Dungeons & Exposition

“A whole month? With you?” Dread asked Jenny. She sounded eager for a moment, then corrected her statement. “..and Astrid?” she glanced at the short girl next to them. The three girls stood on an endless amber plain underneath a dim purple sky.

“The window’s open for 30 days,” Jenny shook her head. The stiff black peaks that made up her hair wobbled with the motion. “But, we don’t need to stay for the whole month. Ms. Sharp wants to add dungeon matches to the tournament since she’s restarting it anyway. The dungeon server opening up has some good starter ruins to get used to the differences.”

“What kind of differences?” Astrid asked. Then, she let out a small giggle and shrugged. “Though, I haven’t played a real derby match yet either. It’s all new to me,” she shrugged. Jenny nodded.

“In a derby match, relative power levels stay consistent for the players and any monsters on the track. In a dungeon Match, every time you level up, it’s like descending a dungeon. Random monsters will start spawning instead of only player summoned ones. Then, the monsters start getting tougher as you get deeper. But they also start dropping better gear that makes the players stronger too.”

“So we get stronger too?” Dread asked. “Won’t that cancel out the stronger monsters?” Jenny shook her head.

“The other team gets stronger too, right?” Astrid asked.

“The big rule for derby is: ‘It isn’t a race.’,” Jenny replied. “Dungeon matches kind of are. If one team levels up faster they make stronger monsters and have better gear. The other team will have trouble keeping up with everything against them; we don’t want to be that team.”

“Should I have picked a faster class?” Astrid asked.

“Nah,” Jenny shook her head with a giggle. “Stop asking, you already picked Swordmage. You can’t change your class, so for the last time,” she said with mild exasperation. “It’s not about what role you fill, it’s about having fun.”

Astrid nodded, her tight black curls bounced. She caught Jenny’s mild annoyance. It bruised her feelings a bit, but Astrid knew her new friend meant well. And, she knew that she’d probably asked Jenny what class would best help the team one too many times during character creation.

“I can’t wait,” Dread said. “We going now?”

“What about the rest of the team?” Astrid asked. Jenny shrugged.

“Bailey has a ton of dungeon matches under her belt already; she doesn’t need the practice. Britt’s always working, but Dirge can probably use some dungeon time.”

“Oh, no. She’s busy,” Dread said quickly. “Uhh.. I think she wants to hang out with Vegas more. I think we should go just you and me. And Astrid,” Dread added.

“Actually, Astrid reminded me of something,” Jenny said. “It’s best to take a full team so we can talk about synergies too. We’ve got 30 days, and I’ve already reached out to some of the other guilds about practicing at the Schoolyard. We’ll try to plan it for a day when we get at least one full team together, two would be great.”

“Oh. So, what now?” Astrid asked.

“We can still do some training,” Dread said. “I mean, I have time. If you want to?” She looked at Jenny first, then she turned to Astrid. “Unless you have to leave?”

“I apologize girls,” a woman’s ethereal voice echoed around them. “Playtime’s over, this one has chores,”

“Chores?” Astrid looked up at the purple sky in confusion. Then, she sank into a black portal that appeared underneath her feet. It disappeared after swallowing her. Jenny shook her head in awe.

“You know…,” Jenny said. “I understand Ballisea can do that anytime from anywhere. But seeing it happen is going to take some getting used to. Can she hear us too?”

“Yeah,” Dread nodded with a more serious expression than she wore moments before. The truth was, she didn’t know if Ballisea could hear them across universes until the moment Astrid disappeared. But, Ballisea spoke something to her only. A faint whisper emanating from within her ear canal; a microscopic black portal that carried Ballisea’s voice.

“Little Calavera,” Ballisea giggled in Dread’s ear. “You would do well to heed my advice. If you wish to spend time alone with that one, ask her. For now, I will grant you this trivial favor of removing Astrid.”

Sharp Moon

“Prove it,” Norma said. She smirked at Aurelio, a chubby, curly-haired boy sitting across the table from her. Norma glanced left and right at the students around them. They sat outside in the school’s courtyard waiting for the morning bell. It was a cool, crisp Monday morning, and Aurelio had been excited to tell Norma about his weekend. “Or, let me guess,” she added, then filled her voice with sarcasm: ‘They’re too many people around’. Right?” she giggled.

Aurelio shook his head and pulled out a small glass card. It was completely transparent until he tapped on it, then a display lit up. He continued to tap and swipe the screen, slowly. He took a moment here and there to check he was tapping the right icons; he only owned the node for a couple of days.

