Handoff

Emily woke up feeling wrong. She remained still in her cot and kept her eyes closed; but, she strained to listen. She heard a handful of the other apprentices snoring and almost dismissed the uneasy feeling as a nightmare. Then she heard a noise again. The noise that somehow woke her up. It sounded like a distant crowd laughing at something. Their laughter sounded flat, almost lifeless to her ears. Emily had entertained more than a few crowds and knew what genuine laughter sounded like. After a few more minutes of snoring, she heard the laughter a third time. Emily made up her mind to investigate the sound and opened her eyes.

She sat up in her cot and looked around the dark room until her eyes adjusted. The first thing she saw was her friend Kirk sitting on the edge of his cot staring at her.

“Ignore it and go back to sleep,” he said. They’d only met twice so far, but he seemed to know about her curious streak.

“Do you know what it is?” Emily asked in a whisper. The quiet, unnatural laughter sounded again to punctuate her question.  Instead of going back to sleep she turned on the cot and sat on the edge facing Kirk. He shook his head.

“It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s in the Magus’ room and we’re not allowed in there.”

“Aren’t you curious?” she asked. Kirk nodded.

“Of course, but not enough to get kicked out. I just became an apprentice.” Emily grinned and stood from her cot.

“Luckily I don’t care if I’m kicked out.” She took a step toward the Magus’ quarters but Kirk caught her by the arm.

“What are you doing?” He hissed in a whisper. They both heard the laughter again. Emily noted that it seemed to be at random intervals. Emily walked forward and made an effort to pull Kirk forward with her arm. He found she was surprisingly strong.

“I want to see what’s so funny,” she whispered as she kept walking. She navigated the array of occupied cots as quietly as she could with Kirk in tow. “Maybe I can put it in my act.” He refused to let go of her arm, but he wasn’t trying to hold her back anymore.

“What if he kicks me out with you?” Kirk asked when they reached the edge of the barracks. Emily shrugged.

“Then he’s a sad, petty man that you don’t want to apprentice under.” Kirk nodded.

“But I DO,” he said, almost apologetically. Emily sighed and wiggled her arm.

“Then hold on tight. If anyone asks you caught me sneaking around, okay?”

“Okay!” Kirk grinned. The laughter repeated again. It sounded louder now that they were closer. Emily led the way down the narrow stone hall to the Magus’ quarters. They walked closer and Emily caught sight of a bright bluish-white light flickering under the tall oak door.

“I think he’s practicing a spell,” she said. Emily heard the empty laughter again, but she also heard a muffled, hearty gut laugh at the same time.

“What if it’s dangerous? We don’t want to interrupt.” Kirk whispered. Emily faced him and smiled broadly.

“I definitely want to know if it’s dangerous and hilarious.” She stepped forward and peeked through the keyhole. “Whoaaaaa!” she whispered. Kirk was kneeling next to her in a flash.

“What?” he asked.

“He has guests…,” Emily pulled back from the keyhole and looked at Kirk. “But they’re wearing clothes I’ve never seen before.” Laughter sounded again; both the soulless crowd and the hearty gut laugh.

“Who laughed?!” Kirk asked. Emily shrugged and pressed her eye to the keyhole again.

“Wait…” Emily whispered. Kirk waited almost a minute, then he nudged Emily with his knee.

“I want a turn,” he whined. More laughter came through the door. Emily pulled her face back with wide eyes.

“No one! None of the strangers laughed,” she said. “Maybe he has more people in there?” She returned to the keyhole but the moment she positioned herself the door swung open. Magus Grimmley yelped and hopped two feet in the air; he did not expect anyone on the other side of his door. Laughter marked the Magus’ sudden panic.

“Who laughed?” Emily dashed into the room to look around, but she saw no one. The strangers she saw completely ignored her. They went about their business on the other side of some sort of window. One of the strangers fell down and Emily heard the same fake laughter. “What kind of spell is this?” Emily asked. For the first time, she found herself genuinely interested in magic.

“Aawww Damnit! Get in here!” The Magus said. Emily turned around to see him grab Kirk from the doorway and pull him into the room. He slammed the door shut then turned around and faced the two kids. He pointed a thick black wand at the window and the strangers disappeared. “You two forget anything you saw in here. Got it?”

“I didn’t see anything, Magus!” Kirk dropped to his knees.

“Pizza?” a man’s voice said. Emily turned to see a lean teenager stepping out of a black hole. He wore a red shirt with black pants and held a large flat box in his hands.

“DAMNIT!” the Magus yelled again.

“Guess not. Sorry, wrong universe.” The teen turned to step back into the hole but the Magus stopped him.

“It’s the right place.” The deliveryman stopped and turned around, but he still seemed hesitant. “Sorry,” the Magus apologized. “Lot of stuff going wrong at the same time,” he walked toward the pizza man while digging in his pockets. The teen chuckled.

“Yeah, I been there. We’re super short-handed at work,” he said. The Magus gave him a handful of tiny golden cubes and he handed the pizza box over. “I guess my boss didn’t think multi-verse pizza delivery would be as in demand as it is,” he shrugged and turned back toward the portal.

“Wait up,” the Magus called out. “Any chance you’re looking to hire a couple of kids?”

“What’s going on?” Emily asked. The delivery man looked at the kids and nodded.

“Actually yeah. We’re so short handed the boss’ll take anyone right now. If they want to apply.” The Magus looked at Emily and Kirk.

“You two have discovered a secret that I don’t want getting out,”

“I won’t say any-” Kirk began to speak, but the Magus spoke over him.

“I only see two ways to keep my secret. Either you go with this nice young man and find your own way around, or I kill both of you.”

“I’ll go,” Emily said, though she did not move. “But first I want to know about this,” she pointed at large the black window behind her.”  The Magus chuckled.

“Looks like I’m doing you a favor. You’ll find out all about that. Now leave so I can finish my show.”

