Three Star Service

“Thanks, Cassie,” Torque said. “My hands feel a ton better already. What’s in it?” She leaned against the rough, dark brown trunk of a towering pine tree. She was massaging a slick golden liquid between her wounded hands. The red-black burns scarring her palms crumbled off like the silver flakes of a scratch-off ticket. The scrawny girl with glasses shrugged. She knelt to the forest floor and returned the bottle of gold liquid back in her green backpack.

“I couldn’t find anything out beyond…,” Cassie lifted her hands for air-quotes. “…nanos and magic,” she said. “I guess it’s a secret the Academy wants to keep.” Torque nodded then stopped rubbing and looked at her hands. They were completely healed.

“Where’d your friend go?” Torque asked before the silence could get awkward.

“She brought me to have a picnic with the unicorns; but, then we found you,” Cassie said with a friendly smile. Torque immediately felt like she was intruding.

“I’m all better now, see?” Torque showed Cassie her healed palms. “You guys have your picnic,” she raised her hand in the air and wiggled her fingers rapidly. “I’ll go practice somewhere else,” she said. Despite her words and her digits waving frantically in the air; nothing happened. Torque still hadn’t completely mastered Traversing yet. Cassie giggled and shook her head.

“I’m still answering your question,” she said. “Cherry went to go get more supplies so you could join us.”

“Oh,” Torque said. She quickly latched on to the excuse and dropped her hand. “Yeah, I could eat. Thanks,” she said. After she accepted a wide, horizontal black hole appeared on the ground, then it traveled upward. It revealed a perfectly square dinner table as it floated up. The table was made of dark wood and it was surrounded by three chairs made from the same material. A tall brass candlestick sat on the middle of the table with a lit black candle resting in it. Torque whipped her head back and forth looking for Cherry.

“She’s not here?” Torque asked. “She put the table here perfectly without seeing it?” She asked in amazement. On her best days, Torque could open a portal to anywhere about half the time. Traversing was supposed to be easy for Estrellas, but she never thought it could be so effortless for someone. Cherry placed the table blindly from another universe. Cassie smiled. A smaller black hole appeared and rose from the table; it left behind three large pizza boxes.

“She’s really good,” Cassie walked to the table and sat down. She did not dig into the food yet, but she pointed at another chair for Torque. As Torque eased into her own seat a worrying thought struck her.

“Is she… in Star Brigade too?” she asked. She was relieved when Cassie shook her head.

“She’s uh…,” the fair-skinned girl bit her lip in thought for a moment. “She has a job that keeps her busy,” she said. “She’s not even a student at the Academy.” Another black hole left a basket of fried chicken on the table. Torque marveled at every delivery. The food containers landed flush on the table as if they’d always been there. They did not appear even a millimeter above the table needing to fall that last bit.

She can probably teach me better than Dirge,” Torque considered how she might get Cherry to tutor her. Then, she wondered if Cassie was doing the same thing. Before she could ask, the white-haired girl appeared in her seat at the table; deposited by a black portal. She immediately reached for a box of pizza; Cassie joined in and grabbed some chicken.

“Oh, forgot the drinks,” Cherry said. She took a big bite of pizza as a black portal appeared and disappeared leaving behind a 3-liter soda. A second portal delivered a short stack of empty plastic cups.

“Okay,” Torque said. “How the hell do you do that so well?” she asked. Cherry smiled and the pizza bulged her cheeks out. Without saying a word she reached for a plastic cup and held it up. A small, quarter-sized portal appeared above the cup and began leaking soda into it. Cherry nodded at the 3-liter bottle and Torque looked. She saw a small black portal in the bottle draining the soda; her eyes widened. Cherry stopped the stream of soda, took a big gulp to wash her pizza down, then she looked at Torque. She shrugged.

“Don’t know,” she said. “I just do.”

Sunny Recruit

Kyle sat alone at a small table in a barren coffee shop. Golden sunlight dragged long shadows across the empty tables and chairs. Dozens of pedestrians wandered by, their shadows sliding over the lone, bookish man. He wore a well-fitting burgundy tweed suit with a bright violet bow-tie and he nervously fidgeted with a small glassy rectangle. The transparent rectangle was as small as a playing card and just as thin. It was impossibly tough. He tested it himself up to a .22. It survived the slug with nary a scratch. Kyle tapped the glass to read the time and sighed; he’d already been waiting over half an hour.

It’s my own fault for being early,” he thought. He showed up to his appointment early hoping to use the ambiance of a bustling coffee shop to dissolve his nerves. Instead, he got a slightly annoyed manager forced to close his shop earlier than expected. Instead of easing his nerves; the empty coffee shop magnified them. “What kind of person closes a coffee shop for a meeting?” he wondered as his fears began to flutter in his stomach. “It’s my own fault for agreeing to meet…. for poking around like I always do,…” he whined mentally to fill the wait.

