Super Soldier

“Josh…,” Mary sighed at her costumed savior. The would-be mugger fled out of the dim alley but the caped crusader did not follow him. Mary followed her usual shortcut home behind the strip mall she worked at. The sun disappeared below the horizon while the thug, a well-known school bully, waved a knife at her; only a dark purple sky remained. The hero made it clear to the hoodlum that he was being watched from now on before he let him escape. “You showed me this exact outfit in our freshman year,” she tugged at the pearl-white cape for effect. His coffee-brown eyes softened.

“You.. you remember that?” he asked with every ounce of his normal insecurity. His softer, warmer voice replaced the deep gravel he threatened the bully with. Mary nodded.

“Yeah, it’s a cool design,” she touched the logo on his chest: a generic yin-yang symbol centered on a black and white bodysuit. The symbol’s white side stood out against the black half of the suit on his left. The black side was surrounded by a plain white bodysuit. “Where’ve you been? Everyone thought you moved.” Josh gave a curt, shallow laugh.

“Ha. You mean they noticed?” Mary gave a half shrug with her right shoulder and a half-smirk.

‘I noticed,” she said. It was the only honest thing she could say. Josh had always been an outsider; though, it was mostly his own fault. He often kept himself isolated for all of elementary and junior high; Mary knew him since kindergarten. During their freshman year, she realized that Josh was simply socially awkward. He did not know how to open up and talk to someone that wasn’t already talking to him. She took it upon herself to talk to him more and more. “So… you can fly now?” she asked. He floated down from the rooftops once the robber showed his blade; his white cape billowed in the gentle breeze caused by his descent.

“Yeah,” he grinned. “And I heal fast and I’m strong,” he said; he straightened his back as he listed his powers. “Like, really strong. I can lift that dumpster,” he pointed at a rusty, once-green garbage bin. It was a cube that stood taller than Mary’s 5’3″ frame. It overflowed with flies and rotting food.

“Gross, don’t touch it,” Mary said. “How’d you get powers?” she asked to distract him from showing off.

“I was born with them,” he shrugged. “But I didn’t know I had them until my uncle gave me a tattoo.”

“Uncle Mundo?” she asked. Mary did not know too much about Josh’s family, but she knew one of his uncles ran a tattoo shop downtown. He nodded.

“For my 18th birthday my parents let me in on a family secret,” he smiled at her with wide eyes. “School just wasn’t important anymore.” 

“You could’ve told me, you know. I called you…,” she shook her head. “…no answer. I went to your house. No one answered and when I looked through the window it was empty like you moved.” Josh shrugged.

“Sorry. I’m living with my uncle now. Once I knew the secret my parents wanted to go traveling. Hey, wanna meet him?” he asked. Without waiting for her to answer he scooped up the short girl and floated into the dark sky. She closed her eyes when she realized what was happening but opened them again once he leveled off. The city looked like a toy town far below them.

“So how does it work? Did he tattoo magic wings on your or something?” She pressed her forehead against the side of his head to ask him directly in his ear. The rush of the wind made normal conversation difficult. Josh shook his head as they began to descend. Their city was not very large and Mary’s work was near downtown, to begin with. He only needed to fly over a couple of blocks.

They landed in front of a narrow, bright storefront. A wooden sign over the top named the place “Mundo’s Ink”. The shop was no wider than maybe 8 feet across, but it looked deep. Looking through the heavy glass door the deep interior reminded Mary of a train car. Josh pulled the door open and it caused several heavy cowbells to ring as they walked in. A lean, tall stick of a man stood from one of the seats and leaned against the glass display case of body jewelry.

“Hey, Joshy. Who’s your friend?” he asked and gave Mary a big smile. Josh removed his cape and wadded it up rather than folding it.

“Mary from school,” he said. His smile grew proud. “I flew down and saved her from some trouble.”  Mundo burst out into deep laughter that seemed odd coming out of his wispy frame.

“This girl needs a tattoo,” he said. Mundo walked to a nearby tattoo chair and patted the seat. Mary jumped at the chance for a free tattoo. She’d been considering one for a while but her finances weren’t in a place where she had that kind of extra money yet. Her parents were fine with it as long as she paid for it herself. Between her car payments and saving up for college, an indulgence like a tattoo needed to be put off.

“I think it’s great you’re giving her a tattoo.. but why?” Josh asked. “I saved her. Why is she getting a tattoo?” Mary was the only person at school that took the time to get to know Josh. She understood that statements like that were sincere questions, he wasn’t trying to be petty. Mundo laughed as he prepared his equipment.

“Because if she has a tattoo she won’t need you to save her next time,” he said.

“Huh?” Mary asked. Her mind quickly filled with the possibility that he was going to give her powers too. But she did not know how to ask the question delicately.

“No way!” Josh said. He stared at her with wide, awed eyes. Almost as if this was his first time truly noticing her. Mundo nodded then looked at Mary.

“#35 is your favorite number. I’m going to put that on you with a star. Sounds good, right?” he asked as a formality, but he seemed to have already decided. Mary just nodded. She couldn’t believe how perfect that sounded to her.

