Friendly Future

Rosario watched the sunset with a quiet mind for the first time in five years. There was no one in view to distract her with timers counting down above her head; there was not another human around for miles. She would know.

Five years ago, she woke up with a pounding head and disturbing images of all her loved ones dying. Rosario wondered if she went crazy, then dismissed the question because she was lucid enough to ask it. She spent a long six months in a psychiatric hospital but eventually learned how to make sense of it all. It helped that two of the deaths she foresaw happened while she was being treated.

Over the years Rosario improved at ignoring things that weren’t relevant to her. The clocks counting down to stranger’s deaths were easy to ignore; the screaming, crying chaos that filled her ears was not.

GET DOWN!” An unknown woman shouted in Rosarios’ mind, then she sighed. She was no longer alone. Somewhere, someone walked into Rosario’s perception. From testing, Rosario guessed the stranger was still two miles away; the edges of her power. However, experience suggested the stranger was much closer. Her voice was crystal clear and loud.

“Hi,” the same voice said, from behind Rosario. The shouting in her mind did not make her flinch; but, the quiet, unexpected, greeting caused Rosario to jump to her feet and spin around. A short, young lady with a black bowl cut giggled but took a step back. She put her hands up with her palms out. “Sorry, sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” she said.

“Hi,” Rosario was surprised more than anything. The woman’s voice echoed in her head again, ‘GET DOWN!’, just as loud as moments before. Rosario suddenly doubted all the things she thought she learned about her powers. Either they didn’t work the way she thought, or this woman appeared from nowhere right behind her.

“I’m Penga,” she smiled at Rosario and offered her hand in greeting. Rosario hesitated, but only for a moment. She’d spent the last four years refusing to make new friends. And, she learned that if she pushed someone out of her life far enough, their deaths would disappear from her vision. But, something wasn’t right. Either with Rosario herself, or maybe Penga. It was that curiosity that encouraged Rosario to make the new connection.

“Rosario,” she shook Penga’s hand. The vision came immediately, and she did not understand it. She saw herself standing next to Penga, shaking hands. Just like they were now, at Rosario’s camp spot.

What?” Rosario heard and watched herself ask. ‘What what?’ Penga replied in her vision. Then, Penga looked up suddenly and yelled, “GET DOWN!” A pressurized jet of water shot out of Penga’s hands

and shoved Rosario onto her back. Then, Rosario spotted a pure white, winged unicorn with a glowing golden horn in the air. It seemed to be charging down toward her, then changed direction when Penga intervened. The beast landed on the ground long enough to impale Penga, then it flew up again to carry off her corpse. The vision faded. 

It was so confusing, she repeated it out loud. “What?” she asked no one.

“What what?” Penga asked. A blur of action later, Rosario watched the unicorn fly off into the sunset with her mind quiet again. She was too stunned to panic. Part of her wanted to report something to someone, but she did not have anything substantial to say that wouldn’t get her laughed at. She was already laughing at herself.

“I don’t even believe me,” she giggled to herself.

That was nothing. Watch this,”  Unexpectedly, a new vision played out before Rosario’s eyes. She was with Penga again, but didn’t understand. They were somewhere she’d never seen before; an endless amber wheat field beneath a purple sky.

“Man, that was something,” Penga said, suddenly, next to Rosario. “You okay?” she asked. Rosario began nodding her head, but after several up and down motions, it began to angle. After a moment she was shaking her head, ‘no’.

“I think I’m crazy,” Rosario said.

“HAhahaaha,” Penga laughed heartily. “Why do you say that?”

“I just saw you die,” Rosario replied. Penga nodded.

“Yeah, I did. That thing’s almost impossible to solo.”  Rosario tilted her head in confusion at Penga, and the young woman noticed.

“Wait…,” she said. “What class are you?” Penga asked.

“Class?” Rosario asked with a shrug.

