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...
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!"
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 put his 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 vlogger. He'd told his parents he'd be a journalist. Predictably, he'd ended up a freelancer, doing whatever he could for whoever would pay him, which it turned out was not many people, who offered not very much pay. He'd film a concert reportage here and a book review there, a couple of montages for some online magazines that refused to pay his invoice and left his name out of the credits. His parents, safe in the upper middle class, had paid his rent when he couldn't, which made him feel awful. 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.
Lead gossip broadcast anchor 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 film a segment of speculative nonsense to justify 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 making something... "important." Like a documentary film, or an opinion show 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 ('need the LL interview 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.
"Lina Love just teased the new album and I need that fucking interview out YESTERDAY. This shit doesn't pull two clicks if the assholes over at The Sizzler get to it first."
"It's not like she said anything interesting" said Louie, pulling his coat off and sitting down by his computer, "just the usual shit about being grateful for her fans and excited to start a new blah blah."
"Who gives a shit if it's interesting! Look, put some shit in there about her agent being on coke and trouble behind the scenes," Skjaldi grabbed an intern by the knee, "figure out who the fuck Love's agent is and text Louie" 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. 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, sensible-minded life-deniers, always busy with mining and construction, and putting money away for a rainy day. 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 doing OK" he lied.
"Fucking liar" Skjaldi cackled, "you got blue balls written all over you."
Louie ignored her and dragged video cuts around, trying to ignore the mole next to his nose in the footage. He could swear it was getting bigger.
"You know I know a slutty mermaid who'd probably—"
"/Trying to edit video 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 eyecandy. 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 finished the edit 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 wrote out a couple of video ideas 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. He was Louie's cameraman, and his 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.
"So who is this guy?" asked Constantine, busy attaching things to a tripod.
"Jack Raul. Dude. The youtuber." Louie gave his camera man a look.
"I follow beauty vloggers. Is he a beauty vlogger?"
"Nah, he does prank videos, mostly."
"Jesus Christ." Constantine flailed his tail like a cat annoyed.
"He makes more money than both of our entire families," Louie agreed.
They were set up in Raul's ostensible beach house, a picture of wasted opulence. The room had all the lived-in warmth and charm of an IKEA catalogue; slickly designed furniture that had never been sat in, bowls of fake fruit and a flatscreen TV that had never showed a broadcast.
"Ten bucks says he rented it for interviews just to show off," said Louie.
"Obviously," Constantine replied, examining audio levels critically, "move that lamp a bit will you. No, to the left—OTHER left. Yeah, there."
Raul's assistant came down the stairs, "excuuuse me, hiii, mr Raul willbewithyouin juuuust one minute." She had a speaking voice like a record randomly changing speeds, and a smile which turned on and off like a flashlight.
"That's cool, we don't have lives outside of this," snarked Constantine, plugging something into something else.
"I'm sooo sorryheisjust finishing uuup a thing!" flashlight smile, on and off.
"Don't mind him," said Louie, sliding into Charming Clueless Gossip Host mode, "listen, honey, we're just so happy to let into this gorgeous beach house, wow, I mean, it must have been SO expensive!"
"Well it—yeeeees, obviously it wasVERYexpensive but mr Raul iiis a verysuccessful maaan." Flashlight, on and off.
"Oh I know! Busy busy. Oh, honey, he must work you to the bone!"
The smile flickered, just for a second. Rumor was Raul was an absolute terror to work with.
"Oh nooooo he is a verynice boss, verynice, I'm VERY happy to woork for him."
"Jesus christ lady, we all know he's a little shit," said Constantine, not looking over.
The assistant shot him a scandalized look, and said quietly, "do you let it talklike thaaaat to /people?/" Louie had to work hard not to let the choice of pronouns change his expression.
"Oh don't mind him honey, he's just been listening to rumors" he said, smoothly closing in and matching her whisper, "but, I mean, Christie (can I call you Christie?) y'know, there ARE rumors." He glanced around conspiratorially, "I mean I'm sure it's not so bad, some people have a little trouble handling the fame, hmm? I hope he doesn't take it out on a pretty girl like you."
The flirt landed like a lead balloon, but it was meant to. I'm just a buffoon, thought Louie, just a hairdo with a webseries. It doesn't hurt to tell me a little.
"W-weeell, y'know there aretimes when..." Christie let herself be led off to a corner, "... I mean sometimes, jesus christ, I justwanttokickhisfuckingTEETHin," she hissed, and her affectation evaporated with her restraint, "he was supposed to be here for this interview ten minutes ago and I get a phonecall he's picking up hookers for a video. I went through all the trouble of renting and scheduling this place and he's off getting his dick wet, I swear to god...!"
Louie let her go off, nodding, and adding insipid comments and "oh I know"s. In his pocket, his phone recorded everything for transcription later.
"Look, I'm so sorry, you got dragged out here for nothing, and—" Christie regained her composure, "—look, I thiiink I know wherethisisgoing. I'll tellhimyou never shoooowed if he aaasks, but he prooobably won't."
"Aw, thanks honey," Louie cooed, "hey Connie you can pack it up, I think our guy is a no-show."
Constantine looked around at the fully wired camera, three microphones, two lights and blinking laptop controlling it all. "Gee. Thanks for the heads up."
