“…he feinted!” Emily burst into giggles at her own punchline. Kirk narrowed his eyes and tilted his head slightly.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “That can happen if you’re light-headed.” Emily rolled her eyes and shook her head; her long silver hair shimmered like a curtain with the motion.
“Light-headed monk?” she asked. “Monks don’t faint, they feint.”
“Oh,” Kirk nodded. “Okay, I get it. It just isn’t funny,” he said.
“Oh, what do you know?” Emily playfully shoved Kirk over. They both sat alone in the school gym. Faint red-orange light came in through the window as the sun was close to setting.
“Well, I heard your whole act…,” he shrugged. “…and that one? It was the worst part.” He glanced out the window.
“And, now I know why you didn’t answer when I said, “Sure, I have time. How long would it last?” he chuckled. “Trust me, you can cut that one easily, and a few other ones. But, all you did was tell me jokes for an hour. Aren’t you doing a magic show?””Yeah, but that’s easy,” Emily said. She reached behind her back while keeping her eyes locked on Kirk’s. When she brought her hand forward again she held several small toy sheep. “I’ve got a flock of tricks up my sleeve.”
“That’s it? That was easy!” Valentine jumped out of the black portal carrying a pizza box. Emily followed her out and onto the cracked, aged walkway. Old grey and brown cement led directly to the single-story house. The yard on both sides of the path was over-grown with waist-high weeds and the house itself looked abandoned. The sun was setting in the purple sky but no lights were on inside the house.
“It’s easy, but don’t forget to reclaim it,” Emily said. The silver-haired girl put her hand into the portal. The hole began to shrink until it was a small black business card in the palm of her hand. “Kirk forgot a couple of times and we needed to call for a ride.”
“Is that why he couldn’t come with you?” Valentine asked. She wouldn’t call Emily a friend quiet yet, they’d only met a few days ago. She was surprised when Emily asked if Valentine wanted to join her for work; her usual partner couldn’t make it. She eagerly agreed when she found out Emily delivered pizza to different universes. Emily shook her head; loose strands of silver shimmered in the sunlight.
“Nah, Mundo said he needed more training with Frost and Keys,” she said. “Speaking of…,” Emily added as she started up the path to the door. “… Mundo said she offered you a spot on the team too. Are you going to join?” Valentine shrugged. They reached the door and Emily pressed the doorbell.
“I don’t know… I haven’t even picked a class yet,” she whined. “I don’t-” Valentine stopped speaking when the door opened. An older woman with stringy gray hair opened the door. She wore tattered denim overalls and her mouth dropped at the sight of the two girls.
“You ordered a pizza?” Valentine asked and held up the box.
“I’M NOT ALONE!” the woman wailed and rushed forward to hug Emily, because she did not have a pizza box to fend off the woman. The old woman began sobbing as she embraced Emily. For her part, Emily rolled her eyes at Valentine.
“It’s okay, Ma’am. You’re safe,” Emily said as she tried to gently push the woman off of her. “Are you the last person on this Earth?” she asked.
“Whoa..,” Valentine whispered to herself in surprise. She never considered the possibility of running into the last person on Earth.
“Yes.. I think so. I haven’t seen anyone else in years…” her voice cracked. Emily nodded and reached into her pocket for her node.
“Well, you brought us to the wrong place,” she told Valentine with a smile. “But it’s okay because we can help her real quick…,” Emily said while tapping at her node. “…and then get the pizza to the right place.” She turned her attention to the old woman.
“Go pack anything important to you, your ride will be here in a couple of minutes,” she said.
“R..really?” she asked with wide, tearful eyes. Emily nodded and the woman rushed back into her home.
“Are they going to be mad you need another ride?” Valentine asked, Emily shook her head.
“This isn’t work,” She tilted her head at the house. “I’ve run into the ‘the last person on Earth’…,” Emily said with air quotes. “…a few times. Enough that I wanted to be ready if it happens again. I found someone at the Star Academy that’ll take them in and get them settled on an Earth they like somewhere.” As Emily finished her explanation a tall black portal opened next to them.
