Shadow Organization

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” May asked over the radio. She stood on a crowded corner waiting for the light change; staring at a pale woman in a white suit. The woman was sitting at the bus stop surrounded by a crowd waiting for their ride.

“What, now you’re getting cold feet ’cause of what happened to Buzz?” Coop asked through her earpiece. “‘Rich woman like her has probably never worked for anything in her life,” he added. The light change and the crowd lurched forward. May hesitated for a moment, then joined the tail end.

“That’s another thing,” she said. “Why do we think she’s loaded? Last I heard we can’t find anything on her.”

“It’s not cheap to buy the kind of manpower it would take to disappear like that. Trust me; she’s stupid rich,” Coop said.

“You’re really arguing she’s rich because we can’t find anything on her?” May asked as she reached the sidewalk. She kept walking instead of turning to the bus stop; she heard the bus pull up behind her. 

“Yeah,” Coop said.  May heard a familiar smugness in his voice. “But it doesn’t matter what I’m arguing. I’m not trying to convince you, I already convinced the boss. Are you going in, or not?”  May sighed.

“Fine. I just want to go on record saying this is a bad idea,” she said.

“She doesn’t look dangerous from here,” Coop said.

“No,” May shook her head. She was trying to think of a way to explain what she saw in the woman. “Not dangerous… comfortable.”

“Comfortable?” Coop laughed into May’s ear. “You’re wettin’ your pants ’cause she’s comfortable?”

“She’s expecting us, but she might as well be waiting for an ice cream sundae,” May added.

“Then go introduce yourself and set her straight,” Coop replied. May took a deep breath and approached the covered bench as the latest bus drove away. The crowd was gone leaving only the woman waiting patiently.

“Really bad idea,” May said under her breath as she ducked into the shelter and sat next to the woman in white. “Don’t stand up,” she said. “Or my colleague will put a bullet in your head. Look slowly – rooftop, across the street, second building from the left. Now, let’s talk about the money.” The woman turned to look at May; she somehow looked down on her even though she was a bit shorter. She gave a bored sigh and May’s stomach immediately knotted itself; the stranger was too at ease.

“Must you thugs always be so theatrical with your threats?” she asked. “What’s wrong with just talking? I’m trying to find the person that was buying Buzz’s corpses; I believe he’s your boss,” she said. May shook her head.

“Not how this works, lady,” she said. “First you tell-” May was interrupted by Coop yelling in her ear. Then a heavy thud landed on the street in front of May. She recognized Coop’s black leather duster flapping in the wind as he pushed himself off the blacktop.

“It’ll be faster if I tell you how this works,” the woman said. She pointed at a woman in a black suit standing next to Coop. “That’s Melody with your partner that you pointed out so helpfully.” Melody wiggled her fingers at the air; a tall black hole opened behind Coop. “Melody will destroy this entire Earth if I leave through that portal,” she said. Without another word she stood and began striding toward the portal.

“You’re bluffing!” May shouted. “You want our boss, you wouldn’t destroy that.” The woman stopped walking and turned around to look May in the eyes.

“If you’re going to die I’d like you to know how useless it was. I am looking for your boss,” she shrugged. ” But it’s not anywhere near as important to me as you seem to think. I’m here as a side project; a hobby. I’m doing something for my own enjoyment,” she waved at May dismissively then turned around. “And I know when it’s time to put my toys away,” she resumed walking to the portal.

“Stop!” A deep male voice boomed through the air. “What’s your business with me?” he asked. The voice seemed to be coming from the black portal that Melody opened; all eyes focused on it. A humanoid pitch-black figure walked out of the portal. He wore no clothing but his features were impossible to see. He was solid black from head to toe like a living shadow. “I’m their boss,” he said. His face was completely black and featureless; there was no mouth to be seen. The woman smiled brightly and walked up to the shadow figure.

“I have a question for you,” she said. “What’s your favorite number?”

Burning Question

“If you hang up you will be charged $900k,” the gruff voice said through the speakerphone. One of the two women in the office, Melody, replied quickly. She wasn’t intimidated but she knew her boss liked to get to the point as fast as possible.

“I’m interested in your services. I’ve heard you’re… discreet,” she said to the speaker. It sat on her boss’ desk.

“The victim disappears without a trace. 100% guarantee the body will never be found.” He replied with smugness coating every word.

“That’s quite a guarantee… it seems almost too good to be true. Can you explain how you ensure that?” Melody asked.  The voice laughed on the other end. 

“Do you have someone in mind for our services? If not I have other calls to make.” The woman sitting at the desk, Dana Sharp, leaned closer to the phone. 

“If you hang up you will be charged 3.84 million dollars,” she said. “The entirety of your bank balance.” Melody beamed a smile at Dana. The man remained quiet for several seconds but the sound of him typing frantically on a keyboard could be heard.

