Hand-delivered Invitation

“Detective Cortez?” Noemi looked up from her desk to see two men in dark suits standing at her door.  At first glance, they were obviously feds- dark suits, dark ties, dark glasses. However, Noemi’s experience over 20 years told her there was more to it. They looked the part, but just their casual posture was out of character for all the bureau goons she’d met. It was also odd they kept their sunglasses on indoors. “If you have a moment, we’d like to talk to you about the Ripper case,” the shorter of the two men said.

Noemi was surprised that she was even asked. It wouldn’t be the first time higher-ups swooped in to take one of her cases, and she was always the last to know.

“Sure, come on in,” Noemi waved them in, then leaned back in her chair to give them her full attention. The tall agent closed the door behind him, then sat down next to the short one.

“I know your time is just as valuable as ours,” the short one said. “So, I’ll get right to it.” As he spoke, the tall agent leaned forward and placed a manila folder on her desk. He came in with nothing, and she wondered where it came from; she did not rush to look at it. Instead, she kept her focus on the one that seemed to be doing all the talking. “There’s your culprit, as well as how he did it. It’s not what you’d call, ‘normal’,” he said.

“And you know all this, how?” she asked. Though, she still did not reach for the folder.

“It’s our job, much like yours. However, our responsibility ends at the identification of the guilty party. Then, we pass off the information to the appropriate authorities. In this case, we’ve determined that to be you.”

“Why me?”

“Efficiency,” the short agent replied. “The truth is we’ve come to recruit you. The best way to do that is to give you a hint about what you’ll be up against.” He cast his eyes down at the folder.

“I’m not interested in being a fed,” she replied. The short man nodded. “Neither are we. We’re not from the government, our agency, the B.A.A., is independent.”

“B.A. A.? Never heard of it,” Noemi replied. The agent nodded, but didn’t elaborate. After several quiet moments, it became apparent he wasn’t going to offer any more information. Noemi reached for the folder and opened it. The first sheet was a full body, color picture of a man from a medium distance. He was bald and lean with a scraggly, blonde beard. He was dressed in rags and Noemi’s first guess was that he was homeless. The only thing that really stood out was a large tattoo on his bald head. It consisted of a hand making the ‘peace’ symbol, and the number 21 under it. She flipped to the next sheet and saw his name.

[Ken Parker: Unique Soul #21 – La Mano; S- rank] Noemi stopped reading after the first line. His age, description, and criminal history appeared to be in the lines below, but she was already lost.

“What’s a Unique Soul?” she asked. “And what does a ‘hand’ have to do with anything? It’s been a while since high school Spanish, but I’m pretty sure ‘mano’ means hand.”

“It is exactly what it sounds like; a soul that is entirely Unique, in and of itself. It has no counterparts in any other universe. La Mano is one of 54 Unique Soul types you’ll be meeting if you accept our offer,” the short agent explained.

Other universes?” Noemi raised an eyebrow; the short agent nodded.

“Generally speaking, La Mano has the ability to reach into other universes as long as their hands are not being watched. Although at the higher tiers, like Mr. Parker, they are able to reach into the universe they’re in.”

“Reach… how?” Noemi asked.

“Literally,” the agent replied. “Mr. Parker is reaching into his victims to pull their organs out.”

“You want me to arrest this guy and explain to everyone that he can magically stick his hands into people from a distance?”

“It would be the truth,” the short agent nodded.

“If he’s got an ounce of brains he’ll never admit something we can’t prove. I won’t even get him to court,” she said.

“That depends on the court,” the agent grinned. “This isn’t the only Earth Mr. Parker has victimized. With your help, we can make sure he gets an appropriate sentence.”

“Are you asking me to testify?” she asked. The agent shook his head.

“I mentioned earlier, our job ends at identifying the culprit. The B.A.A. has decided to change that and put together an actual police task force. Your experience here would be invaluable in authoring arrest procedures for Uniques. You’re invited to be the new chief of our police force.” Noemi’s eyes almost popped out of her head in surprise. To say it was a dream come true would be an understatement for the woman who spent over 40 years practicing her name in front of the mirror each night.

Noemi Cortez – Chief of Police,” she took great pride in being able to carry on her family tradition. For the first time in six generations, one of the Cortez boys did not have a son before he died in the line of duty. At his funeral, Noemi decided two things. Women could be officers too, and she would not carry on the tradition of dying on duty.

“Yes!” she eagerly nodded. Unique Souls and alternate universes and the unknown was all worth it for the title.

