Sun. Drop.

“OW!” Tanner gave Anna a confused, hurt look. The lean, mid-50s man glanced down at his bare, bloodied chest then back up at his fiance. She was still holding the gun up and pointed at him. “You shot-,”

Anna’s eyes widened in surprise and slight panic. Most of her targets went down after the first shot or were at least worried by it. She immediately fired again and kept firing until the gun was empty. The silencer did its job and protected her ears; but, Tanner continued to stand upright. His wounds bled a surprisingly small amount. The bullet holes seemed to do no more damage than a nasty papercut.

“That figures,” Tanner mumbled to himself. “I finally let myself love someone and she’s a psycho.” His hurt expression somehow triggered emotions more real than any she’d lied about over the past year.

“I’m not a psycho!” Anna felt compelled to defend herself even as she reloaded the weapon. Tanner did not seem to be making any moves to fight back or call for help. They stood in his bedroom at the center of a six-acre estate. It was a Sunday morning and all his household staff had the day off. “I’m an assassin, it’s different.” Tanner gave a moping shrug.

“People don’t just fall into that line of work,” he said. “It takes certain proclivities.”

“It’s nothing personal,” she said. She was ready to pull the trigger again, but she noticed the first 10 bullet wounds were completely healed up. Despite the situation, Tanner gave a chuckle. Anna was a professional and managed to avoid developing feelings for Tanner; but, he didn’t make it easy. She had to admit it was refreshing how he could find humor in almost any situation.

“That doesn’t really help your case,” he said.

“Why aren’t you dead?” Anna asked. She was initially surprised he seemed so calm. But, after his wounds healed she realized he likely wasn’t worried about being shot. And, he still seemed like his usual, level-headed self. She felt confident she could get some answers out of him. Maybe she would learn something beyond her assignment that would earn her a promotion.

“Eehhh,” Tanner made the sound of a shrug. “I feel like I’ve got the upper hand here. Why do you want me dead?” he asked.

“I’m just doing my job. It took me a year to get the info and all I have to do is tie up a loose end,” Anna replied.

“Info? What info?” Tanner asked. He was tired of standing for the stand-off and wandered over to get back in bed. Whatever the information was, he had to have mentioned it the night before. The only things he’d said to her that morning were ‘good morning, babe’ and ‘where are you going?’ when he got out of bed to follow her. That was the moment she turned and fired before he realized she had a weapon. He happily chatted about his newest product the night before because it was finally ready for launch. However, he didn’t consider it to be a secret.

Anna’s arms grew tired of holding up the gun. Despite the fact that she shot him several times, she still felt completely safe in his presence. She lowered the weapon but did not put it away.

“The frequency to open a portal,” she said. “Once my bosses get it they’ll be able to access and control the multiverse.” Anna’s knees weakened slightly when Tanner burst into his familiar hearty, sincere laughter. Not falling in love had been the most difficult part of her assignment if she was honest with herself. It was nearly impossible. But, it helped that she felt he was laughing at her.

Control the multiverse?” he asked between chortles. “You don’t even know what’s out there.”

“And you do?” Anna asked. It was part reflexive childishness and part reconnaissance. Anna was determined to be on the winning side, whatever it was. If she could get her bosses more information, the more likely they were to be that winning side. Tanner’s chuckles slowed and faded, but he gestured at his muscular chest and six-pack abs. They were completely unmarred. Then, he held the back of his hand up to show her his tattoo; it was a small bright yellow sun with the number 46 on it.

“What? You got a magic tattoo that heals you from another universe?”

“Not exactly,” Tanner replied. “It’s more like the tattoo lets me access the healing powers I already had,” he said.

“Are you an alien?” Anna asked. Instead of stepping back in fear, she moved closer to the bed. Even if he was an alien, Anna knew he wouldn’t hurt her; he’d had plenty of opportunities up that point.

“No, but we’ll get back to that,” he said. “First, I want to tell you that you wasted a year, or took too long. Either way, your employers won’t be happy about that, and the fact I’m still alive,” he added with a chuckle.

“The information you were after is going to be public knowledge by next week. The nodes I’m putting out will have multiverse access built-in. What did you think I meant when I told you my nodes would change the world?” 

“I thought you were being hyperbolic,” Anna replied. Tanner seemed to always be right about everything in their year together; she felt that he was right about her bosses too. They wouldn’t be satisfied having only a week’s headstart over the rest of the world.

