The last thing David wanted that Sunday morning was to think about school. The 12-year-old boy would have preferred to be in his room playing video games. His parents insisted he spend “outside time” at least a couple of hours every week. Not that they worried about him killing brain cells in front of a screen; David knew the real reason. His parents didn’t want David to be an only child anymore. He wished they would ask him his opinion because he loved being alone.
He walked a familiar trail while his mind grumbled at being forced out into the sunshine again. David didn’t pay attention to his surroundings, he just walked. He unconsciously followed the trail into the woods near his house.
A snapping twig caught his attention and he stopped in his tracks. He looked up from the trail and saw a small abandoned cabin in a clearing several meters head. He’d seen the cabin several times, but what drew his attention was the brunette girl walking away from the cabin. She wore a bulging backpack with a rolled tent sitting on top, and a familiar black and gold hoodie.
“Cathy!?” He called out after her. The girl stopped walking and turned calmly; she smiled when she recognized David. Cathy was one of his classmates, though neither considered the other a friend. David didn’t go out of his way to make friends, and neither did Cathy. They were paired for a project once, and it was the best experience David had working with another person. She did all her work and was communicative, but not once did they ever talk about their personal lives. Seeing her reminded David that he had a big week of exams coming up at school; a thought he’d managed to escape most of the weekend.
“Hey, Dave,” she said once he reached her. “What’s up?” she asked as if she didn’t just walk out of an abandoned house on a Sunday morning. Her tone surprised David for a moment; he thought it was obvious what he wanted. He was curious. Then, he remembered it was the first time he’d been curious about anything around her. Their interactions were always mutually beneficial in some way, but this was different.
“Uh… did you camp here…,” he nodded at the abandoned cabin “…last night?” It was a yes or no question and David felt the answer was pretty obvious. She would either say yes or lie. As David tried to plan his response, she surprised him with an unexpected answer.
“Every Friday and Saturday night for the past year,” she said. David sputtered.
“What!? Why!?” He almost asked if she was homeless, but if that were the case it wouldn’t be limited to Friday and Saturday. Cathy stared into his eyes for a moment, hen she gave him an appraising look up and down. After several seconds of silence, she met his eyes again.
“What’s your favorite number?” she asked.
“What?” David asked, then shrugged. “I don’t know, 999 is pretty cool I guess? What does that have to do with you spending the weekends here?” At that question, Cathy burst into a fit of giggles.
“You’d be surprised,” she said. “You must be really curious, you never ask me anything,” she added. David shrugged again.
“I’d rather be at home playing video games, but my parents want me to have a kid brother or sister,” he said. “I got nothing to do and you’re here. You’re pretty cool,” he said.
“COME ON!” Cathy suddenly grabbed David’s arm and charged back into the cabin dragging him along. David followed her through the dim cabin thankful she was leading him. After several quick turns, they stopped in what David guessed was the master bedroom. It was at least twice as big as David’s own bedroom, but there was hole dug in the middle. The wooden floorboards were gone leaving a pit in the soil.
“What’s going on?” David asked. Cathy was already on her knees unpacking the tent with practiced skill. In minutes she had it up and covering the hole perfectly.
“If I tell you, you won’t believe me. Just do what I tell you, and I’ll explain things when you’re ready,” Cathy replied. “You trust me, right?” David shrugged, then nodded. He hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but he realized that he did in fact trust her.
“Get in,” she said then crawled into the tent. David shrugged, sunk to his knees, then crawled into the tent behind her. Inside, they both sat in the dirt hole side by side. Cathy turned and laid on her back.
“Lay down,” she said. He did. The space was tight with his somewhat larger frame. He felt the cool soil wall of the hole against his right arm and soft warm skin against his left. David noticed the pleasant scent of orange coming from the dark hair next to him.
“Close your eyes,” she said. As he waited for what might happen next he focused on the feeling of her smooth arm against his. He was surprised when the sensation was suddenly gone even though he didn’t feel her move. He felt a gentle breeze rush past his arm where her skin was moments before. “Open your eyes,” she said.
The first thing David realized was that he was standing now. In the middle of an endless amber wheat field under a violet sky. The stringy tops tickled his fingertips.
“Whaa…-,” David started to ask but Cathy interrupted him.