Sweet Deal

A tall, black hole opened at street level in the air in front of the towering concrete building. A brown-haired teenage girl stepped out of the black hole. As she crossed the portal’s threshold she changed into a pale, pointy-eared elf with flaming orange hair. Chainmail armor and an elegant ruby rapier sheathed on her hip replaced her jeans and t-shirt.  A red-haired teenager stepped out of the portal behind her. Her skin became pink and her red hair transitioned to a bright sea-green color. Her outfit became a leather tunic and leather leggings. The Elf looked up at the 10-story hotel.

“Remind me to thank Fizzle if this works,” she said. She looked up at the hotel’s sign that said “Steves Hotel”. “Looks like the right place.” Before either of them moved toward the door a black portal opened next to them. A lanky young man wearing a navy business suit stepped out onto the sidewalk. He noted the girls next to him, then ignored them to walk to the Hotel’s door.

“You won’t get in!” Llina, the elf, called after him.  The man reached the door and pulled on it without acknowledging the warning. After tugging on it three times he turned around and faced the girls.

“Why not?” he asked.

“It’s a guild hall,” Llina shrugged. “You can’t get in unless you’re part of the guild or invited. Do you have an AlterNet character?” The suited-man sighed and shook his head.

“More childish games. Between the AlterNet and the Scavenger Hunt you kids are starting to get annoying,” he complained.

“You’re doing the Scavenger hunt too?” Serena, the pink-skinned girl, asked. “I’m Serena #06, La Sirena.” The suited man glared at her and sighed.

“I’m Billy, #14, La Muerte,” he shook his head. “Don’t!” He pointed at Llina. The elf looked like she was about to introduce herself too. “I don’t care who you are. I’m leaving to find El Cantarito somewhere else.” He wiggled his fingers at the air and opened a black portal in front of him. “I don’t have time to play games,” he said as he stepped into the blackness and disappeared. A second after he disappeared the hotel door opened. A burly bald man with a thick black beard looked out the door.

“Who seeks to enter the Council of Steves?”

“Hey!” Llina and Serena ran up the steps to stand in front of the bald man. He held the door open all the way but stood up straight blocking the entrance.

“Remember us?” The elf waved her hand at the air to call on her menu slate. A translucent sheet of glass, that only she could see, formed in front of her. She touched it and her elf facade faded away. The elf became a brown-haired girl again and she smiled at the bald man. “I taxi’d you once, but Ballisea was already there.” He smiled and nodded.

“I remember. What can I do for you? I hope you’re not here to join the Council of Steves; it’s only open to our Zeros.” Llina shook her head, then pressed the button to become the elf again.

“We heard we could get #44 here,” she said. The doorman nodded.

“We do have some spares, but I can’t just give one away. Do you have anything to trade?”

“You really have spares?” Serena asked while Llina searched through her grey denim backpack. The bald man nodded.

“We have some very high-level crafters in the guild,” he replied.

“Whoaa,” Serena grinned in awe. Llina finished rummaging through her backpack and pulled out a small red bag of candy with a rainbow on it.

“This better work,” she mumbled to Serena then turned to face the man at the door.

“I heard you Steves like candy from different universes. Try some Skittles.” She tossed the bag to the doorman and he caught it. He tore open the bag without hesitation and put a handful of color into his mouth. His eyes lit up once he started chewing and he eagerly nodded at the girls. He stood aside and gestured for them to come in, his mouth was too occupied to talk.  He escorted them to the lobby’s front desk and gestured for them to ‘wait there’. Then he walked away while still struggling with the chewy candy.

He disappeared around a corner, but a noise from behind the desk drew the girls’ attention. A thin, sickly version of the bulky bearded man stepped out of a door behind the desk and eyed the girls. He carried a small, thick black case and placed it on the counter in front of the girls.

“Your candy is worthy; The Council of Steves awards you #44 El Cantarito.” There was an intense beeping. “Sorry,” the sickly Steve apologized while frantically pressing more buttons. After several loud moments, the beeping stopped, and Steve relaxed. “Wrong combination.” He opened the case and turned it toward the girls. An elegant, pink-glass carafe rested in the velvet lined interior. The number 44 was frosted on on side of the carafe. “Do you know how it works?” Both girls shook their heads. Steve lifted the carafe out of its case and smiled.

“The case is just for presentation,” he slammed the neck of the carafe down on the edge of the front desk, but nothing happened. “It’s pretty tough so don’t worry about breaking it.” He set it on the desk then disappeared through the door again. Before it finished closing he stepped out of the small office with a cup of tea. He poured a few drops of water into the carafe, then he swallowed what remained in the cup. He grabbed the carafe and flipped it over. Amber tea gushed out into the cup refilling it with more tea than he started with. After the demonstration, he set the carafe down and Llina noted that it looked full of tea.

“It’ll pour out anything you put in,” he paused and smiled. “Infinitely.”

“Are we stuck with tea now?” Serena asked. Steve shook his head.

“It’ll change if you put something else in it. If you want to clear it for traveling,” he lifted the carafe to his lips and blew into it. “Just blow it out.” He flipped the carafe over again but nothing poured out. It looked empty once he set it back down on the counter.

“Awesome! Thanks!” Llina grabbed the carafe and packed it in its case. “What’s the combination?”

“Can’t tell you,” Steve said. He grabbed the case and pulled the carafe out again. “We’re giving you El Cantarito, not the case.”

“Oh, okay.” Llina smiled. Well, thanks again!” She wiggled her fingers at the air to open a black portal while Serena grabbed the carafe. “See you around!” Both girls stepped into the portal and disappeared.

Expository Interrogation

“I didn’t mean to hurt them!” Elsa Fuller yelled the moment Dr. Mundo opened the door. She pleaded from her shackled seat as the doctor stepped into the room.

“Their corpses say otherwise,” Dr. Mundo sat down in front of Elsa. The woman in a straight jacket shook her head.

“I can control time! I made a savepoint…,” Elsa hung her head. “…but I don’t know how to restart it.”

“Oh,” Dr. Mundo flashed a quick smile at the woman, then stood from her seat. “That was easy.” She walked behind the woman and began undoing her straight jacket.

“You believe me?” Elsa asked. She felt her arms loosen up and wiggled her shoulders.

“Not only do I believe you; I can tell you how to fix it.”