Star Game

“I’m scared,” David admitted with a whisper. He squeezed his girlfriend tighter in his arms. They sat on the roof of their apartment building watching the last sunset. Naturally, they weren’t the only ones that had the idea. Their roof, as well as all the neighboring buildings, was covered with people facing the sinking sun. It warmed his heart in an odd way, no one was alone. The few loners he spotted early on were welcomed by strangers into their circles. No one should have to face the end alone. 

The 24-hour deadline would come to an end in the next five minutes. Most thought it was a joke at first. After the announcement, a timer remained on every screen counting down. Every display including unplugged TVs and computer monitors not connected to a computer showed the time limit. Old pagers and even the small clock on VCRs and digital watches. Everything that could show time counted down. It was too much to reasonably explain, there was no doubt it was happening.

“Don’t be scared,” Andy said. She squeezed his hands in hers and leaned back into him. “Appreciate what it was: a fun time. I’m sure whatever happens next for you will be just as fun.” The phrasing struck David as odd.

Ever since their relationship became official, Andy always said: “we”. They were a team that she was happy to be on. He was tempted to ask, but there was no point now. He did not want to spend his last few minutes with the love of his life acting insecure and chalked it up to her nerves. David noticed other groups trying to pull themselves closer together and glanced at his watch.

“Two minutes left,” he kissed her neck. “I wonder if it’ll hurt.” Andy shrugged and used the motion to wiggle herself out of his arms. She turned and looked at him with a sad smile.

“I don’t know, but I really hope it doesn’t,” she reached out and caressed his cheek. “I know your pain tolerance is kind of low,” she giggled, then she stood up. David gave her a confused look and stood with her; he assumed she wanted to face the end “on her feet”.  He tried to hug her again, but she sidestepped the hug then leaned forward and kissed David’s cheek.

“I had fun with you,” she said. “But I don’t want to be here when the server shuts down,”  She raised her hand and wiggled her fingers at the air; a tall, pitch-black portal opened next to her.

“What’s going-,” David’s question was interrupted by Andy shouting a question at the gathered families.

“Any Uniques need a ride?” she asked.

“MEE! ME  ME!” Someone shouted from a nearby rooftop. A green-haired teenager leaped the 10-foot chasm between the buildings with ease. He landed next to Andy.

“Tad, #54, La Rana,” he said. Andy nodded and let him step into the black hole. He disappeared and the nearby crowd started to get to their feet. They looked at Andy with hope.

“You.. you can leave?” David asked? “Why didn’t you say anything sooner! Let’s go!” he said. He took a step forward but Andy put a hand on his chest to stop him.

“Sorry, Dave,” she said as she stepped backward into the portal. “No NPCs.” The black hole shrunk to a spec and disappeared.

New Earth

“Is that him?” Iris asked. She looked out over the top of her cubicle at the young, smiling man in a navy blue suit. He was having an animated conversation with several coworkers surrounding him.

“Uhuh. I got to meet him this morning when he came in; he’s super nice,” Alice said. The older woman leaned closer to Iris and looked around them to check for accidental eavesdroppers. “What’s his number?” she asked. Alice was the only person Iris trusted enough to share her secret with. The graying woman often baby-sat Iris when she was younger and Alice helped her get a job with the same company she worked for.

Iris grew concerned when she noticed Alice’s number getting lower. She looked up to the woman: Alice always sported a bright green “4” floating above her head. One day it dropped to “3”. Iris did not think much of it at first until she noticed her friend seemed weaker than usual. It dropped to 2 before Iris said anything. Three years and an oncologist later, Alice had a green “4” floating over her head and she believed Iris about her secret.

Iris left the wall, sat down in her chair, and looked up at Alice.

“10,” she said in an awed whisper. “I’ve never seen a 10.”

No, he’s not,” Alice said in her best “you’re kidding” tone. “He’s too nice for that.” Iris shook her head; her shoulder-length auburn hair bounced with the motion.

“It’s not about being nice. He doesn’t have to be evil to be dangerous,” she said. “But, we should stay on his good side,”

“Stay on whose good side?” A deep, smooth voice asked. Both women looked up at it. A tall, portly man with chubby cheeks and a full brown beard asked. He had a sprig of mint pinned to the breast pocket of his navy blue suit. His soft, hazel eyes sparkled with friendliness.

“Girl talk,” Alice said quickly and she moved to leave Iris’ cubicle. “That statement has about five years of history behind it,” she distracted him with the truth on her way out. The man seemed to accept the explanation and shrugged, then he turned his attention to Iris. And he stared silently.

“Uh… Hi?” she asked after several uncomfortable seconds. He seemed to realize he was staring and looked around like Alice did a few minutes ago as if he was checking for nosy ears. He stepped fully into Iris’ small cubicle and sat on her desk. He looked down at the seated young woman.

“Do you have a tattoo?” he asked.

“Ummmm.  I’m going to say that’s personal,” she said. “Who are you?”

“Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t even think of that. You’re right, I shouldn’t have asked like that. What I meant was do you have a tattoo with the number…,” he looked her up and down again. “…52 on it?”