“Great,” both agents stood at the same time. The tall one pulled a glass rectangle out of his coat pocket and placed it on top of the folder.

“That’s a node,” the short one said. “Learn how to use it, study whatever you can. Let us know when you’re ready to start,” he said. Then, they both turned and headed to the door. The tall one reached it first with his longer legs, and he opened it. As the short agent walked out of the room, the tall one looked at Noemi.

“Welcome to the Bureau of Alternate Agencies,” he said with a large grin. “By the way, your favorite number is 32. You should get that on a tattoo,” he said, then left the office.

Secret Soldier

“Don’t move, Gaia. I don’t know what you’re doing in my city, but you still have crimes to answer for,” Spex yelled at the dark-haired woman. Gale Stone walked across the college campus searching for her daughter. She wore blue jeans and a black blouse, not her root-woven costume; she stopped walking and wondered how he recognized her. While in costume, long green vines replaced her shoulder-length black hair. Even her daughter was surprised when Gale revealed her identity.

“What’s your deal?” Gale asked vaguely. The hero didn’t quite look like one. He wore a well-tailored black suit with a bright blue tie, and a pair of thick, blue-rimmed glasses. She felt her node vibrate while she considered how to deal with him, then sighed. She knew it was from her daughter.

Sorry, sorry,” Gale thought. It was her way of knocking on Cadence’s mind. Gale had always respected Cadence’s mental boundaries. She could communicate telepathically with anyone on Earth, but she still raised Cadence the normal way; with lots of crying. On both their parts. “Did you just text me? I don’t want to dig through my purse right now.” While she thought, Spex continued talking.

“My deal? I don’t like villains roaming freely in my city. Are you going to turn yourself in quietly?” the suited hero asked.

“YES!” Cadence screamed in Gale’s mind. “Don’t hurt Spencer! I’m running to you!”

“Spencer?” Gale asked. “This stuffy Soldado is your boyfriend?”

Well?” Spex took a step forward. “Have anything to say for yourself, Gaia?”

He’s a Soldado?!” Cadence asked. Then, she ran out from behind a building towards Gale and Spex.

“I’m looking for someone,” Gale pointed at Cadence dashing in their direction. “There she is.”

“What!?” Spex’s eyes went wide the moment he recognized his girlfriend.

“She’s my mom!” Cadence said. “Please don’t hurt her, Spex.”

What are you doing?” Gale asked her daughter mentally.

Play along. I’ll explain later,” Cadence replied.

“Gaia is your mom!?” Spex asked. “You couldn’t have prepared me for that a little bit?” Cadence looked around at the bystanders, then tilted her head at Spex.

“What.. do you mean.. Spex,” she asked.

“My girlfriend’s mom is the most powerful, most evil villain in the world! That’s what I mean!” he said. He huffed angrily and pulled his glasses off. The suit and tie shimmered, the disappeared once the spectacles left his face. His blue jeans made Gale wonder how comfortable the suit was with them on under it.

“Spencer! What’s your deal!?” Cadence asked her boyfriend. She gestured around at the crowd who all picked that exact moment to look away at something else.

“She’s definitely your mom,” Spencer said. “What’s the problem now?”

“Your secret identity!” She said.

“Secret?” He asked. “Since when?” Cadence tilted her head at him.

“Since always?” she asked. “Even before I met you, everyone told me you liked to keep your identity secret.”

“It’s just a pair of glasses,” Spencer said. “I’m not trying to hide my identity; it’s the source of my powers.” To make his point, Spencer took a step back and put the glasses back on. His black suit appeared immediately, then it disappeared when he took them off again.

“Your strength, healing, and fighting abilities?” Gaia asked. “Those powers?”

“Oh yeah…,Cadence mumbled to herself.

“Yeah,” Spencer nodded.

“Well, Spencer, it seems we have a lot to talk about. Let’s get started,” Spencer was immediately swallowed into the ground. Gaia began sinking at a slower pace as if she were riding an elevator. “See you in a while, dear,” Gale blew a kiss to Cadence. She gave her mother one final warning.

“YOU BETTER NOT JIMMY HIM!”

HandHunters

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

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

“Hello?” Dexter asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Island Tutorial

Harry opened his eyes to brilliant sunlight. He heard the relaxing sound of waves lapping on the shore and felt a cool breeze glide across his face. He was laying down and sat up on a wicker chaise. He was still wearing a bloodied shirt with a bullet hole in it and a pair of blood-stained jeans. Another breeze whispered by and he let himself fall back on the creaking seat with a smile on his face.

