Nothing screams awkward silence like a cynical hacker and a clown discussing the fate of the world on a date.
Or, the supposed fate of the world, as the meet-up form insisted.
I’m pretty sure it was just a ruse.
And apparently this wasn’t a date.
“Hi, I’m Cy.”
I tried to be friendly first, of course. As a 14-year-old emo hacker stuck with the fantasy name Cynan Moonpine, I felt lucky to have anybody pay me for my hobby. But pay they did, and the variety of people coming to me was constantly astounding; today it was a brightly-dressed clown who requested this fancy restaurant for the meet-up, on her.
By hacking, I mean nothing illegal, nothing crazy. I was just a dramatic computer nerd trying to make some money, and besides—it was fun finding backdoors and glitches online.
So here we were.
And then there was the clown.
“Hi,” she said, makeup caked on her face, complete with plastic glasses, a crimson wig, and the whole shabang of a costume. “You’re the hacker?”
“Yeah,” I said, then jumped right in. “So…what do you want? Revenge? Hackin’ back a bad hacker who stole all your money? Something more chill like computer help? Getting back a permanently deleted file? What?”
“Actually, I was kind of hoping you’d be the bad hacker today.”
My eyes widened. “Pardon moi?”
She sighed. “Don’t look at me like that. You’ve got it all: shaggy black hair, dark eyes, black clothes and sunglasses. You’re obviously the kind of kid who’s going to try to take over the world someday. Let’s keep this hushed-up and you walk away with all the money you want. Remember what I said about the fate of the world?”
I sputtered a few curses. “Wha—what do you mean, clown girl? What are you asking me to do and why does it sound like there’s gonna be threats involved?”
“Don’t call me that. This is a disguise.”
My eyes widened. “From whom?”
“This doesn’t matter,” the clown pressed. “Listen to me, Cy. I want you to hack into the biggest bank accounts in the world and hand it all over to me.”
My eyes widened further. At this point I was on the road to looking like a cartoon character.
“And it sounds like there will be threats involved because there will be,” she added coolly.
Before I could react (or get away), a waitress stopped by our booth, taking in the scene. “Hello, welcome to the Lily May Diner, how may I h—”
The clown waved her off. Immediately the waitress stopped, eyes flaring red as her hands dropped to her hips and she walked off.
I stared at the clown, warning signs shrieking in my mind. “How did you do that? And what’s your name, anyways?”
“Call me Valentina,” she says. “No more questions now. I need money, lots of it, and we need to hurry.”
“Why do you need money if you can afford this?” I gestured to the restaurant.
“Not for me. For him.”
I didn’t like this. I started edging out of my bench. “I’m just going to go…”
Valentina clamped a hand on my shoulder, but before she could stop me, shouted, “Duck!”
She shoved me down just as an explosion rattled in the distance, a shock wave crashing into the wall behind Valentina. My head disappeared under the table and I felt chunks of plaster raining down. More booms echoed in the distance and my breath caught under the table—a string of explosions going off in the distance.
I inhaled raggedly as Valentina yanked me up again. She was streaked with soot but not damaged in the least, which I could barely believe since the view of the Arizona desert was clear behind her. There was no wall, chunks of plaster littered across the table. I narrowly survived, so how did she?
I did not like this, not one bit. I was cool with retrieving “permanently gone” adorable cat videos for $50. I was not okay with this mysterious female clown, her rushed threats and now explosions.
“How are you—”
“Listen, Cynan,” Valentina said, holding my shoulders. “I am deeply in debt to a certain man who will stop at nothing to inflict punishment. The world will burn without your immediate help. Will you?”
I could only think of one thing at the moment.
I ripped off her wig, glasses, and nose in one swipe, splashing my water cup on her for good measure, determined to find out who this lady really was.
In front of me was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. Dark curls waterfalled down from under the wig, tanned skin and wide hazel eyes. Even through her dripping makeup I was hypnotized.
Not even fazed, Valentina scowled, “Oh, why’d you have to do that?”
She yanked me through the hole in the wall and dragged me a solid hundred feet into the desert, the screams of fleeing people behind us fading. She pushed my computer into my hands. “Are you going to help you or not?”
Before I could answer, another series of BOOMS! echoed across the desert. I couldn’t think to react, my eyes just squinting shut in contrast to the overpowering sound.
I was alive.
I opened my eyes, shocked I still eXiStEd. Glancing around, a ten-foot beaming shield surrounded Valentina and I, swirling green energy in a dome. The gorgeous girl, maybe in her early 20’s, had completely transformed—her clown costume and remaining makeup was gone, now dressed in a fitting white blouse, pleated mini skirt with a gold hem, a thick golden belt wrapped around her waist. Her makeup was replaced and now she was literally ten feet tall.
“O-okay,” I stuttered, my body becoming one giant heartbeat. One thing was for sure through the chaos of the last ten minutes: I didn’t have a choice but to help this used-to-be-clown. Hacking into super-security digital banks seemed like a breeze compared to meeting whatever was in the distance. “But one thing. Before I help you, you’ve gotta explain.”
At first I was worried Valentina would refuse and I’d be left more confused and panicked than ever, but her eyes just gleamed. “Can I trust you?”
