Sharp Reward

Yeah,” Gus sighed mentally. “That was definitely a dream.” He woke from a vivid, loud, colorful dream into empty, silent darkness. “I guess that means I’m still alive. Damnit.” He remembered everything about the explosion and the moment everything stopped.

The last thing he saw was the pair of kids he tried to shield from the explosion; he didn’t even know them. The last thing he heard was a thunderous boom and shattering glass. The last thing he felt was a searing, sharp pain on his back and head; then, everything went dark.

He woke sometime later unable to move or open his eyes. Gus tried crying out for help, but he had no idea if anyone heard him, or if he was even making any sounds. He felt like a ball of floating consciousness; he couldn’t feel his body at all. After realizing it wouldn’t get him anywhere to try getting attention he let his mind focus on the situation.

Gus couldn’t see, hear, smell, taste, or feel anything; but, his mind still worked perfectly. He tried keeping his mind active for as long as he could, but he eventually fell asleep. He was suddenly standing in line for kettle corn at the carnival. Bright lights, loud kids, and delicious smells assaulted him from all sides. He wandered around as long as he could; then, he woke up disappointed.

If I’ve been falling asleep, but never feel tired.” Gus realized after dozens of dreams. He was sure several days had passed since the accident, but couldn’t tell for sure. “Not hungry either. That’s nice at least.

A few dreams after that, something was different. Gus woke up to the now-familiar darkness and felt cold. As the chilling sensation grew, a speck of white light appeared in the distance.

I CAN SEE!” Gus willed himself toward the light and glanced down. Despite not having any arms or legs, the light seemed to be moving closer, growing bigger. He felt colder and colder. “Wait. Did I die?” he wondered as the white light enveloped him.

He found himself, still looking down, standing in a brilliant white office. He had arms and legs and clothes now; Gus’ own body just as he remembered it.

“Where am I?” he asked. “WHERE AM I?!” he shouted and laughed when he realized he had a voice again.

“You’re in my office, please don’t yell,” a woman said behind him. Gus was slowly looking around the office, but it looked like nothing more than white space. He whirled around at the words and found a pale woman in a white suit sitting behind a white glass desk.

“Oh, uh, sorry,” Gus apologized. “How and why am I in your office? I remember an explosion… am I alive?”

“You are a hero, Gus,” the woman said. “You took several shards of glass into your brain and spine and you’ve been in the hospital for several months.”

“Months? Whoa,” the amount of time surprised him, he thought it was maybe a week a most. The woman kept talking before he could ask any more questions.

“Unfortunately, by the time I learned what happened, it was too late to save your body. So, I decided to arrange a new one for you.” Gus looked down at his wrinkled hands and beer gut.

“Not that I’m not grateful,.. but… you can make bodies. I wouldn’t have minded something leaner and younger.” The corners of the woman’s lips tugged upward, almost hinting at a smile.

“I can’t presume to guess what you would and wouldn’t mind, there are too many choices. That body is a temporary measure so we can have this conversation,” she waved a hand in Gus’ direction. A stocky dwarf with bulging muscles and a thick black beard appeared in front of him; Gus hopped back in surprise but the dwarf didn’t move.

“You’re here to pick one,” the woman said. The dwarf shimmer and sprouted upward. It was replaced a lithe silver-haired elf. It shimmered again and strong, athletic human appeared. Each shimmer brought something new; Gus saw a goblin, a troll, centaur, fairy and more. After several minutes a hovering mermaid fell to the ground and shimmered into the black-bearded dwarf again.

“25 races. Design any character you want to be,” the woman said. “Of course, you won’t be going back to your Earth, but the family and friends you’ve made will be able to visit you.”

“My Earth?” Gus asked as he watched the figure in front of him continue showing off his different choices. He looked around it at the seated woman.

“Does that mean I’m going to a different Earth?” he asked. She nodded. “In a different body?” he asked. She nodded. “Are you God?” he asked. The woman smiled and stood from her desk to walk around it.