“Thank God for heaven,” he said with a happy sigh. He closed his eyes again. Now that he knew where he was he felt like he could truly relax. “I wonder when I’ll get to meet him.. or her.

“I’m going to start you guys at the beginning,” a woman’s voice said. At the same moment, a shadow blocked the light getting through Harry’s lids. “This is the first soul of a brand new batch,” the woman said. Harry opened his eyes again and found a group standing over him. Five people: two women and three men.

The woman that was speaking wore a navy blue business coat and a matching navy sarong wrapped around her waist. Her olive skin was accentuated by her sea-green hair. The large heavy curls looked like ocean waves. She sported a blue star tattoo on her left cheek. The other woman was the shortest of the crowd. She wore a bright yellow wet suit that looked like she just came out of the water. Her soaked, short, blonde hair pretty much confirmed it.

The three men also looked like they were swimming moments ago. All three were shirtless and in soaking trunks. All three had tattoos on their chests. The tallest, a broad-shouldered mountain of muscles, had a goldfish with the number 50 in blue ink. The second tallest, an athletic man with short dark hair, had a silver scythe inked on his chest. The silver blade showed the number 14 in red numbers. The third man did not seem to match the rest of the group. He was shirtless, bald, and flabby. The tattoo on his chest was a sagging blue musical note with the number 32. Harry sat up and turned to face the group. He dropped his legs off the chaise; the warm sand felt heavenly as he pushed his feet into it.

“Am I in heaven?” he asked. “I’m pretty sure I died,” The group chuckled politely, but Harry couldn’t help but feel he was the butt of an inside joke.

“It’s your first time,” the half-suited woman said with a smile. “It’s far too early to be thinking about heaven or hell.” She turned and address the group. “A newbie gets more time and the chance to ask questions. For the most part, they won’t remember anything, but it only makes our jobs easier if they do.” Harry did not enjoy the feeling of being talked about as if he wasn’t there. But, it did sound like he could ask questions.

“You mean I’m going to have another life?” The woman turned to him and nodded.

“Quite a few, depending on how far you want to go,” she replied.

“I want to go to heaven!” Harry said quickly. The woman smiled but shook her head.

“I’m sure once you start learning how things work you’ll set your sights a bit higher.”

“Higher than heaven?” Harry asked. “One of the other religions? Which one is right?”

“What’s your favorite color?” she asked suddenly.

“Red.”

“I like blue. Which one of us is right?” Harry narrowed his eyes and took a moment to process the lesson. Finally, he nodded and decided to approach it from a different angle.

“So what’s better than heaven?” he asked. She smiled.

“That’s what you get to decide. There is no one answer. Each life you go through is a step forward. After you take enough steps you can start thinking about where you’re going,” She turned to address the group. They listened intently and Harry imagined them to be trainees of some sort. “Each life gets them points, hell keeps track of those. They’re like experience points they can spend on different perks,” she glanced at Harry. “Sorry, you’re done now. I’ll see you next time. My name is Isla by the way, try to start remembering it,” she smiled. “Anyway,” she continued addressing the other four. “It’s supposed to be longer, but since we’re in training I can bend the rules a bit. They can use those points to build their afterlife if they don’t want to go the Unique route…” 

Harry tried to interrupt but the world went black. Then, he was born again.

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.

MetroGnome

“Sorry about your Earth, Metro,” Roger said. The cyborg stepped out of a tall black portal and joined the other two in the garage.

“Condolences: Accepted,” Metro, a short, spindly humanoid robot, replied. Roger thought he saw Metro’s eyes darken. He could not be sure due to the robot’s abstract face. Golden light pulsed where his mouth would be when he spoke. “Action: Express Gratitude. Thank you, Roger.”

“Anywhere else you want to go? You robots have any other Earths?” Sirius asked. Roger saw the tall, anthropomorphic Doberman cast an eye toward the door as if he wanted to leave.

“Information incomplete. Metro only knows two Earths.” His head dipped low; Roger thought he looked sad. Roger stepped forward and patted the chest-high robot on its head. His shiny silver hand clanked against Metro’s white, bald metal head.

“Well only one of those Earths isn’t occupied by Ballisea, so you’re welcome here as long as you like,” he said.

“Lodgings:..,” Metro’s head swiveled a full 360 to appraise the garage. Roger’s old, run-down truck was parked on one side of the large building. He recognized dozens of archaic, from his point of view, tools. “…accepted. Action: Contribute. How can I help, Roger?”

