Classified Death

Daniel started time again as he stepped out of the public restroom and back into the crowded mall.

“Hey, you’re right! I did feel it!” He heard someone say.  The voice sounded so enthused that it piqued his curiosity. He searched for the voice’s owner and found a young man talking to an older woman. The stranger in a navy-blue pinstripe suit appeared to be around 18 or so;  a couple of years younger than Daniel. He was smiling at a white-haired woman wearing a flowing orange dress.

Daniel did not see anything worth getting excited about and guessed he’d never learn what they were discussing. He shrugged and continued on his way.  After several steps, he realized no one else was moving. He stopped in his tracks and whirled in place looking at everyone. Time was still frozen. He closed his eyes and concentrated on starting its flow again but nothing happened. He tried stopping it again but there was no change.

Uh oh,” he felt panic start to rise in his stomach until he heard footsteps. The hollow click of heels accompanied a set of heavier footsteps. He looked up and noticed the pair walking away while giggles passed between them. “HEY!” he shouted at them and jogged to catch up. The pair stopped and turned to face him wearing broad smiles.

“Yes?” the woman asked. Daniel was surprised to see she had bright, crystal-orange eyes. He shook off the momentary distraction with a visible shake of his head.

“Uh.. how are you guys moving?” Daniel pointed at a nearby toddler floating in mid-air. The red-faced child’s eyes were forced shut and her mouth was wide open. “Everyone’s frozen.”

“Are they?” She asked with a raised white eye-brow. “You don’t seem to be.”

“Yeah,” Daniel shrugged. “I’m the one that did it.” The odd woman reached up and patted Daniel’s shoulder.

“Do you have a tattoo with the number 14 on it?” She asked.

“H-how’d you know?” Only a select few knew about the grim reaper tattooed on his butt-cheek. Daniel chose his favorite number, 14, to put on Death’s scythe. The woman turned to her friend.

“See? Even low-rank Muertes can do it properly once they’re awakened.” She turned her attention back to Daniel, her hand still rested on his shoulder.

“Can you fast-forward or rewind time? ” She asked him. Daniel shook his head.

“No. Can you?”

“Yes,” she replied curtly, then turned her attention back to the man in the suit. “What does that make him?” She asked in a tone that made Daniel feel like he was being used as an example for something.

“D-rank.” The woman nodded.

“And if he could rewind?” she asked.

“C-rank. B-rank if he could fast forward and so on. S-rank means…,” he paused and pointed at the woman. “You,” then he touched his own chest. “…and I can control time loops.”

“Good, you got it.” The woman raised her hand chest-high and wiggled her fingers at the air. A tall black portal opened next to the suited man. “Let’s find a higher ranked one so you can see what that feels like.” They stepped toward the hole that hung in the air and Daniel realized they were about to leave.

“HEY!” he shouted.

“Oh right, sorry,” the woman apologized insincerely. “Let him have it back, Billy.” She continued walking into the black hole and disappeared. Billy nodded at Daniel.

“Sorry,” he said. “She’s showing me how to over-ride other Muertes. You can start time again,” he nodded. “Give it a try.”  Daniel concentrated and the world roared back to life as the flow of time started again.

“Hey, ” he turned toward the man. “What’s a Mu-” Daniel blinked. When he opened his eyes the man and the portal were gone.

Bounty of Soul

“Now, I shouldn’t be showing you this, Ms. Bowman. It’s only for our more well-to-do clients.” Gus smiled at the young immigrant woman seated on the other side of his cluttered, wooden desk. She wore her greasy, stringy brown hair in a bun. Her sharp features and lean body hinted at malnutrition. Her once navy-blue dress was faded and worn from too many washes. Both of them knew she did not fall into that category. She did not move to take the brochure; but, she noticed the title. “Reincarnate Into Your Fantasy World.”

“No, thank you. That’s not for me,” she repeated the phrase her mother raised her with. Gus shook his head; his round, puffy cheeks trembled with the gesture.

“Not so fast,” he pushed the brochure on her again. She accepted it not knowing what else to do. “When I say it’s only for our wealthy clients I don’t mean it’s expensive. The truth is this option is free.” The large balding man grinned. Upon hearing the word “free”, Leisa opened the brochure and looked at all the pictures. She saw orcs and ogres strolling on a beach under a purple moon. Goblins atop centaurs on vast crystalline planes. The pictures of knights, unicorns, and dragons looked so real.

