Moderated Discussion

“It’s not my problem,” Gavin grumbled backward over his shoulder.  The princess sat bound and unfortunately, not gagged, in the back of his wagon. Gavin was thankful to see the city growing in the distance. They would be in the capital before dusk and he would be rich enough to celebrate a wonderful evening.

Gavin did not bother to gag her because he did not expect her to talk so incessantly over the two-day journey back from the dragon’s lair. He’d saved princesses a time or six but they usually shut up after about an hour of not being talked to. Not that they had a conversation. It was two days of her talking at him about how boring and repetitive her royal life was. She renewed her attempts to talk him out of returning her as soon as the city spires came into view.

“Of course it’s your problem!” the princess replied. “I’m just going to sit in my room bored for a day until the dragon comes and kidnaps me again. Aren’t you tired of saving me?” she asked. Gavin slowed the horses a bit, then turned around to face the princess.

“What did you say?” he asked. A smirk grew on the princess’ face.

“Aren’t you tired of saving me?” she repeated. “Or, do you just like throwing me over your shoulder?” she added.

“You…. you remember?” Gavin asked. The princess nodded.

“I’m tired of sitting in the castle and in the dragon’s lair; I feel like that’s all I’ve seen my entire life. There’s more out there,” she said. “I want to see the AlterNet.”

“WHOA!” Gavin pulled the reins hard and halted the wagon. He hopped off the cart and dashed around to the back to stare at the princess on more even footing.

“Where did you hear that word?” he asked. Slight fear filled her eyes and she pulled back slightly.

“I-..I don’t know,” she said. “I just know it.”

“Aughh,” Gavin gave a heavy sigh. “Well, at least that explains why you wouldn’t shut up,” he said. The princess noticed he was suddenly more relaxed and she felt more at ease.

“Does that mean you’ll help me?’ she asked. Gavin sighed again, then nodded.

“Yeah. Now that I know how,” he said. He reached under his cloak and pulled out a transparent card.

“That’s a node!” the princess said eagerly. She scooted closer to the edge of the cart to get a better look. Gavin kept his attention on the node, but didn’t try to hide it from her; his thumbs tapped quickly on its surface. “What are you doing?’ she asked.

“Getting someone to help,” he said.

“Thank you!” the princess replied with a bright smile. She extended her bound hands in a friendly gesture. “My name’s Princess,” she said. Despite his situation, Gavin couldn’t help but chuckle. He reached out and shook her bound wrists.

“Of course it is,” he said with a smile. After they shook hands, a disappointed look took over her face.

“Aren’t you going to untie me?” she asked.

“Hi,” a new voice made both of them jump. They turned toward the speaker and saw a chubby, curly-haired teenager wave at them.

“Mod Aury,” he said. “NPC troubles?”

“What?” Princess asked. She looked at Gavin for guidance and saw him nodding at Aury and pointing at her. “What does he mean?” the question was out before she registered he was talking about her.

“He’s going to help me get you back to your father,” Gavin replied.

“WHAT!?” Princess’ heart sank from the betrayal. She turned toward Aury hoping to make an appeal. A large grey glass hovered in front of him as his fingers moved across it.

“I don’t know you, but please, Aury. Don’t make me go back there,” she begged.

“Done,” Aury said. He tapped the glass slate one more time and it disintegrated into nothing.

“Thanks!” Gavin said. He gave Aury a friendly wave, then headed back to the front of the wagon.

“Why have we stopped?!” Princess asked. “Make haste! If we reach the city before dusk I’ll make my father give you a bonus reward!”

Alarming Awakening

Miles hesitated at the mouth of the cave. Logically, he knew there was nothing to fear, but his brain could not seem to communicate that to his pounding heart. Miles Howard was the richest man on Earth, but no one knew it. He’d spent his life amassing a fortune and staying in the background.

Stalactites hanging around the entrance gave the cave a frightful, toothy look. Miles really did not want to venture into it, but he knew his options were limited. Extremely limited; if he did not enter the cave, he’d probably be dead within a week.

“Might as well get it over with…,” Miles mumbled to himself then entered the cave. He walked as straight a path as he could manage with his flashlight guiding him over the rocky interior. It took him over an hour of darkness to notice a faint light in the distance. The inky emptiness stretched for nearly another hour before Miles stepped into flickering torchlight. A dozen tall, lit torches circled a great red beast. A sleeping dragon with blood-red scales and wings.

Miles sighed to himself as he stared at it. Its sleeping form was at least twice his height at the bulkiest end, but it was still considered small, medium at best, by dragon standards.

*ahem* Miles cleared his throat. He wasn’t trying to be quiet, but he did not make an effort to be loud either; the dragon did not stir. Its steady breathing continued undisturbed. Miles watched its body rise and fall with the breath a few times, then he tried again.