“No wayyy….,” Penga grinned and took a step forward. “What’s your favorite number?!” she asked with more eagerness.

“52,” Rosario answered. It seemed like an odd question considering everything else that was happening, but it stood out to her. Five years ago a tattoo artist laughed his head off at the fact that she liked a number so much she wanted it on her. Now a complete stranger was interested in her favorite number.

“NO WAY!” Penga jumped up and down. She closed the gap between them and grabbed her shoulders excitedly.

“You saw me die? Before I died?” she asked quickly. Rosario gave her an uneasy nod.

“YESSSS!! THANK YOU!” she cheered, but had enough common sense to scream away from Rosario’s ears.

“You’re dead,” Rosario said. “I’m crazy. I might be dead too…,” she wondered.  Penga shook her head frantically; her bangs trembled with the motion.

“No, this is great, sorry,” Penga immediately calmed down and let go of Rosario’s shoulders. “Have you seen my next death?” she asked. Rosario nodded.

“Are we in danger?” she asked. Rosario shook her head. “Okay, first of all, we’re best friends now,” Penga said. “Second of all, best friends communicate. I’m not good at explaining things, we can put you in touch with Mundo later. But, in the meantime, I can try to answer any immediate questions you have. So, shoot.”

“You died?” Rosario asked. “And… came back?”

“I died,” Penga nodded, and smiled. “Then, I respawned.”

Chomp of the Litter

“Why are you out?” Rook sighed as the coffee cup nibbled and growled on her fingers. Her translucent yellow eyes glanced around the rest of the common room and settled on a large brown leather recliner. It was one of two in the room. The other one was empty; but, the one Rook eyed had an open metal box sitting on top. “Because someone didn’t put the lid back,” she grumbled. Rook gripped the mimic gnawing on her fingers, it instantly changed its form from a coffee mug to a red squeeze ball.

“No, I’m not playing with you,” she said as she carried the ball over to the box. She looked in and was relieved to see a hairbrush, a wooden block, and three toothbrushes. “At least your siblings are accounted for,” Rook said. She lifted her hand and dropped the ball on the three toothbrushes. Each of the toothbrushes changed into a colored ball the instant the red one touched them. In moments four colored balls were chasing each other around the box with playful yelps and growls. Rook paid close attention to the four balls because there should have been six.

“Five,” Rook giggled. She noticed the wooden block changed itself to metal; it wanted to stay asleep not roll around and play. The hairbrush had not changed at all. She grabbed the brush and shook it wildly. Nothing happened. “Damnit,” She tossed the brush back into the box and scanned the room again.

She spotted a hairbrush sitting on a bookshelf against the wall. It was the exact same aqua-green hairbrush with white bristles that was in the box.

“Gotcha,” Rook walked across the room and grabbed the brush. It immediately growled in her hand and started gnawing on her. “Yeah, this isn’t old yet,” Rook rolled her eyes and chuckled.

“And I’ll make sure there’s a…,” Rook stopped walking once she reached the box and looked down. The metal box now had a metal lid sealing the baby mimics in. “…lid. Where’d you come from?” she asked. She reached out and touched the lid; it immediately growled and clamped on to her fingers. Its form transitioned to a small metal block biting her pinky.

“You sneaky little jerks,” Rook laughed. “That’s how you got out.” The four balls were still rolling around, she held the growling brush in one hand and biting block in the other. “Alright, you’re all here.”

Rook dropped the brush and pushed the block off her finger into the box.

“Where the hell’s that lid?” Rood did not see it anywhere in the room.

[Guild: Anyone seen the lid? -Rook] She sent a Whisper to ask the rest of the guild.

[Guild: What lid? -Grace] [Guild: Lid for Chomper’s kids. -Rook] She carried on the conversation with the guild while standing over the box; she didn’t want to take her eyes off them.

[No, but there’s a spare. -Grace] She responded to Rook directly.

[Check the kitchen. -Grace] Rook sighed.