“I still don’t know who you are,” Iris reminded him. She tried to keep her exterior calm. Inside she was surprised and panicked to hear him ask about her favorite number. There are an awful lot of numbers. It meant something that he casually mentioned her favorite the first time they met. The man stood from her desk and offered his hand to Iris.

“Andersen Stone. I’m the new floor manager,” he said with a broad smile.

“Iris Potter,” she said with a small, polite smile.

“So, Ms. Potter, are you doing anything after work today? I’d very much like to sit down and talk to you about a few things,” he said.

“Mr. Stone, I don’t want any misunderstandings so let me be perfectly clear,” she said with a firm tone. “Any tattoos I may or may not have are none of your business, and I do not want to go on any dates with you. If it becomes a problem I won’t hesitate to visit HR.”

“Ahh hell. I’m sorry, I’m bad at this,” he said. “Okay, since we’re being clear. I do not want to date you, I’m actually gay.”

“Then why are you asking me out?” Iris interrupted with sarcasm. Andersen shook his head, then he used his fingers to point at a spot above his head; the exact spot where the number ’10’ hovered.”I can tell you about whatever you see here…,” he said. “…and why you can see it.” Iris’ eyes went wide in surprise. Andersen chuckled. “By the way, Mr. Stone was my father. You can call me Mundo.”

Alternately-Sourced

Tricia fell to the couch exhausted. Most of the day passed in a blur of phone calls and condolences for her. The 22-year-old woman did not get any time to mourn since that morning when she found her father’s body in bed. He looked worn out and haggard while still dressed in the last clothes she saw him in. The same clothes he wore into the basement the night before: a pair of blue jeans, steel-toe work boots, and a flannel shirt. He looked like he’d be right at home on a construction crew but he telecommuted to a standard office job.

She called police, an ambulance, his job and the few distant cousins she was aware of. They did not have much family, it was only them two for as long as Tricia could remember. Her mom left when she was in elementary school, never to be seen again. 

Now she let herself plop on the couch at 6:55 p.m. to think about what her next step was. Money wasn’t an issue. Despite being a standard office lackey, Tricia never wanted for anything. Now that she graduated college and started her own career she began to take over the finances. She tried to get him to retire but he kept putting it off.

“Love you, honey.” His voice echoed in her mind as she leaned back and closed her eyes. It was part memory, part habit. Those were the last words he’d said to her as he went down into the basement. He always said that whenever he disappeared into the lower room for the night. If he went, and he usually did for most of the week, it was the last time she would see him for the day. It started when she was about 10. She didn’t question it at the time. By the time she was old enough to be curious, their routine had been established and she just went with it. She felt that curiosity stir again now that their routine was permanently disrupted.

“I love you too, dad,” she whispered her usual reply and pulled herself off the couch. “Time to see what you’ve been up to, I guess.” Talking aloud helped her imagine she was actually talking to him. Her father kept the basement locked no matter what side of the door he was on, and the key was always on him. Tricia unlocked the door and entered the basement.

She was immediately disappointed. She wasn’t an overly curious child and didn’t give the basement too much thought growing up. Occasionally though, her imagination ran wild. During her early teen years, she thought he might be a mad-scientist or a superhero with some sort of secret lab. That’s when she learned her father always kept the only key on him. The mystery grew and then faded into the background as she discovered boys.

She flipped the single light switch and padded down the flight of shaky, wooden steps. A tower of pizza boxes leaned against one corner and it was surrounded by empty plastic soda bottles. In the center of the basement was a large empty garden bed. It was a 7′ x 7′ boxed in area filled with rich brown soil and a hole in the middle big enough to bury someone.

“What the hell, Dad?” she said. Her father had never been messy enough to leave trash lying around. Her first instinct was to clean up after him. She walked to the tower of boxes to start hauling them upstairs but stopped when she saw the logo. ‘Brickfire Pizza’. She was slightly annoyed and looked up at nothing with narrow eyes. “You found a new pizza place and you didn’t tell me about it?” she complained.

Pizza was their favorite meal and they eagerly tasted each and every new shop they came across. Thinking about the pizza piqued her hunger, then the smell of hot pizza hit her nostrils .” Shit, I haven’t eaten all day,” Tricia suddenly realized. “I guess I should order something.” She grabbed a couple of boxes and turned to go back up the stairs; then, she dropped the boxes in surprise.

Her father was standing there in his blue jeans and flannel shirt. He was holding a “Brickfire Pizza” box and a 2-liter of soda and stared at Tricia with a surprised look on his face. Behind him, a translucent blue portal shimmered. She could see something that looked like a construction site on the other side.

“Dad?!” she took a step toward him, but he took a step back with a frightened look in his eyes.

“Who are you? Where’s Fred?” he asked using her dad’s name. Tricia stopped in her tracks.

“Daddy?’ she asked and took a single step forward. Her father sighed and shook his head.

“I’m not Fred, I’m his Zero,” he said sternly. “Where the hell is he? He’s gonna be late for work.”

“Wha.. what?” Tricia cocked her head trying to make sense of what the man said. She understood the words but didn’t know how they all fit together.

“Jesus. Are you his kid? Go get your dad and tell him to get his ass to work or neither of us is getting paid.” He said as he walked to the soil bed.