Two minutes after he checked the time, right on time for their meeting, a woman walked out of the kitchen. The sudden noise startled Kyle. When the manager left Kyle gave himself a tour; there hadn’t been anyone else in the shop. All the doors were locked as far as he knew and he didn’t hear them open anyway. The woman was tall, lean and pale. She had short dark hair and wore a crisp, perfect white dress-suit.

“Thank you for meeting with me, Mr. Dyson,” the woman said. She sat at Kyle’s table and gave him a courteous, professional smile.

“I won’t say anything!” Kyle blurted out. His nerves flared into paranoia. He frantically shook his head. “No one would believe me anyway. The woman nodded in understanding.

“They wouldn’t,” she said. “But you…,” she deliberately, obviously looked him up and down. “What prompted your search? Most people wouldn’t consider the possibility of what you’ve found; why did you?” she asked. Kyle shrugged.

“One day I had a thought,” he said. “It was just a normal day otherwise but for some reason, I remember it as the first time I had that thought. I was getting the mail and then it hit me; there are other universes,” Kyle sighed. “I knew it. The same way I know…,” he spread his arms wide to gesture at the empty coffee shop around them. “…we’re sitting here on a Monday morning; it felt like a concrete fact.” He dropped his arms. “It faded after a while, but every now and then I’d ‘know’ it again randomly.” The woman listened intently and nodded at the appropriate places as she listened to Kyle’s explanation.

“Then, I never got a package I was expecting. I didn’t care much at first but the longer it took to arrive the more I started feeling like it was in another universe somehow,” he shrugged. “Don’t ask me how. Anyway, no one I talked to had any idea. One night I was almost frantic about it. I felt like I had to do something so I wrote a letter and dropped it in the mailbox,” he chuckled and lifted the glassy rectangle. “Do you want this back?” he asked. The woman shook her head once. The day after sending his letter, Kyle received a small white box with a red scissor logo on the top; there was no postage. The box contained the clear gadget in his hands and instructions to set up a meeting. Nothing else. Not even instructions on how to use the thing beyond arranging the appointment.

“No, that node is yours to keep. Don’t be nervous, Mr. Dyson. I asked to meet with you because…,” she pulled a wrinkled envelope from the inside of her jacket and placed it on the table. “…it takes a certain amount of insanity to address a letter to: ‘The Head of the Alternate Universe’,” she smirked. “And I could use someone that embraces that kernel of insanity like you did.” Kyle’s eyes widened.

“You… you’re offering me a job?” he asked. “Do you know what I do?” She nodded curtly.

“You’re a mortician by trade, but that’s not what I need you for,” she said. “What’s your favorite number?” she asked quickly.

“46,” Kyle said. He blinked, surprised, then gave his head a quick shake and moved on. “What do you need me for then?”

“It’s less a job and more like a voluntary study,” she said matter-of-factly. “In exchange for letting us poke and prod you, you won’t lack any comforts. And you’ll get to see some of the other universes that you know are out there.”  Kyle nodded.

“Okay!”

Sharp Assistance

“This message is being broadcast on every possible frequency and device in every language. Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic,” the short, stocky woman said into the microphone. Several of the soldiers around her needed to look twice; they were surprised by the sweet, soft voice that came out of her mouth. It did not match the red skull tattoo on her bald head as far as they were concerned.

“Where’s Ms. Sharp?” A portly, haggard man asked the woman beside him. They stood at one corner of the room away from the broadcaster. “Shouldn’t she be here to make sure everything goes smoothly?” he asked; his tone of voice clearly hinted that things would not go smoothly without her. The short, dark-haired woman sighed.

“Mr. President, this was an unexpected test for us. She had an important prior engagement.”

“More important than the end of the world?” the President asked. The woman nodded firmly, clearly; then, she smiled.

“You have to remember you’re not the only Earth anymore.” The man scowled at her but nodded.

“Remember: Look for the red scissors logo. Do not trust any other portal,” the bald woman kept reading her prepared statement to the world. 

“So,.. what’s happening exactly, Margaret?” The President asked the woman next to him again. “Ms. Sharp said to call the moment skeletons start falling out of the sky, but she didn’t explain anything.” The woman gave him a cool glare.

“My name is Melody, Mr. President,” she reminded him. “As for what’s going on. Your Earth is being invaded by a powerful woman that we don’t know how to stop yet,” she explained.

“A woman?” The president chuckled nervously. “A woman? A single person is doing this?” Melody nodded. “And you really think we can evacuate the Earth?”

“That’s the goal we’re working toward,” she said with a polite, business-like, frigid smile.

“The skeletons were once people like you from Earths that she conquered.”

“…and remember: When you start your new life on your new Earth, Sharp Development is responsible for your second chance,” the bald woman said.

“She sounds like a commercial,” the President remarked. Melody nodded in agreement.

“Maybe a bit too much. We’ll tweak that part,” she replied as the bald woman walked up to them; she finished her broadcast.  “Well, what do you think?” Melody asked her. The stocky woman shrugged.

“It felt a bit long; I found a few spots we can cut out. And we need a different way to mention Sharp Development. Right now it sounds a bit too much like an advertisement,” she said.