“Spare?” She decided to take the box with her instead of leaving it unattended.

[Why does a box have a spare lid? -Rook] She asked while she walked from the common room to the kitchen.

[Don’t know. -Grace] [I saw two lids. Put one away. -Grace]  Rook laughed.

[LOL. One of these is a genius. -Rook] [It can turn itself into a lid. -Rook] She reached the galley style kitchen and headed straight for the lid drawer. Since Grace put it away she knew exactly where it’d be. As she opened the drawer, Rook felt Grace’s laughter run through her body.

[LOL. We’ll have to be careful. -Grace] she replied.

Handy Explanation

Morgan sat on the floor in the front room of a small house. The bay window behind her seemed more for decoration than illumination. The house itself was built from golden-tinged translucent bricks that gave the house a warm glow. Three new friends she made that morning sat around her, but she wasn’t nervous. Something about her new friends put her instantly at ease with them; she felt like she vibed with them all. Especially Cherry, the white-haired girl in a blood-red hoodie was the first one she met. After talking for less than half an hour she invited Morgan to join a guild. She was surprised to find this small house was considered the guildhall. 

“To traverse..,” Cherry explained. “…it helps to have an idea of where I want to go before I open the portal. Focus on what you want before you reach into the dark.” A black box with a hole in the side rested in front of Morgan’s crisscrossed legs; it had a thick black cloth folded on top.

“That’s it?” Morgan asked. Cherry nodded.

“Okay,” Morgan unfolded the cloth and draped it over the box and hole. She closed her eyes to concentrate. Morgan had skipped breakfast that morning, she hadn’t planned to be at the park longer than a couple of hours. She decided this would be the perfect opportunity to test her power and get something to eat. Cherry told her to aim broad; Morgan wanted something sweet. She took a deep breath, then stuck her hand into the darkness.

Morgan focused on something delicious and firm, if not crunchy. She wiggled her fingers in the darkness until her fingertips brushed something. She reached for it, grabbed, then pulled it out of the box.

“There you go,” Cherry grinned. Morgan opened her eyes as the rest of the group cheered for her. She looked down and found an iced sugar cookie in her hand. Pink letters on the white icing formed the initials S. H.

“That looks so good!” Honey, the guild leader, commented. She was only a 9-year-old girl, but she was literally the strongest person Morgan ever met.

“Taste it,” Morgan handed her the cookie; Honey accepted it without hesitation and shoved half of it in her mouth.

ITTHDELITHUS!” she replied through her mouthful.

“I’ll get more,” Morgan said. She reached back into the covered box several more times and pulled out three more one by one. She handed one to Willow, a fairy, then Cherry, and she kept the last one to herself. After she took a bit of her own cookie, Honey spoke up.

“Two more, please!” she chirped. “J.J. and Astrid, you haven’t met them yet.” Morgan nodded and retrieved an additional pair of cookies.

“Hold on, how is this not stealing from S.H. whoever they are?” She asked. Cherry shrugged.

“There are infinite universes out there,” Cherry said. “You could have pulled out any number of cookies, but you found those. That means whatever universe they were in, that universe decided they weren’t important. The Zero they belonged to might wonder where they went; but, they weren’t important to anything. Things get shuffled between universes all the time. People lose their car keys, TV remotes, money; but, the universe usually knows what its doing.” After her explanation, Cherry giggled.

“For all you know, the universe wanted to give someone an unsolvable case of missing cookies.” Morgan and the rest of the guild burst into laughter.

“Good luck, S.H.,” Morgan giggled then took another bite. 

Marcie’s Life. Marcie’s Test.

“How can they be humans and extraterrestrials at the same time?” General Hopsitel asked as his aide escorted him to the first meeting. The pasty, rotund general waddled through the narrow halls with renewed purpose. He was ready to retire the week before; then, first contact was made.