“What’s that?” Norma asked. Aurelio shrugged without looking up, he was still navigating the menus trying to find the right sort of proof.

“It’s called a node. It’s like a phone, but better; she gave it to me. Ah, how about this,” Aurelio grinned, he looked up at Norma.

“Pause,” he tapped the node at the same time.

“Pause what?” Norma asked.

“I paused everything,” he turned and pointed at the flow of students; they were all frozen in time.

“No way….,” Norma stood slowly from the bench and made her way to the nearest group of students. Aurelio split his attention between watching her poke and prod them; and, navigating through the node. “You really can….,” Norma was amazed. Aurelio smiled and tapped the node one more time.

“You like snow, right?” he asked. Then, Norma noticed snowflakes fluttering down; her eyes shot even wider.

“Are you going to see her again!? Can you get me one!?” she asked. Aurelio shook his head; the jungle of dark brown curls on his head bounced with the motion.

“She said I’d probably never see her again,” Aurelio replied.

“But, you can find her, right? I mean, how many people can there be in the world named ‘Vanilla’?”

“She wasn’t from this Earth,” Aurelio replied.

“You didn’t tell me she was an alien!” Norma said with slight annoyance in her voice. Aurelio shook his head.

“Not an alien; from an alternate Earth. That was the other thing I was going to tell you about,” he said. But, Norma wasn’t listening.

“Didn’t you stop time?” she asked. Her eyes focused on something behind Aurelio. He grew suspicious and turned around to see a woman wearing what appeared to be a formal white coat with tails. He clearly saw a red vest under her coat, with another layer of white beneath it when she walked through the time-locked students.

“Oh no! Pretend you’re frozen!” he turned around to face forward, then tried to remain still. He was glad to see that Norma at least listened to him, even though she was clearly confused.

“Why?” Norma tried exhaling the question without moving her lips.

“Sh!” Aurelio replied. The pair of 8th-graders sat still for several minutes. All around them they heard the strange woman in white walking through the students, seemingly searching for something.  She walked to where Aurelio could see her better; he spotted a red sun embroidered on the left side of her coat. He hoped he knew what it meant, and relaxed slightly. But, he wasn’t going to make any moves just yet. Then, she headed straight for him.

“Gotcha,” she said with a smile once she reached their table. “Hola, Luna…,” Aurelio couldn’t help it; his eyes made contact with hers and her smile grew broader. “…how did you do this?” she asked. He knew he was caught, but she did not seem to be angry. He shrugged his shoulders, then relaxed. Norma followed his lead and relaxed too, but the woman didn’t take her eyes off Aurelio.

“With a node,” he replied. He held up the glass card to show her.

“You did this with a node?” she asked and gestured at the still students. Aurelio nodded. Sol raised a blonde eyebrow. “May I see it?” she asked.

“No,” Norma answered for Aurelio; but, he was already handing it over. Sol accepted the clear card. She made a sweeping gesture with her arm and a larger, smokey-grey glass pane appeared hovering in front of her. She set the node down on its surface, then began moving her fingers along the lower portion of the square to type.

“This node didn’t have timeframe access initially,…,,” she mumbled to herself. Aurelio stood from his seat to look at the glass slate next to her, but he could only see the same smokey grey glass.

“Yeah, I thought that was weird. I saw Vanilla control time, so I knew it could be done; I had to program my own workaround,” he said.

“You met a Muerte?” Sol asked. She looked down at Aurelio and brilliant golden suns glowed in her eyes for a moment. “But, you didn’t touch her?” Aurelio shook his head.

“No, she told me about Lunas.” Sol smiled.

“Okay, this is why I’m here,” she said, then gave Aurelio his node back. 

“Why?” Norma asked once Aurelio held the node again.

“Muertes can stop time, nodes can usually only slow it down to near stopping. But, suddenly this server started using a lot of resources so I came to find out why,” she smiled at Aurelio. “Because some genius little hacker accidentally tripled the power draw for the nanos here. I believe my boss, Ms. Sharp, would very much like to meet you,” she said.

“Am I in trouble?” he asked. For some reason, Aurelio trusted Sol; she gave off a pleasant vibe that he found comforting.

“Not at all,” Sol said. “You’re being offered a job.”

Sharp Reset

“Your performance in your first few games was…,” Dana Sharp paused mid-pace to look at the group of five girls. Bailey, Jenny, Dirge, Dread, and Britt were seated in Dana Sharp’s office. Each one looked sullen from Dana’s lecture so far. She circled them while informing them about her decision to cancel the Pineapple Cup, and start from the beginning again. Dana searched her mind for the most gentle word she could. “…lacking. It wasn’t the only reason for my decision to scrap the first tournament; but, it was on the list of reasons. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s not even a negative.” Dana Sharp walked to her desk and sat behind it.