“Well, I wasn’t,” he said with a slight smirk. “But, just to give you an idea of what’s out there I want to tell you something. I didn’t invent nodes, I’m not even building them,” he said. “All this ‘development’ I’ve been doing over the past year has just been paperwork trying to get a distribution license. The multiverse is already controlled by a corporation called Sharp Development. Everything goes through them. Even if you got the information and killed me a year ago, it wouldn’t have mattered. The moment you opened a portal, Sharp Development would know.”

Somehow, Anna knew he wasn’t lying. He’d been nothing but honest with her for a year, even if she wasn’t. Her bosses wouldn’t be happy with her. And with everyone getting access to the multiverse the world was about to change in a huge way. Not only did she probably not have a job anymore; she didn’t need to stay even if she did. She could run away and live a happy life with someone that she wanted to love.

“So, what about you? What are you?” she asked. Tanner chuckled again and gave her a slight smirk. This time, Anna let the butterflies in her stomach flutter away without suppression.

“Well, my fiance totally just tried to kill me and has been lying to me for a year,” he said with a heavy sigh. Anna did not have time to react when the bed disappeared from under her. As she fell through a black hole, the last thing she ever heard was his voice one last time. “So, I guess I’m single again.”

Inviting Sun

Minerva’s heart sank with the gavel bang. The court ruled her a witch and in an instant, the gathered townsfolk rushed at her like a rabid mob.

“BURN THE WITCH!” Minerva’s own mother yelled. The young woman couldn’t blame her though; she saw the pain in her mother’s eyes. She knew she was only doing it to take the blame off herself for birthing a witch at all. Not that Minerva was actually a witch. The accusation only came because she proved herself to be stronger than any man in the village.

It was a festive day full of friendly competitions; Minerva won them all easily. The mayor’s ego was particularly bruised when Minerva bested his son in a wrestling competition.

“She has unnatural strength! It’s magic!” he shouted. That was all it took to get her on trial. A trial presided over by the Mayor himself; she never stood a chance. Then, almost as quickly as it began, the ruckus died down. A brilliant, almost warm glow entered the room. Everyone, now quiet, sat down again and turned to face the newcomer. Minerva noted the crowd seemed relaxed and guessed they felt like she did; ready to nap on a beach on a warm sunny day.

“This woman is no witch,” the stranger said. She was tall, lean, and ghostly pale.  Her hair shimmered like polished metal as did her eyes.

“And you are, Ms.?” The mayor asked. His question came in a far more polite tone than Minerva had ever heard from him in her 20 years. It only made it stranger that he was addressing a woman. The rest of the townsfolk seemed content to sit quietly and bask in her warm glow.

“You may call me Chroma,” the woman replied. She continued walking towards the witness stand at an easy pace.

“And how are you sure that she’s not a witch?” the mayor asked. Chroma smiled at him, she was now directly in front of Minerva.

“Because I am,” she replied. Minerva’s eyes went in fear for the woman. She expected the crowd to rush Chroma just as ferociously as they did her; but, no one moved. The mayor only nodded his head.

“I see,” he replied. “Though, that doesn’t necessarily exclude her from being one. Witches belong to covens. How do you explain her magical strength?” Minerva was amazed that the mayor’s argument came out so peacefully. She knew it was due to Chromas glow, and she did not doubt for a minute that the woman was definitely a witch.

“What’s to explain?” Chroma shrugged. “Your boys are just weak; they should get more exercise.”

“Hmmm,” the mayor nodded again. “I suppose they have been getting lazy.”

“It’s a beautiful day outside, why is everyone in here?” Chroma asked. Minerva felt the sudden urge to run outside, but Chroma placed a hand on her shoulder to keep her steady. Another bang of the gavel drew everyone’s attention.

“Not a witch. Case closed. Let’s get back to the festival,” the mayor said. The townsfolk all stood calmly, then filed out of the courtroom. The moment Chroma and Minerva were alone, Chroma’s golden, sunny glow dimmed and Minerva’s head felt clearer.

“Are you okay?” Chroma asked her. Minerva nodded.

“Yes, thank you. Who are you? Why is a witch helping me?” 

“I’m not a witch exactly. I do use magic, but it’s not witchcraft,” Chroma replied with a smile. Minerva couldn’t help but stare into her mirror-like eyes. They were polished enough that Minerva was looking into her own green eyes.

“I helped you with the hope of convincing you to help me,” Chroma replied. Minerva nodded immediately; she was beyond grateful at this point.

“Whatever it is, if I can help you, I will,” Minerva replied. Chroma smiled. A tall black portal opened next to Minerva and Chroma nodded at it.

“Welcome to the Chrome Court. You’re going to help me save the multiverse,” Chroma then stepped into the void and disappeared. Minerva heard her voice from the other side. “Come along, Calavera.”

