Waking up at Knight

“Perfect fit,” Archie grinned. He moved his arm up and down quickly to test the strength of the shield straps. The shield itself was useless; he dug it out of a box of scraps. The town smiths would come by in the morning to pick through the remnants of the day’s tournament. That’s why Archie was picking through the box in the middle of the night. All the lords, ladies, knights, and servants were gone from the jousting grounds.

Archie was there all day. He couldn’t get enough of the loud clanking armor and cheering crowds.  He longed to compete and stand in the spotlight; to be cheered on and accepted. He spent the evening after the tournament wandering from hiding place to hiding place. Archie felt more comfortable using his human form; plus it was easier to hide in. But he knew two things for a fact. People existed that could see through that disguise, and, it could be anyone from servant to noble. He wouldn’t now until it was too late, so he kept hidden to avoid the situation entirely.

Until the last cleaner left. Archie waited for another hour to be sure, then he approached the box of scraps. During the tournament, he spotted several pieces that he hoped were damaged enough to be tossed into the box. One of them was the champion’s shield.  It was not damaged so much as slightly defaced. But, it was the champion’s shield. He only ever used them once because he liked to keep his image strong and new. Archie kicked himself for not realizing the opportunity sooner.

“What the hell?” A girl’s voice broke the midnight silence. It startled Archie and he whirled around while raising the scratched shield. He was surprised to see a teenage girl and a young woman. The younger girl wore a blood-red hoodie. The hood was down revealing her bone-white ponytail. “It’s not supposed to be guarded by a dragon,” the girl said.

Archie did not know what she was talking about, but he didn’t have to. As soon as the word ‘dragon’ left her lips he threw the shield down and leaped into the air away from them. Leathery, bright blue wings sprouted out of his back and he flew as fast as he can. He noticed, too late, that a patch of sky directly in front of him was darker than the rest. He realized it the moment he flew through it and found himself hovering in front of the two girls again.

“Hey, we didn’t mean to scare you,” the white-haired girl said. The young woman was holding the shield up; offering it to Archie.

“You got here first, go ahead. We’ll wait for the next one.” the blond woman said.

Archie hesitated for a moment but allowed himself to land. If nothing else, he trusted the fact that they hadn’t called for any guards yet. And, he already learned he couldn’t get away if he wanted to. He was still wary of a trap, but they didn’t know what he could do yet. He took a step forward and accepted the shield.

“I’m Morgan, that’s Cherry,” the blonde woman introduced them to him.

“Hi. Archie,” he returned the introduction with a nod. He looked at the shield, then back at Morgan. “It’s… really okay for me to take this?” he asked. Morgan shrugged and nodded.

“That’s why it’s here,” she said, then smiled. “That shield’s useful for a lot of different quests, which one are you working on?”

“Uh..,” Archie looked down at the shield, then back at Morgan.

“Quests? Is there a reward for this? The champion throws it away after every tournament,” he said.

“Uhh..,” Morgan repeated Archie’s confusion; then she turned to Cherry and shrugged. Cherry giggled.

“Give him some time. He just woke up.”

“OOOOOHHhhh,” Morgan said. She turned back toward Archie with an even wider grin. “Congratulations!” she said. Archie tilted his head.

“For what?” he asked.

“For coming to life! Now you can do anything you want,” Morgan explained. Archie narrowed his eyes at her for a moment, then shook his head.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about or where you came from; but, life doesn’t work like that here. If it were that easy, I’d be a knight already.”

“That’s your big dream? Being a knight?” Morgan asked. She managed to use a sincere tone that told Archie she wasn’t mocking him. He nodded.

“More than anything,” he replied. Morgan looked at Cherry and they exchanged looks. After a moment, she turned back to Archie.

“Do you have any reasons to stay here?” she asked. Archie chuckled. It was the first time that night; and, the first time in decades. He had no friends to make him laugh. It was hard finding the humor in anything while worrying about whether he’d live through the day. But, Mogan’s question triggered a smart ass response that he couldn’t help but laugh at.

“Just the fact that I have nowhere else to go,” he said. It was true. He’d tried hiding all over the world, but he never stayed in any place for too long.

“Yeah you do,” Morgan said. “We could use a knight on our team,” she said.

“I’m not a knight…,” Archie said. Morgan shrugged.

“We don’t need one right now,” she giggled. “We need one when you’re ready. Come on.” Morgan tilted her head toward Cherry. Cherry was only half there, and Archie watched her other half disappear into the same pitch darkness that brought him back to them. Morgan started to follow her.

“Where?” Archie asked. Morgan’s answer echoed out of the portal as she disappeared.

“To a better game!”

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!”

Star Soldier

“Um, excuse me..,” Gregory tapped the young girl on the shoulder and hoped she didn’t mind the brief contact. He didn’t even know why he felt the need to talk to a teenage girl he never met; being a 24-year-old man only made it more awkward.

