Hand-written

He has another phone?!” Sasha whined to herself as the well-dressed gentleman pulled out a third phone from his coat. The thin glassy cellphone did not look like any phone Sasha recognized. That, along with the gentleman’s apparent wealth made him an easy choice for her. The teenage girl found herself wishing she could check the other two she stole because the third one looked so much like them. But those phones were long gone; handed off to couriers that already disembarked. Internally, Sasha fumed that he had so much money that he didn’t seem concerned about losing two phones already. “I’ll just have to take that one too,” she decided. Hitting the same mark a third time was risky, but she did not have any evidence on her.

Sasha glanced around the train and found a scrawny jr-high student in a red beanie playing on his phone near the rich man. A pin shaped like a hand was affixed to his beanie. She’d never met the kid before, and probably never would; but, his pin advertised him as a courier. Sasha whistled casually, seemingly to herself, and the kid looked up. They locked eyes and Sasha glanced at the gentleman. The kid nodded then focused on his game again.

The next stop was coming up and Sasha started to work her way to the stranger. As the train began to slow, the student in the red beanie stood up and put his phone away; he caught Sasha’s eye and nodded again. The train came to a full stop and Sasha moved with the crowd.

“Oh, sorry,” Sasha apologized. She bumped into the gentleman, dipped into his pocket, then handed his phone off to the passing kid as he left the train. In less than 10 seconds the man’s third phone was off the train.

“No problem, it happens a lot,” the gentleman smiled at her. Sasha felt bold. Stealing from the same mark three times, with no evidence left her feeling cocky. She returned the gentleman’s smile and sat down on the seat her anonymous partner left open; directly in front of the man. She wanted to watch him freak out when he discovered all three of his phones missing. Sasha knew he’d suspect her, but she had nothing to worry about.

When the train started forward to its next stop; Sasha felt a furious fire growing in her stomach. The stranger pulled out a fourth phone, exactly like the others; without even wondering about the first three. He even pulled it from the same pocket. Sasha didn’t feel anything else in there each time she stole a phone. She clenched her teeth and balled her fists.

How much money does this guy have?” she wondered. “That’s a cool phone!” she said out loud before she could think about what she was doing. She stood from her seat to stand closer to him.

“Thanks,” he smiled at her. “It’s not a phone, though, it’s called a node.” He willingly handed the small glassy rectangle to her, Sasha noticed a tattoo of the number 21 on his hand. The node was slightly larger than a playing card but almost as thin, and completely transparent. He tapped the screen and the display lit up to show the time, like a regular phone.

“Oh, so you can’t make calls on it?” Sasha asked. She decided since she was already in the conversation she might as well learn about it.

“You can,” he said. “You can do everything that can be done on a regular smartphone, or even a computer.”

“So why not just call it a phone?” she asked. She returned the node.

“Because, unlike smartphones, it works with other nodes. Sasha narrowed her eyes and tilted her head at the gentleman.

“I make calls to other phones all the time,” she said. The man chuckled and shook his head.

“Not like that, I mean it works with other nodes. They share processing power. The more nodes you have, the more you can do.”

Ohhhhh,” Sasha realized why he had so many.

“I’d show you how it works, but I only have the one,” he said with a shrug. “But it’s great. Everyone can set a public allotment to share their processing power with anyone around them.” Sasha could not hold back a giant grin. She only had one more to steal. She could do that and get off at the next stop. He might be able to identify her, but he’ll never be able to prove it.

“Oh, you only have one? Why? What happened to the rest?” The man laughed.

“Unfortunately I only have the one right now. I haven’t been able to save up for another one yet.”

What?” Sasha was confused enough that the question actually left her mouth. “What?” she asked. “I mean, uh, WOW. That’s a really cool gadget.” He nodded, smiled, and slipped the node back into his pocket. Sasha realized the train was slowing down again for the next stop. “He’s probably putting it away so no one walks off with it,” Sasha smiled to herself. She focused on the task at hand; the mystery of the other nodes could wait. She knew she could get the one that he had.

Thankfully, the crowd around her helped once the train came to a stop. The flow of passengers forced Sasha to rub against him as they moved toward the exit. Sasha smiled and shrugged apologetically, keeping his attention on her eyes. Her hand dipped into his pocket again, grabbed the node, then it was back in her own pocket.

“Uh, see you around, I guess!” she half waved at the stranger while fighting against the crowd with exaggerated motions. She let them force her off the train.

“I look forward to it!” he smiled back. The doors closed and Sasha turned around. She pulled out the node, grinned at it, then put it back in her pocket. She debated keeping it for herself as she climbed the stairs out of the subway. She stepped out into the sunlight and the kid with the red beanie came running at her. He was wheezing and panting.

“Where’d it go!?” he asked her.

“Where’d what go?”

“The phone you handed off, it’s gone!”

“What do you mean it’s gone?” She asked him but reached back into her pocket to double-check. Instead of the cool, solid glass she expected, she felt a flimsy scrap of paper. “What the hell?” she pulled it out and noticed writing on it in pen. The paper looked like it was torn from the corner of a full sheet. Sasha read the note.

“Stop stealing my node, please,” it said. “I’m just going to steal it back.”

