Stellar Tour 4: Strolling through Paradise

June 22, 2021 A new park opened for the wealthy called Zombie apocalypse. You need to fight zombies to stay alive and find the antidote. The winner team gets a huge sum of money. But if you die, you return to your real life unharmed. You can only participate once each year.

“Welcome to Paradise,” Astra said. She spread her arms wide and gestured at the neon cityscape before them. Pink and blue glowing skyscrapers rose high into pitch blackness. The heavens refused to back down from the bright neons trying to pollute the unnatural, inky sky, and that only magnified the contrast. Despite Astrid’s showmanship, Oz was focused on the street level. He heard approaching footsteps and noticed two people sprinting towards him and Astra; on closer inspection, he also noted a large crowd chasing the two runners.

“Astra…,” Oz said. He pointed forward and Astra brought her gaze down as the two strangers whizzed by at full speed. “…are those…zombies?” The chasing crowd was now close enough for the neon lights to give their rotting corpses a sickly pastel color with shades of pink and blue.

“Yeah,” Astra giggled. Ben, her white wolf, relaxed on his haunches in front of her. “Just let them pass, they won’t bother you.” Despite every muscle fiber in his body at the ready, Oz put all his trust into Astra. Oz needed to be there, but Astra didn’t. She had been nothing but kind since they met that morning on their own home Earth. He closed his eyes and held himself still as the zombies moaned and shambled past them. Oz felt dry, crusty skin rub against him and flake off; and, the odor was the most putrid thing he ever took a whiff of. A carton of rotten eggs would have been as refreshing as a tropical glade at that moment. Fear of attracting their attention was the only thing that helped Oz keep the funnel cakes from the fair in his stomach.

“Whoo!” Oz exhaled, then breathed in as much fresh air as he could as soon as the last zombie passed them. “Why didn’t they bother us?” he asked. Astra began walking up the street in the direction the zombies came from.

“‘Cause we’re not playing,” she said. “The zombies used to attack anyone; until a goblin cartel set up shop. Sharp Development used to keep them in check; but, once Ms. Sharp died, the goblins took over the whole server. They set up a game show on other Earths. Bring the competitors here and let them try to survive.” Oz tilted his head at Astra.

“Didn’t I just meet Mrs. Sharp?” Astra nodded at him.

“You met Mrs. Melody Sharp, Dana Sharp’s widow. She owns Sharp Development now.” Astra turned a corner into a significantly darker alley and continued walking. Golden stars filled her eyes; they glowed brightly enough to give Oz some light too.

“Oh..,” Oz nodded. “…if she owns the AlterNet and this server.. why doesn’t she just make the goblins help us instead of giving us a messenger quest?”

“I told you; the goblins took over,” Astra replied.

“But.. how? Can’t she reprogram the nanos?” Oz asked.

“How they did it is exactly why we’re here. The goblins managed to string together enough loopholes to win the server from Mrs. Sharp in a game. We need their sneaky little brains to get you off her..” Astra put her index fingers to the sides of her head to imitate horns. Oz appreciated that she did not use Ballisea’s name. “…radar.”

“We’re going to challenge her to a game?” Oz asked. Astra nodded.

“If the goblins will help us, yeah.”

“But… I don’t know a thing about roller derby. I don’t even know how to skate,” he added with a softer, more embarrassed tone.

“Well we’re not doing it right now,” Astra smiled. “We still need a team. So far it’s just you and me.”

“And Ben,” Oz added. Once Astra agreed to help him, Oz decided to try and be more inclusive of her companion.

“Nope,” Astra said. “I’m a Beastmaster, Ben and I are one character.”

“Oh, I see,” Oz replied. “But, why would she even accept a challenge?” Astra stopped walking and turned to face Oz; the golden stars in her eyes provided the only light now. The neon skyline could not be seen from the dark alley.

“She already lost one major game and is in preparation for another,” Astra said. “When you’ve been around as long as she has, entertainment is wherever you can find it. And since she can’t kill anyone right now, she’s probably bored out of her mind.” Oz’s day had been a whirlwind starting that morning on his home Earth. He’d learned way more about the universe than he thought possible. With every new revelation, he was too busy to consider Ballisea’s age until Astra mentioned it. Once she did, he was filled with curiosity. “How old is she?”

“Older than time and the universe itself,” Astra said. “Literally.” Oz chuckled.

“Which universe?” he asked with a smug grin. He’d been in almost a dozen different universes since they met.

“No matter what universe you go to, the oldest you’ll find is about 15 billion years old,” Astra said. Then, she shrugged. “So… all of them.”

Stellar Tour 3: Solar Celebration

June 21, 2021 You wake up a normal summer day. Everything feels normal until you check the date. 32.07.2021.

Oz felt relief wash over him now that Ballisea was gone. He relaxed and finally took a moment to take in his surroundings. Minutes ago, he was at a park on his home Earth. It was a cool December day; but, now he could feel sweat beading on his brow. He was now at the same park on an alternate Earth. The trees lining the park path had a slight blue tint to them. Now that he could appreciate the differences of a new Earth without running for his life, he wanted to take advantage of it.

“Why’s it so hot?” Oz asked Astra. She shrugged.

“I dunno. It’s a hot day, I guess?” she said.

“In December?” Astra shook her head and pulled something out of her jeans pocket. Oz had seen plenty of technology while in training; but, Astra was tapping and swiping at a card-sized pane of glass. It was more advanced than any of the advanced phones his organization used.

“It’s July,” she said. “I think.” She showed the small display to Oz and he saw the date: 32.07.2021.

“But..it was December a little bit ago…,” Oz asked. Astra smiled and nodded.

“Yeah. On our Earth,” Astra said. “That doesn’t mean it has to be December here. Winter on our Earth doesn’t have to be winter here, and time is just humans keeping track of things. Each Earth starts doing that at different times in different ways.”

“Oh boy… I need to sit down,” Oz replied. He moved to the nearby wooden park bench. “I was not ready for today.” Astra giggled and joined him. Ben padded behind her and sat on his haunches by her feet.

