Family: Planned

“Don’t worry, they won’t find it.” Tommy’s father said over the intercom accidentally. The whole conversation seemed like an accident he wasn’t supposed to hear. Tommy and his new friend, Brad, grinned at each other the moment the intercom shut off with a loud click. They got the impression Tommy’s dad was leaning on a button he shouldn’t have been.

The pair of 10-year-olds began eavesdropping halfway through the conversation. The voice of Brad’s mother suddenly filled the white room they were in, “… left the node in there. I should go get it.”  Her concerns were dismissed by Tommy’s father; but, it was too late.

“The node!” Tommy whispered to Brad with wide eyes. “I’ve heard my dad talk about it! You?” Brad nodded.

“Mom said it could change the world!” Brad replied with his own whisper.

“Let’s change the world!” The pair of boys hopped off the red chairs and each headed to a different side of the room glad to have something to do. Up until that moment, they sat at the red table in the center of the room with bored, sullen looks. The white room seemed to be some sort of storage area with plenty of boxes and crates of different sizes. Curiosity itched at them, but the boys had strict instructions not to dig through anything.

The two managed to behave until the fact that a node was in the room was revealed. They talked about how the boxes were full of boring stuff. They instead found a distraction in talking about video games for about 15 minutes before the intercom accident. They scrambled through the smaller boxes first but found only forms and other minor electronic parts.

Outside the room, Brad and Tommy’s mother and father chuckled to themselves while they watched the two kids making a mess. They didn’t have the foresight to put things back the way they found them and instead opened more and more boxes.

“It looks like that’ll keep them entertained for a while,” Evelyn said.

“Yeah.. maybe too long,” Thomas replied. “We need that room for other experiments today. I think we’re going to have to cut their adventure short.”

“Do we have to?” Evelyn asked. “They look like they’re having fun.” Thomas shrugged.

“We already got what we need;” he added a sigh. “But, I guess there’s no harm in letting them play a bit longer.”

“Just a bit?” Evelyn asked. Thomas turned and gave her his full attention; he appraised her with a stern look.

“You got attached, didn’t you?” he asked. A hint of disappointment colored his words. Evelyn could only shrug sheepishly.

“It’s been nice not coming home to an empty house,” she said. Thomas shook his head but also gave her a gentle grin.

“Well, we can’t do anything about it now. But, I feel like Ms. Sharp will be pretty happy with the progress we’ve made. As far as I’m concerned, this…,” he nodded at the monitor and the two boys still tearing boxes open. “…was your idea. You’re the one that deserves a reward and I’ll be sure to tell Ms. Sharp that in the report.”

“Really?” Evelyn’s eyes immediately sparkled with hope.

“Sure,” Thomas said with a shrug. “It was fun for a little while, but I think I’m over it. Besides, now that we’ve finished this project, who knows what Ms. Sharp will want us to work on next? I want to be ready for whatever it is. I can’t do that if I’m babysitting.” Evelyn nodded but kept her eyes on the monitor. She focused on the small, glassy rectangle standing upright in the center of the red table.

“We’ve just figured out a way to make nodes invisible to NPCs,” she said. “I’m not sure I want to be part of whatever’s next.”

“You don’t have to be,” Thomas replied with a warm smile. “I’m sure Ms. Sharp won’t have a problem with you retiring and moving to a quiet server with your new son or daughter.”

“Maybe one of each?” Evelyn asked with a slight smirk. Thomas rolled his eyes, but laughed.

“If you’re going that far, might as well get yourself an NPC husband too,” he said.

“I just might,” Evelyn added with a wink.

“Anyway, time to clear the room for the next experiment,” Thomas said. “Did you want to say goodbye to Brad?” 

Sharp Whispers

[I see her. – Melody] The strange message jumped out from the static in Emma’s mind. She learned to ignore cellphones and radios enough to keep the noise to a dull roar over the years. But this message was different. She heard a woman’s voice in her mind and physically felt the letters of the words on her body. The short message tickled her heart; It felt as if written on her heart with letters of pure love. Emma did not react. She remained seated at the park picnic table sketching. It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon and a good opportunity to practice landscapes. Though, she stopped drawing the moment she heard the message and instead stared at the few lines she managed.

Emma’s ability made her quite paranoid when she first discovered it almost a decade ago. It was easy to assume every conversation was about her. But, as she matured she learned that, in fact, strangers didn’t even give her a second thought for the most part. It also helped that more and more people with abilities stepped into the public eye since she first got her powers. Emma learned to assume no one was talking about her until they made it obvious. Though, she never heard, or felt, a message like this. Any other communication she intercepted seemed come only through her ears. But, every letter of this exchange felt filled with intention and affection.