As Constantine dragged the heavy camera case out the door, Christie stopped Louie in the door. "I don'tnormally do this buuuut... could you give it—HIM!— mynumber? I mean I'mnotinto specs normally buuuut..." she slipped Louie a note, blushing. Forcing the smile was very, very hard.
"... of course, honey, thank you so much. You'd make a cute couple!"
"What'd she want?" asked Constantine, slumping into the passenger seat of the van. He smelled sweet, like vanilla or cinnamon. The equipment was heavy, so he'd been sweating.
Louie tossed him the crumpled up note, "to pretend she doesn't think of you as an "it" in person, I think."
"Holy shit she actually SAID that? Like, to your face?" Constantine laughed, unfolding the note.
"Twice. Can you believe it?"
"Uh, yeah. It's my life, dude. It's just usually they try not to say it within earshot." He unfolded the note, and typed the number into his phone.
"You're NOT fucking calling her."
"Sure I am. And I'm asking her out to a really fancy restaurant."
"What? I didn't say I was gonna SHOW."
"I don't know how you can stand it, man. People talking like that about you."
"You get used it."
"Yeah but you shouldn't HAVE TO, y'know?"
Constantine shrugged and, impossibly, found a way to lounge seductively in a van seat. Palm trees streaked past as the highway slowly got more crowded around them.
"... you ever think you're wasted on this job?"
The question took Louie aback.
"Uh... I mean, it wasn't like my dream job."
"Yeah but I'm talking, like... look, you're really good at talking to people. Like, really good. You got this thing going on, people just tell you shit. Like that assistant."
"She was so ready to talk, you could see she was pissed."
"But I couldn't though. Humans look at me and all I see is people trying to decide whether to be horny or shitty at me. You, they can't wait to make friends."
Louie didn't have any response to that. He stared at the road.
"Hey I'm just saying, guy like you, probably a lot of jobs you could do where you don't have to spend an afternoon thinking about what some youtube shit is doing with his dick."
"Gee, thanks for the life advice, /dad/."
"Please, Mr. Dad was my father. You can call me Dadd—"
"Oh shut the fuck up!" Louie laughed.
"Get fucking paps out there right FUCKING now. I want pictures of him, I want pictures of the girl and I want pictures of whatever car he's fucking them in!" Skjaldi's voice whipped the interns into chaotic productivity. Then she rounded in Louie and Constantine again, "would it have fucking killed you to re-schedule? We coulda run footage of whatever family friendly shit he was gonna peddle right next to pictures of his dick getting sucked in a limo."
"'Wow what a nice job you did, guys, I can't believe you got the assistant to flip on him like that'" said Constantine, failing to imitate Skjaldi's voice, "'you're such good employees, I'm giving you a raise and a puppy for Christmas.'"
"Fuck off, hornhead," Skjaldi barked, her beard concealing a grin, "and go film a segment on it. Break a million views or you're fucking fired, alright? Oh and don't fuck the assistant, she's beneath you."
She charged off, herding interns. They headed towards the green screen.
"... did you tell her about the assistant?"
Grubnuk staggered, grabbing on to some rusty iron pipes jutting out of the wall to steady himself. The ground quivered like jelly under him - or were those his knees? He was nearly to the pharmacy, he thought. It was close. Just another mile. He'd handled worse. But the air felt heavy in his lungs, and the ground, the dirty grass breaking the sidewalk, looked soft and supporting. Just another mile. Just a little rest. Just another mile. Just fill the prescription and just another mile. Just a little rest.
And everything went black.
Someone was trapped at a bottom of a well and shouting up at him. It sounded so distant but he had to...
"..aid do— m-ve!"
... he tried to raise his head, and blinding white pain struck him like lightning.
"Idiot! I said DON'T MOVE!"
Someone pushed him down, and laid cold fabric on his head. He suddenly realized he was burning. The world shambled into focus a little bit. Someone large and bright was towering over him, like a mountain of angels.
"Stay DOWN," said the mountain, "can you hear me? Down. Lie DOWN. Stay. You're hurt."
Hurt was right. As his senses slowly sidled back into working order, pain came with it. He felt like a giant bruise with a fever. He wasn't too far off. He stayed down.
The mountain slid out of vision, mumbling under its breath. He was vaguely aware of the sound of glass being rattled around.
"You're awake," said Sjovn, closing the door behind her.
"Rnnngh—wish I wasn't," Grubnuk groaned.
"It's better than being dead. Which is what you're going to be if you keep participating in a system that uses us like animals and leaves us dead in the streets!"
"I'm open to suggestions, lady," lied Grubnuk, "but an orc's gotta eat."
"We're eating each other! Every day—no, lie DOWN—they force us to turn on each other just to—your fever has gone down but it's going to go up again, lie DOWN—survive to see another day. The fights in the parking lots are only the start of it. The system is making—"
"I don't give a damn about the system!" Grubnuk tried to wiggle free of the sheets she kept tugging in around him, "I gotta get home, I don't have time for—/hwhohaaaa.../" he got his feet on the floor and crumbled like a badly baked soufflé.
"Your fever went back up," said [nickname], pulling him back up into the bed.
"I have to g'home," Grubnuk slurred, "gotta... gotta get m'dcine, gotta..."
[nickname] held him down gentle and let him pass out again. Then she left the room, quietly, and locked the door behind her. It was old and rickety, and wouldn't hold him if he was healthy, but he wasn't. She took the wallet out of her apron, and looked at the money inside. It was probably sixteen hours' work worth, at least. And it was barely a pittance.