“…he feinted!” Emily burst into giggles at her own punchline. Kirk narrowed his eyes and tilted his head slightly.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “That can happen if you’re light-headed.” Emily rolled her eyes and shook her head; her long silver hair shimmered like a curtain with the motion.
“Light-headed monk?” she asked. “Monks don’t faint, they feint.”
“Oh,” Kirk nodded. “Okay, I get it. It just isn’t funny,” he said.
“Oh, what do you know?” Emily playfully shoved Kirk over. They both sat alone in the school gym. Faint red-orange light came in through the window as the sun was close to setting.
“Well, I heard your whole act…,” he shrugged. “…and that one? It was the worst part.” He glanced out the window.
“And, now I know why you didn’t answer when I said, “Sure, I have time. How long would it last?” he chuckled. “Trust me, you can cut that one easily, and a few other ones. But, all you did was tell me jokes for an hour. Aren’t you doing a magic show?””Yeah, but that’s easy,” Emily said. She reached behind her back while keeping her eyes locked on Kirk’s. When she brought her hand forward again she held several small toy sheep. “I’ve got a flock of tricks up my sleeve.”
“I don’t need the box?” Morgan asked. She and her guildmate, Cherry, stood on a lush hilltop beneath a bright azure sky. The hill overlooked a colorful plain dotted with all kinds of flowers; including a few that Morgan had never seen. Cherry nodded to answer Morgan’s question, her white ponytail bounced with her head.
“You..,” she stressed the word by poking Morgan’s shoulder. “…don’t need the box. You’re strong enough to pull from thin air,” Cherry said. At her words, Morgan reached up and tried to pluck something out of the air; nothing happened. Cherry giggled, then shook her head.
“You still have to follow the rules though,” she said. “Unique Soul #21, La Mano. You can pull things out of other universes, as long as your hands are out of sight. So, don’t let them see your hands.” Cherry made a slow turn with outstretched arms to gesture at the meadow around them. “I brought you here to practice. There’s no one else around. After her spin, Cherry looked up and locked eyes with Morgan. “Try it,” she said.
Morgan kept her focus on Cherry’s crystalline pink eyes and concentrated. She put her hands behind her back and focused on something delicious. Once she learned about her powers, food became the easiest to find. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than a steaming hot slice of pizza.
She imagined her fingers wiggling toward a slice that was just out of reach. All she had to do was stretch a tiny bit more; she splayed her fingers trying to imagine them brushing against a warm, dusty crust. Then, she felt her fingertip bump something.
Once contact was made, she moved quickly. Morgan leaned forward while she shoved her hand back to grab it. She clenched it, yelled, then pulled it out.
“OOOOWWW!!” She threw the hot slice down on the soft grass and rapidly shook her hand to try and get the molten cheese and sauce off her fingers. Cherry noticed the back of her hand was bright red and immediately burst into giggles.
“Next time, try and pick a slice that isn’t still in the oven.”
“Perfect fit,” Archie grinned. He moved his arm up and down quickly to test the strength of the shield straps. The shield itself was useless; he dug it out of a box of scraps. The town smiths would come by in the morning to pick through the remnants of the day’s tournament. That’s why Archie was picking through the box in the middle of the night. All the lords, ladies, knights, and servants were gone from the jousting grounds.
Archie was there all day. He couldn’t get enough of the loud clanking armor and cheering crowds. He longed to compete and stand in the spotlight; to be cheered on and accepted. He spent the evening after the tournament wandering from hiding place to hiding place. Archie felt more comfortable using his human form; plus it was easier to hide in. But he knew two things for a fact. People existed that could see through that disguise, and, it could be anyone from servant to noble. He wouldn’t now until it was too late, so he kept hidden to avoid the situation entirely.
Until the last cleaner left. Archie waited for another hour to be sure, then he approached the box of scraps. During the tournament, he spotted several pieces that he hoped were damaged enough to be tossed into the box. One of them was the champion’s shield. It was not damaged so much as slightly defaced. But, it was the champion’s shield. He only ever used them once because he liked to keep his image strong and new. Archie kicked himself for not realizing the opportunity sooner.