“Hey you want to pull your own weight, that’s perfect,” Roger said. “It’s not neces-”

“We need a sixth,” Sirius said. Roger forgot he was there, and now he wished he rushed him out sooner. “Thanks for the trip, Sirius. You can leave now.” Sirius smiled and turned his short snout up at Roger as he turned toward the door.

“Metro will be the sixth that you need. Information Request: Sixth what?” Roger patted Metro on the shoulder then walked around to stand in front of him.

“We need a sixth member for our roller derby team,” he shook his head. “But I don’t think you can do it. The nanos here don’t recognize you.” Metro raised his hand up. The white-crystalline skeleton hand disintegrated into golden nanos. The luminescent swarm hovered where his hand was, then it formed into a bone-like hand again.

“Metro is nanos. Metro ignores AlterNet nanos,” he looked up at Roger. “Information Request: Will Roger accept contribution of Metro as sixth?”

“Hey, you don’t gotta contribute anything,” Roger said.

“Response: Unrelated,” he continued to stare at Roger to wait for an answer. Roger sighed.

“No, I will not accept your contribution as sixth,” he said. “It wouldn’t help us at all.”

“Response: Denied. Elevated pulse detected. Lie detected. Action: Metro will become sixth.”

“No, we don’t nee-” Roger tried to change Metro’s mind but he was interrupted when a swarm of golden nanos enveloped the small robot. After a moment the swarm cleared. The small, lean, crystalline robot was replaced with a shorter, more human form. He was a solid-white, big-eared gnome with curly golden hair and a golden goatee.

“Holy hell, did you go through the character creator that fast?”

“Affirmative. AlterNet designation: MetroGnome. Class: Bard.”

“MetroGnome, huh?” Roger grinned. “I like it.” he walked around the thigh-high gnome looking him over. “Why a bard?”

“Metro’s class choice compliments Unique Soul #32, El Músico .” Roger took a step back and stared at the alabaster gnome through wide eyes.

“You’re a Unique??”

“Affirmative. Metro is Unique.”

Cyber-friends

“What about that one?” Roger pointed at a sleek, white cube by the door. It appeared to be made of translucent crystal, but the material was so dense the inside could not be seen. The gnomish shopkeeper shrugged. He sat on a raised platform behind the till.

“Found it. Couldn’t get it open. As is, 300.” The gnome said.

“300? For a nice, but likely empty, box?” The gnome grinned.

“It’s heavier than it looks; it’s got something in it.” Roger walked to the perfect cube; its height reached his waist. He crouched on his metal legs then wrapped his metal arms around the box. His torso and head were the only human parts he had left. The cyborg pushed up with his legs and lifted the crystalline cube. He cleared about half a foot, then dropped it down again. It landed on the stone floor with a hollow thud.

Must remain in disguise,” the war sentinel reaffirmed its course of action to itself.

“It’s heavy alright,” Roger said to the gnome. “Doesn’t mean anything, though. I’ll give you 200 for it.”

“205 just so I can say we haggled,” the gnome replied. Roger agreed with a nod. He held his palm out and a small, three-inch golden cube, gathered in his hand. Then he gave the cube to the gnome.

“205 plus everything else.” The gnome closed his hand around the cube. When he opened it again the cube was gone.

“I’ll send it to your guild hall,” the gnome replied with a friendly smile. “Thanks for your business!”  Roger nodded, then turned to leave. The moment he stepped out of the shop the gnome called after him.

“Wait!” Roger stopped at the door and faced the gnome. The tiny man shrugged.

“All sales are final,” he said. Roger gave the gnome a confused look.

“Okay,” he turned to leave again.

“That thing…,” he pointed at the cube next to Roger. “…isn’t recognized by the nanos. You’ll have to carry it home. No returns,” he reminded Roger. The cybernetic man sighed but nodded. He crouched, grabbed the cube, then stood up again. This time he had a better idea of how much it weighed and put his machinery to work. He lifted the heavy cube with ease and walked out of the shop.

Advanced robotics detected. Appraising anachronistic anomaly.” The war sentinel discreetly scanned Roger while the man carried him out to the main road. Roger stopped next to an old beat up pickup truck and dropped the cube onto the bed.

“Well, no sense carrying you home if you’re worthless,” Roger patted the top of the cube. “Let’s see what’s inside.” Roger hovered his hands in the air in front of himself. His fingers moved rapidly as if he were typing on a chest-high keyboard. A white powder bloomed into the air inside the truck, but it did not float higher than the edges of the bed.

Scan complete. Combination of organic and mechanical lifeform detected. Attempted non-invasive scan detected. Probability: friendly lifeform. Action: Request assistance.” A golden light began to glow from inside the cube and show through the outer white crystal. Roger noticed it immediately.