A lithe, lean, tall woman walked out of the portal. She wore a tattered, faded green backpack on her back, and golden stars glowed in her eyes. Valentine’s mouth dropped when she saw the woman and she made a choking sound in the back of her throat.
“Cassiopeia….,” she whispered in awe.
“Hey Cassie!,” Emily smiled at the woman. “Sorry for the short notice, but I still have a delivery to make,” she said apologetically. Cassie nodded and smiled at the two girls.
“That’s alright, keep up the good work,” she said, then glanced at Valentine.
“Hola, Corazón,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“#27 El Corazón!” Valentine stood up straighter and nervously blurted out her number. Emily and Cassie both chuckled.
“I know,” Cassie said then pointed at her glowing eyes.
“This is Valentine,” Emily said. “I guess she’s a fan.”
“Oh?” Cassie asked. “Are you on a team?” Valentine shook her head.
“That’s a real shame,” she said. “There aren’t enough Corazóns in the league.”
“Hello!? I’m ready!” the old woman shouted from within the house, then she appeared at the door.
“Ma’am, this is Cassie. She’ll get you somewhere safe and populated,” Emily said then pulled out the black card.
“I’m on a team!” Valentine shouted once the portal was opened. “I’m on Emily’s team!” Cassie smiled at her and nodded.
“That’s good to hear,” she said.
“C’mon,” Emily said and dragged Valentine into the portal.
“First match…,” Coach Haste said. His voice echoed around the mostly empty gymnasium. The small class of 25 students sat on wooden bleachers as murmurs of excitement flowed between them. It was the first chance they’d have to demonstrate their abilities to each other and the coach. “Valentine versus…”
“Not me, not me, not me,” Frost panicked in his mind. As much as the 14-year-old was looking forward to showing off, he was afraid of Valentine’s power. Mostly because he did not understand it. He’d seen dog-sized chocolates and pony-sized gummy bears moving around campus on their own. Anytime he asked about them all he got was shrugs along with the occasional, “I think they’re Valentine’s.”
“…Frost,” the coach finished. The coach was a pale, athletic man with a coppery-red mohawk striping his bald head; and, he was looking right at Frost. The teenager sighed and stood up as Valentine reached center court. Valentine had a long red ponytail that almost reached her waist. Her red hair was a different shade than the coach’s. Haste’s hair looked like bright flaming copper while Valentine’s hair color resembled a dark red wine. She wore black cargo shorts lined with dozens of pockets and a pink blouse decorated with black hearts.
Frost reached up and tightened his own light-blue ponytail when he joined the Coach and Valentine on the court. His only reached his shoulders. He was in blue jeans and a black t-shirt. Coach Haste raised his arm and showed the seated class his wrist; his watch glowed bright green.
“No nanos today, I want to see what you can do out of the AlterNet,” as he spoke the watch’s glow switched from green to red. He lowered his arm then pointed at Valentine. “Valentine is #27, El Corazón,” then he turned and pointed at Frost. “Frost is #42, La Calavera. Let’s see what they can do.” The coach walked off the court to sit with the rest of the class and Frost heard plastic rustling. He turned to see Valentine opening a bag of candy and he stepped back. Valentine reached into the bag and pulled out two gummies; she popped a long green worm in her mouth, then dropped a red bear to the floor. The one she dropped grew incredibly as soon as it left her hand; it landed on the floor as a bright red, translucent gummy cub that was still growing.
“I can’t wait for it to grow,” Frost decided. He charged at Valentine hoping to land a punch. As he covered the short distance to her, he coated his legs and fists with a layer of icy-frost. The growing cub, now slightly larger than a bulldog, attacked his legs when he was close enough. He felt a soft pressure around his leg as gummy jaws closed around it; Frost wondered if he even needed his frozen armor.
Frost cocked his fist when he was a step away. Valentine smiled at him, took in a quick breath, then spit out the gummy worm from her mouth. The shiny, slick worm ballooned to the size of boa the instant it left her mouth
Frost tried to stop but his momentum carried him right into it. The snake wrapped around his head and neck and immediately began squeezing. He stumbled forward another step before managing to stop. He could almost see through the translucent green snake, but he could not breathe.