“How!?” Elsa sat up straighter. She watched the doctor return to the seat in front of her.

“First I need to explain what you are.” Elsa shrunk back in her seat.

“What I am?” Dr. Mundo raised a single eyebrow at the woman.

“Humans don’t normally stop time, do they?” Elsa shook her head. “You are what’s known as a Unique Soul. There are few different kinds but you’re #14, La Muerte.”

“Am I supposed to know what that means?” Elsa asked. Dr. Mundo gave her a stern look with cold eyes.

“I’m telling you what it means. Don’t interrupt.”

“Sorry,” Elsa apologized. She sat up again and rested her arms on the table to listen.

“#14 La Muerte is,” she paused, then pointed at Elsa. “You are able to stop time. You’re also able to age people, but let’s focus on the time thing for now. All Uniques are ranked on how powerful they are. Higher ranks like A and S class Muertes can save at any point; I’m thinking that’s you.”

“Wow,” Elsa smiled. “I have to be an S-class! I’m so powerful I can’t even control it,” she giggled while looking at her hands in a new light. Dr. Mundo shook her head.

“You can’t control it because you haven’t been ‘Awakened’ yet. Your power is sealed inside you, but it leaks out sometimes.”

“How do I do the, uh… Awakening I guess?” Dr. Mundo pulled a small pocket knife from her lab coat then placed it on the table in front of Elsa.

“You unlock your powers by having a representation of your number on you,” Dr. Mundo shrugged. “Tattoos are usually preferred, but since you can’t walk out of here to get a tattoo you’ll have to be more creative.”

“!4, right?” Elsa asked. She grabbed the small white pocket knife and opened the blade. Dr. Mundo nodded. Elsa held the blade in her right hand while she picked a spot on her left.  She made hissing sounds as she scratched the number into the back of her hand. When she stopped the ’14’ began to glow with golden light.

“It’s working! I can feel it!” Elsa closed her eyes and smiled as she felt the energy coursing through her body. Suddenly, as if she understood things in a new way, she knew how to reset the loop.

“I got it! Thanks, doc,” Elsa dropped the knife on the table without opening her eyes. “No offense, but I hope I never see you again.” She reset the flow of time then opened her eyes.

She saw Dr. Mundo sitting in front of her with an amused smirk on her face.

“What happened!?” She yelled. “I did it! I know I did it!” Dr. Mundo nodded.

“You did. Those people that you killed are alive again. You’ve never been arrested.” Elsa looked around the same small room she was sitting in before she reset time.

“Then what am I doing here? Why are you still here?”

“Check your phone,” Dr. Mundo suggested.

“You guys took away my phone!” Dr. Mundo shook her head.

“Where did you have the phone when you created the savepoint?”

“In my pocket,” Elsa said. She reached into her pocket as she answered and found her phone there. “What’s going on?” Elsa checked the date on the phone. It showed the same day she created the save point before she started killing people.

“Uniques like you…,” Dr. Mundo put a hand to her chest. “…and me kind of live outside of time. Think of time like a river. The fish in the river are normal humans, we call them Zeros; and, we’re like fishermen that can wade into the river. Time flows around us, and some Uniques, like you, can control the river’s flow. Being tied down to one time-stream can get pretty inconvenient if you’re hopping between universes.”

“Hopping….. between universes?” Elsa asked. “I can do that too?” Dr. Mundo nodded.

“Yeah, but I can’t help you learn that,” Dr. Mundo stood from her seat. She opened the door for Elsa. “You should go get some Chinese food downtown. There’s a great place called Donna Chang’s. Just show up and she’ll help you out.”

“I can just leave?” Elsa still seemed unsure, but Dr. Mundo nodded.

“Yeah. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

Royal Joke

“Today? Impossible.” Marcus Howzer said. He scoffed at Ms. Sharp from behind his large stone carved desk and shook his head. “This kind of technology needs too much approval to be rolled out in a day.” The white-suited woman sighed stood from her seat.

“I’m disappointed Mr. Howzer. I assumed that you’d have more imagination given how much of the world your corporation has touched,” she shrugged. “My offer was a courtesy, one business-person to another.” A black hole appeared behind Ms. Sharp while she continued to address Marcus. A lanky, pale teenage boy in black jeans and a black shirt stepped out of the portal. A short, dark-haired woman in a black suit stepped out after him. “I give myself approval.”

“Full Saturation, Ms. Sharp,” Melody said. Dana Sharp nodded.

“Start it up, Oren. Contemporary template.”

“You said I’d get to pick!” Ms. Sharp turned her attention to the teen.

“I said you’d get to pick IF he,” she pointed at the panicking man with a phone to his ear. “accepted the deal. He didn’t.” Ms. Sharp’s eyes narrowed at Oren. “Do your job and you’re free to go play with Sonia for the rest of the day. You can go do whatever template you want anywhere else.” Oren sulked but nodded.

“Fine. Gimme the patch notes.” Melody handed Oren a sheet of paper before he finished asking. He read them over, turned the sheet over to check the other side, then he looked up at Ms. Sharp.

“That’s it?” Ms. Sharp gave a stern nod.

“That’s plan B. I wouldn’t know what patches you’d want if you chose the template.”

“HANDS UP! NOBODY MOVE!” None of them noticed the officers until they announced their presence. Five uniforms pointed guns at the three intruders.

“Melody, kill them.” The dark-haired woman’s hands began to glow with blue light, but a wall rose from the ground between Melody and the policemen.

“Full saturation,” Oren said. “They don’t need to be killed.”

“Fine,” Ms. Sharp said. A black hole opened in front of her and she stepped through, followed by Melody. “Feel free to name the server,” Ms. Sharp added on her way out, then the portal closed. Oren sighed and waved a hand at the wall. Five square spaces opened in it, enough to see the policemen’s faces.

“This world is about to change in a big way. Get to your loved ones.” The wall crumbled into white powders that disappeared before it hit the ground. The men looked unsure until Oren sat down in front of Marcus’ desk. “You too.” The big man nodded and hurried out from behind his desk. A red Aura gathered around Oren. His pale skin reflected the neon-red light as he sat still and closed his eyes. In his hands, he held the patch notes.