“What the hell?” A girl’s voice broke the midnight silence. It startled Archie and he whirled around while raising the scratched shield. He was surprised to see a teenage girl and a young woman. The younger girl wore a blood-red hoodie. The hood was down revealing her bone-white ponytail. “It’s not supposed to be guarded by a dragon,” the girl said.
Archie did not know what she was talking about, but he didn’t have to. As soon as the word ‘dragon’ left her lips he threw the shield down and leaped into the air away from them. Leathery, bright blue wings sprouted out of his back and he flew as fast as he can. He noticed, too late, that a patch of sky directly in front of him was darker than the rest. He realized it the moment he flew through it and found himself hovering in front of the two girls again.
“Hey, we didn’t mean to scare you,” the white-haired girl said. The young woman was holding the shield up; offering it to Archie.
“You got here first, go ahead. We’ll wait for the next one.” the blond woman said.
Archie hesitated for a moment but allowed himself to land. If nothing else, he trusted the fact that they hadn’t called for any guards yet. And, he already learned he couldn’t get away if he wanted to. He was still wary of a trap, but they didn’t know what he could do yet. He took a step forward and accepted the shield.
“I’m Morgan, that’s Cherry,” the blonde woman introduced them to him.
“Hi. Archie,” he returned the introduction with a nod. He looked at the shield, then back at Morgan. “It’s… really okay for me to take this?” he asked. Morgan shrugged and nodded.
“That’s why it’s here,” she said, then smiled. “That shield’s useful for a lot of different quests, which one are you working on?”
“Uh..,” Archie looked down at the shield, then back at Morgan.
“Quests? Is there a reward for this? The champion throws it away after every tournament,” he said.
“Uhh..,” Morgan repeated Archie’s confusion; then she turned to Cherry and shrugged. Cherry giggled.
“Give him some time. He just woke up.”
“OOOOOHHhhh,” Morgan said. She turned back toward Archie with an even wider grin. “Congratulations!” she said. Archie tilted his head.
“For what?” he asked.
“For coming to life! Now you can do anything you want,” Morgan explained. Archie narrowed his eyes at her for a moment, then shook his head.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about or where you came from; but, life doesn’t work like that here. If it were that easy, I’d be a knight already.”
“That’s your big dream? Being a knight?” Morgan asked. She managed to use a sincere tone that told Archie she wasn’t mocking him. He nodded.
“More than anything,” he replied. Morgan looked at Cherry and they exchanged looks. After a moment, she turned back to Archie.
“Do you have any reasons to stay here?” she asked. Archie chuckled. It was the first time that night; and, the first time in decades. He had no friends to make him laugh. It was hard finding the humor in anything while worrying about whether he’d live through the day. But, Mogan’s question triggered a smart ass response that he couldn’t help but laugh at.
“Just the fact that I have nowhere else to go,” he said. It was true. He’d tried hiding all over the world, but he never stayed in any place for too long.
“Yeah you do,” Morgan said. “We could use a knight on our team,” she said.
“I’m not a knight…,” Archie said. Morgan shrugged.
“We don’t need one right now,” she giggled. “We need one when you’re ready. Come on.” Morgan tilted her head toward Cherry. Cherry was only half there, and Archie watched her other half disappear into the same pitch darkness that brought him back to them. Morgan started to follow her.
“Where?” Archie asked. Morgan’s answer echoed out of the portal as she disappeared.
“That’s it? That was easy!” Valentine jumped out of the black portal carrying a pizza box. Emily followed her out and onto the cracked, aged walkway. Old grey and brown cement led directly to the single-story house. The yard on both sides of the path was over-grown with waist-high weeds and the house itself looked abandoned. The sun was setting in the purple sky but no lights were on inside the house.