Gregory was shopping at the mall that afternoon when he heard the music start. The shoppers crowding the mall ignored the upbeat thumping; but, he rushed in the direction he heard music. Gregory loved participating in the unexplained musical numbers. Somehow he always knew the words to a song he’d never heard before. His dance moves always felt natural. He knew the choreography, that was different each time, as innately as he knew how to walk.

Unfortunately, he missed the window. The song was already well underway and he didn’t feel the usual entrancing pull that let him in on the action. Gregory sighed and sat down at the edge of a large water fountain to watch the show. He looked toward the middle of the crowd where he knew he would find the star. Gregory had no idea how the magic worked, but he’d had plenty of opportunities over the years to study it; he learned a few things.

There was always a star, duo, or group at the center of dancing. As far as he could tell he was the only one to notice this trend. Because no one else even remembered participating. He tried talking to friends and familiar faces after a dance number, but they never acknowledged it. At some point, it occurred to him to ask one of the stars of the show, but somehow they always disappeared in the crowd. Gregory had been unable to corner one until now.

The teenage girl in a blood-red hoodie was the most unusual star dancer Gregory saw until that point. She didn’t seem to move at all while Gregory watched the routine. She remained still; her hands in the front pockets of her hoodie while a large crowd sang and danced around her. She didn’t seem interested in the action happening around her, but everyone else’s choreography made it obvious she was the star. The crowd swirled and swayed around her while wiggling their fingers in her direction. He watched her more carefully and noticed a slight head bob in time with the music; he also noted a strand of bright white hair under her hoodie.

Gregory could not remember ever seeing an objectively bad routine, but that morning he discovered they existed. The vocals sounded worse than ever and several of the dancers were out of sync with the rest of the choreography.

It was also unusual that she was still there once the song was over and the crowd began to disperse. Realizing this was his opportunity, Gregory walked up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. The girl turned around. Gregory caught a flash of gold in her eyes for a brief moment, but then she smiled broadly at him.

“Hola, Soldado, what’s up?” she asked. “I’m Cherry,” she extended a hand, which Gregory shook. He understood ‘Hola’ but didn’t understand Spanish enough to pick up the other word. He was glad she spoke in English right after that.

“Hi Cherry, I’m Gregory,” he replied.

“Um, this might sound weird,” Gregory decided to get it over with. “But.. do you remember dancing just now?” he asked. Cherry grinned and nodded.

“I’ll admit, it’s harder than I thought it’d be,” she said. “Oh man, I’m sorry, did I take your spot or something?” Gregory didn’t register her question; he was still focusing on her first answer.

“You DO remember!??” he asked excitedly. It took every fiber of his being to keep from reaching out to shake the teenager. Cherry’s grin flattened slightly.

“Yeah?” she said. “What about it?” Gregory took a moment to collect his thoughts. He had a million questions, but he didn’t want to scare her off with all of them at once. He decided on the question he hoped would give him the most information.

“..Do you know what makes dances happen?”

“What?” Cherry asked. Her eyes flashed gold again. This time, the glow lasted longer; Gregory realized her irises resembled golden stars. “Oh whoa…,” Cherry said as the glow faded again. “I didn’t notice that the first time.”

“What do you mean?” Gregory asked. Cherry reached into the pocket of her hoodie and gave a slight sigh.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have a lot of time right now. I just wanted to come  and see what it was like. But, now that I know I need more practice, I’ll be coming back,” she said. She pulled her hand out of her pocket and handed Gregory a piece of glass about the size of a playing card.

“What’s this?” Gregory accepted it. As soon as he touched it, the transparent display lit up with the time and date.

“It’s a node so you can practice too. It’ll give you something to do until I come back and answer all your questions. Uh.. tomorrow maybe. See you then.”

“Practice what?” Gregory asked. His attention was on the node. It took a second of silence for him to look up and realize that Cherry was gone already. He glanced around but there was no sign of her blood-red hoodie anywhere. He tapped the node; the time and date disappeared and the screen was filled with colorful text.

[Song Selection] followed by a long list of songs. Not knowing what to make of it, Gregory tapped the first song on the list without even reading the title. Music instantly started pumping in his ears and tall, bright green text appeared in the center of his vision. It wasn’t on the display; anywhere he looked he saw text floating in the center of his eyeliner.

[Get Ready…] Gregory noticed the crowd of strangers around him tighten up to be closer to him. The text changed as the music built up.

[..to be…] A dense crowd now milled around Gregory. He stared at the text eagerly wondering what would happen next.

[…A STAR!] The text faded in time for a golden star to whizz past him.

[Miss] appeared and Gregory noticed two more stars approaching from behind it. He needed to move but he managed to put his hand out to touch one of the stars. Gregory heard a sharp chime under all the music and the star disappeared.

[Good] [Miss]

He spotted three more stars approaching while the crowd danced around him. A warm happiness filled Gregory’s stomach as he processed his situation.

“I’m the star!” the words to a song he never heard flowed out of his mouth as if he knew them in his soul.