“Well, ‘terrestrial’ just means ‘from Earth’. These humans contacted us from somewhere else,” Marcie replied with a subtle eye-roll. General Hopsitel wasn’t a bad boss initially. Each year the General gave her more responsibilities to handle. She was thrilled at first because it meant he trusted her. 15 years later, she was essentially doing his job and giving him cheat notes.

“Do we know anything about their planet yet? Location? Name?”

“Nothing. After contact was confirmed both sides exchanged basic information. Once they learned we were humans too they fast-tracked the first meeting.” General Hopsitel stopped before they exited the building and looked at Marcie.

“This just happened last week, right?” he asked. Marcie nodded, and the General ignored her eyeroll. She was damn good at her job and he gave her all the leeway she wanted. “How did we translate so fast?” Marcie grinned then pushed through the doors out into the sunshine. The General followed her.

“They speak English,” she said as she crossed the base.

“English? And we know they’re humans?” General Hopsitel asked. Marcie nodded.

“No, it’s not a prank, Sir.”

“How do we know? If we don’t know where the signal is coming from…,”

“This,” she handed him a letter envelope from a stack of forms on a clipboard. The General grabbed the envelope; it was heavier than an empty one, but not by much. He opened it and found a small glass card in it. He pulled it out and looked it over while they entered another building. It was about the size of a playing card and just as thin.

“Glass?” he asked. Marcie shook her head.

“They sent us that. It’s called a node and it’s way more advanced than anything we have right now.” Marcie took it from him, tapped it several times, then handed it back. When it was in his hands again he noticed it showed the time. He ran his finger on it like Marcie did and it changed to a homescreen style layout that reminded the General of his smartphone.

“We have smartphones too,” the General said. Marcie sighed. She normally didn’t mind their work relationship, but they weren’t normally making first contact and changing the world. The added stress made her a bit bitter. She stopped and took the node from his hands again.

“Our smartphones can’t do this,” she said as she held up the node in front of his face. The General watched the node stretch as Marcie pulled at both ends. When it was about twice its size, the long piece broke in two; Marcie handed him one back, and tapped it in his hand. It brought the time up. Then, she showed him the clock on the second piece. Both said 9:55 A. M.

“Okay,” General Hopsitel nodded. “I believe you.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Marcie gave him a playful mock salute as they reached the meeting room. She opened the cafeteria door for him, then followed him in. The General stopped as soon as he entered the room. Most of the tables and chairs were cleared out leaving only the white concrete floor. Half a dozen men and women in labcoats sat in the center of the cafeteria next to the rest of the military representation: three other generals.

“Where’s the President?” he asked. “What about the rest of the world leaders?” He expected to see a room full of delegates from at least the first world countries.

“We were contacted. As far as we can tell, that signal was sent only to us; it’s not a broadcast. They gave America node technology. If they wanted the rest of the world to have it, they would have broadcast a message for the whole world. The President needs plausible deniability if this does get out. ‘Officially’ he doesn’t even know about this meeting. Now hurry up, it’s time.” She shooed him toward the crowd of scientists and soldiers. He saw a large black hole appear in the center of the crowd. By the time he got there, the hole was gone but three new strangers stood in its place in the center of the crowd.

They trio, two men and a woman, looked like average 20somethings in jeans and t-shirts. Each sported an elaborate tattoo on their arm with different numbers.

“Hello Earthlings!” the taller, raven-haired man said. His tattoo was a bright blue star on his forearm with the number 35 on it. “We’re from Earth too,” he said with a laugh. Immediately the group around General Hopsitel seemed confused until the woman stepped forward. She had a black widow spider tattooed on her arm with the number 33.

“He means we’re from Earth also, not Earth two as in the second one,” she explained. “There is no ‘Earth 2’, there are too many to count.”

“Too many?” The scientist closest to General Hopsitel asked. The woman with the spider tattoo nodded and seemed about to answer, but the second man spoke up from behind her. He sported an eagle on his arm with the number 20.

