Starry Idol

“Maybe I’ll see you again!” Lee shouted with a wave. The pair of girls she defeated returned the gesture with broad smiles. Lee left the park on foot; she followed the ghost of an old road toward home. It wasn’t until after ten minutes of walking that she realized her mistake. “Duh,” her statement was joined by the sound of her palm slapping her forehead. After the smack, she pinched the air in front of her as if she selected a single sheet of paper. A glassy rectangle, her node, appeared between her thumb and forefinger as she pulled her hand.

“Show me the last game,” she said to the card-sized pane. Lee slowed her pace along the road while she focused on the node; she wasn’t worried about traffic. As far as she knew she was the only one that ever used the road and most of that use was walking. Light text appeared in the center of the glass. Both of her opponents’ names were highlighted in red to indicate they were not on her friend list. The path along the road was so dark the text appeared to be hovering in mid-air.

[ 2 on 1 Knockdown:

DeLorean – Gunslinger

Christine – Healer

Vs.

General Lee – Thief

Winner: General Lee]

“Add DeLorean and Christine as friends,” Lee said. The game results updated instantly and the girl’s names changed from red to green. After that, she let the node disintegrate into nothing again and resumed her normal pace. Lee took several more steps, then froze. She heard the crunch of gravel but it did not come from her own footsteps; it sounded like it came from somewhere ahead.

A shadowy figure walked on the road toward Lee. Due to the darkness, she could not make out anything about the person but their eyes. Two brilliant golden stars stared at Lee as the person approached.

“You’ve passed the test,” the unknown woman said.

“Thanks! Bye,” Lee waved at the woman then changed her course to walk around her. She did not know what test the woman meant and tried to avoid the situation entirely. She kept her body tense and ready to move as she walked past the woman. Lee half expected the stranger to get in her way, requiring her to change direction again; but, the woman did not move.

“Don’t you want to know what test?!” she asked. “I’m trying to be mysterious!” she said playfully. The stranger’s joke shifted the tone and Lee immediately felt at ease enough to chuckle and slow her pace. She continued walking for several steps to leave some distance between them, then stopped and turned around.

“Alright, I’ll bite. What test?” Lee asked. The woman’s golden eyes grew brighter and Lee got the sense she was smiling.

“The test to join my Derby team,” the woman replied. Lee fought back every instinct that wanted her to yell, “YES!” at the offer. The entire reason she went to the Derby park as often as she did was to practice and be seen practicing. Her goal was to join a good team. She’d had several offers already; and, each one was almost impossible to turn down. So far, none of the teams seemed all that promising.

“What if I say no?” Lee asked.

“Then you’ll be stuck hoping some other team invites you to the Prom.” Lee felt her legs get weak, she almost fainted then and there.

“P-Prom?” she asked to be sure. “Oren’s tournament? That Prom??” Lee stomach fluttered at the thought. She had all but given up hope of entering the tournament. The deadline for team registration ended the next day. The golden stars dipped then rose again as the woman nodded. Lee had an inkling in the back of her mind. If her suspicions were true, she would agree then and there. If she was wrong, she’d need a bit more time to consider it once she learned about the rest of the team.

“This test that I passed, so it was like a try-out?” Lee asked. The stars bowed again. “Does that mean DeLorean and Christine are on the team too?” Lee felt it was the only reason she’d be approached that night instead of any other day. The woman laughed.

“You’re quick! And, you’re right. They are on the team.”

“Great! I’m in!” Lee jumped in place to give her excitement an outlet. “Who else is on the team?”

“Not sure yet, we need two more,” the woman replied. Lee felt her heart drop into her stomach.

“You don’t have a full team yet?” she asked. “Registration closes tomorrow…,”

“Don’t worry about it,” the woman said. Her right hand began to glow with a brilliant white light and she lifted it to illuminate herself better. “Oren owes me big time, I’m sure he’ll make an exception.”

The stranger was younger than Lee thought. She knew for a fact they were the same age, 18. Lee was a big fan of her new teammate and knew almost everything about her.

“TORQUE!” Lee shrieked with delightful surprise, then she realized she had agreed to be on Torque’s team and it was too much for her to handle. Lee fainted

HandHunters

“Not my problem,” Dexter mumbled to himself as he glanced at the text. He was sure he turned the phone off, but thinking fast was a major part of his success at pickpocketing. The mid-20s thief grabbed the phone during a moment of opportunity and did not hesitate to ditch it. After a careful bump into a rushing stranger, the phone was no longer in his position. Dexter continued strolling down the crowded street looking for his next opportunity.