Emma & Family

“The medical term is: ‘nigh-invulnerable’,” Dr. Roberts explained. 16-year-old Emma sat in a hospital bed while Dr. Roberts informed her and her parents about Emma’s new abilities. “Your daughter is bullet-proof now, among other gifts. The meteor that struck her is being researched by the best minds in the country,” he said.

“What are you going to do with our daughter?” Emma’s dad asked while standing from his seat. He was a tall, imposing man that dwarfed the short doctor. Dr. Roberts smiled.

“Discharge her,” he shrugged. “We couldn’t hold your daughter even if we wanted to. We can’t penetrate her skin to administer any tranquilizers or taser charges. Her super strength would make short work of any normal person, and she can fly.”

“You can fly!?” Emma’s dad whirled around to face her. She gave a delicate nod.

“Honestly, being in a hospital hasn’t benefited her at all. We couldn’t do anything to stitch her wounds closed; she healed all on her own. And it’s perfect; her x-rays are so clean she looks like she’s never even had a hairline fracture before. There’s absolutely no evidence a meteorite went completely through her ribs and spine,” Dr. Roberts said.

“She healed that fast in less than two weeks?” Emma’s mother asked in surprise. Dr. Roberts shook his head.

“Less than a week. The rest of the time, she decided to stay on her own and let us learn a few things,” he smiled. “We couldn’t make your daughter stay, so we asked nicely. But, she says she’s ready to go home now.”

“You little liar!” Emma’s dad took a step closer to his daughter and bonked her head with his fist. “Every night for the past week you told us they wouldn’t let you leave yet,” he said. Emma shrugged with a smile; she knew he wasn’t mad.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to accidentally blow you guys up,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about my powers. Now I do,” Emma sighed deeply and cast a glance at Dr. Roberts. He nodded at her in encouragement. “And,… I know what I’m going to be,” she added.

“Oh honey,” Emma’s mom wrapped her arm around Emma from next to her bed. “You don’t have to decide on a future right now, you’ve been through some crazy things lately,” she advised Emma, Emma shook her head.

“That’s why I decided already. Super strength, flight?” she asked. “I have to be a superhero.”

“Why do you have to? You’re the only person with super powers,” he said.

“I’m not the only one,” Emma replied; she hoped she wouldn’t butcher Dr. Robert’s explanation. He offered to speak to her parents himself, but Emma needed to do it. The doctor was a third party whose opinions could be invalidated at any moment; but, Emma was their daughter. They had to listen to her. “I’m just the first. The meteorite that hit me was one of thousands. Who knows what other powered people are going to show up?”

“This is what you want?” Emma’s mother asked her. Emma nodded.

“Two rules,” she replied. Emma nodded again; she loved the way her mom negotiated things it made everything easier.

“First, superheroing is not more important than a degree,” she said. “I don’t care what the degree is, I don’t care about attendance or grades but you need that degree. Clear?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Emma replied.

“Second. Your father picks your superhero name.”

“WHAT!?” Emma blurted out. “No way!”

“Awww, c’mon,” Emma’s dad chuckled. “Don’t be like that, Meteor Maiden.”

Organized Organs

“You’re not going to count it?” Dudley asked Mr. Montes. The well-dressed gentleman shook his head as he slipped the cash-stuffed envelope in a drawer. The two men, one old and refined, the other younger and sloppily dressed, sat in Mr. Montes’ office. Dudley thought it was odd that they were the only two in the office, Mr. Montes usually had a pair of bodyguards in the room.

“Our arrangement is complete, you’re done,” Mr. Montes said with a nervous smile.

“What?” Dudley tilted his head in surprise. “I’ve only made three payments? I’m good for the rest, I promise!” the 18-year old moved forward to the edge of his seat with his hands clasped, begging.

“It’s okay,” Mr. Montes tried to ease Dudley’s mind. “You’re not in trouble,” he sighed. “You’re a good kid, and I don’t feel right taking advantage of you. Your mom’s doing better now, right?” he asked. Dudley nodded.

“Yes! Thank you, Mr. Montes. I couldn’t have paid for the surgery without you.”

“Good, good. That’s all that’s important. Stick close to home and take care of her; don’t worry about this anymore.”

“But, I still owe you so much!” Dudley said. “Is there anything I can do?” Mr. Montes shook his head.

“Stay close to home, out of trouble. That’s all I ask,” he said. He hoped that the more Dudley stayed home, the less chance he had of running into his men.

“I’m really good at fighting,” Dudley mentioned sheepishly. The nervous young man scratched at his neck tattoo; a ’34’ in gold numbers. “Do you need another enforcer?”

The truth was Mr. Montes did need more men; and, he already knew about Dudley’s fighting prowess. Mr. Montes was an intelligent and ruthless businessman. His loans often came with extra trouble that couldn’t be traced back to him. All it took was a well-timed mugging to keep his debtors perpetually on the hook. He didn’t break legs; the real money was in interest.

People were happy to borrow money from him because he was so understanding. Those that couldn’t make a payment one month due to unfortunate luck could make it up the next month with extra. Until he started sending men after Dudley; and, they never returned. He could have used Dudley on his payroll, but he made it a point to avoid risk where he could. The last thing he needed was Dudley learning how he operated. His best bet was to keep Dudley distracted and out of the way.

