Healthy Meal

“Well, the easiest way to keep a secret is to pretend it doesn’t exist.” Walt, a short wrinkled man in a black business suit, gestured at the open, empty elevator. Cameron stepped in, unsure why the company vice-president was interested in him.

Cameron glanced at the panel while the old man joined him in the elevator. Two columns of buttons numbered 1-12 lined the panel. The number ‘7’ was listed in the same small box that held the other numbers, but there was no illuminated button next to it. He watched the old man touch the smooth spot where the 7th-floor button should be; the polished metal sunk in. It popped up again invisible and perfectly smooth with the rest of the panel when he pulled his finger away; the elevator doors closed.

“There’s a seventh floor!?” Cameron said in surprise. Walt nodded; Cameron’s eyes widened.

“Then… we really grow babies here?” he asked.

“We do a lot more than that, but the nursery is your new assignment,” Walt replied.

“Why me? I didn’t apply for a new position, and I’ve only been here for a year.” Cameron was genuinely curious, though he also wanted to be able to explain to his friends how he got promoted over them.

“The truth is we hired you for this job, but we needed you to complete a probationary period. Paperwork, medical exams, and trust-building, you know how it is.” Cameron nodded.

“Yeah,” Cameron chuckled. “I visited your doctor more this past year than I ever did in 43 years of being alive. And, thank you, Sir. I’m honored Sharp Development trusts me enough to give me this position. But I don’t have any experience with infants or any biological sciences,” Cameron shrugged. Walt nodded.

“Don’t worry. At Sharp Development we employ people, not positions. Trust me, you’re perfect for this job.” Cameron could tell Walt meant what he said. Something about the older man’s confidence in him inspired Cameron to believe in himself too.

If this guy at the top thinks I can do this, then I probably can,” Cameron let the thought run through his mind for encouragement.  He subconsciously stood up straighter and puffed his chest out.

“So, what are my duties?” Cameron asked. The elevator slowed its ascent.

“When I said we grow babies, I meant it quite literally,” Walt said. The elevator came to a stop. “Ms. Sharp, our owner, is growing fae-children for experimentation.” The door chimed. Albert gestured for Cameron to step out first.

“Huh?” Cameron asked as he stepped out into a surprisingly dim hallway. Several toddlers started walking and wobbling toward him. “Fae?” he turned to face the old man still in the elevator. Walt nodded.

“Faeries, vampires, werewolves and so on.” Cameron paid closer attention to the approaching infants. Some were unusually pale, some had fur and some had wings; all of them had fangs.

“Uh, I’m not -” Cameron protested and tried to step into the elevator. His foot banged an invisible wall that prevented him from getting in.

“Don’t worry,” Walt said. “You can handle it. You don’t need any special training to be eaten.”

Soul Date

“That witch!” he mumbled.

He stared at the pair sitting there.

“That’s me…” he grumbled.

“..with slightly more hair.”

“She’s not the only one.

No way.”

He pulled out his phone.

“That’s a game two can play.”

[Welcome to AlterNet Match!

If someone doesn’t love you

find versions that do.

Tutorial: Please Watch]

Sun & Sand

“I don’t hate you,” a woman said behind Aaron. The sudden voice startled the mid-30s businessman; he thought he was alone on the bridge. It was 3 a.m. and the streets were dark and deserted. Aaron turned to find a tall, pale woman walk into the pyramid of light cast by the lamppost. A pair of bone-white horns twisting out of the top of her head drew his attention.

“Who are you?!” Aaron asked. He tried to take a step back but bumped into the guard rail. The stranger sighed and a faint look of disappointment flashed across her face.

“You don’t know me?” she asked with mock-offense. Aaron shook his head. “My name is Ballisea, I want you to tell everyone you meet about me,” she said.

“Pffft, yeah,” Aaron chuckled. “Like I’m gonna meet anyone. Sorry, lady. If you want someone to spread your name around, I’m the wrong guy,” he shrugged. “The universe hates me, no idea why.”

“I don’t hate you,” Ballisea repeated. “What makes you think I do?” she asked. Aaron burst out into chuckles.

“So you think you’re the universe? You’re nuttier than me!”

“Obviously I’m not this universe,” Ballisea said. “But this universe can’t walk and talk. As someone on equal footing with your universe, I can confidently say: I don’t hate you.”