It was mid-day and the weather was perfect. A golden sun hung in the azure sky while a gentle breeze flowed through the lunch crowd. Dexter watched anyone leaving a restaurant to see where they put their wallet. 10 minutes after he dumped the stolen cell phone he felt a vibration in his jeans pocket and heard an unfamiliar musical ringtone. He found the same stolen cellphone ringing and was surprised enough to answer the call.

“Hello?” Dexter asked.

“You’re in the hunt now,” a woman said. She sounded stern and professional, like a teacher reprimanding him. “Misplacing the phone won’t disqualify you.” He stopped walking and looked around. Each passing stranger minded their own business and he did not notice anyone that seemed to be watching him. Dexter shuffled into an alley to get out of the river of pedestrians. He had a million questions about what the hunt was and how the phone got back into his pocket; but, despite all his questions he only needed one answer.

“How do I get disqualified?” Dexter decided the fastest way out was just to talk through it. “I didn’t sign up for any sort of hunt.”

“You are currently designated as: The Hunted,” the woman said. “If you kill a Hunter, you may take his place. Only Hunters may withdraw from the game.”

“I didn’t volunteer for any games,” Dexter rephrased his only defense.

“You did,” she replied with a matter-of-fact tone. “Even if you weren’t aware of it at the time.”

“What kind of freaking game makes people play it without telling them? What kind of ass came up with that?” The woman giggled lightly into the phone.

“Probably the same kind of person that steals other people’s belongings,” she replied.

“This is about the phone? Look, I’ll give it back no sweat. I’ll even add some cash on top of it for the inconvenience.”

“It’s not about the phone, it’s about your actions. Your own decision entered you into the Hunt. By the way, you only have 15 minutes left on your head start.” Dexter sighed.

“Fine,” he said. “Can I get a short version of the rules to help me out?” He suspected that 15 minutes was not enough time to talk himself out of the game. He was in it and needed to learn how to play.

“There are four hunters. At the moment they’re currently watching you have this conversation,” Dexter couldn’t help but look around the empty alley. “In 15 minutes the feed will shut off and they’ll be let loose to stalk you. You’re lucky, most people wear themselves out during the headstart.”

“What if I go to the cops for protection?”

“I wouldn’t do that,” the woman said. “There’s no reason for innocent officers to die; and, they will die. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now this isn’t exactly a ‘legal’ game. The Hunters have no qualms about mowing down anyone that gets in their way.

“So they know what I look like, do I get to know anything about them?”

“Good question!” she replied. “No one’s ever asked about them. I can tell you this much: The four after you are #12 El Valiente, #25 El Borracho, #32 El Músico, and #34 El Soldado. I’ll send pictures to the phone.”

“Wait what do those numbers mean?” Dexter asked. The woman giggled again.

“If you don’t know that, you’re already losing. Head to Mundo’s tattoo shop and he’ll clue you in on the numbers. However, don’t think he’ll give you any protection. 12 minutes left.”

“Mundo’s is way across town!” Dexter replied. He’d seen the tattoo shop on occasion and even came close to visiting for his own tattoo.  “I can’t get there in 12 minutes!” She laughed at him one more time.

“Not my problem,” she said then hung up the phone.

Companion-Shipped

Eddie tried to ignore the screams. He had yet to complete a week but he heard the same scream each day; several times a day. He was worried at first, but no one else seemed concerned. Everyone kept their eyes on their conveyor while they worked. He tried to keep his focus on the never-ending line of mechanical parts but he happened to glance up. He was surprised to see Kathy, a cute brunette he met on his first day and had been trying to get to know better. She hurriedly ran toward the boss’ office while holding a blood-soaked rag on the stump that was once her left hand.

Eddie looked around at his co-workers. They did their work ignoring anything and everything else.

“This isn’t what I want to be,” Eddie mumbled to himself. He did not want to grow jaded by ignoring people’s screams every day. “I’m done,” he said and stepped away from his line. Parts continued to roll by as if he wasn’t needed. His first decision was to check on Kathy. He rushed to try and catch up to her; but, he did not reach her before she entered the boss’ office and closed the door.

Eddie hesitated but remembered he was quitting anyway and followed her in. He did not expect his boss to be in a meeting with two oddly dressed people0. A pair of men wearing sunglasses and black leather trench coats were standing in front of Kathy. One held her wounded hand and smiled while the other pulled a fist-sized black bag out of his coat. All eyes turned to Eddie.