“Is this a game? How is it free?” she asked. “Why do only the rich people get it?” Gus shrugged, but his salesman’s smile did not diminish.

“My boss wants to keep things as exclusive as possible. We’re instructed to only show this to clients that meet certain financial requirements,” he winked. “But once it’s done there’s really no way to know.” Gus sat up straighter and clasped both his hands on the table. He looked at Leisa and took on a more serious tone. “Please don’t be offended, but it looks like you could use a break, am I right?” Ms. Bowman nodded timidly, almost ashamed.

“So let me tell you about this. It’s more than just simple immigration.” Gus tapped the word “Reincarnate” on the brochure.  “You’ll leave your life in this world behind and start living the life you want in the body you want. The first thing you do is create a character,” he tapped a couple of the pictures. “There are different races, as you can see. 25 total and 25 classes to choose from. But it gets even better!” He flipped over to the next page in the brochure and tapped at a box that said “Oversoul” with a short list of 10 more items. The word “unicorn” caught Leisa’s attention.

“You actually get to pick a body and a soul for your character. You can pick any of the 25 other races, or any of these 10 for your soul.  You can be a goblin with the soul of a dragon or a slime-person with the soul of a vampire, and so on.” Leisa’s eyes grew wide as the possibilities flooded her mind.

“After you’re happy with yourself you can choose the type of world you want to live in. From pre-historic to ultra-futuristic and everything in between.”

“How do I get there?” Leisa asked. She already made her decision to go but wanted to hear more details. “You said I had to leave this world?”  Gus nodded.

“It’s simple, really. We plant you,” the salesman grinned. He loved putting it that way.

“Plant me?”

“Yes, Ma’am. We lay you down on a bed of soil and put you to sleep. You’ll wake up in the new world never to return to this one.”

“And that’s it? Why does it say reincarnate?”

“Well, you’d be leaving your body behind too. Your consciousness is relayed to the other world using some very top secret technology that I can’t tell you any more about.” He shrugged. “Because I don’t know myself.”

“But, what happens when my body dies? I won’t be able to eat or drink anything.” Gus shook his head.

“That’s the beauty of it. Your body doesn’t die, it just changes. Remember, we’re dealing with advanced technology here. The soil has enough nutrients to keep you alive until you take root.”

“Take root?” Doubts began to form in the back of Leisa’s mind.

“The only way to keep you alive long enough for you to properly enjoy the other world is to give you a body that lives for quite some time. Instead of hooking you up to machines, there’s a more environmentally friendly option. Your body grows into a tree that holds your soul until it dies. Several hundred years from now.”

“I want to do it!” Leisa blurted out. The moment of fear she felt was replaced by hope. She would have hundreds of years in her ideal world. For free!” Gus smiled and stood up.

“It’s a good thing you decided,” he glanced at the wall clock. “My boss likes to make surprise inspections,” he chuckled as he guided her to the door. “I don’t think she realizes how punctual her surprises are. Do you need to prepare anything? Say good-bye to anyone? If not we can get you planted right now.” Leisa shook her head.

“No one… that’s why I wanted to leave.” Gus nodded and opened the door. “Hey Fred!” he yelled down the hall.

“Yeah?” Fred’s voice drifted up the hall, but Leisa did not see anyone.

“Do me a favor and plant Ms. Bowman here before the boss gets back.” A short blonde man in jeans and a black t-shirt stepped into the hall and waved at Leisa.

“Another one? No problem!” Gus patted Leisa on the back.

“Good luck. Enjoy your new life.”

“Thank you!” Leisa braved a kiss on his cheek then dashed down the hall toward the short man. Gus returned to his desk and pulled out a small red notebook that he used to keep track of his progress. “Another soul, another easy 10k!” he grinned as he added another tally mark next to the dozens that were already there.

Lessons in Traversing

Billy stepped out of the tall black portal and looked around to get his bearings. The crowded shopping mall he left behind was a stark contrast to this new setting. He, and the white-haired stranger he followed, were now in a high-class living room like those he’d seen on TV. Giant windows gave him a scenic view of distant mountains under a purple sky.