“No, Dudley. It’s obvious how much your mother means to you, and she should. Stay close to home as much as you can.”

“Please Mr. Montes, I really need a job. If I’m done paying you, that’s great. I appreciate all you’ve done for me, but now that my mom’s home, I still can’t afford to take care of her.”

Mr. Montes always made decisions quickly when he knew what he wanted. His goal was to keep Dudley out of the way; the young man could easily destroy everything Mr. Montes built. Though, he hadn’t realized how dangerous he was until going through three separate snipers. Mr. Montes personally witnessed the third shot. A bullet went straight through Dudley’s head, but here he was without a mark.

He knew Dudley was telling the truth about needing the money despite making all his payments on time. The irony was that if Mr. Montes hadn’t sent men to rough him up, Dudley would not have been able to make his payments. Once his informants told him how Dudley earned the money, he decided to cut his losses. Dudley wasn’t his only source of income; and, it was too minor an amount to risk losing his whole empire. In fact, it was worth some insurance money.

“Okay, I have a job for you. Stay home. Take care of your mother. Don’t worry about a thing, you’re on my payroll now.”

“You mean it!?” Dudley’s face lit up with excitement. Mr. Montes nodded.

“What do you think? 5,000 a month seems like enough, right?” Mr. Montes asked. Dudley was initially on the hook for 10k a month. “Now that you don’t have to make my payment, that should be enough for you and your mother to live comfortably.” Dudley nodded enthusiastically.

“Wow! That’s almost as much as I get for three kidneys!”

Island Secret

“Good Morning,” Dr. Fredrickson bowed his head as they did and returned the greeting. It wasn’t until after he said it that his groggy mind had a realization. “You speak English?” he looked at the small crowd of men and women trying to pick out the one that spoke. They all wore loose rags as loincloths and the women also wore bikini tops. Little more than what might be considered bathing suits in the civilized world.

“Sorry, no questions,” one of the women at the front of the group said. She gave him an apologetic smile. “All newcomers must meet Mundo; she will answer the questions we cannot.”

“Oh.. okay,” Dr. Fredrickson nodded at her. “Can I meet this mundo person then?” he asked. Considering the fact she answered in perfect English, he didn’t think his question was all that important anymore. The woman stepped away from the group and waved at them.

“I’ll take him to Mundo’s, you guys go ahead. I’ll catch up after,” she said. “C’mon,” she encouraged Dr. Fredrickson to follow her and she                            walked off the beach. He followed her in silence; not wanting to ask questions they already told him they couldn’t answer. He assumed she was leading him to her village. He expected palm huts and sand. His mind flooded with questions as soon as he saw the village; it looked like a perfect, idealized 1950s TV neighborhood. Small houses with neat yards and white picket fence. Several homeowners were in their yard tending to gardens or watering the grass. Many of them waved at his guide as they walked by.

Dr. Fredrickson was astounded that they wore comfortable, contemporary clothes, not at all like the first group he saw on the beach. He spotted overalls, sun hats, jeans and other modern clothing.         

“Here we are,” she suddenly turned onto a walkway that led up to a large, pastel green house. She knocked once they reached the front porch, then she waved at Dr. Fredrickson and started back down the concrete path.

“Wait, that’s it?” Dr. Fredrickson asked. She nodded.

“She sleeps in sometimes. Just keep knocking every few minutes until she answers.

“Okay,…,” he replied. On his fourth round of knocking, an hour later, the door finally opened. A short, sleepy woman with messy short green hair opened the door and stared at Dr. Fredrickson for a moment, then she sighed.

“Hold on,” she said and shut the door. Almost five minutes later she opened the door again and this time she held her hand out to offer something to Dr. Fredrickson.

“This is a node,” she placed a small glassy rectangle about the size of a playing card in his palm. “It’s like a cellphone, but better. Learn how to use it. When it asks for your Unique number tell it you’re #34, El Soldado.” She placed a pitch black card on top of the node, no matter how he looked at the card it looked like a hole in reality.

“Think about your home universe then throw this on the floor or against a wall. Good luck,” she said then moved to close the door. Dr. Fredrickson blocked the door with his foot.

“Someone told me you would answer my questions,” he said.

“What?” she relaxed from pushing the door and narrowed her eyes at him. “Who did?” He shrugged.

“A group found me at the beach and she brought me here. The said you would answer my questions.”

“Ohhhhh,” Mundo said. “Are you shipwrecked?” Dr.. Fredrickson nodded. Mundo sighed again.

“Okay, hold on,” she shut the door again. When she opened it she handed him a clipboard with several forms on it.

“This island is considered private and top secret on this Earth. Either you stay here permanently, or you can choose another Earth to be moved to. Sign here,” she pointed at the bottom, “to indicate you understand. The next page is a list of available servers if you decide you don’t want to stay on the island.”