“Of course not,…” she said as she walked up to him with an outstretched hand. “…I’m better. My name is Dana Sharp.”

Sharp Education

“Excuse me,” Randy stopped by one of the teachers directing kid traffic in the halls with his daughter. “I’m having trouble finding her room,” he raised the orange-haired girl’s hand. “Could you point us the right way?”

“Sure,” the friendly teacher smiled at both of them. “What’s the number?”

“42? We looked all over, but the highest room number we found was 30.” The teacher’s smile all but evaporated and her sparkling eyes dulled. She turned and pointed down the hall.

“Take a left at the end of the hall, first door on your right. If you think you’re in the wrong place, you’re there. Be sure to knock,” she answered with her back to them. Then, she shifted her attention back to directing children without another word.

“Oh, okay,” Randy was puzzled by her sudden coolness. He led his daughter down the hall and his paranoia started wondering if she somehow knew of his daughter’s abilities. He shook his head and looked down at the girl. Her long orange hair was tied back in a single braid that bounced against her back while they walked.

“Remember, no rough stuff, okay?” The girl nodded vigorously while smiling up at him.

“Like eggs!” she replied. Randy and his wife went through hundreds, maybe thousands of eggs trying to teach her how to play carefully.

“And no running,” he added.

“Like turtles!” she giggled.

“And please listen to your teacher like you listen to us,” he said as they turned left. Randy stopped immediately at the first door. It looked narrower than the other room doors and was closed. He looked to the next door and saw a bright classroom full of kids through the open door, then shrugged. “Well, it looks like the wrong place,” he grabbed the knob and opened the door.

He expected a bright and full room like the rest of them; he found a dark, small janitor’s closet that reeked of cleaning supplies.

“Definitely in the wrong place,” he said and closed the door again. “I think that teacher didn’t like us for some reason,” he said while looking around for someone more helpful.

“Daddy! Knock!” the girl said. Randy laughed.

“There’s no one in there, darling,” though he reached out and knocked just to humor her. He turned to look down the other hall, then heard the janitor’s closet open. White spiked tips appeared from behind the door, followed by a pale, teenage girl’s face. She stepped out from behind the door, but kept it open, and smiled at Randy. She was the last thing he expected for a teacher. She wore a red t-shirt with a yin-yang logo on the front and a pair of blue jeans. She looked nothing like the dresses and slacks worn by the rest of the staff.

“Looking for room 42?” she asked. Randy gave a half-confused nod. “C’mon in,” she stood aside and held the door open. Randy peeked inside and his eyes went wide. Instead of the janitor’s closet, he found a white room, bigger and brighter than any of the other rooms in the school. Randy counted about eight kids sitting together in the middle of the room, they all turned to face him when he walked in.

“I’m Dread, what’s your name?” The teenager dropped to one knee and asked Randy’s daughter. The moment he heard the girl’s name, Randy felt a bit relieved. He always felt a bit of guilt over his daughter’s name. He loved it, and it felt right to him and his wife. But it was an unusual name, like Dread’s.

“Riot,” his daughter said with a proud smile.

“Go make some new friends, Riot. I need to talk to your dad for a second, okay?” she said. Riot nodded eagerly, Randy squeezed her hand because she looked ready to run. She got the message and took slower than normal steps. Dread laughed and looked at Randy.

“I’ll bet she’s faster than that,” Dread said.

“Uh.. no, no. I mean, yes, of course, but she likes moving slow.” Randy stumbled out the reply and Dread laughed again.

“I’m sure you noticed this was a janitor’s closet,” she said. “Riot was assigned this class for a reason, we know how special she is.”

“What do you mean?” Randy narrowed his eyes at her. He didn’t question the hidden room very much because his daughter had superpowers. He was willing to accept that there are likely other mysteries in the world. However, the fact that she was put in a special class because of her abilities made him worry about government experimentation. Dread’s smile grew wider.