BarSpider

Dale tensed when the woman walked into his bar with her black leather trench coat flowing around her. Her purple crewcut and the tarantula inked on her neck hinted to him that trouble tended to follow her. Not that she herself would cause any trouble. He was sure of that; 20 years behind the bar sharpened him into an excellent judge of character. He watched her move as she walked up to the bar. The long coat hid most of her movements but she moved with the spindly grace of a long-legged ballerina. Dale could tell that she knew how to take care of herself.

“Strongest bottle you’ve got,” she said when she reached the bar. She slapped down two hundred dollar bills on the bar; then, she lifted the back of her coat to sit down on a stool.

“Rough night?” He asked as he placed the bottle down on the counter with a short glass of ice. The bar opened at 11 and it wasn’t noon yet. The woman unceremoniously, and effortlessly broke the neck of the bottle to open it. She tossed the glass neck into a trash can behind the counter that made Dale wonder how she saw it. Then, she poured the dark golden liquid into the glass.

“I did something stupid,” she said. Dale chuckled. That phrase was like, “Once Upon a Time” for bartenders. He knew he was in for a story.

“Should I expect to be questioned by the police about your whereabouts?” he asked with his best smile. She pulled the now alcohol-free glass from her mouth and set it on the bar to refill it, but she shook her head.

“Nothing illegal, just,…” she lifted the glass to her mouth again, but held it there until she found the right word. “…uncharacteristic,” she finished her thought, then downed the drink.

“How so?” Dale asked. His bar did not get much in the way of a lunch rush; he didn’t serve any food. He was in for a slow few hours until business picked up in the evening and thought her story would help him pass the time. She took another swig then gave Dale the once over.

He was a bald, stocky guy, but his arms seemed out of proportion to the rest of him. His biceps bulged under his white bartender’s shirt, and he had a nice smile.

“You got friends?” she asked. Dale smiled.

“Yeah. My group’s pretty tight,” he replied. The woman shook her head.

“I don’t,” she sighed. “I didn’t, until last night.”

“Friends are good, right?” Dale asked.

“Not if you have a possessive boss that doesn’t like you having friends.” She emptied the bottle into her glass. “When I say ‘boss’, think supervillain,” she pointed to herself. “Henchman,” she said then emptied the alcohol. “It wasn’t an issue before,” she shrugged. “Didn’t need friends.” Dale narrowed his eyes trying to gauge her. She seemed sincere and honest; but, he’d never heard of a supervillain outside of fiction.

“So, what changed?” Dale asked. “Why did you suddenly need a friend last night?”

“I didn’t need a friend…,” the woman said. She added another hundred dollar bill to the bar and gestured at the empty bottle. Dale was quick to replace it, but he took the liberty of opening it for her first. He didn’t want to deal with broken glass. “…she did.” In the back of his mind, Dale congratulated himself for spotting her as a soft heart. He enjoyed the warm feeling of vindication for a moment until the door opened again. The trouble he feared earlier walked in.

Dale had a group of rowdy regulars that liked nothing more than giving women a hard time. It didn’t usually get bad, and he was quick to warn anyone they might target. Unfortunately, they would almost certainly target the purple-haired woman. Dale knew she could handle herself, but he was worried about the damages to bar while she did. Thinking quickly he grabbed a third bottle and placed it on the bar.

“If I give you this will you leave without damaging the place too much?” he asked. Just as the woman looked up to ask him why, she was surrounded by a pair of muscleheads in muscleshirts.

“Hi there,” the one on her right said. He leaned close enough to rub his elbow against her. “Why’s a pretty girl like you drinking so early?” he asked. “Maybe we should get some lunch in that stomach first.”

“How bout it, beautiful?” the one on her left asked. “Want to join the four of us for a nice meal?” She glanced up at the mirror behind the bar and saw two more meatheads grinning at her.

“Sure thing,” she replied. “But first, let me finish talking to the bartender, and I’ve got a couple of bottles to finish. As I was saying…,” she looked at the bartender. “My new friend asked me to join her guild, and I said yes. But first, I have to leave my current one; I need to ask my boss.”

“Quitting?” the thug on her left asked. He scooted his barstool closer to her. “We got a job for you,” he grinned.

“Your boss, the supervillain?” Dale asked. She nodded. “What’s he like? Superpowered or anything?”

“He’s a giant spider,” she giggled. “Bigger than this bar.”

“Hey, Earl,” the one on her left called the one on her right, talking around her. “Crazy broad thinks she works for a giant spider. Do we want her that messed up?”

“I don’t know, Jim,” Earl replied. He craned his neck around the front of her to try and see her clothing under her trench coat. “Hard to tell if that body’s worth it.”  Dale nudged the unopened third bottle at the woman.

“Please?” he asked softly. She winked at him, then spun in her stool to face away from the bar. She stood up.

“You guys want a better look?” she asked and began sliding her black coat off.

“Yeah baby!” they called. She pulled her arms out of the jacket but held it in place. She turned back to face them while still keeping herself hidden behind the jacket.

“Catch!” she shouted and tossed the jacket at them. Jim and Earl both collided together trying to catch it; and, immediately started screaming. As the black coat flew through the air it fell apart. It disintegrated into black balls and each ball had eight legs. A swarm of pitch-black spiders landed on Jim and Earl and almost blanketed them entirely. Their two friends that weren’t covered with spiders screamed and ran out the door while Jim and Early frantically tried to brush them off. Dale scooted back against the bar and watched with his mouth agape. All doubts about whether she worked for a giant spider or not were dispelled.