“He’s dead,” Tricia said. She still did not know what was going on, but this man didn’t act like her father at all.

“You’re kidding?” he asked. That made her angry.

“Who the hell are you and why do you look like my dad?” she asked with a firm tone. The familiar stranger sighed.

“Damnit, now I gotta find another one,” he said. “Fuck, I can’t miss work today.” He threw the pizza and soda on the ground like a grumpy child and stomped back toward the portal.

Tricia rammed him before he stepped through it. She ran and put all her weight into a hard shove to unbalance him, then she spun and swept his legs out from under him. He fell on his back with a hard ‘Oomph’ and the young woman knelt down on his chest.

“Who are you and why do you look like my dad?” she asked again. He wrestled against her for a bit but she had all the leverage. Finally, he sighed and relaxed.

“I’m your dad’s double from an alternate universe. We made a deal years ago. He goes to work for me and we both get paid. Now that he’s dead I have to find another one,” he said.

Waxing Anger

“Not without a parent,” the woman behind the counter shook her head. She wore a forest-green tanktop. Her arms and chest were covered in colorful tattoos. “Sorry.” Luna sighed. The pink-haired teenager expected as much; she did not know what drove her to enter the tattoo shop, to begin with. Something about the name, ‘Mundo’s Tattoos’ piqued a curiosity she did not know she had. She ignored the feeling successfully for a week while she created her new life. It wasn’t difficult; she’d had enough practice over the years. But now she was more or less settled. On the way home from her first day at her fast-food job she found herself walking by the shop and gave in.

“Yeah, thanks anyway,” Luna said. She turned to walk out of the shop as a boulder of a man walked out of the back. He was short, round and bald with leathery tan skin.

“Wait!” he shouted after the teenage girl leaving his shop. Luna stopped at the door and turned around. He gave the woman behind the counter a disappointed shake of his head as he walked past her to the girl. “Name’s Mundo, I own this shop. What did you need?” he asked. Luna shrugged.

“Nothing without a parent,” she said. She meant to give a smart-ass reply but it came out sounding disappointed. Mundo shook his head and closed the door she was holding open, half-way out. He pulled a string attached to the neon-green “OPEN” sign and it went dark. He smiled at Luna.

“And when was the last time you saw them?” he asked. His round dark brown eyes seemed to soften as he asked.

“Wh- what?” Luna asked. Her mind was trying to tell her to run. This giant man was essentially blocking the door and he seemed to know something about her. But she didn’t listen. Deep down, somehow she felt she could trust him.

“Damnit, I’m sorry,” the woman said from behind the counter. “I should’ve asked. She looks so young I didn’t even think about it.” Mundo waved at her dismissively while keeping his eyes on Luna.

“C’ mon in,” Mundo said. He led her to a chair behind the counter. “Whatever you want; on the house.”

“Why?” Luna asked. She made herself comfortable on the chair though she had no idea what she wanted. Mundo sat down next to her and shrugged.

“I can’t tell how old you are exactly, but I know you’re over a hundred and fifty,” he said. “It’s kind of silly to turn you away if you’re older than me,” he chuckled. Luna was taken aback for a moment.

“How’d you know?” she asked with wide eyes. Mundo grinned, his dark eyes twinkled.

“You’re going to get a moon with the number 23 on it, right?” he asked. Luna nodded when she realized that was exactly what she wanted, though she did not know that a few seconds ago. “23 is the number of La Luna, a Unique Soul,” he said as he began arranging his tray. He slipped on a pair of blue latex gloves. He leaned forward and looked down to show Luna the top of his bald head. “I’m El Mundo, number 37.” The Earth was tattooed on his head with the number 37 in the center decorated with flowers. Luna nodded as if she understood; she didn’t.

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“For me, it means I can see what you are. What she is,” he used his thumb to point at the green-haired woman that initially denied her service. She leaned on Mundo and pointed at a tattoo. It was a frog in a top hat that seemed to be sitting on her collarbone. The number 54 was printed on the top hat.

“#54, La Rana,” she said.

“Each Unique has different abilities. Mine lets me see you and I know things. You won’t age if you’re not in your home universe. And you can copy abilities but we’ll get to that later.”

“My home… universe?” Luna asked. Mundo nodded.

“Each universe has a certain frequency. Everyone in that universe vibrates at the same frequency and I can see that you don’t vibrate at the same frequency we do.” He stopped fiddling with his tray; he was done preparing. But he did not make any moves to start until he was sure Luna was ready.

A forgotten memory rushed to the forefront of Luna’s mind. She remembered feeling abandoned and lost. She remembered wishing her parents would find her but they never did; she learned how to survive on her own and flourished.

“Can I get home?” she asked with a soft, dry voice. Mundo smiled and nodded.

“Yeah, these days it’s as easy as calling a taxi if you know the right people,” he said. His smile grew to an ear to ear grin. “I’m the right people.” Luna nodded.

“Thank you,” she said. Her tone was stiff, almost formal. “I’m ready,” she presented her right wrist to Mundo.

“No problem. Your ride will be here by the time we’re done,” Mundo said and nodded at his assistant. She nodded and disappeared to the back room. Mundo did not notice Luna’s change in demeanor. She was angry again like she hadn’t been in centuries. She knew her parents were likely dead, but she would find whatever descendants she could and get some answers.