Oren concentrated on the notes in his mind’s eye until each word on the sheet glowed with the same bright red color. The glowing words lifted off the sheet and floated in front of his face. He opened his grey eyes and brought his hands up on either side of the words. He clapped his hands together and compressed the words into a single, glowing red dot.

“I dub thee, Bozo Server,” Oren said. He touched the glowing red dot with a glowing red finger. The action sent a ripple through reality as each nano learned its job in an instant.

After a moment the same red floating text appeared in front of Oren. This was the official patch that everyone would see.

[Welcome to Bozo Server!]

[Sharp Technologies apologizes for an issue that failed to grant users access to their Menu slates and HUDs. To apologize we are gifting each player:

  • 1 free node
  • 100 million Prime-nanos
  • Character reroll
  • MAX level boost

The Bozo Server is a contemporary template. Humans are the only unlocked race but other races may be individually purchased. Your gift of 100 million Prime-nanos is available to be spent here.

Medic, Bard, Thief, Monk, Merchant, Craftsman, Clown, and Dancer are the only unlocked classes in this template. Other classes may be individually purchased. Your gift of 100 million Prime-nanos is available to be spent here.

NPC jobs are available. If interested please opt-in during character creation.

MAX level boost will unlock all skills of your chosen class. They are a one time gift only. Sharp Technologies will not reimburse you for wasted MAX potions.

Thank you for joining the AlterNet! Please accept our terms and conditions to re-make yourself.]

“Looks good,” Oren nodded and approved the message. A second ripple radiated out through reality. Oren heard a car crash on the street below as he stepped into his portal and disappeared.

Taken In

“What’s your name, sweetheart?” Matron Silver asked. The officer that dropped off the scrawny, pink-haired 8-year-old girl left in a hurry. The older woman closed the door and leaned against the edge of her desk to address her new arrival. The girl looked up to meet the woman’s brown eyes.

“Justice,” she said. The woman placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder and leaned forward with a polite, sad smile.

“What a beautiful name they left you with.” Justice was one of the rare kids that ended up at the orphanage by accident. Her parent’s car accident would have left all three of them dead if Justice’s lycanthropy didn’t save her life. “How bad are your changes?” Matron Silver asked. The girl shook her head.

“I can control it already.”

“Really?” Matron Silver raised a grey eyebrow. Justice bit her lower lip.

“Almost,” she admitted. The Matron nodded, smiled, then walked around the desk to sit down across from Justice. She pulled open a drawer and grabbed a folder from inside.

“We’ll find out tonight.” Matron Silver dropped the folder on the desk and gave Justice a somber, sympathetic look. “When I was your age, I hated when people didn’t explain things to me. I’m sorry about your parents, Justice. The accident only happened a couple of hours ago,” the Matron sighed. “…and here you are. I’m sure you feel that things are happening too fast. I want you to know you can slow down and ask any question you want okay?”

“Okay,” Justice nodded. The woman gave her almost half a minute to ask a question, but the girl seemed impatient to keep things moving.

“You don’t have any questions then?” Justice shook her head.

“I know why I’m here,” she tilted her head at the sunset outside the window. “I’d rather be here than a jail cell anyway.”

“Smart girl,” the Matron smiled. “So, when you say, ‘almost’ what does that mean? How much can you control it?” The woman opened the folder and readied a pen.

“If I’m alone and it’s quiet, I can stay in control. My wolf doesn’t like noise though,” Justice said. Matron Silver filled in the top sheet of Justice’s file while she nodded at the girl to keep her talking. “If I lose control my wolf likes to go to the park. I’ve never killed anyone and my parents said that my wolf will anything for cheese.”

“Your wolf sounds easy to manage,” the Matron smiled. “Of course this is your first change here….” she pressed a red button on one corner of her desk. “…you’ll understand that we need to see how well you do for ourselves.” The door opened. A tall, pale teenager with a widow’s peak walked into the room through a sunbeam. “This is Oren, he’ll help you to your room, and stand guard for the night.” Justice nodded and smiled politely at the matron, then stood up. Oren walked out the door first and Justice followed.

“You’re not a vampire,” Justice said the moment they were in the narrow hall. “Sorry, that’s a question. What are you?” Oren stopped walking, then turned to size Justice up. He looked her up and down.

“What?” he asked. Justice stared into his translucent grey eyes.

“You look like a vampire, but you’re not one,” she said. “You’re not a werewolf, fairy, or human either. You’re something I’ve never smelled. Oren’s lips stretched into a small grin.

“You’re interesting too. I’ll explain in your room,” he said, then walked forward again. After navigating the maze of halls Oren stopped in front of one of the steel reinforced doors.

“This is your changing room,” he opened the door. “You’ll get your living room tomorrow,” he said almost apologetically. Justice could see why the changing room was slightly less than a prison cell. Bare floor, bare walls and a set of filled food and water bowls.

“So what are you?” She asked. Oren stepped into the room and closed the door.

“I’m bored,” Oren said. He smiled and made a sweeping gesture at the air with his hand. A black hole, darker than anything Justice had ever seen, opened in the middle of the room. She noted it was tall enough for Oren to step through. “I know where we can play an awesome game though. Wanna come?” Justice did not waste time nodding; she bolted through the hole without a second thought.

The over-enthusiastic young girl was surprised when she saw light on the other side of the hole. It surprised her, even more, when she ran headfirst into a woman. Justice barely had time to register the woman’s white suit before they collided.

“So-” Justice tried apologizing as she collected herself, but a hand around her throat interrupted the word.

“Who are you!?” A shorter woman in a dark suit lifted Justice off the ground by her neck.

“Chill Melody!” Oren shouted behind Justice. “She’s from the orphanage.” Justice was able to breathe again, and she felt the ground under her feet again.

“I’m sorry,” Melody apologized to Justice, then she stood and glared at Oren. Justice did not see the woman she ran into anywhere. “Normally our visitors don’t come down here.” Oren put a hand on Justice’s shoulder.