She took a deep breath. “I hope you’re telling the truth. But okay. Y’know Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus and Hera and all that?”
“So that stuff exists.”
I blinked at her. “Like, Latin class? Is real?!”
She chuckled. “Yeah.”
“And are…are you a god?”
She laughed again. “…Yeah.”
“Well…maybe I should be more specific. I’m Aphrodite’s daughter. With whom? I dunno. I’m basically a minor god, not of anything in particular, just a girl with some magic. Also, the guy I owe is Hades.”
I choked, pointing to the distance. “That’s Hades?”
I started pacing. “Don’t you think you should have mentioned your pissed off the frigging god of the Underworld before putting my life in danger?”
“Oh, PLEASE. Everyone’s lives are in danger if you don’t hurry up and help.”
“Gimme a second,” I said. I wanted a little more info first. “What happened between you and the god of the dead?”
Another boom rang out, the wave crumbling when it hit Valentina’s force field. I wasn’t even fazed. She said, “I, uh, might’ve charmed like ten thousand ghosts to come to Earth as my own private army. And steal a lot of Hades’ riches on the way here.”
“And ghosts are totally careless so they destroyed it all.”
“So yeah, I owe Hades like a billion dollars and I didn’t even get my army.”
I stared at the pouting goddess. “Can’t you get the money yourself? And doesn’t Hades just have more gold or whatever?”
Valentina laughed dryly. Boom! “Wow, get the money myself. Why didn’t I think of that? But no, Cy. Goddesses can’t directly interfere with human wealth, just use humans to get us the money that we can exchange with godly currency. And yes, while Hades has much more underground wealth, he is…kinda a butt. Peeved easily and doesn’t forgive and forget much. He’ll easily wipe out half of humanity to get to me.”
I shivered. “Awesome.”
Another string of explosions rang out, the smoke plumes much closer. “That’s him,” Valentina stressed. “And my shield won’t hold against him directly. You gonna help, hacker boy?”
“Fine, clown girl. Give me my laptop.”
She picked my bag back up and shoved it into my arms. I slid out the silver laptop, the ground quivering as dust and smoke billowed in distant Arizona. I breathed slowly to calm myself as I typed in my password. Half an hour ago, I was vibing at the fancy restaurant. Now the clown had turned into a ten-foot Barbie, saying she was a goddess, and that she needed me to get her money ASAP so Hades didn’t rip apart the world.
“So what do you want me to do exactly?”
“Go to the Bank of America site,” Valentina instructed, hands raised to enforce the shield. “Okay, now open another tab…yeah…yeah, here’s the database of names…possible passwords…perfect.”
Though wholly confused but with Valentina’s instructions, I managed to successfully, however slowly, bypass the security. A cloud rolled over the sun, bitter raindrops falling through the summer weather and bouncing off the shield.
“We’re running out of time,” Valentina hissed, hands poised below the emerald shield.
More explosions echoed. I worked more urgently with the aid of her magic, suddenly knowing all sorts of methods, secret windows and passcodes. I finally reached some rich guys’ bank account.
“Woah,” I said, wide-eyed at the screen. I expected the hidden database’s top user to be rich, but I could barely say the number of online dollars stacked up once Valentina gave me the final password.
“Hurry up, Cynan!” Valentina yelped. “Hades taking this long means he has an army—primarily to strike fear, I bet.”
“I am not scared!”
“Liar!” she shouted, kneeling down, elbows bent, the green shield shrinking around us as smoke billowed.
Adrenaline coursed through my veins. I showed her the screen. “We’re in!”
“Whose bank is that?!”
“I dunno, the computer just led me here!”
She peered closer, her goddess body shrinking by the second as her power channeled into the shield. “You idiot! You literally hacked Zeus’ bank account!”
“He has one of those?” I said, clinging to Valentina, then yelped.
Suddenly a human figure rushed out of the smoke and sound outside our shield (now the size of a broom closet, while still-gorgeous Valentina was the size of a human again) and pounded at the dome. I screamed. Other “people” emerged from the dust store now raging above and banged on our faltering shield, but they weren’t really…people. They had the figurines of humans, but six or seven feet tall and pitch black. It was like they were made of darkness—from the front, dark features blurred together, only the whites of their eyes clearly visible. Ink curled off them, sloshing to the ground then evaporating as black mist. Between the cries they made and their size, this army of the dead was a lot freakier than ghosts or zombies.
“Yes!” Valentina glanced around, her shield faltering in second-long gaps now. Her face scrunched with effort. “But we can’t afford to waste any more time. This shield will be gone in seconds and we’re going to face Hades.”
“We’ll be okay, right?” I whimpered, hugging my laptop to my chest. It was hard to keep a cool expression in the heat of an attack.
“Maybe. Stealing billions from the most powerful god doesn’t seem very ‘okay’, but at least we won’t be picked apart by Hades if we play this right. At least until Zeus gets a *wind* of this.”
Bang, bang, bang!
The army continued attacking. Valentina heaved ragged breaths. Now that I knew she was a goddess, it was easy to remember she wasn’t a very powerful goddess. A daughter of the goddess of love and beauty, for gods’ sake.