Morning Reminder

Frank woke up. He opened his eyes to a sun-drenched room decorated tastefully. Family pictures decorated the light blue walls. They showed a beautiful, red-haired woman with a pair of red-headed kids, a boy, and a girl, at different stages in their life. Frank was laying in the middle of a king-size bed; he enjoyed the sensation of the blue silk sheets. Their color was darker than the walls. He rolled over twice to get to one side, then sighed and sat up with his legs hanging off the bed. As he considered his day the redhead from the pictures entered the room in a hurry.

She passed by Frank leaving a trail of clothes behind her. She reached the bathroom naked and after a second, Frank heard the water running.

“Damnit, I should’ve moved faster,” he grumbled to himself. “Ah well,” he said and pushed himself off the bed to enter the restroom. The master bathroom was half as big as the bedroom; but, still larger than most people’s living rooms. He padded straight to the running shower dropping his boxers along the way. He opened the shower door and stepped in behind the woman who was about to start washing her hair.

The second Frank was behind her she rinsed the shampoo off her hands without lathering her hair. Then she stepped out of the shower without giving Frank so much as a glance.

“Love you too, dear,” he said with a self-satisfied, sarcastic smile and stepped into the still running water. She ignored him as she followed the trail of clothes back out of the bathroom. She gathered her, and only her, clothes as she went. Frank closed his eyes and enjoyed the warm water raining on him. “That settles it,” he decided. “There’s nothing else I can do…”   His mind sat quietly for a moment, then his perspective shifted.  “There’s nothing I CAN’T do.”  His mood improved for a split second, then somehow worsened again. “Yeah, but I’m doing it alone.”

He should have known better than to trust a genie but he could not see any way for his wish to go wrong. It turns out the genie was very creative. After several years he could not bear the loneliness anymore and decided to get serious. If he was caught, at least he’d get some attention for a little bit. Yesterday, at lunchtime, at the busiest restaurant in the business district, Frank slashed every single diner and most of the staff.

Everyone survived; Frank is not a killer. He used a box cutter to swipe at legs and arms. No one noticed Frank despite the sudden panic of wounds appearing. He waited in the restaurant holding the bloody blade until the police showed up. He was still seated when they left. He wished he could commit any crime without being caught; the genie’s magic made sure no one would ever notice him again.

The first week had been rough. Frank got fired for not showing up to work, despite being in front of his boss when it happened. He struggled with restaurants and other services for a few days until he realized he could just take what he wanted. The internet made communication possible at least. All his friends thought he was abroad. He’d check in every now and then but it wasn’t the same as hanging out with them. That lasted for about a year, but it’s hard to maintain a friendship without any facetime. Cameras ignored him completely, but he felt glad he could still see his own reflection in mirrors even if no one else could.

Frank decided he wasted enough water soaking; he never lathered up. He turned off the water and got out to dry off and dress. He made his way downstairs and into the kitchen. The red-headed family was gathered around the table eating breakfast when he came in. None of them looked up. The stranger in their house grabbed a donut from the table and left three bills laying on the counter. All 100s.  Sure, the money was stolen too, but it was the gesture that mattered to Frank.

He inconvenienced this family, even if they didn’t know it. He definitely made the mother uneasy. Over the years he learned that everyone would ignore them as much as they could. If he was in a situation that could not be ignored, they would feel uneasy and move somewhere else. For reasons unknown to her, the mother decided to sleep with her children the night before. Frank was not trying to pay them but he hoped the extra cash might brighten their day a bit as an apology.

Frank lost his apartment shortly after losing his job; but, before he realized he could steal the funds he needed. By then he had developed the habit of walking into any nearby house for the night. He slept in garages and basements at first, not wanting to be seen by the homeowners. Now he was grabbing food off their table on his way out. He left the kitchen, walked through the living room, then out the front door.

The portly, blonde man stretched once he was out of the house. He wore a red flannel shirt, blue jeans, and hiking boots and a black canvas backpack on his shoulders. He climbed down the front steps of the house and casually walked along the narrow path to the sidewalk. An attractive tan woman in short shorts was walking her dog through the neighborhood.

“Morning!” she smiled cheerfully as she walked past Frank.

“Mornin'” Frank nodded grumpily out of reflex. His eyes went wide for a moment.

“MORNING!” the homeowner yelled out from behind him. Frank sighed, hung his head, and walked up the sidewalk wondering what he might do today.

Zero Sensitivity

The knight relaxed and lowered his sword. His black chain armor jangled as his posture slouched. The white-robed healer and green-leather-clad ranger let themselves fall to the floor. The two women sat facing each other and launched into gossip about their guild as if they were sitting in a staff break room. 

“You too, Aaron,” The knight said while looking at an empty corner of the wizard’s throne room. A ghost-like hooded thief that only the party members could see shook his head and sighed. He was translucent and black wisps of energy rose from his body. The black tendrils dissipated and he became solid.

“He didn’t know I was here!” Aaron whined.