“Tell me about yourself. What’s your name?” the unknown woman asked. She swept her orange dress under her and sat on a black leather couch, then patted the seat next to her. Billy walked toward the couch but his head swiveled back and forth as he admired the giant living room. He realized it was bigger than his entire house.

“My name is Billy,” he said while still distracted. Then, he turned to the stranger. “Wow, this place is beautiful! You live here?” the high school senior asked as he sat next to her. She shook her head.

“No. I wanted somewhere comfortable where we can sit and talk.” Billy nodded, accepting the explanation.

“When I was 15, I found out I had superpowers,” he began to explain. “Stopping time is handy but it was starting to get boring until you showed up. Where did you come from? How did we get here? Can I do it too?” He fired off several questions, then added in one more as she started to answer. “And what’s your name?”

“You may call me Vanilla,” she said. “I came from an alternate universe. Actually, you’re in a different universe right now than you were at the mall.” Vanilla lifted her hand and wiggled her fingers at the air. A small black hole opened. “This is how we…,” she winked at Billy. “…you’ll learn too, traverse to different universes.” She dismissed the portal with a wave of her hand. “No matter where you travel you’ll always be able to pop back into your home universe if you like, easy as that.”

“Whoaa.. so what universe is this?” Billy asked. Vanilla shrugged.

“No idea, I don’t think I’ve been here before.”

“HEY! WHO THE HELL-” a large, rotund man in a silk robe yelled at Vanilla and Billy, but froze midway through his tirade. He stood stopped in time with his mouth wide open and an expression of pure anger on his red face.

“You don’t know where we are?” Billy asked.

“It doesn’t particularly matter,” Vanilla shrugged. “We can talk comfortably here.”

“How did you teleport somewhere you’ve never been?”

“I didn’t. I traversed. Both you and I came from different universes and this is a third one. How many do you think there are?”

“Uh.. hundreds? No, thousands!”

“Infinity,” Vanilla smiled. “There is an infinite number of universes out there. Every day thousands of them are created, and thousands of them die. You could go from the distant future in one universe to a prehistoric one filled with dinosaurs.” Vanilla wiggled her hand and opened another dinner-plate sized black hole. “You can try to target a specific place with these portals if you’ve got a frequency. Or you can let it decide where it wants to take you.” Vanilla gestured at the time-stopped stranger silently yelling.

“A frequency?”

“Universes are identified by their vibrations. But, when we came here I wanted a comfortable place to chat. There are so many universes that even if you have a frequency, you might miss.”

“How’d you end up at the mall? Billy asked.

“I wanted to find a strong Unique that could help me gather a few things,”  Vanilla smiled. “What do you say, Billy? Want to come work with me and see things you never imagined?”

“And I can still go home, right?”  The woman nodded.

“As long as it’s still there,” she said.

Billy the Kid

Billy strolled through the mall wondering what he felt like doing that day. The lean high school senior should have been in school but as far as anyone was concerned he was in the restroom. Though he had no idea how to start time up again it was usually a short session and it was easy for him to stop time again quickly if he had to.

He stuck his hands in the pockets and purses of anyone he thought was “rich enough” for extra cash. As he turned a corner toward the food court he heard sharp, hollow footsteps; it sounded like high heels on the mall’s tile walkways. He looked around at the other patrons but they all remained frozen.

“What the hell?” he mumbled to himself as a woman with long white hair stepped into his view. She wore a long, flowing, orange dress. Sparkling white stiletto heels on her feet proved to be the source of the sound. The strange woman wandered near to every frozen person, gave them an appraising look, then continued to the next stranger. Billy remained still hoping she’d walk by him. The woman’s heels clicked as she approached him. Her bright orange eyes roamed up and down Billy, then the corners of her lips pulled upward into a slight smile.

“Found you,” she said. Billy did not react; he hoped he could somehow fake her out. “A word of advice. It’s easier to hide in a moving crowd.” She stayed in front of him, silently staring. After several moments Billy understood that she was not going to move on. He let out a heavy sigh.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “That would’ve been better.” He gave her a shrug. “I have to wait for it to wear off, usually three or four hours.” The woman giggled lightly and shook her head.