*AHEM* This time he injected more volume into the action; the dragon continued to sleep. “Geeze,” Miles grumbled. Then, he remembered how loud his cellphone was. He already knew he couldn’t get service anywhere near the cave, but it could still make sounds. He found the loudest alarm he had and promptly tested it.

Loud, staccato buzzing filled the cavern around him, as did a slight groan. The dragon moved.

“I’m up, I’m up,…,” the dragon spoke with a tired, feminine voice, then it rolled over on its back and curled up facing the other way. Miles took a few steps back, but did not shut off the alarm.

“I’M AWAKE!” The dragon roared at the same time it stretched its arms and hind legs up. Its long tail nearly knocked down a torch as it stretched out. That seemed to satisfy Miles and he shut the alarm off. It lingered for a moment on its back, then rolled around to stand on all fours to stretch its wings. Finally, a pair of pale blue eyes turned to land on Miles.

“Why am I awake,” the dragon asked. Miles only had news with no way of knowing how she would react; he hoped it was good news. He took in a deep breath, just in case it was his last, then nodded at the dragon.

“Chroma has summoned the Chrome Court,” he said.

“Ooooohhhhhhhhh. Shit,” the dragon replied with obvious disappointment. “Do you know why?” The messenger did give Miles a reason, but he didn’t know what it meant. He shrugged and nodded.

“The Conquistadors are free,” he said.

“UUugghh,” The dragon grumbled like an over-dramatic teenager. “Fine, fine. I’ll go.”  Miles nodded, then stood still and continued to wait.

“Can I get some privacy please? I need to change,” the dragon asked.

“Is that it?” Miles asked.

“Is what it?”

“I woke you up. That was the favor, right? The first time, you helped me and said I’d need to help you in the future; that was the wake-up call, right?”

“How long has it been?” the dragon asked.

“Three thousand years,” Miles replied. He knew that she would probably take away whatever magic kept him alive long enough to serve her, but he’d had time to see and do everything he wanted. He was glad he only had to kill 3000 years, the original wakeup date was much later. However, this message fell into the ’emergency’ category that she laid out for him.

“Yes, and no,” the dragon replied. “Technically, I intended to let you go after the planned wakeup call; but, this isn’t a wakeup call, it’s an interrupted nap. You’re still on the hook, buddy,” she said. Miles couldn’t even begin to act surprised. 3000 years gave him a lot of time to think and dragons are well-known for changing their minds. Miles sighed and nodded, then turned around to give her privacy.

“Besides,” she added once his back was turned. “If this isn’t a false alarm, tagging along with me is the safest place to be,” she said.

Dungeons & Exposition

“A whole month? With you?” Dread asked Jenny. She sounded eager for a moment, then corrected her statement. “..and Astrid?” she glanced at the short girl next to them. The three girls stood on an endless amber plain underneath a dim purple sky.

“The window’s open for 30 days,” Jenny shook her head. The stiff black peaks that made up her hair wobbled with the motion. “But, we don’t need to stay for the whole month. Ms. Sharp wants to add dungeon matches to the tournament since she’s restarting it anyway. The dungeon server opening up has some good starter ruins to get used to the differences.”

“What kind of differences?” Astrid asked. Then, she let out a small giggle and shrugged. “Though, I haven’t played a real derby match yet either. It’s all new to me,” she shrugged. Jenny nodded.

“In a derby match, relative power levels stay consistent for the players and any monsters on the track. In a dungeon Match, every time you level up, it’s like descending a dungeon. Random monsters will start spawning instead of only player summoned ones. Then, the monsters start getting tougher as you get deeper. But they also start dropping better gear that makes the players stronger too.”

“So we get stronger too?” Dread asked. “Won’t that cancel out the stronger monsters?” Jenny shook her head.

“The other team gets stronger too, right?” Astrid asked.

“The big rule for derby is: ‘It isn’t a race.’,” Jenny replied. “Dungeon matches kind of are. If one team levels up faster they make stronger monsters and have better gear. The other team will have trouble keeping up with everything against them; we don’t want to be that team.”

“Should I have picked a faster class?” Astrid asked.

“Nah,” Jenny shook her head with a giggle. “Stop asking, you already picked Swordmage. You can’t change your class, so for the last time,” she said with mild exasperation. “It’s not about what role you fill, it’s about having fun.”

Astrid nodded, her tight black curls bounced. She caught Jenny’s mild annoyance. It bruised her feelings a bit, but Astrid knew her new friend meant well. And, she knew that she’d probably asked Jenny what class would best help the team one too many times during character creation.

“I can’t wait,” Dread said. “We going now?”

“What about the rest of the team?” Astrid asked. Jenny shrugged.

“Bailey has a ton of dungeon matches under her belt already; she doesn’t need the practice. Britt’s always working, but Dirge can probably use some dungeon time.”