“Did too,” Malabad the wizard replied reflexively. A smokey grey, translucent slate hovered in front of the ancient, lean, bearded man. He held the puffy sleeve of his green and black robe out of the way with one hand. He tapped and swiped at the slate with the other; only he could read what was on it. He stopped interacting with it then dismissed it with a wave. The thief hunkered in a corner and relaxed against the wall. Malabad looked at him then pointed up at the wall behind his throne with his thumb. A large sun symbol made out of gold hung high on the stone wall. “It’s enchanted with Solar Sight. I can see everything in the room as if it were outside on a bright sunny day.” The thief grumbled to himself and pulled his node out of his pocket to play a game. Malabad turned his attention to the knight.

“There should be a GM here soon,” he said apologetically.

“There’s a GM here already,” a new voice said at the same moment that the Knight nodded at Malabad in understanding. Everyone in the room turned to see a kid with a jungle of dark brown curls sitting atop his head. He looked about 14 or so, younger than everyone else in the room. He wore blue jeans and a light blue shirt.   “You can call me Aury. Staff not working?” he walked up to Malabad and held his hand out. The wizard handed his staff over. The staff consisted of a mop handle with bright colorful streamers tied around the top half of it. The GM looked at it, then chuckled.

“I can already tell you the trouble,” he said. “Imported?” He asked about the staff as he looked it over carefully. Aury ran his fingers through the streamers dragging out the rainbow of paper-like strands. Malabad nodded.  “Damn.. this is nice work,” the GM said, mostly to himself. He rolled the long stick between his hands like a clay snake; the streamers fluttered and floated up as they caught air. Then, they fell again when the momentum stopped. “Real nice. Who did it?” he asked. “Ms. Sharp gives out recruitment bonuses,” he said then gave back the staff, Malabad chuckled.

“She already works for Ms. Sharp,” he said. “What’s the problem?” he asked. Aury’s own slate hovered in front of him; his fingers danced across its surface as he typed.

“The problem is… you didn’t read the patch notes,” he chuckled. “As of the last update, imported items need to be mentioned in the rules of any game agreements.” He looked up from his typing and looked over each member of the gathered group individually, then he went back to typing. “You guys run a regular game, I’m guessing, and just re-used the rules.” They all kind of nodded. “Who is she?” the GM asked again. “You said she works for Ms. Sharp already?” Malabad nodded.

“Jenny, the Luchadoras captain,” he said. The GM stopped typing and turned his attention to Malabad.

“No shit, really?” he asked. Malabad nodded. “Whoa, I had no idea that Zero was so smart.” 

“You got a problem with Zeros?” five voices asked him simultaneously. The GM shook his head and focused his attention back on the slate. Not that he needed it there, his hands continued typing even while he was sticking his foot in his mouth. The typing itself wasn’t entirely necessary either. Aury could reprogram the rules of their game using just nanos but he enjoyed the act of typing. After several more seconds of heavy silence, Aury stopped typing and the slate disintegrated into a white powder.

“Done. I changed the rules to include your staff for this one session. Next time you’ll have to add it yourself so make sure you go through all the rules and see if you missed any others,” he said. Malabad nodded. He lifted his staff in the air and it began to glow green with power.

“Awesome, thanks!” he said. Aury nodded and pulled a pitch-black business card from the pocket of his jeans. He dropped it on the floor and it opened a black hole. He stepped on it and began to sink as if he were riding down an escalator.

“Thanks for the tip about Jenny,” Aury said as the hole disappeared.

Malabad turned to face the knight. The healer and ranger got to their feet. He raised his staff.

“YOU’RE NO MATCH FOR M-” he began to yell, but his warcry was interrupted by a high pitched ringing sound. The thief appeared again, this time directly in front of Malabad, and answered his node.

“Hello?” the thief sighed heavily once the other voice started speaking. His demeanor shifted down. His posture slumped; his eyes focused on the cobblestone ground. “Okay, okay. I’m going. bye.”  He looked up. “Sorry guys. Time’s up, it’s my sister’s turn to use the mudroom.” He sighed and his body reverted to a black, featureless, floating mannequin. [DISCONNECTED] hovered above it in red text.

“Screw it,” Malabad said. “We’ll pick it up next week. 300 participation XP for everyone.” Small “300”s appeared over each of their heads and above the mannequin in golden numbers.

Majestic Smackdown

A blue bolt of lightning came out of the twilight sky and struck the sidewalk in front of Majesty’s table. The diners screamed and scattered from their tables; some ran back inside the coffee shop. Some hopped the small fence and fled. All traffic in the area stopped, people abandoned their cars. Everyone recognized LightningStrike’s entrance.

Majesty recognized the villain’s customary arrival, but she did not flee. The purple-haired woman remained seated playing a game on her node. A tall, lean man in a blue too-tight body suit appeared after the flash of light. He looked down at the seated Majesty through his blue-opaque face shield. It was molded to look like a face without any defining features. Two indentations represented the eyes, and a small protrusion on the middle resembled a nose.

“You’re a brave one,” he said. His voice sounded loud, low and gravelly. The mask did not muffle his words at all, it seemed to come from his entire being. He approached the table. Majesty did not look up. “That kind of bravery only comes from confidence…,” he said. He took slow, menacing steps toward Majesty. “…confidence that you’re not in danger. Confidence that you’ll be saved by your…,”  Majesty’s node rang. The colorful game on her screen was replaced by a picture of her next to a handsome blonde man. “…heroic husband,” LightningStrike finished.