“What?” his former boss asked. Eddie ignored him and approached Kathy.

“Hey, you okay? Is there an ambulance on the way?” he asked her. The two strangers immediately started chuckling.

“Don’t need one,” she smiled. “Canniac _420 can fix it for me,” she turned her attention to the stranger with the small bag as he opened it. “Right?” she added. The man nodded and pulled out a golden, glowing orb; it was about the size of a golf ball.

“What are you talkin-” Eddie started to ask but the stranger touched the golden ball to her stump. The moment it made contact a wave of golden energy flowed up her arm; then, across the rest of her body from the shoulder. The surge’s wake left her wearing an entirely different set of clothes. A long white trenchcoat with a red cross on its back replaced her green work shirt and blue overalls. Her short brunette hair became a bright red faux-hawk and a pair of dark sunglasses appeared on her face.

“No way! You got the medic!?” The second stranger said; his voice carried equal parts awe and disappointment. Canniac_420 paced around Kathy in her white coat looking her up and down, then smiled.

“Some of us are just lucky,” he said. “Your turn.”

“I wonder if I can pick him,” the second asked and pointed at Eddie.

“What the hell is going on?!” Eddie shouted. He had been trying to ask that question for almost a minute now but he was too stunned by what he saw that the question never came. The moment he had their attention again his question jumped out of his mouth.

“Try it,” Cannaiac_420 said with a shrug. They both ignored Eddie.

“Hey bossman,” the stranger said. “I’m looking for some long term help. Can you spare anyone?” As he asked, the stranger put his arm around Eddie’s shoulder.

“Well…,” Eddie’s former boss scratched at his beard in thought. “…depends on the work you need. Strict deadlines mean I can’t just let anyone go, but I think there was just an accident out on the floor.  If one of our employees lost a hand they won’t be able to keep up one-handed. Does that work for you?” he asked.

Eddie’s mind was whirling at the conversation going on around him, about him, but he could not seem to find any words. He felt unable to speak despite wanting to.

“Yeah, I’ll take him,” the stranger said. He reached into his own coat and pulled out a small black bag. The moment hee agreed Eddie felt unbearable pain in his left wrist. It happened so fast and hurt so much that he let out a scream there in the office. Through the immense pain, somewhere in the back of his mind, he realized that his scream sounded exactly like all the others.

Self Discovery

Andy froze, his laughter ended the moment he saw the display.

“Android, v. 5. Uptime: 18 years 2 months 17 days 14 hours 11 minutes.”

“Whoa, hehe,” Greg, Andy’s coworker, chuckled. He placed the handheld scanner back in its holster by the register. “Don’t worry, man. Your secret’s safe with me,” he gave Andy a smug grin.

“You.. you saw that?” Andy asked but Greg shook his head; the grin remained.

“I didn’t see nothing,” he said. A customer with a full cart in Greg’s lane interrupted them. 

“Cover for me, I need to make a call,” Andy left his register as Greg gave him a dismissive wave.

“Yeah, no problem,” Greg replied. Andy could not see Greg’s face but he still heard the smugness dripping from his words. Andy fled to the break room. He pulled his phone out on the way and it was ringing by the time he sat down at a small empty table.

“Hi honey, did you quit?” His mom asked the moment she answered. She knew his schedule, and he never called while on the job. Andy’s parents always insisted he did not need to work; and, the fact that he was employed by a supermarket seemed to make his parents extra anxious. He started to wonder if maybe this was why.

“No, mom. But something interesting did happen,” Andy said.

“Oh?” she asked. Andy thought he heard a note of concern in her voice. “What’s that dear?”

“My coworker and I were playing with the scanners -,”

“I told you to stay away from those, they’ll blind you,” his mom said.  Her tone switched from worried to defensive.

“Yeah, about that. He flashed it in my eye and I didn’t go blind.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. But I hope you won’t take any more chances like that. Just because you didn’t doesn’t mean you won’t,” she sounded hurried like she wanted to end the conversation already.

“But I did see it list me as Android v. 5,” Andy said. His mother fell quiet. Even her breathing seemed paused.

“Andy, honey… I can expla-“

“WHAT THE HELL, MOM!? YOU GUYS TOLD ME I WAS 8TH GEN!”