“Shit, how’d you know that!?” he shouted through the speaker. 

 “How do you guarantee the body is never found?” Dana asked her own question. He laughed at her again.

“I’ll admit it, you scared me for a second. Any half-way decent hacker can get our balance; it doesn’t mean anything,” his laughter grew louder as if he were getting closer. He drew closer and closer until a yellow bolt of electricity shot out of the speakerphone and into the office. After a brilliant flash of light, a young man in a yellow t-shirt and black jeans stood in the office with the two women. He had wild hair that looked more sickly, straw-yellow than healthy blonde. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with. You can call me, Buzz,” he grinned at booth women. “for the few minutes you have left to live.” He lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers; electricity crackled between his digits. He took a step closer to Dana Sharp, but Melody stepped between them and stared Buzz in the eyes. Buzz stopped, then shrugged. 

“Okay, you’re first,” he reached for her with his electrically charged hand; she did not blink. 

“What’s your favorite number?” she managed to get the question out before his hand gripped her neck.

“34,” he said and discharged electricity into her neck. She opened her mouth to scream, but her windpipe was being squeezed. Her body convulsed as electricity poured into her. It was just for a moment, then he stopped. “When did I get a favorite number and why did you ask me that?” he asked.

“How do you guarantee the body is never found?” Dana repeated her question from behind her desk.

“Are you serious?” Buzz turned his attention to her. “I have your assistant’s life in my hands and you’re still trying to act tough?” He shook his head. “You must not care about her very much.”  The woman sighed.

“This is taking too long. Melody, find out.” Buzz took a quick look around the room for someone else, he wondered who Melody was. Then the woman he was holding on to reached up and grabbed his wrist. She whispered faintly, Buzz was surprised she managed to speak at all.

“Yes, Ms. Sharp,” came out weak and raspy. Buzz laughed harder and squeezed her neck harder.

“Yeah Melody, find out,” Buzz mocked her. Melody lifted her other hand and showed Buzz her palm; it began to glow with a soft blue light that radiated warmth.

“What.. what’s that?” Buzz asked. The glow grew brighter and hotter; Buzz felt drops of sweat gathering on his forehead. Then he realized his wrist felt warm. He looked down and saw the same blue glow between her hand and his wrist. “Too slow, Melody,” he said and discharged as much wattage as he could into her neck. Electric sparks filled the room, but Melody did not seem to be bothered by it. Her body did not dance with wild convulsions. Instead, his wrist started to hurt; it was burning.

Buzz prided himself on being ‘quick as lightning’. He very quickly decided that he could not win this and let go of Melody’s neck.

“Okay! I give up!” he said. He tried to pull his hand away, but Melody did not let go. He yanked it forcefully but her grip did not loosen; and, she continued to heat up. She was much stronger than she looked. “I give up! Let go!” he began to panic as the pain became almost unbearable. In the back of his mind, he thought he smelled cooking flesh but tried not to think about it.

“How do you guarantee the body is never found?” Melody asked him.

“I got a guy!” Buzz shouted. “He takes the corpses off my hands and gives me a finder’s fee.”

“Who is he?” Melody asked. Buzz shook his head and shrugged. Melody still gripped his hand, but she wasn’t actively trying to burn him. 

“I get paid for killing and I can sell the corpse after. I don’t ask too many questions. I got a good gig, I don’t ask too many questions.” 

“Arrange a meeting,” Melody said. She let go of his arm; he immediately cradled it and started massaging the burn. Buzz nodded quickly.

“Okay, I’ll do it. No problem!” he said.

Sharp Gift

Mirra focused on the wall in front of her. A single sheet of paper with the number 14 taking up most of the sheet was pinned to the wall.

“YES!” She cheered for herself, grabbed the sheet off the wall and tore it in half. Yesterday morning she scribbled the number on it and pinned it to the wall. Mirra realized that, like the rest of the world, she was developing gifts too; she seemed to be able to manipulate time. She noticed it accidentally while whining to herself about not having powers. She had been watching TV and held her breath; time stopped as long as she wasn’t breathing. After practicing that for a few days she got the hang of it, but she didn’t feel it was that useful.

One morning Mirra wondered what else she could do, and accidentally lived the same day three times. It took her until the third try to realize it was the exact same day but when she did she knew it had to be her ability; no one else seemed to notice. The previous day she set her ‘Start Point’ while staring at the number on the wall; then, she tore it in half and threw it on the floor.

“Let’s test it,” Mirra mumbled to herself. She tore the sheet down then took a deep breath. She punched the drywall with all her strength to leave a small hole. She closed her eyes, focused, then opened them again; the sheet was tacked to the hole-less wall. “YES!” she cheered again, then she giggled to herself when she realized she repeated that part too. “Better get going,” she hurried to the restroom to start her day.