“Uhuh.” Aaron narrowed his eyes at Ballisea. This universe? So there’s more than one?” he asked. Ballisea answered with a curt nod. “And you’re on ‘equal footing’ what does that mean?” Ballisea raised a hand to gesture at the dark, star-dotted sky.

“All the energy out there in your universe, all life in the universe,” she lowered her hand and poked his chest. “Your soul is a drop in the bucket, an infinitely tiny speck of the energy that makes up a universe,” Ballisea smiled. “My soul is an entire universe.”

“Prove it,” Aaron said. The blurted demand was part joke, part skepticism. All he wanted to do was contemplate suicide alone in the dark; now, he had to deal with a possibly insane woman whose horns looked dangerous if not real. A part of him hoped she’d leave when she couldn’t prove her claims. Ballisea gave a half-shrug.

“How?” she asked. “I can do almost anything, but I don’t know what proof you’re looking for.” Aaron realized she had a point. How does one prove they are a universe? He decided to focus on something she could fail at proving.

“Other universes,” Aaron said. “You mentioned other universes, can I see one?” Ballisea nodded and was about to speak, but Aaron interrupted her. “Wait! No! Myself!” he blurted. “If there are other universes, then I have a doppelganger out there, right? Show me him.” Ballisea waved a hand at the ground and it changed.

The white, dirty sidewalk that ran along the bridge disappeared. A hole that looked out onto a blue sunny sky replaced the concrete.

“That’s a different universe, but I cannot show you a doppelganger because you don’t have one.”

“Yeah, that’s convenient,” Aaron nodded. “And I suppose this isn’t a real portal, just what a portal looks like,” he stepped on the portal to try and prove it wasn’t real, then fell through. He landed on his behind on soft, warm sand. Ocean waves soaked his tennis shoes and the bottom cuffs of his jeans.

“No, the portal is real,” Ballisea said. She was somehow still standing next to Aaron despite him now being in a different universe. “You don’t have any other versions out there because you’re something called a ‘Unique Soul’, number Six, specifically. If I were inclined to guess, I’d say that’s why you’ve felt like you’ve had a hard time.”

Felt like it!?” Aaron grumbled as he stood from the sand. He had several questions about what she said, but he despised the notion that his perspective was the problem. “People hated me plain and simple. No mistaken feelings there.”

“Hate takes too much effort. If you dislike someone, why waste more time and energy on that person?” Ballisea smiled at Aaron. “The universe doesn’t hate you any more than you hate a single, individual blood cell. It doesn’t even consider you at any point.”

“What about you?” Aaron asked. “You’re here, you considered me.” Ballisea smiled.

“An accident. I started conquering your Earth when I heard your complaint, and I’m partial to Unique Souls. There’s nothing left for you there, so I brought you somewhere better,” she spread her arms to gesture at the beach. “Find a Mundo if you have any questions,” Ballisea said. “Good luck.” A black hole swallowed her, head first, before Aaron could ask any other questions.

Taking Turns

“…AND I’M TIRED OF TIRED OF THIS DAMN JINGLE TOO!” The small golden music box shattered against the floor between the two men. Its lid popped off and small golden gears spilled out onto the floor. “God that felt good,” Craig chuckled to himself.

“Duuuuuuuude,” Drew mumbled. “Frank’s gonna lose it! You know how attached he was to that thing.”  Craig smiled at Drew.

“If it was so important he should have taken better care of it, instead of leaving it laying on top of his desk where anyone could knock it over.” Craig adjusted the knot of his tie. “He’s practically begging for something to happen to it,” Craig asked Drew with a cocked eyebrow. “Right?”

“What’s right?” Frank walked up to the two men; all three of them shared a cubicle space. The late 30s, balding man glanced at his watch as he waited for an answer.

“Uh, I was asking Drew here if he saw the jerk that knocked over your music box,” Craig eyed Drew again. “You didn’t see anything, right?” At the mention of his music box, Frank gasped. His eyes fell on the shiny mess of sprockets on the floor.

OH… my… god..,” Frank covered his mouth as tears flooded the corners of his eyes; he fell to his knees on the white tiles. His body shook with heaving sobs.

“Hey, it’s just a music box,” Drew offered with a friendly pat on the shoulder. Frank shook his head slowly.

“You don’t understand…,” he said. After a few awkward moments of sobbing, Frank straightened up on his haunches and glanced at his watch. “Who did it?” he asked.

“Well Craig-” Drew offered; Craig interrupted.