“It’s easy, but don’t forget to reclaim it,” Emily said. The silver-haired girl put her hand into the portal. The hole began to shrink until it was a small black business card in the palm of her hand. “Kirk forgot a couple of times and we needed to call for a ride.”
“Is that why he couldn’t come with you?” Valentine asked. She wouldn’t call Emily a friend quiet yet, they’d only met a few days ago. She was surprised when Emily asked if Valentine wanted to join her for work; her usual partner couldn’t make it. She eagerly agreed when she found out Emily delivered pizza to different universes. Emily shook her head; loose strands of silver shimmered in the sunlight.
“Nah, Mundo said he needed more training with Frost and Keys,” she said. “Speaking of…,” Emily added as she started up the path to the door. “… Mundo said she offered you a spot on the team too. Are you going to join?” Valentine shrugged. They reached the door and Emily pressed the doorbell.
“I don’t know… I haven’t even picked a class yet,” she whined. “I don’t-” Valentine stopped speaking when the door opened. An older woman with stringy gray hair opened the door. She wore tattered denim overalls and her mouth dropped at the sight of the two girls.
“You ordered a pizza?” Valentine asked and held up the box.
“I’M NOT ALONE!” the woman wailed and rushed forward to hug Emily, because she did not have a pizza box to fend off the woman. The old woman began sobbing as she embraced Emily. For her part, Emily rolled her eyes at Valentine.
“It’s okay, Ma’am. You’re safe,” Emily said as she tried to gently push the woman off of her. “Are you the last person on this Earth?” she asked.
“Whoa..,” Valentine whispered to herself in surprise. She never considered the possibility of running into the last person on Earth.
“Yes.. I think so. I haven’t seen anyone else in years…” her voice cracked. Emily nodded and reached into her pocket for her node.
“Well, you brought us to the wrong place,” she told Valentine with a smile. “But it’s okay because we can help her real quick…,” Emily said while tapping at her node. “…and then get the pizza to the right place.” She turned her attention to the old woman.
“Go pack anything important to you, your ride will be here in a couple of minutes,” she said.
“R..really?” she asked with wide, tearful eyes. Emily nodded and the woman rushed back into her home.
“Are they going to be mad you need another ride?” Valentine asked, Emily shook her head.
“This isn’t work,” She tilted her head at the house. “I’ve run into the ‘the last person on Earth’…,” Emily said with air quotes. “…a few times. Enough that I wanted to be ready if it happens again. I found someone at the Star Academy that’ll take them in and get them settled on an Earth they like somewhere.” As Emily finished her explanation a tall black portal opened next to them.
A lithe, lean, tall woman walked out of the portal. She wore a tattered, faded green backpack on her back, and golden stars glowed in her eyes. Valentine’s mouth dropped when she saw the woman and she made a choking sound in the back of her throat.
“Cassiopeia….,” she whispered in awe.
“Hey Cassie!,” Emily smiled at the woman. “Sorry for the short notice, but I still have a delivery to make,” she said apologetically. Cassie nodded and smiled at the two girls.
“That’s alright, keep up the good work,” she said, then glanced at Valentine.
“Hola, Corazón,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“#27 El Corazón!” Valentine stood up straighter and nervously blurted out her number. Emily and Cassie both chuckled.
“I know,” Cassie said then pointed at her glowing eyes.
“This is Valentine,” Emily said. “I guess she’s a fan.”
“Oh?” Cassie asked. “Are you on a team?” Valentine shook her head.
“That’s a real shame,” she said. “There aren’t enough Corazóns in the league.”
“Hello!? I’m ready!” the old woman shouted from within the house, then she appeared at the door.
“Ma’am, this is Cassie. She’ll get you somewhere safe and populated,” Emily said then pulled out the black card.
“I’m on a team!” Valentine shouted once the portal was opened. “I’m on Emily’s team!” Cassie smiled at her and nodded.
“That’s good to hear,” she said.
“C’mon,” Emily said and dragged Valentine into the portal.
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.