[She’s not Unique. – Melody] [Only a Super. – Melody] This time, Emma felt tremendous disappointment with the messages. As if she personally failed at something that was important to her. Each individual letter fluttered across her heart. It was an odd way of communicating that seemed more intimate than even face to face conversation. She could feel the stranger’s emotions in every word. 

[Do you see more? – Bloody] Emma heard a new woman’s voice and felt different emotions with the message. In thinking about it, she realized she did not feel any emotions. The words felt almost robotic on her heart. Each letter landed cold and empty on her heart.

[Yes, love. – Melody.] The response made Emma’s heart swell with so much love, she was convinced she’d fall madly for the first person she laid eyes on. She kept her head down and focused on her half-started sketch. Emma couldn’t understand it. Her emotions made her feel love for the second voice; but, it only returned stiff communication void of feeling.

[Plenty of Supers here. – Melody] [We’re working, – Bloody] The cold woman said.

[Her ability may let her hear. -Bloody] Emma’s mind raced. They

had to be talking about her; but, they didn’t know she could hear them. They also seemed disappointed she wasn’t a Unique. Emma didn’t know what that meant and hoped they would leave her alone if she didn’t measure up. As long as she didn’t draw attention to herself, Emma might be able to finish her sketch and the rest of her day undisturbed.

[Sorry, Ms. Sharp. – Melody] The brief apology was more sincere than any Emma had heard in person. But, the message still carried deep love.

[She hasn’t even looked up. -Melody] [I don’t think she can hear us. – Melody] [Then, she’s useless. – Bloody] Despite knowing they were talking about her, Emma felt glad they didn’t feel like kidnapping her or whatever was planned. Even if they just wanted to talk, Emma couldn’t take that chance. She also noticed that the message seemed a bit warmer than before. The second woman relaxed her cold, formal tone.

[Notify Oren about the Supers. – Bloody] [His mother will be interested. – Bloody] Each order felt warmer on her heart.

[Then come home, love. -Bloody] Emma’s heart nearly exploded. She could not help but smile as tears began to flow. She thought she felt the ultimate emotion earlier from Melody; but, this new sensation dwarfed it. Each letter formed on her heart like a perfect, eternal, sunny day spent in love. Suddenly, Emma grew a bit jealous. She doubted she could find someone to make her feel like that for even a few minutes much less with every word.

That was the last message she heard from the two strange women and Emma felt incredibly lucky. She managed to carry the memory of the powerful emotions for several days. Her coworkers suspected she was in a new, secret relationship and commented on how she seemed to be walking on air. She didn’t know how to explain that just being aware that such a love existed in the world stretched her heart wide open. Even those that knew of her abilities wouldn’t understand what she went through, with no way to replicate it.

Four days after the encounter Emma was walking to a convenience store when emergency chatter filled her mind. Every broadcast she could hear was suddenly talking about the same thing. She paused as she tried to sort through the voices; but, she noticed people running out of the convenience store to look up at the sky.

A black hole hovered in the sky pouring out white objects that Emma couldn’t make out. Then, a pile of bones landed on the sidewalk in front of her. The bones magically put themselves together into a skeleton as several more piles landed behind it.

Up ahead, she could see the crowd at the store surrounded by skeletons as more and more continued to rain from the sky. The emergency bands that Emma could hear all indicated that this was happening everywhere on Earth. Emma tried to run from the approaching skeletons but she found another group behind her.

The last thing Emma heard was her own voice. Screaming.

Vampire by Starlight

“Fourth!?” Victoria asked with wide eyes. “That’s super high,” she added with a shake of her head. Her violet bangs wobbled with the motion. She met her date at the coffee shop and they easily settled into a conversation. It didn’t take too many questions from her to land on the topic of vampires. Wendell surprised her when he mentioned they were the fourth leading cause of death.

“Well, vampires are apex predators. I’m surprised ‘death by a vampire’ isn’t number one,” Wendell said. He was slightly annoyed when Victoria pulled out her phone and began texting while he was talking. He guessed she was arranging an emergency to leave the date; she wouldn’t be the first one to skip out early. Her phone appeared more advanced than any he’d seen, but his feelings were too bruised to give it much attention.

“Everything okay?” he asked. She nodded but continued typing for half a minute before she looked up again.

“Sorry, work stuff. This place is great,” Victoria said. She slipped her phone back into her purse then gave Wendell her attention again.

“So,.. you’re not leaving?” He asked. Victoria shook her head again.

“No. Why, do you need to leave?” she asked.

