“No way…,” Nick’s mouth grew into a wide grin as he scanned the list of recent posts; the latest was made within the past hour. “There’s people…,” he leaned his head back in the chair and exhaled peacefully.
Three years ago zombies overran the world. Last year, Nick lost his last human friend due to an accident; he’s been traveling alone ever since. The zombies weren’t much of a threat for longer than a few months. During his travels with the group, Nick learned that zombies are only dangerous if they’ve just eaten. As time went on zombies became easier to avoid. Partly because they grew slower the weaker they were, and partly because there were fewer of them.
Now, Nick sat in front of a computer with hundreds of strangers willing to listen. The moment he connected to the internet, the web browser loaded a page without any input from Nick. It was a public forum with dozens on the first page, and dozens of pages after it.
After Nick’s moment of relief, he turned his attention back to the page. He checked the dates first, because he did not want to get his hopes up. Now that he confirmed it was active, he checked some of the topics.
“Top Ten Things to do Alone on Earth!” was the first post. It was followed by, “Sharp Services: Help After the Apocalypse” and “You’re the last person on Earth. Now what?”
“Well I’m glad someone thinks it’s funny,” Nick shook his head at the titles. He glanced down the list but they were all variations of the same themes. With a shrug, he clicked on the second post that offered help.
“Oh, come on!” Nick whined when the page looked like another joke post.
“Are you the last person on Earth? Has an apocalypse ravaged humanity? Click here for help! Sharp Services will immediately dispatch someone to give you the help you need.”
Nick stared at the link for several seconds. Objectively, he had nothing to lose; but, his ego was hesitant to take the hit anyway. Even if no one ever saw proof that he clicked on it, every fiber in him was screaming, “Don’t be a sucker!” He stood from the heap of cloth and scrap that he half-shaped into a chair and paced around the small room. It was easy to pace around, Nick had been cleaning it when he found the computer. He organized the scraps into useable and unusable piles leaving plenty of room to walk.
“What’s gonna happen? Nothing, that’s what,” Nick said. “I’m going to click that link, then wait like an idiot for nothing to happen.” He completed another lap around the computer then looked down at the screen.
“Don’t be a moron,” he grumbled, sighed, then sat down again. “I don’t need dignity when I’m dead anyway.” He moved the mouse and clicked on the link. A message popped up.
“Thank you for turning to Sharp Development in your time of need. An agent will contact you shortly, please stay near the computer. “
“Yeah, right,” Nick chuckled. Then, a knock came from his door.
“Please wait here, Mr. President,” the dark-suited agent gestured at a chair in front of a small cherry wood desk. The leather, high-back chair on the other side of the desk was empty.
“Why?” Howard asked. “I have far too much to do on my first day in office; I don’t have time to sit around waiting.”
“Just a few minutes, Sir,” the agent replied. He headed toward the door.
“Hey!” The President took a couple of steps and grabbed the agent’s shoulder; he turned him around. “If I don’t get an answer you’re out, am I clear?” The agent smiled through his dark glasses.
“Clear as glass, Mr. President. If I worked for you, I’d consider getting worried.” The President tilted his head at the agent’s answer; but, they were interrupted before he could ask more. The office door opened; a pale woman in a white suit walked in. She glanced at the agent on her way to the desk.
“Leave,” she said.
“Yes, Ms. Sharp,” the guard replied. Dana Sharp sat behind the small wooden desk and eyed the standing President. She did not speak until the guard exited and closed the door behind him. The President approached the desk, but he did not sit down. He stood and looked down at the dark-haired woman with smug confusion. He did not know who she was or why she thought she could give the President of the United States orders. Whatever it was, he was sure he could do it better. He worked hard to become the youngest President at 28; even though everyone said it was impossible.
“Unfortunately this will be a short meeting this time, Howard,” she said. “I’m in a bit of a rush today, but I’ll have my assistant, Melody, get with you soon and give you your full set of mandates.”
“MANDATES!??” Howard shouted. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“Melody,” she said while staring up at the tall, angry man. A shorter, rounder woman in a black suit poked her head through the office door.
“Bring me another one,” Dana said.
“Yes, Ms. Sharp,” Melody said, then closed the door again.