“There are other Earths!?” Dr. Fredrickson asked. He marveled at the concept the first time she mentioned ‘this Earth’. Mundo nodded.

“And I can pick one to move to!? What does it cost!?” Dr. Fredrickson had been looking forward to retirement for a few years now. He decided that this round of field research was going to be his last.

“Free,” Mundo shrugged. “We’re trying to keep a secret, we’ll gladly ship you off to another Earth if we don’t have to worry about you anymore.”

“I’m in,” Dr. Fredrickson said as he flipped the sheet over to the second page.

Soldiering On

Clark froze when he spotted her. A young woman with short, vibrant purple hair crossed his path several feet ahead. She didn’t see him, her eyes were focused on the path in front of her as she passed by. But even without seeing them, Clark knew her eyes were dark brown. Her profile was just as he remembered; he’d recognize that button nose anywhere. She continued by him with her floral dress flowing in the wind. Even if the scent of lemonade lipgloss didn’t brush his nose, the white roses on a pink dress were somehow uniquely her. Clark closed his eyes and took several deep breaths.

“It’s not real. It’s not real…,” he reminded himself. The last time his guilt haunted him, he was a freshman in high school. And she was still the little girl that impaled herself in the forest. A purple-haired 8-year-old girl with a blood-stained flower print dress. At the time, he took his therapist’s advice and said goodbye to her. It seemed to work for almost 4 years, but there she was. Although, it seemed odd to Clark that she appeared older now. Not only that, but she didn’t even seem to notice him. The little girl’s apparition always stared at him with a disappointed, disgusted sneer.

Clark opened his eyes but she was still within view, though farther away. He was shocked when he realized she was talking to someone. His imagined ghost never talked to anyone, not even him. She didn’t say a word when Clark apologized and said his goodbyes; she only faded away

“It can’t be…,” he said to himself. After several steps, he realized he was moving closer to the conversation. He stopped walking long enough to debate his actions, then continued anyway.

She was talking to another student in the walkway between buildings. Clark snuck close, but hid behind a brick pillar to stay out of sight.

“See you later, Mary,” one of the two women said. Clark relaxed. The voice didn’t sound like he thought it would. He couldn’t see who talked, but it had to be the woman he was chasing; her name was Celina.

“I told you it wasn’t real,” Clark mumbled to himself. “But one hell of a lookalike,” he said with a sad chuckle. He turned to go around the pillar to continue to class, but something stopped him. He banged his chin against a purple-haired, fair-skinned forehead and clacked his teeth shut.

“Owwww,” they both said at the same time; each rubbed their injured spot.

“Sorry, didn’t see you,” she apologized in a soft, familiar voice as she looked up. Clark couldn’t believe his ears. He let go of his chin and looked down at her.

“Celi-,” he started to say her name. He was interrupted by a dainty hand clamping over his mouth.

“Shhhh!” she said. Clark narrowed his eyes at her in confusion, but he remained quiet. Her head swiveled back and forth as she checked their surroundings, then after a moment, she moved her hand from his mouth.

“Oh god,” she said. In an instant, her arms were wrapped around him. “I thought I’d never see you again.”

“Why did you shush me?” Clark asked without returning the hug. Dozens of questions filled his mind, but he started with the most immediate one and planned to work his way backward.

“New identity,” she whispered while still resting against his chest. She sighed, stepped back, then stuck her hand out.

“Hi, I’m Mary,” she said somewhat loudly. “What’s your name, friendly stranger? You like a Clark, I’ll bet it’s Clark.”

“I’m Clark,” he said and shook her hand.

“I knew it!” she said. “I feel like we’re old friends already. Let’s skip class!” she grabbed his hand and led him across campus. They walked hand in hand to the parking lot, then across it and off campus. The walk took almost half an hour, but she refused to talk to him until they reached a nearby park. They sat at a picnic table then Mary finally opened up.

“I don’t know what you’ve been through, I don’t know what you’re thinking. But, I don’t blame you at all for what happened,” she said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get in touch with you.”

“Thanks,” Clark said. He stopped blaming himself for her death when he said goodbye, but it was still nice to know she never blamed him.

“How are you alive? Why do you have a new identity?” Clark asked. “After I got help, your parents wouldn’t talk to me. And I went to your funeral!” he said as if only just remembering. “You were there! NOT BREATHING!” he said. 9-year-old Clark was convinced his best friend would wake up at any moment. He watched her chest throughout the whole ordeal hoping for movement. Mary nodded and reached across the table for his hand.

“I’m sorry… that was a difficult time for my family,” she said. “Don’t be mad at my parents, they always loved you and they’re going to be thrilled to know we ran into each other again.”

“Difficult? How? You obviously didn’t die even though you took a tree branch through the heart. How difficult could it have been?” he asked. He felt anger crawling up his spine and into his words; he did his best to try and stay calm. She gave a soft chuckle.

“Funnily enough, it’s because I didn’t die,” she said. She suddenly locked eyes with him. “What’s your favorite number?” she asked.