Stone Cold

“Cadence,…” Gale called her daughter as the girl exited the car. The bony girl adjusted her backpack as she turned around. She swept loose strands of her coffee-brown hair out of her eyes.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“If you ever feel cornered…,” Gale began. Cadence sighed at the subject matter but stayed long enough to listen. “…look, honey, don’t worry about school. Whatever happens, I’m on your side. Don’t be afraid to fight back. Sometimes people need to learn lessons the hard way. Teach them not to mess with you.” Cadence rolled her eyes. Ever since she opened up to her mom the night before about being bullied, she’s been encouraging the girl to fight back.

“I’m not beating anyone up, mom. They’re just annoying assholes. School’s over in a month, I can make it until then.” She shut the door on the conversation and walked off. Gale fumed in her seat.

“Those little shits,” she mumbled to herself and left the school grounds. The previous evening, her rage grew hotter and hotter as her daughter explained the situation.

“They hide my things,” she said. “They call me names and push me around in the halls between classes.” Her daughter listed more than a dozen instances of things that individually, wouldn’t be worth noticing. Adding them all up, however, painted a very clear picture. Her daughter was being bullied. Gale fought hard to contain her anger; she did not want Cadence knowing about her villainy just yet. She knew she would have to be honest eventually, but she felt the girl wasn’t ready yet. Gale pulled into her driveway and left the car.

“Pushing her down?” Gale growled. She did a quick spin in her front yard to take a look around. Her neighbors were all gone to work, the street was quiet with no passing cars. The ground opened beneath Gale and swallowed her whole. Seconds later, she grew out of the ground head first. Her white blouse and black slacks were replaced by a green and brown outfit woven entirely out of roots and vines. Her short dark hair was covered by long green, flowering vines that almost reached her waist. “I’ll just have to go push them down.”

At school, Cadence was in the middle of P.E.. She jogged along, alone, around the large track that circled the school. She rounded the furthest spot from the school ready to head back when she heard familiar laughter. The path ran near the edge of a forest. The school grounds were once enclosed by a fence, but over time kids picked at the fence until it was no longer a solid border. Cadence turned toward the laughter and found a trio of girls. They stood at the edge of the forest on the other side of a hole in the fence.

“Hey, Cadie,” the tall one in the middle said; she flashed a sinister grin. “We’ve been waiting for you.” She took a menacing step toward Cadence, but she tripped. The tall girl fell face-first into the tall grass; Cadence did not hesitate. She saw her chance and bolted back to the school as soon as the girl fell forward. The two shorter girls tried to run after her, but they tripped also. Once they were on the ground, they had trouble getting back up.

The tall girl tried pushing herself up but vines sprouted out of the ground and slithered up her arms.

“Oh shit,” the tall one said when she realized what was happening. “It’s Gaia!” she told her two friends; they were being held down by vines also.

“That’s right!” Gale laughed as she walked out of the forest behind them. “On your feet girls, we need to talk,” she said. At her words, the vines moved like tentacles. Thin green vines turned the girls around on their backs. Then, they rose into the air and lifted them to a standing position while keeping them bound and gagged. “I’ve heard that you’re giving Cadence Stone a hard time,” she said. Gale took a step toward them and pulled a stone dagger out from under her vine-clothes. She stood in front of the tall girl and held the dagger up for her to see clearly. “Is that right?” she asked. All three girls eagerly confessed with silent, energetic nods. Gale growled in frustration and slapped the leader with the back of her hand; then, the vines loosened enough to let her speak.

“What the hell, Gaia?” she shouted at the villain. “You told us to!” Again, Gale slapped the teenager, then she lifted the knife to the girl’s face; inches from her eye.”I didn’t tell you to bully her you idiots,” she growled but the vines loosened around all three girls. “I said, ‘make her life HELL!'” Gale grabbed the girl’s hand and gave her the knife. “Now go and STEP IT UP!”

Honey Pie

“I remember my first time,” Darcie said. She slid her black canvas backpack on and gave Linus a sly grin. Once the bag was secured on her shoulders she pulled her green apron off and handed it to Linus. “I didn’t get the same training you did. They just plopped me right on the A. Shift without a heads up or anything,” she chuckled. “I freaked out when a knight walked in wearing full plate armor. I think Mundo realized she should have said something when I screamed and hid in the walk-in.”

Linus joined in the laughter as he undid her nametag from the apron. He handed it to her then affixed his own tag before slipping the apron over his head.