“You wanted to play video games, right? This is where I spend my weekends. Welcome to the AlterNet!”
“Well?” Dana Sharp asked. She stood in front of Cathy with her arms crossed while the confused woman wiggled in her seat.
“Well what?” Cathy asked. She was thrilled to be there, in the office of the most powerful woman in the universe, even if she didn’t know why. Dana Sharp saved the human race from extinction using advanced tech. An hour ago someone showed up at Cathy’s office with an invitation from Dana Sharp. Now the woman she admired was looking down at her expectantly.
“Your favorite number is 52…,” Dana said. Cathy was surprised; she didn’t know she had a favorite number, but as soon as Dana said ’52’ it felt right. “… so, what do you see up here,” Dana wiggled her fingers at the empty spot above her head.
“How-…,” Cathy hesitated for a moment, but she trusted Dana. And she obviously knew something. “How did you know about that?”
“Of course I know,” Dana said. That was the only explanation she gave and it was good enough for Cathy. “So what do you see?” Cathy shook her head and stood with an outstretched hand.
“I need to shake hands to see, but all it tells me is when and where you were born.”
“Interesting,” Dana said then she shook Cathy’s hand. The blonde woman’s attention was focused above Dana’s dark hair. The moment they shook hands her eyes went wide; she yanked her hand away in fear and surprise.
“What is it?” Dana asked.
“Universal Error: Data Not Found,” Cathy said. “That’s what it says for your birthdate.”
“Hmm,” Dana thought for a moment. “We’ll try it with a tattoo; present your arm,” she said.
“Tattoo?” Cathy asked as she rolled her sleeve up.
“Right here is fine,” Dana said. She reached out and traced the number 52 on Cathy’s skin with her fingertip. A cloud of white powder gathered on the spot and Cathy felt a burning, stinging sensation. After a moment the cloud dissipated. It left behind a fresh tattoo of the number 52 on Cathy’s arm. Dana grabbed Cathy’s hand while she was staring at the tattoo and shook it.
“Now what does it say?” she asked.
“Universal Error: Data Not Found,” Cathy repeated, then her eyes widened again when more information appeared. “Universal Error: Soul Not Found. Universal Error: Assigned Middleman Not Found. Universal Error: Afterlife Point Total Not Found.” Cathy’s voice grew softer as her confusion overflowed. “What does it all mean?” she asked.
“It means you’re working for me personally, now.” Dana said. “You’ve got all the information I need.”
“Mr. Samuel Bowman?” Sam opened his front door to find a pair of men in white mechanic’s jumpsuits on his porch. As soon as he opened the door they asked his identity. He nodded, mostly out of curiosity, and caught sight of their name patches. The one that asked his name was Lenny; the other one Mike. They also sported a bright red scissor logo that looked vaguely familiar.
“That’s me,” Sam said. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”
“Did you take out a loan at Sharp Bank six months ago?” Lenny asked. The moment he mentioned the bank, Sam recognized their red logo. It was all over the paperwork he filled out.
“Great, thanks,” Lenny said. He smiled broadly, and Sam saw Mike move in his peripheral vision; he turned just in time to see Mike’s fist flying at him.
“What the hell?” Sam grumbled as he woke up. His head throbbed with pain, but he managed to look around and see he was on his couch in his living room; and, he wasn’t alone. A young red-headed woman in a white dress sat on his easy chair across the coffee table from him.
“Hello Mr. Bowman,” she said.
“What’s going on? What are you doing in my house?”
“Repossession, Mr. Bowman. Not only have you missed your loan payments six months in a row, they also happened to be the first six months of your loan. Sharp Bank has no choice but to assume you have no intention of making your payments.”
“Repossession? Wait a minute… my soul?!” Sam burst into laughter. “You can’t take my soul, I’m still using it!”
“The forms you signed say otherwise,” the woman said.
“No, no way.” Sam sat up straighter and tried to assess the situation. He didn’t see Lenny and Mike anywhere, but they could be outside waiting. He couldn’t just try to run away from her; but, if things got violent he could use her as a hostage. “It was a joke. I wasn’t serious, I didn’t think I’d get the loan.”
“Oh, of course. Well, if it was a joke, I’m sure you’re planning to give back the money. If you just give it to me, I’ll tear up your loan contract and we’ll call it even.”