“She said I was something that she’d never smelled before,” Oren said. “I thought I’d introduce her to the AlterNet.” Melody looked down at Justice and smiled.

“What’s your name, Sweetheart?”

“Justice,” she replied.

“Just Justice?”

“Justice Knight.”

Dreaded Surprise

Robert’s phone chimed for the first time in two years. The forgotten sound distracted him from his lunch and he stared at his phone in silence. After several seconds he reached for the phone with a shaking hand and checked the notification.

No way…” he navigated to the message; a comment on his latest video.

“Awesome skating!” from a user named ‘Star35Torque’. The video showed Robert skateboarding an obstacles course he built himself through a mall. Thanks to not having to run the rat race, Robert was able to devote all his time to his passion. He recorded his course run with different cameras and edited them all together into one smooth ride. It started on the second floor at one end of the mall and ended on the first floor at another end.

“Who are you?” he replied to the comment. Robert stared at the phone intently for 10 minutes, but no reply came. He sighed and set the phone down, but he was not discouraged. “They probably got busy,” he reasoned, then looked around at his mess. It was about time to move again anyway. Robert became lazy about his personal space and tended to change houses instead of cleaning up. The brief hope that he might have visitors soon prompted him to relocate to the next house he had his eye on.

He drove to the small two-bedroom brick house. Robert spent the rest of the day organizing his new home and gathering supplies. No one had replied by the time Robert got into bed, nor by the time he woke up. He was in the middle of breakfast when his phone chimed again. He grabbed it without hesitation then navigated to the message.

“Britt (not Brittany!). Who are you?” the reply said. He hurried to type a reply.

“My name’s Robert. I’m the last man on Earth.” He did not get a reply until two hours later.

“LOL! Lucky you!” That was not the response he expected.

“Not lucky! Where are you? Can you help me?” he responded. He wasted the day waiting for a response that never came. He wanted to be close to home in case Britt stopped by. Britt replied while Robert was eating breakfast the next morning.

“Help you what?” She answered. Robert wondered whether she deliberately avoided the ‘where are you’ question or not; and, it bothered him. After two years of not worrying about what anyone else thought, he found himself searching for meaning in each interaction.

“Help me,..” Robert typed his reply but stalled. He actually didn’t know what he wanted help with. Aside from the lingering loneliness, he loved the freedom he had. “Help me not be alone.” He waited in bed until her reply came.

“Are you asking me out?” Britt replied after two hours. Robert chuckled when he read her question, then responded.

“I don’t know you enough to ask you out. I’ve been the last person on Earth for two years. Where did you come from? Can I go there?” He tried being as direct as possible. His notification chimed during his usual breakfast time the next morning, but he was not eating anything. He skipped cooking breakfast because he did not want to have his hands occupied when she answered. Not that she answered anything.

“Why?” she asked.

What do you mean, ‘why’?” Robert mumbled to himself. It seemed obvious. But the more he searched for a why the less he found one. Robert realized he had not been as lonely as he thought he should be until another human interacted with him. He loved the freedom. He loved making videos with the expectation that no one would see them. The videos were just something he enjoyed. Robert realized he had not enjoyed making a video in two days. He took his time thinking. If she stuck the pattern he had two hours to answer. Finally, he found a ‘why’.

“I’ll run out of food eventually.” He answered.

“K. I can bring you food if you want to stay, or give you a ride if you want to leave. Where you at?” Britt replied. Robert figured out her schedule and knew he had time to think about it. She responded twice a day and he got the impression that he would not be able to leave until the second time.

If I want to leave?” Robert scoffed at the suggestion, but deep down he knew the answer. “Of course I don’t want to leave,” he said to himself aloud. He loved his life except for the background fear of starvation, and occasional loneliness. Britt solved both problems in a way that did not require him to leave.

“Food would be great!” Robert pinpointed his location and shared it with Britt. He knew she would not respond until the morning, but he did not feel tired at all. His decision energized him and he sat down to plan his next video.

“K. See ya at 11ish.” Britt’s morning reply said. Robert spent the two hours cleaning up and making himself presentable. He sat down by the door at 11 on the dot and waited. At 11:05 there was a light knock at the door and Robert threw it open without checking the peephole. He discovered four teenage girls standing on his doorstep. The tallest one, a pale girl with white spiky hair, held two large red and white bags that Robert recognized as Chinese food.

“You said you were lonely, so I brought friends,” the dark-skinned girl stepped forward and smiled. “I’m Britt. That’s Dread,” she pointed at the tall girl. “Jenny,” she pointed at an Asian girl with black spiked hair. “And the tiny one is Dirge,” Britt pointed at a  short girl with black flowing curls.

“Man…,” Dread stepped into the house without being invited and placed the bags of food on the first surface she found. “You got a whole Earth to yourself, you’re so lucky,” she grinned. Robert nodded.

“Yeah I am!”

Manual Labor

Jasper’s eyes shot open and he sat up in bed cradling his right hand. Burning pain on his wrist woke him up and he searched the room, from the bed, for any sign of the cause. He saw nothing threatening in his room and turned his attention to the throbbing pain.

“Ahhhhh hell,” he sighed. “Careful what you wish for, ‘fella…” he mumbled to himself then got out of bed. Jasper recognized the colorful tattoo. He’d seen the same red scythe with a cat’s paw on the blade in unsolved murder cases going over a century back. The most recent one took place 27 years ago, two years before he was born. Jasper had been secretly hoping for a fresh lead lately. He let his mind sort through the details of the case while he showered and picked out a few leads. By the time he stepped out of his small, red-brick house he knew where to start.

Jasper got into his car and snapped a picture of the tattoo with his phone. He sent it to his boss and drove to his first lead. He only made it a few blocks before his phone rang; his boss’ grimace told him who was calling. Jasper touched the docked phone to accept the call.

“Tell me you’re not taking your obsession with the Kitty Murders too far,” the chief said before Jasper could say ‘hello’. His gruff voice filled the car’s interior. “You’d better have a very sane reason for getting that tattoo.”