“Nonsense,” she said. As the word ended time roared back to life as the shoppers resumed buzzing around the mall. “You haven’t been awakened yet, is all.” Billy looked around at the moving people and did some quick math in his head.

“Did you do that?” he asked. She nodded. “Awakened how? Am I like you?” Again, the woman nodded. The mall fell silent and Billy realized she stopped time.

“You,” she smiled and patted her own chest. “And I are known as Unique Souls. We’re #14, La Muerte.” She paced around Billy, forcing him to keep turning to keep his attention on her. “You are particularly powerful.” Billy shrugged.

“Not so much,” he chuckled. “I can’t even start time again.”

“That’s proof of how strong you are,” the woman stopped pacing and faced Billy directly. “Uniques generally don’t have access to their abilities until they’ve been awakened. Some slumbering Muertes can do things like stop time by holding their breath or otherwise in small spurts. You can keep it going for hours without even trying.” Billy’s eyes grew wide.

“I’m strong? I can get stronger? Alright!” he clapped his hands together and rubbed them greedily. “Let’s get me awakened. How do I-” Billy blinked. “OOWWWWWWWWWW” After the blink, he felt a searing pain on his chest. He brought his hand up to rub it and his black t-shirt felt wet. He pulled his hand away and noticed it dabbed with red. “What the hell?” He opened his shirt and looked down at his chest. He saw a bloody number 14 carved into his skin. “What did you do!?” he raised his voice at the woman. A cacophony of voices joined his; time started again.

“I awakened you. You can start time now,” she gestured at the flowing crowd around them. “You’re welcome.”

“Whoa… what else can I do?” he asked while massaging the pain in his chest. The woman lifted her hand and made a gesture in the air at the same time that Billy noticed time was stopped. A tall black hole opened in the air next to the woman.

“Would you like to find out?” She asked. Without waiting for an answer she stepped into the hole and disappeared. It took a moment for Billy to understand the invitation. He realized the hole was left open for him and dashed through to follow her.

Clown Patrol

“Wait here,” Billy said. He nervously adjusted his tie. He felt somewhat out of place in a navy business suit. His partner, Red, was a burly five-foot clown with blue rubbery strands for hair. “I’ll negotiate, you’ll only be in the way.” The pair stood just inside the door of a crowded diner; both kept their eyes on a clown couple seated at one of the larger booths. A dozen colorful clowns dotted various groups throughout the restaurant. Billy approached the table he’d set his eyes on. As he neared it, he felt the gaze of every clown in the place watching his every move.  He reached the table and both clowns, a male, and female looked up at him. Billy focused on the balding one with a horseshoe of bright blond curls around the white top of his head.

“LaughTrack?” Billy asked.

“That’s who I am, my good man.” The clown smiled. “And this lovely pet is known as WaterJet,” he introduced the clown with bright blue tears painted on her white face. “What can we do today to get you on your way?” Billy shook his head and sighed.

“I have a…”Billy paused. He almost said, ‘friend’ but he did not want a friend like Red. “…an associate that wants your name. What would it take for you to release it?”

“My name? Preposterous, insane!” LaughTrack raised his voice. Billy realized all the clowns in the restaurant gathered around him expecting trouble. LaughTrack glared. “This name is my claim to fame. It belonged to a powerful clown, but he’s temporarily down. When he returns to the AlterNet, he’ll come find me. That’s a bet.”

“What happens when he does?” Red stepped out of the crowd of clowns that surrounded Billy.

“IT’S YOU! IT’S TRUE!” LaughTrack bolted from the table and knelt before the short clown as fast as he could. Most of the clowns in the restaurant followed suit and bowed. Billy looked around at the display. Over a dozen clowns were bowing to Red. The rest of the patrons in the restaurant kept eating as if nothing interesting was going on.

“Are they NPC’s?” he asked WaterJet; the only clown not bowing. She nodded.

“This is the Clown Patrol guild hall. We like the restaurant look.”

“Great, so you’re gonna give me my name back, right?” Red looked down LaughTrack. The blond, balding clown sat up on his knees and shook his head.

