Teambuilding

“Penalty: Friendly Fire. Luchadoras, Torque,” the scoreboard announced in a deep male voice. All other skaters kept moving forward on the dirt road. Rook and Gremlin, two of the magi-knights, skated around Jenny as she stood up and dusted herself off.

“You okay, Jen?”  Dread asked over voice chat, but Dirge interrupted before Jenny could respond.

“What the hell was that??” Dirge yelled, obviously at Torque.

“Sorry, I-” Torque began to apologize, but Bailey interrupted her.

“Focus on the match. Jenny’s fine. Torque, get to the bench and wait out your penalty. We’ll deal with ‘why’ later,” Bailey settled the situation for them. The fire in Torque’s hair went out as she walked off the track towards the bench. As she sat down Bailey added one last reprimand.

“Ms. Sharp expects us to act like a team. If it happens again you’re out. Clear?” Bailey asked. On the track, Jenny was up and skating again. Rook and Gremlin were close to completing their second lap ahead of Jenny.

“Won’t happen again,” Torque replied.

“When you’re back in work with Dirge to keep their paladin busy. She’s easy to handle early on but if she gets too many laps she’ll be unstoppable.” Rook completed her second lap and proved Bailey’s point. A swarm of nanos formed a golden shield on the paladin’s left arm.

Gremlin, the short metal girl crossed the starting line next. Instead of continuing forward, she skated off the track to her team’s bench to tag in their sixth member. An athletic girl with green hair stepped on the track behind the starting line, then crossed it. A long, flowing, black leather coat formed around her.

“LongArm. Cardmage,” the scoreboard announced her name and class when she joined the match. Eight green floating octahedrons collected behind her in a single file line as she skated. She laughed as one of the octahedrons behind her exploded in a shower of green sparks.

“Zone: Camelot,” the scoreboard announced. A thin white line extended from the starting line around the track to connect with itself. It ran down the middle of the track dividing the dirt road in two. The inner half of the track transformed to dark grey stone. The cairns along the inside were replaced with stone battlements three feet high. The skaters on each team drifted into their team’s zone as they skated. Jenny, Dirge, Dread, and Bailey moved to the outside to skate in the fairy graveyard. Rook, Infernal, Thumper, Grace, and LongArm skated in Camelot. An eighth green octahedron coalesced behind LongArm as she skated. Then it burst into sparks again.

“Magi-Knights Card: Bounty. Target: Luchadoras, Dirge,” the scoreboard announced LongArm’s play.

“No way! How’d she play another card?” Dirge complained to her team. She slowed down to let Dread catch up to her. At the starting line, a swarm of nanos rose from the track and formed armored knight atop a white armored horse. It immediately charged forward.

“#21 La Mano,” Jenny replied. “Her Unique ability lets her bring one of her cards into play in addition to her starting draw. She can play it any time.

“How do we stop it?” Dread asked. She reached Dirge and matched her pace with the curly haired girl.

“Torque. New plan. Once you’re in go for the cardmage. Dirge can worry about herself and Dread will stall the paladin.” Bailey gave them new orders.

“Good luck,” Dread waved at Dirge and sped up again to catch up to the Paladin. Dread completed her second lap and a full-grown golden tiger formed next to her. She pointed at the paladin and the tiger ran forward toward the heavily armored woman.

Infernal, the red-skinned demon, completed his second lap at the same time as Dirge. He raised a flaming hand in the air.

“Blazing Rain,” the scoreboard announced. Molten drops of lava began falling over the entire length of the track, but the spell only damaged the Luchadoras.

“Ow,ow,ow,ow,” Dirge complained as the burning rain pelted her skin.

“Dirge!” Dread yelled into voice chat.

“What?”

“It’s RAINING,” she said.

“OH!”

“Unique #05: El Paraguas. Shield Variant,” the scoreboard announced the moment of Dirge’s realization. Clear bubbles formed around her teammates to protect them from the fiery rain.

“Thanks!” she chirped.

“Torque, get ready,” Jenny said as she approached the starting line. “I’ll take your penalty so you can take out their cardmage. I need a few more laps until I’m useful, but we need her out now.”

“Bailey?” Torque seemed unsure.

“Do it,” Bailey said.

“Thanks!” Torque jumped up ready for action. Jenny crossed the line and skated off the track to the bench. Torque stepped on the track behind the starting line and , it. Her twin afro-puffs ignited again. She aimed a finger gun at the green-haired girl wearing a black trench coat.

“Star Shot,” the scoreboard said. A small, bright orange spark shot from Torque’s finger when she squeezed an imaginary trigger.

“Team Bulwark,” Rook’s shield disintegrated into gold nanos that swarmed around LongArm. She started to move faster without it and managed to keep ahead of Dread’s tiger. The swarm condensed into a golden shield behind the girl to protect her. Torque’s shot bounced off harmlessly and the shield disintegrated again.

“Nice bait!” Bailey encouraged Torque.

“I know, right?” she replied. Her voice carried a full smile. The rest of the girls laughed.

“Flame Snipe. Target: Magi-Knights, LongArm.” Torque positioned her arms as if she were looking down the sight on an invisible rifle. She pulled the trigger and a fireball shot from her extended hand. On her head, the flame of one of her afro-puffs died out.

The fireball flew straight at LongArm and slammed into her back. The impact caused enough of an explosion to shove LongArm forward off balance. She tumbled forward on the dark stone ground. The mounted knight dissipated into nanos and disappeared.

“Point: Luchadoras,” the scoreboard announced. Then it followed up with another play. “Holy Aura.”

Thumper, the young boy in a white and red robe, flew over the starting line to start his third lap. A rainbow unicorn horn sprouted from the top of his forehead. All the Magi-Knights on the track began to glow with golden light.

“We might be in trouble,” Bailey told the team.