“Tell me, Howard. Who am I talking to?” He leaned over the desk and stared down his nose at her.
“I AM THE YOUNGEST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! I worked my ass off to get here. I’m the leader of the most powerful country in the world. I tell people what to do, not the other way around,” he said.
“You know, I was so enthusiastic about your age that I didn’t give your personality nearly enough consideration,” she gave a slight shrug. “Next time,” she said.
“What? When?” Howard asked.
“When I chose you to be President,” she replied.
“BULLSHIT! I got here on my own!” Dana smiled.
“Well, it doesn’t matter if you believe me or not. Your personality seems difficult to work with; so I won’t.” Howard crossed his arms and nodded.
“As the President, I refuse to follow your mandates. I think not working with you is what’s best for the United States.” As he finished speaking the office door opened and Melody walked in. Behind her, someone that could have been Howard’s twin followed. The same youthful face with the same style dark-brown hair.
“How would you like to be the President of the United States?” Dana asked Howard’s doppelganger.
“Uhh… what do I gotta do?” he asked.
“WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE?!” Howard shouted. Dana ignored him to answer the other one.
“Just hang out and do what I tell you,” she said.
“Yeah, that sounds good. I’m in,” he replied.
“HEY!” Howard shouted again, he stepped over and grabbed Melody’s shoulder to demand attention.
“I don’t need that one anymore,” Dana said.
“Yes, Ms. Sharp,” Melody replied. Howard felt the ground disappear beneath him; he dropped like a stone in a well and disappeared.
Astrid looked the frail, short man up and down. Astrid’s mother, Tana, stood 5’6″, but the bag of bones next to her was noticeably shorter. His skin color matched Astrid’s, both were several shades darker than Tana’s dark brown. There was no doubt he was Astrid’s father.
“Hi,” Astrid said, then she turned to the young man who delivered her father home. His dark suit made him look like a government agent. “Are you really a Muerte?” She asked with wide eyes. He nodded.
“Yep. I found your dad time-locked; when I freed him he wanted to come straight home to you,” he smiled at her and offered his hand. “I’m Billy.”
“Astrid,” she smiled. She glanced at his hand long enough to acknowledge it, but she did not dare touch him.
“Time-locked?” Tana asked. She turned to her husband for an explanation. He shrugged.
“I blinked and it was 14 years later. Whoever it was had to be pretty strong to stop me.” After answering his wife he turned his attention to the young girl.
“Where are all your friends?” he asked. “I just found out it was your birthday today,…” the lean man looked around the living room of off-white walls and hardwood floors. There were no hints that a party was about to happen.
“I don’t have any friends,” she said with the same tone one might use when stating that the sky was blue. It was a fact plain and simple. “Hey, can you give me a ride?” she looked at Billy.
“Astrid! Don’t be rude,” Tana tried to reprimand her daughter. “At least talk to your father. It’s not his fault he was gone for so long.”
“Why don’t you have any friends?” her father asked.
“I’m a Luna, dad,” she immediately felt bad. She meant to give the endearment a bit of snark, but it came out sounding much meaner. She sighed and relaxed a bit. “I don’t know if you remember; everyone here is a Super. I’m a Luna. Anytime I touch them, I copy their powers, and they don’t like that.”
“Oh,” he said. “I thought Lunas had a limit to how many abilities they could copy?” Astrid nodded.
“I do, but that only applies to Uniques. Supers are just higher-end Zeros; there’s no limit for their powers.”
“Well…,” the frail man started rolling up the sleeve of his flannel shirt. “…did your mom tell you what I am?” he asked. Astrid shook her head and watched as her father’s forearm came into view.
“I thought you were gone,” Tana answered.
“REALLY!!???” Astrid screeched as the sleeve revealed her father’s tattoo. The tattoo was a thick slice of cake with a sugar skull decoration sitting on it. The number ’42’ was printed on the skull’s dome. Astrid wasted no time in reaching out to grab her father’s hand. The moment they touched Astrid felt her strength grow.
“Yeah,” her father chuckled. “My name kind of gives it away, but yeah. I’m a Calavera.”
“Oh,” Astrid said. “What’s your-” her question was interrupted by Tana patting her husband’s shoulder.