“Oh, no. She’s busy,” Dread said quickly. “Uhh.. I think she wants to hang out with Vegas more. I think we should go just you and me. And Astrid,” Dread added.

“Actually, Astrid reminded me of something,” Jenny said. “It’s best to take a full team so we can talk about synergies too. We’ve got 30 days, and I’ve already reached out to some of the other guilds about practicing at the Schoolyard. We’ll try to plan it for a day when we get at least one full team together, two would be great.”

“Oh. So, what now?” Astrid asked.

“We can still do some training,” Dread said. “I mean, I have time. If you want to?” She looked at Jenny first, then she turned to Astrid. “Unless you have to leave?”

“I apologize girls,” a woman’s ethereal voice echoed around them. “Playtime’s over, this one has chores,”

“Chores?” Astrid looked up at the purple sky in confusion. Then, she sank into a black portal that appeared underneath her feet. It disappeared after swallowing her. Jenny shook her head in awe.

“You know…,” Jenny said. “I understand Ballisea can do that anytime from anywhere. But seeing it happen is going to take some getting used to. Can she hear us too?”

“Yeah,” Dread nodded with a more serious expression than she wore moments before. The truth was, she didn’t know if Ballisea could hear them across universes until the moment Astrid disappeared. But, Ballisea spoke something to her only. A faint whisper emanating from within her ear canal; a microscopic black portal that carried Ballisea’s voice.

“Little Calavera,” Ballisea giggled in Dread’s ear. “You would do well to heed my advice. If you wish to spend time alone with that one, ask her. For now, I will grant you this trivial favor of removing Astrid.”

Scripted Event. Scripted Love.

“It’s about damn time,” Ingrid grinned at Mason. The two close friends sat in the park at a concrete picnic table in the shade of a large mesquite tree. “You kind of picked a bad time to ask, but,…” she leaned forward and kissed Mason’s tan, flushed cheek. “Of course,” she said.

Mason exhaled a sigh of relief, which quickly gave way to regret. Her answer made it clear he should have asked long ago, not when the world was about to end. Not that she knew that.

“I’m in the middle of a big project this week, but I’m free all day next Friday. I want to spend it with you,” she said. She remained close by his side after she pecked his cheek. Mason felt ecstatic and crushed at the same moment.

His father made him promise not to tell anyone. Mason’s dad was one of the scientists that discovered the impending Gamma burst. He was important enough to be on the team, but not important enough to join the politicians and their wealthy friends in bunkers. His father gathered the family, Mason, his mother, and sister at the table the previous evening. He explained that nothing could be done. Even the bunkers wouldn’t offer any protection from the massive burst, the Earth was doomed. The governments of the world decided to keep the information secret, panic wouldn’t help anything.

“Oh, what are you working on?” Mason asked. “Is it important?” Ingrid rolled her eyes but giggled.

“If it wasn’t important, we could have gone out tonight, or tomorrow,” she replied. “It took you three years to ask me out. Get a clue, handsome,” she said. “I like you. A lot. Just bad timing right now,” she said.

“But like.  Important for this week… or important for your future?” Mason pressed. He was ready and willing to break his promise to his dad, but he wouldn’t unless he thought it would help. Ingrid tilted her head at him and leaned back a bit.

“Since when are you pushy about anything?” she asked. It was a valid point. Mason remained passive for most of their friendship. He fulfilled his end of conversation but did little to help carry it. He’d always been comfortable letting questions go unanswered.

Mason sighed. He didn’t have time to try and deny a change; and, he had a pretty compelling reason for it.

“Since yesterday…,” he said. “…my dad gave us some news.” Ingrid was smart, it was a big part of the reason Mason enjoyed her company so much. She knew his family well, and what his dad did for a living. She leaned closer to him again and took his hand in hers.

“How bad is it?” she asked. Mason looked up from the ground and turned to meet her auburn eyes.

“Apocalyptic,” he replied. She yanked her hand out of his and hopped up from the bench. She took two steps forward, then paced a tight circle. She left Mason confused. That was her, ‘I’m thinking and I’m angry,’ walk. It helped that she was always communicative.

“GRAAgghh!” she let out the frustrated grumble. Finally, she stopped pacing in front of Mason and looked down at him.

“You waited until the end of the world to ask me out!??” she stared at him with an odd mix of amusement and anger that he’d never seen in her before. Her auburn eyes seemed a shade or two more red.

Sorry?” Mason shrugged. He didn’t know what else she wanted from him. She rolled her eyes again and shook her head, but a faint smile tugged up at the corners of her lips. She sat down next to him again. In the same motion, her hand slipped into her pocket and pulled out a glass card. Mason had seen it a few times over the years, but it was one of the things he was comfortable letting go unanswered. He assumed she’d tell him about it when she wanted to.