“Full saturation!” he shouted gleefully.

“Thanks for using that node we sent you,” #35 said with a grin. He pulled his own out of his pocket and tapped and swiped on it. Marcie was startled when her pocket vibrated. She stood unnoticed by the door waiting for the General to finish. She watched the situation with interest, but could not hear anything.

She pulled the node she created out of her pocket and saw a message.

[User: Corvus has requested ownership over Server: Marcie’s Test. Do you wish to transfer ownership?] [Yes] [No]

Marcie’s eyes went wide. She didn’t know what it meant exactly, but she knew she entered ‘Marcie’s Test’ as a placeholder name for the Earth while she experimented with it. At the time she wondered why her Earth needed a name. Her first instinct was to deny access; she did that then looked back to where Corvus was looking at his node. He was a fair distance, but she saw his smile turn into a look of concern.

“Uhh.. Actually. Sorry guys,” Corvus said to the scientists and generals. “We have to go. We’ll get-,” his exit was interrupted by the woman.

“What?” she asked. He turned to face her.

“Something came up,” General Hopsitel heard him say through gritted teeth.

“OH, right.” she said. Corvus wiggled his fingers at the air and summoned a black portal.

“We’ll call you,” he said, then the trio wasted no time running into the black hole that appeared; it closed behind them.

Wonderous Recruit

“Now let’s see which one of you shouldn’t be here,” Ciani said. The elderly woman stared down at a dusty, well-used work table in the guild’s garage. Seven card-sized, transparent nodes rested on the table in an even-spaced row. “Hello, nodes,” she said.

[Hello, Ciani] Text immediately appeared on all seven displays. Seven similar-sounding voices spoke at the same time, but one of them said something different. Most of them replied with, “Hello, Ciani.” But she heard one distinct from the rest. It sounded like, “Hello, Lady.” Ciani read the text on each node until she found the culprit.

“There you are,” Ciani smiled to herself and collected the other six nodes. She finished putting them away, then looked at the single node left out. “Who do you belong to, node?” she asked.

[Wonder] the node replied with text and voice.

“Wonder?” Ciani thought for a moment and came to the conclusion the name was unfamiliar to her. “Sorry, don’t know him or her. Are you malfunctioning; why haven’t you returned to them?”

[Wonder is…] The node seemed to hesitate for a moment. “…alone.” The voice spoke, but there was no text. The node disintegrated into white powder that floated into the air. The dust convalesced into a white, featureless mannequin standing toddler-height on the table.

“Well, that was unexpected,” Ciani smiled at the short doll. “Is Wonder your name?” The smooth white head nodded. “That’s a beautiful name. Why are you pretending to be a node?”

“When my nanos traverse, they are rearranged into their default form,” Wonder said. She sat down on the table so that she could talk to Ciani face to face. Ciani’s eyes sparkled and her mouth grew into a smile.

“I don’t believe it!” she exclaimed. “You are a wonder! Somehow…,” Ciana reached up and touched Wonder’s smooth white chest. “…you got yourself a soul.”

“Confirmed. I am Unique Soul #42, La Calavera.”

“That’s fantastic! So, now that you have a life, what are you going to do with it?”

“Do with it?” Wonder asked. “I require more information. What can I do with a life?” Ciani giggled and patted Wonder’s bald white head.

“You can do anything you want. The trick is finding the thing you want to do, it’s easy to get distracted. Do you have any goals? Do you yearn for anything at all?” The mannequin looked up at Ciani with its blank face.

“Confirmed. I yearn to stay out of my default form. I will no longer be forced into a node again when I traverse.” Wonder gave a curt nod at Ciani. “There.” Ciani giggled again and shook her head.

“I’m afraid life isn’t that easy, you have to actually put work into your goals. Usually,” she shrugged. “But in this case, I do know how to keep you out of node form.”

“You do!? I require this information. Please,” Wonder asked.