“Don’t worry, she’s perfectly safe,” Dread walked to a nearby desk that Randy hadn’t noticed and grabbed a manila folder from it. She turned and handed it to him.

“This will explain everything, and there’s a number you can call if you still have questions.”

“Are you the teacher?” Randy asked. Dread shook her head.

“I’m more like the chaperone. These kids are strong, but I’m stronger.”

“Are they all… strong like Riot?” he asked. “You too?” Dread nodded.

“They have different abilities too, but they’re all very, very strong. I’m sure you did all you could to prepare her for a class with normal kids, but accidents happen. Any of them could easily, accidentally rip off a normal classmate’s head. Luckily, we were able to put together enough of them to make a worthwhile class.”

“Wow, I didn’t know there were so many strong kids in the school district, much less the city.”

“There isn’t,” Dread shook her head. “Usually one per Earth, they’re all from different universes.”

“Different….universes?” Randy asked. Dread nodded and tapped the folder in his hands.

“It’ll explain everything.” Randy opened it and found an information packet. The first page had a corporate logo he didn’t recognize, a pair of red scissors with the name, “Sharp Education”. Before he could ask about the company, he was distracted by a knock on the door behind him.

“Oh!” Dread said. “Sorry to rush you out, but you need to go back to your universe before I answer that,” she wiggled the doorknob once, then opened the door.  “See you at 3,” she said once he stepped out, then she closed the door again.

Family Dinner

“Finally, someone to eat, I’m starving,” the brunette said when she opened the door. Ted sighed but smiled at the well-worn joke. He’d never delivered to this house before but heard hundreds of variations of the comment. His friends in retail often complained about customers claiming, “It must be free!” anytime an item didn’t scan, he felt equally tired of, “Finally, someone to eat,”.

“Family meal, right?” he asked. The brunette nodded and Ted used the moment to admire her sheer gown. He stared through it for a moment too long before she interrupted him.

“How much?” She asked.

“Oh, uh,” Ted blushed and stammered at the same time. “40 even,” he said and held out the large white plastic bag filled with carry-out cartons. The brunette took an extra moment to caress his hand before taking the bag from him, then she handed him a clear glass card. He took the card and started to turn around, but she reached forward and grabbed his shoulder.

“You know, I ordered all this food because I expected more company tonight. Unfortunately, that’s not happening anymore and I couldn’t possibly eat all this alone,” she said and stepped close enough to breathe on his ear. “You look so lean and strong,” she squeezed his shoulder firmly. “I think we’d both have a delicious night,” she kissed his earlobe.

Ted was tempted to turn around and go in her house right then and there, but when he clenched his hands to fight the urge, he felt the card in his hand.

“I STILL HAVE TO CHARGE YOU!” he blurted and dashed down the sidewalk to his car, thankful for a moment to clear his head. Once in his car, he ran the card through a slot on the dashboard. The payment was accepted and Tedd closed his eyes for a moment. After weighing the pros and cons, and taking several glances out the window at the barely dressed woman, Ted decided.

He stepped out of his car, went to the trunk, and pulled out a medium-sized suitcase while still trying to talk himself into his decision.

You’re doing the right thing,” he told himself. “You won’t regret it,” He hauled the suitcase up to her door, smiled, and gave her the card back.

“So, what do you think?” she asked and adjusted her posture to make her chest more prominent. “Care to join me for dinner?” she asked. Ted dropped the suitcase on her doorstep and shook his head.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t eat humans. Anyway…,” he nodded at the suitcase. “…there’s the first one.” he turned and headed toward the car. “I’ll be back with the rest of the family in a sec.”

Joe Anybody

Joe gave a tall stretch then wiggled himself to comfort in the bed while he pondered what kind of life he wanted to experience next.

Something really exciting,” he thought.

Joe first learned about his powers at 18. One moment he was in a bowling alley determined to roll a strike; the next, he was standing on stage bowing in front of a cheering crowd.