“Heavy, dear, why don’t you go wash up and change. You’ve been wearing the same clothes for fourteen years.”
“Your name is HEAVY!?” Astrid giggled. Heavy’s eyes shifted to Tana; she shrugged.
“You were gone,” she said. Heavy sighed.
“I was only gone for a few minutes,” he whined. Tana kissed his cheek.
“I’m glad you’re home.”
“So can I go!?” Astrid asked her parents. “Pleeeeeeeeasssse?” she clasped her hands.
“Go where?” Heavy asked.
“Out there,” Astrid pointed at Billy. “Somewhere I can make friends maybe. I want to travel and see new things.”
“It’s dangerous, and that’s not even counting the one in a billion chance of meeting Ballisea,” Heavy said. Astrid shrugged.
“Mundo gave me a ton of information, I can handle it.”
“Oh, you know a Mundo?” he asked. Astrid nodded.
“He dated mom for a few years. They broke up last week.”
Dennis shut his eyes, clenched his fists, and tensed his body as the rocky ground below rushed up to meet him. Instead of the brief, final moment of agony he expected, his backpack caught something. He felt the straps bite into his shoulders the moment he stopped falling, then he was lowered gently to the ground. Dennis immediately sighed with relief.
“Oh no, were you trying to die?” Dennis rolled over as the question was asked. “I can take you up again and drop you if you want.” His mouth dropped when he discovered who saved him. Dennis was not a small man; he stood 6’5″ and weighed about 280lbs. Despite that, a young girl that didn’t look older than 11 or 12 hovered in the air above him. He shook his head and sat up.
“No! You saved my life!” He stood up and dusted himself off as the girl landed in front of him. “How did you save my life?” he asked.
“I got here just as you went off the bridge, I wasn’t sure I’d make it in time. My name’s Astrid,” she offered her hand. Dennis shook it with a smile.
“Yeah, but,… how? How did you fly? How can you even carry me?” Astrid shrugged. Then, before Dennis knew what was happening, she carried him up into the air and placed him on the old bridge he fell from.
“Like that,” Astrid replied. “I can fly and I’m strong. Hey,” she changed the subject. “Do you know anyone named Mundo? Or like a tattoo shop or bar or something named Mundo’s?”
“Why?” Dennis asked. Despite the fact that she saved his life, Dennis wasn’t in a hurry to volunteer information. His younger brother’s name was Mundo, but he was not about to offer family up to a stranger; even if she did save his life. After he asked, Dennis resumed his journey across the bridge. He wanted to get to the other side while Astrid was still nearby, just in case he tripped again. He heard Astrid giggle behind him.
“You know, that’s a good question,” she said. If you had asked me about 10 minutes ago, I would have told you it was for a ride.”
“A ride?” Dennis asked over his shoulder, then returned his focus to the rickety bridge. He was almost to the other side.
“Yeah. Mundo usually knows the right people that can get me where I’m trying to go,” she replied. “But that hasn’t been happening lately.”
“What do you mean?” Dennis asked. They reached the end of the bridge and stepped on to solid earth. He turned to look at Astrid; she was chewing on her bottom lip with a thoughtful look on her face.
“HEY!” she shouted at the sky.
“What are you-” Dennis began to ask, but he was interrupted by Astrid screaming again.
“What is it, little Luna?” a woman’s voice spoke from all around them. Dennis whirled around but he saw only Astrid and no one else.
“Are you moving me from Earth to Earth?” That question caught Dennis’ attention. His brother mentioned alternate Earths sometimes; but, Dennis chalked it up to imagination. Astrid asked about his brother by name. She also seemed to know something about different Earths; the two events had to be related.
“Did you say-” He started to ask Astrid, but the mystery voice spoke over him.
“Of course I am,” the absent woman replied.
“Why ar-” Astrid began to ask, but a black hole opened at her feet. The girl fell in and the hole closed in less than a second; then, Dennis was alone again.
Tessa knocked on the door, then waited. She looked up and down the narrow hallway to have something to do. The 14-year-old girl lived her whole life in those apartments and each floor was the same. A strip of red and gold carpet lined the floor while the ceiling and walls were painted off-white. At both ends of the hall, she could see the fire escape. The apartment door in front of her, D14, cracked open.