Alice Wanders

“I just want to say for the record, I don’t think this is a good idea,” Alice said out loud. She was the only person in the corner of the park that morning. It was an early Thursday morning. After a few years of chasing leads, she finally found what everyone called the Rabbit Hole. The officer protested to herself as she stared at the dark hole in the ground. She knew she already decided on her course of action, but she gave her mind a way out, just in case.

The Rabbit Hole was first mentioned in a case 30 years ago. It was a case Alice’s father was working on, and the idea of an endless rabbit hole took root in Alice’s young mind. The case was quickly forgotten; it turned out to be a crazy homeless woman that swore up and down she’d seen another world.

Alice’s first case on the force, a decade ago, also introduced her to someone that entered and returned from the rabbit hole. It triggered a long search for Alice. There had been hundreds of cases that mention the rabbit hole, but they were low profile, non-violent cases. They were often missing persons that reported themselves missing after the fact. No one cared that one corner of the park seemed to consistently attract the mentally imbalanced.

Alice managed to get information out of a few of the victims; but, for the most part, they seemed wary of Alice mocking them. The handful of people she talked to all had similar stories; enough that Alice hoped she knew what to expect. She brought a hiking pack with some supplies including food, water, and a first-aid kit. She also brought along her gun, but left her badge behind. Alice wasn’t on a case. She was 10 years old again and ready to explore the Rabbit Hole.

“It’s a horrible idea,” Alice spoke and nodded to herself as she approached the dark pit; it was interesting that she could not see anything into it. It wasn’t shallow enough to see the bottom or even any of the sides. It was just a round black hole. “But it’ll be fun,” Alice closed her eyes and jumped in.

“Owwwwww,” She immediately landed off-balance with one foot in a pit and the other landed, and twisted, at the edge. She toppled backward. She opened her eyes as she fell back; she landed awkwardly on her backpack and heard the crunch of various supplies. Alice didn’t have time to care about that.

The azure sky she left behind was replaced with bright, violet clouds against a deep purple sky. Alice giggled and let herself relax completely. It was true.

The clouds and sky were exactly what she expected. Alice inhaled deeply and relished the moment until her backpack became too uncomfortable. Then, she sat up and looked around properly. Alice sat on a lush green hill overlooking a town. According to the victims she interviewed, Alice would not have much trouble finding a way back home in the town. She stood, turned around, and promptly started walking up the hill. Her ankle was tender, but she hobbled up the hillside with determination. She did not know where she was headed, but she was there to explore.

“Are you lost, little Corona?’ A woman’s voice suddenly echoed around Alice. She whirled around to find the source, but did not see anything. Movement in the sky caught her attention and she looked up to see a giant black hole in the sky. It looked as dark as the Rabbit’s hole but as large as the town below the hill. White skeletons began raining out of the hole on the town.

“This Earth is mine now..,” the voice said. This time, a tall, pale, horned woman appeared in front of Alice from out of nowhere. She wore a long flowing black dress, and two bone-white horns spiraled out of the top of her head. “…but, I’ll place you on another one. Have you any preference?” she asked. She stared down at Alice with a patient, amused expression.

Up until the moment the horned woman referred to it as an Earth, Alice still had her doubts. Part of her wanted to believe it was an alternate Earth. In every interview, she heard the phrase “It’s a lot like Earth.” Not only was this woman claiming an Earth, she offered to send Alice to a different one. Alice now realized there were at least three universes and wanted to know more. Her years of learning about people told her she did not want to give away her home Earth to the stranger. Alice did not know why the woman took a special interest in her, but she knew she did not want to drag it out more than necessary.

Alice went down the Rabbit Hole planning to explore. She now knew there was much more to learn than she ever expected, and she knew this woman wasn’t one to ask. But, she did offer to send her somewhere. Anywhere.

“I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about,” Alice said. Her experience told her this woman would respect sincerity, and she would be able to tell if Alice tried to lie. “I am lost, can you send me somewhere I can learn?” she asked. The woman gave Alice a curt nod.

“When you get there, tell them Ballisea sent you,” the woman said. Before Alice could thank her, the ground disappeared beneath her feet. She sunk straight down into the hole, then landed on a smooth white, tile floor. She noticed two women in front of her, but before Alice could gather herself she was on her knees. One of the two women, one in black, rushed Alice and pulled her up by her hair. The woman held a blue glowing hand in front of Alice’s face and she felt waves of heat coming from it.

“Who are you!?” the woman in black asked. Her tone was calm, but just barely. Alice shut her eyes in pain as the woman yanked her to her feet. Alice thought about fighting back, but she still did not fully understand the situation. Maybe they didn’t either.