“I’m sorry, how is that important right now? What happened!?” he asked; a tiny bit louder than he meant to. Mary sighed and reached into her purse.

“I had an oak branch as thick as a baseball bat go through me…,” she said while she dug around in the small black leather bag. “…and I didn’t die. What kind of attention do you think that got me?” she asked as she pulled a folded pocket knife out of the purse.

“Oh,…,” Clark said. Visions of black-suited agents chasing an 8-year-old girl filled his head.

“Luckily, I met the right people while trying to avoid the wrong people. I learned a lot about myself,” she said as she opened the knife. “Like the fact that thiiiiss…,” she dragged the word out while she pulled the blade down her skin. It happened too fast for Clark to try and stop her; by the time he convinced his hand to reach across the table she was done. She dropped the knife and pointed at the long cut on her arm. Clark watched it heal before his eyes. “… is possible because my favorite number is 34.” In less than a minute the gash was gone.

Timeless Partnership

HER!??” Kim growled at the name written in elegant script in gold letters.

“Who is it, dear?” Layla, Kim’s mother, asked. The mid-40s woman stood at the counter kneading dough when Kim ran in the house waving around a black envelope. The 16-year-old girl tore it open, read the name, and complained.

“Some loser girl from school,” Kim said sourly. She crumpled the black paper and envelope and tossed them into the trash.

“You know I don’t like you talking about your friends like that,” her mother admonished. Kim shrugged and whined some more.

“She’s not my friend. She’s not anybody’s friend. She never talks to anyone at school and never raises her hand in class,” Kim sighed dramatically. “At least she’ll be easy to keep an eye on.” 

“It won’t kill you to be nice to someone that’s not in your friend group,” Layla said. “Maybe it’s a good thing you got paired up with her.”

“Doubt it,” Kim grumbled as she walked out of the kitchen. The rest of the night passed uneventfully. The next morning Kim arrived at school 20 minutes earlier than usual. She headed to the cafeteria for the morning meet and greet.

Every day several to dozens of students were paired up. New pairs met at the cafeteria to introduce themselves. She walked in and was immediately inundated with chatter. Kim scanned the crowd. Dozens of students talked and laughed with each other, but in the dimmest corner of the room, a chubby dark-haired girl sat by herself. Her long black hair flowed down in strands and onto the table as her attention was focused downward on a phone between her hands. She wore a black t-shirt with a grim reaper on it and black jeans with several torn holes. Kim gritted her teeth and walked across the lunchroom toward the girl in black.

Kim kept her eyes on the girl as she approached. When she was only a few feet away the girl looked up and met Kim’s eyes; Kim caught a faint acknowledgment in her eyes. Due to the pairing process, she already knew Kim was her partner. After a moment the girl looked back down to her phone.

“Hey, Steph,” Kim said once she reached for the table.

“Hey, Kim,” Steph said without looking up. Kim shrugged and sat down across from her.

“So, we’re partners now,” Kim said.

“Uhuh.” Kim’s frustrations started to grow at Steph’s lack of interest.

“So what do you do all the time, Steph. Do you have any dangerous hobbies? I need to know if I’m going to keep you safe,” Kim said. She noted Steph’s shoulders rose in a faint shrug.

“I play video games,” she said.

“That’s not dangerous,” Kim said sarcastically. For the first time in two years, Kim saw a slight smile flash across Steph’s face before it was replaced by her resting bored face.

“The AlterNet is,” Steph said.

“Alternate what?” Kim asked. She wasn’t a gamer, but she had several friends that were. She managed to keep up to date with the newest and hottest games, but hadn’t heard of this one. Again, Steph smiled.

“It’s actually ‘AlterNet’ as in ‘alternate network’.

“What, like the dark web?” Kim asked. Steph shook her head.

“Not like anything,” Steph said. She glanced around the cafeteria but all the pairs were deep in conversation too with no one paying attention to them. “A network is two computers hooked up together, right?” She asked. Kim nodded.

“Imagine that, but, instead of computers it’s Earths,” Steph said.

“So it’s a network connected to different planets?” Kim asked. Steph shook her head again.

“Not different planets. Different Earths,” she stressed. “Alternate universes exist. The AlterNet is a collection of Alternate Earths linked together. I can travel to them any time I want; it’s pretty amazing out there,” Steph said.

Figures I’d get a crazy partner,” Kim said to herself. She decided to put the girl on the spot then and there.

“Let’s go, partner!” she said. “I want to see too. Or, let me guess, you can’t because we have school?” Kim said with heavy sarcasm. She was mad at herself more than anything. She believed every word Steph said right up until the moment she mentioned alternate universes. However, she was still mad and still chose to take it out on Steph. Steph shrugged and stood up.

“Nah, we can go,” she said while wiggling her hand at the air. “I’ll just stop time until we get back, partner,” she said with the same level of sarcasm. Two things happened at the same time and Kim wondered if they were related.