“Yes?” a silver-haired, wrinkled woman peered through the crack. Tess caught sight of an elegant silver and pearl earring.
“Uhh…,” Tess glanced at the apartment number on the door, then back at the old woman. She raised the casserole dish into view. “My grandma asked me to bring another casserole to your…,” she hesitated. “…granddaughter? I mean, Dee. Is she your granddaughter?”
“Thank you!” the woman pulled the door open wider then stepped out to collect the dish. “Yes. She’s not home right now but I’ll be sure to tell her how thoughtful your grandmother is, Esther, right? On the third floor?” Tess nodded, but she did not hand over the casserole.
“Please, let me carry it in. It’s a bit heavy, and still kind of hot,” Tessa stepped forward before the elderly woman could protest. She made the old woman step out of the way to avoid getting casserole all over her. While it was mostly true, the casserole dish was probably not too much for the old woman to handle; Tess felt the need to investigate. As far as Tess’ family knew, Dee lived alone.
“Oh,” the woman said as Tess walked in. “Okay, thank you. You can just put it on the counter.” Tess let her eyes roam over everything in her vision; she didn’t want to make her inspection obvious by turning her head this way and that.
The apartment was tastefully decorated with simple items. A small, square dining room table sat adjacent to the galley kitchen. The kitchen itself consisted of a beige fridge, an electric stove with coiled metal burners, and a sink. It was almost exactly the same as Tess’ family apartment, but with almost no signs of being lived in. There was no personality or warmth to the space. She noted no signs of a typical college student like posters, plants, and technology. Nor did she see any sign that an elderly woman lived there. The apartment held a distinct lack of doilies, rocking chairs, and half-knit sweaters.
“I’ll put it in the fridge,” Tess said; bypassing the Formica counter.
“No that’s o-,” The woman tried to protest, nearly dashing to stop Tess, but she was too slow. The young girl pulled the door open and deposited the casserole dish. She did it without showing any surprise at the dark, empty, warm interior of the fridge. But, it did occur to her she might be in danger.
“I hope you two enjoy it. Bye!” Tessa waved and walked to the door as fast as she could without running. As she reached for the knob, Tessa blinked. The knob turned before she gripped it, and Dee walked in.
“Hey, Tess! What’s up?” the college-aged brunette smiled at the young girl. She patted her stomach through her blue t-shirt. “Please tell me your grandma sent up another casserole. My fridge is totally empty.”
“Yeah!” Tess nodded at the young woman. “I was just dropping it off with your,-” she turned to point at the elderly woman. Tess blinked while her head changed focus from Dee to her grandmother. “-grandma.” The elderly woman smiled and Tess turned back to Dee; she blinked again. “Hey…,” Tess said. She stared at Dee in the doorway for a silent second. Without warning, she whipped her head around to the old woman; she blinked.
“Yes, dear?” the old woman asked.
“What-” Tess interrupted her own question by turning her head back to Dee; she blinked. “-is-,” she turned back to Dee’s grandmother; she blinked. “going on?” Tess whirled her head around back to Dee. She blinked, but this time she returned her focus to where the grandma was standing instead of to Dee. The old woman was not there. Tess heard Dee sigh behind her.
“It’s complicated,” Dee said. “Hey, what’s your favorite number?” she asked Tess.
“54,” Tess turned to answer Dee. “Why?”
“Really? Awesome, this won’t be as complicated as I thought. C’mon” Dee wiggled her hand enthusiastically at the air next to them. A black portal opened. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
“Where’s your grandma?” Tess asked.
“My real grandmother died a long time ago. For now…,” Dee’s youthful, rosy cheeks began to turn pale. Her soft, tight skin loosened into wrinkles and her dark hair filled with silver from scalp to tip. “…I’m my own grandma.”
Wren rolled her eyes. The woman shooed the colorful bird off her left shoulder and resumed eating. She made a habit of enjoying her lunch in the park. It was a beautiful day to do so, the sun rested high in the azure sky. Wren sat under the shade of a huge oak tree; its trunk was thicker than three of her. She had enough time to take another bite of her burger before a second bird landed on her right shoulder. It was somewhat bigger than the first bird; like a softball compared to a baseball. Its feathers were bright red instead of the rainbow of the first one.