“No no,” Wendell said. He realized he needed an excuse to keep from sounding too insecure. A quick glance through the window at the night sky gave him an idea. “It’s just that, in the past, any time I mention that fact at night my dates suddenly realize how dangerous vampires are and hurry to get home.”

“Oh,” Victoria giggled. “Vampires aren’t dangerous; they’re just hungry. Though, maybe it’s just me that isn’t threatened by them,” she added with a confident smirk.

“Oh?” Wendell asked. He smiled at her and his voice took on an amused quality. “You’re not scared of vampires?” Victoria giggled again.

“If I was, I would’ve left already,” she said. Wendell’s smile grew broader. He laughed to himself when he realized she was talking about the night waiting outside. It wasn’t particularly late, but the sun was gone so the streets were empty.

“Yeah, I guess you are brave being out after dark,”  he added. He once had a date tell him the danger of meeting after dark made it more exciting.

“Oh, I don’t care about that,” she said. “I meant because you’re a vampire.”

“Huh?” Wendell was too surprised to offer a more cohesive thought. She was the first one to identify him before he revealed himself. Not that it was soon enough to save her. The coffee shop itself was run by vampires and most everyone in there at the moment was one. A few brought dates for dinner like Wendell had. He felt lucky that her voice wasn’t loud enough to alarm any others; and, he hoped to play it off. “What do you mean?” he asked. Victoria smiled and golden stars began to glow in her eyes.

“I can see you,” she said. Though, she leaned over the table and deliberately kept her voice low. “I can see all of you,” she said as she scanned the coffee shop around them. Wendell’s stomach dropped. She obviously wasn’t normal. She said she wasn’t afraid of vampires, and knowingly stayed in their company. He leaned back in his chair with his face whiter than it normally was.

“What are you?” he asked. Victoria smiled.

“Unique Soul #35, La Estrella,” she said. “You don’t know what that means yet, but you will soon,” she added.

“I know Spanish,” Wendell replied curtly. He was usually the one surprising his dates and he was eager to defend his honor. “Estrella means star,” he said. The golden stars faded from her eyes, but Wendell was still trying to make sense of what she said. “You have the soul of a star?” He asked while still trying to sound confident in his conclusion.

“Not exactly,” Victoria shook her head. “It’s more like my soul is tied to a star.” She held her hand out with the palm facing up and it immediately began to glow with a soft blue light. “Gimme your hand,” she said. Though, he didn’t have a chance to pull away because she grabbed his hand at the same time she asked. She placed his hand hovering over her blue palm.

“It’s hot!” he yanked his hand away as if from a flame. Victoria nodded.

“That’s my star. I can use its energy any time I need to; and even better, I don’t die until it does. Or someone kills me, but that’s pretty hard,” she smiled. Her confidence rubbed Wendell the wrong way; he was supposed to be the one scaring her. He was the apex predator. He fumed silently while she continued the conversation.

“Anyway, things are about to change big time… probably in the next week or so,” Victoria said.

“Why?’ Wendell asked dryly.

“I texted my boss about this Earth. Once Sharp Medical Services sets up here you won’t have to hunt humans anymore. You’ll be able to get blood from one of our blood banks. And society can move forward without everyone trying to kill each other.” Wendell snapped and leaped into action. In the blink of an eye, he appeared next to Victoria and lifted her out of the booth by her neck. His eyes glowed red while he bared his fangs at her.

“What if we like killing?” he asked with a sinister smile and began to squeeze her neck. He was used to women fighting him off, but he did not expect a blue glowing palm to strike his cheek. He was surprised for a moment because it felt more like she was offended than fighting for her life. Then, the slap began to burn as intense as sunlight. He dropped her to rub his cheek, but his hand also began to burn. He looked at it in panic and saw what looked like brilliant blue napalm burning through his hand.

“If you like killing, then you have problems,” Victoria said. She grabbed her purse while ignoring his panic and turned to leave. But she left Wendell with some reassurance. “Don’t worry, Sharp Medical Services also offers therapy.”

Buying Restraint

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Sharp. I’m Restraint,” the tan young man in a black suit shook Ms. Sharp’s hand before gesturing at the pair of seats in front of his desk for her and her assistant. “What can I do for you?” Restraint asked. He returned to his own seat as Ms. Sharp sat down; her assistant remained standing.

“I’m here to tell you what I can do for you,” Ms. Sharp replied. “You have a decently successful business here but it can be more.” Restraint was used to fending off business ideas from people that have no clue how to run a business. Everyone was eager to tell him how to make more money off the Supers that visited his spa anywhere he was. At least Ms. Sharp had the courtesy to make an appointment.