Loyalty Rewards

“Alright, I’ll get that in for you,” the waitress smiled at the three men, and walked to the back. The idled in silence for a minute before Jack sighed.

“Well?” He gestured at Ronald. “You’re the one that called us here. Why?” The redheaded clown shrugged and blew the wrapper off his straw at the King. Both he and Jack laughed while the King glared at them and dusted the piece of trash off his lap.

“I’ve been thinking about how long we’ve all been at this,” he took a sip through his straw. “I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m getting old. But why do we always have to be in competition with each other, you know?’ The King laughed.

“You’re not getting old, Ron. You’re just wallowing because Wendy left you for Carl,” he laughed harder.

“Take it easy,” Jack looked at the King. “It wasn’t too long ago you were crying every time you saw a soft serve cone because they reminded you of D. Queen.” Then, Jack placed a hand on Ronald’s shoulder. “Not competing all the time sounds great, but you wouldn’t have called us here if you didn’t have an idea. So, what’s the plan?” he asked. Ronald nodded.

“Thanks, yeah. I’ve been thinking about an alliance,” the clown said.

“We tried that already. It didn’t work,” the King dismissed the idea immediately.

“It didn’t work because there were too many people involved,” Ronald said.

“Yeah, too many people named Arby,” Jack replied. All three of them laughed for several seconds, but Ronald spoke up again once the laughter faded.

“Yeah, he’s not the crispiest fry in the bag. But the point stands, I wanted to start small. That’s why you two are here.”

“Did you think this through any further than, ‘Oh I want an alliance!'” the King asked with his usual condescension. Ronald nodded again.

“I did. I put a lot of thought into it.” Ronald spread his arms wide and gestured at the Pizza Hut. “That’s a big part of the reason I chose this restaurant. I wanted you to feel safe.”

“That’s a great start,” Jack said. “So we feel safe, what’s the special sauce that’s gonna make this alliance work?” Ronald smiled, the first time they’d seen him smile since they got there.

“Loyalty,” Ronald said. The King made a point to scoff extra loud.

“You mean like those childish punch cards that earn you a free sandwich? Please, we’re above that.” Ronald shook his head.

“Not that kind of loyalty. I mean loyalty to the alliance. Whoever commits to it has to work together, you know?”

“That’s all well and good, but what would be the benefits. And how do we know one of us…,” Jack cast a side-eye at the King, “…won’t just swear loyalty, but bail at the first opportunity?”

Well, the biggest benefit would be shared knowledge. I’m convinced there’s a way we can improve our offerings without treading on each other’s markets. I mean, I’d trust an alliance partner with the secret sauce recipe in exchange for something equally secret. With that kind of knowledge, they could build their own version and make it different enough that it’s not a big deal. I wouldn’t lose customers but they’d definitely gain some, you know?”

“Okay, I can see that working. But there’s still the question of loyalty,” Jack reminded Ronald. The clown nodded.

“It would take a major gesture to prove that kind of loyalty,” Ronald said. “Something there’s no going back on.”

“Obviously,” the King replied.

“But it’d be worth it, don’t you think?” Jack nodded, and even the King gave a half nod.

“So? Do you have something like that in mind already, or is that why we’re here?”

“Both actually,” Ronald said.

“Oh my heavens, what is he doing here?” the King asked. Jack looked up to see the Colonel walking towards their table carrying a steaming hot pizza.

“This is one of his,” Ronald replied.

” ‘Afternoon, gentlemen,” the colonel smiled. He set the pizza down on the table. “Don’t let me interrupt.”

“Colonel, can I get a refill?” Ronald asked before the man in white walked away.

“Why it would be my pleasure, Sir. I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” The colonel grabbed the red plastic cup from the table and retreated to the back.

“Wait a minute,” Jack asked. The King already had a slice of pizza on his plate. “You knew this was his place?” he asked Ronald.

“Oh yeah. Remember when we all said we were going to offer pizza, but I was the only one that did?” Jack and the King laughed. Ronald did not.

“Yeah! Sorry man, we were just pulling your leg. We didn’t think you would actually do it.” Ronald forced a smile.

“Ha ha, yeah. I did do it. When researching it I found out this was one of his,” Ronald pointed at the Colonel walking back to their table.

“So how do we prove our loyalty?” Jack asked, trying to get back on topic.

“Oh man, no. I’m sorry, I should have been clearer,” Ronald shrugged with his hands in the air.

“You’re not here to prove loyalty to me. You’re here to prove my loyalty to him,” again Ronald pointed at the Colonel who now stood at their table with a gun pointed at the King’s head.

Las Luchadoras 5: Luchadoras vs. Magi-Knights

“This spectacle is for you,” Dana Sharp smiled at the array of cameras pointed at her. 16 in total, but 15 of them protruded from small black holes in the air. The black-haired woman sat in the owner’s box at the stadium in an elegant white leather high-back chair in. Her business suit matched the same bright shade of the seat; yet, her rigid, upright posture kept her from blending in with the upholstery. “I can’t think of a better way to welcome you to the multi-verse than by showing you what we have to offer your Earth. This roller derby match is a limited demonstration of the things each of you will be able to do in the AlterNet. I know I’m excited to get started,” Dana said. She glanced at her assistant, Melody, and received a nod to indicate everyone else was ready. “It’s a great honor for me to introduce one of your very own to start the match. I’m sure he’s a household name by now. The man who braved a black hole and found a universe on the other side, Bill Williams!” Dana clapped long enough for the live feed to switch to Bill standing down at the track, then she stopped. She dropped her hands to her lap and focused her attention on the large display in the room. The crowd’s cheering bothered Dana and she gestured at Melody to lower the volume.