“I.. I don’t have it,” Sam admitted. “But you can’t take my soul, it’ll kill me! That kind of technology doesn’t even exist! I was kidding! I’ll start making payments!”
“Mr. Bowman, I’d like to give you some advice. Going forward, it would be in your best interest not to assume the limits of others. Only offer things you’re willing to lose, no matter how unlikely it may seem.” Sam felt relief wash over him. ‘Going forward’ meant alive, and alive meant his soul would remain intact; it sounded like she was giving him a second chance.
“Just because you’re not aware of something existing does not mean it doesn’t exist,” she stood up, and Sam stood with her. It felt like the meeting was over and a part of him wondered if the technology actually existed. Maybe they were just trying to strongarm him into a payment.
“Yes, thank you. I appreciate it so much. I’ll make a payment next month as soon as I can,” he said. The woman tilted her head in confusion.
“Why?” she asked.
“For the loan, so you won’t take my soul. I thought you were giving me another chance,” Sam said. The redhead grinned.
“Why would you think that?” she asked.
“You gave me advice for ‘going forward’,” he said. All his hopes were instantly crushed. “There isn’t much ‘forward’ if I’m dead after you take my soul.” The woman giggled lightly.
“It’s amazing how much you didn’t listen to my advice,” she said. “Not only does the technology to extract souls exist, but we can also do it without killing you.”
“You.. you can do really do that?” Sam asked. The woman nodded.
“Well, do you think you’re dead?” she asked.
“Of course not, I’m here talking to you aren’t I?” he asked, then he saw her raise a single orange-red eyebrow in response. His hands flew to his chest and he started patting himself down as if looking for his wallet. “You took it already?!”
“Of course. It’s property of Sharp Bank now, after all.”
“That’s it?!” Sam didn’t feel any different than before Mike punched him out. If the procedure was already done and he was still standing, he started to feel hope again. If the loan was already paid for, it was one less thing to worry about. “Wow… So I don’t have to worry about my body falling apart without a soul or anything like that?”
“Your soul belongs to us, but your body is another matter. The most humane way to satisfy all parties involved is to give you a new life and a new body. I’m sure you still have questions, but unfortunately, I have other appointments to keep. However, the mannequin will answer any questions you have.”
“Mannequin? What mannequin?”
“This one,” she said. The moment she spoke her pale skin darkened. Her features blurred and in the blink of an eye, a black faceless mannequin stood in her place. It floated off the ground and looked at Sam.
Christine skated on the empty boardwalk at top speed. She enjoyed the bright sunshine and cool breeze of a Saturday morning. The 17-year-old could skate as fast as she wanted; no one else was around. Christine convinced the entire town that none of them wanted to visit the boardwalk on Saturday mornings.
She did not know how her abilities worked exactly, but over the years she narrowed down the procedure to a touch. She could control someone’s mind after a simple touch. Whatever it was that gave her control also seemed to be infectious. If a person under her control touched someone else, they both fell under her thrall.
Christine tried not to use it too often; she could ‘turn it off’ in people and give them free will again.. at least until Saturdays. It was the one day that she let herself flex her gift for a few hours so she could skate unimpeded. She enjoyed having a relatively normal life. She found enjoyment in doing things ‘the regular way’ without forcing anyone to give her anything.
She was so used to the barren boardwalk that she slowed to a stop when she spotted a girl heading in her direction. Even though Christine stopped skating, the dark-skinned girl kept moving toward her. The stranger had a pair of afro-puffs atop her head tied with bright golden ribbons that swayed with the breeze. She wore a candy apple-red windbreaker and a pair of denim shorts; then, Christine noticed the girl was on skates too.
“Hi!” The stranger rolled to a stop in front of Christine and offered a hand.
“Hi,” Christine replied with less enthusiasm, but she accepted the handshake. She knew one other person was not a big deal, but Christine preferred being alone, even in public. She had grown used to having the beach to herself and wanted to keep the trend. “You want to go home for a few hours and come back later,” Christine willed the thought into the girl’s mind.
“I’m Britt,” she said with a smile.
“C-Christine,” she introduced herself with a stutter. It confused her that Britt introduced herself at all. “You need to go home,” Christine tried the suggestion again.
