“Haaaappy birthdaaaaaaaay tooo youuuuuuuuu!” The gang of 10-year-olds cheered for their newest member after they finished singing. The birthday boy, Albert, took in a deep breath while he eyed the candles, then he exhaled as hard as he could. All 10 candles went out and his friends cheered louder.
“What’d you wish for, buddy?” Albert’s father asked him as he started cutting the cake. The boy grinned with sparkling brown eyes.
“If I tell you it won’t come true!” he accepted a piece of cake from his father and stood from the seat. His friends were already moving into the backyard. “We’re gonna go play! Tell me when grandpa gets here!” He took his piece of cake and ran into the backyard, luckily he did not see his father’s reaction. Albert’s mom approached her husband and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“You okay?” she asked. Her husband nodded as he stared out the window. He watched his son playing with his friends in the yard.
“I’ll be fine, I just hoped he’d wish for something I could actually give him.” He shrugged, and chuckled. “I don’t think he realized he gave it away when he asked about grandpa.”
“He is his father’s son,” Albert’s mom smiled and hugged her husband. “He needs more time, you know how close they were.” Albert’s father turned to his wife to return the hug, but something distracted him. He saw a small black dot hovering in the air in one corner of the living room.
“What’s that?” He stepped closer to it, and it grew at the same time. The tiny black dot became a large black hole tall enough for a person to step into.
“Don’t touch it!” Albert’s mom pulled her husband’s hand away as he reached for the hole.
“Haaaaapy biiiirthdaaaay deeearr Allllllberrrrt!” an old man’s voice emanated from the black hole, it sounded like it was moving closer. Before either of Albert’s parents could do anything an athletic, old man jumped out of the hole. “HAAAPPY BIRTHDAY TOOOO YOUU!” he shouted first, then looked around the only two people in the living room.
“Hey Wilbur,” he waved at Albert’s father, then nodded at his mother with a large smile. “Alice. Long time no see. Where’s the birthday boy? I’ve got a major gift for him.”
“You’re alive? How are you alive? How are you here?” Wilbur rushed to embrace his father, and assaulted him with questions. The old man shrugged and pointed at the large black hole hovering by the wall.
“I got a ride,” he said.
“I found another universe, another Earth on the other side of the black hole.” The man shrugged as if that explained most of it. “I made some new friends and one of them brought me home,” he explained.
“Really? Another Earth?” Wilbur asked his father. “What’s it like?” The old man smiled and pulled his son tighter.
“I’m glad you asked! Do you wanna find out?”
“That’s why the portal’s still open! I’m gonna take you guys and Albert on a tour through the other Universe!”
“GRANDPA!” Albert’s high voice shouted. His grandfather was the first person he saw when he entered the house. The boy dashed across the room and jumped in the old man’s arms. “My wish came true!”
“Ready?” the scrawny guard asked through the bars. The inmate, Zoe, nodded and stood from the bed.
“I suppose it’s about time I see other places,” she smiled.
Once Zoe was out of the cell the guard led her toward the exit. Every inmate they passed shook hands with Zoe and wished her luck. The guard led her out of the general population and into the maze of corridors through the main building.
“How’s it feel?” the guard asked Zoe. The young woman shrugged.
“Kinda lonely. I’ve got friends in here and no idea what’s waiting for me out there,” she stared at the ground as they walked. The guard chuckled.
“Pops would be offended,” he nudged her side with his elbow. “Me too for that matter.”
“Sorry, Monty, you know what I mean. Your family’s been great to me, but your dad and granddad are too old to party properly,” she said with a playful smirk.
“You’re one to talk,” Monty laughed. He shuffled closer to her as they walked and whispered. “How do you work anyway? How do you still look as young as me after 600 plus years?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Oh c’mon, it’s me,” he bumped into her with his shoulder. “You like us Coopers,” he smiled. Zoe nodded as they turned a corner.
“Your great-granddad didn’t believe me,” she replied.
“Times have changed since then, c’mon.” He nudged her again. They reached a small service counter behind a window. Monty handed the clerk a slip and the clerk disappeared to the back.
“I don’t know,” Zoe replied. “I really mean it, I don’t know.” She stepped closer to him and lowered her voice. “I remember one night I had a dream that I fell through a black hole, then when I woke up everything was different. I don’t know if I hit my head, or what, but everything familiar was different somehow,” Zoe shook her head. She felt surprised that the memory still hurt. “No one recognized me at my job, someone else lived in my house, it was horrible.” Zoe stopped talking when the clerk returned with a small box of her belongings. After she signed for everything she had an opportunity to change. Then Monty continued leading her out of the prison.
“Then what?” Monty asked.
“You believe me?” She asked with wide eyes. Monty nodded.
“I do, and I know someone that you should meet. There’s a tattoo shop downtown called Mundo’s. Go get a tattoo, it’ll change your life,” he smiled. They reached the main perimeter gate, and stopped to chat while it opened.
“I didn’t get a tattoo here in over 600 years, why am I going to start now?” Zoe asked.
“Because you trust me?” he smiled. Zoe rolled her eyes.
“Fine. I guess I do,” she huffed and crossed her arms. Monty stepped forward and pulled something out of his pocket.
“Pop said Grandpa wanted to give this to you on the big day,” he said, then handed her a small pink box with a golden bow on it.
“Thank you!” Zoe eagerly accepted the gift and hugged him.