He briefly panicked panic over whether he was about to perform or already performed. Luckily, someone he didn’t recognize walked out onto the stage and ushered him off. As he tried to get his bearings he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror. He looked like his dad, an older man in his late 40s with grey, rough stubble and a tribal tattoo on his face.

Over the course of a few hours and several concerns about his mental health, Joe discovered he was an A-list stand-up comedian. He hid in his changing room trying to sort everything out and ended up dozing off. He woke up in the hospital with an aching head and his dad sitting in his room. His dad told him he fainted in the bowling alley and landed in the lane next to his; in front of an oncoming ball. Despite his headache, Joe laughed along with his dad at the situation.

For a few years, Joe assumed the ‘Comedian incident’ was part of a concussion induced hallucination. Then it happened again. While riding the bus, everything seemed to change in the blink of an eye. Instead of the crowded bus where he was forced to stand, Joe was alone in a server room with a USB drive in his hands.

“Agent J,” a sexy voice whispered in his ear. “Guards made their route, you’re clear. Out the door, then left.” He followed the instructions without a word stepped into a bright, narrow hallway. He made it about halfway before someone spoke up in his ear again.

“Hey buddy, at least sit down if you’re gonna grab a nap,” a gruff, male voice with no hint of sexiness breathed on his ear. Joe suddenly shook himself awake and found himself on the crowded bus again; leaning against the stranger that woke him up.

“Sorry, sorry,” Joe apologized profusely and did his best to stay awake and off the man until he disembarked. After that, Joe decided he had an ability and wanted to learn how to master it.

After several years, now 28, Joe had a good grasp. He used his ability to travel and see new things. The years taught him that he could switch between alternate versions of himself. He also learned to switch from one alternate version to another without returning home first. Though, luckily, he never needed to actually do anything on his trips. Whatever his other versions were doing was done whenever Joe took over. Keeping his current body safe was an important step; he only traveled after laying down.

He didn’t have control over his destination exactly. He traveled by mood. Over the past month, things started to get boring for him. He tried finding exciting lives; he had more than one secret agent life. Joe tried mountain climbing and white water rafting. He almost made it into space once but chickened out at the last minute. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to get back to his body if he left the planet. But this time he was in the mood to try something extra exciting.

Something exciting I’ve never done before,” Joe tried to define the mood in his mind. “No spies or soldiers. Something unique, That’s what I’m in the mood for.”

Joe opened his eyes to a white office. The floors were polished marble, the walls consisted of backlit glass that gave off a soft white glow. He stood in front of a desk with two women on the other side.  The one sitting down wore a white suit, while the one standing near her wore a black suit. Both women were pale with short dark hair, but the one in the black suit looked considerably chubbier.

“Was there something else, Mr. Ortega?” the woman in white asked. After her question, the woman in black leaned down and whispered something. The woman in white stood from her desk suddenly. She walked around it with sparkling blue eyes and a pleasant smile. She held her hand out to Joe.

“Dana Sharp, and you are?”

“uh.. Mr. Ortega,” Joe mumbled. “Thank you, Dana, I”ll be leaving now.” He spun around to find the door. The woman in black was now standing in front of it.

“Mr. Ortega calls me Ms. Sharp,” Dana said. “Everyone calls me Ms. Sharp. Now that we’ve established that, why don’t you tell me who you are and how you’re taking over your Zeros?” Joe’s eyes went wide. He didn’t know what a Zero was, but he knew that she knew that he was different now.

Change. Now!” Joe panicked and wanted out of there fast. He found himself sitting on a park bench at twilight. Despite a lack of physical exertion, it still took him a few minutes to catch his breath and calm down. Finally, he stood ready to try again. Something dark caught the corner of his eye.

He turned to see a tall black portal several feet from the park bench. Dana Sharp and the woman in black walked out of it, both with their eyes on Joe. 

“I have to know how you’re doing that,” Dana said.

Wake up! Now!” Joe forced himself awake. He sat up in bed still panicking.