“Where is everyone?” Britt asked and spread her arms to gesture at the empty boardwalk.
“Uhh,” Christine shrugged. “It’s like this every Saturday,” she replied. She never needed to practice lying and felt glad that she could get by with a carefully worded truth.
“Awesome,” Britt said. She nodded and her smile grew from ear to ear. “Are you any good with those?” she asked with a glance down at Christine’s skates.
“I can skate without falling over?” Christine shrugged. The fact that Britt seemed immune to her ability bothered Christine more than she wanted to admit. Britt laughed a bit, then elaborated.
“I was thinking of something more competitive. Is roller derby a thing around here?” The question melted Christine’s unease in an instant. One of the more unexpected consequences of her abilities was that she won every game. Somehow even when her opponents had free will, they chose to let her win. She tried to lose dozens of times but still won. But Britt was immune and competitive and they had the whole empty boardwalk to skate on.
“I wish,” Christine replied; she finally added her own smile now that she felt comfortable. “I’ve seen some matches on TV and it looks like a ton of fun.”
“Hmmm,” Britt seemed to be thinking over Christine’s answer. “And what about the AlterNet?” she asked. Christine waited for a moment to let Britt finish her thought.
“Alternate what?” she asked once the silence started to make her uncomfortable. Britt giggled.
“You’d know,” she said. Britt stood up straighter, shifted her weight, and crossed her arms. She looked Christine up and down as if appraising her. “So you’ve only seen derby on TV and you’ve never heard of the AlterNet?” Christine shrugged. The questions seemed rhetorical and didn’t know what else to do. “I’m starting a roller derby team, how’d you like to be on it?”
“Yes!” Christine cheered and hopped in place with excitement.
“But there’s something I have to know first,” Britt said. “Are you fast?”
“Faster than you,” Christine replied with a broad smile.
“Oh yeah?” Britt asked. She moved to stand next to Christine; both of them faced the same direction. Britt crouched to a runner’s position ready to push off with her legs and gestured for Christine to do the same. “Show me.”
“I could stare into those eyes forever,” Devon mused. He half-listened to Ester talk about her day. Her toffee-colored eyes distracted him so much that he did not hear the question she asked. He only clued in when he realized she wasn’t speaking anymore.
“I’m sorry,” Devon rubbed his blond hair and gave her an apologetic look. “I kind of got distracted, what’d you say?” She rolled her eyes but he noticed a smile at the edge of her mouth.
“Got distracted? You were looking me right in the eyes,” she said but shook her head. “I asked if you wanted to walk home with me. You live the same direction and,…” she paused and looked around the school grounds. The pair stood at the edge of the property and there were only a handful of students walking in their direction. The group was too far away to hear anything. “… there’s something I want to show you,” Ester said.
“Yeah, definitely!” Devon said “What do you want to show me?” he asked. Ester glanced back at the approaching group then shook her head.
“Not here, let’s walk a bit first,” she said then started walking. They walked in silence for the first couple of blocks. Devon had no shortage of conversational topics, but Ester looked anxious about something. It was the second week of their freshman year, but Devon crushed on Ester the moment he saw her. He was ecstatic to learn they had several classes together. They became fast friends and this was not the first time they walked home together. Though it was the first time she asked.
“My birthday was yesterday,” Ester said suddenly when they reached the third block.
“Oh! Happy belated!” Devon said with a friendly pat on the back. Ester nodded.
“Thanks. But I wanted to tell you about my gift,” she said. She paused in front of an alley then turned into it. Devon followed. The alley was between two tall buildings, each one had a restaurant on the first floor. It grew darker and smelled worse the deeper they went. Finally, Ester stopped at the dead end. It was surprisingly dark considering the sun was still out.
“My dad gave me two things for my birthday,” Ester said. “The first thing he gave me was an explanation…,” she sighed. “…about everything.” Devon chuckled.
“You got the sex talk for your 14th birthday?!” he said with a broad smile. His smile disappeared when Ester shook her head sternly.
“Not that everything. THE UNIVERSE everything.”
“The universe? How so?” Devon shrugged. “No offense, but what does a tattoo artist know about the universe?” Ester nodded.
“That’s about what I thought until he proved it. Anyway, the second was this,” Ester tugged at the collar of her school uniform to show him her right shoulder. A layer of plastic protected a golden star with the number 35 freshly inked.
