Stellar Tour 5: Zero Waiting

June 23, 2021 A person finds a computer, and upon opening up one of its tabs, finds that he can edit, remove, or add aspects to any object in the universe.

“Well, that went…,” Oz sighed. He was glad to be out of the goblin’s boardroom. “…on.” He looked around to take in his new surroundings. Astra took them to another Earth straight out of the meeting. He was outdoors now and cycled through several deep breaths. He hoped the fresh air would rinse his lungs of the stench of goblins. When he first arrived on the Paradise server he encountered a horde of zombies. At the time, it was the foulest smell he’d ever encountered in his life. Then, he walked into the goblin’s boardroom. It was hot and humid. But, the stench made him wonder if all the humidity in the air consisted solely of goblin sweat.

If there was one thing he was thankful for, it was that the goblins barely let Astra talk, much less him. Oz did not have to open his mouth once and risk tasting the air. Now he happily gulped as much air as he could, and he caught the delicious scent of cooking meat. It wafted through a giant open archway ahead of them. Beyond it was a city of tents and stalls with dozens if not hundreds of patrons pushing through the crowd from vendor to vendor.

“We shopping?” he asked. Astra shook her head but walked forward through the arch.

“Now that we got help from the goblins, we need a team. That means you need to make your AlterNet character. This server is called ‘The Schoolyard‘. It was meant to be a tutorial server; but, since it was the first stop for most new players it drew some unsavory types. Sharp Development, along with plenty of helpful players, have managed to keep reasonably civil. Now the entire Earth is pretty much a grey market.”

“The goblins agreed to help? I was holding my breath so long I might’ve blacked out; I don’t remember that. All I heard was they wanted us to challenge them to a derby game. It was hard to keep track with them talking over each other.” Astra giggled as she led Oz through the crowd.

“We’re going to need all the practice we can get anyway. That’s why they’ll only help us if we beat them.” Astra turned right. Oz turned with her and stumbled in surprise at the new path. He had been enjoying the sights and sounds of the bazaar; he saw fairies, ogres, mermaids, and more purchasing deadly weapons and shiny trinkets. But, the new path changed under his feet from a worn dirt path to a paved concrete thoroughfare. The tents and wooden stalls lining the sides were replaced with brick storefronts, glass windows, and neon signs. Oz did a quick double-take to look back down the dirt path to make sure he didn’t miss Astra Traversing them to a new Earth. The crowded bazaar was still behind them and he could return to the dirt path with a single step. Astra continued walking and he dashed to catch up as she walked into a shop. A blue neon sign on the glass door only had three letters: “Jny”.

Walking in was like stepping into a new world again. Oz wasn’t sure if he’d ever get used to the sudden changes. Before he entered, the interior appeared to be a standard curio shop with knick-knack-lined shelves. The actual shop was a white room with no one else in sight. Oz had given up trying to keep track of Ben; Astra’s pet wolf. It could turn invisible, and she could send it to another Earth with a thought. As large as it was, it spent most of its time out of sight. Then, Oz noticed a sudden movement from under the white floor. A white and red koi fish swam out of the ground and sprouted crystalline insect wings. It flitted upward to hover before Astra. The young girl waved at it.

“Hi Flynn, is Jenny around?” she asked. Oz watched the fluttering fish hoping to see a talking fish for the first time. Instead, Astra shook her head, then sighed. “No, I didn’t make an appointment. Melody sent us.” The koi’s wings disintegrated and the koi plummeted to the ground and splashed into the white floor.

A white splash ring radiated outward from Flynn’s impact. The wake of the ripple replaced the white ground with green and white checkerboard tile. A counter appeared on one side of the room; then, a small red, round table sprung out of the tile along with two seats for the table.

“We wait,” Astra said, then took a seat. Oz noticed a lit brick oven behind the counter then took in the rest of the new room.

“Is this a pizzeria?” Oz asked. He wandered to the brick oven to take a closer look.