“Between us in this room, I know you could have improved enough as a team during the tournament to win. However, from a business perspective, there was an opportunity here to exploit. The representatives of Earth: Pineapple respect the fact that my company is willing to take a loss to accommodate a family emergency.” Ms. Sharp took a moment to nod at Bailey. She sat in the center of the group. Her chestnut ponytail was currently covered by her green hoodie; she pulled it up early into the lecture.

“How’s your dad doing, Bailey?” Ms. Sharp asked.

“Better,” Bailey gave the woman a firm nod. “Thank you, Ms. Sharp.”

“I get to buy you girls more time to practice, and it leaves a positive impression on my clients. This was my decision, girls.” The girls all seemed to relax when they realized Ms. Sharp wasn’t angry at them.

“Here’s what we’re going to do going forward. Jenny…,” Dana nodded at a girl with black spiky hair to Bailey’s right. “…you’re still the captain. Bailey’s father is still recovering, and I want her to be able to miss a day of practice if she needs to. Along those lines, we still need a sixth team member. The trouble is, you’ve become a team already. The window to assign you a sixth member myself has already closed.”

“Again, this is a great opportunity to learn something. Sharp Development acquired a dungeon finder app on one of our Earths called ‘Delver’. We’ve scaled it up to the AlterNet and rebranded it as ‘DRBY’. Dana Sharp waved a casual, dismissive hand at the girls.

“It’s on your nodes now, try it out and find a sixth member you all agree on. And you’re able to share the app with other players to make it easier to find practice games. Get as much training in as you can before the tournament restarts,” Dana Sharp said.

“When is it?” Bailey asked.

“You’ll know with plenty of time. When I decide,” Ms. Sharp replied.

Dreadful Aura

Erin froze in his tracks the moment he focused his Sight on the teenager. He was thankful he didn’t call out to her as he approached to congratulate her on her win. She was too busy basking in the cheers of the crowd around her to notice him standing on the field staring at her.

Erin shook his head to dismiss his Sight and recollect his thoughts. He decided not to approach her right away; she was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. She was tall and athletic with spiked, white hair. And, she was now officially the strongest person on Earth.

One day, a year ago, humans spontaneously developed superhuman abilities. Luckily, the leaders of the world were able to come together quickly to develop a super-powered version of the Olympics. They set a date for a year in the future and opened training camps.

Unlike the training involved for professional athletes, anyone could be superhuman. The winner, Dread, wasn’t the only teenager in the competition, but they were all treated as equals. Her frightening strength wasn’t what gave Erin pause. Her aura was entirely different from every other human he saw; super-powered or not.

Every other person congratulating Dread had a soft purple glow around them. It was the same glow that informed Erin of his new ability. After some practice with it, he found out that seeing someone’s aura was the least useful trait of his ability. With his enhanced vision he could see sharper, clearer,  and farther than anyone. It was useful enough to use often, but not all the time. While approaching Dread, his Sight activated unintentionally. It was only the second time that had ever happened; the first was when humans first got their powers.

The moment he saw Dread’s aura, he knew why his ability turned on. It was scared of her. Her body was surrounded by a ghostly, brilliant, golden skull. It resembled a sugar skull with elegant purple, gold, and black patterns decorating it. The number 42 glowed on the skull’s forehead. When he shook his Sight away, the skull aura disappeared while Dread continued smiling and chatting with her new admirers. Something about the situation didn’t seem right, she seemed friendly enough despite her aura. Erin noticed the crowd around her thinning and decided to get closer before his approach became awkward.

He took three steps, then froze again. Erin’s Sight spontaneously activated again, now there were two horrifying auras. A flowing black cloak and obsidian scythe now stood next to Dread’s golden skull. Erin shook his Sight away again and spotted the difference. There was one more girl in the crowd that wasn’t there when Erin tried to approach a second time. She wasn’t as tall as Dread, but almost as pale, and she had long ribbon-like black curls flowing down over her shoulders.

Erin wasn’t surprised; teleportation was a known ability. The new girl with the death-like aura smiled and seemed as cheerful as Dread. Erin decided he was more curious than scared and decided to try approaching a third time. The celebratory crowd around Dread had died down to less than 20 by the time Erin was close enough to hear the conversation. It seemed to be perfect timing, because he was in earshot when Dread spoke up.