She walked to the bar, grabbed both remaining bottles and smiled at Dale.

“Thanks for the booze,” she said and turned around. The spiders climbed off of Jim and Earl as she passed them and started climbing up her. By the time she walked out the door, she was wearing a black leather trench coat again.

Handy Addition

Morgan stretched her arms upward and used the action to lift herself to a sitting position in bed. The 18-year old woman yawned and rested her back against the headboard, then finally checked her cards. It took her almost three months after her 15th birthday to get used to the fact that she woke up with an assortment of cards. She splayed the five cards in her hand and flipped them over to check the backs, then sighed. She’d woken with a wide variety of cards over the past few years, but she narrowed them down into categories sorted by the artwork on the back.

“Druid and Healer,” she mumbled. She saw three green cards with elegant linework that made her think of a dense forest, and two white cards with red crosses on them. “Boring,” Morgan rearranged them by group, then turned them over to see what they were. The druid cards on the right side sparkled with golden text on a forest-green background. Each card showed different artwork illustrating the general concept of the card.

“Spider Climb, Hawk Form, and Rat Swarm,” she read the names and glanced at the rule text on the lower half of the cards. She shrugged at the duration then looked at the two healer cards. They had no artwork and consisted of red text on a clean white background that reminded Morgan of a hospital. “Handy,” she smiled at the pair of cards. “Infinite Stamina and Revive Death, whoa!” It was the first time she’d seen the Revive Death card. Seeing the new card invigorated her. She was starting to think she had seen all the cards already. Suddenly excited about her day, Morgan hopped out of bed to get ready.

When it became clear the cards would keep appearing, Morgan assumed the cards were meant to guide her day somehow. She tried to find uses for the cards to make sure she used them all every day, but over time it became clear they were entirely random. If the Revive card appeared when she was 15 or 16, she would have been worried sick the entire day.

“I guess I’m going to the park,” she decided while showering. The park had several rock-climbing walls and a giant jogging track around it that passed some very scenic views. She’d used both Spider Climb and Infinite Stamina several times to get a good workout, but this would be the first time she got to use them together.

An hour later she arrived at the park and headed straight for the rock climbing walls. Twelve walls of varying heights lined a broad cobblestone path; six on each side. Morgan stood in front of the tallest wall and pulled the cards out of her pocket. She did not bother with being discrete, it never mattered before.

It was a sunny, cool Saturday morning and plenty of visitors milled around the park. Dozens of joggers and others simply taking a stroll walked along the path in different directions behind her.

“Infinite Stamina!” a deep, booming, male voice spoke when Morgan ‘played’ her first card. She didn’t know where the voice came from, but she knew she was the only one that could hear it. She used cards several times in front of her parents, friends, and in public, and no one ever seemed to notice the voice. When the voice spoke she felt a tingle travel down her spine, then radiate out into the rest of her body. “Spider Climb!” the voice said when she used the second card. She returned the rest of the cards to her pocket, then shook her hands and legs to loosen them up and took a step forward to start her climb.

“You’re wasting cards on a wall?” a girl asked as Morgan reached for her first grip. She pulled her arm down and turned to face the voice. A young girl in a blood-red hoodie smiled at her. “Don’t you want something more challenging?” she asked Morgan.

“Wh-what?” Morgan asked. “What are you talking about?” She knew what the girl was talking about, but she wondered what exactly the girl knew about the cards.

“It’s kind of overkill, isn’t it?” the girl in the hoodie shrugged. “I mean, unless you need infinite stamina and spider climb to get up the wall,” she gave Morgan an appraising look up and down. “I don’t think you do.”

“You..heard,-” Morgan started to ask but changed her question. The girl obviously heard the card names. “Why aren’t you surprised?” she asked. The girl shrugged.

“What’s surprising? Card Mage is pretty much the de facto class for Manos,” she said.

“Wh-what?” Morgan needed to ask again. She didn’t understand any of the words in that context.

“#21, La Mano? Your abilities fit perfectly with the Card Mage class.”

“How’d you know my favorite number? What’s a Card Mage?” The girl’s eyes widened and she giggled.

“Now that is a surprise. You don’t know what you are or where you are?” she asked. “Does ‘The AlterNet’ sound familiar?” she added when Morgan didn’t respond right away. Morgan shook her head.

“Whoa…,” the girl replied, then she stuck her hand out. “I’m Cherry,” she said. Morgan shook the girl’s hand tentatively.

“Morgan,” she introduced herself.

“How’d you like to do something more fun with your cards?” Cherry asked.

“Like what?’

“Roller Derby,” Cherry grinned.

SnowDeath

Mom,” Kurt said with a firm tone. “I told you work keeps me too busy to date.” He glanced at his father. “You remember, right dad?” The pot-bellied elderly man waved at them from his recliner without taking his eyes off the TV.

“Leave me out of it,” he mumbled.

“No one said anything about dating,” Mrs. Stevens replied from across the feast-laden table. A perfect golden-brown turkey took up most of the center and it was surrounded by several colorful side dishes. Bright yellow corn, creamy white mashed potatoes, vibrant green beans and more made Kurt’s stomach growl. Dinner was ready and served, but Kurt’s mom slapped his hand away when he reached for a serving spoon. “He’s a nice young man and I couldn’t bear the thought of him spending Thanksgiving alone. It’s not always about you,…” she added an exaggerated shrug. “But.. if you happen to hit it off would that be so bad?”