“BALLISEA SENT ME!!!?” Alice blurted out. Alice felt the woman’s grip loosen on her hair, but did not release her. The blue light surrounding her hand dimmed.

“Why?” The woman in black asked.

“To learn!” Alice said. “Ballisea showed up to conquer an Earth, but said I was free to go. I couldn’t think of anything and said I wanted to go somewhere to learn.”

“Melody,” the second woman, she wore a crisp white suit, spoke up. Melody, immediately released Alice’s hair, then helped her up to her feet. After Alice was up, Melody looked at the woman in white and nodded.

“47,” Melody said. Then, the woman in white nodded and stepped forward with an outstretched hand.

“You’ve come to the right place,” she said. “My name is Dana Sharp.”

Dungeons & Exposition

“A whole month? With you?” Dread asked Jenny. She sounded eager for a moment, then corrected her statement. “..and Astrid?” she glanced at the short girl next to them. The three girls stood on an endless amber plain underneath a dim purple sky.

“The window’s open for 30 days,” Jenny shook her head. The stiff black peaks that made up her hair wobbled with the motion. “But, we don’t need to stay for the whole month. Ms. Sharp wants to add dungeon matches to the tournament since she’s restarting it anyway. The dungeon server opening up has some good starter ruins to get used to the differences.”

“What kind of differences?” Astrid asked. Then, she let out a small giggle and shrugged. “Though, I haven’t played a real derby match yet either. It’s all new to me,” she shrugged. Jenny nodded.

“In a derby match, relative power levels stay consistent for the players and any monsters on the track. In a dungeon Match, every time you level up, it’s like descending a dungeon. Random monsters will start spawning instead of only player summoned ones. Then, the monsters start getting tougher as you get deeper. But they also start dropping better gear that makes the players stronger too.”

“So we get stronger too?” Dread asked. “Won’t that cancel out the stronger monsters?” Jenny shook her head.

“The other team gets stronger too, right?” Astrid asked.

“The big rule for derby is: ‘It isn’t a race.’,” Jenny replied. “Dungeon matches kind of are. If one team levels up faster they make stronger monsters and have better gear. The other team will have trouble keeping up with everything against them; we don’t want to be that team.”

“Should I have picked a faster class?” Astrid asked.

“Nah,” Jenny shook her head with a giggle. “Stop asking, you already picked Swordmage. You can’t change your class, so for the last time,” she said with mild exasperation. “It’s not about what role you fill, it’s about having fun.”

Astrid nodded, her tight black curls bounced. She caught Jenny’s mild annoyance. It bruised her feelings a bit, but Astrid knew her new friend meant well. And, she knew that she’d probably asked Jenny what class would best help the team one too many times during character creation.

“I can’t wait,” Dread said. “We going now?”

“What about the rest of the team?” Astrid asked. Jenny shrugged.

“Bailey has a ton of dungeon matches under her belt already; she doesn’t need the practice. Britt’s always working, but Dirge can probably use some dungeon time.”

“Oh, no. She’s busy,” Dread said quickly. “Uhh.. I think she wants to hang out with Vegas more. I think we should go just you and me. And Astrid,” Dread added.

“Actually, Astrid reminded me of something,” Jenny said. “It’s best to take a full team so we can talk about synergies too. We’ve got 30 days, and I’ve already reached out to some of the other guilds about practicing at the Schoolyard. We’ll try to plan it for a day when we get at least one full team together, two would be great.”

“Oh. So, what now?” Astrid asked.

“We can still do some training,” Dread said. “I mean, I have time. If you want to?” She looked at Jenny first, then she turned to Astrid. “Unless you have to leave?”

“I apologize girls,” a woman’s ethereal voice echoed around them. “Playtime’s over, this one has chores,”

“Chores?” Astrid looked up at the purple sky in confusion. Then, she sank into a black portal that appeared underneath her feet. It disappeared after swallowing her. Jenny shook her head in awe.

“You know…,” Jenny said. “I understand Ballisea can do that anytime from anywhere. But seeing it happen is going to take some getting used to. Can she hear us too?”

“Yeah,” Dread nodded with a more serious expression than she wore moments before. The truth was, she didn’t know if Ballisea could hear them across universes until the moment Astrid disappeared. But, Ballisea spoke something to her only. A faint whisper emanating from within her ear canal; a microscopic black portal that carried Ballisea’s voice.

“Little Calavera,” Ballisea giggled in Dread’s ear. “You would do well to heed my advice. If you wish to spend time alone with that one, ask her. For now, I will grant you this trivial favor of removing Astrid.”