“That’s so cool!” Devon was genuinely impressed. “Why 35 though?” he asked.
“It’s my favorite number,” she said.
“Oh, nice. Mine’s 14,” Devon said. Ester nodded. She let go of her collar then relaxed to lower her backpack down to the ground.
“So then…,” she said as she unzipped it and reached in. “…do you have any idea why everything moves so sluggish around us sometimes?” she asked. She pulled out a purple sketchbook from her backpack and looked up at Devon. He tilted his head.
“Why what?” he asked. Ester pointed at something behind him and Devon turned around. He saw a cat floating in mid-air between two overflowing garbage cans. It flew through the air at a turtle’s pace.
“Sometimes when you’re around, time slows down,” Ester said. “Like at school when you said you were ‘distracted‘,” she giggled. “And right now when I showed you my new tattoo.” Ester opened the sketchbook and flipped through the pages. “And I know it’s you doing it,” she added.
“Whoa… what?” Devon said. He was so surprised that the cat completed the jump then ran up the alley at normal speed.
“My dad explained that I can see what people are,” she said. Devon focused on her eyes and was surprised to see golden stars glowing in the toffee-brown of her eyes.
Ester held up the notebook and Devon glanced at it. He immediately recognized himself in the colorless drawing. He was hunched over his desk resting his head on his arms. A black, ghostly cloak rested on his shoulders with its hood pulled down. A large scythe hovered at the ready next to his desk.
“You’ve got some fractured ribs…,” the barkeep said. He wrapped white gauze around the midsection of a lean, bony man. “…take it easy for a few weeks and you’ll be fine.” The patient sat on a tall bar stool as the short bald man walked around him with the bandage. A tall, handsome, blonde man towered over the seated victim and the bartender dressing his wound. He had an eager, apologetic look on his face like he did something wrong but was ready to make amends. The tall man wore a green bodysuit with a golden cape.
“I’m sorry, L.S.” The blonde hero said. “I tried warning you,” he shrugged. LightningStrike, the villain, shook his head.
“You said she was tough. You didn’t say she could crush me like a bug without even trying,” he whined.
“I warned you she was a Unique,” the hero said; his tone was still apologetic. The villain handed the barkeep a small stack of bills, nodded at him, then shrugged at his nemesis.
“Obviously you think she’s special, or you wouldn’t have married her-,” he started to say but the barkeep interrupted with a slight cough. LightningStrike looked at the bald man.
“Not unique as in ‘special’,” the barman said. “His wife is a Unique Soul.” The lean man tilted his head in confusion as he slipped his arm back into his blue spandex sleeve.
“And that means… what?” he asked.
“You’re a Super, right? You’re better than normal humans.” The lean man grinned and raised a hand between them. He splayed his fingers and small arcs of lightning crackled between them.
“Yeah I am,” he said.
“Uniques are like super Supers,” the short man nodded at the tall blonde. “Uniques come in different flavors but his wife, in particular, is in the strongest category. Your strongest move…,” he said to the bandaged villain.
“Storm of Li-” LightningStrike began to give its name.
“Yeah, whatever it’s called. how much damage can you do with it?”
“I can reduce the Empire State Building to rubble,” he said proudly. His back straightened.
“Majesty can break the Earth in half,” the blonde said.
“Wha..what?” LightningStrike’s posture shrunk. “Your wife can do that?” The tall hero nodded.
“She can punch the ground hard enough to split the Earth. I’ve seen her do it. She doesn’t even have to try all that hard.” LightningStrike burst into wheezing, villainous laughter; it was his normal laugh.
“Then why are we still here?” he grinned. “You almost had me going.”
“I didn’t say it was this Earth, L.S.,” the hero smiled back. The villain looked at the bartender. The short man nodded.
“Alternate Earths are real too. Some Uniques can hop between universes as easy as taking a step.”
“Can I.. I mean,” LightningStrike fumbled over his words for a moment, then looked up at the blonde hero. “How does someone get to be a Unique?”
“Die,” the barkeep answered. “A lot.”
“How does that work?” he turned his attention to the short one.