A rugged looking uniformed man with a greying military cut stood next to the wide, smooth white track. He raised a pistol in the air and glanced at the first two people on the track. One was a young Asian girl with short, spiky black hair and the other was a dark-skinned woman in her early 20s. She sported coppery dreadlocks and bright yellow eyes. The pair, Jenny and Rook, nodded at Bill. He fired up into the air, then the two leaped forward. They skated as fast as they could, each focused on completing their first lap.

After they left their marks another pair stepped onto the track to take their place. A girl with a pair of afro-puffs on her head stepped into Jenny’s starting spot.

“Torque,” a deep male voice said. The announcement came from a black scoreboard floating in the center of the mile-long circular track. The scoreboard also displayed her name under the team name: Las Luchadoras.

“Infernal,” the scoreboard announced the name of an older man with a leathery face. His name appeared on the scoreboard under the team name: The Magi-Knights. He stepped into Rook’s spot. 20 seconds after the starting gun, the scoreboard buzzed. Torque and Infernal raced forward.

“Dirge.” The scoreboard announced the name of a girl with raven curls that took Torque’s place.

“Gremlin.” A girl with pink pigtails sprouting out the sides of her head stepped into Infernal’s place. The buzzer sounded for Dirge and Gremlin to start and they skated forward. Both girls seemed in less of a hurry than first two pairs.

“Dread.” A tall girl with short, spiky white hair stepped into Dirge’s spot. She looked at the young boy that hopped onto Gremlin’s spot. He looked to be about nine-years-old and still carried around more than his fair share of baby fat.

“Thumper,” the scoreboard announced his name.

“Good luck,” she said.

“Thanks! You too!” he smiled at her with full, chubby cheeks. The buzzer sounded and they skated forward at leisurely pace.

“Bailey.” A girl with a long brown pony-tail stepped into Dread’s spot.

“Grace.” A stern looking woman with shoulder-length blond hair stepped into Thumper’s spot. Bailey scanned the track to see how her team was doing. Jenny led by a decent margin. The interval between Dread and Bailey’s start lasted 45 seconds instead of 20.  Jenny passed the halfway mark before the last buzzer sounded for Bailey and Grace. Once all the skaters began their lap a female voice spoke to the stadium.

“For this match, we’re using standard Derby rules. However, the system is flexible enough to create your own rules in private games,” Melody said. She took over commentary to allow Ms. Sharp the chance to focus on watching her team’s debut game. “The competitors need to complete a lap before they can access their class skills. The goal is to knock everyone on the opposing team out of the game; and, that’s done by knocking each member down twice.” She said. On the track, Jenny was about to cross the starting line with Rook close behind her. “Here we go folks, things are about to get exciting,” Melody said. Jenny completed her first lap.

As she skated over the thin, white starting line her outfit changed completely. She began the match wearing blue jeans and a light blue t-shirt; she skated on black and blue roller-blades. Her clothes became a single piece white body suit. A red logo that resembled an open pair of scissors took up most of her back. The numbers “00” showed in black letters in the ‘V’ space left by the handle. A white mask with red trim covered her face and most of her head, but the spikes atop her skull were still visible. Her black hair now glowed with bright blue light. Her skates also changed to white, with a line of red wheels under them.

“Programmer.” The scoreboard announced Jenny’s class. Seconds later Rook crossed the starting line.

“Paladin.” The scoreboard said. Golden plate armor and a horned helmet formed around Rook. She slowed due to the weight of the armor and moved to the outer edges of the track to stay out of the way.

“Wizard.” Jenny glanced back at the announcement. Infernal crossed the starting line before Torque. A red flowing robe appeared around the thin man. His skin darkened to a blood red color and a pair of obsidian horns grew out of the top of his skull.

“Elementalist.” Torque crossed the line a few seconds after Infernal. Her costume matched Jenny’s, except the number ’35’ appeared between the scissor handles. Her mask also left her hair visible; her two afro-puffs burst into flames.

“Bard.” Half a minute later Dirge skated over the starting line. The number on the back of her white outfit read “14”.

“Blacksmith.” Gremlin’s skin and hair hardened into a shiny chrome-like metal when she crossed the line. She looked like an animated metal statue.

“Beastmaster.” The number on Dread’s back read “42”. Unlike the other girls, her white mask covered her face and hair like a balaclava.

“Healer.” A white and red robe formed around the boy. Then he jumped into the air and sprouted white feathery wings. He flew forward instead of skating.

“Knight.” The scoreboard announced almost a minute later. A suit of chainmail armor, with no helmet, coalesced around the stern woman.

“Cardmage.” Bailey was the last one to complete her lap. Her white bodysuit matched the rest of her team, but she did not wear a mask. The number on her back read ’06’. Eight green, floating octahedrons formed a single file line behind Bailey.

“Check in,” she said. Now that the whole team crossed the line they could communicate over private voice chat.

“Good to go,” Jenny replied.

“Present!” Dirge said.

“I’m here,” Torque responded.

“Check,” Dread checked in.

“Great. Let’s get started,” Bailey replied to the group. One of the green octahedrons behind her burst into green sparkles.

“Zone: Fairy Graveyard,” the scoreboard announced her play. The smooth white track transformed into a dirt path. Black grass sprouted along the sides of the track, and small cairns lined the outer edge. Torque noticed Infernal raise a hand in the air. It ignited with a bright orange flame that consumed his hand.

“Meteor Strike,” the scoreboard said. The flame around Infernal’s hand dissipated into black smoke, and Torque’s eyes went wide. She aimed a finger-gun at Jenny on the track as fast as she could and squeezed the imaginary trigger.

“Star Shot.” A small orange spark flew from Torque’s fingertip and struck the wheels on one of Jenny’s skates. The hit tripped her and her momentum tumbled her for several feet before she stopped flat on her back.

“Penalty: Friendly Fire. Luchadoras, Torque,” the voice boomed.