“Hello?” Majesty said. She answered the node while still ignored LightningStrike. The villain stopped in his tracks when she looked up at him finally. Her eyes were translucent purple; reminiscent of amethyst. “Yeah, he’s here,” she said. She gave an exaggerated shrug into the transparent, glassy rectangle. “That depends on him. I’m just having some coffee,” she said.

“I WILL NOT BE IGNOoooow. ow. ow. ow.”  LightningStrike bellowed as he reached for her node. His outburst was silenced by pain. The hand he used to take her node was very close to being crushed by Majesty’s right hand. She switched hands with the node and still had time to catch his attack.

“I can’t promise anything. Hurry up, babe. Love you,” she added, then set the node on the table. She released LightningStrike’s hand and he yanked it back to cradle it by his chest. “He’s out of your stupid little trap or whatever and on his way,” Majesty said. She waved a hand at him dismissively. “Go wreak havoc if you want to kill time.”

“What I want to kill…,” LightningStrike said as he wiggled his fingers to get feeling back in them again. “…is YOU!” he pointed both hands at Majesty and blue electricity flowed out of his hands and struck her square on the chest.

LightningStrike held the arcing bolt for several seconds. Majesty seemed to be growing annoyed, but otherwise remained seated. He gave up. Most people could not even handle his full voltage for a second. When he stopped he noticed her chest was protected by a layer of brown-purple stone. It melted back into her fair skin once the current ceased.

“You’re tougher than you look,” LightningStrike said. “So, I’ll skip to my final move.” He lifted his arms high, and a thunderclap sounded directly above them. “STORM OF Li-“

LightningStrike was interrupted by a sudden mouthful of dirt. He did not see what happened, he was looking up. He felt cool, confining earth squeezing him like a stress ball.  A giant hand made of dirt and rocks held him gripped like a sword hilt. In front of him, he saw Majesty holding her hand the same way.

“The only reason I haven’t killed you yet is my husband has fun playing hero. You should stick to playing with him and leave me alone,” she said. She raised her hand up by an inch and LightningStrike felt the earthen hand lift him too. She locked eyes and did it again to make it clear. The soil surged upward again. “Got it?” she asked. LightningStrike nodded quickly. “Good. Don’t forget it,” she said. He had just enough time to see her cock her hand back before he was flung out over the city like a baseball.

Level Head

Kurt stared intently at his watch. He sat in his parent’s kitchen on a Monday afternoon facing the door. Bright sunlight poured in through the bay window in front of the sink to his left. He leaned his elbow against the granite island in the center and counted.

“3… 2… 1,” 3:14 p.m. became 3:15 p.m. and the kitchen door swung open. Maria Angeles, Kurt’s mother, walked in carrying a paper sack full of groceries followed by Kurt’s sister. The 10-year-old blonde girl was crunching on an apple. She acknowledged Kurt with a half-wave and continued past him out of the kitchen. His mom set the bag down on the counter across from Kurt.

She pulled a couple of things out of the bag, then seemed to remember something. She walked to the stove on the other side of the counter and reached for the knob to preheat the oven. Kurt’s hand was blocking the dial she reached for and she stopped. Her hand fell back down to her side and she stayed still; her eyes remained focused on the stove’s knobs.

Kurt pulled his hand away slowly. The minute the knob was revealed his mom reached for it again. Kurt blocked it, and she dropped her hand again.

Kurt was an average college student with a below-average sense of awareness. He preferred isolation and often buried his attention in a book or video game. While growing up he only paid attention to the things he needed to, school lessons, his own aches and pains and so on.

Three weeks ago he started noticing patterns of behavior among his friends and family. Not strange patterns, but definitely patterns. Every Monday his mom had meatloaf on the dinner table at exactly    5:00 p.m.

“Hi, mom,” Kurt said suddenly. Maria did not jump in surprise. Her face transitioned to a bright smile and she looked at Kurt.

“Honey! When did you get here?” she asked as she reached over to hug him. Kurt returned the hug and noticed his mom turned the oven on the moment they separated.

“Just now,” he lied. Kurt sat in the kitchen all day watching his mom cleaning and leaving the house to run errands, then coming back and cleaning some more. He kept quiet and stayed out of the way; she ignored him the entire time. “You haven’t started dinner yet, right?” he asked. “I was thinking about treating you and Leah to some pizza?” he asked while pulling his cell phone out.  His mom put her hand on his to stop the phone.

“The oven’s already on and I won’t have you wasting money eating out when we have perfectly good meatloaf cooking. It’ll be ready early today.”

“You just turned it on,” Kurt said. He glanced down at the oven, reaching for the knob. He caught a glimpse of orange light coming from inside it and he pulled the door open. A plume of hot air rushed out of it and he caught a glimpse of a pink meatloaf starting to sweat. His mother slapped his hand to close the door.

“You’ll let the heat out,” she complained.

