Island Tutorial

Harry opened his eyes to brilliant sunlight. He heard the relaxing sound of waves lapping on the shore and felt a cool breeze glide across his face. He was laying down and sat up on a wicker chaise. He was still wearing a bloodied shirt with a bullet hole in it and a pair of blood-stained jeans. Another breeze whispered by and he let himself fall back on the creaking seat with a smile on his face.

“Thank God for heaven,” he said with a happy sigh. He closed his eyes again. Now that he knew where he was he felt like he could truly relax. “I wonder when I’ll get to meet him.. or her.

“I’m going to start you guys at the beginning,” a woman’s voice said. At the same moment, a shadow blocked the light getting through Harry’s lids. “This is the first soul of a brand new batch,” the woman said. Harry opened his eyes again and found a group standing over him. Five people: two women and three men.

The woman that was speaking wore a navy blue business coat and a matching navy sarong wrapped around her waist. Her olive skin was accentuated by her sea-green hair. The large heavy curls looked like ocean waves. She sported a blue star tattoo on her left cheek. The other woman was the shortest of the crowd. She wore a bright yellow wet suit that looked like she just came out of the water. Her soaked, short, blonde hair pretty much confirmed it.

The three men also looked like they were swimming moments ago. All three were shirtless and in soaking trunks. All three had tattoos on their chests. The tallest, a broad-shouldered mountain of muscles, had a goldfish with the number 50 in blue ink. The second tallest, an athletic man with short dark hair, had a silver scythe inked on his chest. The silver blade showed the number 14 in red numbers. The third man did not seem to match the rest of the group. He was shirtless, bald, and flabby. The tattoo on his chest was a sagging blue musical note with the number 32. Harry sat up and turned to face the group. He dropped his legs off the chaise; the warm sand felt heavenly as he pushed his feet into it.

“Am I in heaven?” he asked. “I’m pretty sure I died,” The group chuckled politely, but Harry couldn’t help but feel he was the butt of an inside joke.

“It’s your first time,” the half-suited woman said with a smile. “It’s far too early to be thinking about heaven or hell.” She turned and address the group. “A newbie gets more time and the chance to ask questions. For the most part, they won’t remember anything, but it only makes our jobs easier if they do.” Harry did not enjoy the feeling of being talked about as if he wasn’t there. But, it did sound like he could ask questions.

“You mean I’m going to have another life?” The woman turned to him and nodded.

“Quite a few, depending on how far you want to go,” she replied.

“I want to go to heaven!” Harry said quickly. The woman smiled but shook her head.

“I’m sure once you start learning how things work you’ll set your sights a bit higher.”

“Higher than heaven?” Harry asked. “One of the other religions? Which one is right?”

“What’s your favorite color?” she asked suddenly.

“Red.”

“I like blue. Which one of us is right?” Harry narrowed his eyes and took a moment to process the lesson. Finally, he nodded and decided to approach it from a different angle.

“So what’s better than heaven?” he asked. She smiled.

“That’s what you get to decide. There is no one answer. Each life you go through is a step forward. After you take enough steps you can start thinking about where you’re going,” She turned to address the group. They listened intently and Harry imagined them to be trainees of some sort. “Each life gets them points, hell keeps track of those. They’re like experience points they can spend on different perks,” she glanced at Harry. “Sorry, you’re done now. I’ll see you next time. My name is Isla by the way, try to start remembering it,” she smiled. “Anyway,” she continued addressing the other four. “It’s supposed to be longer, but since we’re in training I can bend the rules a bit. They can use those points to build their afterlife if they don’t want to go the Unique route…” 

Harry tried to interrupt but the world went black. Then, he was born again.

Regal Prospects

“509… 510..,” Lucas swiveled his head left and right as he walked down the broad, mostly empty hallway. He noticed a couple of students lingering in the fluorescent hall but the fifth floor seemed to be more offices than classrooms. He kept walking. “513… 515!” He stopped in front of a door. He looked through the small window by knob and found a bright class full of eager students. The professor must have cracked a joke because laughter rolled through the room. “That doesn’t feel right,” he mumbled to himself; he dropped his hand that was reaching for the knob and looked down at his schedule again.

[MGC 101 – Intro to Basic Arcanum.  Professor Regal. Room 515.J]

“J?” He checked the door again: 515. He turned and walked up the hall, he stopped in front of two students that were chatting and found the right door. 515.J was written in black marker on a strip of beige masking tape stuck to the door. The door itself was narrower than the other ones in the hallway and there was no window on it. “Huh,” Lucas shrugged and opened the door.

Immediately, Lucas realized the “J” stood for “janitor.” The sharp scent of cleaning chemicals filled his nose before his eyes adjusted to the closet’s darkness. The lights were off, but the room was small enough that stray hall light illuminated it enough. Other than cleaning supplies and paper goods, the closet was empty.

Despite reminding himself every day since he signed up that it was likely a joke, Lucas was surprised. His shoulder slump must have been visible because he heard giggles from behind him when the wave of disappointment washed over him. He turned to face the students.

