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“Thank you for contacting Universe Selectors Incorporated.  In which Universe would you like to be deposited in this endless moment?”

Horace blinked.  “Um… what?”

“We currently have access to just over seven hundred thirty-seven nonillion possible universes, but more are becoming every available in each nanosecond, so, if yours has not yet been discovered, if you can wait a millennia or two, we’re sure we’ll get access to it.  You’ll have to forgive us.  We’re such a new company.  We’re looking forward to our nine billionth birthday in the next relative century or so, and we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished in such a shockingly short time.”

Horace stared into the emptiness of the cosmos, trying to remember when he had last dropped acid, and why it would present itself like this.

“That was, on your embarrassingly primitive calendar, July 7, 1986 on a planet called… one moment… here we are… Earth?  Earth, Earth, Earth.  I know we have that somewhere… Oh!  Here it is.  A remarkably unremarkable planet.  I suspect you will want something a bit nicer.  Risa is a lovely place.  Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet is getting quite a few requests in the last few hundred centuries.  Oh, and it looks like there’s a lovely little spot called Alder- Oh no… never mind.  It just got blown up again in all of the only 23 billion nine hundred thirty-four million three hundred thousand one hundred three universes in which it exists.  That’s a shame.  Bloody Death Star!”

“See… here’s the thing,” said Horace.  “I was just sitting at my keyboard, smoking a bowl, playing some Michael Franks, and then Speedy Shine started barking his ass off, and then… you know… well… I was here.”

“Oh, no no no.  You’ve always been here.  You’ll always be here.  You just forget from time to time.  And you keep getting deluded into thinking time and space exist.”

“Um… what?”

“Precisely the thing.  What.  ‘What’ is the question.  What universe please?”

“You’re offering to put me into an alternative universe?”

“That’s what we do.  Is this a difficult concept for you?  I was told you were reasonably intelligent.  I seem to have been misinformed.  That happens, but it’s exceptionally rare.”

“Okay, then… Um… what are some of my options?”

“Well, what would you like to find in your universe?”

“World peace?”

“Whose world?  Oh!  You mean that stupid little rock tumbling through spacetime?”

“I suppose.”

“Well, there are only five quintillion seventy-four quadrillion thirty one trillion three hundred thirty one billion 9 million one hundred thousand three hundred four such universes, so you’re limiting your choices a bit, but we can work with that.  Did you have a planet preference?”

“Earth, I suppose.”

“Seriously?  I was told you had some imagination.  Our database needs to be updated.  Bloody tech support!”

“One planet is plenty for me, thanks.”

“And… we’re down to only 9 billion universes.  This is going to be difficult.”

“That seems like quite a few choices.  It would be great to narrow them a bit.”

The being Horace could perceive, but not actually see, rolled its eyes.  “Obviously, we’re going to narrow it.  I can’t just plop your unintelligent, unimaginative ass anywhere.  I’ll need a little more information, please.”

“What else did you want to know?”

“What other conditions of life are you looking for?”

“Well, I breathe oxygen and nitrogen, so –”

“No no no no no!  I know all that.  Are you looking for more than World Peace?  That’s extraordinarily general.  The more specific you can be, the better we can place you.”

“Oh.  I see.  Well, no poverty would be great.  No Homelessness or hunger.”

“And now you’ve narrowed it to 8.99 billion.  That’s really not very helpful.  World Peace is usually accompanied by the lack of Poverty, Hunger, and Homelessness.  They’re closely connected.  You’re not understanding me at all.  I need something very specific.  An event that you need to have occur.”

Horace laughed.  “Any event I want?  Like Valerie Bertinelli makes me dinner?”

“Excellent!  That occurred in only… this can’t be… I need to check my data.  Something is obviously malfunctioning.  And that can’t be because nothing ever malfunctions.  That means… Oh!  I see.  Yes.  That explains it.”  The Being looked at Horace and smiled.  “Well, this is exceptionally easy.  World Peace, everyone has a home, enough food to eat, and we’ll even throw in Free Health Care and Education, and… Valerie Bertinelli makes dinner for you.  That’s Universe 338-419 Alpha.  If you’ll just step this way…”

“I don’t know how to follow you since I can’t actually see you.”

“You are so limited.  You need imagination.  Let me show you how it works.  Do you know what a coffee cup is?”

“Of course.”

“You can imagine what it looks like?”


“Good.  If you pick it up and set it back down, can you hear that sound in your imagination?”


“Oh, excellent.  Can you smell the coffee inside it?”

“I don’t drink coffee.”