MOM,” Kurt whined again but the rest of his argument was interrupted by the doorbell. “At least I can eat now,” he reasoned. Mrs. Stevens hopped up from her seat and took the long way around the table to get to the door. The detour allowed her to pass behind Kurt and adjust the sloppy collar on his crisp white shirt. It was at that moment that he realized why she asked him to “look nice” this year. The elderly woman with silver hair disappeared into the foyer while Kurt sat and brooded.

He did try dating on a few occasions, but being a supervillain wasn’t quite the selling point he hoped it was; even with a name as cool as GrimDeath. It seemed like the couple of men he revealed his secret to didn’t believe him; they laughed at him like it was a joke.

“That’s my husband, and this handsome young man is my son, Kurt,” Mrs. Stevens said as she walked back into the dining room. She was followed by a lean, tan, handsome young man in a dark suit. “Kurt, this is Michael,” she introduced them. Kurt rushed to his feet to shake the man’s hands.

“Thanks for joining us,” Kurt said with a smile.

“Thank you for the invite!” Michael replied with his own grin and a firm grip that left Kurt’s knees weak.

“You two go ahead and get started,” Mrs. Stevens said and smiled at Kurt. “Your father wants to eat by the TV.” She grabbed a plate and began piling on little bits from each dish. Kurt gestured at a seat for Michael and the two men sat down across from each other.

“So how’d you meet my mom?” Kurt asked while filling his own plate. In the corner of his eye, he caught a smug grin from his mom.

“We’re in the same fan club,” Michael laughed.

“Fanclub?”

“SnowBlitz fan club,” Michael explained. “They have meetings every month, and I met your mom when she first joined a few months ago.”

“Oh,” Kurt said softly. “That’s nice,” he quickly shoved a forkful in his mouth so that he didn’t have to talk. SnowBlitz: the city’s most popular hero and Kurt’s sworn nemesis. His mom used to talk about SnowBlitz so much it bothered him. It got to the point a few months ago that Kurt actually asked her to stop. He was surprised when she did, but it seemed she found another outlet for her fandom.

“How’s the food, boys?” Mrs. Stevens asked as she joined them at the table.

“So delicious!” Michael exclaimed. “I’m so glad I’m eating this with you kind folks instead of pizza alone tonight. I can’t thank you enough.”

“Well, no one should have to spend the holidays alone. Even if they are single, right Kurt?” she asked her son. Kurt nodded and shoveled more food into his mouth; he was thankful there was enough to keep him silent the whole night. “Did Michael tell you he works for SnowBlitz?” Kurt shook his head. Michael chuckled and shook his own head.

“It sounds a lot better when you say it like that,” he said. “I just work for the messaging service that SnowBlitz uses.”

“It’s practically the same thing,” Mrs. Stevens replied. “Have you ever met him? What’s he like in person?” she asked. Kurt’s mood was in free-fall. He wanted a nice meal with his parents. Instead, he got blindsided with a blind date and now his mom is focusing on SnowBlitz again.

“I got to talk to him once, just on the phone. He seems like a nice guy,” Michael said.

“I’ll bet he is. He seems like a great man, I’m sure his mother is very proud of him.”

“Excuse me,” Kurt said quickly. He did not have a plan, but he needed to leave the table. He wandered into the kitchen hoping to find some alcohol. After a moment the door swung open again and his mother entered the kitchen.

“Everything okay, dear?” she asked. Kurt found himself trapped in a corner between the sink and the stove; his mom walked closer and put a hand on his shoulder.

“No, mom,” he said. “You know it bugs me when you fawn all over SnowBlitz, and I don’t need that on top of a blind date that I wasn’t ready for.” Mrs. Stevens sighed and squeezed Kurt’s shoulder.

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, we should have talked about this when you brought it up.” She let go of his shoulder but stepped closer. She lowered her voice to a near-whisper. “At the time, I thought it was better to let you have your way, but I’m starting to think that didn’t work.” Kurt narrowed his eyes and tilted his head at her.

“What are you talking about?”

“This whole SnowBlitz business, it’s gotten silly. Do you honestly think your father and I care more about some famous superhero than our own son?” Kurt shook his head. When phrased like that, it did sound silly.

“It’s complicated,” he answered. He didn’t really think they cared more for SnowBlitz, but it bothered him that they couldn’t be proud of him the way they would be if he was SnowBlitz. Mrs. Stevens sighed.

“It’s not complicated, you’re making it complicated,” she said. “Do you think we’re stupid?” she asked.

“..What? Where’d that -“

“Do. You. Think. Your. Parents. Are. STUPID?” she asked.

“No! Of course not!”

“I’ve been waiting years for you to come out to us,” she said.

“Mom, you set me up on a blind date with a man. You already know I’m gay.” She slapped his shoulder.

“Not that, dummy. Your father and I are VERY proud of you, GrimDeath,” she said. Kurt’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open. “That’s why I’ve been needling you, to make you admit it to us. We can’t exactly brag to anyone that you’re our son, but, we can tell you how proud you make us. At least, we planned to once you came clean to us.” Kurt’s eyes filled with water and he hugged his mother tight.