“Alright,” Restraint nodded. He let a short sigh escape then continued. “Go ahead and tell me how I can be making more money.” Ms. Sharp smiled at him.

“I’m sure everyone in this room knows you’re not doing this for the money,” she said. Restraint was surprised. He glanced at Ms. Sharp’s dark-haired assistant and she gave him a slight nod. Every other idea he’d heard was intended to boost his profits. “As I said, I want to help you make your business into more. To reach further and help more people than you already are.”

“That takes money…,” Restraint said. He was actually hoping she meant what she said. But, he did not want to let her know how close she hit to home. The only reason he ran the spa was to help people in his own way. He had the strength to be a superhero, not to mention his ability to nullify powers. But to him, it was more important to create an island of peace than to suit up and fight villains.

His spa was in the center of town and every year its influence grew a little larger. Heroes and villains were more civilized the closer they were to Restraint’s spa and he hoped that’d cover the whole city eventually. It surprised him when Ms. Sharp shook her head in response to his comment.

“It takes resources,” she said. “Money is just the middleman, I have all the resources you’d need.”

“And you have a plan to use those resources?” Restraint asked. “I doubt you’re giving them to me just like that.” Ms. Sharp nodded.

“You’re aware that alternate universes exist?” Ms. Sharp asked. Restraint nodded and chuckled.

“Yeah, we get a few travelers through here sometimes. Why?”

“I run a multiversal corporation named Sharp Development,” she said. “While we offer a wide variety of products and services, I still need to address the Super sector. Unfortunately, my knowledge and contacts in that area are thin at the moment, which brought me to you,” she said.

“Okay, you’re here,” Restraint said. “What’s your plan?”

“Simple as can be,” Ms. Sharp replied. “We’ll start off simple by having sign-up sheets available in the locker rooms. Once we get enough interest I’ll host a presentation laying out the whole thing. I’m envisioning a service that allows clients from other universes to hire Supers.”

“You think Supers want to get hired to help with honey-do lists and bodyguarding?” Restraint asked. 

“I think that Supers would like the chance to use their abilities freely without risking their lives. I also think they’d like to travel and see other universes. If the local Supers are off in different universes they won’t have much time to cause trouble here,” Ms. Sharp said. Restraint had to admit he liked that idea the most.

“Okay,” Restraint nodded again. “I’m willing to give you a shot, what’s the next step?” He was surprised when Ms. Sharp’s assistant stepped forward with a red clipboard that she wasn’t holding a second ago. The clipboard only had one sheet.

“I just need a couple of things, first a signature,” Ms. Sharp said.

“What’s this?” Restraint asked. He was curious to see where her idea led, but he wasn’t ready to sign a formal contract.

“This is just giving us permission to distribute flyers in your business,” she smiled. “You’re not committing to anything else yet.”

“Oh, okay,” Restraint nodded then signed his name. “And the other thing?”

“This isn’t a requirement as much as it is advice,” Ms. Sharp said as she stood. Her assistant collected the clipboard. “This isn’t true for everyone, but it is for you. Get a tattoo. It will change your life,” she said. He watched her assistant wiggle her fingers at the air, then a tall black portal opened. “And make sure it has your favorite number, 42, on it,” Ms. Sharp added before she stepped into the portal and disappeared.

Sharp Restraint

“Restraint? That’s a boring hero name,” Charlie couldn’t help but comment as he shook the young man’s hand. Although, he couldn’t deny Restraint fit his name perfectly. Restraint appeared to be in his young 20s. He had a healthy tan and wore a perfectly tailored black suit with a white tie. A pair of round, red-rimmed glasses drew attention to his hazel eyes.

“I’m no hero, just the representative,” Restraint replied. “So…,” Restraint sat down in front of Charlie’s large oak desk. “…what kind of hero are you looking for, and for what purpose?” Restraint asked.

“What for?” Charlie asked. He walked around his desk and sat in a high-back leather chair. “I need a bodyguard for my daughter. I thought that was the extent of your services, what else do you offer?”

“Almost anything; Supers, like people, have a variety of interests. Sharp Development can find a Super willing to help you with anything you want to accomplish. Although, we do limit clients to one Super per contract period,” Restraint said. “How long would you like your daughter protected?”

“Forever, obviously,” Charlie laughed. “Or, at least as long as I can afford it.” Restraint tilted his head at Charlie with slight interest.

“There is a way to get a Super assigned to you on a permanent basis,” he said. “And, it wouldn’t count as a timed contract, so you’d still be able to hire Supers for temporary jobs.” Charlie sat up straighter, then leaned forward over the desk.

“You can really protect her permanently?” he asked. Restraint nodded.