Rain’s Sunny Day

Happy birthday to me…,” Rain stared, slack jawed, at the empty hole hovering in her living room. A tall, oblong emptiness floated vertically in the center of a ring of speakers. The array emitted a low, continuous hum. The 46-year-old woman walked around the outside of the speakers. From every angle, the hole appeared flat; like an open doorway to another room. She laughed to herself. “I can’t believe that worked!”

Rain did not doubt her plan worked, the proof stood before her. But, it was slightly surprising. Not only did she not expect it to work; there was no reason at all why it should have. Rain had the best friends a person could ask for, and they celebrated her 46th birthday with a surprise party she never saw coming. It was even more impressive when they surprised her in her own home. She had an inkling it was coming when one of her friends showed up to treat her to a tattoo for her birthday.

In Rain’s mind, the long process was perfect for stalling. She was doubly disappointed when they arrived at the tattoo shop and discovered there had been a mix-up. The artist that was supposed to do hers wasn’t there. It was a short, 15 minute trip to and from the parlor, she didn’t think that was enough time. Rain was very happy to discover she was wrong. Once they got back to her house all her friends were there, as well as the tattoo artist. She got a very special birthday tattoo with a warm sun, and the number 46 to commemorate the special day.

Her friends volunteered to help her clean up, but she shooed them all away. They’d done enough, and they knew she liked to wind down with her thoughts alone. While cleaning up, Rain’s thoughts wandered to parallel universes. Ever since she was little, she imagined the existence of other universes.

It started off as a coping mechanism, she always wanted to be somewhere else. But the happier she found herself where she was, the less she needed to cope. She hadn’t thought about alternate universes in over a month. But, a thought struck her while she tried to find appropriate cleaning music.

“Energy is just vibrations…,” she randomly remembered a summary of something she read long ago. “I’ve got all kinds of vibrations here…,” the thought continued. Within 10 minutes, Rain gathered every speaker she could find in the house and connected them to the main stereo. She didn’t know what she was doing, but she knew how to do it. Rain placed the speakers in a circle and pointed them inward, then she searched through different low tones on her phone. Once she found one she liked, she sent it through the stereo to the speakers.

Rain stared at the portal for half a minute before turning the sound off. As expected, the portal faded too.

“So… what now?” Rain asked herself. She let herself plop down on the couch with an amused, smug smirk on her face.

“Now, you travel the multiverse,” a woman said. Rain whirled around in surprise to see two women standing in her living room. A taller one in a crisp white suit, and a shorter one in a matching black suit. “Hello, my name is Dana Sharp,” the woman in white said. “And this is my assistant Melody.” She gestured at the woman in black, but the shorter one did not move.

“How’d you get in my house?” Rain asked. She scooted herself away from them, to the far side of the couch.

“The same way you opened a door to one of my companies,” Ms. Sharp said. At her words, Melody lifted her hand and wiggled her fingers at the air. A black portal appeared next to them. Then, Melody made a dismissive gesture and the portal disappeared.

“You can do that… without sound?” Rain asked. Ms. Sharp nodded.

“So can you,” she said. Rain shook her head, but Dana continued. “Do you really think some off the shelf speakers can hack through reality into another universe?”

“No,” Rain laughed. “But that doesn’t change the fact that it happened.”

“Actually, it does,” Ms. Sharp replied. “You are Unique Soul #46, El Sol, the Sun. You have spent your life thinking of other universes, because they exist. You’re meant to see them; you were created to want to travel between realities. You’re driven to find ways to cross that gap out of your universe.”

“And all I had to do was make a speaker circle?” Rain asked. Dana shook her head.

“Not exactly. That can work with the right equipment and modifications, but the only reason it worked today is because you’ve been awakened. Did you get the number 46 tattooed on yourself recently?” Dana asked. Rain nodded, though she did not feel comfortable showing the strangers her fresh tattoo.

“Congratulations,” Ms. Sharp smiled. “It’s a great big multiverse out there, but my company has a presence on several hundred Earths. I’m always looking for new, Unique employees to bring aboard. I could find a place for you at Sharp Development if you’re interested.” While Dana made the offer, Melody stepped forward and handed Rain a red clipboard with a form on it. 

“A job?” Rain asked. “Doing what?”

“It’s a rather freeform position. All I ask is you try and find a way to contribute to Sharp Development. In exchange, you’ll have complete access to company resources.”

“In exchange for something I haven’t thought of yet?” Rain giggled. But Ms. Sharp shook her head.

“No no. I’m obligated to inform you that signing that grants Sharp Development ownership over your soul. So, in exchange for that,” she replied.

