Cactus. Dry.

“Go ahead,” Mundo smiled at the lean, mousey man at the bar. He wore a cactus-green pin-stripe suit and seemed to have something on his mind. It took him two shots of tequila to open up. “I’m usually the one talking. As much as I like it, it’s nice to hear other voices too,” she said.

Mundo’s bar had its share of daytime regulars. The bar was little more than a storefront for under-the-table business, or a library for college students during the day. Thorne was the only one drinking.

“You can’t win for trying these days…,” Thorne shook his head, then downed the third shot. He gestured at Mundo for a fourth one. “You ever have an idea so good, it takes off without you?” he laughed at his own question as Mundo refilled his shot glass.

“What, another one?” Mundo asked. “What happened to the Syndicate you were talking up a couple of weeks ago?” Thorne froze before he took the fourth shot. His eyes widened at Mundo.

“You remember me talking about it?!” he asked. 

“Sure,” Mundo shrugged. “You’re the only Nopal that’s ever come through here. You seemed really excited about the Syndicate. Everyone’s talking about it, so what’s the problem?”  

“No one believes me…,” Thorne sighed. He took his fourth shot, then set the glass down to ask for another. He continued talking while Mundo refilled it. “I guess I’m not surprised,” he whined. My last few contracts were huge failures. I invented the Syndicate just to give myself some visibility, but I can’t even prove I belong to the organization I made up,” Thorne chuckled. “As much as I love my job; the business side is murder.” He downed the fifth shot and requested another. Mundo obliged.

“Well if you tell me how to prove Syndicate membership, I’ll let everyone else know and you’ll be set,” Mundo said. Her polite, customer service smile grew wider when Thorne tilted his head at her. 

“Huh?” he asked “Let who know?” Mundo giggled and shook her head at him. 

“Everyone,” she stressed the word. “I’m a Mundo, it’s what we do.” 

“Oh yeah!” Thorne slapped his palm against his forehead once he remembered Mundo’s abilities. “You can talk to everyone on Earth, can’t you?” 

“Or just the people likely to be interested in the Syndicate,” Mundo said. “Same group from a couple weeks ago.” 

“You?” Thorne was surprised. “You’re why the Syndicate is so popular all of a sudden?” Mundo nodded, but shrugged.

“I’m fond of Plant Uniques,” she said, then filled the shot glass a sixth time. 

“Thank you!” Thorne said. He hopped to his feet and began digging through his pockets. “I’ve gotta give you something extra,” he said. Mundo shook her head, then smiled and pointed at the shot glass. 
“You’re already paying for all this alcohol that doesn’t work on…,” Mundo pointed at Thorne. “…#39 El Nopal.”

Use It or Lose It

“OH COME ON!” Luna growled at the computer. It was general frustration, she knew the computer wasn’t at fault. She was in the middle of taking a personality quiz. She got as far as her name and favorite number before her ISP decided she did not need to be on the internet anymore. The 18-year old girl gave a huff and pulled her phone out to continue the quiz. An icon on the top right corner informed her that she had no service.

“Fine,” she grumbled and tossed her phone on the bed. “If someone…,” she glanced upward. “…doesn’t want me to communicate with the outside world, then I won’t.” She planned to pamper herself on her day off and realized she did not need to be connected for that. It was a rare day that she was off from all three of her jobs and she intended to enjoy it. She filled the tub and climbed in while thinking about her schedule for the rest of the week. Luna still lived with her parents and did not need to work at all, but she needed an outlet for her skills.

Luna had not quite solved her abilities yet and refused to take on more skills without careful thought and planning. The first set of skills she copied was from her mother, a prominent chef. She remembered thinking one day that she wished she could cook like her mom. The next morning, 10-year-old Luna made one of her mother’s most complicated dishes for breakfast.

Her parents were impressed, but also concerned about a child in the kitchen. They made her promise she would only cook with them there. After a month, they still had not found time in their schedules to let the girl cook again. As time went on Luna grew more agitated and short-tempered. One night, she couldn’t sleep. It felt like her body was vibrating.

Her parents woke up at 2 in the morning to find her crying and cooking everything in the kitchen. She had all five burners occupied on the range as well as a ham in the oven. There was also a roast in the crockpot and a turkey defrosting in the microwave.

It took a few more episodes like that for her to realize it happened when she didn’t use her copied skill. That notion also convinced her that she did copy her mom’s skills and she was determined to try it again. She went for things she was sure she could work into her everyday life. Her uncle was a talented programmer and one of her cousins was a martial arts instructor; they were easy choices. As long as she spent some time cooking, programming, and practicing her forms every day she was fine. She did not want to add too much to that list and end up without any time for herself.