“It’s simple,” Ciani smiled. “Just get a new default form.”

“Denied. A new form is impossible; it has been attempted.”

“Nu uh uhhh,” Ciani wagged her finger at Wonder. “You tried it as a node, but you’ve got a soul now. All you have to do is make your AlterNet character; that’ll be your new default form.”  Wonder hopped up on its feet like an excited child.

“Thank you!! I will create my character right now!!”

Lunar Origin

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.”

Birds of a Feather

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.”

Evil Plan

Ciani rushed to open the door when she heard the knock; she hoped someone had sent her something. Her heavy footfalls resounded through the house as she ran to the door on loud, metal, machine legs. She eagerly threw the door open and saw a dark-skinned man in blue jeans and a t-shirt waiting on her front porch. He was not holding any sort of package,  and Ciani saw no sign of flowers anywhere.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Ciani Ibis?” he asked. The wrinkled, old woman nodded. “It’s me,” the man stepped forward. “Sirius.” He gave her a moment to process the information, then he explained why he was there. “The guild’s in trouble, we need your help.” The way he spoke and moved convinced Ciani that he was who he claimed to be.” She tilted her head toward the inside of her house.

“I was just logged in, no one was around.” Sirius nodded.

“This is why. Metro’s gone crazy,” he said with wide, worried eyes. “He’s keeping everyone hostage on an Earth with no nanos unless he talks to you.” Ciani thought about the newest member of CyberRiot – a sentient swarm of nanos that often took the shape of a white gnome. Metro was unfamiliar with human customs and had a lot of questions. She took to the robot immediately and began to consider him a surrogate grandson; she taught him that humans can’t respawn without nanos. Ciani was very surprised that he seemed to have gone crazy, but she was not surprised he was asking for her.

“Okay, let’s go,” she said without hesitation. If her friends were in danger she wanted to help them as soon as possible. Though, in the back of her mind, a small part of her felt bad that it happened on this particular day: her 92nd birthday. Sirius nodded and wiggled his fingers at the air. A tall, black portal opened in the air and Ciani walked through as soon as it was open. Sirius followed.

Ciani stepped out of the portal onto a lush green plain. Tall grass swayed in the breeze and the sun shone in the bright blue sky. The old woman could see herself enjoying the beautiful day if it wasn’t such an emergency. She decided to ask Sirius to bring her back some time after everyone was safe.

She saw the rest of her guild members around a raised wooden stage in the center of the field. Over 100 people were tied to chairs facing the white gnome on the stage. He was dancing around a single man; Roger, the guild leader. A swarm of golden nanos orbited around Roger’s neck. Ciani did not wait for Sirius; she ran to the stage as fast as her mechanical legs could carry her.

“METRO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” She shouted once she was close enough to the stage. The gnome stopped dancing and looked at the old woman; he stroked his golden goatee thoughtfully.

“Query: Unexpected. Metro’s behavior is obvious. Metro is dancing,” the gnome said. “Like you showed Metro.”

“Why are you dancing, Metro? Why are you keeping everyone tied up?” Ciani asked. “Why did you need to talk to me?”

“Ciani’s presence is required for Metro’s evil plan,” the gnome replied. Ciani took an uneasy step away from the stage.

“Evil?… You’re not evil…. are you?” She felt tears begin to form in the corner of her eyes. Despite him being a robot she and the rest of the guild treated him as one of them.

“Affirmative. Metro’s plan is evil. Metro is evil. Metro lied to Ciani. Ciani taught Metro liars are evil.” A flash of hope sparked in Ciani’s mind. If this was just a misunderstanding then things could go back to normal.

“When did you lie to me?” Ciani asked. She could not think of an instance where he might have lied.

“Metro lied to secure your presence. Metro’s evil plan brought you here.”

“Sirius brought me,” she said. Ciani realized Sirius hadn’t joined her by the stage. She looked behind her and saw the man tied to a nearby seat with Metro’s golden nanos.