“Relax,” Frost thought to himself. In the back of his mind, he vaguely remembered reading that constrictors squeeze more if there’s a struggle. “Think it through,” he held out hope that he could get himself out of it. The moment he relaxed, he realized his mistake. The more he relaxed the more the snake squeezed tighter. It wasn’t a real snake, it was something she was controlling. “Aw hell,” he whined to himself, then mumbled something through the snake covering his mouth. The snake moved away from his mouth, but it still held its grip around his throat.
“What was that?” Valentine asked with a broad smile. Frost sighed.
“Yeah,” Turbo sighed to himself. “I’m lost.” The boney teenager searched for the front office of his new school for 20 minutes. The school was as large as the only college campus he’d been on, with several satellite buildings. It took him that long to wind his way through the courtyards and crowded halls to get from one end to the other.
The halls were crowded and loud and he had trouble finding anyone that wasn’t already in a conversation to ask for directions.
Turbo ended up in a building that was likely a gym. The waxed wood flooring seemed to emit a soft pale glow. The rows of bleachers on opposite sides were the biggest clue to the building’s purpose.
“Doing better?” Turbo heard a soft voice coming from under the nearest set of bleachers. If the gym wasn’t so quiet he wouldn’t have heard anything at all; it was almost a whisper.
“Alright!” he cheered internally. Turbo doubted a whole crowd would be hiding out under the bleachers. He hoped he could finally get some directions. It did occur to him that the person might be up to something they didn’t want to get caught doing. Instead of peeking in, he spoke up from where he was.
“HELLO!??” he shouted. “ANYONE IN HERE!!!??”
“Shhhhh!!!” a hissing sound came from under the bleachers. A tall, lithe girl with short, light blonde hair dashed out of her hiding spot.
“Sorry,” Turbo smiled at her and lowered his voice to a normal tone. “I’m just looking for-,” she interrupted him again by dashing forward and clapping her small hand over his mouth.
“Shhhh!” she said again. “Whisper.” Before Turbo could react another voice spoke up.
“It’s okay, Nia,” a girl with bright orange hair walked out from under the bleachers. “I’m fine now,” she said. She walked to Turbo as Nia pulled her hand off his mouth.
“I’m Riot,” she said and extended her hand. “This is Nia,” she tilted her head at the blonde.
“Petunia to you,” Petunia glared at Turbo.
“Turbo,” he shook Riot’s hand with a broad grin. His name had plagued him for all of his short life. He loved it, but he always felt out of place going to school with Johns and Janes. But on his first day at Toku-High, he met someone named Riot. He instantly felt more positive about the year ahead.
“Everything okay?” he asked. He needed directions, but that could wait for a moment.
“Yeah,” Riot nodded. “There’s just a lot of noise and excitement in there. “She waved in the general direction of the main building. “I need a quiet place to calm down and Coach Dread said I could use the gym.”
“Oh, okay,” Turbo nodded. “Well, I don’t really get it, but it sounds like everything’s cool. So.. can one of you…,” a quick glance at Petunia’s cold brown eyes told him it wouldn’t be her. “…point me toward the front office. I still kind of need to register.” The girls giggled at him, but Riot nodded.
“Yeah, lemme see your node,” she said.
“Uhh… is that a thing I get when registering?” he asked. Petunia sighed and rolled her eyes, but Riot continued to smile. She reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out a card-sized pane of glass.
“Do you have one of these?” she asked.
“Oh!” Turbo reached into his pocket and produced his own. Riot touched her node to his. When she pulled it away a white arrow appeared on the display pointing to his right side. He turned slightly and the arrow moved like a compass needle. “Awesome,” he said. “Thanks!” He smiled, waved, and turned to follow the arrow.
“Bye-bye,” Petunia waved.
“Hey wait!” Riot said. “You’re a Calavera too, right?”
“Uhh… ?” Turbo shrugged.
“What’s your favorite number?” Riot asked.
“42,” Turbo replied, then paused. “Wow. Didn’t know I had one.” Again, both girls giggled at him. Riot walked a circle around Turbo looking him up and down.
“Turbo, huh?” she wondered aloud. “I wonder what you can do.”
“Do?” he asked. “What do you mean?”