“And, you’re invited for a barbecue on Saturday, they want to celebrate properly with you,” he added. Zoe nodded and headed toward the open gate.
“Hey,” he grabbed her wrist to stop her. “You gotta tell me what happened, I can’t wait till Saturday to find out.”
“Oh yeah. Well I didn’t have a job or a place to live. Luckily I had a good chunk of cash on me, but that was all I owned. The real unbelievable part is I knew I wasn’t aging anymore. I don’t know how I knew, but I felt it somehow,” she said.
“You’re definitely going to like Mundo,” Monty interrupted with a chuckle. “Sorry.”
“I had money and I had time, and then I figured out the best way to make use of that,” Zoe shrugged, smiled, and turned toward the gate again.
“Wait. What was the best use?” Monty asked.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I assumed you’d figure it out. I put the money in the bank then killed a few families,” Zoe shrugged. “After 600 and some years I’m probably a billionaire.”
“May I see your I.D. please?” Freddy asked the woman trying to buy a bottle of wine. He knew she was well over 21, but he didn’t want to bother trying to explain his ability to his boss. The woman’s eyes lit up, she happily handed over her license. Freddy glanced at it and handed it back. “Sorry about that, you can never be too sure these days,” he apologized as he rang up the bottle.
“I take it as a compliment,” she smiled. After she paid and left Freddy looked to the next customer.
“Uhh. 90plus. Yeah, between 90 and 100,” Freddy decided. The blond cashier enjoyed using his ability to make bets with himself; it helped the workday go by faster. The elderly woman smiled at him, and he looked into her dark, black eyes. “Damn. Older than I thought,” he was midway through ringing up her items when he realized what age he saw. He looked into her eyes again. “5000??”
“Something wrong?” the elderly woman asked. Freddy realized he’d been so shocked he stopped doing anything for several seconds. He immediately fumbled for the rest of the items on the conveyor belt and shoved them across the scanner.
“Sorry, Ma’am. I got a little bit distracted,” Freddy glanced around. It was a slow Thursday afternoon. No one waited behind her to move forward. The other cashiers grouped up around one station while waiting. “I was just thinking how much things have changed, you know? I’m only 24, and the world has changed so much from when I was a kid.” He started moving slower with the last few items on the belt, using the conversation as an excuse. “Like, I can’t even imagine what the world must have been like a long time ago, like a thousand, or even five thousand years. It must have been something else. $78.53” The corner’s of the woman’s thin lips pulled upward slightly, her wrinkled face tightened up into a smirk.
“Oh I’m sure it was,” she handed him a credit card and giggled. “Not that I was here, of course, it’s just easy to imagine.” Freddy nodded and accepted the card.
“Really? Cause you look about 5000 years old,” Freddy replied. His eyes went wide and he clapped his hands over his mouth. Something about the woman relaxed him so much he felt like he could joke around with her. But, he realized he just called a customer ancient to her face. She laughed in short, high pitched bursts with sparkling eyes.
“I am,” she winked a wrinkled eyelid at him. “That doesn’t mean I was here back then,” she said with a lower voice. Not quite a whisper, but quiet enough that only someone standing next to them would have heard. Freddy’s eyes went wide.
“Alien?” he whispered in a quieter voice. The woman shook her head.
“No, I’m like you.” Freddy’s eyes narrowed.
“Like me how?”
“Haven’t you wondered how you can see people’s ages?” she smiled. Freddy stood up straighter, his eyes rolled up in his head while he thought.
“Huh. No, I guess I hadn’t. You mean there’s more like me?” She nodded and held her hand out, palm upward. Freddy looked at it, then at her. “What does that mean?”
“It means I want my card back, please,” she asked.
“OH!” Freddy placed it in her hand. The woman put the card back in her purse, but her hand returned with a different card. A small red business card with gold lettering.
“Go get a tattoo with your favorite number on it, then come to my restaurant. We’ll talk.” She handed him the card. Freddy looked it over. A golden dragon surrounded the edge of the card and in the middle, it said, “Donna Chang’s” along with the address. By the time he looked up from the card, she was leaving with her groceries. He took three quick steps to catch up to her.
“Do I need the tattoo? I’m uh, a little bit scared of needles.” Freddy asked. The woman shook her head.
“Branding is fine too. If you want branding, you can come to the restaurant only. We’ll do it there,” she replied as she walked out of the store.
Palmer watched the young woman with curiosity. He sat at a small table in the mall’s food court. Holiday shoppers flowed around him like slow-moving traffic going this way and that. The murmur of the patrons sounded like a dull roar to his ears.
He stared at the brown-haired woman sitting down at the edge of the food court near the main hallway. Every few minutes she stood from the table and walked into the crowd. No matter how he moved in his seat, Palmer could not see what she did in the crowd. Whatever she did; she always returned to her seat with her eyes closed. And she always pulled a wallet out of the pocket of her purple coat, kept the cash, closed her eyes, and tossed the emptied wallet back out into the crowd. Then she would open her eyes and wait some more. Palmer had no idea how much she’d stolen but he watched her do the routine at least five times since he sat down with a slice of pizza. At first, he thought she was a run-of-the-mill pickpocket, but the closed eyes kept him interested.