“When traveling the multiverse it helps to just kind of go with the flow,” Astra said. “I mean, I wasn’t expecting to get kidnapped today either, you know? Things happen.” Oz chuckled

“You’re not going to let that go, are you?” Astra smiled and shook her head.

“Not yet,” she said. Oz nodded and returned the smile.

“So. Time is different on every Earth. What else do I need to know?” He looked around the park again. A part of him was hoping to see whether humans from this Earth were any different. But, as scenic as the blue trees were, the park was empty.

“You’re going to need a Mundo to give you the talk,” Astra replied.

“What’s a moon-doe?” Oz asked.

“Mundos are Uniques that usually love to explain the truth of the multiverse.” Oz nodded.

“What’s a Unique?” Astra sighed but smiled.

“Okay, I’ll give you the lite version. Most people you meet are known as ‘Zeros’,” she said.

“Yeah, Ballisea called me that; what does it mean?”

“It means you’re worthless,” Ballisea’s voice echoed around them with a light laugh. Oz froze. But, Astra put a hand on his shoulder to put him at ease.

“Oh yeah. That’s something you need to know; she’ll almost always hear her name. No matter what universe you’re in.” Oz instantly decided he’d try to avoid speaking her name again.

“But, it doesn’t mean you’re worthless,” Astra said. “It’s what we call alternate universe doppelgangers. Unique Souls have no Zeros. I am Unique Soul #35, La Estrella,” she said. Then, she clarified when Oz’s brow crumpled in confusion. “It’s ‘star’ in Spanish. No Zeros means I’m the only me in all of infinity.”

“#35? How many of you are there?”

“There are 54 types of Unique Souls, but I’m not the only Estrella.”

“Can they all travel between universes like you and…” Oz gestured at the empty park path in front of them to avoid using Ballisea’s name. Astra shook her head.

“The 54 Uniques are separated into six tiers. I’m not going to go into all that; but, the top tier is a group of Uniques called Celestials. Those are the ones that can Traverse universes.” Oz had a sudden insight and then turned to focus on the large white wolf sitting patiently next to Astra.

“Animals can be Unique too?” he asked. Astra nodded and reached over to pet it.

Ben is Unique Soul #33, La Araña. The spider.” Ben chuffed at Oz, then dozens of small, moving, black dots appeared in his fluffy white fur and began crawling around like fleas. “La Araña can summon spiders from other universes through their pores and control them.”

“But what about that giant one that appeared behind me?” Oz asked. Astra pointed at the park path. Oz turned and noticed a horizontal, saucer-sized portal hovering three feet above the ground, then placed a hand on Ben’s head. The portal rained out half a dozen black widow spiders onto the cobblestones. After a moment, a portal appeared under them to swallow them again. “We can use our powers together,” Astra explained.

The sudden sound of footsteps distracted Oz from his next question. He turned toward the sound and was slightly disappointed to see a normal human jogging their way.

“Morning!” the stranger smiled and waved as he jogged by. “Happy Sun day!”

“Happy… Sunday,” Oz replied. “It is the best day of the week,” he added. The stranger slowed and turned back to them, then grinned.

“Traversing, huh?” Oz turned to Astra in surprise, and she nodded at the stranger. “Sun day only comes around once a year here. Ballis 7th, is when we celebrate the Sun with a giant festival in town. If you’re not rushing through, you should give it a look.” Oz tilted his head.

“Ballis 7th?” he thought back to the date on Astra’s device. “It’s not July?” The stranger chuckled and shook his head.

“Not with this heat it’s not. Around here, Ballis is the 32nd month of the year.”

Stellar Tour 2: Sun & Games


June 20, 2021 Smash ‘Em Up Sunday: Bound by System

“Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.” – Charles de Mar.

Oz stared at the abyss-like portal before him. It stood vertically like an open door to the pitch-black unknown. When he received his assignment that morning, he did not expect to have his reality shattered. He was proud to be considered an official agent worthy of a solo mission. Oz worked for a top-secret organization that recruited and trained magical girls and boys. He regretted that it couldn’t always be done with their consent; but, his organization was keeping humanity safe. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use force; but, Astra did not want to be registered as a magical girl. Oz’s training led him to make threats he hoped he wouldn’t have to fulfill. Then, Astra pulled back the veil.

“Infinite alternate Earths…,” Oz said. “Infinite humans…who are we even protecting?” he asked.

“People,” Astra smiled. She dismissed the portal with a casual wave of her hand. She sensed it was going to be a conversation and moved to the nearest park bench. Ben, her white wolf, lay at her feet once she sat down. “You should protect people. But, you know,” she shrugged. “Take it easy. You do realize you were about to kidnap me, right?” she asked. Oz stood up straighter and locked eyes with the 13-year-old girl.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am… I don’t know how I can go back there now.”

“Then, don’t,” Astra said. Oz shook his head. He decided to join her on the park bench.

“I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” he said. “There’s a standard protocol for kidnapping,” Oz said. “It’s not an easy organization to join or leave.”

“Why not?” Astra asked.

“People talk about secret societies all the time,” Oz said. “They’re the real deal. After your spiderfall stunt, they found you pretty easily,” he said. Astra shrugged and giggled.

“I wasn’t even hiding,” she said. Despite himself, Oz chuckled. He needed whatever levity he could get right now.

“You don’t know the machinations they can bring down on me,” Oz chuckled again. “Heck, I probably don’t even know them. They control the world. That’s just the way things are. I’m powerless to change it,” He sighed and leaned forward with his forearms on his knees; he stared down at the gravel park path. Astra burst into a fit of giggles.

“You think they control the Earth?” she asked. “First of all, that’s not even remotely true. Second of all, even if it were…,” Astra nodded at the empty path in front of them; a tall black portal opened. “…just go to another one.” Oz sat up and looked at Astra again.

“What do you mean that’s not true?” Astra shrugged.

“I’ve been to Earths “controlled” by someone,” she said. “When you have control, you don’t have to hide it. They just want you to think they can make anything happen. Your organization might have plenty of resources; but;…controlling an Earth is out of their league.” Oz sighed again.