“You’re so going to make it up to me for making me wait until the last minute,” she mumbled while her focus stayed on the card. Mason never saw her use it before; she tapped and swiped at it like a cellphone.

“…What exactly are you mad about?” Mason asked. He got the impression that she wasn’t upset at him specifically, but he was just the closest target.

“Because if I couldn’t fix it, we’d have less than a week together apparently,” she said idly. “It’s just an infuriating thought. What’s going to happen exactly; and, when?” she asked. Ingrid paused her movements but kept her thumbs on the card waiting for his answer.

“…gamma-ray burst… Thursday…” he said. “…what do you mean, fix it?” her thumbs jumped into action again at the answer. After several more taps, she nodded to herself, then dropped the glass card to her lap and look at him.

“I mean, save the Earth. So, what are we doing Friday?” she asked.

How are you going to save the Earth? You have some secret superpowers I don’t know about?” Ingrid grabbed his hand again, with her left hand. She made a ‘so-so’ gesture with her right.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, but I want to tell you,” she said.

“Ingrid Toft?” Mason jumped slightly when an unknown kid called Ingrid. He looked up and saw a chubby teenager with a mountain of dark-brown curls on his head standing by their table. She hopped up and nodded at him. “You called a mod?” he asked, then extended his hand. “Aurelio Luna.”

“I submitted a ticket that explained the situation,” she said while shaking his hand. He nodded.

“It’s not a bug,” he said. “Since you discovered it, I can tell you that Sharp Development is planning a surprise event on this server next Thursday.”

“So.. we’re going to be okay?” Ingrid asked. Aurelio shook his head.

“Nope. The end of the world is the event. Players will be prompted to change servers as it winds down.”

“Oh. Then we’ll just change servers before then to avoid it. Thanks,” Ingrid grinned.

“You’re welcome,” Aurelio nodded. A black portal opened in the air next to him and he turned to walk into it. He paused halfway in and looked out at Ingrid.

“But, that only applies to players,” he said. Then, he nodded at Mason. “Not NPCs.” Then, he disappeared into the portal and it closed behind him.

Sharp Moon

“Prove it,” Norma said. She smirked at Aurelio, a chubby, curly-haired boy sitting across the table from her. Norma glanced left and right at the students around them. They sat outside in the school’s courtyard waiting for the morning bell. It was a cool, crisp Monday morning, and Aurelio had been excited to tell Norma about his weekend. “Or, let me guess,” she added, then filled her voice with sarcasm: ‘They’re too many people around’. Right?” she giggled.

Aurelio shook his head and pulled out a small glass card. It was completely transparent until he tapped on it, then a display lit up. He continued to tap and swipe the screen, slowly. He took a moment here and there to check he was tapping the right icons; he only owned the node for a couple of days.

“What’s that?” Norma asked. Aurelio shrugged without looking up, he was still navigating the menus trying to find the right sort of proof.

“It’s called a node. It’s like a phone, but better; she gave it to me. Ah, how about this,” Aurelio grinned, he looked up at Norma.

“Pause,” he tapped the node at the same time.

“Pause what?” Norma asked.

“I paused everything,” he turned and pointed at the flow of students; they were all frozen in time.

“No way….,” Norma stood slowly from the bench and made her way to the nearest group of students. Aurelio split his attention between watching her poke and prod them; and, navigating through the node. “You really can….,” Norma was amazed. Aurelio smiled and tapped the node one more time.

“You like snow, right?” he asked. Then, Norma noticed snowflakes fluttering down; her eyes shot even wider.

“Are you going to see her again!? Can you get me one!?” she asked. Aurelio shook his head; the jungle of dark brown curls on his head bounced with the motion.

“She said I’d probably never see her again,” Aurelio replied.

“But, you can find her, right? I mean, how many people can there be in the world named ‘Vanilla’?”

“She wasn’t from this Earth,” Aurelio replied.

“You didn’t tell me she was an alien!” Norma said with slight annoyance in her voice. Aurelio shook his head.

“Not an alien; from an alternate Earth. That was the other thing I was going to tell you about,” he said. But, Norma wasn’t listening.

“Didn’t you stop time?” she asked. Her eyes focused on something behind Aurelio. He grew suspicious and turned around to see a woman wearing what appeared to be a formal white coat with tails. He clearly saw a red vest under her coat, with another layer of white beneath it when she walked through the time-locked students.

“Oh no! Pretend you’re frozen!” he turned around to face forward, then tried to remain still. He was glad to see that Norma at least listened to him, even though she was clearly confused.

“Why?” Norma tried exhaling the question without moving her lips.

“Sh!” Aurelio replied. The pair of 8th-graders sat still for several minutes. All around them they heard the strange woman in white walking through the students, seemingly searching for something.  She walked to where Aurelio could see her better; he spotted a red sun embroidered on the left side of her coat. He hoped he knew what it meant, and relaxed slightly. But, he wasn’t going to make any moves just yet. Then, she headed straight for him.

