Yes, mom," he objected.
"-lots of opportunities you know if you just show up every day and apply yourself to-"
"Yes, mom," he opined.
"-but will you just please call her? I sent you her number, and she knows you'll be calling so please do it this time. Okay Louie?"
"Yes, mom," he lied.
"I'm just so worried you'll get left behind. The job market is really hard for people who don't have experience you know."
"Yes, mom," he disagreed.
"Ok I have to go, I have a meeting, but you will call her all right? I'll see you next week. I love you."
"Yes, mom," he conceded, and she hung up.
Louie put the phone away and fiddled with it in his pocket. He wandered past shops and bodegas down Snakeskin Street, and bought a hot dog from a werewolf. It would be a full moon soon, judging by the man's beard. He considered tweeting something supportive about full moon awareness as he ate the last bit of sausage. He sidled into a comic shop and flipped through a few issues, then to a bookstore where he tried to look well-read for a selfie. It came out okay. He bought a paperback about economics and went to a cafe where the server got his name wrong. He tweeted something relatable about it. A couple of pretty elves giggled about something in the corner and he watched them surreptitiously for a while. He liked elves, but then, everybody did, whether they wanted to or not.
Finishing his coffee he stepped into the autumn chill, barely watching where he was going.
He'd told his friends, when he graduated, that he was going to be a travel blogger. He'd told his parents he'd be a journalist and write a novel. Predictably, he'd ended up writing whatever he could for whoever would pay him, which it turned out was not many people, who offered not very much pay. He'd written a concert reportage here and a book review there, a couple of columns for some online magazines that refused to pay his invoice and changed his name on the byline. His parents, safe in the upper middle class, had paid his rent when he couldn't, which made him feel awful (and kept suggesting he try jobs where he wouldn't have to be a writer, which made him feel even worse). Then, when desperate pride had given way to desperation period, he had sent an awful application and landed a steady, paying job for a major publication.
Gossip columnist for The Peek.
It was an easy job, and it kept him busy. There was always someone famous being stupid, or someone trying to get famous by doing something stupid, or something stupid getting famous. And on the rare day that some D-list comedian wasn't going off on a heckler, or the sister of some singer's girlfriend wasn't getting pulled over for drunk driving, you could always spin the lack of news as news itself. "Johnny SportsStar Disappears From Public Life, Friends Say He's Cheating?" "Total Silence From Sally Popstar, Is She In Rehab?" Sometimes his editor would give him a ridiculous headline and have him write speculative nonsense to fit it. Even as the sliminess of it all rankled his ego, it was also sort of fun. In the gossip rags you could live in a dream world of your own design. A new scandal every day, a heart-warming publicity stunt every week, and You Won't Belive What Happens Next every fifteen minutes. It was a permanent emotional roller-coaster, careening wildly from outrage to nostalgia to sincerity. And it paid. Nothing princely, but it kept him fed and in an apartment, and it meant no more calling mom and dad for cash, which at this point was an emotional reward worth twice his salary plus benefits.
In his younger mind, he'd imagined himself writing something... "important." Like a great novel, or an insightful blog tackling the real issues. His younger mind had been unclear on exactly what the "real issues" were or how they should be tackled, but he'd defiitely never wanted the title of his magnum opus to be clickbait.
An email from his editor buzzed in ('lina love just went into rehab wher R U??'), and he left the lukewarm remains of his coffee and walked back to the office through the autumn chill.
"Where the fuck were you?"
Louie's editor was on him the moment he walked through the door. A bristly dwarf named Skjaldi with her beard in three braids, all dyed pink, and spindly glasses always on her forehead - nobody had ever seen her wear them on her nose.
"I've got two sources saying Lina Love just went to rehab, write some shit up NOW and put it out, before the assholes at The Sizzle find out about it."
"What's she in rehab for?" asked Louie, pulling his coat off and sitting down by his computer.
"Whatever! Just write 'unknown problems' and imply it's drugs because her agent's on coke." Skjaldi grabbed an intern by the knee, "find out who the fuck her agent is and text Louie. And get me some fucking coffee!" she shouted at the elf as he darted off.
"How do you know her agent's on coke?"
"They're all on coke. Who cares. They don't sue for libel. Just say it's a rumor that he is. Anyway, how's your love life? Are you getting any?"
Skjaldi was a master of the uncomfortable non-sequiteur. Dwarfs, on the whole, were considered dour, retiring, opaque life-deniers, always busy with mining and construction. If the exception proved the rule, Skjaldi was a double blind study published in a credible scientific journal. Loud, shameless, nosy and - it had to be admitted - an amazing sleuth for gossip, Skjaldi ran a tight ship, and had taken The Peek from an unremarkable startup in a sea of unremarkable startups to something of a titan in the gossip sphere.