“You’re a Calavera. When you get awakened you’ll be super strong, but you’ll probably also have an ability that fits your name. Coach Dread is a Calavera. She has a sonic scream that can totally be classified as “dreadful”,” Riot chuckled to herself. “Coach Haste can give others super speed. Frost is another Calavera student here. He can…,”
“Make ice?” Turbo asked. Riot wavered her hand in a ‘more or less’ gesture.
“He can coat himself and anything he’s touching in frost. That’s about it, but it makes good armor.”
“And you?” Turbo asked.
“I get stronger and faster from ambient kinetic energy or sonic vibrations. But,.. I can’t really control it yet. So if it gets to be too much I kind of go crazy until I use up the extra energy. I usually go somewhere quiet before it gets to be too much.”
“And I walked in here yelling and screaming,” Turbo shook his head and looked Petunia in the eyes. “I’m sorry,” he apologized to her. He got the impression that he offended her more than Riot.
“It’s fine,” Riot said. “When you get to the office tell them you want to be awakened and they’ll take care of it.”
“Does it hurt?” Turbo asked. Petunia giggled at him, by herself this time.
“You can crack an Earth in two; don’t be a baby,” she said.
“Take it easy, Nia,” Riot said. “He’s new; you didn’t know everything at first.” She turned her attention back to Turbo.
“It usually takes a tattoo or scarring of some kind, but they use nanos to give you a micro tattoo smaller than a bedbug. You won’t feel a thing.”
“Whoa… Nanotechnology? Superpowers? This school is pretty amazing,” Turbo said.
“Wait until you try out roller derby,” Riot smiled. “Think of how much fun you can have with superpowers on the track.”
Turbo’s stomach fluttered with nerves as he followed the principal into her office. It was spacious, larger than his own bedroom, and it reminded him of a nursery. Dozens of potted plants lined the walls and floors around the room. The principal’s dark wood desk sat in the center of the room reminiscent of a forest clearing. The lean, lithe woman walked around the desk and sat in the highback chair; she gestured at the seat in front of her for Turbo.
“Did I do something wrong, ma’am?” he asked as he sat down. She shook her head; it made her emerald curls bounce.
“Please, call me Mundo,” she said. “You haven’t done a thing wrong; however, I’m sorry to say I cannot, and will not let you enroll as a student here.”
“What?!” Turbo straightened up and sat on the edge of his seat. “Why not!?” He didn’t expect any more roadblocks after spending close to a year trying to convince his parents to let him attend. In the back of his mind, he wondered if his mom changed her mind and called the principal.
“Our school has a tradition, a requirement really. Each student is assigned a target for practical experience. More than half of this year’s freshman won’t survive until graduation. It’s meant to a test of their commitment and skills.”
“I’m committed!” Turbo blurted out.
“Oh, I don’t doubt that one bit,” Mundo smiled. “Can you tell me why though?” she asked. “Why are you so interested in attending this school as opposed to something… safer and normal?”
Turbo’s posture deflated slightly as a confused look washed over his face. He never gave it any thought. His parents asked him the same question several times, but he dismissed it as a question designed to talk him out of his decision. Something about the way Mundo asked him actually gave him pause. He thought quietly for a moment and Mundo, for her part, didn’t rush him. She sat still with a patient smile on her face as if she were watching a child attempt something for the first time. Her aqua eyes sparkled with amusement. Finally, he looked up again to meet her eyes.
“My name’s Turbo,” he said. “I’m not John, Eric, Mike, Tom, Harry, Jason, Joe, Fred, Bill, or Pete. I’m not meant for a safe, normal school. That’s boring. I want to meet interesting people with cool names that can do amazing things. I know less than half a class graduates, but those that do are amazing. That’s what I’m meant for,” he said. Mundo smiled.
“You’re right,” she said. “That is what you’re meant for. Luckily, I know of a school where you’ll fit in. Much easier than you ever would here.”
“A different school?” Turbo asked. “You still haven’t told me why I can’t come here.”
“Even if we made you the target for everyone else in your class, there’s no one that could kill you,” she gave a half-shrug. “It’s cheating, basically.”
“What do you mean no one could kill me?” Mundo gave him a melancholy smile that seemed odd.