“I won’t say nothing!” Charlie huffed with a bloody smile. The mid-20s thug was chained to a brick wall in a bathroom-sized room. Two black-masked strangers, one male one female, questioned him. “You’re gonna hafta kill me, ’cause I can take a ton of pain. More than you can dish out! Haha” he coughed and laughed at the same time.
The woman stepped forward with a smirk; she made a show of holding her right hand up in front of Charlie. He noticed a small tattoo on the base of her thumb as she slipped on a blue surgical glove. The tattoo was just the number 21 in blue ink. She tightened the glove and flexed her fingers prompting Charlie to laugh again.
“I don’t care how much you cut me open, I ain’t talkin’,” he said.
“Cut you open?” the woman asked. It was the first time Charlie heard her beautiful voice. Part of him wished he could have met her under different circumstances. The masked man that roughed Charlie up before the woman arrived held out a black canvas bag in front of her. “Oh, we don’t need to do that,” she dipped her glove hand into the bag. Charlie felt the strangest sensation. It wasn’t pain, but pressure. Somehow he felt something poking at his heart.
The woman pulled her hand out of the bag and locked eyes with Charlie. He watched her bring a blood-red fingertip to her mouth and lick it clean.
“If that wasn’t clear enough,” She said. At her comment, the man holding the bag flipped it over and turned it inside out. There was no secret reservoir of fake blood in the bag. Then he held the inverted black bag out again for the woman. She pushed her hand in and immediately Charlie felt fingertips caressing his heart.
“Now, I’m sure you can take a lot but pain is my career,” Charlie lost his breath for a moment and saw stars when she gently squeezed his heart, then she released it. The woman leaned closer to his ear and whispered. “You think we’re going to break your legs? Smash your fingers, maybe pull your fingernails out? You wish.”
Charlie screamed in agony. Searing, stabbing pain radiated from his gut; he leaned forward trying to protect and cradle the spot but he could not move his arms. The woman pulled a bloody, broken, jagged rib from the bag then casually tossed it on the floor. She wiggled her red fingers at Charlie and winked.
“You only have 23 more ribs, but don’t worry. If you’re not ready to talk after we ask you 23 more times, you have other organs you can live without.” She put her hand back in the bag.
“To save time, I’m just going to start taking you apart piece by piece,” Charlie screamed again as she pulled out another rib. “You can tell us where to find her whenever you want me to stop.”
“He has another phone?!” Sasha whined to herself as the well-dressed gentleman pulled out a third phone from his coat. The thin glassy cellphone did not look like any phone Sasha recognized. That, along with the gentleman’s apparent wealth made him an easy choice for her. The teenage girl found herself wishing she could check the other two she stole because the third one looked so much like them. But those phones were long gone; handed off to couriers that already disembarked. Internally, Sasha fumed that he had so much money that he didn’t seem concerned about losing two phones already. “I’ll just have to take that one too,” she decided. Hitting the same mark a third time was risky, but she did not have any evidence on her.
Sasha glanced around the train and found a scrawny jr-high student in a red beanie playing on his phone near the rich man. A pin shaped like a hand was affixed to his beanie. She’d never met the kid before, and probably never would; but, his pin advertised him as a courier. Sasha whistled casually, seemingly to herself, and the kid looked up. They locked eyes and Sasha glanced at the gentleman. The kid nodded then focused on his game again.
The next stop was coming up and Sasha started to work her way to the stranger. As the train began to slow, the student in the red beanie stood up and put his phone away; he caught Sasha’s eye and nodded again. The train came to a full stop and Sasha moved with the crowd.
“Oh, sorry,” Sasha apologized. She bumped into the gentleman, dipped into his pocket, then handed his phone off to the passing kid as he left the train. In less than 10 seconds the man’s third phone was off the train.