“It’s the AlterNet,” Astra said. “It can be anything.”

“Whoa!” Oz said. He’d turned from the stove to head to the table but flashing lights on the counter caught his eyes. A smooth glass keyboard seemed to be imprinted on the wooden, worn counter. Blue letters glowed under the elongated grid of squares. Oz couldn’t suppress the instinct to reach out and bump the neon blue spacebar.

The moment he did, a large display materialized before him on the counter facing him. The screen showed a single table in a pizzeria matching the room they were in. Oz didn’t see anything that resembled a mouse and his curiosity led him to hit the backspace key.

“Ow!” Astra yelped when she landed on her bottom; both chairs were gone from the room.

“Sorry!” Oz replied. He quickly hit the spacebar to try and bring them back. Instead, the table moved about a foot away from Astra.

“It’s better if you stop,” Astra said as she stood up.

“Yeah, It really is,” a new voice said. Astra and Oz turned to see a young woman focused on Oz behind the counter. She pulled back her purple hood to reveal her dark spiky hair; then, she crossed her arms and raised a single eyebrow at Oz.

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.”

Vampire by Starlight

“Fourth!?” Victoria asked with wide eyes. “That’s super high,” she added with a shake of her head. Her violet bangs wobbled with the motion. She met her date at the coffee shop and they easily settled into a conversation. It didn’t take too many questions from her to land on the topic of vampires. Wendell surprised her when he mentioned they were the fourth leading cause of death.

“Well, vampires are apex predators. I’m surprised ‘death by a vampire’ isn’t number one,” Wendell said. He was slightly annoyed when Victoria pulled out her phone and began texting while he was talking. He guessed she was arranging an emergency to leave the date; she wouldn’t be the first one to skip out early. Her phone appeared more advanced than any he’d seen, but his feelings were too bruised to give it much attention.

“Everything okay?” he asked. She nodded but continued typing for half a minute before she looked up again.

“Sorry, work stuff. This place is great,” Victoria said. She slipped her phone back into her purse then gave Wendell her attention again.

“So,.. you’re not leaving?” He asked. Victoria shook her head again.

“No. Why, do you need to leave?” she asked.

“No no,” Wendell said. He realized he needed an excuse to keep from sounding too insecure. A quick glance through the window at the night sky gave him an idea. “It’s just that, in the past, any time I mention that fact at night my dates suddenly realize how dangerous vampires are and hurry to get home.”

“Oh,” Victoria giggled. “Vampires aren’t dangerous; they’re just hungry. Though, maybe it’s just me that isn’t threatened by them,” she added with a confident smirk.

“Oh?” Wendell asked. He smiled at her and his voice took on an amused quality. “You’re not scared of vampires?” Victoria giggled again.

“If I was, I would’ve left already,” she said. Wendell’s smile grew broader. He laughed to himself when he realized she was talking about the night waiting outside. It wasn’t particularly late, but the sun was gone so the streets were empty.

“Yeah, I guess you are brave being out after dark,”  he added. He once had a date tell him the danger of meeting after dark made it more exciting.

“Oh, I don’t care about that,” she said. “I meant because you’re a vampire.”

“Huh?” Wendell was too surprised to offer a more cohesive thought. She was the first one to identify him before he revealed himself. Not that it was soon enough to save her. The coffee shop itself was run by vampires and most everyone in there at the moment was one. A few brought dates for dinner like Wendell had. He felt lucky that her voice wasn’t loud enough to alarm any others; and, he hoped to play it off. “What do you mean?” he asked. Victoria smiled and golden stars began to glow in her eyes.

“I can see you,” she said. Though, she leaned over the table and deliberately kept her voice low. “I can see all of you,” she said as she scanned the coffee shop around them. Wendell’s stomach dropped. She obviously wasn’t normal. She said she wasn’t afraid of vampires, and knowingly stayed in their company. He leaned back in his chair with his face whiter than it normally was.