45 minutes later, after a relaxing soak, Luna climbed out of the tub, dried off and dressed. As she entered the kitchen to cook up a delicious lunch a knock came from the front door. She wondered if her parents were expecting a package as she crossed the living room to open it. Instead of a courier, a lean, beady-eyed man in a cactus green leisure suit stood on the porch.

“Hi,” he smiled. “You don’t know me, but I just wanted to ask you a question.” Luna gave him a weak nod; she expected a sales-spiel. “What’s your favorite number?”

“23,” Luna said. The answer left her mouth before she even thought about answering. The stranger nodded and reached into the pocket of his green coat. After she answered his question, a paranoid thought danced across the back of her mind. She wondered if there was any connection between the quiz she was taking, her internet and phone losing connection, and this stranger. As he withdrew his hand, Luna spotted the black grip of a gun in his hand. She waited a moment longer to be sure. He pulled the gun out as quick as he could and pointed it in Luna’s direction. That was all the confirmation she needed.

She used her uncle’s martial arts skills to grab the man’s hand and point the gun away from herself. The moment she touched his hand she felt a tingle in her chest. Not on the surface, but deeper; in her soul. Then she felt tingling all over her skin. Her face, arms, and hands.

“OW OW OW!” The stranger yelled as Luna held his hand. “Let go!” He dropped the gun and yanked his hand away. He massaged it as he stared at her with wide eyes. Luna reacted quickly and kicked the gun between his legs; if he wanted it he would have to turn his back to her.

“I’ll show you, damn copy-cat!” he growled and thin black, cactus needles grew out of his skin. Luna glanced down at her arms and discovered the same black spines growing out of her skin. She looked at her palms and found blood-covered needles poking out of her skin. He threw a punch but she blocked it easily with her spined arms. She felt his needles poke her too but it felt like hers were longer.

“What do you want? Who sent you?” Luna asked. The suited man shook his head.

“It’s not personal,” he said. “They didn’t send me to kill you. They sent me to kill a Luna.”

“That’s me! How is it not personal?” she asked. The would-be assassin shook his head again.

“Your name doesn’t matter as much as what you are. Unique Soul #23, La Luna. That’s what I’m here to stop.” The sound of crunching gravel called both of their attentions to a minivan pulling into a driveway. The man in a suit sighed. He turned to leave, but paused and looked over his shoulder.

“They won’t send me again, but they’ll send someone. Find a Mundo if you want answers,” he took a step forward and crouched to get his gun from the ground. Luna’s father gave him an odd look as he walked away.

Cactus Drop

Thorne sighed when he noticed the missing information. He looked up at his contact across the table. They met in a 24-hour diner on the 24th hour. Both men wore suits. Thorne’s bright cactus-green suit looked clownish when compared to the man’s elegant black suit. He was only a butler, but he was far more refined than Thorne could ever hope to be.

“I can’t take the job, I don’t have enough information,” Thorne said. He glanced down at the picture of a smiling, 7-year-old brunette. In the past, he would have jumped on the case for free, but one of those jobs opened him up to a much broader, more dangerous world. He would not take that chance again. The butler across the table laughed and shook his head.

“You’re really serious?” he asked. He filled in the information himself and knew what was missing. He assumed it was some sort of joke question; assassins tended to have an odd sense of humor. “You’d skip out on a payday like this just because of a little thing like that?” Thorne nodded. He knew how important it was even if his client did not. “If it’s that important to you, it’s three,” the butler said.

“Are you sure?” Thorne asked. The butler sighed and reached into his suit pocket. He pulled out his node, swiped at it a couple of times, then held it up to Thorne’s face. The 7-year-old girl was giggling at the camera.

“What’s your favorite number?” the butler’s voice asked behind the camera.

“THREE!” the girl chirped. Then the video stopped. Thorne nodded. He reached into his own green suit and pulled out a small notebook. He flipped through a couple of pages that had numbers and notes until he stopped on one page.

“#03. La Dama.” He mumbled the rest of the notes to himself. “…affects Zeros….”  He closed the book and nodded.

“I’ll do the job,” he said.

“Wonderful,” the butler said. Now that their business was done he stood from the table and left Thorne to his meal. The next day Thorne was parked in front of the girl’s school when the bell rang. After a few minutes, he spotted her come out of the front of the school and sit down on a bench to wait.

“Hi, Erica,” Thorne said as he approached the dark-haired girl with his best smile. She returned his smile with the innocence of a girl who felt completely safe. She was on school grounds in broad daylight surrounded by friends and faculty. “George couldn’t make it today, he asked me if I could pick you up.” Her eyes narrowed in an instant.