After several minutes she moved again and Palmer decided he wanted to be closer to the action. He and left his table and immersed himself in the crowd trying to keep the brown-haired girl in his sight. Her bright purple made it easier because everyone else was wearing reds, greens, and gold. The strange woman approached a tall man whose attention was on a short woman next to him. Palmer had a direct view of the woman as she walked toward the tall man. She walked right into him, but Palmer noticed she closed her eyes a split second before the impact. The tall man stopped and looked around with a confused look, then shrugged and continued walking along with his lady friend. The woman in red slowly, and deliberately walked back to her seat at the edge of the food court, as if she were counting steps. Several people bumped her on the way, but she moved forward without acknowledging them. They all stopped for a second and looked confused before moving on again, even though the woman was right in front of them.
Palmer waited by the pillar for her next move. After a few minutes, she stood again and walked into the stream of people. She approached the male half of another distracted couple. Palmer left his spot but walked at a slow pace. He did not care enough about her theft to interrupt, but he was curious. He waited until after she lifted the wallet. As she walked back to her seat with closed eyes he tapped her on the shoulder. She froze but did not turn around. Palmer tapped her shoulder again, but this time he talked to her.
“Why is everybody acting like they can’t see you?” he asked. She turned around, with her eyes still closed, and faced his general direction.
“You can?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he chuckled. “Why are your eyes closed?” The woman sighed but did not open her eyes. She turned around.
“C’mon,” she said. She returned to her seat, one step at a time, but was surprised when she opened her eyes and saw Palmer sitting down across from her already. He leaned over the table so she could hear him over the crowd’s non-stop chattering.
“So what’s the deal?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “When I block off my senses other people ignore that aspect of me.” Palmer nodded intently.
“Okay. That sounds neat, but what does it mean?” The woman rolled her eyes, but a faint chuckle escaped her mouth.
“If I close my eyes other people can’t see me. If I put in earplugs they can’t hear me, stuff like that.”
“Awesome! So if you plug your nose they can’t smell you?” The woman nodded, then paused.
“Are you saying I smell bad?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. Palmer laughed but put his hands up to protest.
“Not at all. I’m just trying to figure out how it works. So what happens if you cover your mouth? They can’t taste you?” They both laughed, but the woman shook her head.
“I’m Deborah, by the way. You can call me Debbie. No, I don’t think anything happens if I cover my mouth. I’ve tried it a few times, but never noticed anything.”
“Hi Debbie, I’m Palmer,” he smiled. “Why not try it now? If covering your mouth never did anything before maybe it’ll affect me differently.”
“Sure, okay.” Debbie shrugged. She took a deep breath and placed both hands over her mouth. Something changed the second she did, but Palmer did not put his finger on it right away. They both looked around to check for any magical effects and noticed the river of customers stopped flowing. Everyone in the area looked confused as they tried to yell at each other but no sound came out of their moving mouths. That’s when Palmer realized the background din of the shoppers was gone. He panicked.
“Stop it!” he yelled at Debbie. His voice carried around the silent food court causing all eyes to fall on him. One man pointed at Palmer and started yelling silently. His face turned red with anger, spittle flew out of his mouth as he tried to make some sound.
“……GET HIM!” his voice finally returned. Palmer looked at Debbie. She took her hands off her mouth to apologize.
“I’m sorry!” she said, then closed her eyes as the crowd closed in on Palmer.
Jenny stepped out of the pitch black, vertical hole that hovered in the air into a bright, white office lobby. A black cat with a red skull pattern in the fur atop its head followed her out of the portal, then the hole disappeared. The spiky-haired girl greeted the receptionist.
“Hi, Melody! Janet said Ms. Sharp wanted to see me?” She asked the woman.
“Hey, Jenny,” the dark-haired woman nodded. “Yup, she’s waiting for you,” the woman pointed at the door behind her. “Go on in.” Jenny walked toward the door and the black cat followed her.
“Janet, you can wait out here.” The cat hopped onto the secretary’s desk and stared at her.
“I’ll wait where ever I want, thanks,” Janet, the cat, said. She swished her dark bushy tail and another, smaller portal opened over the desk. She walked through it and disappeared. Melody and Jenny shrugged at each other, then Jenny continued into the office. Ms. Sharp stood from behind her desk when Jenny entered and smiled at her.
“Jenny! Congratulations on the win, you girls did a great job out there. Come sit down, we have something important to discuss.” The tall woman gestured at the seat in front of her large wooden desk. Jenny sat down while her mind wondered what was so important. She smiled at Ms. Sharp. “You know…,” Ms. Sharp began to pace around the room instead of sitting back down herself. “After you lost the first game I doubted myself a little bit.” She walked behind Jenny, and the girl needed to turn her seat to keep her focus on the woman in the white suit. She looked at Jenny and pointed a finger at her. “I doubted you very much.” Jenny’s stomach knotted itself with those words. She looked up to Ms. Sharp in so many ways, and the young girl could not stand being doubted by her. She decided it would never happen again.
“I almost kicked you off the team, but Bailey made me give you another chance,” Ms. Sharp explained. Jenny’s eyes went wide.
“Bailey did that for me?” She asked. Ms. Sharp nodded. “Wow… I thought she didn’t like me.” Jenny meant to mumble the comment to herself, but Ms. Sharp heard. The woman smiled at Jenny.
“You know she’s a Sirena, right?” Jenny nodded.