“Or what?” Jasper chuckled while driving. “You’ll send me on a vacation? Take my badge? It doesn’t matter, Chief. It’s real. I’m dead in 24 hours.” Jasper worked on the cases on his own time and managed to put enough pieces together to find some patterns.

The victim always died 24 hours after the mark first appeared. Several victims that reported a mystery tattoo to the police, but it was always chalked up to drunken nights out. Jasper went through the few reports he could get his hands on. He found statements that mentioned the same searing pain he felt that morning. They also mentioned a strange black cat talking to them, but that only added to the “drunken” theory.

“You’re serious?” The chief asked.

“Yeah. Listen, I’m gonna figure this out today. If I don’t, take care of everything for me.”

“This is how you’re spending your last day?” The chief asked.

“I already told my only friend,” Jasper said. “We’ve never been sentimental,” he shrugged to himself. “It’s too late now.”

“Good luck out there, Jas,” the chief said.

“See ya later, Chief.” The call ended as Jasper pulled up to his first stop. A vacant mansion that technically still belonged to the Belle family. As far as Jasper knew, no one had lived in the mansion for over 100 years. Despite that, the property taxes were paid from a trust every year. Every single body with the scythe tattoo had been found outside the mansion’s front gate. Police and Jasper himself investigated the mansion several times but never found anything. He let himself in through the gate and into the mansion. Jasper felt thankful for the early morning sun streaming in through the windows. The light made everything less creepy. He stood in the foyer trying to decide whether to take the bright, dusty hallway to his right or the darkened, shadowed hallway to his left.

“Nothin’ to lose,” Jasper mumbled to himself as he turned left. The hall was dim, but he spotted a door on one side at the end of the hall.

“Don’t go in there. It’s dark,” a woman’s voice said behind him. The sudden noise startled him, but he recovered quickly and turned around. A small black cat with a red skull pattern coloring the top of its head sat in a sunbeam in the foyer. Jasper had been expecting the cat to show up at some point, and his mind adapted quick enough to keep him calm. The cat stared at him waiting for a reaction.

“I was looking for you,” Jasper leaned against a dirty wall and crossed his arms. “Thanks for saving me the trouble.”

“I’ve been waiting for you too,” the cat said. She remained seated on her haunches as she looked up at him. Jasper lifted his wrist and showed his tattoo to the cat.

“If you wanted to talk you could have stuck around when you gave me this.” The cat nodded with human-like intention.

“I could have, but I’m a cat. I like playing with my prey,” the cat replied. Jasper crossed his arms again. This time he reached for his gun with one hand and his phone with the other, both hidden under his arms. He got a firm grip but did not pull the gun out yet.

“What’s your story then? Alien? Shape-shifter? Witch? Hallucination?” he asked.

“It’s complicated. Although, I can change shape.” The cat stood on its hind legs, then it stretched upward as if it was pulled by an unseen force. The black fur receded and in moments Jasper was staring at himself. The likeness was almost perfect except for the fact that the cat’s impression of Jasper was bald. Jasper’s chestnut, hair was nowhere to be seen. A red skull pattern decorated the top of the bald head. After another moment the bald Jasper shrunk into a cat again. “But I prefer not to.”

“And why are you killing people? What’s this mean?” He nodded his head down at his wrist without uncrossing his arms. He kept hold of the gun and his phone.

“I killed them because they weren’t you. That tattoo means I chose you.”

“I…,” Jasper faltered. He was trying to make sense of what she was saying, and trying to ignore that she was a cat. “I’ve already accepted my fate, but can I get a better explanation before you kill me?” His thumb disengaged the gun’s safety in his coat, under his arms.

“I’m not going to kill you,” the cat said. “If you work for me.”

“Did this just turn into a job offer?” Jasper said. The cat nodded.

“Short version: I killed everyone because they weren’t right for the job. You are right for the job. It’s up to you if you want to take it or die.”

“What’s the job?”

“Does it matter?” the cat asked. Jasper sighed.

“I guess not. Okay, I’m in.” The cat swished her tail at the air and opened a black portal tall enough for Jasper to walk through.

“Come meet your new boss,” the cat said. It walked into the black hole and disappeared. Jasper released the gun but pulled his phone out. It was still recording.

“I’m gonna see this through, Chief. Take care of things for me,” he said. He stopped recording, dropped his phone and badge on the floor, then followed the cat through the portal.

Hand Shakedown

“100k?” Sam asked. “I thought this was just training?” he took a single step back from the dealer’s table. The other two gamblers, one on each side of Sam, fidgeted in place. They seemed to want to back away too but were afraid of the well-dressed dealer. The tall, suited man behind the table smiled and nodded

“It is, but even training needs an element of risk.” He made eye contact with Sam first, then he looked at the other two. A short, stocky, balding man with a clean-shaven face; and, a gaunt, pallid woman with stringy brown hair that reached her shoulders.. Both of them had been like Sam. Homeless survivors barely making a living by pick-pocketing. “Obviously,” he chuckled. “I don’t expect any of you to have that kind of money, but that’s part of the training too. If you lose…,” the dealer gave an exaggerated shrug and smirked. “You lift folderol until we’re square.”

“It’s rigged,” Sam said. He narrowed his eyes at the dealer. “No way we could win against you.” To his surprise, the dealer nodded, then gestured at the door.

“Of course. You’re welcome to go back to the streets if you don’t want to learn about your abilities. Think of your losses as a tuition fee,” the dealer looked at the other two. “That goes for each of you. Stay and earn some learning, or walk a beat on the streets.” Sam looked at the other two, but they both seemed intent on staying. He was more afraid of staying than returning to the streets, but he felt better knowing the three of them would be in the same boat. He stepped forward to the table again.

“Alright. I’m in.” Sam made the effort to smile at his partners on each side. “I haven’t played Go Fish since I was a kid.”

“This game’s a bit different,” the dealer said. He dealt two cards to each player. “Since you all are new, we’ll start off with just two cards.” He placed the rest of the deck face down in the middle of the table, then covered the deck with a small black, ceramic bowl. The four players looked at their cards. Sam held a 10 of spades and a jack of clubs. The dealer placed his two cards face down in front of him, then he pulled a small ceramic bowl from under the table and covered his cards.