Naming Names

“Good morning, Student Alphas,” the teacher smiled at the small group of gathered children. 10 nine-year-olds sat in pod-shaped desks made of metal, with a transparent glass display in front of them. They wore standard white jumpers that identified them as Students.

“Good morning, Professor History,” they replied as a chorus. Professor History touched a display on his desk and it came to life with glowing white text. A second later the displays on the children’s desks came to life with the same text.

“I’m sure you’re all excited, so let’s not waste any time,” the professor said. “Who is first?” he asked. A dark-haired boy stood and stepped out of his pod. He walked to the teacher’s desk and placed a hand flat against the glass surface. A thin white line circled his hand on the display, then it filled with a solid blue color. Different tags appeared around the circle to list his opportunities. The boy read through the tags, then smiled at one in particular.

“My name is Apprentice Programmer,” the boy said. The blue circle around his hand blinked several times, then disappeared. The other nine Students in the class exhaled simultaneously the moment the system registered his new name. The sigh was a reaction to him leaving their minds as if they felt lighter somehow. Professor History gave the boy a blue band for his arm.

“Thank you, Professor History,” he smiled when he accepted the band.

“Good luck, Apprentice Programmer.” He wished the boy well as the new Apprentice walked out of the classroom. “Next?” A girl with blond hair walked to the desk and placed her hand down. The same white outline circled her hand, but this time the circle filled in with green light instead of blue. She scanned the eligible jobs that popped up, then nodded with determination.

“My name is Apprentice Botanist,” she said. The green circle flashed and disappeared. The students sighed when the professor handed her a green armband.

“Good luck, Apprentice Botanist,” the teacher smiled as she left the room. “Next?” A brown-haired boy placed his hand down to reveal a red circle.

“My name is Apprentice Medic,” he shrugged. Professor History handed him a red armband and wished him luck, then the boy left to his new class. Six more students each took their turn to become Apprentices. One programmer, one medic, one engineer and three chefs. As the 9th Student, Apprentice Chef, left he glanced at the only other child, a girl, in the room. He looked from her to Professor History, and back again several times before leaving with a shrug. He looked like he had something on his mind. Professor History almost asked, but the girl approached the desk to take her turn. She paused before placing her hand down. She looked around the room as if to check whether they were alone, and glanced at the door to make sure it was closed. She leaned closer to the instructor and whispered.

“What if I don’t like any of the choices?” Professor chuckled.

“Oh, Student. Of course you’ll like one of them. You’re nervous because you’re the last one in your class. I’m sure it’s lonely in there without the others, but don’t worry. Once you choose a path you won’t be alone anymore,” he tried to reassure her. The girl shrugged.

“Can’t I stay like this? It’s actually kind of nice.” A flash of horror washed over Professor History’s face. His eyes widened for a split second before he regained composure.

“The next class of Student Alphas will be named soon. Either way, you’re not going to be alone,” he said. “Name yourself, Student,” he gestured at the glassy display. She nodded. Her fingertips walked over the display as she stalled for extra seconds, but Professor History stared at her. She relented and flattened her hand. The white circle filled in with red light, and the appropriate tags appeared. Then the light shifted to orange. The red tags remained while new orange ones appeared. The light turned yellow bringing new tags, then it cycled through the rest of the spectrum. Each new color added tags until the desk was completely cluttered with colored text. The light inside the circle continued to pulse through the colors like a rainbow. Professor History stood from his desk unsure what to do, but the girl spoke.

“My name is Eve,-” she said and brought her hand up to cover her mouth. She mumbled the last few syllables into her hand.

“NO!” Professor History shouted. He tried to pull her hand off the desk, but she held it down long enough for the circle to flash. It disappeared along with all the tags. The older man fell backward into his chair.

“Run,” he said. It came out as a whisper that Eve had trouble hearing at first.

“I’m sorry,-” she began to apologize.

“RUUUUUUUUUNNNNNN!” he yelled.

Magic Hope

Robert stepped into the Chinese restaurant and sat at his regular red and gold booth. He took a moment to admire the dragon-themed decor in the restaurant. Small dragon statues and elegant watercolor paintings dotted the empty restaurant.

When he first discovered the business he wondered how it stayed afloat financially. He rarely saw any other patrons, despite the food being the best he’d ever eaten. It was not until after several visits getting to know the owner he realized the restaurant was a hobby for her. He smiled when he saw the elderly Asian woman step out of the kitchen and head towards his table. He stood to greet her.

“Mrs. Chang, it’s great to see you,” he offered a hand, but she waved it away with a smile and encouraged him to sit back down.

“The usual, Mr. Alonso?” she asked. Robert nodded.

“Please! But, I’m also here on business. That is if you have a minute?”

“Sure, sure. Let me place your order.” She smiled and walked back into the kitchen. Before the swinging door completed its motion she came back out again. The frail woman sat across from him in the booth and smiled.

“Did you bring good news?” she asked.

“Yes!” Robert could barely contain his excitement. He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a small photo, then handed it to Mrs. Chang. She studied the picture of a young looking couple. The man smiled with a kind, brown-bearded face. His dark green eyes sparkled with hope. The woman’s light green hair was put up in a pony-tail that almost reached the man’s shoulders. She smiled as brightly as the man.

“The Foresters came to me a couple months ago, and I’ve spent the time learning as much about them as I can. They’re good people,” he said. “I wanted to set up an afternoon to let them get to each other. What do you think?” Mrs. Chang set the picture on the table and shrugged.

“It’s not for me to say.” She stood from the booth and walked back into the kitchen. Robert waited almost ten minutes for her to return. She came out of the kitchen carrying a steaming plate of food and an eight-year-old blue haired girl following her. The young girl held on to Mrs. Chang’s apron and did her best to hide behind the petite woman. The old woman sat the plate down in front of Robert, then turned to the little girl.