“I really wish I had time to explain why,” she sighed. “Unfortunately, I need to get back out there to keep monitoring registrations.” Mundo opened a desk drawer, reached in, then placed two cards on her desk. One was made of glass about the size of a playing card and the other was solid black and the size of a business card.
“This is yours now,” she tapped the glass card. “It’s like a smartphone. Play with it and learn how to use it.” Then, she tapped the black card. “On Monday morning throw this at a wall or the floor, then go into the hole. That’s your new school. Just show up at the front office and they’ll help you out.” After her explanation, Mundo stood. “Got all that?” she asked. Turbo nodded and stood to let the Principal walk him out.
“I’ve had better ideas,” Robert thought to himself. The 29-year-old English teacher started to worry a bit too late. The situation started to sink in as he looked around the office waiting for Satan. ‘Office’ was a loose term; it looked like the interior of a black cave. The impossibly dark floors made him feel like he was walking on shadows. A few tasteful portraits hung on the dark walls. One was of a giant, imposing red man in a dark suit. Thick, obsidian steer horns jutted out of each side of his head. The same demon was also in another portrait with a trio of humans. “That’s definitely Satan,” Robert’s nerves started to flutter in his stomach.
Robert jumped in his seat when the office door opened. He expected to see the devil coming through the door towering over him. Instead, a short red-skinned woman with a bright orange faux-hawk walked in. She wore a dark suit with a short skirt instead of slacks. A pair of thin twisting, onyx horns sprouted out of her head; they reminded Robert of impala horns.
“You’re a brave one,” she said with a smile as she crossed the room. “I like that,” she stopped by his chair to extend a hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Guzman. I’m Satan.”
“You!?” Robert stood to greet her. He was not a tall man at 5’7″, but he couldn’t help but notice how short she was as he shook her child-like hand. The tips of her horns were taller than him, but her head-height only reached to about his chin. “I thought.., I mean,” Robert disengaged the handshake and pointed at the portrait. “Who’s he?” Satan smiled and walked around the obsidian slab that resembled a desk.
“He’s retired. ‘Satan’ is a title for the ruler of Hell, currently, me. Now that I’m in charge, I’ve got some changes planned. Which is why I’m in search of an assistant. Why are you here, Robert?” she asked.
“Uh, I found a portal, and curiosity got the best of me. Once I was on the other side some random demon ran up to me asking me if I was here to apply. Then-,” Satan shook her head.
“Robert,” she interrupted him. “I’m Satan, I know how you got here. I want to know why you let yourself end up sitting in my office.” Robert shrugged but remained silent for several seconds.
“It seemed like an adventure, I guess,” he finally answered.
“Perfect,” Satan grinned. “The bad news is, you aren’t remotely qualified for the job. A) You’re not a demon and B) You don’t know enough about how the universe works. The good news is, I do have a job you are qualified for, if you want to take it.”
“Uhuh,” Satan’s petite size made it easier for Robert to feel at ease enough to get sarcastic with her. “What job is that? Being tortured?” he asked. Satan burst out laughing, and somehow it made Robert more comfortable. It sounded like genuine laughter. It wasn’t obnoxious or sarcastic. Despite himself, he was starting to like Satan.
“I suppose you could say that; but, it’s torture you’re already familiar with. I happen to know of a high school desperate to fill its staff. Robert narrowed his eyes.
“You want me to teach for you?” he asked. Satan shook her head. “What, like telling them that Hell is a great place and so on?” Satan shook her head.
“Of course not, we don’t need you to do propaganda for us. It’s a special school for Unique Souls; think of it as a school for heroes. It was founded with my predecessor’s permission. If you accept the job, you’ll keep an eye on things and report directly to me.”
“So you want me to spy?” Robert asked. Satan surprised him with an eyeroll.
“Why are you pushing to make everything so negative?” she asked. “It’s not spying as much as we have the right to know what’s going on. You’re not doing anything covert. Just teach; and, if you think something needs my attention, tell me.”
“What’s the pay look like?” Satan smiled and winked at him.
“You’d be working for Hell. Anything you need or want is yours. Interested?” she asked. Robert thought quietly for a moment, then nodded.