A tall black hole opened in the cafeteria next to Steph in more or less the same spot she wiggled her fingers at. The cafeteria also suddenly became quiet; Kim wondered if the black hole somehow drained the sound. She glanced around and noticed students frozen in time. Many mid-word or gesture. Mouths hung open in silence, arms were bent at seemingly unnatural angles and everything was perfectly still.

“YOU CAN STOP TIME!!???” Kim blurted out in surprise. “Since when!?”

“Uh, if I understand it correctly. Since I was born,” Steph said with a chuckle, then she walked through the black hole. Kim hurried to follow her. She emerged on the other side of the portal staring down on a futuristic, neon cityscape. She and Steph stood at the top of a skyscraper.

“This is my favorite place to come think,” Steph said. 

“It’s beautiful,” Kim admired the view of the sun setting over the city.

“Yeah, from up here. But you don’t want to go down the tower,” Steph said as she sat down on the rooftop. She asked Kim a question before Kim could ask why they didn’t want to go down the tower.

“What’s your favorite number?” she asked

“34. Why? What’s yours?” Kim asked. Steph smiled.

“14. And, no big reason; I’ve got a friend I want you to meet.”

“You have friends!?” Kim was genuinely surprised, then she half-cringed when she realized how bad it sounded. Luckily, Steph laughed.

“Not on your Earth, but yeah I do on other Earths. Now that we’re partnered up, you’ll get to visit all kinds of places if you want.”

“I do!” Kim eagerly nodded. In the back of her mind, her mother’s voice echoed the words she said yesterday and Kim repeated them sincerely. “I guess it’s a good thing I got paired up with you.”

Lunar Request

“It can’t be…,” Marshall retreated into the shadows. He flattened himself against the brick wall; he wanted to remain out of sight until he got a better idea of the situation. “Did you see that? It was a girl!” the lean, athletic man asked Bandit. His faithful German Shepherd tilted his head and continued to pant happily.

“At least, I’m pretty sure it was a girl,” Marshall said. “What do we do?” Bandit barked, then bolted out of the shadows and around the corner. Marshall sighed and followed at a slower pace. By the time he turned the corner, Bandit was already enjoying the attention of a  smiling young girl. She looked up at the sound of Marshall’s heavy footsteps on the sidewalk. He noticed a reflection of golden sunlight flashed in her eyes then her smile grew broader. She stopped petting Bandit and stood.

“Hi! I’m Astrid, what’s your name?” The girl asked. She bounced on her heels excitedly but kept her hands behind her back.

“Hi, I’m Marshall,” he said. Marshall extended a hand in greeting. Astrid glanced at his hand but didn’t shake it. After an awkward moment, he lowered his hand.

“Do you know anyone named Mundo? Or maybe a restaurant or tattoo shop named, ‘Mundo’s?” Astrid asked. Marshall shook his head.

“There’s no one to know,…” he spread his arms to gesture at the empty city around them. “Bandit’s been my only friend for about three years now,” he said. Bandit barked at his name.

“Oooooooh,” Astrid’s eyes widened. “Last man on Earth, huh?” She asked with interest. Marshall tilted his head at her.

“Apparently not. Where’ve you been for three years? Are there others there?” Astrid shook her head and shrugged.

“Sorry, I just got here.”

“Just got here? The city?”

“This Earth.”  Marshall subconsciously took a step back.

“Earth..?” he asked, then made a point of glancing upward. Astrid giggled.

This Earth. Aliens aren’t real, but alternate universes are,” she replied.

“You came from another Earth?” Marshall chuckled. “Why?”

“Well,.. if there’s no Mundo. I’m here to meet you, I think.”

“Me? Is… is this a rescue?” He asked.

“I don’t think so,” Astrid replied with a shake of her head. “Do you want to be rescued?”

“Not so much,” Marshall replied. Marshall loved the solitary life he built over the past several years. He traveled from state to state doing as he pleased. Staying wherever he wanted whenever the mood struck. “So, why me?”

“Your favorite number is 34,” Astrid said. Marshall narrowed his eyes.

“How’d you know that, and what does it have to do with anything?”

“Uhh… it’s complicated. And if you’re staying on an empty Earth, it probably won’t matter too much. The short version is: you’re special. I’m special too. If I touch you, I can copy your ability.”

“Whoa, whoa…,” Marshall held his hands up to interrupt. “I think you got the wrong guy. I don’t have any abilities.”

“Your soul does. If you get a 34 scarred on your skin, your soul wakes up. But, I can copy you even if your soul is still slumbering.”

“Really?” Marshall asked. Astrid nodded. “What can I do?”

“Tattoos are the most common, but I’ve seen brandings and just plain scarification too. Anything that leaves a permanent mark under the skin permanently.”

“No, no,” Marshall chuckled. “I mean what abilities do I have that you want to copy?”

“I want regeneration, but you also have boosted strength, agility, and reflexes. You’re basically the ultimate soldier.”

“Whoa…,” Marshall grinned.

“So…, do you mind if I touch you?” Astrid asked.

“Just a copy, right? You don’t steal my powers or anything?” Astrid nodded. “You would’ve copied it if you shook my hand, right?” She nodded again. “Does it hurt or anything?”