“You’ve always been good to me, Julie. Whatever you do, don’t go to the market square tomorrow,” the bird whispered in her ear. Wren stopped chewing and turned to face the bird. It stayed relatively still on her shoulder instead of hopping around excitedly, as she was used to. Birds weren’t particularly smart; they had trouble with more than one name and they had no sense of time. But, they were situationally clever. Random birds approached her each time she ate outside; they gave her random stories or advice in the hopes of being rewarded with food. She thought she’d heard it all, but this was the first time two different birds used the same story. She swallowed the bite in her mouth.
“Why not?” she asked. The red bird stared at her for a moment, then flew away. Wren shrugged. Not going to the square for a few days was easy enough; the “tomorrow” part of the warning could mean any time over the next week. And, she was used to mysteries enough that she ignored them for the most part.
Wren was in her 30s now, but she discovered she could speak to birds when she was about nine years old. She never learned what made her so special, but she accepted it. If the birds did not have the brains to give her an answer, she didn’t need one. The moment she made her decision to hold off her grocery run for a few days, a third bird landed on her shoulder.
“You’re a good man, Sarah. He’s coming to the square tomorrow. Don’t go,” it said.
“Okay, I won’t go,” Wren replied with a shrug. The bird flew off. It was only a second or two before a fourth one landed.
“You’ve always been good to me, Raymond. You must leave. He’s here tomorrow.”
“Stupid birds,” Wren shook her head. “Fine, I’ll leave tomorrow,” she said. The bird flew off, and another landed right away. She started to feel uneasy. In over 20 years, the birds were never this determined to get her attention. It started to feel like a warning.
“Here’s here tomorrow. Run, Peter!” It flew off, and Wren waited for the next one.
“Hola, Pajarito.” a man said from behind her. She jumped in her seat and turned around. A tall, lean, bearded man smiled at her. He was almost as pale as his bone-white beard; both beard and white hair were impeccably groomed. He wore an elegant forest-green suit with a white vest and white bow-tie. The number ’37’ was tattooed on his cheek directly under his right eye. The eyeball itself consisted of a rotating glass eye that looked like a spinning globe. “I know how unhelpful our feathered friends can be,” he said. “They tried to warn you, but they just couldn’t.”
“Who are you?” Wren stood from the park bench and took a step back. “What do you wa-” As soon as her foot landed, green vines shot out from the ground beneath her. They snaked up both her legs and tightened around her body; the vines gagged her then lifted Wren, struggling, into the air. She was sure he was the one responsible, but he did not so much as twitch a finger to control the vines. The well-dressed gentleman smiled at her.
“Don’t be afraid, Pajarito. I know exactly where I’m going to put you, you’ll love it,” he said. “You may call me, Peppermint.”
Ben made his way through the crowded bus with his eye on the only free seat left. It was not until he reached the sit, about to sit down, that he noticed the sleeping old man. The frail, wrinkled man rested his mostly-bald head on a bundled up jacket against the window.
“Didn’t know eyelids could get wrinkled,” Ben chuckled mentally as he sat down. He took another look around the bus to see if he could spot anyone else sleeping; but, everyone else seemed wide awake. One of the first things he learned about his ability was: the fewer targets he had, the easier it was to control. He learned about his gift at about nine years old. After that, he was eager to set up a sleepover to try it out; it was a nightmare. He felt like he was in all his friend’s dreams at the same time. Five different dreamscapes seemed to overlap on his senses giving him five times the input. The sleepover was canceled shortly after he puked on them. He spent the next few days in a hospital room in a near-comatose state.
Even if he missed one or two napping commuters, Ben had learned to stop the moment anything seemed off. He did not make a habit of using his powers on any sleeping stranger, but he’d never explored the dreams of anyone as old as the man next to him. He let his curiosity win and closed his eyes. He breathed deeply and imagined himself falling into the old man’s mind.