“Find what you can, and cover your cards,” he instructed. Sam reached into the darkness under the table and felt around until he found something that seemed big enough. He pulled out a translucent tupperware container, but the dealer shook his head.

“It needs to be unseen.” The dealer nodded at the woman. She placed a black top hat over her cards. The short man used a transparent glass bowl. Both he and Sam reached under the table again. Sam focused on it being opaque. He found a small cardboard box and covered his cards while the chubby man used a small cooking pot. The nodded at all the covered cards in approval.

“Good, here’s how this works.” He looked at Sam. “Sam, do you have a 10 of spades? Hint: I know you do.”

“I do,” Sam nodded and moved to lift the box to retrieve the card, but the dealer stopped him by placing a hand on the box.

“If you do have the card you say, ‘Yes I have it, go fish.’ ” Sam pulled his hand back.

“Yes, I have it. Go fish,” he said. The dealer smiled and nodded at the box.

“Check your cards,” the dealer said. Sam lifted the box and found only one face-down card. “If I picked the wrong card…,” the gentleman smiled. “I didn’t. But if I did, you win. If I got the right card,” he showed the group the 10 of spades. “I win. That was a demonstration. Do you understand how it’s played?” He asked the group.

“What if we don’t have it?” the woman asked with a weak, raspy voice. The dealer tapped the black ceramic bowl over the deck.

“You go fish in a bigger pond. Get it?” All three nodded their heads. The dealer moved their covers out of the way and collected all the cards, then handed the deck to Sam.

Sam shuffled the cards in full view of everyone, then dealt two cards to everyone. Each player checked, then covered their cards. The gentleman covered the deck, then nodded at the short man to Sam’s left.

“You first, Herbie.” The short man looked straight at the woman.

“Lira. Got a two of diamonds?” The pale woman shook her head.

“Go fish in the big pond,” she said. Herbie reached into the darkness under the table. The black bowl covering the deck moved slightly, then his hand came back holding another card. He looked at it, then slipped it under his pot.

“Not bad,” the gentleman said. “My turn.” He asked Herbie for a nine of hearts, which the rotund man did not have. The gentleman reached under the table and pulled his hand back in a single, smooth motion. The black bowl did not move, but he placed a new card under his bowl. Lira sat up straighter when she realized it was her turn. She looked at Sam.

“Sam, do you have a queen of clubs?” Sam nodded.

“I do. Go fish.” The woman bit her lip and stuck her hand into the shadows. She closed her eyes for concentration and fumbled under the table for a moment. Finally, she returned with a card and looked at it.

“Damn it!” she forced a whisper into a raspy shout and slammed her hand on the table. She slid her card under the top hat. The gentleman produced a notepad and pen.

“Lira. 100k,” he said aloud and looked her in the eyes. Then he nodded at Sam. “Your turn.”

Informal Introductions

“We should’ve had these on before we got here,” Alliane said. She struggled to secure the royal blue bowtie around her throat. The sweat pouring down her ruddy face and hands made the task more troublesome than it should have been. Her long, black hair irritated her more by sticking to her hands and face.

“I don’t know why you didn’t,” Jonah said. He slapped her hands away from her neck. “Let me.” Jonah’s hands felt cool against Alliane’s skin while he adjusted the strap around her neck. Of course, he had his bowtie on already. “There.” The moment the bowtie was secured around her neck Alliane felt instantly cooler. It protected her, and Jonah’s protected him, from the heat of the volcano.

“Thanks.” Alliane leaned upward to reward him with a peck on the cheek, then she looked further down into the volcano. Her portal left them on a rocky outcropping inside the mountain about 30 feet above the lava lake. She saw their next object, a wooden single-person canoe, floating on the bright orange surface. She looked back to Jonah and tugged at the bowtie. “Think these’ll protect us from the lava too?” Jonah placed a hand on her shoulder to make sure she did not jump in without the answer.

“Probably not. The ladder might,” he said. Jonah slid his leather rucksack down to the rocky ground and rifled through it. He pulled out a black metal rod with the number #07 engraved in red on it. “Here.” Jonah handed the bag to Alliane then walked to the edge of the ledge. He held the rod over the side horizontally, then shook it. The action released a heavy cloud of black dust that fell straight down into the lava. As the dust fell it left behind fully formed ladder rungs down to the lake’s surface. Jonah then lifted the ladder to adjust the angle. He dipped the ladder into a spot next to the canoe and placed the top against the ledge at a 45-degree angle. He shook it several more times against the ledge until it would not move anymore.

“Wait here,” he said, then backed himself off the ledge onto the ladder.

“Why?” Alliane asked. She dropped the sack and took a step toward the ledge. “I’m lighter and quicker. I should go get it.” Jonah shook his head.

“I’m already on the ladder,” he chuckled and continued to climb down at an angle.

“Look!” Alliane blurted. She pointed at the canoe, and Jonah turned his body keeping one hand on the ladder. A black portal appeared in the canoe, then a lanky young man wearing a navy business suit stepped out onto the canoe. He noted the ladder and looked up it to see Jonah and Alliane.

“HEY! THAT’S OURS!” Alliane shouted. The man looked down at the canoe, then at the ladder, then at Alliane.

“Based on what?”

“We were here first!” she shouted. “Keep climbing down,” she whispered to Jonah. He started moving down again.

“You say that,” the man smiled. “But I’m actually in it.”

“Scavenger Hunt rules! We saw it first.”

“Scavenger Hunt?” The man noticed Jonah continuing to move toward him. “I’m not part of your childish games,” he said. “Your rules don’t apply to me.”

“If you’re not playing why do you want it?” Alliane yelled from the ledge. Jonah was close enough to see the man roll his eyes with an exaggerated gesture.

“I don’t need to answer, I’m already here. So, if you’ll excuse me…”

“Wait!” Jonah said. “I’m Jonah, #02 El Diablito,” he said and kept climbing down. It was a desperate move to stall the man even just a couple of seconds, and Jonah was pleasantly surprised when it worked. The man narrowed his eyes and sighed.