“Yeah…?” Jenny gave a half nod while she wondered what that had to do with anything. “OH!” The connection struck her like a bolt. “Oh, no… I never even considered she was controlling her emotions… I just thought she didn’t like me because I’m a Zero.” Jenny’s head dipped slightly, but she kept her eyes on her chosen mentor.
“Not at all. She treats Uniques and Zeros exactly the same,” Ms. Sharp said. “Want to test her?” She asked Jenny with a smile.
“I called you here because Bailey can’t keep up with the duties of being a Team Captain anymore. She recommended that you take over.” Jenny started smiling and discovered she couldn’t stop. She started nodding her head.
“YES! I’LL DO IT!” She jumped to her feet. Ms. Sharp held up a hand.
“It’s not quite that straightforward,” she said. Jenny let herself fall back to her chair. Ms. Sharp continued to pace around the room while she explained the situation. Jenny continued to turn in her seat to watch, thankful the chair spun with her. She caught a slight sigh from Ms. Sharp before the woman began speaking again.
“On paper, in public, you’re already the team captain. But the sticking point is I have investors I need to answer to. They’re fine with a Zero being the team captain on paper. Unfortunately, they’re less fine with a Zero being the actual team captain.” Jenny clenched her fists discreetly to hold back the tears.
“So then I can’t ever be the real captain?” she asked with a cracked voice.
“Well, that’s up to you. How important is it for you to be the captain?”
“I’ll do anything!” she said. Ms. Sharp nodded.
“I thought you might. The board members won’t accept a Zero team captain, so all we have to do is make you a Unique, right?”
“Yeah. Easy. Something that can’t be done.” Ms. Sharp shook her head and walked to the girl. She placed a hand on her shoulder and looked down at her.
“Jenny… It’s like you don’t know who I am. Do you think I would bring you here just to tell you something is impossible? Do you believe that I think anything is impossible?”
“You can do it? YOU CAN REALLY DO IT??!” Jenny jumped off her seat and wrapped her arms around the woman. “I wanna be a Sol! I mean, please. PLEASE!” She bounced in place still holding Ms. Sharp. After a moment the woman managed to free herself from Jenny’s grip.
“I can do it, but it’s dangerous, and it hurts. A lot.”
“You’ve done it?” Jenny asked. “Of course you’ve done it. What are you?” Again, Ms. Sharp shook her head.
“Not yet I haven’t. I don’t like pain, so I’ll wait until I make the process painless. Melody has though, she’s good with pain. She’s #35, La Estrella.”
“Cool. Yeah! I don’t care how much it hurts. I’ll do it.” Ms. Sharp walked to her desk and sat down in front of Jenny.
“First of all, I can’t make you a Sol. To do it I need one of the souls that you want to be. At the moment I only have plant souls handy. If your team continues to do well for me I’ll upgrade you to another tier when I get a chance.”
“I’ll take it!” Ms. Sharp held up a hand.
“And, you need to know the process. You understand what Uniques are, right? There would only be one of you. No more “you”s in any universe. But, and this is the important part, to turn you into a Unique I need to kill a million of your Zeros. After that, all the ones that I don’t kill will die anyway. No more of you will be born. So you have to figure out whether you’re willing to make that decision for all your doppelgangers.”
Manny woke with a groan. He felt a dull ache in his head, but the pain doubled when he opened his eyes. The bright sunlight coming in through his window forced him to shut his eyes again. He rolled over in his bed to face away from the window and groaned again; the sudden, quick movement did not do his stomach any favors.
“You awake, Man?” Manny recognized the raspy whisper from the floor by the bed.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Last night must’ve been something else, I can’t remember crap,” Manny chuckled. “owww.” he held his head.
“Damn, me neither,” Malcolm replied. “But, uh… we need to go find out.” Manny heard a bit of worry in his friend’s voice.
“You okay?” Manny crawled toward the edge of the bed.
“I dunno, I’m feeling kind of blue,” Malcolm replied. Manny looked over the side at his friend on the floor and immediately burst into laughter.
“Haha, OWhahaOWwww” His best friend of 15 years lay on the floor in his jeans and a black t-shirt. Every bit of skin that Manny saw was a bright royal blue. “What the hell happened to you last night? Malcolm chuckled on the floor.
“No idea, but…,” he held up a finger to give Manny pause. After a moment the blue color drained from his skin leaving it the normal olive color Manny was used to. “…that’s been happening,” he said. Manny still heard traces of worry. He moved, gently, off the bed and offered Malcolm a hand up.
“Let’s go find out.” Malcolm accepted the hand and tried to lift himself up while Manny pulled. As Manny strained to support Malcolm another hand emerged from his wrist to give him a better grip. Both of them noticed it at the same time and Malcolm grinned.
“It’s not just me then, awesome.” Once Malcolm stood on his feet Manny let got and tried to look at both of his right hands. The second one disappeared when it was no longer needed.
“You think one of us is dreaming?” Manny asked as he looked over his two remaining hands. Malcolm’s olive skin transitioned to a bright, neon green color and he shook his head.
“The last thing I remember is the bar, what about you?” He asked. Manny nodded.
“Yeah, same. Let’s start there.”
The drive to the bar was quiet, each of them lost in their own thoughts. Malcolm’s skin changed to yellow and red at different points along the way, but always changed back. He was thankful for the cold weather. He wore a hoodie and gloves, but the colors still showed on his face.
“I’ll wait here,” Malcolm suggested, once they parked at the bar.