As she walked outside she saw the usual morning traffic. Most of it had moved to the sky relieving a lot of congestion on the road. Not only could humans fly, but a lot of people also had access to magic or advanced technology and they all wanted to glide through the sky. Part of Mirra wished she could too, but she was glad for the almost barren streets now. She took her eyes off the sky and noticed two women standing by her car; a black cat sat on her Mirra’s car next to them. The shorter, black-suited woman, the other wore a white suit, approached Mirra with a smile.

“Hello,” she said. She didn’t give Mirra a chance to reply and instead kept talking. “My name is Melody. We’ve been looking for someone like you,” she said.

“Me?” Mirra shifted her weight and leaned on her back foot; it was her way of taking a step back. “Why me?” she gestured to the sky at the traffic flying by. “Everyone’s getting powers now,” she said.

Shit, I just told them I had powers,” Mirra mentally cursed herself, then shrugged internally. “They already knew, probably.” Melody nodded.

“True, but you’re not like them. You’re a bit more Unique,” she said. The way she stressed the word made Mirra feel uneasy.

Forget it, I’ll just leave faster,” Mirra thought. She closed her eyes and reset. When she opened them she found herself in her pajamas again staring at the sheet tacked to her wall. “No lollygagging this time,” she mumbled to herself.

“That’s a good idea,” a voice said behind her. Mirra whirled around to find both women standing in her room with the same black cat on her bed. Now that they were closer she noticed a red patch of fur on the cat’s head; it looked like a skull. Mirra leaped back and hit the wall behind her.

“What are you doing in my room?! How’d you get here? I reset time!”

“Janet,” the woman in the white suit said. Then, Mirra blinked. She opened her eyes facing the number 14 on her wall again.

“You’re not the only one that can,” the woman said behind Mirra. She turned around again. “I’d like you to come work for me.”  The woman in white said.

“Why me? I don’t even know you,” Mirra shook her head. Something about this woman made Mirra very uneasy, but she couldn’t pinpoint why. “Everyone’s getting powers,… and you already have someone that can do what I can, apparently,” she shrugged having no idea who Janet was. She guessed it might be the cat but she did not want to try and figure out how a cat was manipulating time at the moment. The woman nodded.

“Their abilities aren’t like yours,” she waved a hand casually as if she was dismissing everyone else on the Earth. “Their’s are man-made; parlor tricks compared to what you can do.”

“Huh?” Mirra tilted her head. “That’s a weird thing to say, how do you even come to that conclusion?” she asked. The woman smiled.

“Who do you think gave it to them?”

Sharp Serendipity

“Today’s the day,” Lucy sighed as she pulled out of her driveway to get to work. She made the drive to her office in silence. She kept the radio off to be ready in case any new advice came up. It wasn’t a voice exactly; it felt more like an intuitive suggestion. Usually, the thought happened as, “I should probably….” followed by the action that would get her the best outcome. It took her years of deciding not to follow the action to finally learn to trust her intuition.

One week ago she woke with the thought, “I should probably leave this Earth by next week.” A big part of her ability was waiting for more information. She was startled but went about her day normally. The next morning she thought, “I should probably leave this Earth in six days. I should probably start packing.”  That evening after work she started packing, with her intuition chiming in occasionally. “I should probably pack less.  I should probably leave my laptop behind.”  Every morning since then she woke up with a countdown until this morning.  This morning she thought, “I should probably leave this Earth today.”  She wanted to stay home and wait for the end of the world. She had no idea how to leave but she realized, “I should probably go to work.” She also had the idea to bring her suitcase with her.

After passing the security gate Lucy parked in her spot, turned the car off and waited.

I should probably get inside,” she thought. She was reminded of the suitcase after closing the car door. She opened it again and grabbed the small black leather suitcase, then she headed to the tall glass building. As she crossed the parking lot she noticed a large black hole in the side of the building. She stopped in her tracks and stared at the perfect dark circle. She realized it was a reflection and turned toward the sky. The pitch black hole hovered in the sky; it began leaking white things as Lucy watched. She tried focusing on one as it fell out of the hole; it was a skeleton. She watched it shatter on impact, then it magically pulled itself back together. There were dozens of them marching toward Lucy’s office. They were still a good distance away. They were still on the other side of the security fence; but, Lucy doubted it would do much to slow them down. “I should probably start running,” she thought. It was a rare occasion when her intuition lined up with her own thoughts. She dashed toward the building while still trying to keep her eyes on the sky.

After two steps she hit something and felt a sharp pain on the side of her head. The sudden stop sent her backward. She fell on her bottom; her suitcase hit and opened on the ground.