“You’ll be fine,” she added. “Ninjas, gunslingers, samurais…,” Darcie shrugged. “…they’re people like you and me. They’re here for the food just like everyone else. If you get any troublemakers let Mundo know and she’ll take care of it.” She meandered toward the back door as she gave him her last bits of wisdom.

“Thanks, D,” Linus said. He nodded at her as she leaned on the door to open in. She returned the gesture then stepped out into the midnight darkness.

“See you later,” her voice said from the darkness; then, the door closed. Linus had just enough time for one deep breath before a jingling bell notified him of his first customer.

“I’m ready,” Linus mumbled to himself while he traveled through the kitchen to the front. “Whoever or whatever they are, I can handle it.” He expected to see almost anything except for what he found. A young girl with long blond hair sat at the counter eyeing the display of pies. She could not have been older than nine or ten. Linus looked around the rest of the restaurant for her parents, but there were no other patrons.

Mundo’s cafe was technically closed between midnight and 4:00 a.m.; the A. Shift. Linus did not know all the details yet, it was only his second week on the job. Mundo, his boss as well as the cook, gave him the impression that only certain people could enter the cafe during those hours. The shift was meant for the likes of travelers and adventurers from other eras and other worlds.

“Hi,” Linus said from his side of the counter. She turned her attention from the pies to him and smiled. “Ready to order or should we wait for your mom or dad?” he asked. The girl’s smile evaporated and her face settled into a neutral expression. She did not seem hurt as if it was a sore spot; Linus felt like that was the moment she decided she did not have to be nice to him.

“I’m by myself,” she said with full confidence. “I’ll take a slice of chocolate pie.”

“Sure thing!” Linus said with is best customer service smile. “Geeez I already offended someone,” he whined internally while he plated the dessert. Once he put the slice in front of her the door jingled again and someone else walked in. The new person was closer to what Linus expected. It was a woman wearing all black. A black leather trench coat obscured the rest of her dark clothing. Her purple hair was styled in a short crewcut. Linus gave a slight, involuntary shudder when he noticed her tattoo. A large, hairy tarantula was inked on her neck; a ’33’ showed on its abdomen in golden numbers.

The newcomer in black walked straight to the counter and sat on the stool next to the blonde girl. She glanced at the girl then at the pie.

“I’ll take some of that,” she said with a nod at Linus. The little girl looked up at the woman and smiled at her.

“Yes ma’am,” Linus nodded and prepared a slice for her. While his back was turned, the door jingled once; then again when he delivered the slice. An armored knight and a gunslinger entered separately and found seats. Linus went to the knight first; then the gunslinger. After their orders, more patrons came in and Linus was kept busy for the rest of his shift.

The four hours passed by in what seemed to be the blink of an eye. Once he got busy, Linus focused more on doing his job and less on who he was serving. He served hamburgers to samurais and milkshakes to cyborgs. What surprised him most of all was the fact that the blonde girl and woman in black chatted together for four hours. He served them each more slices of pie and a couple of milkshakes each. From the bits of conversation he heard, the blonde girl seemed to want the woman to play with her. She mentioned a “team” several times.  They were the first two to arrive and the last two to leave.

At 3:55 a.m. the blonde girl paid her bill, left no tip, then walked out of the cafe.

“That was not the night I expected,” the woman in black said while Linus wiped the counter where the girl was sitting.

“Well, she seemed to like your company,” he said. She nodded and stood from the stool to put her coat on.

“I came in here ’cause I was hungry,” she chuckled. “I ended up joining a guild.”

“Oh, wow. I didn’t know guilds accept children that young.” The woman nodded.

“They normally don’t without a parent’s permission. She doesn’t have any though.”

“Oh,” Linus felt bad again and tried to look on the positive side to cheer himself up. “Well, I’m glad she found a guild that took her in even though her parents are dead.” The woman shook her head.

“They’re not dead.”

“But.. you said-“

“I said she doesn’t have any parents…,” the woman sighed. “…because she never did.”

Warning Siren

You’re not supposed to date Humans.

They’re prey, pets at best.

They’re food, not romantic interests.

Would you bring a plate of steamed hams

home to meet your parents?

And think of the children!

Nine months of prep time is far too much

to spend on an appetizer or light lunch.

And what if it’s born with a fin?

Human doctors have no sense.

They’ll be frightened and panicked.

Once they learn we exist,

they’ll imprison you and run their tests.

No matter which human you picked,

he won’t prevent this occurrence.