“No way, you’re coming in too.” Manny tossed him a pair of sunglasses and a scarf. “Cover up.”
“Looks like I’m robbing the place,” Malcolm complained, but he pulled the hood down. He wrapped the scarf around the lower part of his face and put the sunglasses on, then put the hood back up. “Ready,” he mumbled through the scarf. They walked in and went straight to the blue-haired woman at the bar. She smiled and greeted them before either of them said something.
“Hey, guys! Welcome back.” She smiled at Malcolm and giggled. “What’s with the getup?” Manny took larger steps to reach the bar faster.
“You remember us?” he asked.
“‘Course. You guys were the life of the party last night. Between Mr. Chameleon over there and your card tricks, everyone was buying you guys drinks,” she smiled. Malcolm did not waste any time taking his scarf off. It was hot and scratchy inside and he did not need to be wearing it anymore. His skin was currently shifting from purple to its normal color. “Yeaaaaaah!” she smiled broadly at him with a thumbs up gesture.
“Wait. We had these powers when we came here?” Manny asked. He looked at Malcolm, but only got a shrug in return.
“I don’t remember having powers when we came here,” Malcolm replied. The bartender laughed and slapped the top of the bar.
“Wow, you guys got totally wasted, huh?” She smirked. “You don’t remember me? My name’s Mundo.” She stretched a hand out to Manny across the bar. Both men shook their heads.
“Sorry,” Manny shrugged but shook her hand. “I’m Manny, that’s Malcolm.”
“It’s a good thing you guys came back today. I told you to, but I guess you don’t remember that either,” she giggled. “About your abilities,” she shook her head. “No, you didn’t have them when you got here. You got them here. I do tattoos in the back sometimes and you guys wanted tattoos.”
“We got tattoos?” Malcolm, currently maroon, asked. She nodded and pointed at him.
“Yep, yours is on your back, and yours,” she pointed at Manny” is on your chest. I’m surprised you didn’t notice it yet.” Malcolm took the hoodie off, followed by his shirt, then he turned his back toward Manny.
“What is it?” He asked.
“A red heart with the number 27 in it,” he responded. He snapped a picture then handed the phone to Malcolm. “I’ll check mine later,” he looked around the empty bar. “I don’t need to pull my pants down here.”
“I’ll tell you. It’s a fist,” she made a fist and held it straight in front of Manny’s face. “Like this, with the number 21 on the two middle fingers.”
“Okay, but can we go back to why Malcolm is changing colors? You said we got our powers here. How?”
“I told you. Tattoos,” she smiled.
“What, you do magic tattoos?” Mundo shook her head.
“No, silly. The tattoos aren’t magical, you are. You guys are Unique Souls. You’re numbers 21 and 27,” she pointed at Manny, then Malcolm respectively. “La Mano, and El Corazón.” Manny sat down on a bar stool and Malcolm followed suit.
“I don’t know what that means, but I hope you can tell us.” Mundo nodded.
“There are 54 different Unique Souls, numbered 1 – 54. Each number has a different item, plant, animal, person, or heavenly body associated with it. And each one has abilities based on what it’s associated with,” she pointed at Manny. “#21, La Mano means ‘the hand’. I’m sure you can figure out your power,” she turned to Malcolm. “Yours is trickier. You’re number 27, ‘the heart’.”
“What does that have to do with changing colors?!” he asked.
“Well, that’s where things get complicated. It’s not always as straightforward as an extra hand. Corazóns can be very powerful, but unfortunately they can almost never control their powers. They need to adapt to live with their powers as opposed to adapting their abilities to their own life,” Mundo explained. She paused when she noticed Malcolm’s eyes glaze over slightly.
“I’m going to keep changing colors?” he asked.
“Probably not!” Mundo replied with a smile. “Your abilities will fluctuate, that’s the ‘not being able to control them’ aspect. You’re changing colors today but you could be on fire tomorrow! Anything can happen.”
“Good morning, Guardsman Miller! The date is Thursday, November 13, 3400. It is 3:48 a.m.,” a female computer voice chirped at the patient man. He lay in the pod, awake, for over 40 minutes while it checked his vitals. The greeting was the final step of the wake-up protocol; it confirmed that he was healthy enough for watch. The top of his pod slid open to let Ralph Miller climb out of the soil. He stepped barefoot onto cold, black tiles and ran to his bathroom.
He hopped into the shower to rinse the soil off his back, after spending an ecstatic three minutes relieving his bladder. Finally, after getting dressed he felt ready to check in. Ralph went to his pod and retrieved his node, a clear rectangle the size and thickness of a playing card. The display lit up when he touched it. After several swipes and taps, a woman’s face appeared on the small screen.
“Guardsman Miller ready for duty,” he nodded at the distinguished woman. She nodded and gave a slight smile. Her laugh lines became more visible as the corners of her lips pulled upward.
“Good morning, welcome to the waking world. I assume you did the training program once you were chosen?” She asked.
“Excellent. I’d prefer not to be left short-handed by sending out trainers,” she gave him a matronly smile. “Technically your first day is off, but it would be a good idea for you to take a patrol and fill out a report. You’re the first Guardsman in your area, and our last global patrol hasn’t been there in six months. We’re kind of eager to get a report, I’m sure you understand,” she said.
“Is there a problem?” Ralph asked. Her eyes softened and the worry lines on her forehead became more prominent than her laugh lines.