“Sharp Development accepts souls as currency. However, since you only have the one, it can buy you nearly anything.”

“You’re serious?” Charlie asked. The question was directed both at Restraint and himself. He couldn’t believe he was seriously considering selling his soul. “If I sell you my soul, my daughter gets a Super to protect her for the rest of her life?” Restraint gave a curt nod.

“Can I get a permanent Super and a timed contract?” Charlie asked with a grin. “It’s the only soul I’ve got,” he said.

“Sure,” Restraint nodded again. This time, a faint smirk tugged at the corner of his lips. “The maximum contract is only three years; Sharp Development will own your soul forever.”

Sharp Informant

“H. hello?” Mario froze when he spotted the violet-haired woman peeking into the window of a coffee shop.┬áIt had been close to 35 years since he’d seen another person. Not that he was lonely. Somehow it felt like all the animals on Earth knew he was the last human on Earth. He discovered early on that predators would ignore him and managed to get a lot of traveling done. Being able to camp out anywhere without fear was especially liberating; even deadly insects and reptiles minded their own business around him.

Mario had a lot of time to wonder about why the aliens seemed so wary around him. After a couple of decades though, he realized it didn’t really matter. He had an entire Earth to himself and the freedom to travel anywhere in the Americas. As comfortable as he was alone in nature, he did often return to the city to reminisce about the past. He was wandering the abandoned downtown of a city he’d never visited when he spotted her. She whirled around and Mario caught a glimpse of golden stars in her eyes for just a moment; he assumed it was a stray reflection. She gave him a friendly, broad smile as if she recognized him.

“Hey, Mundo!” She said. “What happened here?” she spread her arms out to gesture at the empty town around them. Mundo had a dozen questions running through his head, but one bothered him the most. Thinking back on his time alone, he felt completely sure he was the last person on Earth, without ever really being able to confirm it. He realized his surety disappeared moments before he turned the corner and saw her.

“Where did you come from?” he asked. She had to have come from somewhere because she wasn’t around before. He wondered if she was another alien.

“Where did I…?” She tilted her head in confusion at the question. Gold stars flashed in her eyes again and Mario knew it wasn’t a reflection. If she was alien, she was different than the ones Mario remembered. After the stars flashed, the woman smacked her forehead. “Pay attention,” she mumbled to herself. Then, she focused on Mario.

“Sorry, you’re still Slumbering,” she smiled. Then, she shook her head. “You don’t know what that means either. But, that’s okay.” She seemed intent on saying more, but Mario shook his head.

“Where did you come from?” he asked again.

“An alternate universe,” she replied. “What happened on this Earth?”

“Aliens,” Mario replied. Her reply could have been a joke or a flat-out lie. But, Mario had over 30 years to deal with the existence of aliens. If they were real, anything could be. He did not doubt her for a moment and was more worried about whether she would believe him. She seemed to come to the same conclusion about him.

“Whoa, really!?” she asked. “They didn’t invade?” Mario shook his head.

“Nah, they just took everyone,” then, he shrugged. “Everyone but me. Talk about rejection, right?” he added with a chuckle. She took a step back and her eyes lit up with golden stars again; this time she had a slightly concerned look on her face. Her head moved up and down as she actively scanned him.

“They didn’t even touch you?” she asked. Her head continued to move up and down as she studied him intently. “How old were you?” she asked. She relaxed finally and the stars disappeared again.

“No. They seemed afraid of me. I was 12 when they took my parents away. My dad was a big guy, a boxer. He tackled them, but they took him down easily. Forcefully. I tried to jump in and help, but they just avoided me until one of them put me in a forcefield that kept me in place. I watched them take everyone in my neighborhood. Then, they just left and the forefield disappeared.”

“Whooooooaaaa…” the violet-haired woman said with awe. “…they know too…,” she whispered to herself. “…they have to.” She quickly reached into her pocket and pulled out a transparent glass rectangle.

“What?” Mario tilted his head at her. “You look like you figured something out.” She nodded vigorously but kept her attention on the glass. Her thumbs flew over its surface and Mario guessed she was typing something he couldn’t see.

“Is it why they left me here alone?” Mario asked with a chuckle. “‘Cause that bothered me for years.”

“One sec..,” she nodded. Mario was surprised. He stood patiently for a moment until she finally gave him her attention again. She looked up at him with a smile.

“You remember what they look like, right?” she asked. Mario nodded.

“Yeah, they were humanoid. Actually, a lot like elves,” he said.

“Interesting,” a new voice said. It startled Mario when he noted two new women standing next to the purple-haired one. He was focused on her and suddenly they were in his peripheral vision. “Thank you, Victoria,” The woman in a white suit said with a nod at the purple-haired one.