“Thanks, Janet,” Melody replied. “Next we should-” Melody was interrupted by the sound of rapid gunfire from outside the room. The few soldiers in the room immediately faced the door and readied their weapons. Janet and Melody looked at the closed door.

“Definitely too long,” Janet said. She wiggled her fingers at the air and opened a tall black portal behind Melody. The President’s aide appeared next to him. 

“We need to get you to safety, Mr. President,” he said. The nervous man looked at Melody.

“Okay, I’m ready to go,” he said. Janet walked past Melody and disappeared into the portal. The President attempted to follow her, but Melody stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Go where?” she asked.

“With you! You’re evacuating the Earth, you can start with me,” he stood up straighter trying to loom his authority over her. Melody shook her head.

“This was a test; like a fire-drill,” Heavy, impactful thuds came through the door; the skeletons were trying to break in. “Thanks to you we have a ballpark for how fast we need to deploy,” she said with a smile and stepped backward into the black hole.

“I helped! You can take me because I helped!” He panicked and stepped forward. He couldn’t get into the portal because Melody stood right at its edge.

“I can,” she winked. “But, I don’t want to.” The portal closed.

Flaming Crown

“I promise I’ll be careful,” Marcus looked up at his mother with pleading eyes as he asked for permission. She looked down at him with tired eyes and gave him a soft, sad smile.

“Anyone want to take Marcus to see the Universal Flame?” She asked the group of siblings gathered around the picnic table. The concrete picnic table was the family’s first stop after the gates of the theme park.

The park was once a solemn and stringent cathedral used for religious rituals. The Universal Flame was thought to reveal a person’s destiny until it started giving less than insightful predictions. The last official prediction was recorded over a hundred years ago. It said, “Heart Attack” in response to a morbidly obese man that needed to be wheeled to the fire. According to the same record, he died three days later of a heart attack. No one doubted the predictions of the flame, but they didn’t need it to tell them the obvious.

As people lost interest in the flame the church could not maintain the cathedral and was forced to sell. The Universal Flame could not be moved; they tried. Instead, they sold it with the cathedral. It was incorporated as its own attraction.

“No….,” all six of Marcus’ siblings, ranging in age from 19 to 14, replied without looking up from their nodes. His mother sighed and looked at her 7th child. She was about to tell him no.

“I’m 11!” He held up his transparent, glassy node. “I have a node. I’ll be fine, mom.” He pointed at the mostly empty park around them; it was still early. “There’s no one around.” She looked unsure, but she also looked tired of saying ‘no’.

“You better call me if you so much as stub your toe young man,” she said. Marcus stood taller and puffed his chest out as much as a sickly, 11-year-old bag of bones could. It was the first time she called him a “young man”. All four of his brothers hated it but he couldn’t wait for the day that he was considered a man.

“Yes, Ma’am!” Marcus beamed and immediately bolted in the direction he thought the flame was. He didn’t know where it was exactly, but he wanted to get away before his mom, or worse: one of his siblings, changed their minds.

Marcus could not run long before he got winded, but he ran long enough to lose sight of his family. Now that he was on his own he slowed down to appreciate his first taste of freedom. He was at a theme park on a bright sunny morning with almost no one else around. He did not have an army of siblings giving him conflicting orders about what he needed to see next. He could wander and peruse at his own leisure.

He walked slowly and tried to catch his breath; then, he noticed a sign that pointed the way to the Universal Flame. He was closer than he expected. Marcus took a left turn at his next chance and found the right building.  It was a relatively small building with a handful of steps leading up to the entrance. Four black stone pillars lined the front of it. Marcus was glad to see there was no line. He walked as quickly as he could without losing his breath. The steps slowed him down but eventually, he made it to the top and wandered in.

The interior was straightforward and empty. It was not much bigger than Marcus’ house. The floor was black like the pillars but extra shiny somehow; it reminded Marcus of the night sky.  The walls were decorated with ornate tapestries, each one taller than Marcus himself. At the back of the room wide space was cut in the floor for the flame. It burned soft and calmly like a barbecue grill waiting for something to cook. It took up almost an entire third of the floor.

“Whooaa…” Marcus took a step closer to the flame; then stopped. It grew brighter. He waited a moment then took another step, again it grew brighter and he stopped. “How about THIS?” he said as he sprinted forward. It was only a few steps before he got to the edge. When he stopped the flame was taller than him and bright orange. “This is awesome!” he grinned.

“Okay,” he closed his eyes and started talking to himself. “No matter what it says, don’t be disappointed,” he reminded himself. He stood up straighter and spoke to the blaze.

“Universal Flame! Burn down the curtains of time so that I might see what lies ahead,” he said. Normally it was an ordained priest giving the incantation, but according to the internet, anyone would do. The flame dimmed and sunk into its hole. Marcus leaned forward to peer over the edge. “Universal Flame?” he asked again.

The flames jetted upward with a roaring whoosh and formed a towering spire of fire. After a few seconds, the blaze died down again. The fire sunk but left a flaming word floating in the air.