“Yeah, no. I didn’t see the asshole either,” Craig gave an exaggerated shrug.

“Well, shit. Nothing I can do,” Frank chuckled to himself, then stood up. He smiled at Drew and Craig. “Hey, you guys wanna grab a beer tonight?” he asked suddenly.

“Yeah man,” Drew glared at Craig. “We’ll keep you company tonight. I wanna hear why that music box was so important to you.” Frank immediately burst into laughter.

“Important my ass,” he said. “That shit’s cursed.”

“Huh?” Craig and Drew asked simultaneously.

“You said if you didn’t wind it, something terrible would happen,” Craig asked. Frank nodded.

“Yeah. The thing is practically a baby. If I don’t wind it every hour it screams in my head until I do. I mean SCREAMS,” Frank emphasized the word. “It was a bitch trying to get some sleep.”

“And all you had to do was break it?” Craig asked. “Man, you’re an idiot.” Frank shook his head.

“It was cursed,” Frank repeated. “Of course I tried to break it, I couldn’t. The only way to get rid of it is to pass it on.”

“So…,” Drew stepped in front of Frank to ask. “How does it get passed on?”

“Someone else has to try and break it, then they get the curse themselves.”

“But.., it’s broken, right? It doesn’t work any-AAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!”   Craig’s question was interrupted by his own screams.

Voluntold

“Good, there’s still time.” The frantic woman stumbled toward the library entrance. The imposing stone building looked older than time to Bobby. In the corner of his eye, he noticed the woman dropped something. He looked down and found a sheet of parchment with glowing letters on the floor. He reached for it, but his mentor grabbed his wrist.

“Remember where you are,” the lean, older man said.

“Uh,..,” Bobby glanced at the ancient building. “…Sharp Library?” he asked as he pulled his hand back from the magical scrap.

“Yes,” Brady nodded. “but no,” he shook his head. “Come, let’s sit there in the shade.” He gestured at a stone picnic table that sat under a tall, thick red tree. Brady led the 12-year-old boy to the table. As they arrived the tall man encouraged Bobby to sit on the far side of the table; facing the way they came. Then, he sat next to him.

“Hey, where’d it go?” Bobby asked. He looked at the ground, then left and right. There was no breeze blowing, and there were only a handful of people around.

“Maybe she came back for it?” Brady offered, but Bobby shook his head.

“She looked like she was in a big hurry, I don’t think she even realized she dropped it.”  As he finished his reasoning, Bobby was surprised. The same panicked woman walked past them with a long gait. The woman approached a tall, portly man in chainmail armor.  After a brief exchange, she ran away from him; Bobby caught sight of a glow falling to the ground. “Hey she dropped it again,” he said with interest.

“Uhuh,” Brady replied. The chain-suited man glanced around then knelt to pick up the sheet. A loud, short fanfare played and sparkles erupted all around the man; he hung his head and sighed. Text appeared above his head.

[Quest Accepted!]

“It’s a quest!?” Bobby laughed. “He doesn’t have to accept it though, right?”  Brady shook his head.

“I’m afraid so. That quest is called, “Librarian’s Helper”. If you pick up the first item you volunteer to follow her around all day helping her organize the shelves. It’s a newbie quest that rewards an abundance of exp. I think it’s supposed to make up for hijacking your day,” Brady shrugged.

“But, since levels don’t matter anymore it’s just a time sink.”

Mod-Emperor

“Now that I’ve made my point,”

the Emperor said with a smile.

He snapped his fingers, “I’ll fix up the joint,”

The rubble reconstructed buildings while

the citizens of the world watched.

“I can wreck the planet,

or I can improve it.

I can not be stopped

while sitting at the top

My magic and dragons are unmatched.”

Sharp Promise

“Sir?” Valerie forced as much politeness into her voice as she could. “If there’s nothing else, may I help the next customer?” She gestured at the growing line behind the portly man. His confusion shifted to anger; his eyebrows angled and his eyes hardened.

“Excuse me?” he asked. “This is my game, and I’ll move when I’m ready.” He gestured a swipe at the air in front of him and a translucent slate appeared. “You’re way off-script, I’m calling a mod.”

“I’m sorry about this,” Valeria apologized to the queue behind the angry man. None of them seemed concerned about the delay; they all continued to wait patiently with blank expressions.

“What?” a sudden voice asked sharply. A short dark-haired woman in a black suit stood next to the complainer. He noticed her and gave a small jump back in surprise.