“Are you okay?” A woman asked. Lucy looked up and recognized her boss’ assistant, Melody.  She was offering Lucy a hand to help her up.

“Fine, thanks,” Lucy smiled politely and quickly; she was eager to get inside. Then, she noticed her company’s owner, Ms. Sharp. The pale, dark-haired woman in a white suit was adjusting herself as if she’d just bumped into something. Lucy’s eyes widened.

“Oh no! I’m sorry Ms. Sharp! It was an accident,” she began to apologize. She’d never met the woman, but the rumors were she was very easy to anger. Lucy was surprised when Ms. Sharp smiled and pointed at the sky.

“It’s okay. It’s easy to see why you were in a hurry.  But…,” then she pointed at Lucy’s intimates sprawled all over the parking lot blacktop. “Are you going somewhere?” she asked.  Lucy looked behind her. The skeletons were already starting to push down the fence.

I should probably be honest,” she thought. Lucy took a deep breath, then looked into Ms. Sharp’s eyes. She wanted to be as brief as possible.

“I know things. My intuition told me that I needed to leave the Earth by today,” she pointed behind her with her thumb. “That’s probably why. I also knew I had to bring my suitcase.  I’m not crazy, I promise!” she said frantically. Lucy felt relieved when she noticed the woman give a slight nod.

“Do you know what that is? Do you know what they are?” Ms. Sharp asked. Lucy shook her head. “Okay. Melody,” Ms. Sharp turned to her assistant. “Send me home, I’m taking…,” she looked at Lucy.

“Lucy…” she introduced herself; slightly offended they didn’t know she was one of their most valuable employees.

“I’m taking Lucy. As for them,” she waved a dismissive hand at the skeletons. “Burn everything,” she said.

“Yes, Ms. Sharp.” Melody already had a black portal open next to them. Ms. Sharp walked in and Lucy followed. The last thing she saw was Melody’s hands growing bright blue.

Catch of the Day

Eric wandered through the forest behind his home. The sun was high in the sky; not yet past its peak, but the forest canopy filtered most of the bright light. The path that Eric preferred was relatively dim for such a bright day. He entered the forest to search for solid, construction-worthy branches, but he enjoyed the stroll so much it became a secondary goal. He was enjoying the sounds and smells of the forest around him when a glint caught his eye from the ground up ahead. He dashed forward to the shiny sparkle with a grin.

Dollar would be great, nickel is good too,” he thought. This wouldn’t be the first time something caught his attention, it was usually just coins. Though the forest was behind his house, it wasn’t his family’s property. The path he was using was frequented by hikers that often dropped loose change. He reached the glint and dusted off the dirt around it. He was surprised when it wasn’t a coin.

“Whoa!” Eric lifted a small, smooth, glassy rectangle out of the dirt and shook it off. It was transparent with the size and thickness of a playing card. “Is this a phone?” he wondered aloud. He did not see any buttons so he pressed his thumb against the screen.

[CONGRATULATIONS] appeared on the display in red text; it was bright enough to be seen perfectly in the dim daylight. A logo red pair of scissors also appeared with the message, then the text changed. 

[You have been randomly chosen as the Game Master for this AlterNet server. To accept your prize please read the terms and services agreement then choose ‘Yes’.]  Two icons appeared on the screen as well as several tiny horizontal lines. The ‘Yes’ looked bright red while the ‘No’ was a much dimmer green. He was almost 10 and in his short life, he’d learned one thing. No one ever reads the terms and conditions. He pressed ‘Yes’ to see what would happen next.

[Contract approved. Your soul now belongs to Sharp Development in exchange for your own Earth.] Eric chuckled when he realized it was a joke somehow. Of course, they couldn’t take his soul, much less give him the Earth. The device vibrated several times in his hand. It occasionally used enough force to vibrate his hand.

[Eric Lagos – Age 9. Unique Soul #50, El Pescado has been registered as Game Master. Please select a server template. For help with the setup process please say, “Help” at any time.

“Help.” Eric did not waste any time. The device jumped out of his hand and hovered in the air in front of him; then he noticed black dots collecting around it. In seconds a giant swarm of black dots surrounded the device, then they solidified. They turned into a black, featureless mannequin that seemed to be facing Eric.

“Welcome to the AlterNet!” it said with a soft feminine voice. “Here is a list of available templates. Please ask if you have any questions,” it said. The dummy lifted its arm in the air and a large glassy slate appeared in the air; it looked like a larger version of the gadget Eric found. Red text glowed on the slate in columns and Eric stepped closer to read them.

“Sci-fi, Fantasy, Horror, Steampunk, Contemporary…” he read the first few out loud then looked over the rest. They all seemed to be vague genre descriptions. One, in particular, caught his eye.

“What’s ‘Waterworld?’ he asked.