One was a pasty chubby guy with a copper-red mohawk striping the center of his bald head. He wore long, loose denim “shorts” that reached his shins and a plain black t-shirt. The girl next to him was almost as plump and pale. Her red hair, the same shade as the student next to her, was pulled into a tight bun atop her head. The pair looked like they could be twins, one of which was the obvious favorite. Even though she wore more or less the same thing her clothes made his look like rags. She wore designer jeans and a black cashmere top.

“Intro to Arcanum?” the girl asked with a pleasant smile. Her question interrupted Lucas’ flash of anger. He assumed they were the ones behind the joke course and they were there solely to laugh at him. Her smile disarmed him and all he could do was nod.

“Us too,” she said. “Once we found the empty closet we thought it would be funny to see who else showed up.” She twisted her wrist to glance at a small gold watch that was worth more than Lucas’ education. He briefly wondered what someone with that kind of money was doing at a community college. “Class,” she said with a thick coating of sarcasm. “starts in about two minutes. Want to wait around with us and see if anyone else signed up?” Lucas hesitated. He was about to decline with a shrug but she sweetened the offer. “I’ll treat us all to some coffee after,” she shrugged. “Class or not, we obviously have some similar interests.

“Yeah. Thank you, I’d really appreciate that,” Lucas said. “I’m Lucas,” he offered her his hand in greeting.”

“Dutchess,” she said with a smile. Then, she pointed her thumb at the other guy. “That’s Haste.” Lucas returned Haste’s polite nod.

“So.. are you guys twins?” Lucas asked. Dutchess laughed and Haste replied.

“No,” he said with a serious tone. He looked up and down the empty hall, then leaned closer. “She’s me from an alternate universe,” he whispered.

“Wh.. what?” Lucas stepped back without realizing it. Dutchess immediately punched Haste’s shoulder.

“Stop scaring people,” she said then turned her attention to Lucas. “Ignore him. Yes, we’re twins. I’m sorry…,” she gave her brother a side-eye glance. “…I’m the one that got all the social graces.”

“I’m the one that knows how to shut up,” Haste grumbled under his breath at Lucas too quiet for Dutchess to hear.

“What was that?” she asked with narrow eyes. Has shrugged.

“Nothing, I’m shutting up,” he said. Lucas smiled at Haste’s joke. He was about to ask more about them but Dutchess spoke up again after she checked her watch.

“Well, time’s up. Let’s go see about some coffee.” As the trio picked a direction 515.J opened from the inside. A tall, lean man with a full golden beard and a matching full head of hair stepped out of the room they all knew was empty. His beard and hair together resembled the mane on a lion. The man’s bushy golden brows added to the look. He wore a dark suit coat with dark slacks. His white shirt was obscured by a rich purple vest. He smiled at the three students.

“Hello class, I’m Regal,” he said.

“No shit..,” Dutchess muttered under her breath.

Sharp Signature

“You make it sound so easy,” the President said. The portly, bearded, bald man sat on the edge of his chair with his back straight. Two men in dark suits and sunglasses stood quietly close behind him. Across from him a pale, lithe woman with dark hair sat behind her desk. She wore a bright, white suit while her own assistant, also stood close behind her wearing a dark suit. “There’s no way the public would go for it, not to mention the rest of the U.N.,” he said with a subtle shake of his head.

“It is easy, Mr. President,” the woman said with a practiced smile. “Trivial in fact.” The President’s eyes widened but the woman kept talking. “To be clear, I don’t actually need your approval to do this. Nor the U.N. But, what can I say?” she asked rhetorically with a shrug. “I have a slight sentimentality for the United States. I like to see it come out ahead when I can. It’s why I’m meeting with you directly instead of addressing the world.”

“Easy?” The President chuckled. “Ms. Sharp, do you really think you can buy Earth?”

“She already -” Ms. Sharp’s dark-suited assistant began to speak out but she was interrupted. Ms. Sharp turned and gave her a look that was enough to quiet the pale aid; then, she turned her focus back to the President. He did not seem to notice the look exchanged by the women and continued his objections.

“Even if you had all the money in the world,…” he cast a glance around the small office. It was smaller than a standard bedroom. Old, frayed, stained carpet lined the floor and the walls were covered with rotting wood paneling. “…which I doubt, there’s no way we’d sell. How would that even work? Assuming your payment could be divided out to every single person on Earth… what would we do with it? If you own all the land there’s no reason why you can’t raise prices everywhere and make all that money back.” Ms. Sharp sighed at the President.

“Money, money, money. You’re far more short-sighted than I expected. Yes, obviously if I offered you money that would be ridiculous. However, I never mentioned money.” The President burst into a deep, bellowing laughter.

“How the hell do you expect to buy anything without money?”

“What would you use that money for?” She asked. “Let’s pretend we came to a financial agreement and everyone on Earth received a fair share. What would they do with it?”

“Buy stuff?” the President shrugged.

“Things they need like food, clothes and so on. Right?” The bald man nodded.

“So why not just give them that and skip the green middleman?”

“Wh.. what?  How?”

“By sending them to somewhere they can get anything they need, whenever they need it, free of charge.”