“Forgive me, great one, normally it’d be fine. But this isn’t just about fun. Our guild is on the line.” Red sighed at LaughTrack.

“Do you have to rhyme everything?”

“I’m RP’ing! It’s very freeing!” Red and Billy both looked at WaterJet.

“What’s the situation with the name?” Red asked her.

“Dana Sharp is holding a big derby tournament,” she shrugged. “We signed up so that means LaughTrack has to compete. If he changes his name then you have to compete in his place; we won’t have a full roster otherwise.”

“Derby, huh?” Red glanced at Billy. The lean, suited man nodded in approval. “Alright. I’ll join you for the tournament. ONLY for the tournament.”

Infernal Debt

Father Ellos jumped back after sliding open the confessional partition. The priest did not expect to see a red-skinned demon with three horns growing out of his head on the other side. The demon looked through the screened partition and grinned.

“Dad! I got big news!” The priest recovered his composure quickly and sighed.

“It couldn’t wait until I got home?” He cast a judgemental glance at the demon. “I’ve asked you not to come in here looking like that.” The demon looked down at himself as if realizing his appearance for the first time.

“Oh sorry! I was too excited.”  His bright red skin flaked off his body as if he were shedding a layer of sand. After a moment a red-haired, lanky, teenage boy sat in the demon’s place. “It can’t wait because I won’t be home when you get home. I won’t be there.”

“You won’t be home?” Father Ellos allowed himself a moment of hope. His thin lips almost curled its corners into a smile. “Really? Does that mean…?” He’d hoped for this day from the moment his son became a demon.

“Do you stand a chance?” the priest asked. The boy shook his head.

“To early to say, but I think so.” The priest nodded.

“Then go with God, my son. I’ll pray for your victory,” Father Ellos said with a warm smile.

“Uhm, speaking of going with God. Can you cover the ride?” The kid asked sheepishly. The Father burst into laughter.

“Of course, my son. Though you’re leaving as a man,” the older man touched the screen partition. “I expect full repayment from your winnings.” Tiny golden particles gathered on the boy’s side of the screen where the priest made contact. The boy held his hand under the coalescing glow until a small golden cube dropped in his hand.

“Thanks, dad, I love you.”

“I love you too. God speed, keep in touch.” The priest said as the boy exited the confessional. Father Ellos was about to step out when someone took the boy’s place. Through the partition, the priest saw a purple-skinned demon with two horns enter the compartment.

“Please log out of the AlterNet before confession, my child.”

“Sorry, Father,” the demon replied. Its purple skin fell away.

Sharp Expansion

“Dr. Jackson!?” Clark was astonished when the grey-haired man walked into his room. “You look just like I remember. So, what year is it? Am I cured?” The lean doctor smiled and shook his head as he approached the hospital bed.

“I apologize, Mr. Hunter. There have been a couple of developments that you need to know about; we revived you early. It’s only been two days since you were frozen.”

“Two days?” Clark sat up straighter in the uncomfortable bed. “What   changed in two days?”

“We..uh,” he hesitated as if trying to find the right words. “We’ve been acquired by a corporation. They-“

“Acquired!? Is this a hospital or a tech startup? So, what? I get thawed out and have to wait around to die? Do I get my money back?”

“It’s a bit of both, actually,” Dr. Jackson chuckled. “Calm down please, Mr. Hunter. You don’t understand the scope of what’s happened.” Clark closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then exhaled.  He opened his eyes and nodded at the old doctor.

“Okay, I’ll listen.”

“Thank you,” Dr. Jackson nodded. “Sharp Development, that’s the name of the corporation, has an offer for you. I mean cryo-preserved patients. They have VR technology that allows you to lead a normal life while your body waits for a cure.”

“VR huh? How’s it work?” Clark asked from the confining bed.

“They use nanotechnology to relay your consciousness to another universe. There you get a body that feels, tastes, touches, sees and smells. You live out your life until we find a cure, or forever. If you prefer the virtual world you can stay in it as long as you like. Even on a permanent basis.” Dr. Jackson paused. He could see the questions building up in Clark’s mind. The patient pounced on the moment of silence.

“Another universe? Is that what you said?” Dr. Jackson nodded with a sly grin.

