The Great Substack Story Challenge is a round-robin story being written by 13 fiction writers. If you are new to the story, you can find the first chapter by clicking the center link below.
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Joey Hardcase was on a mission to save the universes, and himselves in the process. Well, mostly himself, but having other universes with other Joeys living in them was a bonus. He chugged from a whiskey bottle he’d carried through several time jumps and his eyes widened in surprise. He spat out the clear liquid onto the metallic tiles constituting the year 2050’s sidewalks and roads.
“The hell is this? It sure ain’t whiskey,” Joey said rhetorically, but the man in his head—the Limbo Joey known as Mr. Grisly—felt it necessary to reply.
I don’t know, bub, but keep drinking it. I think it’s helping me memorize this outlandish master code to the vault. The voice in his head descended into mumbles.
“And why would I take advice from a dead man, eh?”
Mr. Grisly scoffed. Some detective—
“PI,” Joey corrected.
Whatever, bub. Hadn’t you noticed that your life spiraled out of control the moment you went sober? All that talk of Maureen’s training. Seems a bit suspicious to me.
Joey took a moment to contemplate Mr. Grisly’s logic, then swigged the not-whiskey, his face contorting into a grimace only to then relax into a mask of gentle comfort.
Alright, well, if you haven’t found the objective by now, I’m going to use this disc thing that the dude here in Limbo gave me.
“Don’t. You know what happens if you do that,” Joey said. “Plus, I don’t need your help. I’ve already found it.”
“Maybe twenty minutes ago.”
The hell are you doing? What’s the big hold up?
Joey Hardcase looked across the street at his objective. The name “Mike’s Flies” was embedded in glowing white letters on the front of the concrete building.
“Well, the big hold up is that it’s a bank,” Joey said. “Heavily guarded by security bots. I was trying to figure out how to get in without dying in the process.”
Security bots? Like robots?
“Yes, robots with machine guns.”
Damn. That is a big hold up.
Why the ‘uh oh’? I hate not being able to see what’s going on. Talk to me.
“Looks like standing across from a bank and talking to yourself for twenty minutes isn’t the best way to lay low. One of the bots is coming my way.”
Act natural, Joey.
“Are you sure? I’m starting to think my natural is crazy.”
The security bot stalked into the street and the self-driving, magnetic hover cars slowed to let it march across to where Joey was standing before proceeding.
“Citizen, state your purpose here,” the bot ordered. Its head was egg-shaped with speakers and flashing blue lights.
You need my help now, don’t ya?
“No, do not use that disc, we’ll both die,” Joey said.
You don’t know that for sure.
“Citizen, please rephrase your purpose here.”
“I, um, have a check I need to cash. Have you seen John?” Joey asked, hiding the not-whiskey behind his back.
The security bot remained silent, the flashing lights shifting to an ominous, solid red. It raised the machine gun and leveled it at Joey’s midsection.
“You’re supposed to be dead,” a familiar voice said through the bot’s head speakers.
“John? What are the odds?” Joey said.
You need me to intervene now, huh? I’m coming to help.
“No, stop,” Joey said.
“Stop what? I’m not doing anything,” John said through the bot.
“Who else could you be talking to?” John asked.
What’s the worst that can happen?
“My head’s going to explode, remember?” Joey said.
“Now you’re pushin’ it, Joey. I’m giving you one last warning to leave me out of your timeline business.”
“Whoa, just one second, John.”
I don’t believe any of that nonsense, bub. You need my help. So here I come.
“Fine, just do it. Just kill me now,” Joey yelled.
The security bot’s head tilted to the side, then raised the gun slightly higher.
“Okay, Joey, I’m not going to argue with you on that one.”
“Wait, no. I was talking to—” Joey cut off as the bot fired the weapon. Time slowed to a crawl as the bullet hurtled toward Joey’s head. The metallic, neon world of 2050 melted away to reveal a landscape of red-tinged cracked clay. The sun was high overhead and the heat baked right through his black button-up shirt and faded jeans.
The security bot was no longer a security bot. Instead, a mustached John with a sheriff’s badge stood firing an old-timey rifle at Joey, the bullet warping the dry air as it neared its final destination. Joey angled his head to the side and watched the bullet whiz by just as time returned to its normal speed.
“How did you do that?” Sheriff John asked.
“Huh? I’m not dead,” Joey said as a matter of fact.
We’re not dead. I told you.
Sheriff John raised the rifle again to shoot Joey dead this time. Joey’s bottle of not-whiskey was now a big, dark bottle of real whiskey and it pained him to throw it. But he had no other choice. The bottle flipped end over end and smacked Sheriff John against the forehead, knocking him out cold. He fell back with a thud and a plume of red dust puffed out in every direction. The bottle survived, miraculously landing upright next to the downed sheriff.