“What the hell…,” Joe wondered.

“Oh good, the real you,” Dana said. She and the woman in black walked out of another black portal into his bedroom. “Now I hope we can talk without you running away; I don’t like my time wasted.”

Starry Morning

“I’m never drinking again,” Wendy grumbled to herself as she padded down the steps. Her eyelids were almost closed to block out the bright morning sun. She held on to the railing with one hand while supporting her aching head, and blocking more of her view, with the other. The pain throbbed so much she wasn’t convinced her head was firmly attached. “Mornin’,” she mumbled at the dark shapes she passed as she headed straight to the coffee pot. Just as she started to wonder why everyone was awake and in the kitchen, she was distracted by the lack of coffee maker.  It wasn’t there. Its usual spot was now a bare marble counter. “Coffee?” she let out a whine of confusion.

“Shhhh it’s okay,” Wendy felt a pair of comforting hands on her shoulders. She was guided to an unfamiliar dining room table and offered a seat with a steaming hot cup of coffee in front of it. The new counters and new furniture made Wendy wonder if she missed a kitchen remodel while she took a sip of the best coffee she ever tasted. She sighed at the taste and her head instantly felt better. She took another sip then decided she was awake enough to greet her family.

“Good morning,” she looked up with a big smile, then her smile vanished. Wendy didn’t recognize any of the three smiling strangers sitting in front of her.

“Good morning,” an older woman with greying hair said. Wendy identified her voice as the one that guided her to coffee. “Are pancakes okay or do you want something else?” she pointed to the short stack being assaulted by a man and girl. The question confused Wendy. She expected strangers to be more concerned about a stranger in their house.

“I’m sorry! I don’t know how I got here!” Wendy said. She stood from the table ready to leave, but the woman moved faster and stood in front of her shaking her head.

“It’s fine, it happens to us a lot. You’re safe here,” she said.

“Huh?” Wendy asked. “What do you mean it happens a lot?”

“My name is Vanessa,” she introduced herself then pointed at the man sitting at the table. He was tall and lean with round glasses. “That’s my husband, Mundo, and our daughter Sunny,” she pointed at a young brunette girl that looked about 14.

“It seems like we get a new Estrella waking up here at least once year,” Vanessa encouraged Wendy to sit down again. Then she went to the fridge and started pulling out ingredients to make more pancakes.

“Estrella… like star?” Wendy asked. She saw Mundo nod his head while finishing up a bite of food.

“Unique Soul #35, La Estrella,” Mundo said after he swallowed; he used his fork to point at Wendy. “Vanessa is Unique Soul #23, La Luna. Sunny is Unique Soul #46, El Sol, and I am Unique Soul #37, El Mundo.”

“So we’re all Unique Souls,” Wendy shrugged. “What’s a Unique Soul?”

“To answer that question, you first need to know that alternate universes exist,” Mundo said. “A Unique Soul is the only copy of that soul in any universe. No doppelgangers, evil twins, or anything like that. You’re the only you anywhere in any universe. That status comes with some special powers,” Mundo added as Vanessa placed a plate of food in front of Wendy.

“Each Unique Soul is different. You, #35, can channel star plasma through your hands. You can also make portals to traverse to other Universes, which is how you got here,” Mundo said.

“Here where?” Wendy paused the fork inches from her mouth to ask the question. Once she asked the food continued its journey.

“Our house isn’t in the same universe you came from. You probably traversed in your sleep.”

“That can happen?!” Wendy asked with wide eyes. “Boy, I’m glad I landed here instead of someplace with more danger and fewer pancakes.” The friendly family laughed at her comment, but Mundo shook his head.

“Traversing can happen in your sleep, but you wouldn’t wake up in danger. The universe has a way of listening to your subconscious and dropping you off wherever you want to be.”

“Would’ve been nice when I was younger,” Wendy giggled.