“Waterworld melts the polar ice caps and raises the sea level 300 feet. Uniques #06 La Sirena, #30 El Camarón, #50 El Pescado and #54 La Rana receive attribute bonuses from Waterworld servers. Build time: 72 hours”

Eric did not understand everything it said, but he did recognize #50. It told him that’s what he was and it sounded like whatever it meant he would get bonuses.

“I want that; do it,” he said. The mannequin extended his arm; Eric saw the glassy rectangle come out of its hand in front of him. It was giving him another prompt.

[Waterworld template: Start] He pushed the screen and a thunderclap resounded across the sky.

“Commencing flooding procedure,” the mannequin said as Eric felt drops of water starting to land on his head. His eyes widened.

“Wait… it’s real!?” He asked. The mannequin nodded. “… and my… soul?” he asked.

“Is the property of Sharp Development.”

Root Problem

“See you in a bit!” Lena grinned at the message on her phone. Then she felt pangs of disappointment as a minor detail suddenly came to mind.

“You don’t know my address?” she typed to the group. They’d been chatting for almost a year. She stumbled across the group and joined on a whim. She was glad she did, she’d never been able to find the group by searching for it. She could only visit the group if she used the group bookmark. The group, “AlterNet Enthusiasts”, were friendly and Lena quickly found a group she clicked with. They seemed to have a static group and talked about their in-game adventures as if they were real. As they grew closer she mentioned her state and city; but, she never gave an exact address. The fact that they were on their way to her house, without knowing where she lived made Lena think she’d been catfished somehow.

*DING* Lena heard the notification but it didn’t come from the phone in her hand. She looked up and saw a tall black portal in the center of her living room. A short girl in a long black robe walked out while staring at something that looked like a phone in her hand. She looked up from it and smiled at Lena.

“Don’t need it. Hi!” She stepped forward and offered her hand to Lena. “I’m Wilma.” As she introduced herself two more teenagers about the girl’s age stepped out. Twin girls, one wearing heavy silver armor that jangled with every step. The other wore a long white robe.

“What’s going on?” Lena asked then she took a step to the side and let herself fall on the couch. She recognized them immediately, after Wilma introduced herself. Their classes were obvious enough to match what she knew about them. The one in the robe was Sarah the healer and the armored girl had to be Samantha the knight.

Despite the surprise of them coming from nowhere, Lena was more embarrassed about the age gap than anything. “You’re just kids?” They were gamers and she assumed they’d be younger than her 40 years. Their posts often hinted at adult freedom to come and go. They were almost always playing and often talked about getting together. Not once had any of them mentioned needing parental permission for anything. They looked 14 at most. They all grinned at her, and Wilma shook her head.

“We’re not just kids, we’re Uniques.”

“Unique what?” Lena asked. The three visitors burst into very kid-like giggles.

“Unique Souls,” Wilma shook her head. “Don’t worry about it, we’ll get you caught up later. Right now we want to invite you to join our group.” She shrugged. “We wanted to invite you sooner, but it was a pain to find out which Earth was yours.” Lena’s confusion blossomed again; she tilted her head at Wilma.

“Which….. Earth?” she asked. She was glad the kids didn’t laugh at her again.

“I knew it,” Wilma nodded, then joined Lena on the couch. “Your Earth was hard to find because you’re not connected to the AlterNet yet. I don’t know how you found the group, but it was probably a glitch.” She shrugged. “We are from different universes,” Wilma paused for a moment in thought, then started again. “Well, I’m from a different universe, and they…,” Wilma pointed at Sarah and Samantha. “…are from a different, different universe. There’re tons out there.”

“So… wanna come play in the AlterNet?” Wilma asked. Lena’s eyes grew wide. She saw their posts to the group in a new light now.

“That’s… it’s real? All your adventures.. you really did them?”

“Yep! Come play with us,” she smiled.

“YES!” Lena jumped off the couch and ran to Sarah and Samantha to give them both hugs.

“Great, let’s go make your character,” Wilma said. She stood from the couch and wiggled her hand at the air to open another portal. Sarah and Samantha walked in and disappeared; then, Wilma encouraged Lena.

“Go ahead, it’s safe,” she smiled at the older woman.

“Thanks!” Lena dashed forward into the black hole. She went through it and ran into one of her living room walls.

“OWWwwwww….” Lena turned around already rubbing her nose. She looked at Wilma; the young girl sighed.

“Shit, I’m sorry. I should have asked this first; what’s your favorite number?”

“Ten,” Lena said automatically, then she stopped rubbing her nose. “Hey, I didn’t know that,” she added. “Why?”

“The bad news is you can’t leave this Earth. The good news is, you’re a Unique Soul too. #10, El  Árbol.” Lena’s face fell; her eyes began to water at the corners.