“Thanks, mom,” he croaked. After a few more comforting minutes, Kurt spoke again. “So you know why I can’t date anyone, why’d you invite Michael?” Mrs. Stevens giggled.

“He thinks we’re stupid too,” she said.

“How so?” Mrs. Stevens rolled her eyes. “You’re going to tell me you don’t recognize him? Picture him in a blue snowsuit with some silver goggles.” Kurt did then gasped.

“SnowBlitz!” Mrs. Stevens nodded with a gleam in her eye.

Stellar Invitation

Christine skated on the empty boardwalk at top speed. She enjoyed the bright sunshine and cool breeze of a Saturday morning. The 17-year-old could skate as fast as she wanted; no one else was around. Christine convinced the entire town that none of them wanted to visit the boardwalk on Saturday mornings.

She did not know how her abilities worked exactly, but over the years she narrowed down the procedure to a touch. She could control someone’s mind after a simple touch. Whatever it was that gave her control also seemed to be infectious. If a person under her control touched someone else, they both fell under her thrall.

Christine tried not to use it too often; she could ‘turn it off’ in people and give them free will again.. at least until Saturdays. It was the one day that she let herself flex her gift for a few hours so she could skate unimpeded. She enjoyed having a relatively normal life. She found enjoyment in doing things ‘the regular way’ without forcing anyone to give her anything.

She was so used to the barren boardwalk that she slowed to a stop when she spotted a girl heading in her direction. Even though Christine stopped skating, the dark-skinned girl kept moving toward her. The stranger had a pair of afro-puffs atop her head tied with bright golden ribbons that swayed with the breeze. She wore a candy apple-red windbreaker and a pair of denim shorts; then, Christine noticed the girl was on skates too.

“Hi!” The stranger rolled to a stop in front of Christine and offered a hand.

“Hi,” Christine replied with less enthusiasm, but she accepted the handshake. She knew one other person was not a big deal, but Christine preferred being alone, even in public. She had grown used to having the beach to herself and wanted to keep the trend. “You want to go home for a few hours and come back later,” Christine willed the thought into the girl’s mind.

“I’m Britt,” she said with a smile.  

“C-Christine,” she introduced herself with a stutter. It confused her that Britt introduced herself at all. “You need to go home,” Christine tried the suggestion again.

“Where is everyone?” Britt asked and spread her arms to gesture at the empty boardwalk.

“Uhh,” Christine shrugged. “It’s like this every Saturday,” she replied. She never needed to practice lying and felt glad that she could get by with a carefully worded truth.

“Awesome,” Britt said. She nodded and her smile grew from ear to ear. “Are you any good with those?” she asked with a glance down at Christine’s skates.

“I can skate without falling over?” Christine shrugged. The fact that Britt seemed immune to her ability bothered Christine more than she wanted to admit. Britt laughed a bit, then elaborated.

“I was thinking of something more competitive. Is roller derby a thing around here?” The question melted Christine’s unease in an instant. One of the more unexpected consequences of her abilities was that she won every game. Somehow even when her opponents had free will, they chose to let her win. She tried to lose dozens of times but still won. But Britt was immune and competitive and they had the whole empty boardwalk to skate on.

“I wish,” Christine replied; she finally added her own smile now that she felt comfortable. “I’ve seen some matches on TV and it looks like a ton of fun.”

“Hmmm,” Britt seemed to be thinking over Christine’s answer. “And what about the AlterNet?” she asked. Christine waited for a moment to let Britt finish her thought.

“Alternate what?” she asked once the silence started to make her uncomfortable. Britt giggled.

“You’d know,” she said. Britt stood up straighter, shifted her weight, and crossed her arms. She looked Christine up and down as if appraising her. “So you’ve only seen derby on TV and you’ve never heard of the AlterNet?” Christine shrugged. The questions seemed rhetorical and didn’t know what else to do. “I’m starting a roller derby team, how’d you like to be on it?”

“Yes!” Christine cheered and hopped in place with excitement.

“But there’s something I have to know first,” Britt said. “Are you fast?”

“Faster than you,” Christine replied with a broad smile.

“Oh yeah?” Britt asked. She moved to stand next to Christine; both of them faced the same direction. Britt crouched to a runner’s position ready to push off with her legs and gestured for Christine to do the same. “Show me.”

Starry Idol

“Maybe I’ll see you again!” Lee shouted with a wave. The pair of girls she defeated returned the gesture with broad smiles. Lee left the park on foot; she followed the ghost of an old road toward home. It wasn’t until after ten minutes of walking that she realized her mistake. “Duh,” her statement was joined by the sound of her palm slapping her forehead. After the smack, she pinched the air in front of her as if she selected a single sheet of paper. A glassy rectangle, her node, appeared between her thumb and forefinger as she pulled her hand.

“Show me the last game,” she said to the card-sized pane. Lee slowed her pace along the road while she focused on the node; she wasn’t worried about traffic. As far as she knew she was the only one that ever used the road and most of that use was walking. Light text appeared in the center of the glass. Both of her opponents’ names were highlighted in red to indicate they were not on her friend list. The path along the road was so dark the text appeared to be hovering in mid-air.

[ 2 on 1 Knockdown:

DeLorean – Gunslinger

Christine – Healer

Vs.