“Most of the time Uniques can’t access their abilities without getting a tattoo first. If this is the first time it happened you probably got a tattoo recently, right?” Mundo asked. Wendy’s memories of the night before suddenly clarified. She did in fact get a tattoo of a star and the number 35 on her thigh.

“So if I can ‘traverse’, that means I can get home any time I want, right? Even after I check out some other universes?” Mundo nodded.

“Yes, but only if you take Sunny with you,” he said. Wendy began to wonder if she was being put on babysitting duty, but Mundo clarified his statement. “More specifically, only if you let Sunny show you some of her favorite, safe, Earths. It would be a good idea for you to learn about how things work out there.”

“Deal,” Wendy grinned.

AlterNet Life

“How was it?” Agnes asked as she checked in the ancient book.

“Eye-opening,” Nora, a scrawny teenage girl, giggled. Her laughter caused the group of four friends around her to erupt in giggles. They all remembered they were in a library and started shushing each other. “Can you hold it for Eden, please? She said she wants to check it out after work.” Agnes raised an eyebrow but nodded.

“No problem. And, I’m glad you two are finally talking again,” Agnes said. There weren’t many kids in the small-town and Agnes knew them all personally. Gossip about their ongoing teenage dramas always made it back to her eventually, but sometimes news was slow to reach her. Nora shrugged and used her thumb to point at the newest face in town behind her. Claire, the tallest girl in the group, stood at the back of the group.

“Claire helped us talk it out,” Nora said. “She’s the one that recommended the book to all of us too.” At her words, brief memories flashed through Agnes’ mind. She realized Claire was the first person to check out the book Agnes didn’t even know existed in her library. She loved books and her job, Agnes had personally touched and remembered every single book in the small library. Except for the one Claire wanted to borrow. She’d never seen the book before but somehow it was cataloged in her system.

Agnes remembered Claire brought one of the other girls when she returned it, and it was checked out immediately. Each time someone read the book, they returned it while bringing along someone else to check it out. Agnes didn’t think anything of the situations individually; but, looking back on them as a whole suddenly seemed suspicious.

“Wow, it seems like a great book,” Agnes glanced at the black leatherbound tome. It was so old that the title was mostly worn off. She could barely make out the word ‘manual‘ and a faded embossed logo. Even though the computer gave her the full title, it sounded like dry reading that wouldn’t interest a group of teenage girls. “What’s it about?”

Reality,” Nora said with mock awe and exaggerated wide eyes. The group of girls launched into giggles again. “Anyway, Eden’s out in a few hours, she’ll come by to get it then. Thanks, Aggie!” The group waved their good-byes and turned to leave as one. Agnes initially minded the nickname, but she realized it was meant to be a term of endearment and not a display of disrespect.

“Bye girls,” Agnes waved as they left. Once they were gone, Agnes looked down at the dark tome. “Reality, huh?”  She opened the book and found the first paragraph.

“Unauthorized Access. Unauthorized Access. Unauthorized Access. Unauthorized Access…” Agnes scanned down the rest of the page, then flipped through the book. Every time she stopped to read a sentence it repeated the same words: Unauthorized Access. 

“What the Hell?” She mumbled, then grinned. “Are they pranking me?” she wondered how they might have gotten access to her computer to catalog the book, but knew there was no way. She shrugged as she stared at the full title on screen, hoping to glean something interesting.

“AlterNet Training Manual: Written by NPCs for NPCs”

AlterNet Prize

“It looks like everyone’s here,” Jill glanced around at her crowded kitchen. All six seats of her dining table were filled and several other guests ended up standing against the counter. The dozen visitors were the friends and family Jill trusted most. “I’m going to start by thanking everyone for showing up. I know this get together was short-notice, but it’s important. You guys won’t regret showing up at all,…” Jill paused and took a moment to smile at everyone present. “…your lives just got so much easier,” she said.

“You won the lottery!” Davis, Jill’s favorite uncle shouted. The group burst into laughter but Jill shook her head.