“Semantics,” he said. “The point is they can make the rest of my life very short and very miserable.” Astra shook her head.

“Nope. The point is you’ve given up trying to find a way out before you started. If nothing else…,” Astra made a gesture with her hand and a new portal opened. “Different Earth?” Oz shook his head.

“I don’t even know how you do that; I definitely can’t do it.” Astra tilted her head at him.

“It’s a portal. Anyone can walk through it.”

“And anyone just might,” a woman’s voice echoed around them. Ben immediately stood on all fours; his fur bristled and he growled at the portal. A tall, pale woman with tall bone-white horns atop her head sauntered out of the portal. She wore a long, flowing black dress that dragged on the floor. She looked at Astra and smiled. “Hola, Estrellita.”

Before Oz could wonder about the stranger a flash of black covered his vision. His mind was confused as to whether he blinked or not; but, suddenly the park was slightly different. The trees were taller than moments ago; the portal and the pale woman were gone. He turned to ask Astra but she was on her feet pulling his arm in a panic.

“RUN!” she screamed. She ran forward down the path with Ben at her side and Oz behind them. His first few steps were confusing. Obsidian darkness flashed over his eyes with every other step. It wasn’t until Oz noticed that Astra looked back to check for him after every black flash that he realized what was happening. Every few steps, Astra was taking them to another universe. Oz had a million questions, but at the moment, he trusted Astra more than he trusted himself.

Before Astra revealed the multiverse, Oz might have been tempted to try and fight the strange woman. He was a relatively new recruit with the organization; but, all his training taught him to be formidable with his magical abilities. Astra’s reflexive flight at the horned woman’s appearance hinted to Oz that he wouldn’t stand a chance. After another black flash, Astra halted. Oz ran into her but managed to slow himself enough not to topple them over.

“Estrellita, you know you can’t run from me,” a now-familiar voice said. Oz would never forget that voice for the rest of his life; and, it was burned into his brain mostly based on secondhand terror. He had no idea who she was. But, he knew that they ran through at least seven alternate universes; and, somehow she was waiting for them.

“Please don’t hurt him, Ballisea!” Astra yelled. She stood in front of Oz and spread her arms wide to defend him. Ballisea’s obsidian eyes flitted to Oz, then back to Astra. She sighed with disappointment.

“Little one, if I was going to hurt that Zero, I wouldn’t have let you take him for a walk. I happened to overhear your conversation, and it sounded like that Earth could use a little shake-up, hmm? Maybe do away with those kidnappers? I really could use the entertainment.” Astra stepped forward and tilted her head at the horned woman and relaxed her arms.

“Are.. you.. asking me?” she asked. “For… permission?” Ballisea sighed.

“For reasons I don’t feel like explaining, yes,” she said with a nod.

“No way!” Astra yelled. She was so excited she jumped in place. “This is because your team lost, isn’t it?” she asked. “EVERYONE saw that game; this is why the stakes were kept private, isn’t it?” she asked with a broad grin; and, standing closer to Ballisea than Oz would have liked. Especially when they were fleeing in terror moments before. Ballisea stared at Astra expectantly, but did not answer the question. “I won’t give you permission if you don’t answer me,” she said. Ballisea narrowed her eyes at Astra for a moment, then nodded.

“No. This is not related to the stakes of that game,” she said. “This is related to the stakes of the next game.”

“The next game?” Astra asked. “But.. your team… kinda died…?” she said.

“I’m building a new one,” Ballisea replied.

“Can I-?”

“No,” Ballisea cut off Astra’s request.

“Oh. Okay,” Astra nodded, then she looked at Oz.

“Is it okay if she kills all your bosses?” she asked him. Oz replied with a dazed nod. Astra turned back to Ballisea.

“JUST the evil organization. Take your skeletons and leave that Earth alone once they’re gone. I have family there; if you hurt them or any other innocents there, you break the terms,” Astra said. Ballisea nodded.

“Agreed. I’ll leave in peace. Once I finish,” Ballisea said. Then, she dissipated into a black mist that disappeared.

“What the hell just happened?” Oz asked. “First, we’re running for our lives.. then you’re giving her orders?” Astra shrugged and smiled.

“Everyone knows that the game is only fun if people follow the rules.”

Stellar Tour 1: Stellar Reveal

June 19, 2021 You are part of an agency that tracks down unregistered magical girls/boys to train and register them in the system or to arrest them if they are uncooperative.

“Hi, I’m Oz,” a lean man with round spectacles stepped in front of Astra and introduced himself. The 14-year-old girl was on her way home through the park. Oz sat on a concrete bench and stood to approach her as she passed. Astra never feared talking to strangers; she could take care of herself and she wasn’t alone. Despite the grey, cold day Astra was in a great mood.

“Hi, Oz. What can I do for you?” Astra asked without giving him any information.

“Do you know what a special little girl you are?” He asked. Astra nodded, then whirled around to walk away.

“Yeah, that’s not creepy at all from a stranger,” she said loud enough for him to hear.

“You’re right, sorry!” Oz was quick to apologize. He continued pleading his case when Astra slowed and turned around. Thanks to the dark clouds hiding the sun or last-minute holiday shopping, the park was relatively empty. The closest person was a jogger on the other side of the park headed further away from them. Oz felt comfortable speaking some secrets aloud. “I’m here on business; what do you know about the unusual spider-fall a couple of weeks ago?” Astra wanted to play it cool; but, her answer told Oz more than she meant to.

“What business, exactly?” she asked. Oz smiled.

“There’s a magical world hidden just underneath the real one,” Oz said. “My organization recruits and trains magical kids, like you, to keep the normal world safe.” Oz noticed golden stars flash in Astra’s eyes for a moment; then, she grinned and shook her head.

“No thanks,” Astra gave him a half-wave and took a step forward.

“Wait,” Oz said. “What do you mean, ‘no thanks’?” he asked. “I’m asking you to help save the world. You know, where your friends and family live. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?” Astra turned to shrug at him. She idly tugged at the strings of her blue checkered hoodie as she raised her shoulders.