“What are you?” he asked. Victoria smiled.

“Unique Soul #35, La Estrella,” she said. “You don’t know what that means yet, but you will soon,” she added.

“I know Spanish,” Wendell replied curtly. He was usually the one surprising his dates and he was eager to defend his honor. “Estrella means star,” he said. The golden stars faded from her eyes, but Wendell was still trying to make sense of what she said. “You have the soul of a star?” He asked while still trying to sound confident in his conclusion.

“Not exactly,” Victoria shook her head. “It’s more like my soul is tied to a star.” She held her hand out with the palm facing up and it immediately began to glow with a soft blue light. “Gimme your hand,” she said. Though, he didn’t have a chance to pull away because she grabbed his hand at the same time she asked. She placed his hand hovering over her blue palm.

“It’s hot!” he yanked his hand away as if from a flame. Victoria nodded.

“That’s my star. I can use its energy any time I need to; and even better, I don’t die until it does. Or someone kills me, but that’s pretty hard,” she smiled. Her confidence rubbed Wendell the wrong way; he was supposed to be the one scaring her. He was the apex predator. He fumed silently while she continued the conversation.

“Anyway, things are about to change big time… probably in the next week or so,” Victoria said.

“Why?’ Wendell asked dryly.

“I texted my boss about this Earth. Once Sharp Medical Services sets up here you won’t have to hunt humans anymore. You’ll be able to get blood from one of our blood banks. And society can move forward without everyone trying to kill each other.” Wendell snapped and leaped into action. In the blink of an eye, he appeared next to Victoria and lifted her out of the booth by her neck. His eyes glowed red while he bared his fangs at her.

“What if we like killing?” he asked with a sinister smile and began to squeeze her neck. He was used to women fighting him off, but he did not expect a blue glowing palm to strike his cheek. He was surprised for a moment because it felt more like she was offended than fighting for her life. Then, the slap began to burn as intense as sunlight. He dropped her to rub his cheek, but his hand also began to burn. He looked at it in panic and saw what looked like brilliant blue napalm burning through his hand.

“If you like killing, then you have problems,” Victoria said. She grabbed her purse while ignoring his panic and turned to leave. But she left Wendell with some reassurance. “Don’t worry, Sharp Medical Services also offers therapy.”

Stellar Normalcy

“Not at all,” Roger smiled. The violet-haired woman returned the warm smile and sat down next to him.

“Thanks,” she said. “I’m not used to a coffee shop being so crowded.” Roger chuckled. She seemed to be open to conversation; and, now that he finished writing he felt comfortable talking.

“Not from around here?” he asked. “This place is always full.” She shook her head. Her long violet strands shimmered in the sunlight pouring in through the windows.

“I do a lot of traveling for my job,” she brought her hand up between them. “My name’s Victoria.”

“Roger,” he replied as she shook her hand. “Travel, huh? That’s interesting. I bet you’ve seen some amazing places.”

“Yeh,” Victoria replied and shrugged her shoulders at the same time. “The novelty wears off after a while. This place has more customers than I’m used to;  but, sometimes it feels like all I do is visit coffee shops,” she said. “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer,” Roger said. Victoria’s eyes flitted to the open laptop, then back to him.

‘Oh no, sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Victoria began to apologize but Roger shook his head. He made a point to close the laptop lid to make the point.

“You didn’t, I just finished.” Her eyes lit up.

“You finished a story? That’s so cool! What’s it about?” she leaned closer with a curious smile on her face.

“It’s about a girl that leads a normal life-,” Roger made it that far before Victoria interrupted.

“Oh, I can totally relate to that,” she said. Roger smiled and continued.

” …until she meets a strange man in a bar.”

“And then?” Victoria asked.

“And then her life gets interesting,” Roger smiled. “I don’t need to give it away.”

“Boooo…,” Victoria rolled her eyes,  but giggled to let him know she was kidding.

“I wish my life would get interesting,” she said.