Paz lurched awake and ready to fight. The last thing she remembered was being kidnapped by a giant spider. The 14-year-old girl sat up in a comfortable bed in a dim room that she did not recognize; and, she was not alone. The loft-like room almost seemed to be as large as Paz’s house. She rested on what she guessed was a king-size bed with red silk sheets. A pair of ornate wooden nightstands decorated both sides of the bed; each had a small lamp. A lit fireplace was tucked into one wall. A woman sat on a rocking chair, reading by firelight until she heard Paz move.
“Wh- Where am I?” Paz asked. She recognized the pink-haired woman as one of the teachers from school when she turned her attention to Paz.
“Calm down. You’re safe now,” the woman said. She stood from her seat and crossed the room to sit on the bed. “The guard spider brought you here.” Paz exhaled a bit of relief. At least she was still on the same Earth. Thinking about her mission caused her to look at the woman with new appreciation. It could not be a coincidence that she ran into this particular teacher.
“Ms. Knight?” she asked. “Where’s Oren?” Ms. Knight’s delicate features hardened and her eyes narrowed.
“Who told you he was here, and who did you tell?” she asked Paz.
“No one!” Paz said. “It’s why I came alone.” she looked down at the red sheets and lowered her voice. “Jenny told me accidentally, but I promised her I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“Jenny…,” Ms. Knight growled in the back of her throat, then she shook her head and looked back at Paz. “And? What do you want, an autograph? Your own nanos? If you’re just here to ask for things, go home.” Paz shook her head.
“No! I’m not asking for anything, someone is asking for him.” Anger flashed in Ms. Knight’s eyes and she stood from the bed.
“So you’re just going to hand him over to someone else that’s going to use him like Dana Sharp did?” She said with harsh sarcasm. “Or maybe this person only wants to kill him like Mommy Ballisea? Hmm? Oren wants to be left alone until the tournament.” Paz climbed out of bed during Ms. Knight’s accusations to plead with the woman. She shook her head.
“No! It’s not like that, it’s…,” Paz hesitated. It sounded crazy, and if she had not been there to see it she would not believe it either. “… it’s an NPC,” she said. That gave Ms. Knight a moment’s pause.
“What?” she asked the girl.
“On Oren’s server, there’s an NPC asking for him. We think she might be a Unique.”
“Uniques can’t be born on AlterNet servers,” Ms. Knight said matter-of-factly. Paz nodded to show she knew that.
“That’s why it’s odd,” Paz said.
“Which server?” Ms. Knight asked. “Oren has several.”
“Uh..,” Paz made a gesture with her hand as if she were plucking something out of the air, but nothing happened. “… there aren’t any nanos here? I need my node,” she said.
“This room is isolated from AlterNet nanos, just tell me about the NPC,” Ms. Knight said. “Is she part of a quest?”
“It’s a 900-year-old server,” Paz nodded. “There’s a quest in a goblin cave. At the back, there’s a cage with a princess in it; she’s the one asking for Oren.”
“Tell me more about the cave,” a man’s voice said. Paz jumped and looked toward the new voice. A tall, lean, young man stood in one corner of the room. His skin was so pale he almost glowed in the dark, he wore all black clothes. Ms. Knight sighed and sat back down by the fire to keep reading. Now that Oren decided to talk to the girl himself, she had nothing else to do.
“Oren!” Paz cheered and eagerly explained the cave quest.
“There’re no monsters on the way in, but there’re four or five ambushes on the way out.”
“You said one of my servers. 900 years?” he asked. Paz nodded. Distant memories flickered at the back of Oren’s mind as he tried to remember what his life was like so long ago. He remembered what belonging to a family felt like. “Show me,” he said. A tall black portal opened in the center of the room. Paz nodded and jumped into the portal. “You too, Justice,” Oren glanced at Ms. Knight with soft eyes. “Please,” he added.
“Worst first day ever,” the thought crossed Quinn’s mind as she unlocked her bike. Around her, the world was deathly still. The green grounds of the imposing, prison-like high school were empty of students. Technically, school was over for the day but Quinn froze time as soon as the bell started to ring. She planned to be comfortable at home before it finished.