“Sure. But, I’m not gonna stress it. If things happen and I see an opportunity to help, I’ll help.” Oz shook his head and gave a slight chuckle.

“Of course my first mission wouldn’t be as easy as training,” he sighed, then focused on Astra. “I’m sorry to say, I must insist,” he took a step towards Astra. As soon as his foot landed, a low, rumbling growl filled the air. Oz glanced around the park, then tilted his head at Astra. “I see you’re eager to fight. I must say, that reflects quite poorly on your temperament. Don’t worry, you’ll learn tools to manage that aggression during training.” Astra rolled her eyes.

“It’s not me,” she said. “Show him, Ben,” Asta added. When she did, a large white wolf, almost as tall as her, materialized out of thin air. The wolf stood next to Astra; his fur bristled with his ears laying back and he bared his teeth at Oz.

“I don’t want to fight you,” she said. “But Ben is more than happy to.” Ben barked at Oz and half-dozen large black widow spiders flew out of his mouth. They landed on the concrete path and immediately scurried towards Oz.

“You’re going to have to do better than that, puppy,” Oz smiled. He lifted his hand chest high and made a crushing gesture with his fist; wispy green energy lifted the six spiders off the ground and pulled them together. The loose tendrils of energy coalesced into a grapefruit-sized ball, then shrunk. The spiders were compressed into a single small black sphere before the energy dissipated. The mass of spiders landed on the ground with a moist plop and released dark green ichor. “I’m taking you in for registration one way or another.” Astra shuffled closer to Ben and put a hand on his head.

“I already said no thanks,” Astra replied with a smug smile. Oz kept his focus on the girl and wolf before him and did not notice the extra tall black portal opening behind him until Asra pointed it out. “Maybe he’ll want to go with you,” she said and pointed behind him.

It was Oz’s first mission alone, but he wasn’t a fool. He wouldn’t have turned around if the hairs on his neck did not jump to attention as soon as Astra pointed behind him. He spun around and immediately stumbled backward trying to run away at the same time. He managed to keep his legs under him and keep his cool, despite the surprise. A giant purple spider with a body the size of a Volkswagen crawled towards Oz on giant spindly legs. Each of its eight eyes was almost as big as Oz’s head. Oz made a crushing fist; green energy gathered around the beast but it maintained its pace toward Oz.

“Okay, I guess I have to get serious,” Oz said. He held up a jade fountain pen. “Authority Access,” Oz said. An emerald light flashed from the pen; it was bright enough to make Astra blink. when she opened her eyes an instant later, Oz stood there wearing the exact same suit he wore moments ago. But, instead of the spectacles, he now wore a forest-green eye mask. The pen became a long jade staff. Oz pointed it at the car-sized spider.

“Wait! Don’t hurt it!” Astra said. A giant portal opened under the spider to swallow it again. “I just wanted to scare you,” she said. “I really, really don’t want to fight you.”

“Then, don’t,” Oz said. “Join us, help protect the Earth.”

“My dad always says something that I think applies to you,” Astra said. “You need to broaden your horizons; there’s ALWAYS more out there than you know.”

“That’s a nice lesson,” Oz said. “But, I don’t see how it relates to saving humanity from the forces of evil.”

“Well, for one thing, it’ll help to know this isn’t the only Earth that exists,” Astra said. A tall portal opened halfway between Astra and Oz.

“There are infinite Earths out there, most of them with humans,” Astra said. Oz had been curious where the spider came from and went. Now he had an answer; it came from a different Earth. He stared at the portal as his mind raced. Alternate Earths, infinite alternate Earths.

“Saving humanity? It’s just busywork,” Astra said. “Not only can you not do it; you don’t have to.”

Sharp Tower

“Hello, neighbor,” Betty turned to see a young man in jeans and a t-shirt approaching her with a big grin on his face. He extended his hand once he was close enough. “Name’s Jorge, I just moved in next door.” Betty left her key on the door long enough to shake his hand.

“Betty,” she said. “Welcome to the building.”

“Thanks,” Jorge said. He noticed her white uniform with the name ‘Sharp Scoops’ embroidered in red on her sleeve. “So,.. uh.. what’s the scoop on the community here?” he grinned at his own joke. Betty smiled politely at the attempt; it wasn’t the worst one she’d heard.

“They’re friendly enough,” Betty said. “But most keep to themselves. It feels like a lot of time they only use this exit to go to work.” Jorge didn’t know what she meant, but he quickly realized she was coming home from work and probably tired.

“Oh man, I’m sorry. You’re probably dying to get in, and here I am chatting away,” Jorge chuckled to himself; he took a step back to hint that he was leaving. Before he could say anything else, Betty nodded.

“I’m pretty beat. If you’re not doing anything later come over around seven. You can meet my roommate and we’ll have some pizza and tell you more about the building,” she said.

“Yeah, that sounds awesome, thanks!’ Jorge nodded, then turned around to return to his apartment. Betty walked through the door and made a beeline to the couch to relax for a few hours.

At 7 p.m. on the dot, Jorge knocked on Betty’s door. She opened the door still wearing the same white uniform but looking much more chipper.

“Right on time, pizza just got here,” she said. She opened the door wider to invite Jorge in; the moment he stepped into her bright apartment, something felt off. He couldn’t pinpoint what it was at first. He noticed two pizza boxes stacked neatly on the counter by the kitchen; but, it was a restaurant he didn’t recognize. He’d never heard of Mundo’s pizza despite living in the area all his life.

“Thanks,” Jorge handed her a bottle of red wine once she closed the door.

“I forgot it was my roommate’s game night, so it’s just us,” Betty said. “But she’s looking forward to meeting you next time.” 

“Me too,” Jorge said. Betty pointed him at the small round table and encouraged him to take a seat while she grabbed the pizza box and a couple of wine glasses. As she moved to the table, a stray sunbeam caught the light and flashed in Jorge’s eye. he blinked for a moment until it passed. He looked toward the balcony and noticed a golden sun hanging in a deep blue sky.