“What do you do?” Roger asked. “You said you travel, but what for?”

“Unfortunately, traveling is my job,” she sighed. “The company I work for, Sharp Development, is always on the lookout for new resources, opportunities, or information. So my job is basically to travel around and report back whatever seems helpful.”

“Are you kidding?” Roger asked. “That sounds amazing!”

“Yeh,” Victoria shrugged again. “The company is amazing, but the work is starting to get old.” She smiled. “It seems like the coffee is getting worse in every shop I go to at least.”

“You visit that many coffee shops?” Roger asked. Victoria nodded.

“It’s the quickest way to meet someone and get information.”

“So you’re always chatting up strangers?” Roger asked. Victoria shook her head.

“No. Usually, I set something up with a dating app-“

“Dating app?” Roger interrupted with curiosity. Victoria giggled.

“Yeah, you don’t have any here yet. So I’m moving on tomorrow.”

“Oh,” Roger said. He debated for a moment and decided to go for it. “Well, if you’re looking for a date, my evening’s free. I’d be happy to take you out.” Victoria smiled at him.

“Technically…,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for a date anymore. I was ready to move on. But,” Roger was feeling deflated until she added the ‘but’. “It wouldn’t hurt to see more than just the coffee shop,” she said. “My evening was reserved for a date anyway, so yeah. That sounds good.”

“Besides,” she added with a wink. “Maybe you’ll make my life more interesting like the girl in your story.”  Roger chuckled.

“I doubt that,” he said. “They go off on adventures to a parallel universe,” he decided he could spoil the story for her a little bit. He regretted it when her smile dimmed just a tiny bit.

“Oh man,” she said. She playfully shoved him away. “You said it was something interesting.”

Buying Restraint

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Ms. Sharp. I’m Restraint,” the tan young man in a black suit shook Ms. Sharp’s hand before gesturing at the pair of seats in front of his desk for her and her assistant. “What can I do for you?” Restraint asked. He returned to his own seat as Ms. Sharp sat down; her assistant remained standing.

“I’m here to tell you what I can do for you,” Ms. Sharp replied. “You have a decently successful business here but it can be more.” Restraint was used to fending off business ideas from people that have no clue how to run a business. Everyone was eager to tell him how to make more money off the Supers that visited his spa anywhere he was. At least Ms. Sharp had the courtesy to make an appointment.

“Alright,” Restraint nodded. He let a short sigh escape then continued. “Go ahead and tell me how I can be making more money.” Ms. Sharp smiled at him.

“I’m sure everyone in this room knows you’re not doing this for the money,” she said. Restraint was surprised. He glanced at Ms. Sharp’s dark-haired assistant and she gave him a slight nod. Every other idea he’d heard was intended to boost his profits. “As I said, I want to help you make your business into more. To reach further and help more people than you already are.”

“That takes money…,” Restraint said. He was actually hoping she meant what she said. But, he did not want to let her know how close she hit to home. The only reason he ran the spa was to help people in his own way. He had the strength to be a superhero, not to mention his ability to nullify powers. But to him, it was more important to create an island of peace than to suit up and fight villains.

His spa was in the center of town and every year its influence grew a little larger. Heroes and villains were more civilized the closer they were to Restraint’s spa and he hoped that’d cover the whole city eventually. It surprised him when Ms. Sharp shook her head in response to his comment.

“It takes resources,” she said. “Money is just the middleman, I have all the resources you’d need.”

“And you have a plan to use those resources?” Restraint asked. “I doubt you’re giving them to me just like that.” Ms. Sharp nodded.

“You’re aware that alternate universes exist?” Ms. Sharp asked. Restraint nodded and chuckled.

“Yeah, we get a few travelers through here sometimes. Why?”

“I run a multiversal corporation named Sharp Development,” she said. “While we offer a wide variety of products and services, I still need to address the Super sector. Unfortunately, my knowledge and contacts in that area are thin at the moment, which brought me to you,” she said.