The school day had been so boring that she avoided using her powers for much more than a few minutes at a time. Quinn did not want to drag it out any longer than it already was. Instead, most of her day was spent wishing she trusted someone enough to reveal her powers. Her family almost never stayed in one city for more than a year. She didn’t mind too much, Quinn had a strong introverted streak but she often wished she didn’t have to keep her powers so secret.
Quinn took a short cut through part of the forest to get home. She wasn’t in any particular hurry but she enjoyed riding her bike around the trees like an obstacle course. Her family moved to town about a month ago and she finished the summer by riding through the forest most days. Her mom encouraged her to visit a park or the mall to try and make some friends but Quinn didn’t see the point. Her parents more or less lived out of boxes now. They never unpacked all the way to stay ready for the next move.
She stopped by a tree to admire a time-stopped squirrel trying to fit a golf ball-sized nut in its dime-sized mouth. As she leaned closer to it she heard a crunch of leaves to her right. She looked deeper into the forest, toward the sound, and saw a young, violet-haired girl about her age. The girl had a green leather bag on her back; she looked like she was headed home from school too. Quinn swiveled her head to check on the squirrel next to her: it was still, still. Then, she turned back to the girl. The violet-haired stranger smiled broadly then put her sneakers back on the pedals to ride away. She giggled loud enough for Quinn to hear and turned to ride back the way she came.
“It’s a trap,” Quinn said to herself. It’s hard finding people to trust when you don’t trust anyone. She sat back on her seat to decide what to do. “I’ve seen TV. I’m special. Obviously, the government or someone wants to kidnap me.” The moment she decided to head home and ignore the stranger she heard the crunching of leaves again.
“COME ON!!” the stranger came out of the forest far enough to be seen and yelled at Quinn. She was still smiling.
“OKAY!” Quinn said and pedaled forward. Something about the girl’s earnest smile eased Quinn’s paranoia. She lost sight of the girl as the forest grew thicker but she noticed tire tracks on the soft ground. Just as she started to wonder if she was lost Quinn came to a clearing. A small wooden shack sat in the center of the clearing. It was about the size of Quinn’s room: 10′ x 10′. The girl was standing by the door and her bike rested against one of the walls.
“Hi! I’m Mundo,” the girl said as Quinn rolled to a stop in front of the shack.
“I’m Quinn. Uh,.. so, how are you moving around?” she asked. Quinn left off the part about “in stopped time” because she thought it sounded silly. Once the words came out she immediately realized it sounded even sillier without it. Luckily, the girl seemed to understand. She chuckled.
“I’m Unique like you,” Mundo said. Quinn sat up straighter on her bike and gave Mundo all her attention.
“Really?” she asked. Her own smile started to grow; she might have found a friend. “You go to school?” she asked. Quinn pointed in the vague direction of where she thought her school was. She didn’t bother remembering the name. They were all the same. It was a small town and she did not think there was more than one high school.
“Yeah,” Mundo nodded, then shook her head. “but not there,” she waved a hand in the same direction Quinn pointed. I go to a school for Uniques like me… like us,” she corrected herself with a smile at Quinn.
“A school?” Quinn planted both feet on the forest floor and stood up eagerly. “Really? A school for people that can stop time?” Mundo laughed and shook her head.
“It’s a school for Unique Souls. Some can stop time, some can do other things. We learn how to use our powers.” Quinn let the bike topple over and ran up to Mundo.
“How did you get in? Can I get in?” Mundo nodded.
“Of course!” she grinned. “I’d like to say I know the right people to help you,” she shrugged and turned to the shack’s front door. “But it’s not like it’s hard to get in. You just have to show up really.” She unlocked the door and twisted the knob.
“You.. you live here?” Quinn asked. Mundo giggled again and threw the door open. The one-room shack wasn’t even a room. It appeared to have been plopped on the ground with no floor of its own. The area just inside the door was a pit of soft brown soil with a six-foot-long ditch in the middle; the hole was about a foot deep. There was no sign of any furniture or any hallways leading to any other rooms.