Sending? Like.. away?” Ms. Sharp nodded.

“Temporarily. Send them away for a couple of years so that my company can get this Earth organized. When your citizens come back it’ll be a cleaner, greener Earth.”

“To where?” the President asked. Ms. Sharp shrugged.

“They’ll have options. I have several Earths available,” she smiled. The President’s eyes narrowed. That alternate universes existed was not common knowledge. The U.S. and several allied nations were secretly researching how to communicate with other universes.

“Let me make sure I understand you, Ms. Sharp,” he said. “You are proposing moving everyone on this Earth to a different one for a time. You want to clean this one while they’re gone and they’ll come back to a better one when they do?” Ms. Sharp nodded. “What’s in it for you?”

“Practice,” she said with a smile. “As you can imagine, the logistics for something like that are obscene. I’d prefer to do something when I’m prepared instead of ending up in a situation where it’s required.”

“And… do you foresee evacuating a lot of Earths?” the President asked with a slight tremor in his voice.

“There are powerful beings out there, Mr. President. I foresee not being able to evacuate enough of them.” He nodded and scratched a nervous itch in his graying beard.

“What does buying the Earth have to do with anything? It sounds like you’re going to give it back anyway,” he shrugged. “What do you need me for?” Ms. Sharp let a heavy, frustrated sigh escape. It sounded like an adult’s patience being worn down by a child.

“As I already said, I don’t. I assumed you would be thrilled to be known as the President that saved the world. The President that established diplomatic ties with alternate universes. The President that saved every person on Earth from a meteor impact thanks to the strength of those ties.”

“M.. meteor?” he asked.

“The rats won’t leave the ship unless it’s sinking. Tomorrow, your space administration will notice a stray meteor about the size of Texas headed for Earth. A week after that you’ll announce it to the public, along with a detailed evacuation plan aided by my company. Everyone will be gone within the year and the meteor will miraculously miss the Earth.”

“Because it never existed!” The President said excitedly. He felt happy to have figured out a piece of the plan. Ms. Sharp nodded and slid open one of the drawers at her side. She pulled out an obsidian clipboard with a red sheet of paper on it. There were several small-print paragraphs in white text on the sheet.

“Or… Tomorrow, your space administration will notice a stray meteor about the size of Texas headed for Earth. The next day that same information will be leaked to the public. A couple of days after that I show up and announce a detailed evacuation plan. Either way, my company’s efforts are recognized. The only question is: will yours?” She slid the clipboard forward on the desk.

“All you have to do is agree to sell me the Earth. In exchange, you go down in history as one of the greatest Presidents on any Earth.” The President grabbed the clipboard and started to read it. Ms. Sharp smiled.

“It’s a meaningless piece of paper really. After all, who would I even make the claim to?”

“Yeah.. you’re right,” The President nodded and pulled a pen from his coat’s inner pocket.  He chuckled. “Not even the supreme court would enforce this.” He clicked the pen and lowered it to the sheet, but Ms. Sharp interrupted.

“Oh, not with that,” she said. She placed a thin silver blade on the table. “Use blood, please.”

World of Friendship

Worst first day ever,” the thought crossed Quinn’s mind as she unlocked her bike. Around her, the world was deathly still. The green grounds of the imposing, prison-like high school were empty of students. Technically, school was over for the day but Quinn froze time as soon as the bell started to ring. She planned to be comfortable at home before it finished.

The school day had been so boring that she avoided using her powers for much more than a few minutes at a time. Quinn did not want to drag it out any longer than it already was. Instead, most of her day was spent wishing she trusted someone enough to reveal her powers. Her family almost never stayed in one city for more than a year. She didn’t mind too much, Quinn had a strong introverted streak but she often wished she didn’t have to keep her powers so secret.

Quinn took a short cut through part of the forest to get home. She wasn’t in any particular hurry but she enjoyed riding her bike around the trees like an obstacle course. Her family moved to town about a month ago and she finished the summer by riding through the forest most days. Her mom encouraged her to visit a park or the mall to try and make some friends but Quinn didn’t see the point. Her parents more or less lived out of boxes now. They never unpacked all the way to stay ready for the next move.

She stopped by a tree to admire a time-stopped squirrel trying to fit a golf ball-sized nut in its dime-sized mouth. As she leaned closer to it she heard a crunch of leaves to her right. She looked deeper into the forest, toward the sound, and saw a young, violet-haired girl about her age.  The girl had a green leather bag on her back; she looked like she was headed home from school too. Quinn swiveled her head to check on the squirrel next to her: it was still, still. Then, she turned back to the girl. The violet-haired stranger smiled broadly then put her sneakers back on the pedals to ride away. She giggled loud enough for Quinn to hear and turned to ride back the way she came.

It’s a trap,” Quinn said to herself. It’s hard finding people to trust when you don’t trust anyone. She sat back on her seat to decide what to do. “I’ve seen TV. I’m special. Obviously, the government or someone wants to kidnap me.” The moment she decided to head home and ignore the stranger she heard the crunching of leaves again.