“I can’t play with you?” she whispered in disappointment. She’d received a lot of information in a short time, and now she wouldn’t get to explore with her new friends. She doubted they’d make time to visit an old woman when they could go anywhere. She wasn’t sure how to deal with her emotions. Wilma rushed forward and hugged her.

“Of course you can,” she said. She withdrew from the hug and looked Lena in the eyes with a smile. “You just have to let us dig a hole in your living room.”

Early Opportunity

Victor groaned in disappointment the moment he woke up. He reached for his phone to turn off the alarm; but, he did not get out of bed. He brought the singing phone under the covers and slid the vibrating alarm clock icon upward. The music he chose for his alarm went silent; he sighed and dropped the phone to his chest to doze a bit more. He caught a glimpse of a mail notification before the screen shut off. Curiosity forced him to pick the phone up again and check it.

Normally, no one e-mailed him. His job had its own communication tools; not that anyone contacted him for work either. He used to get only spam until he set up the appropriate filters. He had not received a single e-mail on his newest phone since he bought it; his two-year contract was almost up.

Victor pulled down the notification to see who sent it. It said “  re: Satisfaction Guarantee”.

What?” He immediately sat up in bed and focused on the phone. He gently touched the notification to open it; then, he started reading.

“Attn: Mr. Victor Bleik,” He stopped reading to consider whether he used his last name when he made the account. Then, he realized he didn’t use ‘Victor’ either.  The mystery encouraged him to keep reading.

“This is an automated e-mail sent to you on behalf of Sharp Development. Our algorithms detected the use of several keywords in your e-mail including: life, unfair, unsatisfied, new game. These words, including a number of repetitions, suggest you are unsatisfied with your current life. Sharp Development is the answer for you.” Victor scrolled down past a logo of red scissors to get to the rest of the e-mail.

“In the AlterNet, you can live the life of your dreams. Choose from 25 different races to design the body you want to have. Then, choose the job you want to do from a list of 25 classes.”

Classes? Is this a game?” Victor wondered. Reality knocked him out of his hopeful mood; his stomach sank. Of course, it was too good to be true. He shrugged and kept reading. If nothing else, the distraction of a new game might help.

“The AlterNet is the ultimate gaming experience. You don’t just play your character; you ARE your character. You can slay dragons alongside knights or visit futuristic floating cities. Don’t care much for fantasy? The AlterNet also has dozens of ‘Contemporary Servers’ full of players who want to design a normal life for themselves.”

Ha. It is a game,” Victor chuckled to himself. “But it sounds like a VR game…,” he said aloud to no one, then he looked at his computer. It sat on a desk in the corner of his room. It was already several years old, and he couldn’t afford to make it VR ready any time soon. He sighed and kept reading. It was in smaller print than the rest of the letter.

“This e-mail was dispatched based on the contents of your e-mail. Sharp Development would like to take a moment to remind you that no human has read your e-mail. Our A.I. focuses only on which words are used, and their frequency. This is not a spam message and we will not contact you again. Please reply directly to this e-mail with the subject: ‘Yes’ to create your own AlterNet character for free. The address shown was faked to match the recipient of the message that drew our attention.” Then it ended. Victor scrolled down as far as he could but there was nothing after that.

“Nah,” Victor said with a shrug. He used his thumb to hit the trashcan icon. It would be quite some time before he could afford enough VR gear to play it even if it came with a free trial. Plus it was a game he’d never heard of before, so it was probably just a beta test. He sighed and forced himself to get out of bed before he was later than usual for work.

“Why doesn’t anything ever work out for me?…” he whined to himself as he walked into the bathroom.

Harry Situation

Harry sat alone in his dim living room. He had the curtains open to watch the sun set on another day. The sun had already sunk beneath the horizon and the purple sky was growing darker. It had become his ritual for ending the day. He still, thankfully, had access to electricity and water; the city’s power grid hadn’t fallen apart yet but Harry knew it was only a matter of time. He enjoyed the pristine solitude of being the only person on the planet to watch the sunset.

*knock, knock* a gentle knock came from his front door, Harry was so startled he jumped out of the couch and ended up on the floor. After the initial panic, he reasoned it was probably an animal. He’d noticed the local wildlife growing braver without other humans around. He relaxed and stood from the floor, then the gentle knock came again. Slightly firmer, obviously deliberate.

I gotta find out,” Harry sighed to himself and walked to the front door. He had enough sense to use the peephole first. Pressing his eye against the door, he saw a well-dressed woman waiting patiently in the fading dusk light. She had long dark hair that was tied in a high ponytail and she wore a formal, black business suit. Harry rushed to throw the door open.

“HI!” he said. He realized he shouted and lowered his voice. “Uh, yes?” he asked. The woman smiled at him.