“No problem, it happens a lot,” the gentleman smiled at her. Sasha felt bold. Stealing from the same mark three times, with no evidence left her feeling cocky. She returned the gentleman’s smile and sat down on the seat her anonymous partner left open; directly in front of the man. She wanted to watch him freak out when he discovered all three of his phones missing. Sasha knew he’d suspect her, but she had nothing to worry about.
When the train started forward to its next stop; Sasha felt a furious fire growing in her stomach. The stranger pulled out a fourth phone, exactly like the others; without even wondering about the first three. He even pulled it from the same pocket. Sasha didn’t feel anything else in there each time she stole a phone. She clenched her teeth and balled her fists.
“How much money does this guy have?” she wondered. “That’s a cool phone!” she said out loud before she could think about what she was doing. She stood from her seat to stand closer to him.
“Thanks,” he smiled at her. “It’s not a phone, though, it’s called a node.” He willingly handed the small glassy rectangle to her, Sasha noticed a tattoo of the number 21 on his hand. The node was slightly larger than a playing card but almost as thin, and completely transparent. He tapped the screen and the display lit up to show the time, like a regular phone.
“Oh, so you can’t make calls on it?” Sasha asked. She decided since she was already in the conversation she might as well learn about it.
“You can,” he said. “You can do everything that can be done on a regular smartphone, or even a computer.”
“So why not just call it a phone?” she asked. She returned the node.
“Because, unlike smartphones, it works with other nodes. Sasha narrowed her eyes and tilted her head at the gentleman.
“I make calls to other phones all the time,” she said. The man chuckled and shook his head.
“Not like that, I mean it works with other nodes. They share processing power. The more nodes you have, the more you can do.”
“Ohhhhh,” Sasha realized why he had so many.
“I’d show you how it works, but I only have the one,” he said with a shrug. “But it’s great. Everyone can set a public allotment to share their processing power with anyone around them.” Sasha could not hold back a giant grin. She only had one more to steal. She could do that and get off at the next stop. He might be able to identify her, but he’ll never be able to prove it.
“Oh, you only have one? Why? What happened to the rest?” The man laughed.
“Unfortunately I only have the one right now. I haven’t been able to save up for another one yet.”
“What?” Sasha was confused enough that the question actually left her mouth. “What?” she asked. “I mean, uh, WOW. That’s a really cool gadget.” He nodded, smiled, and slipped the node back into his pocket. Sasha realized the train was slowing down again for the next stop. “He’s probably putting it away so no one walks off with it,” Sasha smiled to herself. She focused on the task at hand; the mystery of the other nodes could wait. She knew she could get the one that he had.
Thankfully, the crowd around her helped once the train came to a stop. The flow of passengers forced Sasha to rub against him as they moved toward the exit. Sasha smiled and shrugged apologetically, keeping his attention on her eyes. Her hand dipped into his pocket again, grabbed the node, then it was back in her own pocket.
“Uh, see you around, I guess!” she half waved at the stranger while fighting against the crowd with exaggerated motions. She let them force her off the train.
“I look forward to it!” he smiled back. The doors closed and Sasha turned around. She pulled out the node, grinned at it, then put it back in her pocket. She debated keeping it for herself as she climbed the stairs out of the subway. She stepped out into the sunlight and the kid with the red beanie came running at her. He was wheezing and panting.
“Where’d it go!?” he asked her.
“Where’d what go?”
“The phone you handed off, it’s gone!”
“What do you mean it’s gone?” She asked him but reached back into her pocket to double-check. Instead of the cool, solid glass she expected, she felt a flimsy scrap of paper. “What the hell?” she pulled it out and noticed writing on it in pen. The paper looked like it was torn from the corner of a full sheet. Sasha read the note.
“Stop stealing my node, please,” it said. “I’m just going to steal it back.”
Morgan stretched her arms upward and used the action to lift herself to a sitting position in bed. The 18-year old woman yawned and rested her back against the headboard, then finally checked her cards. It took her almost three months after her 15th birthday to get used to the fact that she woke up with an assortment of cards. She splayed the five cards in her hand and flipped them over to check the backs, then sighed. She’d woken with a wide variety of cards over the past few years, but she narrowed them down into categories sorted by the artwork on the back.