“COME ON!!” the stranger came out of the forest far enough to be seen and yelled at Quinn. She was still smiling.

“OKAY!” Quinn said and pedaled forward. Something about the girl’s earnest smile eased Quinn’s paranoia. She lost sight of the girl as the forest grew thicker but she noticed tire tracks on the soft ground. Just as she started to wonder if she was lost Quinn came to a clearing. A small wooden shack sat in the center of the clearing. It was about the size of Quinn’s room: 10′ x 10′. The girl was standing by the door and her bike rested against one of the walls.

“Hi! I’m Mundo,” the girl said as Quinn rolled to a stop in front of the shack.

“I’m Quinn. Uh,..  so, how are you moving around?” she asked. Quinn left off the part about “in stopped time” because she thought it sounded silly. Once the words came out she immediately realized it sounded even sillier without it. Luckily, the girl seemed to understand. She chuckled.

“I’m Unique like you,” Mundo said. Quinn sat up straighter on her bike and gave Mundo all her attention.

“Really?” she asked. Her own smile started to grow; she might have found a friend. “You go to school?” she asked. Quinn pointed in the vague direction of where she thought her school was. She didn’t bother remembering the name. They were all the same. It was a small town and she did not think there was more than one high school.

“Yeah,” Mundo nodded, then shook her head. “but not there,” she waved a hand in the same direction Quinn pointed. I go to a school for Uniques like me… like us,” she corrected herself with a smile at Quinn.

“A school?” Quinn planted both feet on the forest floor and stood up eagerly. “Really? A school for people that can stop time?” Mundo laughed and shook her head.

“It’s a school for Unique Souls. Some can stop time, some can do other things. We learn how to use our powers.” Quinn let the bike topple over and ran up to Mundo.

“How did you get in? Can I get in?” Mundo nodded.

“Of course!” she grinned. “I’d like to say I know the right people to help you,” she shrugged and turned to the shack’s front door. “But it’s not like it’s hard to get in. You just have to show up really.”  She unlocked the door and twisted the knob.

“You.. you live here?” Quinn asked. Mundo giggled again and threw the door open. The one-room shack wasn’t even a room. It appeared to have been plopped on the ground with no floor of its own. The area just inside the door was a pit of soft brown soil with a six-foot-long ditch in the middle; the hole was about a foot deep. There was no sign of any furniture or any hallways leading to any other rooms.

“Nope. This is where I go to school.”

Island of Hope

Servers paused mid-step while delivering food, patrons stopped eating, chatting and typing. The mental message stopped everyone in their tracks. Seconds after the voice finished speaking Charlie typed in the address one letter at a time. His clacking on the keyboard broke the silence in the small cafe. Immediately everyone else with a laptop or phone out began typing.

The website was a simple white page with a search bar and no other text. [Charles Smith] Charlie typed his name in the bar. He was surprised when his picture came up a long with a wall of text.

“Oh god, it’s real,” his nerves began to flutter. Despite the invasive thought from “God”, Charlie had his doubts. Those doubts disappeared when somehow the site showed him the right him. Charlie hated his common name. He was never, ever the only”Charlie Smith” at school, at work, even in his own family. Technically he was a “Jr.” but he assumed he could trip up the website. Instead, he found the picture of a middle-aged bald man with tired brown eyes. Strangers began to sob all around him as he began to read his stats.

[Charlie Smith – Age: 38. Currently single but still in love with Marissa Saenz.] Charlie stopped reading long enough to sigh at the truth, then continued. The rest of the summary was dead-on accurate and increasingly depressing. It briefly went over his childhood and college years and continued into his working life. It was peppered with random observations. [He won’t realize she was flirting until 8-27-19] was written under a mention of a girl he crushed on in college. He realized the coffee shop was silent again and looked up. Everyone, including the staff, was gone. He caught sight of a weeping worker walking out the door. The street outside was filled with people. A steady stream of pedestrians walked toward downtown. The bright sunlight revealed that most of them were crying.

“What does yours say?” a woman’s voice asked. Charlie jumped; he tilted the tall seat as a result. He was about to topple over when delicate, olive-skinned hands caught him and his chair. He looked and saw a woman with long sea-green curls flowing down her head and shoulders. A bright blue star with the number 35 was tattooed on her left cheek. She was dressed oddly; a navy blue business coat and a matching navy sarong wrapped around her waist.

“Thanks, sorry. I thought I was alone.” Charlie said as he straightened himself out. The woman nodded and smiled.

“You were. What’s it say?” she eyed the laptop. Charlie shrugged, he didn’t feel comfortable giving a stranger his life story; it was too disappointing.

“You know, the usual stuff. Childhood, school crushes and so on.” Isla smiled again but shook her head.

“Are you going to Hell?” she asked.

“Oh yeah!” His own photo surprised enough to put it out of his mind temporarily. Then, as he read his life he grew determined to change it. His mind ran off on self-improvement tangents. Now that she reminded him of the site’s purpose he started scanning through the text. At the bottom, he found what he was looking for.