“Aura you remember Mr. Alonso, right?” The girl nodded from behind Mrs. Chang and released the apron long enough to give a small wave. Mrs. Chang sat in the booth again, and Aura scooted in close to sit next to her. “He has some good news for you,” she added, then handed the girl the picture from the table. The girl looked at the picture and her emerald eyes grew wide. A hint of a smile tugged up at the corners of her lips. Robert pushed his plate of orange beef aside and leaned over the table. He spoke to the girl with a soft voice.

“Mr. and Mrs. Forester asked me to find them a daughter that was just like them. I only know one little girl that’s as special as they are. Would you like to meet them?” Aura looked at the picture again, then at Robert.

“They’re like me?” she asked with a whisper of disbelief. Robert nodded.

“You wouldn’t have to hide anything from them,” he said.

“What if they don’t like me?” she asked.

“What if they do?” Robert countered. Aura took a moment to weigh the pros and cons in her mind. Her head tilted back and forth as mental scenarios played out. Finally, she nodded to herself then looked up at Robert.

“I want to meet them.”

“Alright!” Robert gave Aura a thumbs up gesture. “Tomorrow?” She nodded eagerly.

“I’m gonna go pack!” she bolted from the booth before Robert or Mrs. Chang could stop her.

“Don’t worry. I’ll temper her expectations,” Mrs. Chang offered. Robert waved a dismissive hand.

“I don’t think it’ll be an issue. It’s near impossible to find orphaned fairy children,” he shrugged. “If I didn’t already know where there was one, I never would have been able to help them.”

Next Level Negotiation

“Thanks for coming,” Mark said. He pulled a chair from a nearby table and sat next to his friend, Eddie. He invited Eddie to meet in the chain coffee shop and talk about how to increase their survivability scores.

“No problem,” Eddie shrugged. “I’m still sitting even today. There’re worse places to die than coffee with a friend,” he smiled.

“I’m up to 80% today, I’m feeling confident,” Mark replied.

“80? Damn, how’d you get that high?”

“Well that’s why you’re here,” Mark was interrupted by a jingling bell. Another customer came in, and Mark turned to see who it was. “And that’s why he’s here too,” he said. Mark pointed to the tall man in a dark suit that walked in. The man noticed Mark and headed to their table. He pulled up another seat and joined Mark and Eddie at the small round table.

“Eddie this is Max. Max, my friend Eddie.” The two strangers shook hands once Mark introduced them. Then Max set his briefcase on the table and opened it to pull out a notepad and pen.

“How ya doin’ Eddie? Mark tells me you’re at 50% more often than not,” his face contorted into a fake, overly-friendly smile. Eddie nodded, unsure what else he could say. “You know, I was just like you. But this morning I woke up to 100% survivability.” He smiled when Eddie’s eyes widened.

“I taught Mark how, and he’s at, what..?”

“80,” Mark replied.

“See that? 80 percent, he’s moving up in the world. How fast he gets up to 100 is up to him, but I’m proof that it’s possible,” Max said.

“Okay,” Eddie nodded. “How?” Max’s smile somehow grew larger. He slid the notepad and pen across the table to Eddie.

“First, write the names of 10 family or friends, minus Mark.” Eddie grabbed the pen, but he gave Mark a confused look. Mark nodded and smiled to reassure him, so he wrote a list. After he completed it he pushed the notepad back toward Max.

“No, no. That’s for you. That’s your starting point. You’re going to ask everyone on that list to give you five percent every day,” Max said. Eddie shook his head

“No way. I’m not taking a single percent from my parents And my sister?” he glared at Mark. “C’mon man.”

“You didn’t let him finish,” Mark said. Max was quick to jump in.

“It’s called a ‘Downline’,” Max used air quotes for effect. “It’s super simple. If they agree to give you five percent a day, you provide support and help them make their own Downlines. If you do it right, they’ll have so much, the five percent is nothing. It would be a waste if they didn’t give it to you.”

“So that’s why I’m here? You want me to be part of your downline?” Eddie asked Mark. He gave a sheepish shrug along with a half nod.

“You’re missing the bigger picture!” Max did not give up. “With these ten names you’ll be up 10%, and another percent for anyone else you get.”

“Why only 10%? At five percent a name I should be up 50.”

“Well, it doesn’t work like that. If you’re part of the downline, you’ve got to pay it upward. Out of that five percent you keep one, and the other four go up the line. If you joined Mark’s team, your four percent would go to him, but he only keeps one of that, and the other three go to me. I keep one of that, and so on.”

“Why? Why can’t I just keep the five percent for myself?”

“Because it doesn’t work like that,” Max chuckled.

“And what am I getting for my four percent?”

“Mark’s help. He’ll be your mentor like I’m his. He’ll help you recruit people to your downline. And you get the support of our organization. We can help you find leads that’ll increase your downline.” Eddie nodded.

“Right, so I get nothing. Assuming I could even get the people needed.. there’s no real incentive to pay it upward. Right?”

“If you don’t pay your dues we kick you out,” Max said.

“Uhuh. Okay. I’m leaving, you can pretend I’m thinking about it.  Mark, don’t bother me with this MLM crap again.”

Priority Hovering

Darklight glanced at the paper long enough to register it as a  résumé, then looked up at Heli-Woman with annoyance. He gestured to the prospective henchmen & women behind her. They filed out of the ballroom he rented for auditions in a hurry once Heli-Woman showed up.

“You’re scaring away my applicants!” he complained. “You promised I could get this done today.” Heli-Woman shrugged and ran her fingers through her long blond hair.

“If they’re running the second I show up, you don’t want them anyway. I’m not bothering you, I brought you a new henchman,” she smiled and pointed at the sheet in Darklight’s hand. He crumpled it in one hand and tossed it away.