“Not that we know of. All the pods in your area are giving us strong life signs,” she said. The Commander looked left and right as if checking for someone, then she leaned closer to the camera. “I can’t explain it, but I’ve got a bad feeling,” she shook her head. “The human race is basically running on a skeleton crew right now. I can’t spare the resources or the people to go check based on a ‘feeling’, but you’re there now. Please,” she asked. “If you find anything unusual, let me know directly.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ralph nodded. “I’ll get you a report as soon as I can.”
“Thank you, Guardsman.” The woman disappeared leaving the display transparent again. Ralph tapped it with a finger to check the time. It showed 4:03 a.m.
“Let’s get started,” he decided. He walked out of his small, one-story house into the soft blue moonlight. Other than the porch light he left on, there was no artificial light for miles. Ralph lamented the lack of light for a second until he remembered his training. “Oh man, is it going to work?” He wondered as he swiped through the node until he found an icon that looked like a sheriff’s star. After tapping it an animated, black, featureless face appeared on the display.
“How can I help you, Guardsman?” the figure asked with a gentle, female voice.
“Light the streetlamps, give me a route to the Core.” The street lamp at the edge of his property lit up, as did the one across the street. More and more lampposts came to life along the street to his left. The road to the right stayed dark.
“Not right now, thank you,” Ralph replied. The figure disappeared from his screen. Ralph hopped in his pickup truck and followed the lit path. He knew where he was going, but he appreciated the comfort provided by the lights. He’d been to the Core many times when it first opened. The Core in his area, was the first “permanent resident” VR center in the world. He applied for a spot but they rejected him. He gave up hope, but once most of humanity escaped into VR it felt like they just gave the rest of the pods away. By then the Core users had a yearlong head start over the rest of the world.
He reached the building. A single light shone by a small door, but the rest of the giant building Ralph knew was there seemed hidden in the dark. He parked by the door and exited the truck. At the door he inserted his node into a security dock, then the heavy security door unlocked to let him in. He stepped into a dim hall. Every third Fluorescent light glowed with sterile white light.
“First things first,” Ralph smiled to himself and moved towards one of the resident halls. He stopped at a door labeled, “Unicorn Hall” and used his node to get in. The room resembled a giant warehouse, at least twice the size of a soccer field. Rows of pods stretched out in front of him in both directions. “78Y,” Ralph repeated in his mind. A label indicated the row in front of him was row “A”. He looked to the right and saw the next row labeled “B”. He turned the other way and saw the row on his left was labeled “AA”. He turned right and followed the rows. Along the way, he brought his node up and tapped the sheriff icon.
“How can I help you, Guardsman?” the animated woman asked.
“You can patch me through to the AlterNet, right?” he asked. He reached row Y and turned left to go down the row.
“Yes, but only to the contacts on your friends list,” she replied.
“That’s exactly what I want.” He counted the numbers as he walked.
“Which contact?” The computer asked as he reached the 77th pod on row Y. He glanced in the 78th pod and saw bright blonde hair through the glass.
“Hold on,” he replied. “Sorry babe,” he apologized mentally. Ralph met someone in the game when he first logged in. As they became closer they discovered they had a lot in common, even living in the same city. When Ralph was chosen to be a Guardsman he promised to check in on his girlfriend’s body and show her.
Secretly he was eager to see what she looked like in real life. He stepped closer to pod 78Y and saw a beautiful woman lying in the soil. She looked almost exactly like her AlterNet avatar, except without pointy ears.
Except for one small feature that bothered Ralph very much. According to the pod, she was still alive. The pod’s readout made him very uneasy about the fact that it looked like a small sapling grew out of her chest. Her shirt was torn through from the inside. Thin, young branches with green needle leaves protruded from the hole leaving her white shirt stained red. He tapped the star icon.
“Did you decide a contact?” it asked.
“Crystal!” he blurted her name. The figure nodded and disappeared. After a few seconds, a cloaked elf appeared on the screen. She smiled at Ralph.
“Hey, babe! How’s it going in the real world? Are you checking me out yet?” Relief, panic, and confusion flooded Ralph at the same time.
“Not yet. I’m headed that way, just wanted to check in and let you know I woke up okay. I love you. I’ll call you back a bit later, okay?” The elf nodded and blew Ralph a kiss before disappearing from the display.
“Okay, think,” He tried to relax and looked around at the other pods. He looked into pod 77Y and saw a sapling growing out of a man’s chest. He started walking back to the front, this time paying attention to the pods, and saw each body sprouted a sapling. He swiped on his node until the Commander’s face appeared. The older woman nodded to show she was attentive.
“There’s a big problem. At least 78 people in the Core have trees growing out of them. In the pods. I haven’t checked them all yet, I’m still walking around. I thought you should know. Also, one of them is my girlfriend. I checked in on her and she’s still alive in the AlterNet, but,” he shrugged. “There’s a tree growing out of her.” The Commander nodded again.
“Thank you,” she shook her head and mumbled under her breath. “I knew that Sharp woman couldn’t be trusted.” She looked at Ralph. “Guardsman, you have my authorization. Wake everyone that doesn’t have a tree growing out of them.”
“C’mon, speed it up,” the burly guard said. He shoved Chris toward the vertical black hole that hung in the air. The short, blond, pale man stumbled forward, but he found his balance before he reached the portal.