“I’m Billy, #14 La Muerte,” he said.

“I’m Alliane, #35 La Estrella,” Alliane called out while Jonah kept climbing down. It was a little-known subtlety that Mundo explained to Jonah and Alliane. A majority of Uniques are compelled to introduce themselves to other Uniques.

“I’m Billy, #14 La Muerte,” he glared up at the ledge. Billy seemed to know he was in the majority. Jonah was almost at the canoe. He began to wonder what exactly he would do once he reached it. Pushing Billy into the lava seemed extreme.

“I’m Jonah, #02 El Diablito,” he repeated. Billy smirked. He wiggled his fingers at the canoe under him and a black hole formed underneath it. The flat hole floated upward to swallow the canoe with him in it. It left nothing but lava and empty air under it. As Billy’s head disappeared he smiled at Jonah.

“We’ve already met.”

Things End

A sharp knock at the door startled Eric. The sudden jump caused him to drop the phone from his hand.

“Babe? I lost my key.” Vanessa’s voice came through the door. Eric stared at the phone embedded in the lush, grey carpet. It landed face up with the emergency message taking up the entire screen.

“LOCK ALL DOORS AND STAY INSIDE. DO NOT PANIC.”

“Honey?” Vanessa knocked again to get his attention. Eric moved to the door as quietly as he could manage, then held his breath while he peeked through the peephole. He did not want her to know he was on the other side of the door.

Eric saw the back of Vanessa’s head; his view was mostly obscured by a familiar tight, black bun. She seemed to be staring out the window at the end of the hallway. She knocked and called for him again, but without turning around. The knock felt low on the door enough that Eric realized she was knocking behind her. She was intentionally not facing the peephole.

“Eric!” She shouted with a trace of panic in her voice. “Let me in please!” The crack in her voice caused Eric to reach for the handle; he hated to see her uncomfortable in any way, but something did not feel right.

In their three years together, not a single thing slipped Vanessa’s mind. The message also added questions. Why hadn’t she said anything about the message? Her phone!

“Call me,” Eric said through the door. She still did not turn around.

“What the hell? I don’t have my phone, just open up so I can get my keys!” She yelled at the hallway.

“Where’s your phone?” Eric asked. He felt braver now, colder. His Vanessa would never lose her keys and her phone at the same time.

“Look, I didn’t want to scare you, but there’s some pretty weird stuff going on outside. When I saw it I was so scared that I literally dropped everything and ran back to you. Please, let me in.”

“What kind of weird stuff?” Eric asked the black bun.

“Eric honey, I”m really scared right now. Can’t I explain it to you inside?”

“No! The government sent a message to keep the doors locked. I’m scared too,” he admitted. He saw Vanessa’s head wobble and heard her laugh nervously.

“Locked doors aren’t going to help. We need to get out of here.”

“Get out of here? And go where?” Eric asked.

“Jesus Eric, open the door and I’ll explain everything.” She yelled at the hallway.

“Why aren’t you turning around?”

“I’ve kept a lot of things from you, and I’m really regretting it right now, but I need you to open the door. I promise you’ll get all the explanations you want.”

“WHY AREN’T YOU TURNING AROUND?” he yelled the question again. He already decided this woman was somehow an imposter, he just wanted her to admit it. He watched the bun rotate slowly as she turned to face him. Her once dark green eyes now sparkled with golden light. Her irises were shaped like golden glowing stars.

“I love you,” she said.

“WHAT DID YOU DO TO VANESSA!?” he pounded the door in a rage.

“I am Vanessa. Let me in so we can get out of here, then I’ll explain everything.

“Explain it from there!” Vanessa looked over her shoulder at the window.

“No time, this is already taking too much time. Let me in.” Eric chuckled.

“I’m safe inside. You’re the one in a hurry, so explain it fast.”

“You’re NOT safe inside. No one is safe from her, we need to go.”

“Her who? Go where?” Eric asked.

“There’s so much to explain it’s not going to be covered with me in the hallway. Open the door and you’ll get all the answers.”

“Why?” Eric asked. Suddenly a bigger question popped in his mind. “Why is it so important for you to get inside? If you’re in a hurry you can get somewhere safe until it blows over.” Vanessa laughed nervously again.

“There is no blowing over. You don’t know what’s going on, the government doesn’t either. She’s taking control of the Earth and WE need to be gone before that happens. I need to get inside because I need to get to you. I love you, it’s the only way to make sure you’re safe.”

“You’re not making any sense. If this mystery person is taking control of the Earth where are we going?” Eric saw Vanessa’s starry eyes roll upward and he felt a bit offended. Then, he noticed tears starting to flow down her cheeks.

“Another Earth, obviously.”

“What? What the hell are you talking about?”

“This is why I didn’t want to explain it out here. You’re going to have too many questions. Go look out the window,” she said. Eric left the door to stare out the living room window. Their apartment was on the fifth floor and he had a decent view of the city. He did not see anything at first until he saw a skeleton shatter on the street below. It instantly pulled itself back together and began marching into the nearest building. He watched several more skeletons land, then he looked up. The skeletons were falling out of a large black hole in the sky. He looked around and noticed dozens more black holes raining skeletons on the city. He ran back to the door.

“What’s happening!?” He shouted.

“Ballisea kills everyone, and she can’t be stopped,” Vanessa said with a soft, resigned voice. “It’s how she invades. Those portals aren’t just over the city, they’re all over the world.”

“There are already some skeletons in this building. If one of them finds me, Ballisea herself will show up,” Vanessa sighed. Her crying still managed to give her golden eyes a reddish color. “I love you, but I’m not going to die for you. This is your last chance. Open the door, or I’m leaving without you.” She stepped back from the door and made a gesture at the air. A smaller black portal opened in the hallway.

“You’re one of them!” Eric shouted.

“Goodbye, Eric. I did love you,” she said as she stepped into the black hole. When it disappeared Eric saw a skeleton step out of the stairwell. It walked to the first door in the hall and smashed through it with little effort. As it stepped into the apartment several more skeletons filed out of the stairwell, each crashing through a different door.