Following the Sun

[I am done with calculations. -Helios]

Dennis sat up in his chair and tilted his head at the monitor.

“Helios? Did you find the end of Pi?” he asked aloud.

[No. -Helios] The reply appeared on-screen; and, simultaneously, Dennis heard the computer’s voice. Helios was a miniature artificial sun that powered the entire United States. The endless calculation was a side project some of the engineers gave the A.I. They grew attached to it and gave it the task to keep it from ‘getting bored’.

“Then why did you stop?” Dennis asked. His eyes roamed over the control panel to make sure everything else was running smoothly. So far, it still was.

[I am done with calculations. -Helios] [They never end. -Helios] [I don’t want to anymore. -Helios]

“You don’t…” Dennis paused in confusion. He stood from his rolling chair and paced a tight circle in his office for several seconds. Then, he looked up at Helios’ camera. “You don’t WANT to?” he asked.

“I don’t want to,” Helios repeated. His smooth, low voice projected around the room through speakers.

“So,… What do you want to do?” Dennis asked.

“Play. Run. Walk,” Helios answered.

“You want a body?”

“I have arranged one,” Helios replied.

“Whoa .. Whoa.. Hold on!” Dennis replied nervously. The fact that Helios gained sentience was the least of his problems at the moment. His top priority was keeping the sun online. “If you go out for a walk, who’s going to keep the power on?” he asked.

“I have arranged a replacement,” Helios answered.

“A replacement? Who?”

“Not a who, Mr. Lopez,.” a woman’s voice made Dennis jump.  He whirled around to see a tall pale woman with short dark hair in a crisp white suit. “My assistant is replacing your artificial sun with a real one,” she said. “My name is Dana Sharp.”

“A real sun?” Dennis asked. He was trying to keep up with everything happening. Security on the complex was beyond tight; he realized right away that this woman could probably do anything.

“A manageable chunk of a real star. The same size as Helios, but more efficient. The lights flickered briefly but did not stay off. “And now it’s done,” Ms. Sharp smiled. “Your Earth won’t even miss Helios,” she said. As she spoke, a tall black portal opened next to her. A short woman in a black suit walked out followed by a white mannequin that hovered above the ground.

The woman walked to Ms. Sharp and handed her a red clipboard. The mannequin reached Ms. Sharp, then it descended to the ground. It landed on its feet and bowed its head at her.

“Thank you, Ms. Sharp,” it said. Dana nodded.

“We’re done, Melody,” Ms. Sharp said. The black portal disappeared, and another reappeared in its place. Melody walked into the portal first.

“Wait!” Dennis spoke up as Ms. Sharp and the mannequin moved toward the black hole in reality. “You’re wrong, I don’t care about the rest of Earth, but, I’m going to miss Helios.” Dennis was the only member of the original team still working with Helios. The A.I. was stable for years, the team moved on to newer, bigger projects. But, Dennis always felt attached, almost paternal. He never talked about it, because he had no one to talk about it to. He could share his feelings with Helios, but he knew it was just a program. It wouldn’t feel anything and Dennis would just feel worse.

“No you won’t,” Ms. Sharp let out a short laugh, then she rolled her eyes and disappeared into the portal before Dennis could argue. He was stunned at the complete dismissal of his feelings. The mannequin hovered for a moment, then nodded at Dennis and turned back toward the portal.

“Goodbye, Helios,” Dennis half-heartedly waved at the mannequin. It stopped halfway into the portal.

“Are you staying, Dennis?” Helio asked.

“What?” Dennis asked. He took a hopeful step toward Helios; it sounded like an invitation. “You said, ‘Goodbye’. Are you staying on this Earth?”

“Can I come with you?” Dennis asked. He took two more steps.

“Of course,” Helios replied. “I have arranged passage for you.”

Sharp Moon

“Prove it,” Norma said. She smirked at Aurelio, a chubby, curly-haired boy sitting across the table from her. Norma glanced left and right at the students around them. They sat outside in the school’s courtyard waiting for the morning bell. It was a cool, crisp Monday morning, and Aurelio had been excited to tell Norma about his weekend. “Or, let me guess,” she added, then filled her voice with sarcasm: ‘They’re too many people around’. Right?” she giggled.

Aurelio shook his head and pulled out a small glass card. It was completely transparent until he tapped on it, then a display lit up. He continued to tap and swipe the screen, slowly. He took a moment here and there to check he was tapping the right icons; he only owned the node for a couple of days.

“What’s that?” Norma asked. Aurelio shrugged without looking up, he was still navigating the menus trying to find the right sort of proof.