“You guys have been so awesome, but my ride’s here now,” Dread said. She gestured at the curly-haired girl next to her with her thumb. “But I have a question for all of you; what’s your favorite number?”

“35!” Erin shouted. He wanted to be heard over everyone else. Unfortunately, no one else answered. Over a dozen strangers turned to look at Erin with curious and amused expressions. He felt instant embarrassment, as well as surprise. He never gave it much thought and didn’t know he had a favorite number.

“Then, you’re who we’re here to see,” Dread said.

Death’s Favor

Alliane woke with a start. Her eyes flew open and stared at the darkened ceiling while she tried to listen for what was bothering her. Silence. Her husband wasn’t snoring, and the clock wasn’t ticking. She turned and glanced out the second-story window and noticed the patio light was on. She always turned it off before going to bed, and she always went to bed after Jonah,

She turned on the bed and stood up, then walked into her closet to change into something more presentable for her guest. She made her way down the stairs and into the kitchen. She stopped for a moment when she saw someone wearing a white suit. She came downstairs thinking it was her friend, but he always wore a navy-blue pinstripe suit. Luckily he turned into the light and she recognized Billy. She relaxed and continued out onto the patio.

“Jonah’s starting to think you don’t like him,” she said as she sat down on a wicker chair at the patio table. Billy chuckled and sat down across from her.

“I’m still undecided,” Billy replied with a shrug.

“So, did you stop time just to show off your new wardrobe?” Alliane nodded at his bright orange tie. “Vanilla would be proud,” she smiled.

“It was a gift from her. She wanted me to wear it when…,” Billy went quiet for a moment. “…I inherited her power. I haven’t worn it for a while, but I think I’m ready.” Alliane stood from her seat and pulled it closer to him. She sat down again putting her hand on his shoulder.

“It looks good,” she said.

“Thank you, but that’s not why I’m here. Vanilla’s soul is in me and it’s telling me something major is happening soon.” Alliane sat up straighter and gave a curt nod of encouragement. She’d seen Billy sad before but never worried like he was now.

“Are you and Jonah still doing that scavenger hunt?” he asked. She replied with a half-shrug.

“He got bored with it after we got married. Why?”

“I need to ask you a favor, and it would be easier if you had some Unique friends to help. The other team I met seemed capable, and they had AlterNet characters.”

“Oh. We love the AlterNet, what’s the favor?” She asked.

“You mentioned wanting to join a roller derby team after the honeymoon. Now that your honeymoon’s over, how about it?”

You are starting a roller derby team?” Alliane was genuinely surprised. “I thought you said Vanilla advised against you making an AlterNet character?” Billy nodded.

“She did. I’m not. You,” he pointed at her. “are starting a roller derby team with your scavenger hunt friends. And you’re going to compete in Dana Sharp’s tournament.”

“The tournament that already started weeks ago?” she asked. Billy nodded.

“It’s not something she’s going to publicize, but she scrapped the matches that happened so far. She’s resetting the brackets and has room for one more team; your team.”

“She can do that? And the other teams agreed to it?” Billy nodded.

“They all agreed the Magi-knights would have won. She gave them the original reward and invited all the teams to try again in a month. The fact that it isn’t common knowledge means none of the teams feel like they lost.”

“How do you know this? How are you guaranteeing me a spot?”

“I have a reliable contact,” he smiled. “Are you in?” Alliane’s eyes opened wide.

“You have a spy in Sharp Development!??” Billy chuckled.

“I wish; the information would be much cheaper if I did. I found a leak. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was all fed to me with Ms. Sharp’s knowledge, but the outcome is the same. I need a team in her tournament.”

“What about your clown team?” She asked. Billy shook his head.

“They’re Red’s team and he’s not known for being particularly reliable.”

“Okay, I’m in.” Alliane smiled. “I’ll put the team together for you.”  She stood from the chair and leaned over to hug his shoulders. “But can you give me a couple hours of sleep before you start time again, to make up for this little chat?”  Billy nodded.

“No problem. And, thank you.”

A Dirge for Chocolate

“Green light!” Threnody giggled and dashed forward as soon as she heard the words. Vegas stood at the other end of the living room with a giant grin and a chocolate bar. He watched Threnody take a few steps, then stopped her the moment she came within reach. “Red light!” he said.

Threnody froze mid-step. One little leg was lifted in the air while she wobbled unsteadily on the other. Her bright orange eyes never left the chocolate bar while her hands froze inches from it.