“I DIDN’T DO IT!” Chris yelled. He knew better than to turn around and talk back to the guard, but he needed someone, anyone to listen.
“According to the court, you did. If you don’t walk through on your own, I get to throw you in,” the mountain of a man looked down at Chris and smiled. He leaned forward and brought his arms up in front of him. The guard made fists and tightened his body to show off his giant muscles. “I hope I get to throw you in.”
“Okay, okay!” Chris said. He thought it would be better to arrive on the other side on his feet instead of on his head. He took a deep breath, not sure what to expect, closed his eyes, then he charged into the portal. After several running steps he realized he should open his eyes, though he did not stop running. He opened his eyes in time to see the metal bars he ran into headfirst.
“Ah hell,” Chris grumbled and grabbed the bars to keep himself standing. He leaned against the bars and enjoyed the feel of the cool metal against his aching head. He took a moment to listen to his new surroundings while he rested his head, but he did not hear a thing. The silence surprised him enough to get him to look around.
His cell reminded him more of a cage than a jail cell. It sat in the middle of a large, empty room, with bars on all sides. White tiles and fluorescent lights made the room look like a large office; but, he saw no desks, computers, cubicles or people. Then, he heard the sound of a doorknob turning. He turned towards the sound in time to see a young woman in a white lab coat walk in. She walked straight to Chris. She smiled once she reached the cell, but he recognized her short red hair and button nose.
“YOU!” he stood up straight and looked into her dark blue eyes. “You’re alive! I knew I didn’t kill you! SEND ME BACK!!” He gripped the bars and yelled in her face. She gave him a knowing smirk.
“Oh, I know,” the woman gave a slight nod. “But you won’t be going back.”
“What?” Chris stepped back from the bars. He knew he did not kill anyone. He hoped to get someone to listen to him, but he never imagined the person that believed him would keep him locked up. He fell to a seated position on the floor and wrapped his arms around his knees.
“Don’t look so glum, it’s a good thing!” the woman said with a cheery voice. Chris looked up to her and found her smiling while unlocking the cell door. “C’mon!” She swung it open and waved him out. “There’s lots to show you.”
“What?” Chris asked again, unsure whether he could trust her. He remained seated, but the woman stepped into the cell and offered him a hand up.
“Don’t you want to know why I framed you for murder?” she asked. Chris sighed.
“Fine.” He stood up without accepting her hand. She shrugged and stepped out of the open cell. Chris followed.
“Tell me what you know about this place. What are you expecting here?” she asked while they crossed the large empty room to the door.
“It’s the worst prison in the world,” he said. “Criminals and crazies get tossed on an island in the middle of nowhere with zero chance of parole.” The woman stopped at the door and turned to Chris before she opened it.
“The only true thing you said is that criminals and crazies get tossed in with no parole. There’s no guards here, no prison staff at all. They use the portal like a garbage chute. They toss us away without ever giving us a second thought.” she paused and took a breath. Chris got the impressions she was trying to calm herself down.
“So it’s not the worst prison in the world?” Chris asked. The woman smiled and shook her head.
“It’s not a bad place at all.” She opened the door and stood aside to let Chris step through first. He stepped into a large open room like the one he left, but this one was not empty. A large wooden desk sat near a row of floor to ceiling windows. Bright sunlight bounced off the white tiles and filled the room, but the view is what caught Chris’ attention. He ran to the windows and stared out at the most futuristic city he’d ever seen. Cars flew in organized air lanes. He looked down and noticed hundreds of tiny dots flowing along the sidewalks in and out of shops.
“What the hell is this place??” He turned around and asked the woman.
“It’s kind of funny,” she shrugged. “As far as I can tell, the people that discovered the portal didn’t explore this side a whole lot. They found an island and decided it was a good enough prison. “
“So it’s not an island?” Chris looked out through the window and saw the ocean clearly.
“Oh it’s an island, but it’s an island on a parallel Earth,” she said. “They’ve been tossing people in for over a decade, and they still haven’t realized it.”
“What?” Chris asked and glanced around the room. He grabbed the closest chair, a high-back leather rolling chair behind the desk, and sat down. “There’s way too much going on right now.” He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands. “Why am I here? Explain that to me.” The woman looked down at Chris across the desk and winked.
“You’re Unique. I wanted to save your life,” she said.
“Save my life?” He asked. “How? From what?”
“On this Earth, we found people with a fair bit more compassion than back on our home Earth. Most of the problem people they threw away found help here. As you can see,…” she gestured out the window. “…we also found advanced technology here. Advanced weaponry.”
“Weapons? For what?” Chris asked. Suddenly he realized that if she pinned the murder on him she had to have been on the other Earth. “Are you going to go to war with the other Earth?” he asked, not believing that he actually meant every word in that sentence. The woman burst into laughter before she replied.
“Of course not, that’s too dangerous. It’s much easier to destroy them in one go from this side.”
“I can make it. I can make it,” Tony glanced at his watch as he pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot. 7:59 a.m. He hoped the manager would give him a minute or two of leeway even though it was his first day on the job. He parked, pulled the key from the ignition, and got out of the car in a rush. Halfway to the back entrance, he realized he left his nametag hanging on the rear-view mirror.
Tony grunted in frustration and ran back to his car. Once he shut the car door again, he jogged toward the restaurant. He checked the time on the way. 7:60 a.m.