“Helluva throw,” a woman said from behind.
Joey twisted to find Sam and Maureen on horseback. They wore matching large-brimmed hats, spurred boots, and were brandishing long-barreled revolvers.
“Sam? Maureen? What are you two doing here?”
“We’re robbing a bank, aren’t we? This was your plan, remember?”
Joey Hardcase looked around. The town was a small strip of low-lying structures straddling a dirt road. Curious citizens watched the commotion from their porches, while a lone vulture circled above. A tumbleweed rolled past toward the building directly in front of them. The sign hanging near the roof read “Mutt Flees Bank”.
“Yeah, I reckon we’re robbing a bank.” Joey grabbed Sheriff John’s rifle and the intact bottle of whiskey before starting toward the bank.
What happened to your voice? And where are you? I’m here at Mile’s Files, but I don’t see you.
“Well, whatever you did affected my placement as well,” Joey said in a whisper, worried that the other two might hear him. “I’d say the theory that the more we jump, the more us Joeys bleed together is a correct one. Also, you’re in the wrong universe. It’s supposed to be Mike’s Flies.”
Shoot. You’re right.
Joey, Sam, and Maureen stormed into the bank, weapons pointed every which way.
“Alright, people, this is a big hold up,” Sam yelled. Joey raised an eyebrow at that, but kept moving to the counter with the iron bars protecting the staff on the other side. The few citizens inside the bank cowered to the floor with hands up in surrender. The only one that didn’t do as the others caught Joey’s attention immediately; a platinum blonde standing in front of the vault in the back.
“Crystal,” Joey said. “She said you’d try to stop me.”
“She? You mean my clone? It was only a matter of time before she got to you.”
“Well, she didn’t get to me, but another me in Limbo. From Limbo, he’s out now, I guess.”
Hey, thanks for the shoutout, bub. Joey nodded, cringing at the fact that he nodded to a voice in his head. Weird, I feel like I’ve said that before. Joey also had a vague notion like he’d heard Mr. Grisly say that he’d felt like he’d said that before.
“You’re a real piece of work, Joey Hardcase. Think about it. Why would I want to stop you? I’m the one that sent you to the bank in the first place. Have you ever had that déjà vu feeling?”
“Maybe,” Joey said, genuinely curious.
“Those moments of surrealism mean you’re right where you’re supposed to be in the timeline.”
“If that’s the case, open the vault and hand over the manuscript, Crystal,” Joey said, readying the rifle.
“It’s not just your story to tell, Joey. You don’t get the final say in what happens to me, to all of us. This is a collaborative effort where each of us has the power to alter the future. The question is, how can we work together to figure out a worthwhile ending?”
Alright, I’m going to Mike’s Flies. Hold on to something, if that matters. Joey made to object but Sam yelled behind him.
Joey turned to see the two Multiverse Marshals firing their revolvers. He didn’t feel the intense pain of being shot, since he wasn’t. They weren’t aiming for him. Time once again slowed as the world began to dissolve around him as he entered another forced jump caused by Mr. Grisly. He looked back at Crystal. The bullets zipping toward her would eventually find their mark and he could do nothing to stop it. He was supposed to be the hero. Yet, he felt like a pawn in someone else’s game.
“Crystal,” he yelled. But he vanished and materialized in front of a shiny, futuristic vault. The passing time returned to normal. Another man was standing next to him with a wry smile.
“Hey, bub, you going to drink that?” Mr. Grisly asked.
Joey slung the assault rifle over his shoulder, unplugged the bottle and swallowed a mouthful, then handed himself—his other self—the bottle of not-whiskey. Mr. Grisly took a swig and involuntarily spewed the liquid all over the ground.
“Wow, you weren’t kidding.”
“You remember the master code?” Joey asked.
Mr. Grisly took another long draw from the bottle, forcing it down. “Two heads are better than one, right?”
A siren wailed in the bank above and red flashing lights filled the room in front of the vault. “We better hurry. It looks like the others are here.”
[To be continued next Thursday on The Xen’in Universe]
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Text (c) 2022 by Winston Malone.
Header image by Erica Drayton.
"This is a collaborative effort where each of us has the power to alter the future. The question is, how can we work together to figure out a worthwhile ending?" >> Bwahahaha... That IS the question, ain't it? :D
Well, at least your ending is perfect for what I have in mind for Chapter 11 haha. Should be fun.
All I'll say is... expect the unexpected.
I just read the entire story at one sitting and I couldn’t put it down. This must be a lot of fun for the writers but it’s even more fun for us, the readers. I really liked this chapter as it helped me follow the story more. Wow, this is so crazy 😜 and I can’t wait to find out what’s really going on here.