“GRE-” Vegas shouted the first part of the word, the stopped himself. Threnody was ready to move as soon as she heard the word; she toppled over trying to break her own momentum when Vegas didn’t finish the word. She landed face-first on the carpet then rolled over giggling. “Gotcha,” Vegas said with a laugh. He dropped the chocolate bar on her stomach. “What’s next?”

“MY TURN!” Threnody yelled. She grabbed the chocolate bar, stood up and ran to the other side of the living room. She set the candy down on the floor then stood in front of it waving her hands at Vegas.

“Alright, I’m ready,” Vegas said as he took a couple of steps back. He wasn’t a tall man, despite his blue mohawk, but his steps were still longer than hers.

“Green light!” Threnody yelled. Vegas managed to lift his leg before she shouted again. “Red light!” She wanted to catch him on one foot too. Vegas froze with one leg in the air for a moment, then he put it down.

“Whoa,” he said. His grin wasn’t as broad as it was moments ago, and he looked around the room as if checking it for something.

“Vegas!” Threnody whined.

“Shhh, hold on. Was that you?” he asked. Then, he turned around and headed toward the front door. “C’mon, shortcake!” he said. Threnody whirled around to grab her candy bar then ran after him through the open door.

Outside, the sun was disappearing below the house across the street; several shades of purple and orange painted the sky.

“See that?” Vegas pointed at a car that wasn’t moving, despite being in a traffic lane.

“Uhuh,” Threnody said.

“Say, green light,” Vegas suggested.

“Green light,” Threnody said softly. The car moved again instantly.

“Your first time stop!” Vegas crouched to pick up the girl then spun her around a few times in celebration. He set her down and winked at her. “Now try rewinding it,” he said.

“Okay!” she clapped excitedly. Then she looked at Vegas. “What light rewinds time?”  Vegas let out a loud guffaw and shook his head.

“That’s not how it works,” he said. “You can try rewinding later, let’s go back inside and talk.” They walked in and sat at the round kitchen table. Now that she was seated, Threnody took the opportunity to open the chocolate bar.

“You can control time, okay? Time is like a videotape and you can pause, rewind, fast-forward, and even set playback loops.” Threnody nodded while chewing. You don’t need to say red light or green light or anything. That’s just how your powers decided to show themselves,” Vegas chuckled. “You really wanted to stop me. But, you need to learn what you can and can’t control.”

“I control time,” Threnody said matter-of-factly, then took another chunk out of the candy. Vegas nodded.

“So if time is like a videotape, every Earth and all its Zeros are all one tape. Unique Souls are each their own tape; does that make sense?” Threnody shook her head slowly.

“Uh.. okay,” Vegas said. He thought for a moment, then tried again. “Every Earth is like a TV show and all the Zeros are actors. Everything is scripted out from the moment an Earth is created. Which Zeros are going to be born, when, what they’re going to do, how the world is going to end; the whole show is planned out. You with me?” he asked. Threnody nodded and kept munching away.

“The Zeros are acting the show out in realtime, but you and other Muertes can look at the whole thing. You can focus on any moment you want, past, present or future. Now, this is where it gets tricky; Uniques aren’t part of the script. We’re like random people wandering in off the street and messing with the actors. Anything you do to mess up the script is permanent.” Threnody’s eyes widened and she stopped chewing.

“I can’t fix it?” Vegas nodded.

“That’s the sticking point. You’re the only one that can. Pretend you draw a big picture of a pretty unicorn…,” Threnody’s eyes sparkled again and she resumed chewing. “…on the side of a building, then leave that Earth. Then, another Muerte comes along and sees the picture. They like it so much they decide to rewind time to see who drew it. They’ll never find out; as they rewind it’ll be there one second, then gone the next. If they try to fast forward it’ll reappear, but they’ll never see you doing it. If you hurt someone, you’re the only one that can rewind time to before they were hurt and not hurt them.”

“But why can’t other Muertes rewind time before they were hurt?” Threnody asked. A touch of sadness showed in her eyes, but Vegas guessed it was because she finished the candy.

“They can. But they can’t stop the injury from happening again when time returns to normal. Even if you’re not there, the injury is part of the script from that moment on. Like the Earth is a show, you are your own show, each Unique Soul is. Ours isn’t planned out though, we get to make up our own script. And you’re the only one that can change your script. Does that make sense? Did you learn something?” Vegas asked.

Threnody’s eyes narrowed for a moment while she processed the information, then they opened wide with realization.

“YES!” she squealed. Vegas felt the tingle of time moving around him; rewinding he guessed. He glanced around the kitchen to check for differences, then he saw Threnody with a freshly unwrapped chocolate bar in her hands. “I learned I can EAT THIS AGAIN!”