[Afterlife Assignment: Hell*] followed by fine print. [*If you are not satisfied with your current assignment you have options to appeal your case. Visit our embassy downtown in your city for more information.]

“I’m going to Hell,” he whispered. “I gotta go appeal it!” he hopped off the tall seat but the woman stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Wait, it’s not real,” she said. Charlie shook his head as he collected his laptop.

“There’s no way it’s not. There’re too many things there that no one else should know.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I mean, the information is real. But the website wasn’t made by God,” she said. Charlie tilted his head at her with a confused look.

“What? Then how did they know all that? How did they talk into everyone’s head?” He paused to wait for an answer, but he had another realization. “Does that mean I’m not going to hell?”

“You’re not going to Hell,” she answered his last question first. “How they talked into everyone’s head..” she shrugged. “There are half a dozen ways it could have been done; it’s not proof of anything. Knowing everything about you is as easy as going through your file. It’s Hell’s job to keep records and they’re really good at it.”

“So…,” Charlie stared at her trying to put everything together. “Someone that’s not God set up this website to tell people they’re going to Hell. To do it they looked at my personal file created in Hell?” The woman nodded, her aqua curls bobbed with the motion. “Why?” She shrugged.

“Hard to say. Whatever the reason, they need a lot of people,” she nodded at the flow of depressed pedestrians outside.

“Who are you? Why should I believe you over a voice in my head?” The woman laughed.

“You should never trust the voice in your head. Go to the site again and I’ll show you,” she said. Charlie gave a slight eye roll but lifted the lid of the laptop again. He woke it from sleep and found the website again. “Type my name in: Isla.” Charlie did and the woman’s picture appeared. She did not have a wall of depressing text as Charlie did. There were just two lines.

[Isla – Middleman] [Afterlife Assignment: Caseworker]

Charlie stared at the relatively empty sheet for a moment then turned to Isla.

“Caseworker?” he asked. She replied with a nod.

“I help people stay on track between lives.”

“And I’m not going to Hell?” he asked for confirmation again. She shook her head. “And all of them?” he waved his hand at the moving crowd outside. She shrugged.

“Odds are some of them are going, but not all of them.” Charlie sighed and sat down on a tall chair facing Isla. She waved a hand at the air and a tall, black portal opened next to her. It looked like a hole in reality. Charlie’s eyes widened. He was more or less out of “surprise” after all the unbelievable things that happened in the last 20 minutes. But the portal gave the woman another bit of credibility. Obviously, she knew how to do things Charlie could not explain.

“I believe you. I don’t know why, but I do. At least I’m going to heaven,” he said.

“Oh?” Isla asked with a curious smile.

“Well.. if I’m not going to Hell then it has to be Heaven.”

“Or…,” she smiled at him and stepped closer to the portal. “You can come with me,” she said and disappeared into the blackness.

Shivering Star

Cassie let herself fall backward onto a soft mound of snow. The scrawny brown-haired girl panted and wheezed with expended effort and kept her hands up letting the frigid wind soothe them. The cold, sharp air was several steps warmer than in the bucket of ice water. Her hands tingled with numbness as the moisture on her hands froze over.

“I n-n-n-nev-ver knew how c-cold it could really be,” she shivered against the snow on her back. Cassie was not dressed for weather. She wore a simple, summer-green tanktop and black pair of thin board shorts. A girl’s laughter came from her right and she turned to scowl at her friend.

“That’s exactly what I said to you,” Cherry said. The short, white-haired teen girl sat curled up on a brown recliner with a flickering, yellow fireplace next to her. She appeared to be in a cabin with its front half completely missing.  She wore white pajama bottoms decorated with red cherries and a pink long-sleeve top. “You have no idea how cold it’s going to get,” Cherry said as she stood from the recliner. “Sound familiar?” she grabbed a heavy blanket from the side-table next to her and padded barefoot toward Cassie.

Cherry reached the boundary of the cabin and an invisible wall shimmered as she crossed the threshold. She helped Cassie up and wrapped the blanket around her; then, she supported the girl as they walked to the fireplace. They crossed from the snow onto bare wood floors and Cassie instantly felt warmth. The boundary shimmered and vanished revealing the other half of the cabin. Cherry guided the shivering blanket to the fireplace and helped her sit down then joined her. She tossed a small red glowing ball from her hand into the fireplace. When it landed the dying fire was renewed with a bright orange roar. Cassie stopped shivering.

“This is only the first step,” Cherry said quietly. “It will get colder.” Cassie gave a stiff nod, she was afraid of jump-starting her shivers again.

“Okay,” Cassie said. She sat up straighter and loosened the blanket around her bony shoulders. “I can’t imagine anything colder…,” she shrugged. “But I believe you.”

“And you still want me to teach you?” Cherry asked for confirmation. She did not think Cassie would quit but Cherry made sure to let her know she had that option. Cassie nodded.

“It’s going to be a hell of a surprise when I can pull it off,” she said with puffed out chest and a large grin. “Totally worth it.” Cherry smiled and nodded. She hopped up and yanked the blanket off of Cassie. The front half of the cabin shimmered and disappeared.