“You’re welcome, Ms. Sharp,” Victoria bowed her head slightly. Then, she stepped back into a black hole that wasn’t there a second ago. It closed and disappeared taking her with it.

“As for you, Mundo, I am very curious about why the aliens left you alone. Why don’t you tell me about it?” she asked. Mario burst into laughter.

“My name’s Mario, and I was just telling Victoria that I have no idea why. It bugged me for years, then I just quit worrying about it.”

“Of course you do,” Ms. Sharp replied. “You just don’t know that you know. Melody, jog his memory,” Ms. Sharp said. The woman in the black suit stepped forward and gently took Mario’s hand between both of hers. Then, he noticed a bright blue light glowing in her palms.

“What are you-OWWWWWW!” Mario yanked his hand away to shake off the sudden burning sensation. “What the hell!?” he shouted. He checked his hand to see a ’37’ scarred on it. Then, it was like a dense fog was lifted from his brain.

He suddenly remembered everything. Not only could he recall his childhood with perfect clarity; he could recall all his childhoods. He could feel every animal and plant on Earth. He knew why his name was Mundo. He remembered the rules; at last, he knew why he was left behind.

“They want to meet peacefully. No Uniques on either side.” Of the two women, only Melody showed any reaction. Her eyes went wide with shock. But, Ms. Sharp responded casually.

“Then, they have Unique Souls too?” she asked. Mundo grinned at her.

“Of course. It’s only fair if every side gets soldiers.”

Sharp Stunt

“….and stay in your homes.” The voice on the radio repeated the warning as Mike pulled the heavy iron door shut. After pushing three thick bolts into place he turned to face his family. He offered them the most reassuring smile he could muster.

“You all did a great job,” he said. He was proud of how well their practice paid off. He stepped forward to pet Rupert, their retriever pup; Eddie’s one responsibility for emergency bugging out. “It looks like everyone did their job, and is accounted for.” He rustled Eddie’s brown hair, then took a moment to reassure his daughter before wrapping his arms around his wife.

Becky was 12, four years older than Eddie. She was at that age where parental affection was slightly off-putting. She was trying to be cool and brave, but Mike could tell how scared she was. He patted her briefly on the shoulder then hugged his wife, Sarah, close.

“Well, I hoped we’d never have to end up here, but I’m glad we’re prepared,” Mike said. He felt like he should try to give a speech or something to raise their spirits; but, the truth was he was as shaken as the rest of them. He considered and planned for several different scenarios but this was completely unexpected. He almost couldn’t believe it was happening. He tried to act brave, like Becky. “We can live down here three, four years comfortably But, I don’t think we’ll have to stay down here that long.”

“How long do you think it takes zombies to starve to death?” Becky asked. Mike could tell it was a sincere question. He was used to Becky’s seemingly default sarcastic tone.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Dana Sharp,” a woman’s voice came through the radio. It was different from the recorded warning they’d been hearing for the past 15 minutes. “On behalf of my company, Sharp Development, I apologize for the recent infectious outbreak. I currently have several task forces rounding up the zombies that have managed to escape, and we are saving those that we can still save. If you’ve been bitten by a zombie, please find a Sharp representative at your nearest hospital.” Mike and his family exchanged looks of confusion as they listened. They hadn’t even really entered the shelter, they were still at the entrance. Dana Sharp continued.

“I understand that simply cleaning up the mess is not nearly enough reparations for the trouble caused by my company. It may have been an accident, but I still feel a heavy responsibility. All residents are now eligible to receive a free node from Sharp Development.” Mike noticed Becky’s face light up in a way he hadn’t seen for at least two Christmases.

“Is that good?” Mike whispered as if somehow afraid of talking over the radio. Becky nodded frantically while Dana Sharp continued speaking.

“And finally, in order to facilitate transparency, I will be opening a Sharp community center in town. It may sound boring by title alone, but I assure you it’ll be quite a boon to your growing city. It’s a large facility that will bring jobs and tourists. It provides entertainment and access to the broad services provided by Sharp Development. I do encourage residents to stay indoors tonight. My company will work throughout the night to get rid of the zombie problem, so rest easy. Thank you for your time.”

“Whoa.. what a day it’s been!” the local D.J. came on-air as soon as Dana finished speaking. Mike stepped towards the radio and lowered it. Then, he turned to his family and laughed.

“I think zombies showing up is the best thing that’s ever happened to this town,” he said while chuckling.

“Seems kind of fast, though,” Sarah said.

“I know. That company took responsibility really fast, you never see that these days,” Mike smiled. “So, what do you guys think? Wanna camp out in here anyway or sleep in your own beds tonight?”