“Conquest,” the flames said.

“That’s a hell of a fate, kid,” a man’s voice said from behind Marcus. He jumped and turned around in the same motion and saw a tall, lean, pale young man with a sharp widow’s peak. He looked like he was the same age as Marcus’ oldest sister. She was 16. The stranger wore black jeans and a black t-shirt.  “What’s your favorite number?” he asked.

“47!” Marcus shouted. The boy was frightened but the answer forced itself out anyway; Marcus didn’t even know he had a favorite number yet. The stranger grinned; a red crown began glowing on the center of his forehead just under the point of the peak.

“There’s someone I want you to meet,” the teenager said and stepped toward Marcus.

Star Confession

“Okay, close your eyes,” Duke said. He stood in front of his girlfriend, Lena, in his bedroom. The decor was sparse, almost spartan. A queen-sized bed with simple white linens matched the white walls. A cherry-wood nightstand and a small reading lamp were the only creature comforts. It was their one-year-anniversary and he promised her something special. Lena hoped they would talk about moving in together; she smiled and closed her eyes.

“It’s been an amazing…,” he leaned forward and surprised her with a soft peck on her right cheek. “…amazing year. But.. if we’re going to go any further…,” he kissed her cheek again. His lips landed closer to her lips, but still firmly in ‘cheek’ territory. “… and I do want to go further with you. The next obvious next step is living together,” he said. Lena squeezed her fists in excitement but she tried to keep her face pleasantly neutral. “But, before we get to that,” he sighed. His tone changed. “There’s something about me you need to know.” He suddenly sounded unsure, and he was. He had no idea how she would react.

“Do I have to keep my eyes closed for this? We can talk about it when we get there, wherever,” Lena smiled. She did not know where he was taking her, but she was very excited to go. Duke gave vague hints: their destination was special to him and it was out of the country. “I don’t want to be late for the cruise.” She tried again to get him to say something about his plans, even if it was, ‘We’re not going on a cruise’. She tried mentioning various modes of transportation to get him to admit something. He never gave anything away.

“I made the plans, I know how much time we have,” he replied. She heard his voice move to her other side. “I love you,” he said. “No matter what happens next that hasn’t and won’t change.” Duke reached down and grabbed her left hand with his right. “Take one step forward,” he said. He stepped forward and pulled her with him. Lena saw the light in the room change through her eyelids. The brightness disappeared for a moment, then reappeared darker than before.

“Okay,” he squeezed her hand in a comforting gesture. “Don’t panic. Everything’s fine,” he said. “Open your eyes.” Lena did; she did not know how to react. Duke’s room was gone; its boring white walls were replaced by elegant marble pillars. They stood in a hallway that was bigger than Duke’s entire apartment. White marble floors and walls were perfectly polished. Lena looked around to try and see everything. She saw a cosmos of stars in an inky-black sky above the tall glass ceiling. She turned to Duke and saw the nervousness on his face. He was biting his bottom lip and stared at her through worried eyes.

“Where are we?” she asked, “How did we get here?” Duke sighed with relief. He was glad she asked questions instead of any of the worse reactions she could have had. He found his smile and pulled her hand to lead her through the white hallway.

“This place is called the Star Academy. It’s my school,” he said as he took a turn through a narrow arch at one end of the hallway that split off into two others. The hallway he picked was lined on both sides with plain-looking wooden doors. The rough, unfinished doors looked more at home on a barn than a marble hallway. “These are some of the dorms, there are several thousand more spread out through the school.”

“How did we get here?” Lena asked again when she realized he hadn’t answered that part yet.

“I want to show you something first,” he said. Duke stopped in front of one of the doors. He reached for the knob, twisted it, and pulled the door; it swung out into the hall to open. The room’s interior was a dark, messy, crowded apartment. The only light in the room came from the window. Pink neon lights highlighted the rain falling on the window. Lena could see that it was night time. Somehow the night sky outside the window seemed different from the black sky above her head. It wasn’t raining on the ceiling.

“What am I looking at?” Lena asked. Duke winked and closed the door. The second it clicked into place Duke opened it again. This time the interior was an apartment with an ocean view on a bright sunny day. “What’s going on?” Lena asked as Duke closed the door again.

“This is…” he opened the door a third time. “…my dorm.”  The door opened to reveal the apartment she had been standing in several minutes ago. Her navy blue suitcase was laying on his queen-sized bed in his boring room. Duke crossed the threshold pulling her along with him. “They’re all mine; each one is on a different Earth.” He walked to his bed and sat on the edge. Lena walked into the room but quickly turned around to see where she came from. She came out of the closet, but there was nothing there but clothes.

“So you’re telling me you went to a special school for wizards or something, and there are alternate Earths, and you’ve been to them?” Lena asked. She wasn’t sure she fully grasped everything, but she knew she wanted to. Duke half nodded and used his hand to give her the ‘more or less’ gesture.

“But,” she looked down at the floor then she turned and looked at the closet. “I only took one step. How did we get there?”