“Not even an hour after you went cold visitors came from another Earth. They brought all kinds of technology; it’s been a pretty crazy couple of days.”

“I’m having a hard time believing it,” Clark shook his head. “But I can’t imagine why you’d wake me up to lie. How’s the rest of the world taking it? I guess if it’s only been two days tensions are pretty high?” The doctor shook his head.

“Not at all. It could be argued they brought world peace,” Doctor Jackson chuckled. “Or more appropriately, bought .”

“Huh?” Clark gave the doctor a confused look. “How do you mean?”

“As I said, we’ve been acquired.” Clark nodded.

“Yeah, congratulations I guess,” he shrugged. “But I don’t see how acquiring a hospital produced world peace.” Dr. Jackson shook his head.

“Not the hospital. Sharp Development bought our Earth.”

Zero Property

“IT’S TRUE, I HAVE IT!” Danny yelled. The lanky teenager presented the two approaching suited men with the small, glassy rectangle he found the previous day. He had been walking home through the forest when an errant glint caught his eye.

He found a thin rectangle of glass, about the size and shape of a playing card. White text glowed on the screen when he touched it:

“Access Denied. Soul Mismatch.” Danny thought it might be an advanced phone prototype; those were always getting lost, and kept it. Today as he made his way to the forest shortcut,  he spotted two imposing men in dark suits and sunglasses. Danny’s panic combined with his only real-life experience: TV. His mind burned through a list of possibilities that all ended with the two men being from a shady organization that wanted his found tech. He hoped they would take it and leave without killing him. The suit on the right pushed Danny’s hand away.

“Outta the way, kid. We don’t care about your new phone.” The other man ignored Danny completely as they both walked by him toward the school. He took a deep breath while he listened to the footsteps fade away behind him.

“Nice!” Danny cheered to himself and started his walk again. He poked at it several times while he navigated through the forest on auto-pilot. Each time it returned the same message, no matter what combination of taps and swipes he tried. He tried his thumb as a last resort. This time purple text appeared on the screen instead of white.

“Zero-Match Access Granted.” Then, Danny heard someone clear their throat. He looked up and saw himself standing next to a girl.

“It’s rude to go through other people’s nodes,” the other him said. “Even if it’s another you.”

Exposition Brigade

“Any questions before we go in?” Jessie asked. The pink-haired monk and her group, a ninja, wizard, and chef, stood near the large mouth of a cave. The cave burrowed into the side of a jagged black mountain that they could not see the top of. The deep black of the cave interior matched its outside; they could not see how deep the cavern extended. Andy raised his hand.

“Yeah, why is there a chef in a dungeon party?” he shrugged. “Seems dangerous.” Jessie shook her head, but Mark spoke up before she could answer.

“Yeah, and why are we here at all? You said this was going to be a derby team.” Jessie nodded. Her pink ponytail bounced with the motion.

“If you can’t use your skills in combat you’ll have trouble using them on the track,” Jessie said, then she looked back to Andy. “That goes for both of you.”

“Why does the Zero get to sit out?” Mark asked.

“Her name is Margo,” Rana said. The aqua green-haired ninja took offense for her friend. “Her parents are still getting used to what happened on their Earth. Margo wanted to stay close to her parents so they wouldn’t worry about her,” Rana smiled. “Besides, she’s a tailor; craftsmen can skate on the dance track.

“What’s the dance track?” Mark asked.

“Wait! Why is there a chef here if they can use the dance track?” Andy’s whined the question. He looked at Mark, then back to Rana. “Yeah, what’s the dance track?

“The dancer class gets their own track in a derby match so the other team can’t knock them down. The non-combat classes, like merchant and craftsman, can skate on the dance track so they can do their craft in peace,” Rana explained. “But they don’t get any laps if they’re not on the main track.”

“I want to choose the dance track too!” Andy, the chef, said to Jessie. The monk shook her head.

“Mark, Rana and I can’t support two crafters; we’d never get to use our own skills,” she smiled at Andy. “But if a crafter…,” Jessie poked his shoulder. “You, earn two laps every time you cross the start line on the main track. You’ll be sharing your resources with her.”