“Gotcha,” she said with a smile once she reached their table. “Hola, Luna…,” Aurelio couldn’t help it; his eyes made contact with hers and her smile grew broader. “…how did you do this?” she asked. He knew he was caught, but she did not seem to be angry. He shrugged his shoulders, then relaxed. Norma followed his lead and relaxed too, but the woman didn’t take her eyes off Aurelio.

“With a node,” he replied. He held up the glass card to show her.

“You did this with a node?” she asked and gestured at the still students. Aurelio nodded. Sol raised a blonde eyebrow. “May I see it?” she asked.

“No,” Norma answered for Aurelio; but, he was already handing it over. Sol accepted the clear card. She made a sweeping gesture with her arm and a larger, smokey-grey glass pane appeared hovering in front of her. She set the node down on its surface, then began moving her fingers along the lower portion of the square to type.

“This node didn’t have timeframe access initially,…,,” she mumbled to herself. Aurelio stood from his seat to look at the glass slate next to her, but he could only see the same smokey grey glass.

“Yeah, I thought that was weird. I saw Vanilla control time, so I knew it could be done; I had to program my own workaround,” he said.

“You met a Muerte?” Sol asked. She looked down at Aurelio and brilliant golden suns glowed in her eyes for a moment. “But, you didn’t touch her?” Aurelio shook his head.

“No, she told me about Lunas.” Sol smiled.

“Okay, this is why I’m here,” she said, then gave Aurelio his node back. 

“Why?” Norma asked once Aurelio held the node again.

“Muertes can stop time, nodes can usually only slow it down to near stopping. But, suddenly this server started using a lot of resources so I came to find out why,” she smiled at Aurelio. “Because some genius little hacker accidentally tripled the power draw for the nanos here. I believe my boss, Ms. Sharp, would very much like to meet you,” she said.

“Am I in trouble?” he asked. For some reason, Aurelio trusted Sol; she gave off a pleasant vibe that he found comforting.

“Not at all,” Sol said. “You’re being offered a job.”

Starstruck. Star strike.

“Ms. Sharp appreciates your efforts and loyalty,” Aurelio said with a nod. “And, I agree with her,” he added. The portly teenager sat across from a young woman with bright pink hair. She wore a crisp white blazer and was several years older than Aurelio. They met at midnight in the local diner. A handful of patrons tried to sober up at the counter while he and Lyra sat in a booth in a dim corner.

Any onlooker would think Aury was either trying to date out of his league, or Lyra was stuck on babysitting duty. But, Lyra knew why he was there. Nervous flutters began in her gut the moment he asked her to meet, two days ago. Now that he was finally in front of her and confirmed the reason for the visit, she was instantly on Cloud 9. He was now officially her boss; and, Lyra was one step closer to her goal.

Dana Sharp was the most amazing woman Lyra met in her travels between universes. She decided to try and follow her lead. Lyra gave her all for the company and worked her way up through the multiversal corporation. She turned in good work and made herself reliable and replaced each one of her bosses on her way up. She knew she couldn’t replace Aury, but he was already at the top level. He took orders only from Dana or Melody, but Lyra knew she could make room for herself in Dana’s inner circle. She took Aury’s personal visit as a very good indicator of her progress.

“Thank you!” was the only response Lyra could muster. She was beyond awed at his presence, but it was her own fault. Melody suggested to Lyra that she should avoid using her star sight on Aurelio. Unfortunately, Melody neglected to explain why and Lyra needed to find out for herself.

She flashed her vision for a brief moment when he arrived. Less than a second, but 10 minutes later the afterimage of his soul still danced in her vision. A large glowing, blue crescent moon floated in Lyra’s vision behind Aurelio. Its light was more intense than the sun.

“I asked you to meet here to have you start right away,” Aury said. “We were already monitoring the situation when you reported it. Ms. Sharp decided to bring this server down to limit this kind of information getting into the AlterNet.” Lyra nodded. She hoped and guessed the location was an intentional choice. As she waited for him in the diner she caught the news. Another human skeleton found on another Mars. She reported it to Melody immediately, but Aurelio was the one that responded. He only confirmed their appointment.

“Check for Uniques,” Aurelio said. Lyra remembered to look away from Aurelio before she used her star sight. Her eyes glowed with golden stars as she looked around the restaurant. Only two patrons remained aside from them. She shook her head.

“There aren’t any.” Aurelio chuckled and shook his head too.

“On the server,” he said, he held up his node to hint that she should use hers.

“OH!” She blushed, but was quick to pull her node out. Several new icons on her home screen made it apparent her status was already upgraded. She tapped one labeled, ‘Server Info’.