“The closet is only an exit. But,” he raised his hand to chest level and wiggled it at the air. A tall black portal opened in the middle of the room. “I can use these anywhere to go to any Earth. Well, you seem to be okay with everything so far?” he asked indirectly; she nodded. “So…” he smiled and dismissed the portal with a casual wave. “Where do you want to go for our anniversary?”

Sticky Situation

“Well…,” Jenkins stared at the young, tanned, dirty-blonde girl while she doodled. “…shit.”  He sat in the mostly empty library and watched her from the table next to her. She and he were the only two at the cluster of tables. The blonde girl wore a light green t-shirt and sat at the table alone. She had been alone for the past couple of days that Jenkins watched her. The slip gave a name: Honey, a general description of the target and where they would most likely be found. Usually, it was a list of locations; but, her slip only had one suggestion: Library. Jenkins saw her drawing often over the past two days but this was the first time Jenkins caught a glimpse. It was a large number ’42’ that took up most of the sheet. She decorated it with rainbows and pink flowers.

Jenkins was glad he took his time; he knew she wouldn’t have been targeted if she were a normal seven-year-old girl. But he didn’t know why. Now that he saw the ’42’ it was obvious. Jenkins sighed; it was also obvious he could not handle her by himself. The moment Jenkins decided to call for help a tall, lean, bony man in a tuxedo came into view and headed straight for the girl.

Yeah, that makes sense,” Jenkins thought. “Of course I’m not the only one.”  He recognized the tall man as another assassin and realized he wasn’t the only one brought in. He discreetly caught the tall man’s attention with a gesture that the girl didn’t see. The man looked at Jenkins, smiled, and shook his head. He didn’t want to work together; Jenkins sighed. He wasn’t friends with the man, but he always hated to see a co-worker die. Jenkins closed his eyes as the tall assassin pulled a knife out.

“What the-,” Jenkins heard the man say. There was a quick ruckus, a moan of pain, then silence again. Jenkins opened one eye and saw the girl drawing again as if nothing had happened. The assassin was gone.

Help it is,” Jenkins thought. He quietly stood from the table; Honey did not look up from her drawing. He skipped a couple of rows then turned into the third row from the tables. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a solid black business card. He tossed it on the floor and it formed a wide black hole. A teenage girl with long white hair wearing a blood-red hoodie rose out of the hole and stared at Jenkins with crossed arms.

“Again? Assassins are supposed to kill people. Not ship them off to another Earth,” she said.

“Shhhh, We’re in a library,” Jenkins said. The girl shrugged, but she didn’t make any more noise. “I think she’s a Calavera…,” Jenkins shook his head. “….no one here can handle that. And she’s seven years old.” The girl’s pink eyes softened and she nodded.

“Fine. What do we know?” she asked. Jenkins smiled; if they were actually friends he might have hugged her.

“Thanks, Cherry! Blonde girl sitting at the tables over there,” he pointed through the books. Someone came up and tried to attack her, but I didn’t see what happened. I don’t know where the guy went. I didn’t see him walking away and I don’t see a body anywhere.”

“Name?” Cherry asked.

“‘Honey’ is all I got.”

“Fine,” the girl walked past Jenkins but he grabbed her arm. “And find out what happened to the other guy if you can.  He had a family.” The girl shrugged and kept walking.

“Sounds like he picked the wrong career,” she said as he turned around the corner towards the tables. Jenkins stayed behind. He probably could go back and sit down and no one would think anything of it. But he did not want to risk Honey connecting him to Cherry. She wasn’t a normal 7 year old and he had no idea how intelligent she might be. After a silent eternity that only lasted five minutes, Cherry walked back into the row with Honey following her.

“Hey Jenkins…,” Cherry said, completely exposing their familiarity. “Honey wants to learn about the AlterNet, so I’m going to take her.” A black portal opened in the air.

“Bye Mr. Assassin. I’m glad I didn’t have to kill you,” Honey waved then ran into the black hole and disappeared.

“You’re a life saver, Cherry,” Jenkins said with a smile. “Oh, did you find out anything about the other guy?” he asked. Cherry was already halfway into the portal but she pointed upward at an angle, then waved and disappeared. The black hole closed but Jenkins looked up where Cherry pointed.

The lean, suited assassin was stuck to the ceiling. He was completely encased in a translucent, amber-like substance. His eyes were shut and his mouth was open as if he were screaming.

Star Bring Aid

“Are those…,” Cherry pointed to the sun-drenched glade surrounded by tall, narrow conifers. “…or are they not unicorns?” she asked Cassie. The scrawny girl with a green backpack did not reply; she was too entranced by the small herd of unicorns. Five white unicorns grazed in the sunlight; sparkles floated around them. It looked like an aura of magic glitter.

“Thaank you!” Cassie whispered and squealed at the same time; she sounded like a polite mouse in a library.

“C’ mon,” Cherry encouraged the shorter girl then she took a step forward. Cassie grabbed her arm.