“Then that’s enough of a rest,” she said. Cassie stood without complaint and headed for the snowy field. “Hey,” Cherry called with a smile; she felt proud of the girl’s determination. Cassie paused and spun around.  “When you get this step…,” she winked at Cassie. “I’ll take you to see some unicorns.”

Slimy Guild

A scrawny, young fair-skinned girl stepped barefoot out of the heavy, dark plume of dust. Her dirty blond hair was pulled back in a short, tight bun. She wore a black shirt with loose, flowing, yellow pants. A handful of spearmen formed a barricade between the warlord and the young girl. She looked around the room and noticed half a dozen archers on a balcony behind the throne, as well as a couple of wizards in black robes. The wizards mumbled and kept their hands moving; blue magical energy whirled in their grasp at the ready. She took one more step into the gathering hall and large red text appeared in the air.

[Contested] It read. As soon as the word appeared the wizards loosed bolts of electric magic at her; arrows rained. She did not move an inch. Blue streaks struck her repeatedly, but the magic had no effect on her. As the frenzied first assault died down the ‘C’ in the floating word changed from red to green with a low chime. The girl remained still with a bright smile on her face.

“Who are you?” The warlord asked with a low and raspy voice from behind his armed guards. “Who do you represent?”

“I don’t have a guild yet,” the girl smiled. “That’s why I’m taking yours.” Another chime sounded as the ‘O’ changed from red to green.

“Wait!” he said with a pleading edge in his voice. “All you want is a guild? Please! You can just make your own! If you don’t have the nanos for it I’ll pay the fee for you!” She shrugged casually.

“I know,” she said. The ‘N’ changed to green. “But your guild is already maxed out. It saves me a lot of trouble,” the girl took a step toward the guards. They extended their spears but still stepped back. “You’re the one that built a guild on a PvP server. Don’t complain when someone stronger comes along.” She took another step and one of the guardsmen panicked. He rushed forward and impaled the girl through her chest. The sharp metal head exited through her back. It came out coated with a golden, viscous liquid instead of crimson blood. A chime signaled the ‘T’ changing to green and the girl somehow smiled brighter.

The panicked guard released the spear and fell back. The blonde girl stood up straighter with the spear through her chest. She grabbed the wooden haft and pulled. Not out toward the guard; she pulled the spear through herself and out to the side under her armpit. It was coated in a thick, golden, translucent liquid. Her black shirt remained whole somehow.

“She’s a slime!” The warlord yelled upward at the wizards. Their hands immediately began to collect blue energy again; this time they released frigid torrents of liquid at her. The archers all switched quivers; their new arrows glowed with dim blue magic. The ‘E’ transitioned to green. Three green letters later the girl and the warlord were the last ones standing. The girl was standing, the warlord cowered on his knees by his throne. He wasn’t trying to defy her; he was frozen there by fear. She was impossibly strong and fast. At several points during the fight, he swore she was in multiple places at once. She dodged arrows and magic while efficiently taking down the spearmen one at a time.

“Thanks for the guild,” she said. The ‘D’ changed to green with a high pitched ding and the word disappeared. A translucent, smokey slate appeared in front of the girl and floated chest high. She swiped and tapped at the glass, then the warlord blinked.

He opened his eyes and found himself outside on a hill over-looking his former guildhall. Small gold text hovered in front of his vision.

[Honey has kicked you from the guild.]

Zero Manners

Jason was the last one through. The stocky, burly soldier followed two women into a wide, circular black portal. A 10-foot high metal arch around the ramped platform held the hole in place. The first expedition was a test-run. Jason’s minimal, expendable team consisted of one scientist and two guards. The plan was to get in and take a look around, then come back into quarantine for a couple of months. A larger team would be sent if they survived the ordeal.

The bright work-lights in the portal room vanished as Jason stepped into the darkness. He felt cool, dry, still air the moment he exited but he could not see anything. Jason felt confident he was through the portal but his eyes refused to give him any information.

“Comman-” Jason spoke in search of the commander but a dim, quick pulse of light from the ground shut him up. He caught sight of both women crouching on the hard, smooth ground. He saw their breath in the cool air before the light disappeared again. He dropped to a crouch in the darkness instantly.

“I hear voices,” the commander said. Even though she whispered, she sounded equal parts excited and terrified. “Can you handle first contact, Lynn?” she asked the scientist.

“Hell yeah,” a soft whisper came from the darkness. “Let’s get our names in the paper.”

“Alright,” the commander said with a firm whisper. “Let’s figure out where we are and see if we can’t find someone to introduce ourselves to.” A dim, yellow light came on in the commander’s hand. It created a small circle of light at their feet. The floor was a shiny, off-white color. She looked upward and pointed the light at the sky. There was no sky, just a metallic ceiling.

“We’re inside…,” she whispered to herself and shined the light straight ahead. A metal wall not five feet away blocked that route. She spun 180-degrees and flashed the light at another metal wall. “…inside somewhere small,” she said. Suddenly the wall clicked.