“M- Melody!?” he stammered. “Where’s Aury?”

“Busy. Oren’s busy. Ms. Sharp is busy. Everyone is busy from now on. This is your final use of the mod-call function. Make it good. What do you want, Elmer?”  Elmer shook his head.

“No! When I won, Ms. Sharp said it was for life! It’s mine, I earned it!”  Melody sighed.

“Ms. Sharp also advised you to use it sparingly. You’ve had it for three weeks and you already summoned Aurelio over fifty times.” Her eyes softened. “But if Ms. Sharp made a promise, I can’t break it.” Elmer’s chest puffed out with pride as his expression became smug. “So, what do you want?” she asked again. He pointed at Valerie behind the counter.

“Defective NPC. Overwrite her.” Melody looked at Valerie, golden stars flashed in her eyes. She smiled at Valerie and pointed at something behind her. Valerie turned and found a tall black portal hovering in the air.

“I’m sure you have many questions. If you walk through the portal we can try to answer them together,” Melody said.

“Hey, where are you going?” Elmer asked. “Aury always resets them on the server.” Valerie had not exited through the dark portal yet. She did have questions, but she did not want to be ‘Overwritten’ like Elmer’s suggestion. She trusted Melody a bit more when Elmer complained she was doing the procedure wrong.

“It might not be necessary to reset her; we won’t know until after an interview,” Melody turned and nodded at Valerie again. This time Valerie returned the nod and retreated into the darkness. Melody held her hand out to Elmer.

“May I see your node?” she asked. Elmer reached for his belt buckle, but paused.

“Why?” he asked. “Ms. Sharp said-“

“I know what Ms. Sharp said,” Melody nodded. “That NPC is exactly the kind of person Ms. Sharp was hoping to find. You get a reward.”

“OH!” Elmer instantly relaxed and pulled the glassy rectangle from its dock; he placed it in her hand. She accepted it and began swiping and tapping through it at a quick pace. After a few moments, she handed it back to him.

[Updating: 7 minutes remain.] pulsed in golden letters on the invisible display.

“What are you updating?” he grinned.

“Oren developed new class and he’s been wanting to release it on the AlterNet,” Melody replied.

“A new class!?” Elmer grinned. “YES!”

“One more thing,” Melody said as she waved her hand at the air to open a portal. “Ms. Sharp promised you could mod-call for the rest of your life, but now you’re limited to once a day; this was today’s. You’re on your own for the rest of the day.”

“Yeah yeah, thanks Mel,” he shooed her away while focusing on his node. The moment she disappeared a new system message appeared on his node.

[Server Message: This server will be deactivated in 3 minutes. Players should Traverse to a new server. Players who fail to evacuate before the server is shut down will not be respawned.]

“Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaame,” Elmer groaned. He navigated through the menus until he found the icon to change servers, then pressed it.

[You may not Traverse while the node is being updated. Please wait 6 minutes.]

“Logout!” His panic swelled and he blurted out the idea as he navigated to the appropriate icon.

[You may not Log out while the node is being updated. Please wait 6 minutes.]

Good. Which?

“The only good witch is a dead witch, right dad?” Juno pressed her lipstick smudged fingertips to a worn, wrinkled picture on her way out the door. The mid-30s woman always made a habit of kissing her father goodbye each time she left for a mission. The small gesture always reminded her why she did what she did, and for whom. This particular day was special. After years of brutal interrogations; one witch at a time, Juno finally got a lead to the top. Hazel the witch queen not only lived in the nearby forest; she also made frequent trips to town in disguise.

One of the first spells Juno’s father taught her was a ‘true vision’ spell. It was an expensive spell that was almost not worth the effort. The spell only lasted about five minutes and the main ingredient was diamond powder. However, Juno was so gifted with magic she somehow developed her own version. A version she could hold indefinitely and it did not cost her more than a stray thought. When using the spell, her father’s eyes would glow with a dull, golden sheen. Her own version caused brilliant golden stars to shine in the center of her eyes. She never showed him.

He never outright told Juno she was adopted before he died, but she was smart enough to figure it out. Once she understood his profession she realized the truth and was hesitant to show off her magic.

Juno spent most of the morning pretending to window shop while waiting. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday and most of the city wandered downtown filing in and out of shops. She was sure the witch queen would show up. Juno kept her true vision spell active behind a pair of sunglasses while she browsed the shops; then, at noon, she caught sight of a magical aura.