“Okay, you’re here,” Restraint said. “What’s your plan?”

“Simple as can be,” Ms. Sharp replied. “We’ll start off simple by having sign-up sheets available in the locker rooms. Once we get enough interest I’ll host a presentation laying out the whole thing. I’m envisioning a service that allows clients from other universes to hire Supers.”

“You think Supers want to get hired to help with honey-do lists and bodyguarding?” Restraint asked. 

“I think that Supers would like the chance to use their abilities freely without risking their lives. I also think they’d like to travel and see other universes. If the local Supers are off in different universes they won’t have much time to cause trouble here,” Ms. Sharp said. Restraint had to admit he liked that idea the most.

“Okay,” Restraint nodded again. “I’m willing to give you a shot, what’s the next step?” He was surprised when Ms. Sharp’s assistant stepped forward with a red clipboard that she wasn’t holding a second ago. The clipboard only had one sheet.

“I just need a couple of things, first a signature,” Ms. Sharp said.

“What’s this?” Restraint asked. He was curious to see where her idea led, but he wasn’t ready to sign a formal contract.

“This is just giving us permission to distribute flyers in your business,” she smiled. “You’re not committing to anything else yet.”

“Oh, okay,” Restraint nodded then signed his name. “And the other thing?”

“This isn’t a requirement as much as it is advice,” Ms. Sharp said as she stood. Her assistant collected the clipboard. “This isn’t true for everyone, but it is for you. Get a tattoo. It will change your life,” she said. He watched her assistant wiggle her fingers at the air, then a tall black portal opened. “And make sure it has your favorite number, 42, on it,” Ms. Sharp added before she stepped into the portal and disappeared.

Star-hitched

“It’s Aurora, right?” Cliff’s mother asked. The birthday boy was crowded in his living room on all sides. Multicolor balloons and red ribbons decorated his cozy home. Friends and family just watched him open gifts, but now it was time for the real reveal. His mother leaned in close with a large grin; she hoped by being closer the news would hit her first.

Cliff stared at the thin black string tied around his pinky at a complete loss. It was supposed to be red and stretched out in the direction of his soul mate. His mind should be full of information about his destined partner but the dark string gave him nothing. Instead of stretching out, a two-inch strand black strand hung off his pinky tied to nothing. He worried for a moment that it meant a life of loneliness; but, that wasn’t something to discuss at his birthday party.

“Well… it’s personal,” Cliff said.

“AUGH!” Cliff’s family filled the small room with tangible disappointment. Everyone except his mother, she continued to smile.

“Now, now,” she said to ease their disappointment. “If he wants to keep it personal, that’s his choice and we’ll respect it,” her grin grew wider. “Just like we respect Aurora’s choice not to reveal her soul mate either!”

“Hey, where is she anyway?” Cliff’s father asked over the laughter that filled the room.

“Late,” Cliff’s mother replied. “She’s picking up a special gift for the birthday boy. Because he’s probably her soul mate.” His mother was only making Cliff feel worse about not understanding the string. It helped knowing Aurora would miss his party entirely; she told him ahead of time. He hoped and expected it to be Aurora. They grew up together being the best of friends, although she turned 15 first. Her parents had the foresight to tell the partygoers ahead of time that there would be no reveal.

He hated putting his mom on the spot like that, but he knew she’d understand once he explained the situation after the party. He hoped that maybe she even had an idea about what it might mean. Mothers tend to know things; his did at any rate. Ten minutes later Cliff got a call from Aurora, as planned, to let him know that she was going to be extra late. The party didn’t last too much longer after that. Then when most of the cleanup was done, Cliff told Aurora to go ahead and come over. While he waited, he thought it was best to tell his mom that she wasn’t his soul mate.

“I didn’t want to say anything during the party…,” he opened up to her as she sat down to recover the partying and cleaning. “but, I think there’s something wrong with my string,” he said. He wiggled his right pinky at her to clarify which string he meant.