"I'm do OK" he lied.
"Fucking liar" Skjaldi cackled, "you got blue balls written all over you."
Louie ignored her and typed out the story, trying to come up with a sixth synonym for "alleged."
"You know I know a slutty mermaid who'd probably—"
"Trying to type here, boss!" Louie said, even as he couldn't help being a little tempted to hear her out.
"Fine, fine. Just trying to help my favourite writer. You know you're my favourite right?"
"Anyway get that shit published in an hour or you're fucking fired alright?" Skjaldi bustled off to harass someone else, employees to ducking surreptitiously behind their screens everywhere she went. Louie typed the story out in twenty minutes and put it out. He was proud of how many different ways he'd found to phrase "according to rumors." It got a couple of hundred retweets and then vanished in the wake of the next four stories his co-workers pumped out. Louie ran his customary social media searches, and wrote out a couple of quick listicles and emailed them to Skjaldi for approval.
"You busy tonight?" asked Constantine, sliding onto his desk while he was checking social media. Louie shrugged.
Constantine was an incubus; impossibly perfectly tanned, tall, athletic, handsome with a scruffy beard and darkly glowering. It was all a glamour, of course, a perceptual illusion. Elves and fairies had them too. They were not so much magic as a permanent trick of the light. Catch them in a mirror and you'd see the real person underneath. Which in Constantine's case was still a very handsome man, and Louie's best friend.
"I dunno, let's get drunk or something."
Louie grinned, "it's Thursday, asshole."
"Well fuck you too then! What, you can't write this shit with a hangover?" Constantine lounged himself seductively across Louie's keyboard, accidentally typing and sending a tweet that said "hrk>GHJJJJJJJJJJJ". It got four likes.
"I sure as shit can't write it with your ass on my keyboard" Louie shot back, shoving the demon out of the way. He twirled off the desk on a hoofed foot.
"C'mooooon, dude, I just wanna hang out."
"That's a yes!"
"Whatever!" said Louie, making a show of leaning down over his desk and pretending to work.
It was a cold morning, and Grubnuk's breath hung thick in the air in front of him, and his stomach growled. He had a decent coat on, but the hunger pulled the cold in like a drain. He wasn't the first to arrive, he knew. Some people slept in the parking lot. But the trucks weren't early today. He clutched his work permit in the coat of his pocket.
Someone sidled up next to him - another orc like him. They didn't speak. Another couple of people joined, and a small crowd of orcs formed. Nobody said anything, but it was a quiet huddle for warmth. Elsewhere on the lot, other groups were forming. The kobolds over there, yapping away, a couple of emaciated ogres over here, shivering. A small gang of goblins wobbled around unsteadily, moved by the frenetic pushing and shoving of their group. A few trolls ambled up eventually, some bugbears huddled together after a while. Gremlins, dryads, salamanders, banshees, even a few wendigos; by the time the trucks rolled into view, they probably numbered over a hundred people in total.
Six trucks pulled around the corner in a line, one after the other. All dirty pickups, all in different colors, all branded with the same bisected globe logo. Almost as one, the parking lot assembly raised their hands, clutching work permits, and started shouting and running towards the trucks. These came to a halt in a line, and two men with megaphones emerged from the lead vehicle, and started shouting back.
He needed the work. That's all there was to it. He needed the work, and there wasn't anything else. There had been a time when Grubnuk had it in him to be angry about it, but now he was too hungry to be outraged, and his son's medicine was too expensive for objections. He needed the work. And when nowhere else would take you, because you had a big jaw and upturned nose and grey skin and no education to make up for it, you went to the parking lots, and you waited for the trucks, and you did whatever work they took you to do, for however long they told you to do it, and took whatever money they offered. Because you were poor. Because you were starving. Because you were an orc. Or a pixie. Or a gremlin or a troll, or anything else that "people" didn't want to see working the till at the supermarket, or cleaning out bathrooms or delivering the mail.
"Ogres, ogres!" shouted one of the men in his megaphone, pointing them out in the crowd. They muscled up, handed over their papers and were sent to the bed of the rearmost truck, which drove off. "Dryads! Pixies!" came the call from the other, and these clustered around him, and were sent off too. Then some gnolls and kobolds, then the salamanders, then the undead and the trolls. The orcs were left for last. There was one truck, and it seated maybe six. There were more than twenty of them.
"Orcs!" shouted one of the men and grinned, "you can fight for it, pigheads!"