“Overqualified,” he smirked.

“No!” Heli-Woman aimed the palm of her hand towards the crumpled sheet. A small, fan-like propeller came out of her hand and whirred to life. A small cyclone of air lifted the paper ball and carried it back to the card table where Darklight sat. The propeller retracted into her hand and she began to unwrap and smooth out the résumé. “I’ll make it worth your while,” she winked at him. Darklight sat up straighter and smiled at her. Heli-Woman aimed her hand at a folding chair and pulled it to her with a whirlwind. She sat down and crossed her legs.

“Obviously, I’m not going to stop you any time you bring your new lead enforcer,” she said. “As long as it’s only minor trouble.” Darklight sat back and shook his head.

“Lead enforcer? No way, I can’t do that to Miguel. He has a family and everything.” He stared at Heli-Woman with a look of disbelief. “You’ve met his kids, remember? They were at the hero-villain retreat last year.” Heli-Woman nodded.

“Of course I remember. Look, I’m doing this for Miguel too. Don’t you think he’s been in Darklight’s shadow long enough? It’s time for him to start his own villainy instead of doing yours all the time. I know a hero upstate that sorely needs a good, no, a great villain. Miguel studied under the best. He just needs a good villain name, and everyone’s happy.”

“Miguel is his villain name,” Darklight shrugged. “I don’t get it, but he likes it.”

“Well, whatever. What do you think?” She smiled when Darklight picked up the wrinkled sheet of paper and actually read through it.

“You can’t be serious? I thought this was for you.”

“It IS for me. The biggest favor ever.” Heli-Woman leaned over the card table and clasped her hands together. “Pleeeeeease.” Darklight sighed.

“Look, I’m not going to speak for Miguel. Let me ask him if he’s even interested in moving up.” Darklight pulled a cell-phone out of his black costume. “What’s the hero’s name?”

“FireShark,” Heli-Woman replied. Darklight nodded then walked away talking on the phone. He returned 10 minutes later and sat in front of Heli-Woman.

“Okay, here’s the deal. Everything is on a trial basis. Miguel can come back and hench for me if the FireShark thing doesn’t work out. That’s the best I can do.” Heli-Woman nodded and shook Darklight’s hand eagerly.

“You won’t regret it. He’s going to do great for you,” she said.

“And you won’t stop any heist he’s a part of, right?” Heli-woman shrugged.

“Keep it reasonable. Maybe one a week, and minor things like banks and jewelry. The stuff that’s insured.” Darklight nodded.

“Alright. Well, you’ve got a deal more or less. I just need to interview him,” Darklight said. He looked around the empty ballroom expecting to find someone. “Where is he?” Heli-Woman waved him off.

“He’s at home resting. You don’t need to interview him, he’ll be ready to go tonight. Trust me.” Darklight sighed. “Fine. Have him show up at the hideout on C Street at 9.”

“Thank you!” Heli-Woman said. She stood, ran around the table and kissed Darklight on the forehead. “You won’t regret it!”

Darklight answered the door at 9 p.m. On the other side he found Heli-Woman standing next to a young man.

“C’mon in,” Darklight said to the young man. Heli-Woman stepped forward, but Darklight held a hand up to stop her. “Just him. He’s on the clock now.”

“But, I’m not going to get in your way like we said. I’m taking the night off so I can be here and help him,” Heli-Woman said and tried to step forward again.

“Look, we’re friends, so I gave your son the job without interviewing him. But he’s 18. He doesn’t need his mom hovering over him every moment. He needs to make his own mistakes or he won’t learn how to deal with them.” Darklight looked back into the hideout at the small group of rough looking henchmen. “I can’t run a gang of villains if my lead enforcer’s mommy is always hanging around. Go home, I’ll call you if there are any emergencies.”

“Fine. I’ll watch from a distance,” Heli-Woman said. A large propeller exited the top of her head and began to spin. She flew to the roof of a nearby building and sat down on the edge of it staring at Darklight’s hideout. He closed the door and stared at his new hire.

“Do you even want to be here?” the young man shrugged.

“She said I needed ‘real-world’ work experience, but she goes to all my interviews. You’re the only one that already knows what kind of parent she is.”

Meeting in the Rain

Robin stared out at the city park while enjoying her morning cup of coffee. She sat on the balcony of her third-story apartment and enjoyed the morning solitude. Her whole day was open, and she sighed in contentment when she heard the first few droplets of rain start to fall. She giggled to herself as she watched the joggers in the park scattering for cover when the rain picked up.

Don’t they check the weather?” Robin smiled to herself then took another sip of coffee. She reached for her journal but noticed movement in the park. One man strolled through the pouring rain without an umbrella, and as far as she could tell, without a shirt. He fell onto the grass on his back and remained still.

I hope he doesn’t get sick,” she thought. She put him out of her mind and wrote in her journal for about ten minutes. When she looked up to take another drink she noticed the strange man still lay in the grass. He had not moved an inch.

“Oh no, is he okay?” The sudden thought rushed out of Robin’s mouth. She did not hesitate to find out. Five minutes later she walked through the rain holding up an umbrella and carrying a spare one. She reached the man’s location and looked down at him.

He lay in a puddle of water deep enough to cover his ears and most of the dark hair on his head. His eyes were closed and he wore a goofy, contented smile on his face.

“Are you okay?” Robin asked. She expected to startle him, but he replied without opening his eyes.

“Fantastic,” he said. “Thanks for checking in,” he added. Robin turned to leave, but curiosity got the better of her.

“What are you doing?” she asked him.

“Trying to sleep,” he replied.

“In the rain?” She asked. This time he opened his eyes and sat up. Robin saw the most beautiful translucent orange eyes she’d ever seen on anyone. They reminded Robin of orange flavored hard candy.