“Don’t scare them away!” she whispered. Cherry turned and smiled at Cassie.

“They’re not so jumpy on this Earth, they’re pretty hard to scare. Watch,” Cherry tossed a small glowing red ball at the herd. Cassie gasped; she recognized it instantly.

“No!” she wiggled her fingers at the ball mid-air. A small, saucer-sized black portal opened and swallowed the ball before it landed.

“Hey, you’re getting pretty good!” Cherry laughed and patted the girl on her backpack. “But I can do this,” she grinned and faced the herd. “HEY! YOUR HORNS ARE STUPID!” she yelled. All five animals turned to look at her but did not move otherwise. “See? They’re like warhorses, nothing scares ’em.”

A brilliant blue streak shot across the tops of the trees with a roaring whoosh; it ignited every tree it touched. The unicorns bolted deeper into the forest away from the disturbance.

“Hah, scaredy cats!” Cherry yelled at the fleeing unicorns.

“AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!” A scream came from the same direction that the blue streak came from. Cherry turned to Cassie and pointed at a black portal.

“Go back to the academy, I’m going to go check,” she said. This wasn’t the first time she’d sent Cassie home early from an adventure because of complications. But, it was the first time Cassie did not listen. The girl stepped forward, away from the portal, and shook her head.

“I’ll go with you. I have to keep the unicorns safe,” she said.  Cherry rolled her eyes, but she giggled and led the way.

“They’re not that special; they’re like rats on this Earth,” she said.

“They’re special to me,” Cassie replied. “And rats are cute,” she added.

“Owwwooohhhh,” someone groaned and both girls froze to listen. “Ow ow ow ow,” a girl whined from behind a large tree in front of Cassie and Cherry.

“She sounds hurt,” Cassie said in a low voice, then she turned toward the tree. “Hello? Are you okay?” she asked in a louder voice.

“Yes! I’m fine!” the mystery girl said. The sound of rustling grass came from the other side of the tree. “I’m just…,” the girl made a heavy grunting sound as if she were straining to move something heavy. “…just taking a break.” A dark-skinned girl with twin black afro-puffs on her head came from around the tree while leaning on it. She tried to act casual while simultaneously relying on the tree to hold her up. “Hi,” She said; both hands were behind her back. Cassie squeaked again.

“TORQUE!” she said excitedly.

“That’s me. Have we met?” Torque asked. Cassie shook her head.

“Not yet. I’m in Star Brigade. We’re playing against you in a couple of weeks,” she said. Torque smiled at her.

“Was that you that screamed?” Cherry asked.

“Screamed?”  Torque shook her head. “I yelled. I’m just out here, you know.. yelling. Because it’s fun,” she said.

“And the plasma blast?” Cherry asked.

“Pla-” Torque looked up at the blue sky then glanced around the forest as if looking for something she knew didn’t exist. “Plasma? How do you mean?” Cherry burst into a sudden fit of giggles; Cassie laughed with her.

“Cassie, what’s Estrella rule #1?” Cherry said. She stood up straighter and crossed her arms proudly.

“Look with your special eyes,” Cassie said. Golden stars glowed around her pupils; then, the glow disappeared returning her eyes to normal.

“As an Estrella…,” Cherry pointed at Torque, “…you can see what someone is. It’s a good habit to use it the first time you meet someone new. So. Did you burn your hands off?” she asked with a grin.

“Ha HA, WhAT?” Torque shrank back slightly. “‘Course not.” Cherry stared at Torque silently for several seconds until she brought her hands forward. Both of them were blackened; burned and bloodied. “A little bit.” 

Cassie dashed to Torque to check on her wounds. She slid her green backpack off her shoulders and began digging through it.

“This happens all the time at the academy when students try to tame a new star,” Cassie said. 

Cherry Makes Friends

Violet leaned against her closed door and gave a small sigh of relief the moment she entered her apartment. She got home as quickly, and indirectly as she could; but, she knew it was only a matter of time before her captors found her again.

“Okay, time to move again!” she smiled to herself. This time it was to flee her captors, but the reason itself didn’t matter. She loved seeing new places. This was the first time a cult tried, and succeeded, to kidnap her. One time she moved because she found a market she liked with frequent sales. She wanted to see the town from the other side for a while. Violet caught her breath and walked from the door to her bedroom, through the living room. A young girl, Violet guessed around 14, in a blood-red hoodie was sitting on her couch channel-surfing; her long white hair was tied in a ponytail. Violet froze; she did not have any roommates. The girl looked up at her.

“Hey, you’re home. Great, I just got here. Let’s go.” She hopped up from the chair. Violet stepped back.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“I’m Cherry. Satan sent me. Let’ s go,’ she said again. Violet scrambled into the narrow galley kitchen to her right and grabbed her largest knife.

“Stay away!” The white-haired girl sighed and buried her hands in the front pocket of her hoodie.

“Do you want to be sacrificed to summon the devil?” she asked.

“No!” Violet yelled; she waved the knife around for extra effect. “Why me?”