“You and me, we’re what they call ‘Zeros’. I have hundreds… thousands, maybe even millions of doppelgangers in other universes. You too.” The short man sighed. “I don’t think anyone knows the exact process but here’s the gist as I’ve learned it. Somehow all of our duplicates are sifted down and compressed into one soul over time. We carry some things over from all of our different lives. Majesty is an easy example,” he looked up at the hero and the blonde man nodded. “She’s insanely strong, right? Theoretically, she has the combined strength of all physical training throughout all her thousands of lives. It’s also likely that a lot of those lives focused on strength training because somewhere in her soul she knew what she wanted to be. So, if you want to be a Unique, I suggest you start training now.”
“Nah,” the villain said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’m sure other versions of me are working on it.”
“What’s this?” The red-skinned, well-dressed demon shook the small glassy rectangle expecting it to rattle; it didn’t. Peter shrugged with a cocky smirk.
“It’s my soul,” he said with a trace of condescension. He realized it was probably a bad idea to be rude to a demon and filled out his response more; with less patronization. “You gave me unlimited money…,” Peter flashed the red credit card the demon gave him. “…and you get my soul,” he pointed at the glass pane the in the demon’s hand; it was the same size as the credit card.
The demon lifted the rectangle to his eye and peered through it at Peter on the other side. The mid-40s, balding, chubby man stared back into the demon’s golden eyes; they began to glow with golden light. After a moment his eyes widened and he lowered his hand. He used his other hand to wiggle his fingers at the air; a tall black portal opened in Peter’s living room.
“I need to escalate this, I’ll be right back. Don’t spend any money yet,” he said then walked into the portal. It stayed open after he disappeared; then, almost 5 minutes later he walked out of the portal again. He was followed by a taller, larger red demon with giant obsidian horns.
“Mr. Peter…,” the bigger demon began to address Peter, but he paused. The demon that made the deal quickly supplied the missing information.
“Peterson,” he said. The giant demon quickly turned to the demon. He was so large and tall that his horns caught the ceiling fan; he didn’t seem to notice or care.
“Peter Peterson? Really?” he asked the smaller demon. He nodded quickly. The living room-sized demon shrugged and turned his attention back to Peter; the ceiling fan was ripped from its spot. It crash-landed on the ground between them but the demon still did not pay it any attention.
“Mr,” he stifled a chuckle. “Peter Peterson. Can you explain this?” he held up the glass card.
“I already told him,” he pointed at the lesser demon. “It’s my soul.” The big demon nodded his head; his horns scratched the ceiling.
“Right… but how did it get in here?” Peter burst into a heavy guffaw, but he was able to recover quickly. Instead of the rolling laughter, he wanted to let out; only a single “HAH!” escaped before he clapped his hand over his mouth. He took a deep breath to relax, then lowered his hand.
“You guys don’t have node technology in Hell?” he asked with as even a tone as he could muster. Both demons shook their heads.
“Humor me,” the giant one said. “How did your soul get in here?” Peter shrugged.
“I dunno how. I went to a clinic and they downloaded it into the node.”
“Did you sign any paperwork?” the giant asked.
“Yeah,” Peter chuckled. “It’s a clinic. You gotta fill out three forms just to use the bathroom.”
“What is Sharp Development?” he asked. Peter looked surprised.
“You know about Sharp Development, but you don’t know nodes?” he asked. The towering demon stared at Peter and waited for an answer to his question. After a few moments of hellish silence, Peter opened up more. “Sharp Development is the parent company of the clinic, they; well, the owner, Dana Sharp, invented nodes.
“Dana Sharp?” the giant asked with a raised eyebrow. “Thank you,” he tossed the node at Peter. “No deal, but there are a thousand dollars on the credit card for the information and…,” he pointed at the wires poking out of the ceiling. “to cover that.”
“Wait!” Peter yelled. “We made a deal! I already signed!”
“It’s not valid.” The demon shook his head, damaging the ceiling even more.
“WHY!??” Peter whined. The tall demon crouched down; Peter stepped back to avoid his horns as the demon grabbed the node from the floor. He straightened himself up and held the node up in front of Peter’s face.
“Because it’s not yours to sell,” he said. He tapped the point of a long, black fingernail to the node; Peter’s eyes focused on the spot. Glowing faintly in gold letters he read the message;
“This soul is the sole property of Sharp Development.”