Sun’s Warmth

Astrid tried to ignore her pounding head as she looked around the large warehouse. It did not take very long, she could not move her head. Beyond the handful of soldiers, she spotted a dozen workers in lab coats. They ran this way and that shouting numbers and orders at each other. She stood strapped to what felt like a metal surface behind her. She felt the tightness of broad straps around her ankles, wrists, and neck. Astrid focused her gaze on the old, pot-bellied general that asked, then grinned.

“Which part?” she asked.

“Why did you think you could break into a top-secret government facility?” he asked. His voice was low and dry. Astrid made a show of slowly rolling her eyes around the room before they settled on the general again.

“The fact that I did,” she giggled. The general sighed.

“I suggest you take this matter seriously,” he replied. At his words, the five guards cocked their weapons. “Your child-like appearance won’t keep you safe. You walked through some of our best guards, you’re obviously not normal,” he returned her smile with a sinister gleam in his eye. “Here we specialize in ‘not normal’.”

“Child-like?!” Astrid felt a flash of anger. “I’m 14!” she shouted. He shrugged.

“Let’s try a different question. Why did you break in?” he asked.

“I have to leave,” Astrid said. Her voice carried more fear than she meant to show. The general’s eyes narrowed and a few of the lab coats closest to her stopped in their tracks at her words.

“What do you mean?” the general asked.

“I mean I know what you do here and I need to leave.”

“What’s the rush?” The general did not deny anything.

“If you’ve got an evacuation plan, now’s the time to use it,” Astrid said. “The world’s gonna end. Today.” Everyone that heard her, except for the gunmen, broke into laughter.

“And how do you know that?” the general asked in a patronizing tone. Astrid attempted a shrug but was bound too tightly to even lift her shoulders very far.

“Someone gave me a friendly warning. But it doesn’t matter, the point is today’s your last day unless you leave.”

“You’re underestimating how many contingency plans we have,” the general grinned. “We’re ready for anything. Zombies, robot uprising, disease outbreak, alien invasion, meteor impact, and so on. Many, many more unbelievable things that we take seriously around here. We’re ready for anything.” Astrid could not contain the raucous laughter that erupted out of her; if she could have doubled herself over she would have. After several moments she let her laughter fade but kept a smile on her face.

“You’re not, though,” she said.

“We shall see,” the general said. “in the meantime, please be our guest for the day. Tomorrow morning, when the world is still here, we can discuss your fighting talents in greater depth.”

“Little Luna, why are you still here?” a woman’s voice asked suddenly. A tall, pale woman was suddenly standing behind the general but no one saw how she got there. She wore a long black dress and had a pair of white horns protruding out of her black hair. All eyes turned toward the voice. Once the general noticed her, he took several steps back. The guardsmen turned their weapons to the newcomer. She ignored them and kept her focus on Astrid.

“Couldn’t make it to the portal,” Astrid replied.

“Ma’am, I’m going to ask you to stand down and let us take you into custody,” the general said. He raised his own pistol and pointed it at her. The woman looked down her nose at him then rolled her eyes.

“You’re lucky I have a soft spot for Lunas,” the woman said, giving Astrid her attention again. “Off you go.”

“Thank -” Astrid almost finished giving her thanks before a small black hole opened at her feet. It flew upward to swallow her then left behind several loose straps. Everyone’s attention had been focused on the woman until Astrid’s words were cut off; then, they noticed she was gone.

“Where’d she go?” The general asked. “Who are you?”

The woman smiled at the general. Saucer-sized black holes appeared around the room next to every single person in the warehouse. Skeletal hands reached out from the holes to grab the closest person. There were enough to grab each person in multiple places. Several pairs of bone hands clutched the general’s ankles, wrists, and neck. He managed to squeeze off a shot before the skeletons pulled his aim down.

The bullet was swallowed by a small black hole before it reached the woman. A pair of holes appeared in front of the general about a foot apart. A stray bullet flew out of one, across his vision, then it disappeared into the other one. The holes disappeared, then reappeared a bit closer to his face. They exchanged the bullet again going the other way. Again, they disappeared and reappeared closer; the bullet passed within an inch of the general’s nose.

“I’m Ballisea,” the woman said. The holes disappeared again, and a single one appeared in front of the general facing him. “Goodbye, Zero.”