“You’re… unique,” Cherry said. “If you don’t want to be sacrificed, let’ s go,’ the girl repeated. A tall, black, oblong portal opened next to her. The dark wormhole cut off Violet’s only other escape; if she decided to try and run to the bedroom. “It’s not like he wants to be summoned either. He’s training his replacement and doesn’t have time to make a trip up here because some idiots think he wants to conquer the world.”

“He… doesn’t?’ Violet asked. She lowered the knife partway, but still kept it pointed at the girl. The girl shrugged.

“Nah, that’s not how things work.” she pointed at the black hole and took a step toward it. “You coming?” Violet’s hand wavered; the knife dipped but then she brought it back up.

“How do I know I can trust you?” she asked.

“Because you’re still alive,” Cherry said. She looked down at the knife’s point. Violet followed her gaze and saw a small saucer-sized black hole hovering in front of the sharp tip. “Go ahead,” Cherry grinned. “Stick the knife in, slowly, and see what happens.”

“Slowly? Okay…” Violet said. She tightened her grip and shifted her weight. Cherry noticed the subtle wind-up and tried to warn her.

“I said slo-” Violet jammed the knife into the black hole. The tip, then the rest of the knife, exited a black hole next to Violet’s head; any more to the right and it would have gone through her eye.  Violet dropped the knife. It fell from her hand and bounced off her shoulder and spun to the ground. She yanked her hand out of the hole.

“Thanks for, uh.. not letting that happen. Can I grab my go-bag?” she asked. She trusted the girl completely now. Cherry looked at her wrist-watch, then nodded.

“You have four minutes to grab whatever you want.”

“Thanks! What happens in four minutes?” 

“Dinner,” Cherry said. She did not seem interested in offering any more so Violet dashed to her room. She grabbed the packed backpack she kept in the closet. Then, she glanced around her room but didn’t see anything that needed to come with her. She did not own many things other than her bag. It was mostly just creature comforts that she chose specifically for the apartment’s decor. She shrugged and went back out into the living room. She took less than two minutes.

“I’m Violet by the way,” she said.

“The devil sent me, remember?” the girl said; Violet saw her roll her pink eyes.

“Right. Of course, you know.” Violet said as Cherry disappeared into the dark portal. Violet followed her. She exited and discovered a brilliantly illuminated ranch. Everything beyond the lights looked pitch dark; as if there were no one else around for miles. Everything in their immediate surroundings was bathed in bright artificial light.

“Where are we?” Violet asked. Cherry walked up to the front door and knocked on it five times, followed by two more knocks; it sounded like ‘shave and a haircut’ to Violet. 

“I don’ t know, I don’t keep track,” Cherry said. Then, the front door flew open. A man that looked about Violet’s age grinned at the girl.

‘You came back!’ Cherry ignored him and turned to Violet. He looked surprised that there were two people on his doorstep.

“Violet, Zachary.” She looked at the man. “Zachary, Violet.” The two strangers waved at each other unsure what might happen next. “Zachary, your favorite number is 34, and Violet yours is 35.” Both of them looked surprised.

“How-” they tried asking at the same time, but Cherry waved at them. “Have fun talking about it. Bye.” She fell into a portal that opened under her.

“Uhhh…  Want some pizza?” Zachary asked, then stood aside to let her in his house. “It’ll be ready in a couple of minutes.”

Snake Rattled

“…and the whiskey is in case the snake bites you,”  Tom heard someone’s voice to his left before he opened his eyes. When he did, he found himself in the driver’s seat. He was holding a bottle of whiskey in his right hand, his left hand held a small metal thermos-like container. He turned toward the voice. A burly thug in a white tank-top was staring at him. “You didn’t get any of that, did you?” he sighed.

“Sorry,” Tom sat up in his seat. “First time,” he said. The thug’s eyes widened slightly. “First time? Why you doing this one, there’s a ton of easier jobs.” Tom shrugged.

“I learn faster if I jump in the deep end,” he said. It was how he lived his life and how he ended up as a driver for one of the largest crime organizations on the planet. He could have started small as a neighborhood thug and worked his way up, but he had the opportunity to jump in head first. He did. The thug nodded with a shrug.

“Whatever, I’ll give it to you again. This…,” he reached in through the window and tapped on the metal container. “…is powdered uranium. You’re taking this and the snake-..” Tom quickly turned to look at the passenger seat, then the floor, then down in his lap.

“What snake!?” he asked with more than a little bit of fear in his voice. ‘Jumping in the deep end’ was his life’s motto, but he wasn’t stupid about it. He would not, for example, lock himself in a small souped-up Volkswagen beetle with a loose snake.  Even if he was perfectly safe, the thought made him uncomfortable.

“It’s in the back seat,” the thug explained. Tom looked up at the rear-view mirror and saw a dusty brown rattlesnake in a small terrarium.  He sighed with relief.