“What is it, honey?” she asked. His mother had sat back on the couch to relax, but she immediately sat up straighter and scooted forward to listen.

“Well…, I don’t know who my soulmate is,” Cliff said. As he tried to explain the dark string to his mother, it suddenly filled with color. He did not pick up any new knowledge, but the string no longer hung limply. It was stretched taut in the direction of his front door and shined with a brilliant golden glow. As the string filled with color, the doorbell rang.

“Oh, it’s Aurora,” Cliff’s mother said. She hopped to her feet to answer the door. Cliff watched his mother open the door to let Aurora in. As soon as the door was open, Cliff spotted a golden glow on Aurora’s right pinky stretching towards him.

Awesome…,” Cliff mumbled to himself. He had a ton of questions, but the most important thing was that he found his soul mate.

“Happy birthday!” Aurora said as she hugged Cliff.

“Thanks!” he said. After they separated, Aurora held up a transparent, glassy card.

“I got you a special gift,” she said. “It’s called a node.”

“I’ll take that,” Cliff’s mom snatched the node out of Aurora’s hand before any of them could react. “There’s something I want to hear first,” she said. Then, she looked at Cliff expectantly. You were saying?” she asked. Cliff glanced at the golden string on his finger. Now that Aurora was close enough, he could see a whole string tying them together. He smiled and wiggled his pinky at his mom.

“It’s Aurora,” he said. His mom shook her head.

What’s Aurora?” she asked. Cliff sighed, but he did enjoy humoring his mother for this instance at least.

“Aurora is my soulmate,” he said. Despite his mom being the only one in the room that didn’t know it, Cliff felt the most embarrassed. His cheeks flushed with red and he glanced at Aurora to see her give him a shy smile. 

“That’s better,” his mom smiled at both of them, then handed the node to Cliff. “You and I are going to have a major conversation later,” she said. “nothing bad,” she added as soon as a nervous look appeared on Cliff’s face. “Now go show him how to use this,” she said to Aurora.

“Thanks, mom!” Cliff leaned forward and gave his mom a peck on the cheek.

“Thanks, Mrs. Longoria!” Aurora said. Cliff chuckled and his mother rolled her eyes.

“How many times do I have to tell you, Estrellita?” she said. “Call me, Mundo.”

Sharp Informant

“H. hello?” Mario froze when he spotted the violet-haired woman peeking into the window of a coffee shop. It had been close to 35 years since he’d seen another person. Not that he was lonely. Somehow it felt like all the animals on Earth knew he was the last human on Earth. He discovered early on that predators would ignore him and managed to get a lot of traveling done. Being able to camp out anywhere without fear was especially liberating; even deadly insects and reptiles minded their own business around him.

Mario had a lot of time to wonder about why the aliens seemed so wary around him. After a couple of decades though, he realized it didn’t really matter. He had an entire Earth to himself and the freedom to travel anywhere in the Americas. As comfortable as he was alone in nature, he did often return to the city to reminisce about the past. He was wandering the abandoned downtown of a city he’d never visited when he spotted her. She whirled around and Mario caught a glimpse of golden stars in her eyes for just a moment; he assumed it was a stray reflection. She gave him a friendly, broad smile as if she recognized him.

“Hey, Mundo!” She said. “What happened here?” she spread her arms out to gesture at the empty town around them. Mundo had a dozen questions running through his head, but one bothered him the most. Thinking back on his time alone, he felt completely sure he was the last person on Earth, without ever really being able to confirm it. He realized his surety disappeared moments before he turned the corner and saw her.

“Where did you come from?” he asked. She had to have come from somewhere because she wasn’t around before. He wondered if she was another alien.

“Where did I…?” She tilted her head in confusion at the question. Gold stars flashed in her eyes again and Mario knew it wasn’t a reflection. If she was alien, she was different than the ones Mario remembered. After the stars flashed, the woman smacked her forehead. “Pay attention,” she mumbled to herself. Then, she focused on Mario.