“Huh?” He watched the number changed to 7:61 a.m. “Huh.” Tony shrugged mentally. “Must be a software glitch.” He decided. With that matter settled his eyes widened. “I’m late!” He remembered he was standing in the parking lot and ran in through the back door. He made it to the timeclock without running into anyone and manage to relax slightly once he clocked in. He checked his time to see how late he was and the system showed 7:59 a.m. “Wait…” Tony checked his watch. 7:59 a.m.
“Great. Right on time,” his manager’s voice boomed behind him. “C’mon Tony,” he patted the young man on the back. “Let’s teach you how to open.” The manager kept Tony busy for the next few hours by teaching him their opening procedures. Tony checked his watch often but did not catch any more strange times.
At 11:30 a.m. he sat down with a burger for his lunch break. He enjoyed watching the customers while he ate. Tony was new to town and wanted to get a feel for the people in the city. This was his first time out on his own and he felt very proud about that. So proud that he got a tattoo the day before to celebrate his job and the start of his own life. At 11:55 a.m. his stomach gurgled while he washed his hands. He checked his watch and decided he had time to step into a stall.
Five minutes later, Tony’s stomach was still gurgling as he sat in the stall. He stared at his watch as it turned over from 11:59 a.m. to 11:60 a.m. He relaxed slightly.
“Again? Wait, that’s a good thing.” He remembered the incident from that morning. He made it to work on time when he shouldn’t have. “Okay. Let’s try this out.” He kept his focus on the watch as much as he could while he finished his business. Finally, at 11:64 a.m. he washed his hands as best he could while still keeping an eye on the watch. He walked out of the bathroom focused on the watch. He made it as far as the kitchen before he realized how quiet everything was. The usual restaurant din of conversations was gone.
Tony looked up and found everyone still as a statue. One of the cooks stood by the sin, filling a pot, but the water was not flowing. A solid strand of water connected the tap to the pot. He checked his watch. 11:65 a.m.
“I should clock in.” he decided to do that before anything else. He moved towards the timeclock, but the manager’s office door opened. The short, stout manager stepped out and smirked at Tony.
“Hey, I don’t mind if you’re running a bit late here and there and want to catch up. That’s fine with me and all, but try not to overdo it, okay?” he asked. Tony whipped around to check the cook by the sink. He was still frozen and the water was not moving. He looked back at his boss.
“What’s going on??” A loud belly laugh came from his boss.
“You don’t know? Ah, that’s so great.” The older man clapped his hands together to focus. “Alright, this is gonna be fun. Real easy, did you get a tattoo recently?” Tony nodded but did not say anything. How could he have known? The tattoo was on the back of his calf, there was no way for his boss to see it through Tony’s black slacks.
“With the number 14?” he asked. Again, Tony nodded. Speechless.
“Go clock in, time will start again. Finish your shift, we’ll talk after.”
“Yes, Sir,” Tony said and walked to the timeclock.
“Man, I told you all morning. Call me, Mundo,” his boss replied.
“OPEN IT!” Mundo yelled. The athletic man hopped off his chaise and knelt in the sand next to Sandra. She sat up and stared at the black envelope the stranger handed her. Sandra and her best friend, Mundo, rested under a beach umbrella on vacation when the stranger appeared. A vertical black hole appeared in the air next to Sandra’s seat; then, a short white-haired man stepped out of it. The man handed her the envelope then stepped into his portal and disappeared without a word. They both had an idea of what it was and Sandra tore one side of the envelope. She pulled the letter out and smiled once she saw the first word.
“Congratulations!” She squealed with delight as she read the letter to Mundo. “I am happy to inform you that your application to become a resident has been approved.” She bounced in her seat as she read. “You have a maximum of six weeks to sort your affairs on your current Earth. There is a portal enclosed should you be ready sooner.” Sandra handed the envelope to Mundo so he could check then kept reading. “We look forward to having you join our community. Sincerely, Angel Castillo. #46, El Sol.” She looked at Mundo. He handed Sandra a small black business card with a golden sun logo on it.
“Here’s the portal,” he smiled. Once she took the card he stood from the sand and sat next to her on her plastic-y lounger. He wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close for a side-hug. His fingertips traced the watermelon tattoo on her arm. He inked the watermelon slice with its seeds shaped like the number 28 for her himself. “That’s awesome, I’m super happy for you,” he said. He sounded wistful.
“I’ll come back to visit,” she rested her head on his shoulder. “C’mon, it’s a whole Earth for Uniques only!” Sandra could not help but smile when she said it. “I’m sure I’ll befriend a Celestial or two that can give me a ride.” Mundo nodded.
“Yeah, of course. Doesn’t mean I can’t miss you,” he chuckled. “How much of that six weeks do you think you’ll need?” Sandra slipped her hand into his and squeezed it.
“Need?” she shrugged. “I’m giving everything to you anyway, I can leave right now.” She felt him deflate against her, but she squeezed his hand harder. “But now that I can quit work, I’ll just hang out with you for the six weeks.”
“Thanks,” he hugged her again.
“Who knows? With all those Uniques in one place maybe one of them can figure out how to separate a Mundo from its Earth. Then you can come with me.” She tried to encourage him. He shook his head.
“I’d like that, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible without killing me and this Earth.” He leaned in and kissed the dark brown curls on top of her head. “Let’s focus on the next six weeks instead. They have to be amazing.”