“Better,” she said. “I won an AlterNet server. A whole server,” she emphasized. The kitchen was filled with cheers from Jill’s friends and siblings in her age-group as well as confusion from the older family members. 

“What does that mean?” Jill’s silver-haired mom asked from across the table. Jill started to answer but her first word was interrupted.

“When do we leave!?” Jill’s sister, Kate, asked while bouncing in place. She realized she interrupted Jill’s answer to their mother, then apologized with a shake of her head. “Forget it. I’m gonna go pack already! Bye! Love you!” She practically ran out of the kitchen.

“The AlterNet is a game that takes place on alternate Earths,” Jill said to her mother. “Each ‘server’ is a real, living Earth. The company that created the AlterNet, Sharp Development, gave away an AlterNet server as a top-prize in a contest. I won the contest, so now I have a server we can all move to at any time.” Jill’s mother sat quietly for a moment while she processed the information. The rest of the group whispered excitedly around her.

“You own an Earth?” she asked Jill. “The whole Earth? What about the people there?”

“There aren’t any. The Earth is just for me and the people I want to share it with. I can add NPCs if I want, but I don’t have to,” Jill said.

“And I can live there, anywhere I want?” Jill nodded and grinned.

“You get the very first pick, mom. So, what do you think?” Her mom turned in her seat and looked at the full kitchen; she took a moment to meet everyone’s eyes with a smile.

“I think it’ll be a nice change. I’m looking forward to living in a world where everyone knows each other. “

Sharp Relocation

Shawn fidgeted at his tie one last time before throwing the door open. A brunette woman in a white uniform smiled from his doorstep.

“Yes?” Shawn asked eagerly. He knew why she was there; her red briefcase and the red scissor logo on her uniform announced her position.

“Mr. Shawn Cordero?” the woman asked. Shawn nodded vigorously. “I’m Elaine from Sharp Development. Ready to be integrated?” she asked.

“Yes! Please, come in.” Shawn grinned and opened the door wider to let her in.

“Thank you,” she said as she stepped into his foyer. It was a simple hallway with white tiles. As soon as she was in, Shawn closed the door then led her to the kitchen.

“Would you like something to drink?” he asked as he gestured at the small two-person table in the cozy kitchen. Elaine shook her head and sat down on one of the chairs.

“No, thank you,” she said. She placed the briefcase on the table and opened it. Shawn sat down across from her with a bottle of water.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like you to tell me what you think of Dana Sharp buying your Earth. What you think is supposed to happen next. I have some information to work through; once I know what you know I’ll know where to start, okay?” she asked. Shawn nodded.

“Well, I didn’t even think it was possible to buy an Earth, so it surprised me at first. But once Ms. Sharp explained how everything is going to be better, I felt better about things. Ms. Sharp said that she wants to integrate our Earth with hers. She plans to move all manufacturing to one Earth and have everyone live the other Earth that isn’t being polluted by industry,” Shawn said. Elaine nodded.

“It sounds like you’re well informed,” she said. She produced a small glass card from her briefcase and held it out to Shawn. “Thumbprint please,” she said. He pressed his thumb on the glass. A picture appeared on the display under his finger as he pulled it away. He caught a glimpse of himself standing next to a blonde woman and a young girl.

“Well Mr. Cordero,” Elaine shook her head. “I’m sorry to say we won’t be needing you. Not to worry though, Ms. Sharp owns dozens of other Earths you can choose to make a home on.” Shawn narrowed his eyes.

“Won’t be needing me?” he asked. “What do you mean I can choose somewhere to make a home. You’re in my kitchen,” he said.

“Ms. Sharp has a specific intent for this project. Part of that means we don’t need two of you. The other Earth Ms. Sharp involved already has one of your Zeros; he’s married and has a child. We’re keeping them instead of you. I should also remind you that Ms. Sharp owns this Earth and everything on it; including this kitchen. You can either volunteer willingly and choose your new home, or put me in a position where I’m forced to choose for you.”