“My name is Susan Noble from Sharp Medical Services. According to our information you’re the last man on Earth,” she shrugged. “I’ve come to establish contact and see if there’s anything my organization can do to help you.” Harry tilted his head at her. He reached down, and grabbed a chunk of his forearm with his right hand and pinched hard.

“Ooooow,” he immediately massaged the sore spot. “I’m awake,” he shook his head. “Never heard of Sharp Medical, but I’m not really in a spot to refuse help. If I’m the last man on Earth does that mean you’re all women?” Susan shook her head.

“No, it means we’re based on another Earth. When I said ‘last man’ I meant human.”

“Oh,” Harry nodded. He had no choice but to accept everything she said. “So, what now? Can I go back to your Earth?”

“You can, or you can stay here.” Susan reached into her coat pocket to grab something.

“Why would I want to stay here?” Harry chuckled. Susan pulled a small glassy rectangle out of her coat and smiled at Harry.

“Sharp Development is taking control of this abandoned Earth. As the last rightful citizen, you have the option of being in charge.”

“In charge? What does that mean? In charge of what?” he asked. Susan lifted the glass rectangle so that it was in Harry’s line of sight. She deliberately extended a finger and touched it to the bottom of the display. She slowly pushed her finger upward sliding it along the center of the display.

As she moved her finger up Harry noticed the display was getting brighter. Then he realized it was the daylight that was getting brighter. Susan stopped her motion at the top of the display; Harry saw the sun sitting high in the sky and felt its heat beating down on him.

“Everything,” she said.

Experiment Zero

Jerri woke up to the fact that she was dreaming again. She stood in front of a grill tending to sizzling, delicious-smelling meat. Smoke billowed around her and she could feel the hot sun on the back of her neck. Jerri did not have any control, that was part of what convinced her they weren’t just dreams. She needed to wait for her view to change from the ribs and sausage to something more interesting. Then Jerri heard a now familiar voice.

“Hi,” the woman said to Jerri’s right. She felt her body jump as her vision spun around in the direction of the voice. Jerri caught a glimpse of a large, fenced-in back yard before she saw a short, pale, dark-haired woman in a black suit. The same one she’d been seeing every night for the past week and a half.

The first time Jerri saw the strange woman she appeared out of nowhere and attacked. Jerri woke up startled but did not give it much thought until it happened again the next night. Both times Jerri woke up before she saw everything, and since then she forced herself to wake up as soon as she saw the stranger. Sometimes she showed up sooner than others.

“Who are you?!” Jerri heard herself ask. It was an odd sensation feeling your mouth move without doing it intentionally. Golden stars glowed in the woman’s eyes and she smiled at Jerri.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she said and took a step closer. Jerri’s hand raised a long barbecue fork and extended it outward. The woman shook her head and extended a single finger to touch the tip of the fork.

“You don’t need that,” she said. Jerri watched the fork melt completely under the woman’s touch and was glad when her hand let it go; it was starting to get warm. “I just want to talk to you,” she said.

Does she mean it?” Jerri wondered. Thinking back she’d been too frightened to see what happened to the others. She had no control over her power so it did not mean anything that she didn’t visit them anymore. For all she knew they were totally fine. “But what does she want?” she was curious why the stranger was pestering other versions of herself.

“What? What do you want?” Jerri’s mouth asked.

Hah, nice timing,” Jerri giggled to herself.

“Not you,” the stranger shook her head again. She stepped closer and looked directly into Jerri’s eyes. Jerri could clearly see the bright golden stars around each of her pupils. “You,” The woman said. She reached up and placed a hand on Jerri’s, host body’s shoulder. “And to do that I need you to still be here when I touch her.” She winked an eye at Jerri. “Race you.”

Jerri forced herself awake. Her eyes shot open and she sat up in bed.  The stranger stood at the foot of Jerri’s bed and smirked.

“I win. I didn’t expect you to be so young,” she added. Despite her confusion at the situation, Jerri felt her honor was attacked.

“I’m 14, it’s not like I’m a baby,” she said. As she spoke she tried to show the words were true. She sat up straighter in the bed and tried to maintain a calm, ‘adult’ demeanor. “Why are you in my room?” she asked. The woman grinned.

“You’re just like her,” she said wistfully. “I’m in your room because I started noticing you. You started appearing more often during my pick-ups and I wanted to find out what was happening.”

“Your pick-ups? What are you doing to them? You’ve found me already, you don’t need them.”

“You know what’s kind of a nice surprise? When you’re buying something from a vending machine, and it drops an extra item,” she said. “That’s you,” she pointed at Jerri. “You’re an extra box of cookies. You want to know what’s being done to them?” the woman asked. She walked around the bed and sat next to Jerri. The girl did not move an inch; she did not want to let the woman know she made her uncomfortable. “Nothing really, they’re going to be held, very comfortably by the way, as prisoners. Until we kill them.” Jerri’s eyes went wide.