“You’ve smelled coffee, have you not?”

“Far too many times.”

“Smell it now… Think a little harder.  Smell is harder than sight or sound.”

Horace closed his eyes and concentrated on the last time his best friend had dragged him to Starbucks.  The scent returned to him.  There was a smell of nuts.  There was a definite sense of the caramel candies he used to get at Halloween.  There was also a smell of cardboard that had outlived its usefulness.

“Yes,” said the being.  “You’ve got it now.  Hold that smell.  Now… taste.  You’ve tasted coffee?”

“A few times.”

“Bring back that sensory experience.”

Horace recalled the flavor.  It was overpoweringly dark.  It was hot on his tongue.  It burned his throat when he swallowed.  The aftertaste stuck with him.  It was unwelcome.  His eyes shut a little tighter.

“Now… feel the coffee mug.”

It was smooth.  It had weight, but it wasn’t heavy.  It made a great paperweight.  He felt the handle with his thumb.  It was strong.  It was solid.  It was security. 

And now he had the coffee mug.  He knew he was holding it.  He opened his eyes.

And Horace was sitting at his black desk, incense burning to his right, Speedy Shine sleeping on the couch he hadn’t chewed for a few hours, and the keyboard beneath his fingers.  There were two coffee mugs on his desk.  One held pens and had “Shine” written on it.  The other held a highlighter and what he always thought was some sort of dental instrument that the place’s previous occupant left behind.  There was a picture of an owl on one side.  The words “Witty Owl Writers” were on the other.  He smiled at what he considered to be his Pulitzer Prize.  He’d won it in a writing contest, the only one he’d ever entered.   

He picked up the little psychedelic bong to the left of the desk lamp and looked into the bowl.  “What the hell was in that weed?”

The cell phone to his immediate left dinged, signifying the arrival of a text from someone he didn’t know.  He picked up the phone, unlocked it, and saw a text from a 323 number.  He frowned and opened the stranger’s text.

Hi.  This is Valerie Bertinelli.  I ran across your podcast.  I think it’s adorable the way you talk about me making you dinner so often.  I got your number from your Facebook page, and… well… would you allow me the pleasure of making you dinner this weekend? xo Val

Horace stared.  He read the text again.  He looked to his bong and back to his phone.  He had no idea what to do.  Obviously, he had to answer the message.  It was almost certainly not from Valerie Bertinelli.  But, what if it was?  He had talked about a universe in which… but… no.  Horace reminded himself he was a rational man.  This couldn’t be… could it?

Another text appeared below the first.

Yes.  It’s real, Horace.  Lol.  Hang on.

Horace frowned.  “What the fu—”

He stared for a moment longer, and then he hit reply.  He studied the phone’s tiny keyboard.  Surely he would think of what to type.  He was a writer.  That’s what he did.  He wrote. 

He waited.  No words came to him.  He thought of asking who this really was, but that didn’t seem right.  He thought of saying he was thrilled to hear from the woman on whom he’d had a childish crush for more than 40 years.  That didn’t seem right either.  Anything he considered simply seemed wrong.

The text box suddenly showed a video was downloading.  He waited a moment and then saw the picture on the video.  It was Valerie Bertinelli.  He stared incredulously at it.  Deep fake?  He played the video.

Hi, Horace.  Now you can see me and hear me, so you can get over your incredulity.  That’s not a word I use a lot, but I’m a writer now, too, you know.  I’m allowed. 

Anyway, a friend of mine heard from a friend of hers about your little show, and she played it, and she thought it was cute, so she sent it to me, and she said I could really make you happy if I offered to make you dinner, and I thought, you know, it wouldn’t hurt me in the least.  So, we vetted you to make sure you weren’t some weird stalker guy, and it turns out you were a teacher for 29 years, and I really admire that.  You live in poverty most of the time, so I figured you would really enjoy a good meal.  I can send someone to pick you up cuz I hear you don’t have a car, and they’ll drive you to the airport, fly you here to LA, and someone will pick you up there and drive you out here, and we’ll have dinner.  Does that sound all right?

“Does that sound all right?” asked the formless being.

“What?” asked Horace, blinking in confusion at the darkness of deep space. 

“Will that Universe work for you?”

“I was only there for five minutes.  I have no idea.”

“Well, there are a couple of billion possibilities to explore.  At five minutes a piece, we’ll finish in just under two hundred thousand years.”

“That seems like quite a while.  Can we speed it up any?  I’d actually like to live in one of them.”

“Horace, you can’t live.  Anywhere.  Ever.  Don’t you understand that?”

End of Episode One

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