“What’s the password?” she asked.

If only all my jobs could be this easy,” Thorne chuckled internally but shook his head.

“There is no password, I asked. And he told me your favorite number is three.” Thorne stopped a couple of feet from her and waited with a patient smile. “Do I pass, or do you want to double-check with George?” he asked. Having George in on it made everything much easier. She shook her head but didn’t otherwise move from her seat.

“George sent you?” she asked suddenly. Though that was already established she sounded like she was asking an entirely different question somehow.

“Yeah,” Thorne nodded. “I said that, remember?” The girl immediately burst into a fit of giggles.

“You know what would be funny?” she asked. She gave him permission to come closer with a wave of her hand, but she didn’t move to stand.

“What?” Thorne relaxed, smiled and took a step forward.

“If you fell…,” she said. As far as Thorne knew, he planted one foot firmly on the ground and lifted the other for his next step, then he landed, forehead-first, on the ground. What everyone that was now laughing at him, students and teachers alike, saw was both of his feet trying to take a step at the same time. He did not jump exactly; somehow he just decided to lift both feet up at the same time and kissed the sidewalk. He recovered quickly, then climbed up to sit next to the little girl. The laughter faded as everyone went different ways again.

“He sent you to kill me,” the girl said. Thorne forced fake laughter out.

“That’s ridiculou-“

“It’d be funny if you fell again,” she said quickly. Thorne’s mind suddenly decided he needed to be on the ground again; he practically threw himself off the bench. In the back of his mind, Thorne decided to amend his notes for La Dama if he lived through this.

She can definitely affect Uniques,” he thought. He climbed back on the bench and sat next to her.

“It’s not his fault,” she said. Her voice dropped. She sounded sad; almost wistful. “I told him it would be funny if he hired a killer.”

Cactus Needle

“Okay, I think I mostly understand all the ‘Unique’ stuff,” Lucas said. He gestured at the wide open wheat field that surrounded him and the white, featureless mannequin that was explaining things. “But how can this be a prison? There are no walls.” Despite the mannequin’s lack of face, she tilted her head upward. Lucas got the distinct impression that she rolled her eyes at him, not that she had any.

“As I said before I began the explanation, you must first create your character to enter the general population. This is only a tutorial area,” The mannequin said. Lucas nodded.

‘Oh yeah. Well now that I know what I am; what do you recommend for #39 El Nopal,” Lucas asked.

“Recommended classes for #39 El Nopal include Craftsman, Clown, or Librarian.”

“That’s it? Those are my only choices?” The mannequin nodded.

“The Courtyard is designated as a prison server. Combat classes are not allowed by the inmates.” Lucas sighed.

“Tell me about the classes I can choose from.”

“Craftsmen can specialize in one of 12 trade skills including blacksmith, chef, engineer, programmer, scribe or tailor. Clowns are handicapped on the Courtyard server. They have access to enough of their skills to be entertaining without being dangerous. Librarians specialize in different types of knowledge, though only two specializations are allowed in the Courtyard. Cartographer or Anthropologist.”

“Anthropologist? That’s a class specializations?” The mannequin’s white head tilted forward to nod.

“Librarian Anthropologists study Unique history.” Lucas’ eyes widened.

“If I’m a librarian can I find out about the Queen?”

“The Queen?” She asked. Lucas nodded.

“Yeah, the lady that sent me here.” The mannequin changed shape. In an instant, the white feature-less figure became a dark-haired woman in a black flowing dress.

“This Queen?” the woman asked, still voiced by the mannequin. Lucas nodded and the woman reverted to a mannequin again.

“You cannot learn anything about the Queen as a librarian,” she answered Lucas’ question.

“What? Why not?” He pointed at the figure. “Do you know who she is? Can you tell me anything about her?”

“Yes, I know who she is. The only information I can tell you is that she is #47- La Corona.”

“Thanks,” Lucas nodded with a chuckle. “That doesn’t help me at all, but I guess I should pick a class.” He paused, then looked at the mannequin.

“What happens if I don’t pick a class?”

“You are stuck here until you do.” Lucas stared at the picked-over boxes of fast food on the table. “Well, I know I won’t go hungry. Maybe I’ll hang around, this doesn’t seem so bad for five years.”

“Your sentence does not begin until you enter the general population.”

“Oh. Fine, Craftsman, I guess. A tailor,” Lucas told her his choice and the mannequin nodded. Lucas blinked.

He opened his eyes to see a stone wall in front of him. He looked around the small prison cell and sighed.
Well, I wanted walls,” he chuckled to himself.