General Lee – Thief

Winner: General Lee]

“Add DeLorean and Christine as friends,” Lee said. The game results updated instantly and the girl’s names changed from red to green. After that, she let the node disintegrate into nothing again and resumed her normal pace. Lee took several more steps, then froze. She heard the crunch of gravel but it did not come from her own footsteps; it sounded like it came from somewhere ahead.

A shadowy figure walked on the road toward Lee. Due to the darkness, she could not make out anything about the person but their eyes. Two brilliant golden stars stared at Lee as the person approached.

“You’ve passed the test,” the unknown woman said.

“Thanks! Bye,” Lee waved at the woman then changed her course to walk around her. She did not know what test the woman meant and tried to avoid the situation entirely. She kept her body tense and ready to move as she walked past the woman. Lee half expected the stranger to get in her way, requiring her to change direction again; but, the woman did not move.

“Don’t you want to know what test?!” she asked. “I’m trying to be mysterious!” she said playfully. The stranger’s joke shifted the tone and Lee immediately felt at ease enough to chuckle and slow her pace. She continued walking for several steps to leave some distance between them, then stopped and turned around.

“Alright, I’ll bite. What test?” Lee asked. The woman’s golden eyes grew brighter and Lee got the sense she was smiling.

“The test to join my Derby team,” the woman replied. Lee fought back every instinct that wanted her to yell, “YES!” at the offer. The entire reason she went to the Derby park as often as she did was to practice and be seen practicing. Her goal was to join a good team. She’d had several offers already; and, each one was almost impossible to turn down. So far, none of the teams seemed all that promising.

“What if I say no?” Lee asked.

“Then you’ll be stuck hoping some other team invites you to the Prom.” Lee felt her legs get weak, she almost fainted then and there.

“P-Prom?” she asked to be sure. “Oren’s tournament? That Prom??” Lee stomach fluttered at the thought. She had all but given up hope of entering the tournament. The deadline for team registration ended the next day. The golden stars dipped then rose again as the woman nodded. Lee had an inkling in the back of her mind. If her suspicions were true, she would agree then and there. If she was wrong, she’d need a bit more time to consider it once she learned about the rest of the team.

“This test that I passed, so it was like a try-out?” Lee asked. The stars bowed again. “Does that mean DeLorean and Christine are on the team too?” Lee felt it was the only reason she’d be approached that night instead of any other day. The woman laughed.

“You’re quick! And, you’re right. They are on the team.”

“Great! I’m in!” Lee jumped in place to give her excitement an outlet. “Who else is on the team?”

“Not sure yet, we need two more,” the woman replied. Lee felt her heart drop into her stomach.

“You don’t have a full team yet?” she asked. “Registration closes tomorrow…,”

“Don’t worry about it,” the woman said. Her right hand began to glow with a brilliant white light and she lifted it to illuminate herself better. “Oren owes me big time, I’m sure he’ll make an exception.”

The stranger was younger than Lee thought. She knew for a fact they were the same age, 18. Lee was a big fan of her new teammate and knew almost everything about her.

“TORQUE!” Lee shrieked with delightful surprise, then she realized she had agreed to be on Torque’s team and it was too much for her to handle. Lee fainted

HandHunters

“Not my problem,” Dexter mumbled to himself as he glanced at the text. He was sure he turned the phone off, but thinking fast was a major part of his success at pickpocketing. The mid-20s thief grabbed the phone during a moment of opportunity and did not hesitate to ditch it. After a careful bump into a rushing stranger, the phone was no longer in his position. Dexter continued strolling down the crowded street looking for his next opportunity.

It was mid-day and the weather was perfect. A golden sun hung in the azure sky while a gentle breeze flowed through the lunch crowd. Dexter watched anyone leaving a restaurant to see where they put their wallet. 10 minutes after he dumped the stolen cell phone he felt a vibration in his jeans pocket and heard an unfamiliar musical ringtone. He found the same stolen cellphone ringing and was surprised enough to answer the call.

“Hello?” Dexter asked.

“You’re in the hunt now,” a woman said. She sounded stern and professional, like a teacher reprimanding him. “Misplacing the phone won’t disqualify you.” He stopped walking and looked around. Each passing stranger minded their own business and he did not notice anyone that seemed to be watching him. Dexter shuffled into an alley to get out of the river of pedestrians. He had a million questions about what the hunt was and how the phone got back into his pocket; but, despite all his questions he only needed one answer.

“How do I get disqualified?” Dexter decided the fastest way out was just to talk through it. “I didn’t sign up for any sort of hunt.”

“You are currently designated as: The Hunted,” the woman said. “If you kill a Hunter, you may take his place. Only Hunters may withdraw from the game.”

“I didn’t volunteer for any games,” Dexter rephrased his only defense.

“You did,” she replied with a matter-of-fact tone. “Even if you weren’t aware of it at the time.”

“What kind of freaking game makes people play it without telling them? What kind of ass came up with that?” The woman giggled lightly into the phone.

“Probably the same kind of person that steals other people’s belongings,” she replied.

“This is about the phone? Look, I’ll give it back no sweat. I’ll even add some cash on top of it for the inconvenience.”

“It’s not about the phone, it’s about your actions. Your own decision entered you into the Hunt. By the way, you only have 15 minutes left on your head start.” Dexter sighed.

“Fine,” he said. “Can I get a short version of the rules to help me out?” He suspected that 15 minutes was not enough time to talk himself out of the game. He was in it and needed to learn how to play.