Cyber-bridge

Regina stopped walking. She turned around and saw dozens of lights dotting the distant pier. Then, she faced forward on the bridge again; there was only darkness in front of her.

“That’s one question answered,” the teenager sighed to herself. She learned why the end of the bridge could not be seen from shore. The bridge didn’t end, it just stopped. A tall black hole hovered directly in front of Regina; it swallowed the bridge. “But now I’ve got another question.” She eyed the dark portal, then spun in place to make sure she was alone.

Satisfied that she was, Regina concentrated on the hole; her eyes scanned it. Text filled the corner of her vision.

[Stable Portal. Connected to: AlterNet Server – Cyber City.] [Earth Template: Advanced Technology, Full AlterNet integration.] [Governing Guild: CyberRiot owns and operates Cyber City.]

“Whaaaaat?” she whispered the question to herself. Regina could not decide if she was more confused by the readings or by the fact that she somehow got that information. It meant someone took the time to catalog whatever was on the other side of that portal. It sounded safe, and with a name like Cyber City, it sounded more than inviting.

Regina did not have to debate the decision for very long; it was already half made when she decided to find the end of the bridge. It was why she had a backpack of parts and supplies. She was ready to leave, and she wanted to leave.

The 14 years she’d live until that point confused her and she wanted to leave it all behind. Regina could ask for, and get, anything she wanted, from anyone. She loved it at first until she realized everyone was afraid of her. Not all of her, just the metal parts.

With the decision made, Regina walked forward and stepped into the portal. The night bridge disappeared and she found herself standing in a vast desert with the sun shining overhead. Before she could get her bearings, she heard a woman’s voice.

“Welcome to the AlterNet!” Regina whirled around to find the source; she found a dust-devil forming itself into the shape of a pitch black mannequin. “Please wait here. A Registrar has been dispatched to this location to process you.”

“Process me? Process me how?” Regina asked.

“All cyborgs that wish to reside in Cyber City must be processed. If you do not wish to make Cyber City your home server, you may depart,” the mannequin said and pointed at the black portal behind Regina.

“Does it hurt?” she asked.

“That depends on how accomodating you are,” a man’s voice said. Regina turned to see a tall, lean man with metal arms and legs. When she faced him; the stranger’s jaw dropped.  Her platinum hair shined in the sun, her chrome eyes blazed like fire.

“I don’t believe it…,” he said. It was little more than a whisper, but her enhanced ears heard him. “What’s your favorite number?” he asked.

“47,” she shouted back.

“My name’s Roger,” the man said. He walked forward with a friendly hand extended.

“Regina,” she accepted the handshake once he was close enough.

“Well, Regina. Tell me, what’re your feelings on Roller Derby?” Roger asked. “I’ve got a team you’d be perfect for.”

Sharp Wager

“Roller derby?” The president of the United States asked. A chorus of chuckles filled the U.N. hall. “Ms. Sharp,” the wrinkled, fair-skinned, silver-haired president continued. “With all due respect, that is not how we do things in this universe. The suggestion itself is such a foreign thought. It’s almost impossible for me and I’m sure most, if not all, U.N. representatives to fathom the thought. So much so, that I find myself obligated to ask. Did you honestly expect world leaders to bet our Earth on a roller derby game?”

“A tournament, but yes,” Ms. Sharp glanced around the room slowly, looking at each member in the eyes. “As with any deal, of course, the devil is in the details. The bet itself is just for show; it’s an easy way to convince your citizens they’re all in the same boat.” Ms. Sharp paused and gave the delegates a smile. “The reason I expect you to bet is that you have nothing to lose; but, everything to gain.”

“Nothing to lose?” The president asked. “So why bet the Earth if the bet’s not important?” Ms. Sharp’s smile disappeared, and she let out a nearly imperceptible sigh.

“So, you are only half-listening? As I explained, moments ago, it’s a tactic to unite the citizens of this Earth. But yes, you have nothing to lose. I currently own 15 Earths; each one of them is independent and flourishing under my guidance. I don’t force anything on them that their society doesn’t want. It’s an entire planet. Ask yourself, do you think anyone can enforce that kind of claim?” Ms. Sharp paused and glanced around the room again; almost every member gave a subtle shake of the head. “The tournament will be hosted here, but broadcast to all 15 of my Earths as well as several hundred more.”

“Why roller derby?” Another delegate asked.

“It’s more advanced than the version of roller derby you have on this Earth. Our version is closer to what your Earth calls MMORPGs. Each team is made up of four to six members, and each member has their own class. Things like Knights, Rangers, Wizards and so on.”