“HEEEEREE!” Eddie ran into the shelter carrying Rupert.

“Here’s fine,” Becky said after a quick glance at the three bolts on the door. Then, she followed Eddie.

“Don’t you think it was.. suspiciously fast?” Sarah asked.

“Suspiciously?” Mike asked. “How so?”

“I don’t know,” Sarah shrugged. “Company makes a huge, public, mistake. But not only do they catch it right away, they know exactly how to fix it. They take responsibility and give away free merchandise, and promise to help improve the local economy.” Sarah sighed. “It just feels like an amazing advertisement.” Mike hugged his wife close.

“I know it’s been a stressful.. hell, hour,” he chuckled. “But,.. people died, babe. She’s obviously a talented businesswoman with incredible standards, but even if she.. or anyone, anywhere.. could somehow stage a stunt with real zombies…” Mike shrugged while still holding Sarah. “…no one’s that soul-less.”

Sharp. Waste.

“I’m just saying…,” Carter shrugged at the rest of the crew. “…they weren’t in charge when we left; it seems kind of fast that a company we never heard of is running NASA now.”

“I know you’re not complaining,” Lucy replied. The team’s engineer sat on a lounge in the common room. She wore a fluffy white robe and held a margarita straw centimeters from her mouth. A pair of red scissors was the only logo on the robe; it looked familiar to Carter but he could not place it.  “After the couple of years we had, this new quarantine protocol was heavenly. I wouldn’t mind a few more days.”

The rest of the crew laughed and agreed with Lucy enthusiastically. Something still bothered Carter, but he decided to drop it for the moment. Even after his first successful mission, the rest of the crew considered Carter a rookie. He was usually given the least exciting jobs like cleaning, or sample collecting. He didn’t know how to communicate what was bothering him, so he let it go and tried to enjoy the free time with his friends. It was a nice change of pace from days full of chores and maintenance and little time to socialize. Though, he hoped it was the last night of quarantine.

After two years and three weeks, Carter was ready to socialize with different people. He was excited for the mandatory meeting just because he’d finally get to see some new faces. New faces that would hopefully tell him he could go into town tomorrow. Not that he wanted for any material possessions; he could literally ask for any food, gadget, or tool and get it delivered the next day. He wanted to see real sunlight. An actual blue sky that’s not a virtual environment. 

“Good evening, crew,” A pale woman in a white suit appeared on the main screen in the common room. The crew immediately gave her their attention. “My name is Dana Sharp, owner of Sharp Development, and temporary head of NASA.”

Eight of the nine astronauts greeted the woman with a wave, nod, ‘hi’, or ‘hello’. Carter was distracted by the company logo along the bottom of the screen. It said ‘SHARP Development’ but the ‘A’ was made up of a red pair of scissors pointing down, like the embroidery on Lucy’s robe. Ms. Sharp either didn’t notice or didn’t care that not all of them were paying attention.

“Though standard quarantine protocol is coming to an end. In order to thank you for your service and bravery, Sharp Development is honored to extend your stay indefinitely. Take advantage of our hospitality free of charge, for as long as you like,” she said.

“YEAAH!” The room burst into cheers. Eight of the nine crew members hopped on their feet in excitement.

“What if I don’t want to?” Carter asked Ms. Sharp.

“What??” The cheering stopped immediately and Lucy spun Carter around to face her. “Why don’t you want to stay? This place is amazing!” Carter did not know how to explain that he didn’t trust Ms. Sharp, partially because he couldn’t identify the reason. It didn’t help that the woman herself was watching. Before Carter could stall for more time, Ms. Sharp spoke up again.

“I’m afraid that it’s somewhat of a package offer. All of you stay, or none of you do. I’ll give you an hour to discuss it,” Ms. Sharp said. Then, she disappeared off the screen. Instead of feeling at ease, Carter felt the heavy stares of his crewmates.

“Alright, Carter,” Lucy said. “What’s the problem?” She used her captain’s voice. It comforted Carter. When she used that tone she was open to new ideas and suggestions no matter how stupid they were.

“Something,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t know. Something about this whole company is giving me weird vibes,” he pointed at the red scissors on Lucy’s robe. “That logo in particular,” he added. “I’ve seen that somewhere. I don’t know where, but something about it is driving me nuts.”  Lucy pulled the robe fabric taught and looked down at her chest. She seemingly noticed the logo for the first time.

“Hey. It’s scissors,” she said with a slight giggle. The moment she spoke she looked up and locked eyes with Carter. He remembered exactly where he’d seen the logo, and Lucy knew it too; she’d said the same thing the first time they saw it.