“Haha, very funny,” I deadpanned. “And yeah, if Zeus ever comes down to bash some heads after his account gets drained, I’m not helping.”
“We’ll see, Cy.” A smile tugged at her lips. “Now— DOWN!”
A second after she said the word, the shield was shattered by the fists of the dark army. Green splintered everywhere, pellets of the dome bouncing off me. I clenched my eyes and clung to Valentina, expecting the figures to overwhelm us. But instead my stomach dropped and a cool breeze whisked through my mind.
When I opened my eyes, I was in a different place.
Another cracked desert resembling Arizona, but the sky opened to pitch black, stars consumed by unnatural darkness. An extended spotlight covered us, but a hundred feet off the ground the light melted to black.
I shakily rose to my feet, glancing around. My laptop was in Valentina’s arm, her other around me.
In front of us was Hades.
(I supposed—I could still quite possibly have gone insane.)
Ten yards in front of us was a tall, pitch-black figurine. A huge black cape lined in silver was draped over his body, an old-fashioned knight’s helmet over his head. Emotionless and cold, no exposed skin.
Valentina crouched down and opened my laptop, mouthing one word: Stall.
“…Hi,” I said as Valentina opened the bank account out of the corner of my eye, clicking a button titled “transfer money”. She started chanting softly under her breath. “I supposed you’re Hades? Where are we?”
“A private meeting spot.” Hades chuckled, but it sounded wrong. Like nails on a chalkboard but more ancient, evil. “And yes.”
“What do you want with us?” I demanded, confidence growing. Even if I knew the answer.
Valentina continued typing and chant-whispering.
“I want nothing with you, young boy,” Hades sighed. “You look bad in black, by the way.” I rolled my eyes. The guy wearing, like, two pieces of clothing said my dark attire was bad. “I want a word with our dear Valentina.”
One more moment, she mouthed.
I cleared my throat. “Why?”
“You know, don’t you?”
I blinked innocently.
He groaned like rust. “This pretty little menace made away with priceless precious gems and gold. Plus a ghost army. Which is stupid, by the way, because all ghosts do is try to jump-scare you!”
Valentina paid no mind, typing away. She started ritually waving her hands over the laptop. What the heck was she doing?
“Um…sorry,” I told him. “And who are you again?”
“I’m Hades, Cynan. Lord of the Underworld. God of the Dead. That kind of thing.”
I gulped. “Just wanted to confirm.” While the god was a bit more humorous than I expected, I could barely believe this was happening. I mouthed to Val, Hurry up!
“Actually, it’s annoying,” Hades continued. A swirl of mist curled around him. “People always confuse me for Thanos, or worse, Satan. Thanos is the god of death! He kills you! I just give you a nice little afterlife.” He glared daggers. “Unless you were bad, which means you’re going straight to the Fields of Punishment. But yes, it hurts when people call me the Devil! Sorry I like black. Sorry everyone attributes me with sadness. I’m not even the one who’s cheated on my wife like a thousand times!”
He sneered at the sky.
I would have laughed at his prod to Zeus, but I was more focused on the mini tornado picking up around Hades as his attitude worsened.
The god turned back to me, and I imagined a sick smile spreading across his face. He edged forward, the storm growing. “Now, Cynan, it’s your time to get out of the way. I need to have a chat with Valentina.”
Val shushed me, standing up. “I’m done.” She smiled sweetly at Hades. “Hey.”
“Hello. Do you prefer death or paying up?”
“Well technically, you can’t kill m—”
“I can sure try,” he interrupted.
My breath caught. This was it. Unless Val managed to get the god his money from Zeus’ bank account, both of us were toast.
“Well, they needn’t be a problem,” she said, smoothing a hand down her skirt though her voice trembled. “We’ve got the money.”
Hades seemed surprised. Valentina nodded, and shakily opened my laptop. She whispered one final Greek verse until her breath, then…
A single sheet of paper twirled to the ground next to Hades. The dark god edged closer and picked it up as Val asserted, “That’s it. There’s your money.”
Hades inspected the paper, and then the world melted into darkness.
Back at the diner with Val the Clown, we had a lil’ chat.
“So what was that?” I said, still quivering.
She nodded, waving away another waitress. When Hades teleported us out of the strange place, the restaurant was magically restored. None of the people were screaming, so I supposed their memories were wiped clean of the explosions (which they apparently survived). “For a gazillion billion dollars.”
“Not a number.”
She smirked, adjusting her wig. “Hades seemed to accept it.”
I considered this. “So we’re not gonna die?”
“Until Zeus learns this happened, yes, but we’re on good terms so hopefully he’ll let us go.”
“You, not us.”
“You’re the one who hacked the account, Cynan.”
I rolled my eyes. “Val.”
She laughed. “Kidding. Thanks for helping me out today. Name your price.”
“Oh, shut up. I’d say no worries, but there were a lot of worries. Still, the hacking-and-world-saving is on me.”
She grinned. “Thanks, Cy. But there’s one thing I am doing for you.” She waved a waitress over and turned back to me, sliding a menu over along with my laptop. “Get anything you want. It’s on Zeus.”