“A video game?” the president asked.

“Not to the skaters,” Ms. Sharp smiled. “We virtually simulate all spells and abilities in real time using nano-technology on the track. It makes quite the spectacle.”

Handy Exposition

“The first thing you should do is get a tattoo,” Justice said between bites of food. She sat in Donna Chang’s restaurant enjoying a meal with her friend, Andrea, and Andrea’s parents.

“A tattoo??” Andrea’s mother asked while shaking her head. “You’re only 14. You’re not getting a tattoo,” she told her daughter. The woman’s plate sat in front of her untouched. She and her husband both ordered despite disliking Chinese food. Arnold, Andrea’s father, did pick at his food but it only reminded him that he wasn’t a fan. Justice shrugged and continued talking to Andrea.

“It doesn’t have to be a tattoo, and it doesn’t need to be big or anything,” she said while ignoring the adults. “You just need the number 21 on your skin somewhere,” the pink-haired girl cast a glance at Andrea’s mom. “Permanently,” she said while looking the woman in the eyes, then she turned back to her friend. “Brand, tattoo, whatever as long as it leaves a scar.

“You’re not going to join a team that requires you to ruin your beautiful skin,” Martha told her daughter. “If you want to join roller derby that badly we can find you another team.”

“BRITT!” Justice yelled toward the kitchen door. A dark-skinned girl with twin afro-puffs on her head emerged through the swinging door and headed for the table.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Two big favors?” Justice asked. Britt nodded with a smile.

“Favor one; I want to take Andrea to make an AlterNet character,” she cast her eyes at Andrea’s parents to clue Britt in. “The nanos can awaken her. Favor two; can you please explain Uniques to them? You can prove it better than I can.”

“No sweat, it’s pretty slow right now anyway,” Britt replied. She wiggled her fingers at the air and opened a tall, black portal next to the table. Then she handed Justice a small, pitch black business card.

“Thanks! Let’s go,” She tapped Andrea on the shoulder then dashed through the portal. Andrea followed without giving her parents time to object, then the portal disappeared. Britt sat down in front of the straight-laced, wide-eyed parents.

“What just happened?” Martha asked.

“Where did they go?” Arnold asked at almost the same time.

“Your daughter is special,” Britt said.

“We know and we’d like her back,” Martha said.

“They’ll come back when they’re done, it shouldn’t take more than 15 or 20 minutes. In the meantime, I’ll tell you about your Unique daughter.”

“What do you know about our daughter?” Martha asked.

“Where did they go?” Arnold asked again. He seemed more curious than concerned for his daughter. Britt was glad at least one of Andrea’s parents seemed to trust Justice. She decided she’d rather speak to him than the mother and turned her attention to Arnold.

“Think of roller derby like a video game; they went to make Andrea’s character.”

“Oh. Nice,” Arnold replied with a large smile.

“Your daughter is something called a Unique Soul. She’s the only her in all the universes.”

“Of course she is,” Martha said with a stern voice.

“… so there are other universes?” Arnold asked? Britt nodded; both to agree with him and to congratulate herself for making the right decision. He was definitely the one to talk to.

“There’s an infinite number of alternate Earths; with thousands of other versions of you,” Britt pointed at Arnold. “And her,” She tilted her head toward Martha but did not take her eyes off Arnold.

“I wonder if all of your versions are this rude,” Martha said aloud.

“I’m Unique too. There’s only one of me,” she grinned. “So, yeah,” she nodded at the woman then turned back to Arnold. “When a Unique is born, they’re referred to as ‘Slumbering’ until they awaken their powers; that’s done by getting their number on their skin. Then they’re ‘Awakened’.

“She better not come back with a tattoo!” Martha said sharply. “I heard that wolf girl say she would ‘awaken’ Andrea.”

Justice won’t leave a visible mark on your daughter,” Britt stressed her friend’s name.

“What kind of powers?” Arnold asked.

“Each Unique type has different abilities. Your daughter, #21, can pull anything she thinks about from another universe.” Britt lifted her hand off the table and held it with the palm facing upward; it began to glow blue. Arnold leaned back as he felt a heat current flow out from her hand; as if he just opened an oven. “I’m #35. I can channel plasma from a star.” The glow dissipated and Britt dropped her hand to the table.

“What does this have to do with roller derby?” Arnold asked.

“Most of the competitors are Uniques because we can use our powers in the game.”

“What about the wolf gi-,” Martha interrupted herself when Britt turned and glared at her with brilliant golden stars around her pupils. “What Unique is Justice?” she corrected herself quickly.