“What the hell?” he said aloud. Betty was about to sit down but stopped; hovering her bottom above the seat.

“What the hell what?” she asked. Instead of answering, Jorge stood up and walked to the glass door to peer outside. Betty stood and followed him.

“It’s 7 p.m. When I left my apartment, the sun was down.” Betty giggled.

“Well, that was in your apartment,” she said. “Out there it’s…,” Betty pulled out a small transparent rectangle and tapped the screen. “…3 p.m.”

“What? That’s not possible,” he said. Betty’s smile dimmed slightly.

“What’s your favorite number?’ she asked.

“What?” Jorge took his eyes off the blue sky to give her a confused look. “How is the sun out?”

“Huh.” Betty replied. “Well…,” Betty spun around to return to the table, but kept talking along the way. “…I’m not sure how you made it into the building, but you’ve got a lot to learn.” She sat at the table and gestured for Jorge to join her. After a moment, Jorge walked over and sat also.

“So, the short version is, each apartment is in a different universe,” Betty said as she grabbed a couple of slices from the box. Jorge did as well.

“How?” Jorge asked. He did not immediately believe her, despite the evidence. But, if she had a reasonable explanation, it would go a long way to convincing him. Betty shrugged.

“I couldn’t tell you, that’s all Sharp Development at work,” she said. “But, uh, I can prove alternate universes exist, if that helps?”

“It would,” Jorge nodded.

“Great,” Betty stood from her seat. “Let’s go back to your place.”

“Okay…,” Jorge was confused but he stood and followed her out of the apartment. He noticed for the first time that there were no windows in the hallway. She reached his door first, but he was right behind her with the key ready. He let her into his darkened apartment then turned on the lights. He glanced at the balcony and saw a full moon high in the sky. He felt a minor embarrassment at his mess of unpacked boxes, but there were other things going on.

Betty walked straight to the balcony and opened the sliding door to step out.

“Come on,” she said. “Pizza’s getting cold.” Jorge walked onto the balcony into the cool night air. Betty held up a pitch-black card.

“This is a traverse card,” she said then slid the glass door closed. She threw the card against the glass and it opened a tall black hole. “This is a portal,” Betty said. She walked through it without another word.

Jorge entered the portal and found a sunny day on the other side. As he got his bearings, Betty opened a glass sliding door. Once she went in, he realized they were now on her balcony and he followed her back to the table and to their slices of pizza.

“Whoa…,” Jorge said. He was trying to process everything. “I’ve been to another universe!” he said.

“Two,” Betty corrected him.

“Two?” he asked. She nodded.

“The hallway is on one Earth, and every apartment is in a different universe.”

Star. Spider.

Greg hopped out of his bed as soon as he opened his eyes. He heard wild screaming outside his house and ran to the window. He spotted the few neighbors that spent their weekend mornings outside rushing indoors. All of them were screaming, a few of them were flailing at the snow that was falling.

“It wasn’t supposed to snow today…,” Greg mumbled to himself. His mind latched on to that fact to help him process why everyone was so scared of it. It wasn’t until several of the snowflakes landed on his window, and began crawling up the glass, that he realized something odd was happening. He immediately thought of his daughter and bolted out of the bedroom; he grabbed his robe on the way.

“ASTRA!!!!” he shouted as he barreled down the stairs. He knew she would be outside in the backyard. He opened the sliding door and paused. He realized he wasn’t wearing any shoes and didn’t want to step onto the spider-filled ground if he didn’t have to. As he paused, he saw his daughter laying on the lush green grass, leaning against a large white wolf.

She and the pet wolf she got 10 years ago appeared to be napping together. Somehow the spiders falling from the sky all chose to miss their yard. Greg felt calmer knowing she was safe. He eased the glass door open and padded out in socks.

“Astra, Ben,” she said addressing his daughter and her pet. “What’s going on?” he asked. The girl’s eyes popped open and she grinned at Greg.

“Hey dad!” she said excitedly. Ben opened his eyes too, but just long enough to let Greg know he was paying attention too. Then, he closed his eyes again. “We learned something cool!” Astra said.

Greg nodded in patient understanding.

“Did you have to terrorize the neighbors to do it?” he asked.

“Ohhh,” Astra’s eyes clouded a bit. “Didn’t think about that, sorry dad,” she said.

“You and Ben put the spiders away, then you can come inside and tell me about your new trick, okay?” he said. Astra nodded and Ben opened his eyes again. It took Greg the better part of the decade to get used to Ben having such a human-like personality. Although, admittedly, Ben didn’t even make himself visible for Greg for the first two years, so he didn’t count those.

Greg returned inside and to his room to put on some actual clothes. After taking a few minutes to wash up and dress, he returned to the kitchen to find Astra and Ben sitting at the table. Ben sat on his haunches on a chair next to Astra. The giant wolf towered over her, even more, when they were seated.

“Alright, what’s this new trick exactly? How did you get it to rain spiders?” Greg asked. He sat down across from them. Ben towered above him too.

“We can put our powers together!” Astra said. She reached up and put her right hand on Ben. She raised her left hand and wiggled it at the table. A small, saucer-sized black portal opened over the table. Immediately, a half-dozen spiders fell out of the portal and onto the table. There were different varieties in a rainbow of colors. Greg didn’t recognize any of them. It always surprised him how he was still seeing new types of spiders after 10 years. The spiders crawled across the table to another portal and disappeared into it.

“Whooa!” Greg chuckled in awe and surprise. 10 years ago Mundo, the owner of the pet shelter, explained what Astra’s and Ben’s abilities were. She also took time to explain the amazing abilities of all Unique Souls. Some were powerful enough to mind control an entire Earth, some strong enough to shatter an Earth. She also took time to explain about the multiverse at large and that Astra could get to any of them at any time. “That’s pretty awesome!” he said.

“Buuuut,” he tilted his head. “You can obviously do it, why make them fall from the sky?” he asked. Astra’s eyes immediately looked at the table between them; her bronze cheeks took on a faint blush.