“So what can I do with the Circus?” Emily asked. The silver-haired teenage girl twirled a playing card between her fingers as she talked to Mundo. The two girls stood in a school gym next to a giant floating black sphere; the dark ball was bigger than either of the two girls. Moments ago the gym resembled the inside of a large circus tent; but, Emily dismissed the card and the gym reverted to waxed hardwood floors.
“The Circus is one of the most flexible decks. You can do almost anything with it, depending on what you pair it with. Add Fantasy cards for solid healing. You can tank if you use Robots or DPS if you go with Ninjas. Steampunk will boost our resources…,” Mundo paused and shrugged. “It’s probably better if you wait until we have a full team to pick your other deck. Right now we’re just a Wizard,” Mundo pointed at the black sphere. “A cardmage…,” she pointed at Emily, “…and a druid.” She pressed her hand against her chest. “If we don’t get any crafters resource management won’t be a problem.”
“Oh wow,” Emily grinned. She was excited to be a ‘founding member’ of her first roller derby team. “I thought there was more of a team. Do we even have a name?” she asked. Mundo shook her head.
“I couldn’t think of anything. Do you have any ideas?” she asked. Emily shook her head also.
“No. Kirk might!” she looked at the large dark sphere. “Whenever he finishes making his character I guess.”
“IS THIS THE DERBY TRY-OUTS?!” A teenager shouted from the gym’s entrance. Emily and Mundo turned to see a young pale, almost blue-skinned student with his light blue hair pulled back.
“YES!” Mundo yelled back. The young man smiled and walked into the gym to join them.
“Try-outs?” Emily asked Mundo as the male student covered the distance. Mundo shrugged.
“Since we were going to make characters for you and Kirk anyway I put the word out about try-outs to fill out our roster.”
“Hi. I’m Frost,” he said when he arrived next to the pair of girls. “#42”
“Emily, #21,” she smiled and waved.
“Mundo,” Mundo replied.
“Mundo?” Frost looked surprised. “Is this your Earth? How are you here?” he asked.
“I’m not,” Mundo said. She lifted her hand in the air. It crumbled into white powder and spilled to the ground but never reached it. The white particles disappeared before falling very far. “I’m safe at home,” she smiled.
“Oh, nice,” Frost nodded as Mundo’s hand reformed at the end of her wrist. “So is this everyone trying out?” he asked. Mundo nodded.
“So far,” Mundo extended her fresh hand at Frost. “I think it’s safe to say congratulations! You’re in.”
“YAAY!” Emily clapped her hands and hopped in place with glee. “This is awesome!” she said and grinned at her two friends, Mundo and Kirk. The three of them stood in the school gym. The violet-haired girl, Mundo, was helping them through the tutorial.
“Did you choose a class yet?” she asked Kirk, a brown-haired teenager. He nodded.
“Wizard,” Kirk said.
“Great, see you in a bit,” Mundo replied. She tapped at a node in her hand. A cloud of black nanos materialized around Kirk like it did for Emily. The swarm closed around Kirk and enclosed him in a large black sphere that hovered above the ground. Mundo turned her attention back to Emily. “So let’s talk about what you can do now. The tutorial covers basic AlterNet information but it’s up to you to learn how to play your class, okay?”
“Definitely!” Emily nodded enthusiastically.
“Great. Let me help you out. Each class is a bit different in how it handles specs,” Mundo noticed Emily tilt her head. “Spec is short for ‘specialization’. Each class has different things you can specialize or focus on,” she said. Emily nodded in understanding. “For Card Mages…,” Mundo pointed at Emily to make sure the girl understood what she was. “…their spec is defined by what decks they pick. Decks are themed cards like undead, fairy tales, robots, ninjas and so on. You can choose up to two themes to work with.” Emily reached into her pocket and pulled out a playing card with a large circus tent on it.
“Zone: Big Top,” a deep male voice echoed around the gym. The white floors changed to a dark red color.
“I didn’t mean to!” Emily grew flustered then turned to Mundo. “How’d I do that?” She asked. Mundo grinned and grabbed Emily’s wrist. She lifted the girl’s hand and waved it in front of her own face.
“#21, La Mano, get to start the game with any card from their deck,” Mundo looked around at the circus-like interior around them. “And it looks like you chose the circus as one of your decks.”