“No way!” Shawn stood from his seat with anger on his face. “I know my rights. I’m not going to let anyone just come and take my home,” Shawn growled while stepping back; he motioned toward the kitchen exit. He wanted to let Elaine know he was angry while also trying to avoid threatening her. He knew she was doing her job and didn’t hold any grudge against her. Elaine sighed but didn’t move to stand from the table.

“I’m sorry you feel that way Mr. Cordero,” she said as she reached into the briefcase. “Your rights expired the moment Ms. Sharp bought the Earth,” she quickly withdrew a black card from the briefcase. “You’ll love your new home though, it’s a Hell of a place,” Elaine grinned and tossed the card at Shawn’s feet. The card formed a black hole under his shoes, wide enough to swallow him instantly.

Sharp Gathering

Be cool, keep calm.
You’ll meet a lot of people.
Your grasp on manners is feeble,
carry yourself with aplomb.

This party is somewhat tamer.
No clowns or magic entertainers
Maybe a lady playing a harp.

It’s more than a birthday party.
Welcome to the Illuminati!

Founded by Dana Sharp.

Justine & Jerks

“I don’t care how many of you there are,” Erica glared at the tallest thug; he was obviously in charge of the shakedown. “Things are different on this Earth, you can have everything you need. You don’t need money, you don’t need to fall into old habits,” she said. She hoped she could lecture herself out of the situation. The tall thug shook his head.

“I know we don’t need to, but it’s fun just the same,” he grinned. “So pay up or-,”

“Or what?” a voice asked behind him. The group of henchmen turned and found a teenage girl about 17. She had short purple air and wore a long black leather duster. Each thug in the group turned pale and nervous almost instantly upon seeing the girl.

“N-n-nothing,” the leader said. “Just showing our new friend that things are different here. She doesn’t need to worry about thugs bothering her, there’s enough of everything to go around.” The teenager smiled as a furry brown tarantula descended from the ceiling and landed on the thug’s head. The spider’s abdomen alone was the size of a basketball; the thug didn’t dare move.

“That’s very nice of you, Paulie,” the girl said. “I’ll take over her tour from here though. You should go make yourself useful to someone else, okay?” The giant spider leaped off his head and landed on the girl’s shoulders, she reached up and tickled its head.

“Yeah, sure. No problem J.J.,” The thug signaled the rest of his group with a wave of his arm and they all walked away leaving Erica alone with J.J.

“Sorry about them,” J.J. said. “They work for the guards” Erica’s eyes widened with surprise.

“Thanks for the help, uh, J.J.,” Erica tested the name out hoping she didn’t come across as rude. Now that they started a conversation Erica realized the giant tarantula was nowhere to be seen. She last saw it on J.J.’s shoulder but didn’t see where it went after that.

“Why are the guards giving me a hard time? Do you work for Sharp Development too?” Erica asked. J.J. surprised her with a grin.

“Not at all,” she said. Erica noticed a brown, furry tarantula tattoo around the base of J.J.’s neck that wasn’t there the first time she showed up. “I was supposed to be lunch, like you, but I managed to talk myself out of that. And now I hang around here to help others avoid being lunch too,” she said.

“What do you mean lunch? Lunch for what?”

“Your favorite number is 33. As soon as you gave the guard that answer, it informed a whole bunch of people. Dana Sharp has a pet that most people don’t know about. A pet spider that eats people like you and me.”

“Because my favorite number is 33??” Erica asked. J.J. shook her head.

“Your favorite number is 33 because of what you are. Unique soul #33, La Arana – the spider. We can control spiders,” J.J. said. At her words, her black coat disintegrated into thousands of tiny balls with legs. The swarm crawled around her body before forming a leather duster again.

“Spiders get stronger if they eat other spiders, which is why you were marked as lunch. Normally, the thugs are supposed to give you a hard time until the guards come and rescue you. If you come with me I’ll teach you how to use your abilities. If you don’t, I advise you not to let the guards get you alone.”