“It’s timed. Deliver the uranium and the snake to the old-,”

“It’s marked on the GPS, right?” Tom interrupted as he reached for the small glassy rectangle in the center console. He tapped it and the display lit up to show a red arrow pointing forward. He swiped the arrow upward and it appeared on his windshield. A timer appeared below the arrow that said 15:00 minutes. “15 minutes? That’s all I get?” he asked the thug. The bearded man chuckled.

“Hard mode, Mr. Deep End,” he grinned.

“You said the whiskey was for a snakebite?” he nodded.

“Yeah. As the timer counts down the chance of the snake escaping starts growing. It can escape before the 15 minutes are up, but it definitely will when the time runs out.  “If it bites you, drink the whiskey and you’ll be good.”

“But, it hurts, right?” Tom asked.

“Like you’re on fire,” the thug grinned. Tom quickly shook his head.

“Nevermind, I’m out.” Tom tried opening the car door, but the thug leaned against it and held it closed.

“What do you mean, ‘I’m out‘? he asked. “Don’t be a chicken, a little bit of pain is good for you. What about jumping into the deep end?”

“Yeah, I do it when I can; obviously I won’t do it if the pool’s empty, you know?”

“But it’s not-,” the thug tried to explain something but Tom interrupted him again; he knew what the man was about to say.

“I know it’s not. Doesn’t matter, I don’t want to feel the pain so I’m not going to.” Tom touched the GPS again. The arrow disappeared from the windshield, then the entire car disintegrated into white powder around him. He stood up as the roof dissolved above his head; then, he looked at the thug.

“I don’t think this game’s for me. What else can we try?”  The thug grinned.

“It’s the AlterNet, we can try anything.”

Cherry Bombs

The sun was setting on another day. Zachary wandered around the edges of the large ranch he claimed as his own turning on the perimeter lights. Thanks to solar panels, and unclaimed generators he never worried about wasting energy. He reasoned he would die of old age long before he used up all the gasoline in his city much less the world. He was the last man on Earth and he was comfortable with that.

Zachary tried to convince himself every morning. But, every evening at sundown he turned on as many lights as he could to draw attention from someone. Anyone. Despite spending years traveling back and forth across the country he held out hope that there were other survivors. It wasn’t impossible that there were so few of them they simply missed each other.

He turned on the last light and stared at the brilliant sky with a proud smile. The lights could be seen for miles; he checked himself one evening. Satisfied, Zachary headed inside to see about dinner; he decided on pizza. Cooking from scratch was one of the few pleasures he had left with no other souls around. The second he closed the oven door, after sliding the pizza in, a sharp sound startled him.

A burst of five quick knocks hit his front door. Zachary recognized the “shave and a haircut” set up and dashed to the door. There was no mistaking that pattern; it was an intentional, intelligent person knocking on his door and he was eager to find out who. He threw the door open; but, no one was there.

What the hell?” he wondered. As he looked around he saw two small red balls on his front step. They looked to be about the size of golf balls; they seemed to glow with soft red light from the inside. He leaned forward to inspect them. Before he got too close they popped in quick succession and left tiny scorch marks on the concrete. Despite his confusion; Zachary chuckled. “I guess that’s the two bits…,”

“HELLO!??” he yelled hoping for some response. None came. “They’re probably being cautious,” Zachary thought. He had waited years for evidence of someone else; now that he had it he wasn’t going to rush anything. He decided to leave his front door open and go back inside. 

He turned around and saw a young girl wearing a blood-red hoodie and black jeans. Her long white hair was pulled back in a pony-tail; she held the oven door open and was eyeing the pizza. As if she suddenly realized Zachary was watching her she closed the oven and turned to look at him.

“How long till it’s ready?” she asked. She flashed a bored smile that seemed to come more from obligatory courtesy than a desire to be friendly.

Calm down. Just take it as it comes,” Zachary reminded himself. He fought hard not to rush over and hug her. She only looked around 13 and probably didn’t want strangers hugging her, even if she did break into their house. “Anser her questions and you’ll get a chance to ask your own.” He glanced at the kitchen clock on the wall behind her.

“About eight minutes. I’m Zachary,” he smiled and waved while keeping his distance.

“Cherry,” she said. She crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one leg. She clearly wasn’t going to offer any information.

“Was that you?” Zachary asked. He used his thumb to point at the open door behind him. “The two-,”

“The two cherry bombs? I WONDER,” She said sarcastically. “That’s it?” she asked; she raised her arms along with a disappointed shrug. “You’re the last person on Earth and a girl shows up in your kitchen .. and you’re not freaking out?” Zachary smiled.

“Obviously I’m not the last person on Earth,” he said. The girl gave a deep sigh.

“Yes you are,” she said. A black hole opened behind her; she turned and disappeared into it before Zachary could say anything. She vanished and the hole disappeared leaving no sign of either of them. Zachary’s heart sank.

“…because I’m from a different Earth,” he heard a soft whisper next to his ear. He jumped to the side and turned to see her head poking out of a black hole. She winked a light pink eye at him. “And I’m not here anymore.” Her head disappeared back into the hole before Zachary could say anything else. He was the last person on Earth again.