“It was a test to see what it looks like,” she apologized to the table. “In case it doesn’t snow on Christmas.”

Spider. Lady.

“Where- Ow!” Tara banged her head against something, then fell back to the cold, concrete floor. “What the hell?” she asked aloud while rubbing the ache on her forehead.

“Careful,” a soft voice said. “These cages aren’t that big.” Tara’s pain subsided and she looked around to try and get a better idea of her surroundings. She was in a cage with thick metal bars. Though it was dim, a small window with bars on it let in a sliver of moonlight. She was able to see several other cages in what appeared to be a basement or storage room. Though, only one of the other cages was occupied. A young girl that appeared to be about Tara’s age was doing her best to sit close to Tara. She sat with her arms around her knees and leaning against the side that faced Tara’s cage.

“Where are we? How’d I get here?” Tara asked.

“There were six other girls when I woke up here,” the girl replied. “Men came and took them, and the ones that arrived after me away one by one.” She spoke with the most defeated voice Tara ever heard; the girl’s tone was flat and distant.

“I’m Tara, what’s your name?” Tara asked. She guessed the situation and decided she wanted nothing to do with it. It was time to leave.

“Doesn’t matter,” the girl replied.

“That’s kind of long; I’m going to call you D.M. instead. How long have you been here, D.M.?” While Tara tried to make conversation with the girl, the locks to their cages were being dissolved by acid. Tara also managed to learn about their location and the people that put here there, from within the cage.

“Four girls showed up after me,” she said. “I think it’s about one a week; you’re the fifth.”

“Damn, well don’t sweat it, D.M. You’re out of here tonight,” Tara replied. The locks on both their cages popped off; two heavy clinks sounded on the concrete floor.

“What?” D.M. sat up on her knees and looked at Tara in surprise. “Did you do that? How?” she asked. Tara crawled out of her cage and stood to give a tall stretch.

“C’mon, I’m hungry. I’ll explain it over a pizza,” she said. D.M. timidly crawled out of her cage and enjoyed a stretch herself.

“There’s guards!” she said as Tara headed toward the door.

“Nah,” was all she said before opening the door. D.M. followed Tara out of the room and into a narrow hallway. She was glad for the dim lighting. It was brighter than the storage room, but not bright enough to blind her coming from a dark room. The moment she looked down the hall, D.M. shrieked in fear.

The two guards she expected to see were both on the ground; each one was covered with dozens of different types of spiders. The guards were already dead and the spiders were wrapping them in webbing.

“It’s cool,” Tara said. “They won’t hurt you, they’re with me.”

“…with you? What does that mean?”

“I can control them, c’mon.” Tara repeated. “I’m hungry. I’ll answer all your questions when I get some food.” 

“What about the rest of them?” D.M. asked. She pressed herself against the opposite wall to walk by the guards. Tara shrugged.

“What rest of them?” she asked with a smirk. D.M. followed Tara out of the building they were in. She spotted what looked like a main house, and two more corpses were on the ground being wrapped up by hundreds of spiders.

“Where did all these spiders come from?” D.M. asked.

“From me,” Tara replied as they kept walking.

“Okay…,” D.M. said. She didn’t know what that meant, but she knew Tara saved her life. She would get to see her family again as soon as she found out where she was. Tara seemed to know which direction to go so she continued to follow her.

“My name’s Denise,” D.M. said. “Denise Martinez.” Tara giggled as they walked through the acid-melted iron gate.

“D.M. it is,” she said. “I gotta say, you’re taking everything that’s happened pretty well. What’s your favorite number?” Tara asked.

“Three,” D.M. said. Tara nodded to herself.

“Yeah, I thought so. We’re going to have a very interesting conversation.”

Violet Adult. Indigo Child.

“50 years?” Wilbur shook his head with a gentle chuckle as he organized his paperwork. “That’s kind of incredible,” he added. Violet sat quietly in front of his desk as the middle-aged man mostly mumbled to himself. She knew he wasn’t talking about her specifically as much as the whole group. The others were either sitting in the waiting room or being interviewed by other caseworkers. One thing Violet learned in the bunker was to remain quiet while adults were talking. That included when they were talking to themselves.

Violet’s gaze wandered around the small office while Wilbur seemed preoccupied with putting his forms in the right order. The office was extremely plain with solid white, empty walls. The two seats in the room, Violet’s and Wilbur’s, were both black leather rolling chairs; though, the back of Wilbur’s was taller. Small wire baskets covered the wooden desk between them. Wilbur pulled a sheet from each of the different baskets, read it over, then either returned it to the basket or added it to the pile he collected.

Violet focused on him since the office was so plain. He stopped reaching into the baskets and read the ones he chose more carefully, occasionally re-shuffling their order.

“Alright, Sorry,” Wilbur finally said after stapling his packet together. “Your group is kind of a new situation, we don’t have a standardized packet yet. So, welcome to the real world! ” he added with a broad, warm grin. It was the first time he gave her his full attention, and his smile put Violet at ease. 

“Let’s start with the easy ones,” he said. “What’s your full name?”

“Violet Victoria,” she replied quietly.

“That’s a beautiful name. How old are you, Violet?”

“15”

“Okay. What kind of education did you get down there?” Violet tilted her head at the question.

“What kind of what?” she asked.

“Uh..,” Wilbur didn’t expect the question. “Can you read?”

“Yes, Mr. Johnson,” she said and nodded at his nametag.

“How about numbers? Addition, subtraction, multiplication, .. any of that sound familiar?” Violet giggled.

“I know what math is,” she said.

“Great, where did you learn that?”

“My mom taught me,” she replied.

“Did she teach others?” Violet shook her head.

“No, their parents taught them.”

“You’re a bit older than I thought. Let’s see if we can’t get you straight into a high school,” Wilbur reached into one of the baskets. He pulled out a form, then added it to the back of his stack with a second staple.

“What’s high school?” she asked.

“It’s a place to learn about all kinds of things with other kids there your own age. A lot of other kids,” Wilbur explained. Violet nodded eagerly as she listened..