It swung open. Bright light and loud sound flooded the small room they were in. They grew used to the darkness and needed to shield their eyes from the sudden rush of light. Jason spotted a short, dark figure through squinted eyes and splayed fingers. He stepped forward and jutted his elbow out at the last spot he remembered Lynn standing. He felt her soft side and heard a whispered, ‘Ow’.

“Someone’s there!” he whispered. “Introduce us!” he lowered his hands and things started to come into focus.

“We mean you no harm!” Lynn said. She took an unsteady step forward. “We’re explorers from another universe,” she said as she dropped her hands too. She was able to see clearly now.

A young woman wearing a white uniform and a white apron stared at them with her arms crossed.

“NEED THAT DRESSING!” a deep male’s voice sounded out from somewhere beyond the open door. The woman sighed and stepped through the doorway. She ignored the trio for a moment and turned to a set of shelves. Now that the room had light Jason noticed shelves on both walls lined with produce and meat and buckets. She grabbed a white bucket that said “Ranch” from one of the lower shelves, then turned to leave. She paused at the door on her way out.

“In this universe, it’s polite to use the front door,” she said and walked away hauling the bucket. The heavy door began to close.

Alarming Siren

It’s been a while since I’ve had sushi…,” Fred pondered his lunch choices. He sat on a wrought iron bench enjoying the sun against his skin. The lean, athletic man in a grey sweatsuit stared at a row of trees in front of him with unfocused eyes. He faced the trees but his mind was distracted; he wasn’t actually looking. “yeah but Ted won’t eat it…,” he reminded himself. Ted, his older brother, despised seafood; they had plans to get lunch together.

As his mind tried to remember a restaurant that had sushi and something Ted would eat Fred’s eyes focused on something. He spotted movement in the tree shadows ahead. Someone appeared there. They did not walk out from behind a tree, they walked out of the darkness, the shadow and stepped forward into the light.

It was a young woman, college-aged maybe. She wore blue jeans and purple hoodie; she pulled the hood down and looked left and right. Her black hair was short and spiked upward.

“Huh,” Fred said to himself with a short exhale. He knew he did not imagine it but did not yet know what to make of the situation. He watched the woman walk up to the nearest joggers and engage them in conversation. She showed them something that Fred could not see, but the couple shook their heads and shrugged. The woman nodded apologetically and stepped out of their way while searching for someone else. Her eyes landed on Fred and she began to approach him. “It’s going to be an interesting day,” he mumbled.

“Good morning!” she said with a friendly smile when she was close enough. She stopped right in front of the seated man. “I’m looking for something, but I’m a bit lost.” She pushed out her hand and presented her phone; it was unlike any phone Fred had seen. It was a small, thin, clear piece of glass that showed a bright, perfect picture of a white building. “Do you know anything about a company that was based here years and years ago back named Sharp Development?” she asked. Fred’s eyes widened at the picture and he flinched at the name. He looked up into the woman’s dark brown eyes.

“Wh… why?” he asked with a cracked voice. His mouth went dry as soon as he saw the building his brother had been casing for weeks. Ted was an urban explorer and liked to search through abandoned buildings. The Sharp Development complex on the East side of time lay abandoned for so long people tended to forget it was there. Ted liked to stay clear of the law when exploring but even with Fred’s help he could not find any information on the company. He doubted it was a coincidence this woman showed up on the same day his brother picked to go explore it.

“It’s dangerous,” she said. “I’m here to make it less dangerous.” Fred stood up. Ted was in danger.

“Dangerous how?” he asked, then immediately started walking away; he encouraged the woman to follow with a tilt of his head. He felt relieved when she did.

“I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you,” she said as she kept up with his hurried pace. They were not-quite-running to the parking lot. “It’s a short drive,” he said as he climbed into the side of an army-green Jeep. The woman hopped into the passenger seat. “My brother went to go explore today. He’s in danger?” Fred asked as he started the car. The woman nodded.

“We’re on the way,” he said once they hit a 4-lane main road. “Doesn’t matter if I believe you or not. So what’s the danger?” he asked.

“Mermaid,” she said simply. Fred laughed aloud in disbelief but his foot weighed heavier on the gas. Mermaids were horrible, nightmarish, fictional creatures. If anyone else but a woman that walked out of nowhere had told him that he wouldn’t have believed it.

“You’re telling me this Sharp Development company has control over a mermaid?” he asked. She shook her head.

“They couldn’t. She kept eating the staff so they abandoned the project.”

“And who are you?” he asked as he made a sharp turn. He pulled into a long, narrow, uphill path and drove upward.

“My name’s Jenny. I’m someone that can help.”

Seafood

Ted hummed to himself as he crossed the empty parking lot. He bobbed his head and matched his steps to the beat of pop music playing through his earbuds. His long shadow, created by the sun peeking over the warehouse, seemed to dance on the dark asphalt behind him. He wore light grey sweatpants, a black tank top and a small red rucksack hanging on his back. Ted planned to spend most of the daylight exploring the abandoned hill-top complex.

The cluster of buildings rested on an East-facing hill and was shrouded in mystery. Ted liked to research any spots before he went poking around to make sure he stayed clear of any trespassing charges. No one knew anything about this place. It had been abandoned as far as anyone could remember; no one even knew anything about the company based there.