“Hey!” Mark stepped forward. “It sounded like you almost said ‘..if a crafter skates they’ll earn two laps’. Why can’t it be Margo?” He looked at Rana. “Sorry by the way. I didn’t mean ‘Zero’ to be offensive. I just learned about Uniques about a month ago; I thought that’s what we called them,” he shrugged. “I don’t want to sound like I don’t like her but why can’t they take turns or something? Is she getting special treatment because she’s a Zero?”

“Okay, no sweat,” Rana patted Mark on the shoulder. “She is getting special treatment, but Jessie’ll tell you why.” She nodded at the monk.

“I was going to say: ‘If a crafter skates on the main track they have different bonuses based on their specialties’.  But I didn’t want to explain all of them,” she shrugged. “So I skipped to yours. I am sitting Margo out because she’s a Zero,” Jessie grinned. “Because that’s what everyone expects. A good tailor can be pretty amazing in derby but I want them to think I won’t let her skate on the main track.”

Them? Them who?” Mark asked. Jessie rolled her eyes.

“The other teams, duh. We’re competing! Dana Sharp’s having a big tournament this year to show off her own derby team. I want to show her what the Academy can do.”

“So why’d you get us?” Andy asked.

“If the Academy’s worst,” she patted her own chest. “myself included, can beat them. She’ll be dying to find out what our best can do.”

Cheap Adventure

If it were any other day, Chris would not have given the ragged man in rags a first look. As long as he did not see them, he didn’t feel bad. On that crisp, Fall morning he happened to have a $5 bill in his pocket. The sun shone at the perfect angle to reflect off a car caught in slow traffic. The gridlocked cars were unusual that late in the morning, but there was an accident several intersections ahead.

A stray glare from a mirror hit his eyes; he looked away from the street and locked eyes with a homeless man. Eager to look somewhere else, Chris glanced down at the square of cardboard in his hands. Big black letters read:

“I do miracles. $5” Chris changed direction and walked to the stranger seated in a well-worn camping chair. He appreciated a sense of humor and the poor man needed a sense of humor to show a sign like that. Chris decided it would be worth the $5 if he got a laugh.

“Morning,” Chris waved awkwardly. The man nodded and returned a faint smile, but did not speak. “Miracles, huh? You a prophet or something?” The man shook his head; his long, stringy, brown hair wiggled with the motion.

“No, I’m a god,” he grinned. Despite wearing strips of cloth held together by dirt, and crusty skin, the man’s teeth gleamed like polished white marble. The man’s confidence and the unexpected answer made Chris laugh. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the $5 bill and handed it over. He didn’t think the comment was hilarious, but it made him smile, and it would end the interaction quickly.

“Good luck to you,” Chris said and turned to keep moving forward.

“Hey, what about your miracle?” the man called out.

“Keep it,” Chris called over his shoulder, but he kept walking. When he turned forward again he saw the homeless man standing a few paces in front of him. Chris stopped walking and looked backward. The spot he bought his miracle was now vacant. He looked ahead at the smiling stranger.

“It doesn’t work that way,” the man said. “You paid, now you get a miracle.”

“Okay,” Chris shrugged. “Give me a million dollars,” he held his hand out toward the man expectantly. The bum shook his head.

“It’s a miracle, not a wish.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Miracles are needed, wishes are wanted,” he said. He stepped forward and looked Chris up and down. “What do you need?” He asked in a quiet tone; Chris assumed the man was talking to himself while appraising him.

“Uh, I need to go,” Chris said. He was starting to feel uncomfortable with the situation. He turned to step around the man.

“YES!” The stranger grinned with a wild look in his eyes. “You need to go! I hardly ever meet someone that already knows what they need.”

“Good luck!” Chris said and tried to walk past the man. He put a dirty hand on Chris’ shoulder and stopped him.

“Wait, where’re you going?”

“I need to go!” Chris repeated. He readied himself to dash forward.

“Not that way,” the stranger squeezed Chris shoulder enough to guide turn him around. “This way,” he pointed at a black hole in the air.

“No.” Chris tried to stand his ground, but the stranger was surprisingly strong.

“Trust me, you need this,” the stranger said. He gave Chris a hard shove forward. Chris stumbled into the black hole and disappeared.