[N.F. Independent, contemporary. Unnamed.] [population: 7.92 Billion Zeros.] [Unique Souls: 2.] [#23 – La Luna; Aurelio Luno | #35 – La Estrella; Lyra Orphae]

“Just you and me,” Lyra said.

“Good, now change the permissions to make sure no other Uniques show up.” Lyra nodded as she swiped through the menus on her node.

“Got it,” she said.

“Now…,” Aurelio moved out of the booth and stood up. He took a moment to hike up his jeans. “Give me a head start, then do your job,” he smiled. He wiggled his fingers at the air and opened a black portal. Lyra’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Lunas can traverse!?” she asked. She’d never heard of a Luna copying that particular ability.

“I can,” he said idly and took a step toward the portal.

“Any other questions?” the teenager asked.

“Uhh. Oh!” Lyra nodded. She stood from the booth too. Despite their age difference, they were more or less the same height. “I think I know the answer, but, I don’t want to risk messing up the first day,” she said. “The server info said N.F. That means nano-free, right? So, I won’t be able to use the nanos?”

“Right. Just do an impression of Melody,” Aurelio chuckled then disappeared into the portal.

“That’s what I thought,” Lyra said. Her hands began to glow with hot, blue light.

Sharp Ruby

“I promise I won’t say anything!” Ken begged. The mid-40s archeologist sat in a brilliant, solid gold office. The walls, floors, and furniture all shined and sparkled. He noted the cushion on his solid gold chair seemed to be made with golden threads when he was escorted in by armed guards. After his promise to stay quiet, he took another sip of the golden liquid his host offered. He didn’t know what it was, but it was cool and delicious. Well needed after his trek to El Dorado.

“I’m sure you can see things from my position,” Ruby said. “It’s nothing personal; but, I can’t afford to take you at your word.” In her human form, Ruby resembled a young woman in her early 20s. But, her skin consisted of translucent, red crystalline scales. She wore a crisp white shirt with a red silk vest and matching bow tie. She eyed Ken through a pair of gold-rimmed glasses. “However, we do offer several different options for how you’d like to proceed.”

Ken glanced back over his shoulder. The pair of guards that found him were still in the room at attention. They wore white security uniforms and were human as far as Ken could tell. He was glad they told him he’d be meeting a dragon before he got there. He turned back to Ruby and chuckled nervously.

“Uh… do any of them involve me living through this?” he asked. Ruby smiled and shook her head.

“All of them do,” she said. “We’re not monsters; we just like our privacy.”

“We?” Ken asked. “Are there more dragons here?”

“Well, you’re already in on it. There’s no harm in explaining it further; you’re keeping the secret anyway,” Ruby smiled. “I know what it’s like to have unanswered questions.” Ruby lifted her hand and gave the guards a dismissive gesture. Ken turned and watched them exit the room and close the golden door behind them.

“My name is Ruby,” she said. “And, ‘We’ is a company named Sharp Development. I run one of their dragon spas.” She gestured at the golden room around them.

“A SPA!?” Ken blurted out. Ruby nodded.

“Dragons like to relax too, you know. Both Sharp Development, and our dragon clients value privacy. Unfortunately, I need to remove you from this Earth to guarantee continued secrecy.”

“You said I wasn’t going to die!” Ken whined. Ruby nodded.

“Sharp Development has branches on thousands of alternate Earths. It’s as simple as moving you to one of those. We will provide all your necessities while you find your footing on your new Earth. If you like, you’re even welcome to come work for the company.” Ruby pulled out a red crystal clipboard pre-loaded with forms and placed it before Ken with a pen. “It’s not anything you have to decide right this minute, but I do need you to sign this non-disclosure agreement before we continue finding a spot for you.”

“NDA?” Ken asked. He found the situation amusing and chuckled to himself as he signed it. Ruby nodded.

“Even if you choose to join Sharp Development, what we do here is to be kept secret from other Sharp Employees,” she explained the papers he didn’t read. “If word got out that we are a dragon haven, we’ll have hunters coming in from every universe.”  Ken tilted his head.

“Wait. I’m willing to believe there are alternate Earths… but, don’t they all have their own El Dorado?”

“It’d be considerably easier to find if there were one per Earth,” Ruby said. “The myth of El Dorado developed because the city moves around, we don’t spend too long on any one Earth.”

“You move the whole city…. to another Earth?” Ken asked. Ruby shook her head.

“I don’t, Ms. Sharp’s assistant does the move for us.”

“Oh,” Ken said. It was all he could say. He could point out that he was amazed the city was moved at all; and, didn’t mean to imply that she herself made the move. But, he was in awe that it sounded like the city was moved by a single person. It made him think the company was definitely something he wanted to be part of.

“So, let’s talk about placement. Where do you see yourself,” Ruby asked. “Tell me about the Earth you want to live on.” Ken shook his head.

“I want to join Sharp Development. What kind of jobs can I find?” he asked.