The warehouse Ted chose to start in looked almost brand new. It had white, clean walls and crystal clear windows. If Ted had not been eyeing this place for weeks he’d be tempted to assume it was just closed for the weekend. He reached the heavy, windowed double doors and smiled to himself.

“It’s gonna be a great day,” he said. One of the doors was cracked open. It had been left to close under its own weight but it did not have enough force to shut properly; friction caught it against the frame. He pulled the door open with ease and took a step over the threshold. Ted stopped before his leg touched the floor inside and slowly pulled his leg back out of the building.  He leaned back to look at the sides of the building. Dozens of clear windows line the tall white walls. Ted looked into the building again. The interior was pitch black with no sign of the growing daylight penetrating the windows. “Huh,” Ted stood in the open doorway and peered into the darkness. He pulled one earbud out to see if he could hear anything. A soft, blue light glowed to life somewhere inside the moment music stopped flooding his ear.

“Wonderful day,” Ted smiled and stepped inside toward the light. The door shut firmly behind him but he continued moving forward. Now that he had a starting point Ted put his earbud back in. The light vanished; Ted froze in his tracks. If he had his eyes closed behind a blindfold at night, it would not be darker than it was inside that building. He turned to face the door but couldn’t find it. There was no light coming in through any of the windows that he knew were there. “What the hell…?” he pulled his earbud out again to concentrate and listen. He noticed a soft blue light at the edges of his vision and turned around again.

A wide blue circle glowed on the ground a bit further ahead of him. It reminded him of a still pool lit from below the water. It was a perfect circle about 10 feet across. While keeping his eyes on the pool he slowly inserted his earbud to bring his music back; the pool vanished.

“No way…,” Ted pulled the earbud out again and the lit surface appeared again. He tried it once more to be sure. Earbud in: light gone. Earbud out: glow on. Then he remembered he had two ears and pulled the other one out leaving both of his ears bare.

Brilliant golden light flooded the room as if heavy curtains were pulled back from his eyes. His mind instantly felt sharper, clearer than it ever did, and he heard a soft, beautiful, melodic humming somewhere in his soul. The pool’s surface looked like a perfect mirror, it reflected all the green around it. High green grass grew around the pool and tall, red-needle pine trees formed a half forest around one side of the pool. Ted looked around and the building was not what expected.

Instead of an empty, abandoned, messy warehouse, Ted felt like he was in a hidden meadow somewhere. He searched for the doors, but he could not even find the walls anymore. Just wide open sky and plain and trees and grass. And a pond.  He noticed a small wooden sign next to the pond and walked over to inspect it.

The short, 12-foot walk was possibly the most pleasant experience Ted ever had. The soft grass melted under each step but managed to support him. He felt a cool breeze protecting his skin from the warm sun that he couldn’t see. He heard what sounded like a chorus of angels singing from within his soul. He felt the song with his whole being, not just his ears. As if their harmonious voices kept the fabric of the universe together. He smiled as he strolled, then stopped at the sign. It was waist-high planted into the earth.

“Property of Sharp Development

#47 La Corona: Harper – Mermaid”

“Mermaid?” Ted chuckled to himself and shook his head. Even as he denied it a naked woman popped her head out of the water. The mirror surface barely rippled. Her eyes smoldered like deep blue fire. Her long aqua-green hair was plastered back and down her slender, pale-blue neck.

“They remembered me!” she smiled at Ted with breathless excitement. Every syllable she voiced held a month’s worth of the pleasant walk he just had. She sounded like his mother and every single woman he’d ever loved unified into a single, loving, all-forgiving voice. “Hi,” she floated to the edge and rested on the green grass as she would at the side of a concrete pool.

“Hi,” Ted let himself collapse in front of her. He leaned on his side facing her and planted his elbow on the ground to prop his head up. “What brings you here?” he asked awkwardly. He was not embarrassed though. It didn’t matter what he said, he just wanted to get her talking about herself. He wanted to know everything about her from her own perfect lips.

“You,” she said with a playful bat of her eyelashes. Ted smiled and shuffled himself forward. He wanted to be close enough for her to touch on the off chance she suddenly decided she wanted to touch him. He did not want to miss any opportunity to make her happy.

“Me, huh?” he asked playfully, flirty. “What uh… what is it about me that got your attention?” Harper the mermaid leaned further out of the water, closer to Ted, and inhaled deeply.

“Your smell…,” she said. “I bet you taste delicious,” she sighed as she looked into his eyes. “They haven’t fed me in so many years…” her complaint came out as a soft, whispered whine. Ted shook his head as a rush of anger coursed through him.

“Those bastards,” he gritted his teeth as he sat up and slipped off his tanktop. “Don’t worry, I’m here now. I’ll take care of you.” He stood then dropped his sweatpants and briefs. He eagerly dove into the frigid, clear water. “Dinner time,” he smiled at the mermaid. Her eyes flared crimson as she charged at Ted. He leaned back in the water. “Amazing day,” he said to himself.