“Druid and Healer,” she mumbled. She saw three green cards with elegant linework that made her think of a dense forest, and two white cards with red crosses on them. “Boring,” Morgan rearranged them by group, then turned them over to see what they were. The druid cards on the right side sparkled with golden text on a forest-green background. Each card showed different artwork illustrating the general concept of the card.
“Spider Climb, Hawk Form, and Rat Swarm,” she read the names and glanced at the rule text on the lower half of the cards. She shrugged at the duration then looked at the two healer cards. They had no artwork and consisted of red text on a clean white background that reminded Morgan of a hospital. “Handy,” she smiled at the pair of cards. “Infinite Stamina and Revive Death, whoa!” It was the first time she’d seen the Revive Death card. Seeing the new card invigorated her. She was starting to think she had seen all the cards already. Suddenly excited about her day, Morgan hopped out of bed to get ready.
When it became clear the cards would keep appearing, Morgan assumed the cards were meant to guide her day somehow. She tried to find uses for the cards to make sure she used them all every day, but over time it became clear they were entirely random. If the Revive card appeared when she was 15 or 16, she would have been worried sick the entire day.
“I guess I’m going to the park,” she decided while showering. The park had several rock-climbing walls and a giant jogging track around it that passed some very scenic views. She’d used both Spider Climb and Infinite Stamina several times to get a good workout, but this would be the first time she got to use them together.
An hour later she arrived at the park and headed straight for the rock climbing walls. Twelve walls of varying heights lined a broad cobblestone path; six on each side. Morgan stood in front of the tallest wall and pulled the cards out of her pocket. She did not bother with being discrete, it never mattered before.
It was a sunny, cool Saturday morning and plenty of visitors milled around the park. Dozens of joggers and others simply taking a stroll walked along the path in different directions behind her.
“Infinite Stamina!” a deep, booming, male voice spoke when Morgan ‘played’ her first card. She didn’t know where the voice came from, but she knew she was the only one that could hear it. She used cards several times in front of her parents, friends, and in public, and no one ever seemed to notice the voice. When the voice spoke she felt a tingle travel down her spine, then radiate out into the rest of her body. “Spider Climb!” the voice said when she used the second card. She returned the rest of the cards to her pocket, then shook her hands and legs to loosen them up and took a step forward to start her climb.
“You’re wasting cards on a wall?” a girl asked as Morgan reached for her first grip. She pulled her arm down and turned to face the voice. A young girl in a blood-red hoodie smiled at her. “Don’t you want something more challenging?” she asked Morgan.
“Wh-what?” Morgan asked. “What are you talking about?” She knew what the girl was talking about, but she wondered what exactly the girl knew about the cards.
“It’s kind of overkill, isn’t it?” the girl in the hoodie shrugged. “I mean, unless you need infinite stamina and spider climb to get up the wall,” she gave Morgan an appraising look up and down. “I don’t think you do.”
“You..heard,-” Morgan started to ask but changed her question. The girl obviously heard the card names. “Why aren’t you surprised?” she asked. The girl shrugged.
“What’s surprising? Card Mage is pretty much the de facto class for Manos,” she said.
“Wh-what?” Morgan needed to ask again. She didn’t understand any of the words in that context.
“#21, La Mano? Your abilities fit perfectly with the Card Mage class.”
“How’d you know my favorite number? What’s a Card Mage?” The girl’s eyes widened and she giggled.
“Now that is a surprise. You don’t know what you are or where you are?” she asked. “Does ‘The AlterNet’ sound familiar?” she added when Morgan didn’t respond right away. Morgan shook her head.
“Whoa…,” the girl replied, then she stuck her hand out. “I’m Cherry,” she said. Morgan shook the girl’s hand tentatively.
“Morgan,” she introduced herself.
“How’d you like to do something more fun with your cards?” Cherry asked.
“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.