Flocked Together

“Good luck, little guy,” Jeremy waved at the colorful bird he set free. It surprised him to see several flocks take to the air from the nearby trees to join the one he cared for. Each group was a different color and species. He recognized red robins, violet sunbirds, and every color in between. Their formation reminded Jeremy of a rainbow following the one he nursed back to health. “Looks like you were missed,” Jeremy chuckled to himself. Once the rainbow flew out of sight toward the sunset, he wandered back inside with dinner on his mind.

Jeremy’s home was small and isolated. He lived in a double-wide trailer just inside the forest. Technically, his grandfather left him a chunk of the forest and several acres between his place and the nearest town. He certainly did not need all that property, but he never bothered to put any effort into selling it. He felt a twinge of loneliness when he stepped back into his trailer. Jeremy missed the cheerful chirping that greeted him each time over the past three weeks.

The mid-30s man had not realized how much enjoyed the company until he did not have it anymore. He spent the evening eating and watching Roller Derby alone. While the bird was there they both cheered enthusiastically for their favorite team. He explained why the Magi-Knights were the greatest team ever to the injured animal. Jeremy knew it didn’t understand but it was nice talking to someone. He didn’t just discuss sports, he opened up to the bird about his whole life. When his evening was over, he went to bed.

Jeremy awoke to a buzzing alarm clock and a quiet dawn the next morning. He grew used to a cacophony of birds drowning out his alarm clock while he cared for the bird. It was decidedly more pleasant than the harsh staccato buzz of his clock. After his morning routine, he grabbed his briefcase and headed out the door. He walked to his red pickup and opened the door to get in.

“AAgHH!” A pair of bluebirds flew out of his cab at him. He panicked and used his black case to shield himself from the birds but they went around him and disappeared into the sky. “How the Hell,..” Jeremy noticed the back window of the cab was pried open at the same moment he caught the scent of fresh roses. He found a clump of fresh roses on his passenger seat. He sat on the driver’s side and picked one up, its thorns were missing. “Building a nest?” he wondered. “Ah well, free air freshener,” he decided to leave the roses there for now. As he drove, Jeremy decided the roses made his commute much more pleasant. Even though most of their perfume wafted out the window.

Not that it wasn’t already almost enjoyable. The cool October morning was perfect for driving with his windows down. He was startled again at a stoplight. A large black raven landed on his passenger window. It cawed angrily and accidentally dropped some scraps of paper it was carrying. The trash fell on the half-completed rose nest. Jeremy had just enough time to shoo the crow away before the light turned green.

Great, I help one bird and now I’m driving a trashcan,” he whined internally. At another stoplight several blocks from work, he spotted a black and gold hoodie. There were millions of hoodies like that, he owned one himself; but, he recognized the owner. She was a tall, slender woman with bright purple hair. The woman cut a path through the flowing crowd of pedestrians with long graceful strides. When the light turned green Jeremy drove forward just enough to catch up to the woman, then he slowed down. He tapped the horn just enough to get everyone’s attention. The strangers ignored him but the woman in the hoodie approached his truck.

“Want a ride for the last leg?” he asked. She eagerly nodded.

“Please,” she sighed with relief. “You wouldn’t believe my morning so far,” she said as she pulled the door open. Jeremy forgot about the roses until she spotted them.

“Oh crap! Sorry!” He shifted the truck to ‘Park’ and reached over to collect the flowers. She giggled and helped him collect the flowers.

“Hot date later?” she asked. “Or last night?” She grabbed the last of the roses and the scraps of paper, then managed to climb in and sit down. She put the messenger bag she used as a purse and briefcase on her lap, then the roses on top of that.

“I wish,” he said with a smile. “It was a couple of stupid birds that were trying to build a nest in my truck, I guess.” His passenger lifted one of the roses to her nose and inhaled deeply.

“Well, the roses are kind of nice, but the rest of the trash…,” she looked at the scraps of paper. “OH MY GOD!!!!” She shouted as Jeremy pulled forward; he immediately slammed on the brakes. Their momentum carried them as far as the seatbelts allowed and he looked at her with worry.

“What is it? You okay?” he asked. She was visibly shaking with wide eyes locked on the papers in her hand. She turned to Jeremy.

“You have to take me with you,” she said.

“What are you-,” Jeremy saw white scraps when the bird dropped them. He looked at them in her hands and noticed the other side was black and gold; the same colors as her hoodie. “Are those… tickets?” he asked.