“No way…,” Lucy spoke, but Carter tore out of the room at top speed. As soon as Lucy realized he was gone she bolted out too before anyone got a question out.

Lucy caught up to Carter in the Sample Storage room. He was in the process of opening a heavy silver case as she walked in. Then, the heavy footfalls of the rest of the crew caught up. They entered the room and gathered around the case as Carter flipped it open.

“The first set of samples from Mars. 16 months ago…,” Lucy said. The interior of the case consisted of several deep velvet pockets. Each pocket contained a sealed clear plastic bag. Carter checked several pockets, then pulled one small plastic bag out completely. He closed the chest and laid the bag out flat on top.

Inside it contained what was assumed to be paper of some sort. It looked dusty red with age, but it was easy to tell that it was once white. In the center of the paper was a faded, distorted red logo that Lucy once identified as scissors.

“So, we’re not staying, right?” Carter asked.

50 minutes later, the crew sat in the common room. Bags packed and dressed to go, though Lucy did pack the robe in her luggage. Ms. Sharp appeared on screen again.

“We’ve decided not to stay,” Lucy said as soon as the pale woman appeared.

“Very well. On behalf of Sharp Development, I wish you good luck and godspeed.” She disappeared again without another word.

“What, that’s it?” Carter asked.

“No,” a woman’s voice said from the entrance of the common room. They all turned to see a short, pale woman in a black suit. “Ms. Sharp also sent me…,” her hands began to glow with bright blue light. “… to clean this place up.”

Revived. Recruited.

“‘Le’Ben!” Milla was surprised when her zombie body tried to speak. Not just speak, she gave an answer she didn’t know she had. Edna, the stranger that brought her to the clinic seemed just as surprised as Milla; but, somehow the medic wasn’t shocked.

“Zombies have a favorite number?” Edna asked the medic. She had minor scrapes and bruises after trying to escape a group of zombies. She almost didn’t until zombie-Milla stepped in and helped Edna escape. Edna initially thought the posters advertising a reward for ‘friendly’ zombies were just a scam designed to get people killed. But, Milla was very obviously a friendly zombie. Edna asked her all sorts of questions, but she didn’t seem able to talk or keep her balance easily. Zombie-Milla shuffled in place at a respectful distance while still keeping an eye on Edna. Meanwhile, Edna found the nearest Sharp Medical Services branch to turn in her undead friend.

Once they reached the office the medic ignored Edna’s minor wounds and focused on zombie-Milla. He approached without fear, looked into Milla’s glazed, dead eyes then asked a question.

“What’s your favorite number?” Edna jumped when Milla moaned out a quick and loud word that sounded a lot like ‘eleven’.

“Congratulations,” the medic said to Edna. “This one does, that means you qualify the reward.” He handed Edna a small, card-sized glass rectangle. “The receptionist will activate this for you on the way out,” he said.

“Thank you!” Edna grabbed the card and ran out of the room. The medic smiled and looked at Milla.

“You probably don’t know what’s going on, but don’t worry about a thing. Soon you’ll wake up in a body and this’ll all feel like a bad dream.” The medic approached Milla with a syringe. She did not feel anything, but moments after he injected her, her vision began to go dark. She heard the medic one more time before she lost consciousness.

“Welcome to Sharp Development.”

Scout. Out.

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t like to brag, but I can lift a semi,” Brett said. A broad grin accompanied his confession to Victoria.

“On top of the super speed and flight, that you also don’t like bragging about?” Victoria asked. They’d only sat together for about 10 minutes, long enough for the waitress to get their orders. Brett brought up Super powers and seemed eager to hesitantly mention his own abilities.

“Yeah, I got the full set,” Brett grinned. He was handsome, Victoria had to admit that. He was fit and tan with sparkling white teeth and short chestnut hair. But his attitude was wearing thin on her; she didn’t think his good qualities made up for being so undeservedly cocky. She decided to turn it into business instead of a date.

“Are Supers common on this Earth?” she asked. Upon changing the nature of the date in her mind, Victoria decided Brett probably wouldn’t be much help. She looked up and glanced around the crowded coffee shop with golden stars in her eyes, then she nodded.

“What do you mean this Earth?” Brett asked. Victoria smiled at him without the stars in her eyes.

“I meant what I said. THIS Earth. And, it looks like Supers are very common; I’m the only one in the shop that isn’t a Super like you.”

“I don’t know if it’s that common…,” Brett began to argue, but then decided to focus on her. “So, are you an alien or what?” he asked. Victoria shook her head.

“I’m a scout. Sharp Development is now interested in your Earth.”