“Is it raining?” he asked. Robin pulled herself out of his eyes and looked around at the park. She shrugged.

“Yeah. A lot.” The man nodded, then lowered his back to the ground again.

“Then, yes. In the rain,” he said. Then he sat up and opened his eyes again. “I’m sorry, that was rude. I don’t get to relax like this very often because I’m usually working on rainy days.” He shrugged. “I do appreciate you checking on me though.”

“Why are you napping in the rain? Don’t you get sick?” The man shook his head.

“No. I don’t know what it is, but it feels amazing. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember,” he said.

“I’m Robin, what’s your name?”

“Posie,” he said. Robin smiled, and laughed at him.

“No wonder you like the rain so much, you’re named after a flower.” Posie shook his head again.

“Not exactly, it’s just a nickname. My real name is Poseidon, but..” he shrugged. “It’s too bulky.”

“I like Posie,” she said. Red washed over her pale cheeks as she realized what she said. Posie did not seem to catch it. He nodded at her.

“So, as a final check: you’re alive, and this is something you regularly do?” Robin asked. Posie nodded. “Okay. I think I understand. When the rain stops, you’ll leave?” she asked. Again Posie nodded. “And go where?”

“Haven’t planned that far ahead. I’m off today to enjoy the rain as much as I can.” Robin used her spare umbrella to point at her apartment building behind her.

“That’s my building, apartment 320.” She threw the umbrella on the ground next to Posie. “If you happen to find my lost umbrella, I’d appreciate it if you can drop it off after the rain passes.” Robin turned and walked back to her apartment. Posie laid down in the rain and smiled.

Fluttering Leaves

“Dread, how accurate is your roar?” Bailey, the team captain, asked.

“Any leaf on a tree,” Dread smiled at Bailey and hope she would demand proof.

“Show me,” she said. A green, hovering octahedron appeared behind Bailey. “Log in.” Dread held her node up and said her password.

“AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” she screamed at the flat, clear rectangle in her hand until it glowed with purple light. She inserted it into a dock on her belt buckle, then a bright flash of light enveloped her body. After the light faded, Dread stood tall in her AlterNet outfit.

Black leather pants, and a black leather jacket with a purple and gold yin-yang sparkling on her back. A tiger in the gold section stalked the shark that was sneaking up behind it in the purple section. A golden skull decorated the front of her pitch black motorcycle helmet. Bailey nodded, and the octahedron exploded in a shower of green sparks.

“Zone: Fairy Forest,” a floating scoreboard announced from the center of the track. The smooth white track transformed into a grey cobblestone path. Grass and Trees sprouted out and upward along the sides of the track, but still within the boundaries. Bailey pointed at a tall, thick oak tree oak tree that grew next to the starting line.

“Torque, pick a leaf,” she said over her shoulder.

Torque skated forward and aimed at the tree with her hand using a ‘finger-gun’ gesture.

“Star Shot,” the scoreboard announced Torque’s move when she squeezed the ‘trigger’ of her finger. A tiny orange spark flew from Torque’s finger into the tree. Dread looked up and saw a single leaf with a star burned through the center of it; the edges of the design smoldered.

[Do it better! -Dirge] Dread chuckled when she felt Dirge’s Whisper in her ear.

[Going to. -Dread] She replied. Dread turned to face the tree head-on. Bailey made a point of staying next to the tree while Dirge, Jenny, and Torque took several steps back. Dread stared at the smoking leaf, inhaled deeply, then yelled at the tree.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” The leaves jumped off their branches and scattered through the air. The force of her scream caused a mini-whirlwind against the track boundaries. The leaves that went out of bounds disappeared, while a large portion of the rest landed on Bailey. She stared at Dread while brushing leaves off her shoulders.

“Accurate must mean something different in your universe,” Bailey said. Dread pointed at the, now crooked, tree. Bailey looked up. The marked leaf was the only one left on the barren tree. “Huh. Nevermind, you’re great.”

[Yeah you are! -Jny] Jenny sent a Whisper. Dread’s only reply was a thumbs up gesture to the girl with black spiky hair.

“Okay. New plan. Let’s work on basics. Jenny, teach Dread how to use macros, all that yelling is gonna get old really fast. Dirge, you can do black portals, right?” Dirge mimicked Dread and replied to Bailey with a thumbs up gesture.

“Great, pair off with Torque and teach her how. So far she can only do nano-assisted portals,” Bailey said. She held up the three nodes she grabbed from Jenny earlier, “I’m going to go look at these. That’s all you’re working on for practice today; you have the field until sundown. We’ll keep in touch during the week to discuss strategy. I expect all of you to practice between now and next week’s game.” Bailey nodded at the four girls then turned to walk away.

“That’s it? That’s your idea of practice?” Dirge asked. Bailey stopped and turned to face her.

“You guys missed a solid chunk by going to see Ms. Sharp. I stayed behind and worked with Torque. Now I have to leave, and it’s your turn to stay behind,” Bailey said. She looked at the rest of the girls. “Everyone on this team has enough autonomy to act like adults. If you don’t like how I run the team then show me you can do it better.” The girls remained quiet. Bailey nodded and turned around to leave.

“What’re macros?” Dread asked Jenny when Bailey was far enough away. Jenny turned to look at the derby track. Once Bailey left it reverted back to a smooth white surface.

“We’ll take this end, and you and Torque take that end,” Jenny said to Dirge. “It’ll be kind of crowded, but we can make it work.”

“Too crowded. Dirge, take Torque to our track,” Dread said. Dirge nodded, then made a gesture with her hand in the air. A black portal opened next to Dirge and she invited Torque to step through. Once they both went through the portal disappeared.

“You guys have your own track?” Jenny asked. Dread nodded.

“Pretty much,” Dread replied.