“Yes please! That sounds fun!”

“It’ll mostly depend on what you’ve already learned, but you seem like a bright girl.  You’re in here alone..,” Wilbur said with a softer tone. “…does that mean your parents passed away?”

“No,” Violet giggled. “They’re in a different interview right now. At 15, I’m an adult,” she said. “At least, that’s how it worked down there,” she added when she noticed his surprise.

“Well, unfortunately, that’s not how things work up here. Before you sign any of these, we’ll need your parent’s permission,” he replied. Wilbur dropped the packet on the desk then leaned back in his chair to reach into his pocket. He pulled out something Violet had never seen before.

It was glass, but only the size of a playing card. As she wondered what it was, Wilbur tapped and swiped at it with his fingers. Violet thought she saw lights flashing on it, but couldn’t make out anything.

“I sent a message to let your parents know to come in here after they’re done,” he explained.

“What’s that?” Violet asked. Wilbur grinned.

“It’s called a node, it’s like a cellphone, but better,” he said. He noticed a slight glimmer in her eyes. “You don’t know what a cellphone is either, do you?” he asked. Violet shook her head.

“Well, it’s not important, because this is better,” he leaned forward on the desk and encouraged her to come closer too.

“You used it to talk to someone in another room?” she asked.

“Nodes can be used to talk to people in other universes,” he said.

“There are other universes!?” she looked up from the node in surprise. Wilbur nodded.

“Actually, that reminds me. It’s in there some where,” he gestured at the dropped packet of papers. ” But, what’s your favorite number?”

“33.” Violet said. “Why?”

“Because you’re special, and that answer alone got you into high school,” Wilbur said.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Violet said. “Is everything so weird up here?”

“It’ll make sense eventually, I’m not the one to explain it to you,” he said. But, how do you feel about spiders?”

“Is that food?” she asked.

“No,” Wilbur said. He focused on the node in his hand and tapped it several times, then he turned it around to show her a picture of a black widow spider.

“That’s so beautiful!” Violet said. “Wow… I can’t wait to see one in real life!”

“Awww hell,” Wilbur grumbled himself in the same tone he’d use if he left the oven on at home. Not urgent, but concerning none-the-less. Violet didn’t notice because she felt a tickling sensation. She looked down and noticed three small black widow spiders sitting on the back of her hand.

“Wow! Did they come from the node!? They’re so cute! How many more can it make!???”

“No! Wait!” Wilbur tried to interrupt her questions several times, but she kept speaking over him in her excitement.

After a few minutes, Violet’s parents opened the door to Wilbur’s office. Wilbur sat as far back against the wall as he could with his head in his hands. Between him and Violet’s parents sat a swarm of black and red spiders crawling all over their daughter while she giggled.

“Hi mom! Hi dad!” Violet said when she saw them. “Did you guys know about spiders?” she asked. Her mother answered by fainting.

Justine’s Job

“Not that one!” J.J. stopped Maurice with a hand on his shoulder. She was rewarded with a pair of hands, from two different men, against each of her shoulders. Each of the men used their free hands to aim sidearms at her head. The tall pale man on the right had dark long hair and his eyes glowed red. The shorter, bulkier man on the left sported a bushy brown beard; his eyes glowed yellow.

“Why not?” Maurice raised a thin eyebrow. The gesture deepened the wrinkles already on his forehead. It was the only hint of surprise at anything happening in the empty bar. Three men, a woman with a purple crewcut, and a silent bartender were the only bodies in the bar. J.J. interrupted Maurice as he moved to sit on one of the dozens of unoccupied stools and it made him curious. He also took note that his men’s attempts at intimidation didn’t phase her at all.

“It’s a trigger,” she said. “It’s not hard, but we don’t need that kind of distraction right now, do we?” she asked. Maurice glanced down at the stool, then at the bartender. The late 20s man stood at the end of the bar wiping a glass while facing the other way. Then, he nodded.

“Fair enough,” he leaned forward and spread his arm to gesture at the vacant tables. “After you.” The two men pulled their hands off J.J. and she nodded. She turned and picked a round, wooden table that seemed built for two. Maurice sat across from J.J. while his guards remained standing on both sides. Once they were both seated Maurice gave a slight nod. The tall, pale henchman placed a golden glowing cube on the table between them; it was the size of a grapefruit.

“You have my request?” he asked.

“Yeah, about that…,” J.J. said. In an instant, the golden cube was gone from the table and Maurice was moving to stand. “Wait!” J.J. shouted. “I have it! I just don’t know how much you need,” she said. Maurice’s bottom hovered above his seat for a moment as he tilted his head at J.J.

“What?” he asked. J.J. nodded, and she gave an exaggerated shrug.

“Look, all cards on the table: I’m new. I don’t know the going rate for this stuff. I heard a couple of guys talking about it in a bar somewhere, and here I am.” An amused smile tugged at the corners  of Maurice’s thin lips and he let himself settle back onto his seat. J.J. relaxed when it seemed like he would stay and she sat back in her seat too.

“That cube looked like 100 million; how much is that worth?’ J.J. asked. Maurice appraised the short, pale woman. Her crewcut was a deep shade of royal purple. Her black duster covered most of her body  but he could see a white t-shirt underneath it and she had a large hairy tarantula tattooed on her neck. Her appearance wasn’t anything special, but Maurice had dealt with a lot of people to get to his current position. What impressed him the most was how at ease she was. She didn’t flinch when his henchman brandished guns. She was either naively honest, or actually unconcerned with the possibility of being swindled. The one thing he could tell for sure: she would deliver whatever she promised.

“How much do you have?” Maurice asked. J.J. maintained eye contact with an amicable smile on her face; but, she did not say a word. Maurice felt a brief moment of embarrassment, the first time in possibly a decade, when he realized her silence meant, ‘I asked you first.’ He’d used similar tactics in the past and her carefree attitude hinted that he did not stand a chance of winning that contest with her. He nodded again, the cube was placed on the table again.