“Sorry, you’re still Slumbering,” she smiled. Then, she shook her head. “You don’t know what that means either. But, that’s okay.” She seemed intent on saying more, but Mario shook his head.

“Where did you come from?” he asked again.

“An alternate universe,” she replied. “What happened on this Earth?”

“Aliens,” Mario replied. Her reply could have been a joke or a flat-out lie. But, Mario had over 30 years to deal with the existence of aliens. If they were real, anything could be. He did not doubt her for a moment and was more worried about whether she would believe him. She seemed to come to the same conclusion about him.

“Whoa, really!?” she asked. “They didn’t invade?” Mario shook his head.

“Nah, they just took everyone,” then, he shrugged. “Everyone but me. Talk about rejection, right?” he added with a chuckle. She took a step back and her eyes lit up with golden stars again; this time she had a slightly concerned look on her face. Her head moved up and down as she actively scanned him.

“They didn’t even touch you?” she asked. Her head continued to move up and down as she studied him intently. “How old were you?” she asked. She relaxed finally and the stars disappeared again.

“No. They seemed afraid of me. I was 12 when they took my parents away. My dad was a big guy, a boxer. He tackled them, but they took him down easily. Forcefully. I tried to jump in and help, but they just avoided me until one of them put me in a forcefield that kept me in place. I watched them take everyone in my neighborhood. Then, they just left and the forefield disappeared.”

“Whooooooaaaa…” the violet-haired woman said with awe. “…they know too…,” she whispered to herself. “…they have to.” She quickly reached into her pocket and pulled out a transparent glass rectangle.

“What?” Mario tilted his head at her. “You look like you figured something out.” She nodded vigorously but kept her attention on the glass. Her thumbs flew over its surface and Mario guessed she was typing something he couldn’t see.

“Is it why they left me here alone?” Mario asked with a chuckle. “‘Cause that bothered me for years.”

“One sec..,” she nodded. Mario was surprised. He stood patiently for a moment until she finally gave him her attention again. She looked up at him with a smile.

“You remember what they look like, right?” she asked. Mario nodded.

“Yeah, they were humanoid. Actually, a lot like elves,” he said.

“Interesting,” a new voice said. It startled Mario when he noted two new women standing next to the purple-haired one. He was focused on her and suddenly they were in his peripheral vision. “Thank you, Victoria,” The woman in a white suit said with a nod at the purple-haired one.

“You’re welcome, Ms. Sharp,” Victoria bowed her head slightly. Then, she stepped back into a black hole that wasn’t there a second ago. It closed and disappeared taking her with it.

“As for you, Mundo, I am very curious about why the aliens left you alone. Why don’t you tell me about it?” she asked. Mario burst into laughter.

“My name’s Mario, and I was just telling Victoria that I have no idea why. It bugged me for years, then I just quit worrying about it.”

“Of course you do,” Ms. Sharp replied. “You just don’t know that you know. Melody, jog his memory,” Ms. Sharp said. The woman in the black suit stepped forward and gently took Mario’s hand between both of hers. Then, he noticed a bright blue light glowing in her palms.

“What are you-OWWWWWW!” Mario yanked his hand away to shake off the sudden burning sensation. “What the hell!?” he shouted. He checked his hand to see a ’37’ scarred on it. Then, it was like a dense fog was lifted from his brain.

He suddenly remembered everything. Not only could he recall his childhood with perfect clarity; he could recall all his childhoods. He could feel every animal and plant on Earth. He knew why his name was Mundo. He remembered the rules; at last, he knew why he was left behind.

“They want to meet peacefully. No Uniques on either side.” Of the two women, only Melody showed any reaction. Her eyes went wide with shock. But, Ms. Sharp responded casually.

“Then, they have Unique Souls too?” she asked. Mundo grinned at her.

“Of course. It’s only fair if every side gets soldiers.”