“Whoa..what’s that?” His fingers wiggled in the air and the white dust in the bed of the truck settled down.

“My name is Metro,” the cube said. The golden light in its interior flickered and modulated as it spoke. “I am lost. Please assist.”

“Metro, huh?” Roger asked. He climbed into the truck and sat down next to the cube. “You’re a cute little cube, Metro. Where’d you come from?”

“Current appearance is in disguise. Origin: Earth. Metro traveled through a dimensional portal and cannot find a path to return to Earth.” Roger patted the top of the cube.

“Yeah, that happens a lot around here. We can get you home, I know an Estrella. Disguise, huh? Can I see the real you?”

“Request for assistance: Approved. Request to reveal identity: Approved.” Golden lines formed around the cube and pieces separated from the core. A golden swarm of nanos whirled around the cube for a moment, then disappeared. When the nanos cleared a short, spindly, humanoid robot stood in place of the cube. Its body consisted of a white crystalline skeleton with golden energy flowing through it. Its head was a bald, blank abstraction with indentations where the eyes, nose, and mouth should be.

“Man, you’re something else, Metro. I think we’re gonna be great friends,” Roger said.

“Request for friendship: Approved.”

Family Knight

“I have enough,” Grace nodded at her mother. “But I’m not sure if I’m ready yet.” The two women sat in the kitchen of their small home during their weekly visit. Grace lived with her parents, but work kept her busy. The Saturday morning coffee had become their time to connect.

“Why not?” the elderly woman asked. Her silver right eyebrow raised upward as she stared at her daughter. Grace blushed a blonde bang out of her eyes and sighed. The 24-year-old woman had long since learned that she could not lie to her mother.

“Because I’m not coming back,” the young woman said. Her mother nodded.

“You’ve known that,” the wrinkled woman said. She placed her hand on top of her daughter’s. “What changed?” Graced turned her hand over to squeeze her mother’s hand. She gave a sad laugh.

“I thought you’d be dead before I saved up that much,” she replied. She chuckled awkwardly. “It’s easier to leave if I don’t leave anyone behind,” Grace said. She felt her mother squeeze her hand in return.

“Mija, you’re ready. Sure, you can wait until your dad and I are gone..,” the old woman looked her daughter in the eyes. “…but I know I didn’t raise my daughter to be that selfish.”

“Selfish?” Grace sat up straighter at the offense. “Mom, I want to take care of you guys.” The woman smiled at her daughter’s reaction but shook her head.

“I took care of your dad, and him me, before you came along. We’ll be alright IF we get to see our daughter start on her dreams. You’ve wanted to be a knight since you could walk. We’ve given you all the support we could and you want to wait until we die before you leave? We’ve wanted this for you too, let us celebrate it with you.”

“Okay,” Grace replied and squeezed her mother’s hand. She nodded her head and tears gathered at the corners of her eyes. “You’re right, I didn’t think about it that way. I want you and dad to see me off.” She stood from the table then hugged the elderly woman. “I better go pack.”

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.

Crystal Castle

Grace drummed her fingers on the counter-top while she waited. The Mason’s clerk had been looking for her order for almost five minutes and she was beginning to lose patience.

“Found it!” the young man called out from the forest of shelves. Grace heard hurried footsteps on the stone floor as he rushed to the counter. He placed a faded, frail sheet of paper on the counter. The heading on top of the worn note said, ‘Deed of Ownership’ in large letters with several paragraphs of fine print under it. “Anything else I can help you with?” he asked.

“No thank you,” Grace shook her head. She touched the yellowing paper then it disappeared into her inventory. “Just came for this,” she smiled and turned to leave.

“Thank you!” Grace heard him call out as she stepped out of the Mason’s guild. The city square was bustling with activity and she had no trouble arranging a ride to the Quarts Plains.

“You sure this is your stop?” the wagon master asked as Grace stepped out of the carriage. He gestured at the purple, crystalline plain that ran to the horizon. “There’s no one around.” Grace nodded.

“There will be,” she said. “Thanks but I’ll be fine.” She had been working toward this day for almost three years. Grace walked on the glassy, violet surface opposite of the wagon.  Once it was out of sight she smiled and held her hand out to make the worn note appear in her grasp.

“I did it,” she sighed and tossed the sheet into the air. A transparent menu slate appeared in front of her.

“Guild Name?” the slate asked.

“Magi-Knights,” Grace answered. The slate disintegrated; then, in an instant, a giant purple, crystalline castle burst upward out of the plain.