“Why?” she faced the robot again.

“Metro planned evil gathering to celebrate Ciani’s day of birth. Metro kept secret; lied to Ciani. Guild members kept secret; lied to Ciani. Objective: Surprise Ciani.”

“Wha…” Ciani turned around.

“SURPRISE!!!!!” all the guild members were out of their chairs and clapping for the birthday girl.

Dragon’s Wrath

“We’re the first ones here!” The paladin in black armor lifted his visor to peer out across the wide open meadow. The golden sun hanging in the clear, blue sky sparkled on the giant dragon’s emerald hide. “It’s huuuuuuge. That thing wouldn’t fit in a football stadium.”

“It’s worth your own server. I’d be disappointed if it was any smaller,” Buck replied. He turned to the giant, pale, red-headed woman next to him. “Go get it before someone else tags ‘im.” She nodded and walked forward. They stood at the entrance to the meadow: a rocky ledge that extended from a narrow mountain tunnel. The dragon slept several miles away. The woman stepped to the edge, but Buck stopped her. “You gotta log in, Flutter. It won’t count otherwise.” She waved a dismissive hand at him.

“When I get there,” Flutter replied. Two sets of long, transparent insect wings grew out of her back then she leaped into the air. She flew straight toward the sleeping dragon.

“I’m Buck, by the way,” he said to the paladin. “I never got your name.” The mustached paladin turned and smiled at Buck.

“I’m Fern. You Unique?” Fern asked. “I’m #52.”

“#45,” Buck nodded. The ground shook and a deafening roar filled the meadow. They turned to see the very awake dragon roaring at an armored Flutter. She wore blood red plate armor and carried two shields. One in each hand and both of them half her considerable size. The dragon’s tail whipped forward to swat her away, but it bounced harmlessly off her left shield. She did not move an inch.

The dragon tried again to knock her away with its tail, but again Flutter stood her ground. The beast grew angry and roared at the sky. Black ash erupted from its mouth and filled the sky. It blocked out the sun and covered the meadow in darkness. The sound of footsteps behind Buck drew his and Fern’s attention. They turned and saw two women and a kid walking toward them with a large group behind them.

“You guys next?” The blonde knight asked. She wore silver chainmail armor and the paladin next to her wore thick, golden plate armor. The boy wore an elegant white and gold robe. Buck shook his head.

“There’s no ‘next’, he’s done for.”

“IS THAT FLUTTER!??” The female paladin yelled. She stepped to the edge while Buck answered the blonde’s question and saw the lone armored figure. Her armor glowed red in the darkness of the falling soot. Flutter stood still while the dragon tried everything it could to knock her away. Buck’s chest puffed out with pride and he nodded.

“That’s so cool! Totally unfair but so cool!”

“Raid disbanded,” the blonde yelled to the group behind her. “We’re not getting a shot.” A chorus of mumbles and murmurs ran through the crowd, but they turned to head back through the tunnel.

“I wanna watch!” the female paladin said. The blonde nodded.

“I know, me too.”

“Who’s Flutter?” the boy asked.

“She’s a fortress paladin that’s strong enough to solo a 20 person raid,” The blonde replied. The other three were watching the dragon assault Flutter.

“Whooaa. Can you do that, Rook?” The boy asked the female paladin. She shook her head, her dark dreadlocks wiggled on her head.

“She’s a Unique. Calavera,” she replied without taking her eyes off the action. The dragon’s swings were becoming slower, he appeared to be getting tired.

“Why’s she just standing there?” The boy asked. He approached the ledge to watch with the adults.

“Fortress paladins have a skill that lets them store up damage and dish it back out. Flutter can take a LOT of damage. Watch, I think shes’ going to use it. The dragon’s too tired already.”