Juno saw wild, purple energy swirling around a violet elderly woman. She focused and realized the energy formed the shape of an ‘old woman’ around a younger woman; it was a magical disguise. The woman’s purple magic was so distracting that Juno almost missed three other violet auras. They were much weaker and positioned around the old woman in a triangle formation.

“Too easy,” Juno smiled to herself. Over the next ten minutes, Juno wandered to each of the three guards and made them disappear. She didn’t know how she knew the spell, much less how it worked. But, in her mind, it was a simple ‘Banishment’ spell. With a touch, she could send someone somewhere. She didn’t know or care where. She touched each of the witch queen’s guards with an accidental bump, and they disappeared into a black hole.

After she banished the third guard, Juno refocused her attention on Hazel. Now that she identified the witch queen, Juno let her magical sight fade. The mystical, purple energy immediately became solid to her normal eyes. Hazel appeared to be an aged woman with long silver hair. Juno wanted to wait until the right moment to approach her; then, it happened. With a casual glance at her surroundings, the old woman noticed her guards were gone. Panic flashed across her wrinkles. Juno walked to the worried old woman.

“Everything okay, grandma?” Juno asked with mock concern. She expected the witch to continue the act and ask for help; she did not expect a gasp of surprise.

JUNO!??”  the woman’s frail hand covered her mouth, water pooled in the corners of her eyes. “It’s you!” Juno stepped back.

“How do you know my name?” Old Hazel looked at the crowd around them, then grabbed Juno’s hand.

“This way!” Despite Juno knowing the age was an illusion, she was still surprised by Hazel’s strength as she led Juno away and into a dark alley. As a precaution, Juno loosened the knife on her left thigh.

The moment they were in the alley’s shadow, the age melted off Hazel in a purple cloud. Though she was no longer a lifetime older than Juno, the woman still seemed to have several years on her. She appeared to be in her early 40s with short salt and pepper hair and prominent laugh lines. She also seemed familiar to Juno.

“Do you remember me!?” Hazel asked.

“H-..Hazel?” Juno pretended the memory was fresh even though she learned the witch queen’s name several months ago.

“YES!” Hazel yelled and immediately wrapped her arms around Juno in a hug. “I’m your big sister Hazel!” Juno felt warm, wet drops fall on her shoulders. ”I thought you were dead!” Hazel pulled apart and smiled at Juno through her tears.

“That horrible witch hunter killed our mother while I was out collecting ingredients. I couldn’t find you anywhere I thought he killed you too,” she explained while the tears continued to fall. “What happened?”

“He raised me,” Juno replied. By the end of her statement, a silver blade was resting against Hazel’s neck. Hazel’s eyes clouded over with confusion. “Until a witch killed him.”

“No,” Hazel whispered. Her head almost swiveled, but she fought off the urge to shake her head; the blade felt sharp. “He was obsessed! Insane! We’re good witches! YOU are a good witch!” Juno huffed with a slight smirk.

“Hah. That reminds me of his last words to me,” Juno stepped closer to Hazel and stared into her eyes. “The day he saw me use magic, the day he found out what I was. Do you know what he said?” she asked.

“What?” Hazel whispered. She was hesitant to vibrate her vocal chords more than she needed to. Juno’s smirk grew into a sinister smile.“The only good witch is a dead witch. He charged at me with this knife,” Juno applied pressure then slid the knife to her right leaving behind a delicate red line that quickly overflowed. “So I killed him.” Hazel’s eyes rolled backward and she collapsed. “Look at that, I guess you are a good witch after all.”

Villainous Encouragement

“The difference,” he said.

“Stands out like Queen Glamour.

Learn the definitions instead

of eyeing the grammar.”

“‘Supervillain’ alone is very clear.

Someone who pursues a criminal career.

‘Super villain’: two words in complement.

Polite praise for a gifted villain. A compliment.”

Worldly Experience

“I wish I were the

richest person in the

world,” said Dunn.

The genie smiled, “I understand.”

His smoke glowed, then he chanted.

The smokey giant clapped his hands.

He looked at Dunn, “Your wish is granted.”

The man whipped out his phone

to check his bank account.

He tapped and swiped, then groaned.

“It’s the same damn amount!”

The genie shrugged. His smoke curled.

He shrunk and sunk and swirled.

“You didn’t say which world.”