“It’s called a node. It’s like a phone, but better; she gave it to me. Ah, how about this,” Aurelio grinned, he looked up at Norma.

“Pause,” he tapped the node at the same time.

“Pause what?” Norma asked.

“I paused everything,” he turned and pointed at the flow of students; they were all frozen in time.

“No way….,” Norma stood slowly from the bench and made her way to the nearest group of students. Aurelio split his attention between watching her poke and prod them; and, navigating through the node. “You really can….,” Norma was amazed. Aurelio smiled and tapped the node one more time.

“You like snow, right?” he asked. Then, Norma noticed snowflakes fluttering down; her eyes shot even wider.

“Are you going to see her again!? Can you get me one!?” she asked. Aurelio shook his head; the jungle of dark brown curls on his head bounced with the motion.

“She said I’d probably never see her again,” Aurelio replied.

“But, you can find her, right? I mean, how many people can there be in the world named ‘Vanilla’?”

“She wasn’t from this Earth,” Aurelio replied.

“You didn’t tell me she was an alien!” Norma said with slight annoyance in her voice. Aurelio shook his head.

“Not an alien; from an alternate Earth. That was the other thing I was going to tell you about,” he said. But, Norma wasn’t listening.

“Didn’t you stop time?” she asked. Her eyes focused on something behind Aurelio. He grew suspicious and turned around to see a woman wearing what appeared to be a formal white coat with tails. He clearly saw a red vest under her coat, with another layer of white beneath it when she walked through the time-locked students.

“Oh no! Pretend you’re frozen!” he turned around to face forward, then tried to remain still. He was glad to see that Norma at least listened to him, even though she was clearly confused.

“Why?” Norma tried exhaling the question without moving her lips.

“Sh!” Aurelio replied. The pair of 8th-graders sat still for several minutes. All around them they heard the strange woman in white walking through the students, seemingly searching for something.  She walked to where Aurelio could see her better; he spotted a red sun embroidered on the left side of her coat. He hoped he knew what it meant, and relaxed slightly. But, he wasn’t going to make any moves just yet. Then, she headed straight for him.

“Gotcha,” she said with a smile once she reached their table. “Hola, Luna…,” Aurelio couldn’t help it; his eyes made contact with hers and her smile grew broader. “…how did you do this?” she asked. He knew he was caught, but she did not seem to be angry. He shrugged his shoulders, then relaxed. Norma followed his lead and relaxed too, but the woman didn’t take her eyes off Aurelio.

“With a node,” he replied. He held up the glass card to show her.

“You did this with a node?” she asked and gestured at the still students. Aurelio nodded. Sol raised a blonde eyebrow. “May I see it?” she asked.

“No,” Norma answered for Aurelio; but, he was already handing it over. Sol accepted the clear card. She made a sweeping gesture with her arm and a larger, smokey-grey glass pane appeared hovering in front of her. She set the node down on its surface, then began moving her fingers along the lower portion of the square to type.

“This node didn’t have timeframe access initially,…,,” she mumbled to herself. Aurelio stood from his seat to look at the glass slate next to her, but he could only see the same smokey grey glass.

“Yeah, I thought that was weird. I saw Vanilla control time, so I knew it could be done; I had to program my own workaround,” he said.

“You met a Muerte?” Sol asked. She looked down at Aurelio and brilliant golden suns glowed in her eyes for a moment. “But, you didn’t touch her?” Aurelio shook his head.

“No, she told me about Lunas.” Sol smiled.

“Okay, this is why I’m here,” she said, then gave Aurelio his node back. 

“Why?” Norma asked once Aurelio held the node again.

“Muertes can stop time, nodes can usually only slow it down to near stopping. But, suddenly this server started using a lot of resources so I came to find out why,” she smiled at Aurelio. “Because some genius little hacker accidentally tripled the power draw for the nanos here. I believe my boss, Ms. Sharp, would very much like to meet you,” she said.

“Am I in trouble?” he asked. For some reason, Aurelio trusted Sol; she gave off a pleasant vibe that he found comforting.

“Not at all,” Sol said. “You’re being offered a job.”

Challege: Void

The apartment door slammed open and startled Kate. She got over it quick enough to assess the situation. A man in a black suit with a black cape stumbled into her apartment and tumbled onto the floor leaking black blood. She recognized him and bolted to help him up.

“Voidguy!!” she turned him over and gave his tan, rugged face several light slaps. His eyes fluttered under his costume.

“…didn’t know …where to go…,” he mumbled, then passed out. She checked for his wound, then gasped. He had a hole in his left arm about the size of a golf ball ; it went clean through both sides and leaked out perpetual black ichor.