“Okay,” Kurt said; he was completely deflated. He let himself fall on the stool. It was as if all his suspicions had been confirmed at once, and he was not expecting it. He had a whole plan of things to try over the next few weeks. He hoped to drag out the ‘testing’ as long as possible. As long as he did not have definitive proof he could still deny it. But now, he had definitive proof. 

There was absolutely no way she could have prepared it. Not only did she have no time to do it in the two or three minutes since she walked in the door; Kurt was there watching the whole time.  That oven was empty before she turned it on. He looked up suddenly and looked at the counter. The groceries were gone. His mom started peeling potatoes in the sink, but Kurt had no idea where she pulled them from. He made sure there were no potatoes in the house and she never bought them on Monday.

Kurt knew he wasn’t crazy. Things weren’t normal. He knew it wasn’t just his mom and his sister, but they were the only ones he could test reliably. He’d noticed all kinds of little patterns among his friends and even among strangers. Simple little things, like blocking the dial, could freeze them in their tracks until they were interacted with.

“I’m not crazy,” Kurt said with his eyes closed. “It’s not real,” he said. He grabbed the biggest knife from the butcher block and lunged at his mother before he could change his mind. He pulled her backward by the hair and jammed the knife into her chest. The woman gurgled as Kurt let her fall to the floor. The moment her last breath escaped Kurt heart a loud clanging noise behind him. He turned around; afraid his sister might have seen it. He was blinded by a brilliant golden light. He fluttered his eyes quickly to get enough glimpses to piece together a picture.

[LEVEL UP!] golden text hovered in the air for a few seconds then disappeared. Kurt laughed. It was true. His family. His friends. Everyone was an NPC.

Sharp Future

“He always has the right number of graves at the end of the day,” Tara said. The teenage girl led two women in suits, one white and one black, along the path to the grave keeper’s shack. A rotted-wood cabin as big as two out-houses side by side sat at the top of a grassy hill. The hill faced East and gave them a peek at the rising sun. “He’s usually up early, even if he don’t have any graves to dig; I’m sure he’s awake by now,” the girl said. She kept looking back at the two women as she tried to explain about the grave keeper. On one glance she noticed a strange black cat walking with them that wasn’t there the last time she looked. It had a red pattern atop its head that looked like a skull and seemed to be purposely walking with them.

“If he can see the future why is he digging graves?” Melody asked. Tara shrugged but kept walking toward the shack. The hill grew steeper and she needed to slow her pace.

“We offered him any job he wants, this is it. He says he appreciates the straight forward work and any day he doesn’t work is a good day,” she said with a smile. Even though he mostly kept to himself the old grave keeper was well-respected by the townsfolk. Tara reached the top of the hill before the two women and she froze in her tracks. She stared forward while her mouth fell open in surprise. The women reached the top of the hill and saw why.

A large graveyard occupied most of a sunken plain behind the hill. A tall iron fence enclosed about three football fields worth of land. Inside the fence various headstones, angels and obelisks marked dozens of graves. Outside the fence was another matter entirely. Next to the graveyard, ten rows of five plots were perfectly organized.

“Mornin’!” A tired, old voice said. A lean, weathered man with a long grey beard walked out of the shack. He was wiping his brow with a rag in one hand while his other hand steadied a shovel balanced on his shoulder. He looked at the two women next to Tara. Their suits unintentionally made the girl’s simple blue dress seem shabbier. “Not from around here, huh?” he asked. No one answered the obvious statement. He nodded. “Name’s Hicks. What can I do you for?”

“You can see into the future?” Dana Sharp asked. Hicks nodded. Ms. Sharp glanced out at the new unearthed plots. “That’s a lot of graves this morning,” she said. Again, Hicks nodded.

“Started last night,” he said. “Won’t be enough but there’s something to be said about working for the sake of work.”

“What do you mean it won’t be enough?” Tara asked with a trace of fear in her voice. If Hicks said there was something bad about to happen, then something bad was about to happen. Hicks took a deep breath, then took his time to exhale. Finally, he nodded at Tara, then pointed at the sky.

“Those graves aren’t for anybody, I just wanted to go into the afterlife with some hard work under my belt. Ballisea’s here.”

“Who’s Ballisea?” Tara asked. She turned to see what Hicks pointed at as the question left her lips. She saw a black hole high in the sky raining out white figures.

“Janet,” Ms. Sharp said. “Take Tara back to town and save anyone you can. Don’t touch time. Tara, follow the cat,” she said.

“Yes, Ms. Sharp,” the cat spoke and dashed off toward town. Tara was surprised, but talking animals weren’t unusual to her. She caught a subtle nod from Hicks and followed his instructions, not Ms. Sharp’s.

“And you, Mr. Hicks…,” Dana said. “…have time to gather a few things and Melody will get us to safety.”

“No thank you, Ms. Sharp,” he said. His voice had a firm edge to it now.

“You want to die?” Melody asked. Hicks shook his head and smiled.

“I can see the future. I can see what happens if you…,” he looked Ms. Sharp in the eyes. “…can see the future. Death is much easier to swallow.” Melody stepped forward threateningly, but Dana held up a hand to stop her.

“Home, Melody. Hicks made his choice, I can respect that.”