“Don’t worry though,” the woman said and placed a hand on Jerri’s shoulder. “You’re special and you get treated differently.” Jerri relaxed slightly. Part relief, part acceptance.

“You’re not going to kill me?” she asked with a weak whisper.

“Of course we are,” the woman said. “But your stay will be a bit less comfortable than theirs. You’re special after all. I still want to find out why.”

Vanilla Visit

“Whoa…,” Billy sighed when Vanilla finished her tale. He looked out giant bay windows in the living room at the never-ending ocean. Glacier-like chunks of ice dotted the horizon. There was no trace of the mountaintop Vanilla claimed they were on, but he trusted her implicitly. “This is that Earth? Those are all your tears?” Vanilla nodded.

“What happened to them?” Billy stood from the couch and wandered to the window.


“Your dad, everyone on the Earth.”

“Nothing,” Vanilla shrugged and stood from her seat to join Billy by the window. “They’re still down there stopped in time from the moment first moment I stopped it.” Billy noticed her shake her head slightly. “I can’t undo it. Whatever I did, it completely derailed time. Besides…,” Vanilla wrapped an arm around Billy and gave him a gentle hug. “…at least this way he won’t ever die.” Vanilla’s long white hair tickled Billy’s neck and it reminded him of a different sensation.

“Hey!” he said and looked up at her. “Time’s stopped here, right?” he asked; she nodded. “Why can’t I feel it?”

“I just told you I broke time,” she said with a smirk. Billy shook his head.

“Right. Sorry, what I meant was at the lake after I took that guy’s soul, -“

“Steven,” Vanilla reminded him.

“Yeah, Steven. After that, I could feel time. It feels like there’s sand everywhere. And when it’s stopped it feels like walking through a sandpaper hallway. THAT was new to me. But I didn’t remember until I couldn’t feel it here.”

“Great question, C’mon.” Vanilla wiggled her fingers at the air and opened a tall black portal. “We’re going to visit a dragon,” she added as she stepped into the portal and disappeared. Billy followed. He found himself drenched in sweat the moment he exited the portal on the other side. He stood at the shore of a giant molten lake. Its bright orange glow was almost blinding if he tried to look directly into the lava. He looked around.

Dozens of figures lined the beach. They were gathered in groups and it wasn’t until a red-skinned young girl in a one-piece bathing suit ran up to Vanilla that he realized where he was. The girl’s long orange hair flowed through the air like fire as she ran; her red, scaled skin shimmered in the sunlight. The bright golden light reflected off her in a way that reminded Billy of a ruby; the girl’s skin was almost crystalline. The girl was a dragon enjoying a day at the beach with her dragon family. Several of the group she came from waved in their direction.

“VANILLA!!” the girl screeched as she dashed across the dark black sand. The girl leaped off the sand at Vanilla but the air caught her. The red girl hovered in the air; stuck inches in front of the tall white-haired woman. Vanilla reached up and grabbed the girl’s tiny hand. She pulled the girl along the shore like a balloon until she was at the lava’s edge. She stayed out of the way and started time again. Billy watched the girl’s momentum carry her into the lava.

The girl surfaced spluttering molten rock and giggling. She wiped the liquid fire from her eyes and looked up at Vanilla.

“Who’s he?” she asked and gestured at Billy by rolling her eyes in his direction while treading lava.

“He needs to talk to Flutter,” Vanilla replied.

“And?” the girl shrugged, then she swam forward and walked out of the orange lake.

“And it won’t be the last time,” Vanilla said. “Billy, this is Ruby,” she finally gave a proper introduction, then looked at Billy. “If you ever want to know anything about a dragon, Ruby’s family is who you ask.” She produced a small white silk pouch and opened it. “Information is expensive but…,” Vanilla pulled several golden coins and a couple of large sapphires from the pouch. “Ruby charges significantly less than her older family members.” Vanilla dropped the coins and gems into the girl’s small, outstretched hand.  “Where can we find Flutter?” Vanilla crossed her arms and asked formally.

“Inside!” The girl screeched then immediately popped the loot in her mouth and jumped back into the lava.

“That little sneak!” Vanilla cursed with a chuckle.

“Who’s Flutter?” Billy asked.

“According to Ruby’s family, and they know everything about dragons, Flutter is the strongest dragon they’ve ever seen.” Billy tilted his head at Vanilla and narrowed his eyes with a confused look.

“That sounds like someone we want to stay away from,” Billy said.

“We can’t, you need to talk to her,” Vanilla started walking up the beach.

“Me? Why?”

“To use her as a benchmark. If you can stop her in time, you can stop Ballisea,” Vanilla said.