In the center of the meadow, the dragon gave one final swipe with its claws then stopped. It supported itself with its front legs in order to rest a bit. The red glow on Flutter’s armor began to glow brighter.   She brought both shields in front of her and fit them together like two halves of a whole. Her glow flowed through her arms into the shield wall. A wide beam of red light fired from the towering shield and hit the dragon right in its face. The energy continued to flow until the glow left Flutter’s body entirely. Then the, now headless, dragon fell on its side.

Chomping Games

“She’s way O.P.,” Rook complained. She walked into the common room with Thumper and Grace; the rest of the 20-person raid broke up to do other things. “Ms. Sharp should make the nanos lock her out or something.” She tapped her golden breastplate to dismiss it, then plopped on one of the brown leather recliners. Her armor disintegrated into white powder that disappeared before she landed.

“Telling Flutter ‘No’ about something seems like a really bad idea,” Grace said. The Knight dismissed her own chainmail armor as she sat on a large sofa made from the same brown leather. “We did just watch her solo a 20-person raid.”

“Yeaaah,” Rook smiled broadly. “I’m the same spec as her, I’m gonna be that strong some day.” Rook shuffled in the chair. She grimaced as she struggled to get comfortable. After a moment she stood and looked at the other brown leather chair. “Is that one as lumpy as this one?” Grace shook her head, then brushed a blond bang out of her eyes; it settled there after the short movement.

“No, that one’s way more comfortable. No one likes that one,” Grace pointed at the uncomfortable seat.

“Heeey. That’s-” Thumper whined with hurt feelings, but Grace interrupted the boy.

“Hey! Where’s Chomper?” She asked.

“Who’s Chomper?” Rook asked. When the tall woman turned her attention to Grace the brown leather chair gave a slight quiver.

“He’s that-” Thumper turned to point at something by Rook, but Grace grabbed the nine-year-old’s hand.

“It’s okay, Thumper, we’ll find him. Don’t worry,” Grace pulled the boy close for a tight hug. She took the opportunity to whisper in his ear. “Rook’s new, remember? She hasn’t found Chomper yet.” The boy nodded and grinned. Then, he turned to face rook.

“Where’s Chomper?” he repeated. Again the chair trembled with excitement. “Please help me find him! Chomper’s the best pet in the whole world!” Rook’s bright yellow eyes rolled upward, but she shrugged.

“Okay, what am I looking for? Cat? Dog? Bird? Unicorn?” She began searching the room looking for any movement.

“He’s uhhh, kind of hard to describe,” Grace said. “He can change shape, but he’s easy to find. He likes playing games, so you have to walk around like you want to play a game. Say, ‘Where’s Chomper?’ and you’ll see him kind wiggle like he’s excited to play.” The brown leather chair jumped slightly behind Rook. She did not notice.  “Let’s each take part of the room, why don’t you start over there?” Grace pointed to the furthest corner in the room.

“‘Kay,” Rook nodded and walked to the dim corner. “Where’s Chomper?” she asked a bookshelf. Then she turned to a potted plant. “Where’s Chomper?” she asked. Grace and Thumper each giggled to themselves in their own corner. Rook was so distracted by her question that she did not notice Grace and Thumper were not asking for Chomper. They timed their pace to reach the center of the room at the same time as Rook.

“Any luck?” Grace asked. She looked eyes with Rook to keep her distracted. Rook shook her head, then she looked down at Thumper.

“Sorry kid, I’m done looking for now. Maybe I’ll help you later if he hasn’t shown up yet. I asked everything over there…,” she gestured at the far corner. “…’where’s Chomper?’ but nothing moved. She let herself fall on the lumpy recliner. The moment she touched it jagged ivory teeth sprouted out on each side of her and clamped shut to trap her.

“YOU FOUND CHOMPER!” Grace and Thumper shouted together. The recliner spit the woman out and rushed to Thumper. By the time the mimic reached him, it changed from a leather recliner to a small silver and gold treasure chest. The box bounced around Thumper while he petted it.