Royal Verdict

I bet you didn’t expect me to have powers too, did you?” Mundo felt the strange thought in his head. The source of the smug statement, a scraggly-bearded man in an orange jump-suit, grinned at Mundo. The man massaged his wrists once the bailiff removed his cuffs.

It’s interesting that you ask…,” Mundo replied telepathically. The suited lawyer held up a golden pen to draw the killer’s attention. Once the scraggly man set his eyes on the pen Mundo dropped it. It fell half a foot then stopped as if it got stuck in the air.

“What the hell?!” the killer said aloud. He pointed at the pen frozen in the air and tried to get someone to look at it, but no one else was moving. Time stopped for them.

“…if you understood your powers better…” Mundo stepped around the frozen bailiff and approached the killer with a pair of onyx handcuffs. “…you’d know that I very much expected you to have powers. The funny part is:…” Mundo cuffed a very confused prisoner. “…we couldn’t do anything until you proved it to me.”

“I’m a free man,” The man faced the bench. “Hey judge, what about my rights?” he asked for help but the judge remained fixed in time. He stared forward at nothing. Mundo nodded.

“You do have rights,” the lawyer faced the back of the small courtroom. “Your honor?” he asked. A black-haired woman stood to separate herself from the time-locked crowd. She wore a black flowing dress that resembled a judge’s robe.

“Lucas Espinoza, #39 – El Nopal. The woman locked eyes with the prisoner. “The Royal Court of Uniques finds you guilty of unsanctioned Zero-slaughter. You are sentenced to The Courtyard prison server for five years.”

“WHAT?! What the hell are you talking about?” Lucas yelled. “Wake up!” He threw his weight against the Bailiff, but the chubby man fell over like a statue. Lucas noticed a gun holstered at the man’s hip. He scrambled to grab it with his cuffed hands; then, he pointed it at the woman and fired. A bullet exited the barrel then stopped. The empty air caught it the same way it caught the golden pen.

“Verdict is rendered. Owen, send me home, then assist Mundo with sentencing,” the woman said. A thin man with short blond hair sitting in front of the woman nodded. Lucas was surprised to see him move. He watched the group intently after the woman stood to pick out any movement, but did not see any. The blond man stood from his seat at the same time a black portal opened in the air in front of the woman. When the portal disappeared she was gone and Owen smiled.

“What’s going on?” Lucas asked Mundo. What’s the Courtyard? Who was that?” The greying man stepped to Mundo’s side to put the lawyer between Owen and himself.

“The Courtyard is the lightest sentence you can get. You pretty much got house arrest in a mansion,’ Mundo said, then he shrugged. “Well, a virtual mansion, I guess.”

“Virtual?” Lucas asked. Then he blinked.

“Yes,” Owen said. Lucas jumped and took a step back, he did not expect Owen to be so close. As he moved back he checked behind him to avoid tripping over the bailiff’s body, but it was gone. He looked around expecting to see the courtroom but he stood in the middle of a soil pit in a small prison cell. His orange jumpsuit was replaced with a white bodysuit. Lucas sighed.

“God damnit guys, can someone tell me what’s going on?” Lucas asked.

“You wanna know what’s going on?” Mundo asked.

“Yeah!” Lucas nodded. “First of all who was that lady and what kind of position does she have that lets her do…,” Lucas held up his cuffs. “…this to me.”

“That lady was Queen,-” Owen began to explain; then, Lucas blinked. Lucas opened his eyes to a violet sky with amber grain stems swaying over him.

“That time-stopping son of a bitch!” Lucas grumbled out loud when he realized what happened. “Hey, what happened to the prison?” Lucas stood up and looked around. An endless sea of golden waves swayed in the breeze as far as he could see. He turned in place several times to survey the land, but the field extended to the horizon in all directions.

“Welcome to the AlterNet!” a woman’s voice said behind him. He jumped and spun around. A white, featureless mannequin floated above the grain. “To enter general population you must first create a character. Recommended classes for #39 El Nopal include,-”

“What’s that!?” Lucas blurted out. “What am I?” He remembered the Queen had also used that phrase to describe him. The mannequin descended slightly and drew closer to Lucas.

“You don’t know what you are?” Lucas shook his head.

“No.” The mannequin nodded. It landed on the ground. Immediately a large radius of wheat around them disappeared, then a round, wooden table appeared in the center in front of Lucas. A chair formed by Lucas and several fast food boxes materialized on Lucas’ side of the table. A red and white bucket of fried chicken sat next to a plate of Chinese food, and both sat on top of a pizza box. On the other side of the table, a variety of drinks appeared.

“This will take some time to explain.”