A familiar warm tingle in his chest confirmed the connection; suddenly, Ben felt a plume of hot air hit his face. He stood inside an apartment building inferno. He seemed to be in the lobby surrounded by bright orange flames. The doors of both elevators were noticeably warped. Cries drew Ben’s attention to the stairwell; A younger version of the sleeping man dashed out of stair-door carrying a little girl. Behind him, a woman in a navy blue business suit with sandy blond hair followed while taking notes with pen and pad.
The sleeping hero ran toward the door and Ben made sure to step out of his way. It was more habit than necessity; he never managed to interact with any dreamers. He could not do much to affect the dream itself either; for the most part, all he could do was spectate. Luckily, seeing their dreams was enough to tease his friends. After he ran by and out the door, the crying faded.
“Benjamin Benson?” The blond woman did not follow the old dreamer out of the burning building. She stopped, looked straight into Ben’s eyes and spoke his name. “What are you do-.” Ben forced himself out of the dream and opened his eyes; then, he screamed.
“AAAHH!” The same navy-suited blond woman stood in the bus aisle directly next to him. Despite Ben’s scream, no one turned around to learn the cause. “HELP!” Ben yelled again but no one so much as flinched in his direction.
“Why are you screaming?” the woman asked. Instead of answering, Ben turned around and started shaking the old man. He felt stiff enough to deter Ben from doing it more than twice. On closer inspection, he was not breathing.
“AAHH!” Ben screamed again and tried to put distance between him and the corpse. His mind had not yet caught up with everything happening and he forgot about the woman long enough to slam his back into her front. She stumbled out of the way and Ben fell backward. He closed his eyes to bear the impact, but it never came.
“Why are you screaming?” the woman repeated the question. She looked down on Ben. He was half out of his seat with his legs higher in the air than his head; but, he felt no weight at all. It was as if the rest of his body did not exist.
“What’s going on? Who are you? Did you kill the old man?” Ben fired off his questions; the woman sighed.
“Well, at least you’re not screaming anymore,” she said. “Now that I have your attention; you’re going to land. Careful.”
“Huh? Oh.” Ben had just enough time to piece together the part about landing and shut his eyes. The moment he did, he hit the ground on his back, followed by his legs and head.
“My name is Oasis,” the woman reached out her left hand to help Ben up. He accepted it and noticed a small hourglass tattooed on her wrist with a 14 on it in golden numbers as he stood up. “I didn’t kill him, time is stopped for everyone except you right now. As for what’s going on,…” Oasis shrugged. “That’s what I’m here to find out. How did you get there?”
“I…,” Ben hesitated. He’d never told anyone about his gift, but she was in the old man’s dream too. And she seemingly had the ability to stop time and she could have killed Ben if she wanted to. He took a moment to breathe, then nodded. “I can enter people’s dreams,” he said. “If they’re close enough.” Oasis crossed her arms, shifted her weight to one leg and looked Ben up and down. He wore a ratty, hole-filled orange t-shirt with a pair of blue jeans. His black hair was arranged as carefully as a bird’s nest.
“Wait here,” she said. She made a dismissive gesture at the empty aisle behind her and a hole opened in the air. It grew into a tall black portal then Oasis walked into it and disappeared. Ben had enough time to blink once before she walked out again holding a navy-blue blazer that matched her own.
“Congratulations,” she said. “You’ve been drafted into the Middlemen.”
“Weird place for a door,” Andy thought. He spotted an unevenly-colored wall while organizing his grandfather’s basement. After moving several stacked boxes out of the way he found a white door. several shades brighter than the mother-of-pearl painted walls. Despite being a different shade, it blended in quite well with the wall. The only thing that gave it away as a door instead of a miscolored patch, was a red-brass knob with a number pad above it.
Andy glanced at the wall on both sides of the door. Both sides were decorated with high, backyard-facing windows.
“I don’t remember a back door on the other side,” Andy mumbled to himself. He stared at the number pad; white buttons with red numbers on it 1-9. He chuckled. “Alright, grandpa let’s see what the deal is.” He typed in his grandfather’s favorite password: 1-2-3-4-5. Andy encouraged his grandfather to be more creative with his passwords; he never was. All the numbers on the keypad blinked with a beep, then the door unlatched.