“There are four hunters. At the moment they’re currently watching you have this conversation,” Dexter couldn’t help but look around the empty alley. “In 15 minutes the feed will shut off and they’ll be let loose to stalk you. You’re lucky, most people wear themselves out during the headstart.”

“What if I go to the cops for protection?”

“I wouldn’t do that,” the woman said. “There’s no reason for innocent officers to die; and, they will die. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now this isn’t exactly a ‘legal’ game. The Hunters have no qualms about mowing down anyone that gets in their way.

“So they know what I look like, do I get to know anything about them?”

“Good question!” she replied. “No one’s ever asked about them. I can tell you this much: The four after you are #12 El Valiente, #25 El Borracho, #32 El Músico, and #34 El Soldado. I’ll send pictures to the phone.”

“Wait what do those numbers mean?” Dexter asked. The woman giggled again.

“If you don’t know that, you’re already losing. Head to Mundo’s tattoo shop and he’ll clue you in on the numbers. However, don’t think he’ll give you any protection. 12 minutes left.”

“Mundo’s is way across town!” Dexter replied. He’d seen the tattoo shop on occasion and even came close to visiting for his own tattoo.  “I can’t get there in 12 minutes!” She laughed at him one more time.

“Not my problem,” she said then hung up the phone.

Companion-Shipped

Eddie tried to ignore the screams. He had yet to complete a week but he heard the same scream each day; several times a day. He was worried at first, but no one else seemed concerned. Everyone kept their eyes on their conveyor while they worked. He tried to keep his focus on the never-ending line of mechanical parts but he happened to glance up. He was surprised to see Kathy, a cute brunette he met on his first day and had been trying to get to know better. She hurriedly ran toward the boss’ office while holding a blood-soaked rag on the stump that was once her left hand.

Eddie looked around at his co-workers. They did their work ignoring anything and everything else.

“This isn’t what I want to be,” Eddie mumbled to himself. He did not want to grow jaded by ignoring people’s screams every day. “I’m done,” he said and stepped away from his line. Parts continued to roll by as if he wasn’t needed. His first decision was to check on Kathy. He rushed to try and catch up to her; but, he did not reach her before she entered the boss’ office and closed the door.

Eddie hesitated but remembered he was quitting anyway and followed her in. He did not expect his boss to be in a meeting with two oddly dressed people0. A pair of men wearing sunglasses and black leather trench coats were standing in front of Kathy. One held her wounded hand and smiled while the other pulled a fist-sized black bag out of his coat. All eyes turned to Eddie.

“What?” his former boss asked. Eddie ignored him and approached Kathy.

“Hey, you okay? Is there an ambulance on the way?” he asked her. The two strangers immediately started chuckling.

“Don’t need one,” she smiled. “Canniac _420 can fix it for me,” she turned her attention to the stranger with the small bag as he opened it. “Right?” she added. The man nodded and pulled out a golden, glowing orb; it was about the size of a golf ball.

“What are you talkin-” Eddie started to ask but the stranger touched the golden ball to her stump. The moment it made contact a wave of golden energy flowed up her arm; then, across the rest of her body from the shoulder. The surge’s wake left her wearing an entirely different set of clothes. A long white trenchcoat with a red cross on its back replaced her green work shirt and blue overalls. Her short brunette hair became a bright red faux-hawk and a pair of dark sunglasses appeared on her face.

“No way! You got the medic!?” The second stranger said; his voice carried equal parts awe and disappointment. Canniac_420 paced around Kathy in her white coat looking her up and down, then smiled.

“Some of us are just lucky,” he said. “Your turn.”

“I wonder if I can pick him,” the second asked and pointed at Eddie.

“What the hell is going on?!” Eddie shouted. He had been trying to ask that question for almost a minute now but he was too stunned by what he saw that the question never came. The moment he had their attention again his question jumped out of his mouth.

“Try it,” Cannaiac_420 said with a shrug. They both ignored Eddie.

“Hey bossman,” the stranger said. “I’m looking for some long term help. Can you spare anyone?” As he asked, the stranger put his arm around Eddie’s shoulder.

“Well…,” Eddie’s former boss scratched at his beard in thought. “…depends on the work you need. Strict deadlines mean I can’t just let anyone go, but I think there was just an accident out on the floor.  If one of our employees lost a hand they won’t be able to keep up one-handed. Does that work for you?” he asked.

Eddie’s mind was whirling at the conversation going on around him, about him, but he could not seem to find any words. He felt unable to speak despite wanting to.

“Yeah, I’ll take him,” the stranger said. He reached into his own coat and pulled out a small black bag. The moment hee agreed Eddie felt unbearable pain in his left wrist. It happened so fast and hurt so much that he let out a scream there in the office. Through the immense pain, somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized that his scream sounded exactly like all the others.

Self Discovery

Andy froze, his laughter ended the moment he saw the display.

“Android, v. 5. Uptime: 18 years 2 months 17 days 14 hours 11 minutes.”

“Whoa, hehe,” Greg, Andy’s coworker, chuckled. He placed the handheld scanner back in its holster by the register. “Don’t worry, man. Your secret’s safe with me,” he gave Andy a smug grin.

“You.. you saw that?” Andy asked but Greg shook his head; the grin remained.

