Joseph Lallo yawned and looked at the clock. It was just before dawn. His alarm would go off soon. The first early morning of his first day back to work. He’d expected to dread this day, but there was a dash of excitement to it. Like the first day of school after summer vacation. It was the end of a long period of freedom, but tempered by that dash of anticipation. But there was little reason to go back to sleep now. Besides, there were some people he had to check in with.
He booted up his computer and sent out the group invite for the call. One by one, familiar faces popped up. Faces that had no place on a computer screen. Like himself, he would have expected them to be more morose. At least what had happened to Jo was his own doing, more or less. What was happening to them was… also his doing. But the group, for the most part, looked fairly up beat. Still, it was best to address the elephant in the room.
“Hey folks! So, uh… As you guys know, I’ve had to divert some of my mental resources to preparing for going back to the day job. And since you are all products of those mental resources, you kind of… came along for the ride.”
It was an occupational hazard of being a fictional character. When your creator does something, you kind of have no choice but to go along with it. But even Jo didn’t expect getting a day job to take so specific a toll on his imagination. To be blunt, when he got a day job. They got day jobs.
The first one to speak seemed to be having the best time of it. She was a crackling ball of energy and a sparkling ball of sunshine, almost frustratingly chipper for a Monday pre-dawn. Her foxy muzzle was curved into a grin, white fur wreaking havoc with the cheap webcam’s contrast.
“Hey, Ivy,” Jo said.
“Hi, Jo!” she said in a sing-song tone. “It’s so exciting, isn’t it? A brand new day! Brand new things to learn, and people to meet!”
She held up a brightly glowing, LED bedazzled keyboard.
“I get to use a computer! Modern magic! Deacon is so fascinated.”
“Why isn’t he and Myranda on the call?” Jo asked. “I would have expected Myranda to be the first one to show up.”
“Oh, she’s home taking care of Leo. She’s a work-from-home therapist now. And she’s so good at it. If she could help me find peace, she can help anyone. And Deacon’s a librarian. Probably the best they’ve ever had.”
“And what are you up to?”
“I’m a DJ!” she squealed, bopping up and down with all of the enthusiasm of someone proclaiming they’d won the lottery. “Whole rooms full of people and I get to pick the music that moves them! It’s amazing, Jo. The beat thumps through the whole crowd. They move as one. I thought I’d miss playing an instrument once I learned that most DJs don’t actually play one. But the audience is the instrument. I’m conducting an orchestra of souls living for the moment. You really should come to the club one of these days. By the end of the night my mood is so good people are healing up years-old injuries. Someone said I should be called DJ Furst Aid! With a U! Like Fur!”
She leaned closer to the camera.
“Did you know there are people who dress up like malthropes in the real world?” she whispered conspiratorially.
“I think it’s more generically anthro than specifically malthrope.”
“Still! It’s a much warmer welcome than back home. But I don’t want to hog the call. Who’s next? Who’s next?”
“Let me get it over with,” grumbled Karter.
He was the one person on the call who didn’t seem terribly pleased with the situation.
“Something wrong, Karter?” Jo asked.
“Listen,” he said. “If you had to let the cheese slide off your cracker and backburner the whole ‘maker of worlds’ gig, you could have at least parked me in a part of your imagination with worthwhile technology. The ram in this thing is still measured in gigs. And what’s the idea of dumping us all into your reality.”
“I’m just not up to ginning up complex fictional worlds right now. I guess ‘Modern AU’ is like the low-power mode for my imagination.”
“Modern for you maybe. This is the dark ages for me. Frickin’ Gigabit Fiber. I may as well be rubbing two sticks together.”
“What’d you end up doing?” Jo asked.
“What do you think? I became a mechanic. I tried for military contractor but apparently the modern military is weirdly skittish about hiring ‘sociopaths.’ As if the sociopath to normie ratio at the pentagon isn’t approaching one. But I got fired.”
“You got fired? I figured you’d be an excellent mechanic.”
“I got a Tesla to go 435 miles per hour. Then it exploded. I’m not convinced it wasn’t going to do that anyway, but the owner didn’t see things that way.”
“What’s Ma up to?” Jo asked.
“She’s an image generator now, or as she says, ‘an artist.’ Frankly, I don’t like her palling around with ChatGPT. That guy is a weirdo. Bad influence. Now if you’ll excuse me, if I’m going to be stuck in the twenty-first century, I’m going to have to get cracking on wireless charging. And a decent photosynthetic polymer so we can keep you idiots from roasting the planet before you can escape it.”
He logged out.
“Who’s next?” Jo asked.