“Awesome, okay. Now we have a ton more room.” Jenny reached into her pocket and pulled out several nodes. She sorted through them while talking to Dread. “Macros are system shortcuts that let you use your abilities faster and easier,” she chuckled. “I guess Bailey doesn’t want you screaming all the time.” Jenny found the node she was looking for and shoved the rest back into her pocket. “Once you’ve got macros set up you can use your scream just by speaking certain words.”

“What words?” Dread asked. Jenny shrugged.

“Any you want. Personally, I like to use the ability name. It’s easier that way. For your roar, it’d be Tiger’s Roar.” Dread nodded and smiled at the shorter girl.

“I like it.”

“Great,” I’ve got just the thing to practice with. She threw the node onto the track, then a swarm of golden nanos appeared and began flying around it. The cyclone of nanos coalesced into a tall, imposing, pale woman with bright red hair. The woman looked at Dread and smiled.

“Flutter!” Dread jumped in front of Jenny and yelled over her shoulder. “RUN!”

Driven Mad

“Here you go, Mrs. Herrera,” Luis said. He handed the elderly woman an open jar of pickles.

“Ay, thank you. I didn’t want to wake mijo with such a small thing,” she smiled with sparkling eyes. “He earned his cape last week, and he’s been so busy.”

“You’re welcome,” Luis faked a smile and stepped back into his apartment to close the door. “And, again. Congratulations on your son.” He shut the door with a heavy sigh and walked back into the kitchen.

“My hero son is a hero,” he mocked her with a high, whiny voice. “Did you know he was a hero?” he asked Mort. The shell of Luis’ pet turtle was decorated with a bright yellow sticker that smiled up at Luis. The tall, lean man growled and rubbed his back against the doorjamb. “You see, Mort?” He wiggled from side to side against the hard edge. “She talks about her stupid son so much she gives me hives.” Mort disappeared into his shell.

“Yeah it’s late,” Luis said. “See you in the morning.” He flipped the light off on his way out of the kitchen and headed to the single bedroom in his “quaint” apartment. Luis continued to grumble to himself about Mrs. Herrera’s son as he worked through his bedtime routine. Then he climbed into bed and drifted off to sleep.

He felt better after a solid night of rest. He smiled at Mort as they had breakfast together, then left the apartment. His smile only lasted until the elevator doors opened. Mrs. Herrera’s son, Angel, stood in the elevator with each arm wrapped around a beautiful woman. Angel smiled at Luis.

“Morning!” Luis nodded, stepped into the elevator, and promptly turned his back on him. “Girls, this is Luis. He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. He’s always helping my mom with stuff that’s,” he chuckled, “you know. Under my league.”

“Hi,” one of them said flatly. “Tell us about when you earned your cape,” she said to Angel with a flirty tone. Luis heard the sound of rustling fabric behind him and imagined the girls running their fingers through Angel’s white, satiny cape.

“Oh, you know all about that,” Angel chuckled. “I mean, the news is still talking about how I saved that bus full of kids from crashing into a burning building.”

“I know,” the other woman said. “But how does it work? How did it feel?” Luis rolled his eyes and glanced at the number pad. 30 more floors to go.

“Well, after I parked the bus in a safe spot my whole body tingled, and then,” A finger snapped right by Luis’ ear. “Snap! The cape just popped out.”

“That’s it? You mean you don’t get to pick your powers?” the first woman asked. Luis looked down. 20 more floors to go.

“Nope. I don’t know how they get picked, but I knew how to use them as soon as the cape appeared,” Angel replied.

“Ooooh. What can you do?” The second woman asked.

“I can fly. I have super strength, and I can make light,” Angel said. The metal doors in front of Luis grew brighter. He saw a ball of light in the reflection, then Angel made it disappear.

“That’s so hot,” the first woman said. 10 floors to go. Luis reached into his suit pocket and pulled out his collapse-able back scratcher. The stress caused by Angel’s bragging triggered his hives again.

“Hey, Luis. Need a hand?” Angel laughed. Both women sounded disgusted at the thought, but Luis ignored them.

“He doesn’t need a hero, he needs a dermatologist,” one of the girls said, and the trio burst into laughter. Luis gripped the back scratcher and rubbed harder. Five floors left.

“You’re a hero, don’t bother with anything that small,” the first woman said. One floor left. Luis scratched harder. The elevator lurched and stopped halfway between the second and first floors. The lights went out. Luis snapped.

“FUCK YOU!” He yelled at the door first, for taking too long to open. Then he whirled around in the darkness and screamed.

“YOU’RE A FUCKING BUS DRIVER! IT’S YOUR FUCKING JOB TO KEEP THE KIDS SAFE!” A warm light began to glow from Angel’s hand to illuminate them. The golden light highlighted icy-cold stares coming from both women.

“You’re just Jealou-” the first woman was interrupted by Luis yelling in her face.

“DID I ASK YOU ANYTHING YOU FUCKING GROUPIE?” Angel stepped forward and put a firm hand on Luis’ shoulder.

“That’s enough,” he said. Luis growled and swung his only weapon, a  metal-tipped back scratcher. The tiny claw sliced across Angel’s face and left three red gashes over his left eye. The surprise attack made Angel drop the light. Luis growled again in the dark. His back felt like it was on fire and he doubled over to try and escape the pain.

“IT BURNS!” He yelled. He rolled over and rubbed his back on the floor, then he went quiet. After several seconds of silence, Angel produced light again. He and the two women were huddled against one corner of the elevator. They looked down at Luis, but the lean man began to stand up.

“What is your deal?” the second woman asked. Luis took a deep breath and reached behind himself. He made a smooth motion and held up a handful of black silk for them to see.

“I can fly, I have super strength, and I can make dark,” he smiled at the woman, then snapped his fingers. Angel’s light went out.