“Every industry you can think of and several you can’t imagine; it’s a wild multiverse out there,” Ruby smiled. “Too many to go through here. But, Ms. Sharp has a special recruitment server. It’s like a perpetual job fair so I’ll send you to take a look around.”

“Thank you, Ruby!” Ken said excitedly. Ruby smiled.

“Don’t thank me,” she said. “Just keep your mouth shut.”

Sharp Avoidance

“Yeah yeah, whatever,” Aurelio grumbled at the alien-looking humanoids. They were tall, lean and blue-skinned; to him, they were just palette-swapped elves. “Ms. Sharp wants to keep space and alien stuff out of the AlterNet. If you keep this act up, your accounts will be suspended,” he added. He brought his slate up for added effect. The smokey-translucent glass panel hovered in front of him. Other players couldn’t see what was on it, but he made sure to tell them he was a mod the moment he arrived. That usually made players nervous enough to listen.

“AlterNet?” one of the aliens asked.

“Ms. Sharp?” the other one commented. “We are unfamiliar with these terms.” Aurelio raised an eyebrow, then his hands danced across the smokey slate. He immediately took several steps backward; the hovering slate moved with him.

“Holy hell.. you guys are real?” he mumbled under his breath. The only thing his slate told him was they were unidentifiable; definitely not AlterNet characters. Despite the distance between them and the low tone of Aury’s voice, both alien figures nodded.

“We are,” one said. Aurelio’s fingers typed something on the slate while he kept his eyes on them.

“Your primitive planet has been annexed by our glorious empire to serve as a vacation destination. Although galactic law grants you no rights, my people are compassionate to intelligent life forms. You may continue to live and serve us as slaves.”

“Real compassionate,” Aurelio rolled his eyes as a black portal appeared next to him. A short, pale woman in a black suit walked out.” Aurelio did not waste any time; he pointed at the aliens.

“I think they’re real,” he said. Melody glanced at the alien beings; her eyes flashed with gold stars. She nodded.

“They are. Leave,” she said. Aurelio did not need to be told twice. He dismissed his slate and jumped into the open black hole. Melody’s hands began to glow with a bright blue light.

“Amazing. He completely left this universe, and you came from a different one,” one of the aliens said. Both took a step down their boarding ramp toward Melody.

“You’re lucky Ms. Sharp doesn’t care about your galactic community,” Melody grinned. “Maybe a bit unlucky that she doesn’t care about this server either,” she aimed her palms at the ground with splayed fingers. “But, I’m sure your council won’t have trouble getting along without you, or Earth.” Bright blue star plasma flowed out of Melody’s hands and melted the ground. A portal opened at her feet and swallowed her to safety the moment she ignited the Earth’s core.

Kim & Out

“What the hell’s a twin?” Kim asked the familiar-looking stranger.  The woman that knocked on her door sported the same short dark hair and light brown eyes as Kim. She eagerly opened the door when she saw herself outside, she always wanted to meet one of her Zeros. The moment she did though, the stranger called her, ‘sis’, and started referring to them as twins.

“Uh..,” Kim’s twin was surprised she needed to answer such a basic question. “You know how you have different versions of you in alternate universes?” she asked.  Kim nodded and rolled her eyes.

“Of course, kids learn about the multiverse in grade school.”

“Well, I’m like that, except from this same Earth. I’m like another you and we both came from the same mom.”

“No…,” Kim shook her head. “I don’t have a sister… I can’t.” The woman nodded.

“I know it’s a lot to take in, but honestly twins are born on this Earth all the time,” the woman sighed. “That’s why we have the one-child rule; to hide how freakishly often twins happen behind closed doors.”

“If it happens so often, where are all the other twins? Why are you the first time I’m hearing about it?”

“Something’s different about this Earth… over 98% of births result in twins. The healthier twin..,” the woman pointed at Kim. “…gets to stay on this Earth. The other one gets shipped to an orphanage on a different Earth. If they didn’t, this Earth would have been overpopulated long ago.” Kim shook her head. 

“I meant, why are you the first time I hear about this. If it happens so often, why haven’t there been others that return when they grow up?” Kim asked. “What makes you special?” 

“You,” the woman said with a faint smile. “What’s your favorite number?” she asked. 

“23,” Kim replied before she considered how odd the question was. “What? Why?” she asked after giving an answer. The woman’s grin grew wider. 

“Because they took the wrong twin,” she said. “Even after we were separated, they kept track of both of us, like they do all twins. They only recently realized their mistake and explained everything to me to ask for my help.” 

“And I suppose you escaped and came to rescue me first chance you could?” Kim asked without hiding her skepticism. 

“I just realized,” the woman said as she extended her hand toward Kim. “I never introduced myself. I’m Kim,” she said. 