“What the hell?” The first thing he saw was a strip of soft, red light peeking through the cracked opening; he glanced at the windows. There was still a perfect blue, sunny day outside in the backyard. “Well, now I have to find out,” he mumbled to himself, grabbed the knob, and pulled. The door opened with ease and revealed a small black closet with a single red bulb in the ceiling as the only light.
“Huh?” Andy stepped into the phone-booth sized room to inspect it. The moment he was completely within the space, the door closed itself behind him and the red light went out. He was in complete darkness for a second before the red light came back; he didn’t even have time to panic. The light came on and a door in front of him opened; a crack of white light peeked through the new opening. He ignored it and turned around to push at the door he entered through, but it did not budge and there was no knob to turn.
“Grandpa, why the hell didn’t you ever change your password?” Andy sighed and turned back around to the white light. He took a deep breath and pushed the door open. He was greeted by a long hallway lined with sparkling white tiles. Windows lined the hallway on each side, but he could not make out anything in them. With a shrug of acceptance, Andy stepped out of the black booth and into the hallway. He peered into the first window he saw on his left. The window was small, about 3’x3′; his mouth fell open. On the other side of the window, a sparkling white unicorn grazed in a grassy habitat.
“No way…,” Andy took a step back; but, he jumped in surprise when a voice spoke up.
“You must be Andy,” a woman said. Andy’s head swiveled around left and right a couple of times before she spoke again. “Down here,” she said. A sleek black cat with a red patch of fur atop its head sat on its haunches at Andy’s feet. From his angle, red fur resembled a skull.
“Are you a talking cat?” Andy asked.
“Are you Andy?” she replied without answering his question. The answer seemed obvious.
“Yeah, who are you?” Once he realized he had someone to give him answers, more questions flowed. “What is this place? How do you know my name?”
“Follow me, and I’ll explain,” the cat said. “My name is Janet.” She bobbed her head in a polite nod, then turned around to lead Andy down the hall. “Your grandfather talked about you often, I was his supervisor.”
“He worked for a cat!?” Andy blurted.
“He worked for a corporation named Sharp Development, the same one I work for. He was assigned to my department, so yes. He worked for a cat,” Janet said. She led Andy past the next set of windows, and he peeked in again. A thick, tall tree sat in the center of the habitat. It grew taller than he could see and over a dozen colorful glowing hives hung from the branches he could see. A rainbow of specs buzzed around each hive, their glow matched the hive they hovered around. Greens, blues, reds, yellows and more filled the air on the other side of the window.
“Fairies,” Janet said. Once she had his attention she started walking forward again.
“Unicorn and Fairies?” Andy wondered what was behind the next window as they left the fairies behind.
“What did my grandfather do?” Andy asked. His grandfather was eccentric and never lacked money. He didn’t think the old man had any sort of scientific background that could be useful in research. Unfortunately, that was the only thing he could think of for a place like this.
“He was a caretaker,” Janet reached the next window; this time she paused to let Andy peek in. He did, but could not see much. The view wasn’t as clear as the others had been. At the exact moment he realized it was filled with water, a blonde woman floated into view. She smiled and winked a blue pearlescent eye at him, then turned around and swam away. Andy admired the rainbow scales on her tail as she did. Andy turned to Janet to see if she had any reaction; she started walking forward again. Andy took a moment to peek at the window across the hall. He realized he’d been ignoring the whole right side.
“They’re both mermaids,” Janet said. “We only put the same creatures across from each other. It helps avoid complications should the wrong species spot each other.” Andy shrugged and rushed to catch up to Janet.
“Caretaker…he took care of these creatures then?” Andy asked.
“He did, and he was quite adept at it. Sharp Development does a lot of testing, as humanely as possible. You could call these the graduates of our research program. We’ve learned everything we could from them. Unfortunately, they can’t be returned to the wild for various reasons; the best we can do is give them a peaceful life.” Andy noticed brilliant white light pouring out of the next set of windows.
“What’s in those?” Andy asked.
“Those aren’t creatures, that’s something else Ms. Sharp is working on. You can ignore those rooms, they won’t be here when you start your duties.” Andy stopped.
“Your grandfather hoped you’d find your way down here. Since you did, you’re eligible to take over his job if you like.”
“What? How in the hell did he expect me to find my way down here if he never mentioned it?” Andy asked.