“I didn’t see nothing,” he said. A customer with a full cart in Greg’s lane interrupted them. 

“Cover for me, I need to make a call,” Andy left his register as Greg gave him a dismissive wave.

“Yeah, no problem,” Greg replied. Andy could not see Greg’s face but he still heard the smugness dripping from his words. Andy fled to the break room. He pulled his phone out on the way and it was ringing by the time he sat down at a small empty table.

“Hi honey, did you quit?” His mom asked the moment she answered. She knew his schedule, and he never called while on the job. Andy’s parents always insisted he did not need to work; and, the fact that he was employed by a supermarket seemed to make his parents extra anxious. He started to wonder if maybe this was why.

“No, mom. But something interesting did happen,” Andy said.

“Oh?” she asked. Andy thought he heard a note of concern in her voice. “What’s that dear?”

“My coworker and I were playing with the scanners -,”

“I told you to stay away from those, they’ll blind you,” his mom said.  Her tone switched from worried to defensive.

“Yeah, about that. He flashed it in my eye and I didn’t go blind.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. But I hope you won’t take any more chances like that. Just because you didn’t doesn’t mean you won’t,” she sounded hurried like she wanted to end the conversation already.

“But I did see it list me as Android v. 5,” Andy said. His mother fell quiet. Even her breathing seemed paused.

“Andy, honey… I can expla-“

“WHAT THE HELL, MOM!? YOU GUYS TOLD ME I WAS 8TH GEN!”

Stone Cold

“Cadence,…” Gale called her daughter as the girl exited the car. The bony girl adjusted her backpack as she turned around. She swept loose strands of her coffee-brown hair out of her eyes.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“If you ever feel cornered…,” Gale began. Cadence sighed at the subject matter but stayed long enough to listen. “…look, honey, don’t worry about school. Whatever happens, I’m on your side. Don’t be afraid to fight back. Sometimes people need to learn lessons the hard way. Teach them not to mess with you.” Cadence rolled her eyes. Ever since she opened up to her mom the night before about being bullied, she’s been encouraging the girl to fight back.

“I’m not beating anyone up, mom. They’re just annoying assholes. School’s over in a month, I can make it until then.” She shut the door on the conversation and walked off. Gale fumed in her seat.

“Those little shits,” she mumbled to herself and left the school grounds. The previous evening, her rage grew hotter and hotter as her daughter explained the situation.

“They hide my things,” she said. “They call me names and push me around in the halls between classes.” Her daughter listed more than a dozen instances of things that individually, wouldn’t be worth noticing. Adding them all up, however, painted a very clear picture. Her daughter was being bullied. Gale fought hard to contain her anger; she did not want Cadence knowing about her villainy just yet. She knew she would have to be honest eventually, but she felt the girl wasn’t ready yet. Gale pulled into her driveway and left the car.

“Pushing her down?” Gale growled. She did a quick spin in her front yard to take a look around. Her neighbors were all gone to work, the street was quiet with no passing cars. The ground opened beneath Gale and swallowed her whole. Seconds later, she grew out of the ground head first. Her white blouse and black slacks were replaced by a green and brown outfit woven entirely out of roots and vines. Her short dark hair was covered by long green, flowering vines that almost reached her waist. “I’ll just have to go push them down.”

At school, Cadence was in the middle of P.E.. She jogged along, alone, around the large track that circled the school. She rounded the furthest spot from the school ready to head back when she heard familiar laughter. The path ran near the edge of a forest. The school grounds were once enclosed by a fence, but over time kids picked at the fence until it was no longer a solid border. Cadence turned toward the laughter and found a trio of girls. They stood at the edge of the forest on the other side of a hole in the fence.

“Hey, Cadie,” the tall one in the middle said; she flashed a sinister grin. “We’ve been waiting for you.” She took a menacing step toward Cadence, but she tripped. The tall girl fell face-first into the tall grass; Cadence did not hesitate. She saw her chance and bolted back to the school as soon as the girl fell forward. The two shorter girls tried to run after her, but they tripped also. Once they were on the ground, they had trouble getting back up.

The tall girl tried pushing herself up but vines sprouted out of the ground and slithered up her arms.

“Oh shit,” the tall one said when she realized what was happening. “It’s Gaia!” she told her two friends; they were being held down by vines also.

“That’s right!” Gale laughed as she walked out of the forest behind them. “On your feet girls, we need to talk,” she said. At her words, the vines moved like tentacles. Thin green vines turned the girls around on their backs. Then, they rose into the air and lifted them to a standing position while keeping them bound and gagged. “I’ve heard that you’re giving Cadence Stone a hard time,” she said. Gale took a step toward them and pulled a stone dagger out from under her vine-clothes. She stood in front of the tall girl and held the dagger up for her to see clearly. “Is that right?” she asked. All three girls eagerly confessed with silent, energetic nods. Gale growled in frustration and slapped the leader with the back of her hand; then, the vines loosened enough to let her speak.

“What the hell, Gaia?” she shouted at the villain. “You told us to!” Again, Gale slapped the teenager, then she lifted the knife to the girl’s face; inches from her eye.”I didn’t tell you to bully her you idiots,” she growled but the vines loosened around all three girls. “I said, ‘make her life HELL!'” Gale grabbed the girl’s hand and gave her the knife. “Now go and STEP IT UP!”