“Front row,” she said. “Tonight. Magi-Knights vs. CyberRiot,” she shook her head. “I don’t know what you did, but I wish I could get on the birds’ good side like you, instead of them hating me.” Jeremy’s mind was racing, but he decided to focus on one thing at a time. Right now, he still had to get to work. He could marvel at the tickets later, right now they were safe in Cheryl’s hands. And, he had a date later too. Content with that knowledge, he started moving forward again.

“I doubt the birds hate you,” he said.

“Wanna know why I didn’t drive to work today?” she asked. Jeremy nodded. “I couldn’t. My car was covered with birds this morning. They didn’t move when I got in. They didn’t move when I started the car. They didn’t even move when I tried driving; it’s like they wanted to make me walk this morning.”

Royal Request

Paz lurched awake and ready to fight. The last thing she remembered was being kidnapped by a giant spider. The 14-year-old girl sat up in a comfortable bed in a dim room that she did not recognize; and, she was not alone. The loft-like room almost seemed to be as large as Paz’s house. She rested on what she guessed was a king-size bed with red silk sheets. A pair of ornate wooden nightstands decorated both sides of the bed; each had a small lamp. A lit fireplace was tucked into one wall. A woman sat on a rocking chair, reading by firelight until she heard Paz move.

“Wh- Where am I?” Paz asked. She recognized the pink-haired woman as one of the teachers from school when she turned her attention to Paz.

“Calm down. You’re safe now,” the woman said. She stood from her seat and crossed the room to sit on the bed. “The guard spider brought you here.” Paz exhaled a bit of relief. At least she was still on the same Earth. Thinking about her mission caused her to look at the woman with new appreciation. It could not be a coincidence that she ran into this particular teacher.

“Ms. Knight?” she asked. “Where’s Oren?” Ms. Knight’s delicate features hardened and her eyes narrowed.

“Who told you he was here, and who did you tell?” she asked Paz.

“No one!” Paz said. “It’s why I came alone.” she looked down at the red sheets and lowered her voice. “Jenny told me accidentally, but I promised her I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“Jenny…,” Ms. Knight growled in the back of her throat, then she shook her head and looked back at Paz. “And? What do you want, an autograph? Your own nanos? If you’re just here to ask for things, go home.” Paz shook her head.

“No! I’m not asking for anything, someone is asking for him.” Anger flashed in Ms. Knight’s eyes and she stood from the bed.

“So you’re just going to hand him over to someone else that’s going to use him like Dana Sharp did?” She said with harsh sarcasm. “Or maybe this person only wants to kill him like Mommy Ballisea? Hmm? Oren wants to be left alone until the tournament.” Paz climbed out of bed during Ms. Knight’s accusations to plead with the woman. She shook her head.

“No! It’s not like that, it’s…,” Paz hesitated. It sounded crazy, and if she had not been there to see it she would not believe it either. “… it’s an NPC,” she said. That gave Ms. Knight a moment’s pause.

“What?” she asked the girl.

“On Oren’s server, there’s an NPC asking for him. We think she might be a Unique.”

“Uniques can’t be born on AlterNet servers,” Ms. Knight said matter-of-factly. Paz nodded to show she knew that. 

“That’s why it’s odd,” Paz said.

“Which server?” Ms. Knight asked. “Oren has several.”

“Uh..,” Paz made a gesture with her hand as if she were plucking something out of the air, but nothing happened. “… there aren’t any nanos here? I need my node,” she said.

“This room is isolated from AlterNet nanos, just tell me about the NPC,” Ms. Knight said. “Is she part of a quest?”

“It’s a 900-year-old server,” Paz nodded. “There’s a quest in a goblin cave. At the back, there’s a cage with a princess in it; she’s the one asking for Oren.”

“Tell me more about the cave,” a man’s voice said. Paz jumped and looked toward the new voice. A tall, lean, young man stood in one corner of the room. His skin was so pale he almost glowed in the dark, he wore all black clothes. Ms. Knight sighed and sat back down by the fire to keep reading. Now that Oren decided to talk to the girl himself, she had nothing else to do.

“Oren!” Paz cheered and eagerly explained the cave quest.

“There’re no monsters on the way in, but there’re four or five ambushes on the way out.”

“You said one of my servers. 900 years?” he asked. Paz nodded. Distant memories flickered at the back of Oren’s mind as he tried to remember what his life was like so long ago. He remembered what belonging to a family felt like. “Show me,” he said. A tall black portal opened in the center of the room. Paz nodded and jumped into the portal. “You too, Justice,” Oren glanced at Ms. Knight with soft eyes. “Please,” he added.