“Well if we are twins, someone didn’t have any imagination. That’s my name too,” she said and politely shook hands. The moment their hands touched, the stranger grabbed her hand tightly and yanked her forward through her front door. Kim stumbled trying to keep her balance, while her sister dashed to get into the house. 

“Not anymore,” Kim said from inside the house. The woman that was in the house moments before got her bearings and tried to rush back inside. Before she took two steps, two men in white coats with red scissor logos grabbed her. “Like I said, they kept the wrong twin,” Kim waved with a smile from inside the house. “Don’t worry,” she added as the two men carried the struggling woman away. “It’s fixed now.”

Starry Morning

“I’m never drinking again,” Wendy grumbled to herself as she padded down the steps. Her eyelids were almost closed to block out the bright morning sun. She held on to the railing with one hand while supporting her aching head, and blocking more of her view, with the other. The pain throbbed so much she wasn’t convinced her head was firmly attached. “Mornin’,” she mumbled at the dark shapes she passed as she headed straight to the coffee pot. Just as she started to wonder why everyone was awake and in the kitchen, she was distracted by the lack of coffee maker.  It wasn’t there. Its usual spot was now a bare marble counter. “Coffee?” she let out a whine of confusion.

“Shhhh it’s okay,” Wendy felt a pair of comforting hands on her shoulders. She was guided to an unfamiliar dining room table and offered a seat with a steaming hot cup of coffee in front of it. The new counters and new furniture made Wendy wonder if she missed a kitchen remodel while she took a sip of the best coffee she ever tasted. She sighed at the taste and her head instantly felt better. She took another sip then decided she was awake enough to greet her family.

“Good morning,” she looked up with a big smile, then her smile vanished. Wendy didn’t recognize any of the three smiling strangers sitting in front of her.

“Good morning,” an older woman with greying hair said. Wendy identified her voice as the one that guided her to coffee. “Are pancakes okay or do you want something else?” she pointed to the short stack being assaulted by a man and girl. The question confused Wendy. She expected strangers to be more concerned about a stranger in their house.

“I’m sorry! I don’t know how I got here!” Wendy said. She stood from the table ready to leave, but the woman moved faster and stood in front of her shaking her head.

“It’s fine, it happens to us a lot. You’re safe here,” she said.

“Huh?” Wendy asked. “What do you mean it happens a lot?”

“My name is Vanessa,” she introduced herself then pointed at the man sitting at the table. He was tall and lean with round glasses. “That’s my husband, Mundo, and our daughter Sunny,” she pointed at a young brunette girl that looked about 14.

“It seems like we get a new Estrella waking up here at least once year,” Vanessa encouraged Wendy to sit down again. Then she went to the fridge and started pulling out ingredients to make more pancakes.

“Estrella… like star?” Wendy asked. She saw Mundo nod his head while finishing up a bite of food.

“Unique Soul #35, La Estrella,” Mundo said after he swallowed; he used his fork to point at Wendy. “Vanessa is Unique Soul #23, La Luna. Sunny is Unique Soul #46, El Sol, and I am Unique Soul #37, El Mundo.”

“So we’re all Unique Souls,” Wendy shrugged. “What’s a Unique Soul?”

“To answer that question, you first need to know that alternate universes exist,” Mundo said. “A Unique Soul is the only copy of that soul in any universe. No doppelgangers, evil twins, or anything like that. You’re the only you anywhere in any universe. That status comes with some special powers,” Mundo added as Vanessa placed a plate of food in front of Wendy.

“Each Unique Soul is different. You, #35, can channel star plasma through your hands. You can also make portals to traverse to other Universes, which is how you got here,” Mundo said.

“Here where?” Wendy paused the fork inches from her mouth to ask the question. Once she asked the food continued its journey.

“Our house isn’t in the same universe you came from. You probably traversed in your sleep.”

“That can happen?!” Wendy asked with wide eyes. “Boy, I’m glad I landed here instead of someplace with more danger and fewer pancakes.” The friendly family laughed at her comment, but Mundo shook his head.

“Traversing can happen in your sleep, but you wouldn’t wake up in danger. The universe has a way of listening to your subconscious and dropping you off wherever you want to be.”

“Would’ve been nice when I was younger,” Wendy giggled.

“Most of the time Uniques can’t access their abilities without getting a tattoo first. If this is the first time it happened you probably got a tattoo recently, right?” Mundo asked. Wendy’s memories of the night before suddenly clarified. She did in fact get a tattoo of a star and the number 35 on her thigh.

“So if I can ‘traverse’, that means I can get home any time I want, right? Even after I check out some other universes?” Mundo nodded.

“Yes, but only if you take Sunny with you,” he said. Wendy began to wonder if she was being put on babysitting duty, but Mundo clarified his statement. “More specifically, only if you let Sunny show you some of her favorite, safe, Earths. It would be a good idea for you to learn about how things work out there.”

“Deal,” Wendy grinned.