“It is 100 million. That normally buys 250ml.” J.J.’s coffee-brown eyes widened; it amused Maurice to see something finally surprise her.

“100 million nanos for one cup!?” she asked. “That’s insane! What do you even use it for?”

“Alchemy,” Maurice smiled. “It’s one of the rarest substances in the multiverse and its properties are useful in a variety of formulas. I’m assuming you do have..,” Maurice chuckled. ” a cup’s worth of it for me? Otherwise, I don’t think you need to waste any more of my time.”

“Oh yeah!” J.J. nodded. “Gimme whatever’s on tap!” J.J. shouted in the general direction of the bar, then she turned back to Maurice.

“Just need to get you a container,” she said. In seconds a blonde waitress appeared to place a frothy mug on their table. Then she wandered off. J.J. lifted the mug and chugged the amber liquid in one go. Once it was empty, she took a moment to dry the inside of the mug out with napkins from the table. Then, she lowered the mug beneath the table and hid it in her coat.

“So how fast do you go through this stuff?” J.J. asked as she nonchalantly hid the mug on her lap.

“It’s so rare; I can never get enough,” Maurice replied. J.J. giggled.

“You keep saying it’s rare. But nothing in the multi-verse is rare; if you know the right people.” J.J. pulled the mug out from under her coat and placed it on the table. The mug was filled to the brim with a viscous, translucent blue liquid. J.J. shrugged.

“There’s at least a cup in there, I don’t have a measuring cup or anything,” she said.

“How…?” Maurice asked. He held his right hand out; the shorter, bushier henchman presented him with a long, thin, obsidian spike that ended in a needle point. He reached forward with a steady hand, gently touched the tip to the surface of the liquid, then, he pulled up. A thin wispy strand followed the spike upward as Maurice stretched it out like a strand of pizza cheese.

“How did you get so much liquid silk?” he asked. “The spiders are impossible to find and savagely ferocious.” J.J. smiled.

“I asked nicely,” she said.

Death & Spiders

“Have a good shift!” Betty stood by the sink putting the finishing touches on two cups of hot chocolate. She waved from the kitchen as Elsa stepped out the door, black cloak and scythe in hand.

“Thanks, see you in a bit,” Elsa replied and shut the door behind her. Betty blinked. Then, the apartment door opened again to admit a noticeably wearier Elsa. The ponytail she left with was gone; her hair was down to just past her shoulders. She wore the cloak and the long handle of the scythe dragged on the ground as she gripped it high on the hilt close to the obsidian blade.

“How long?” Betty asked and walked out of the kitchen holding both mugs. Elsa dropped the scythe. It sliced a thin, pitch-black gash in the air as it fell, then disappeared into its own portal. She collapsed on their couch and eagerly accepted the mug from Betty.

“I don’t even know,” Elsa blew on the chocolate to cool it down while she replied. “It could have been a month,” she shrugged. “It could’ve been a century.” She blew on the drink again. Betty giggled to herself as she sat down next to Elsa.

“Must’ve been a hell of a shift, you’re not even cooling it down with time,” she said, then took a big gulp of steaming hot chocolate. Elsa sighed and nodded.

“Chase said it gets easier to keep track; I hope he’s right,” Elsa blew on the mug one last time, then took a soft, slurpy sip. She closed her eyes and breathed a warmer, happier sigh. “Why is mine never this good?” Elsa asked, then slurped another sip.

“Secret ingredient,” Betty winked. Elsa rolled her eyes.

“You already know I’m Death, no fair keeping secrets,” she said.

“You didn’t have to tell me,” Betty playfully stuck her tongue out at Elsa. “I never would’ve noticed if you didn’t.”

“That’s why I told you,” Elsa sighed. She used her thumb to point at the front door behind them. “In and out just now; but that first week was miserable. I had to hide out in the library for eight hours to convince you I was at work,” she blew on the mug again.

“I don’t have the energy to cool down a cup of chocolate by a few minutes, much less fast forward another eight hours on top of my shift. Although…,” Elsa nodded. “…it was easier to tell you once I saw your tattoo.” Elsa held her left hand up showing the number 14 scarred into it to clarify which tattoo she meant.

Betty’s body was decorated with several tattoos that were all hidden under her clothes. Elsa asked her about it once and Betty explained that she liked to surprise anyone that got to see them. The specific tattoo that Elsa referred to was a spiny orbweaver spider inked on the outside of Betty’s right breast. It had the number 33 in black on its back.

“I hoped that after a whole year rooming together, you could trust me enough to give me your chocolatey secret,” Elsa sighed. Then, she stuck her tongue out at Betty to hint that it was a joke. Luckily, Betty laughed.

“If I tell you, you’re going to stop drinking it. Do you really want to give up something this delicious?” Betty took another gulp.

“Why would I stop drinking it?” Elsa asked. “It’s not like you’re putting spiders in it, or something,” she giggled. After a moment she realized she was giggling alone. Betty held an amused, “I’m not telling” look on her face.

“Right?” she asked for confirmation, then lowered the mug down to her lap when the answer didn’t come right away.

Well…,” Betty said. “…kind of?” she asked her answer.

“What do you mean, ‘kind of’? Are there spider bits in this hot chocolate or not?” Elsa wasn’t all that upset; she liked the drink enough to accept some unexpected extras. A as long as they were minimal.Fortunately, Betty noticed that Elsa wasn’t upset.

“When I learned I could summon spiders from other universes, I spent a lot of time trying to find different types. One day I was really hungry when I was practicing, and I kept thinking about snacks instead of spiders. Then,… this happened.” As she spoke a small, glossy, chocolate brown spider crawled out of her ear. It crawled onto her face, then toward her lips, and into her mouth. She started chewing on it with a smile.

“I found chocolate spiders.”

Elsa narrowed her eyes at Betty while she processed the situation. She glanced down at the mug in her lap, then back to Betty.

“How much?’ Elsa asked. Betty shrugged.

“Not counting the milk and cinnamon… all of it.” Elsa sighed.

“Yeah, okay,” she lifted the mug up and blew on it some more.