For a moment, the focus switched to a large, slightly-crispy-looking dragon. The fact the screen had highlighted was likely less due to Blodgette the Pizza Dragon purposely taking center stage and more because she was curiously poking the keyboard with her pudgy digits. She burbled and trilled pleasantly, eyes focused on the screen. Though she wasn’t verbal enough to explain her situation. She didn’t need to. A cap with the logo of a restaurant called “San Vito’s.” Something off camera caught her attention and she happily turned and opened a hatch on her tummy. A wooden pizza peel slid in and removed a steaming, bubbly masterpiece from her built-in oven. She signed “You’re Welcome”, then turned back to the keyboard and fudged her way to disconnection.
The next video feed popped to focus. It was a burly fellow in some uncomfortably ill-fitting coveralls.
“Fel!” Alan said. “You must be having fun in the modern world. So many new contraptions to study.”
“Uh… Yeah, not really. Dad’s all about it. And Ally immediately found work at a bar, big surprise. But the contraptions are a little too… fiddly for me.”
“Having trouble finding a job?”
“Eh, I was working at the same auto-mechanic shop that Karter was, but they asked me to leave when Oiler started fixing people’s cars out in the driveway free of charge. Bad for business. I’m thinking of giving professional gambling a try. Poker seems like Grum with easier rules.”
“Yeah, it basically is,” Jo said. “I hope luck is with you.”
“If I can find a casino that’s okay with lighting candles, I’m not going to need luck.”
Jo laughed. “Casinos have been getting pretty good at spotting cheaters, but I’m willing to bet they’ll never figure out a candle is the gap in their security. Who’s next?”
“Me! Me! Me!”
The three voices were simultaneously referring to three separate people and the same person, as they were Right-Rill, Rill, and Left-Rill respectively.
“What’s up, Rills?” Jo asked.
“All of the science-type stuff works here!” Right-Rill said.
“Philo says this is ‘basically’ home. He’s so happy,” Rill said.
“Yeah. And so’s Trixie,” Left-Rill said, clearly less thrilled with that particular turn of events.
“I would have thought Trixie would have had a hard time fitting in.”
“She has a fan,” Rill explained.
“… One fan?” Jo said.
“Her only fan,” Right-Rill said. “It sounds kind of sad, but he must be rich, because he pays her a bunch.”
“Onlyfan,” Jo said. “Okay, so, what she means is… Actually, you know what? We’ll skip it. Do you have a job?”
“We sing at weddings!” Right-Rill said.
“People love us,” Rill said.
“They call us a ‘gimmick.’ Shows what you humans know. We’re a human.”
“Water dragon,” Rill corrected.
“Well, I’m glad you’re having fun. Who’s next?”
“I guess that’d be me,” Nita said.
“How are things for you?”
“To be honest, I’m a little disappointed that airships aren’t a thing here. I’d really gotten a taste for them. But I got a job at the same auto-mechanic that fired Karter and Fel. I was able to keep the job, though.”
“How’s the rest of the crew?”
“Pretty good. Mack and Butch are retired. Lil, Coop, Wink, and Nikita are teaching kids about animals on something called ‘morning television.’ I don’t know what Gunner’s up to these days. But he was quite interested in civil war reenactments as a pastime.”
Jo furrowed his brow. “Weird. Um… Alan! You’re next.”
Perhaps the only person who looked at home in modern attire shrugged. “I’m a photographer. Nothing changed,” Alan said.
“Ah… yeah, I guess not.”
“Oh! Except Blot’s the only shade around these days.”
“Nah. She’s got a blog now. And an instagram. And a twitter. She’s an influencer. It turns out, no longer having to hide to avoid being killed by a ten-car pile-up of people hunting her kind down has a way of freeing someone up to explore their more social side.”
“Glad she’s fitting in. And… it looks like the last video is empty?”
Suddenly, the full-screen video was filled with a single, massive, golden eye that jumpscared the stragglers in the call.
“Holy heck!” Jo said. “Myn, you startled me!”
The huge eye rose out of the shot again, giving a brief glimpse of red and amber scales. Her form lumbered away, revealing that she was in some sort of high-roofed building, like a hangar or a parking garage, though it was not clear from this angle. When she was far enough from the camera, she turned. Her look was… distinctive, to say the least. She was wearing a T-shirt, something that probably used as much fabric as the average tent and most certainly had been custom made. There was no need to question who had made it, though. Because like her it was red and gold, though in this case the gold had formed a pair of golden arches.
“You work at McDonalds?” Jo said.
“Mascot?” Myn said, as though she was uncertain of both how to say the word and what it meant.”
“Of course,” Jo said. “I’m surprised there wasn’t more of that going around.”
“What are they paying you?”
“French Fries,” Myn said.
In this phrase there was no uncertainty. There was only reverence. Myn closed her eyes and repeated it.
Jo grinned. “Keep living your best life, Myn. Same goes for the rest of you. I have to earn a wage. But I’ll be getting you back home as soon as I can.”
Myn leaned closer to the camera, close enough to reveal the glisten of salt on her lips.
“Take your time…”