“Not at all.”

“Thank you,” Marshall replied, then extended his hand. “Thanks for asking first.” Astrid shook his hand with enthusiasm.

“You’re welcome,” she replied, then Astrid let go of his hand and stepped back. “Well, thanks. Enjoy your Earth.”

“Leaving already?” Marshall asked.

“I’m about to find out,” she said with crossed fingers. “Ballisea?” Astrid asked timidly.

“Who’s Balli-“

“What is it, little Luna?” a woman’s voice filled the air around them. Bandit stood on all fours; his ears perked up and he started to growl.

“Um. I’m ready?” Astrid said. Ballisea’s laughter filled the air.

“I knew you’d be entertaining,” Ballisea said. “Off you go.” A black hole opened under Astrid’s feet and swallowed her whole.

Starry Idol

“Maybe I’ll see you again!” Lee shouted with a wave. The pair of girls she defeated returned the gesture with broad smiles. Lee left the park on foot; she followed the ghost of an old road toward home. It wasn’t until after ten minutes of walking that she realized her mistake. “Duh,” her statement was joined by the sound of her palm slapping her forehead. After the smack, she pinched the air in front of her as if she selected a single sheet of paper. A glassy rectangle, her node, appeared between her thumb and forefinger as she pulled her hand.

“Show me the last game,” she said to the card-sized pane. Lee slowed her pace along the road while she focused on the node; she wasn’t worried about traffic. As far as she knew she was the only one that ever used the road and most of that use was walking. Light text appeared in the center of the glass. Both of her opponents’ names were highlighted in red to indicate they were not on her friend list. The path along the road was so dark the text appeared to be hovering in mid-air.

[ 2 on 1 Knockdown:

DeLorean – Gunslinger

Christine – Healer

Vs.

General Lee – Thief

Winner: General Lee]

“Add DeLorean and Christine as friends,” Lee said. The game results updated instantly and the girl’s names changed from red to green. After that, she let the node disintegrate into nothing again and resumed her normal pace. Lee took several more steps, then froze. She heard the crunch of gravel but it did not come from her own footsteps; it sounded like it came from somewhere ahead.

A shadowy figure walked on the road toward Lee. Due to the darkness, she could not make out anything about the person but their eyes. Two brilliant golden stars stared at Lee as the person approached.

“You’ve passed the test,” the unknown woman said.

“Thanks! Bye,” Lee waved at the woman then changed her course to walk around her. She did not know what test the woman meant and tried to avoid the situation entirely. She kept her body tense and ready to move as she walked past the woman. Lee half expected the stranger to get in her way, requiring her to change direction again; but, the woman did not move.

“Don’t you want to know what test?!” she asked. “I’m trying to be mysterious!” she said playfully. The stranger’s joke shifted the tone and Lee immediately felt at ease enough to chuckle and slow her pace. She continued walking for several steps to leave some distance between them, then stopped and turned around.

“Alright, I’ll bite. What test?” Lee asked. The woman’s golden eyes grew brighter and Lee got the sense she was smiling.

“The test to join my Derby team,” the woman replied. Lee fought back every instinct that wanted her to yell, “YES!” at the offer. The entire reason she went to the Derby park as often as she did was to practice and be seen practicing. Her goal was to join a good team. She’d had several offers already; and, each one was almost impossible to turn down. So far, none of the teams seemed all that promising.

“What if I say no?” Lee asked.

“Then you’ll be stuck hoping some other team invites you to the Prom.” Lee felt her legs get weak, she almost fainted then and there.

“P-Prom?” she asked to be sure. “Oren’s tournament? That Prom??” Lee stomach fluttered at the thought. She had all but given up hope of entering the tournament. The deadline for team registration ended the next day. The golden stars dipped then rose again as the woman nodded. Lee had an inkling in the back of her mind. If her suspicions were true, she would agree then and there. If she was wrong, she’d need a bit more time to consider it once she learned about the rest of the team.

“This test that I passed, so it was like a try-out?” Lee asked. The stars bowed again. “Does that mean DeLorean and Christine are on the team too?” Lee felt it was the only reason she’d be approached that night instead of any other day. The woman laughed.

“You’re quick! And, you’re right. They are on the team.”

“Great! I’m in!” Lee jumped in place to give her excitement an outlet. “Who else is on the team?”

“Not sure yet, we need two more,” the woman replied. Lee felt her heart drop into her stomach.

“You don’t have a full team yet?” she asked. “Registration closes tomorrow…,”

“Don’t worry about it,” the woman said. Her right hand began to glow with a brilliant white light and she lifted it to illuminate herself better. “Oren owes me big time, I’m sure he’ll make an exception.”

The stranger was younger than Lee thought. She knew for a fact they were the same age, 18. Lee was a big fan of her new teammate and knew almost everything about her.

“TORQUE!” Lee shrieked with delightful surprise, then she realized she had agreed to be on Torque’s team and it was too much for her to handle. Lee fainted