“She’s a Zero. That’s what we call…,” Britt pointed at both parents. “…non-Uniques. She has other powers though; besides the werewolf thing.” As Britt explained a small, vertical, dinner-plate sized portal appeared on top of their table. A black cat with a red skull-like pattern on its head walked out of the portal and sat on the table. It looked around the table then settled on Britt. The portal closed behind it.

“Where’s Justice?” the cat asked with a soft, feminine voice.

“She’s making a character for her friend on the Kingdom server,” Britt replied. “Andrea wants to be on Justice’s team.” The cat swished its tail and another portal opened up next to her.

“Her team doesn’t need any more members,” the cat replied. It stood and walked toward the other portal.

“But they only have four members?” Britt asked.

“That’s all they need.” The cat disappeared into the portal, then it closed.

Team Justice

“Honey, are you sure this is the right place?” Mrs. Topps asked her daughter. The three-person family stood in front of a Chinese restaurant. A neon red sign came on as dusk fell around them; it read: “Donna Chang’s”.  “We don’t like Chinese food,” she reminded Andrea.

“You and dad don’t like it,” the teenage girl said with a visible eyeroll. “I love it. But we’re here because this is where my new friend likes to hang out.”

“Is she Chinese?” The older woman asked.

“She’s a werewolf,” Andrea replied with a shrug.

“From China?” the mother asked with a concerned tone.

“Dad?” Andrea turned around to ask her father for help. He smiled and reached up to pat his daughter on the head.

“I think your mother’s allowed to give you a hard time if you’re making up stories about werewolves, vampires, and dragons. It’s all in good fun,” he said with a smile. Andrea sighed, but she knew there was no sense arguing. She’d be able to prove she was telling the truth within the next few minutes.

“C’mon,” Andrea led her parent into the restaurant. Despite it being a Friday evening, the restaurant was mostly empty. A single teenage girl sat at a large table; she turned toward the door when the tinny bell over the door signaled new customers. She recognized Andrea and ran over to the trio with a large smile on her face.

“Hey Andy!” she said. When she reached the family the two teenagers greeted each other with a hug.

“Justice, these are my parents,” Andrea gestured at the adults behind her, then turned toward them. “Mom, dad. This is Justice.”

“Hi!” Justice shook the hands of each parent.

“Justice is a werewolf,” Andrea said. “Show them!” she grinned. Justice nodded and stood up straighter. She took several deep breaths, then grunted as if she was straining. She shut her eyes and clenched her teeth. Her head changed shape as dark black fur pushed out of her skin on her forehead. The fur continued to grow out down her face, neck and under her shirt down her arms. Her face became an elongated snout with a black nose and purple glowing eyes.

During the girl’s transformation, Martha Topps stepped next to her daughter while Arnold stepped in front of them. Within a few short moments, the fair-skinned girl was replaced by a black-furred humanoid wolf.

“What do you want?” Arnold asked; his voice trembled with fear. The fur began to recede back into the girl’s skin; her snout grew shorter.

“Orange beef,” the girl, now Justice again, said with a smile. She turned and walked back to the table. Andrea stepped around her dad and followed her friend. Mr. and Mrs. Topps stood in shock watching their daughter chat animatedly with the wolfgirl.

“Table for two?” A sudden, bright voice said behind them. Both parents jumped; Arnold jumped higher. They turned and saw a dark-skinned waitress smiling at them. Her name tag said: Britt.

“She’s a werewolf!” Arnold hissed a whisper at the waitress while pointing at Justice.

“The owner and the cook are dragons,” Britt shrugged. “That’s the kind of place this is.” Arnold looked at his daughter; she was smiling. He did not see that often around the house.

“Is she in any danger?” He asked Britt.

“Who?”

“My daughter,” Arnold nodded at the table with the two girls. “The one that’s not a werewolf.”

“OH! You’re Andrea’s parents? Nice to meet you!” Britt greeted them both with a handshake. She looked at the table and nodded.

“Justice is trying to get her to join roller derby. Andrea’s in danger of having too much fun.” Britt smiled and waved as she headed back to the kitchen. The couple obviously did not need her help to find a table.

“Roller derby? Oh no. I’ve seen those women on TV, they’re so violent,” Martha whispered in her husband’s ear as they walked to the table.

“Guess what!? Justice said I could try out for her roller derby team!” Andrea said as her parents sat down. Arnold nodded.

“We’ll go cheer you on,” he said. He glanced at Martha and she nodded. Both of them knew not to mention their worries to Andrea.