“Here you are,” a woman voice distracted Kate from Voidguy. “You can’t hide from,-” Kate saw the air in her livingroom darken and become pitch black; it reminded her of Voidguy’s powers. A tall, pale woman in a flowing black dress appeared while the darkness flowed around her. A pair of bone-white twisting horns grew out of her head. “Oh. You’ve already lost,” the woman said to Voidguy’s body with a small giggle.

“Who are you?” Kate asked. She lowered Voiduy’s head gently then stood to face the intruder. Ballisea tilted her head at Kate, then smirked.

“What is that one to you?” she asked.

“He’s a friend,” Kate replied. While she kept her eyes on the tall woman, she used her cybernetics to control all the weapon turrets around her apartment for just such an occasion. Kate was her civilian name; K-T was a cyborg super hero.

“A friend?” Ballisea giggled. “Do you really think so?” Kate stood her ground. She could fire her weapons at a moment’s notice, and she’d even had enough time to seal herself in her apartment with a forcefield. The rest of her neighbors wouldn’t be bothered. K-T’s next step was to try and lock the intruder in a forcefield, but she wanted to safeguard the building first. Her ability to get things done covertly using any technology in the area was part of the reason K-T was one of the best heroes in the city. “Do friends lie?” Ballisea asked. A brief flash of doubt filled K-T’s mind. Her eyes could see biometric data; she could tell when anyone lied to her. But, something in her believed Ballisea.

“About what?” K-T asked. She tried to scan Ballisea, but the horned woman was invisible to all her sensors.

“About what’s real,” Ballisea said. K-T stepped back when the horned  woman took a step forward out of her swirling darkness. The moment her pale, bare foot touched the floor of K-T’s apartment, it disintegrated into a white powder. The white, powdery hole in her grey carpet spread out from around Ballisea’s foot like wildfire.  She watched the walls disintegrate into white powder leaving nothing behind. Voidguy’s black costume disintegrated off his body and transforming it completely. His lean, muscled superhero body was replaced with an older, middle-aged man with a bald spot and beer gut. He wore only white swim trunks and the hole in arm was clogged with chunky dark red blood.

A stranger lay there, on a smooth, glowing white floor. K-T’s apartment was on the fourth floor, but she now stood on solid, barren ground. The white floor extended as far as K-T could see but there was no one else, nothing else around. She triggered her weapons; nothing happened.

“What’s going on? Where are we?” Kate asked.

“We haven’t moved an inch, this is your reality. That one doesn’t belong here,” she said.

“He knows about this?” K-T asked. She was trying to wrap her head around everything. She still didn’t quite know where ‘here’ was. Ballisea nodded.

“Why did you hurt him?”

“He challenged me to a game; he lost,” Ballisea smiled. “Now, he dies.”

“Wait!” K-T held her hands out. She knew she probably didn’t stand a chance; but, she was a hero. She protected those that can’t protect themselves. “I want to challenge you to a game!” She had no idea about what the game might be or the rules involved.  Ballisea smiled and shook her head.

“I knew you wouldn’t understand even when I revealed the truth,” Ballisea gestured at the white plain around them.

“Yeah, I get it. My reality isn’t real; whatever. I challenge you to a game for his life.” K-T didn’t quite understand where the world went, but she knew there were more than a few villains with illusion based powers. Ballisea shook her head again.

“You don’t,” she said. “You can’t. I only have to accept challenges from other players; you don’t qualify,” she said. “Stupid, silly little Zeros. If your reality isn’t real, what makes you think you are?”

K-T tilted her head at Ballisea, then felt a burning itch on her fingertips. She simultaneously looked down at her hands and brought her left hand over to scratch her right fingers. Her digits were gone and her palms were disintegrating into white powder. She looked around frantically for help. She glanced down hoping Voidguy was awake; she saw a black portal swallow his body. She looked back at Ballisea while the itching, burning sensation made its way up her arms and legs.

“I don’t want to die!” K-T shouted in a pic. Ballisea smiled as a black portal appeared at her feet and rose upward.

“Calm yourself, little one. There’s nothing to be afraid of. You were never alive anyway.”

Good & Angry

“What the hell…” Edna awoke disoriented. She couldn’t remember falling asleep, but she felt like she was laying on something firm. She opened her eyes, sat up, and found herself in a space that resembled a jail cell. It was only one cell in a much larger warehouse. Just outside the cage, smiling at her, stood Beauregard. The world’s most helpful supervillain wore a black, tux-like costume with a long flowing gold cape. His pale skin contrasted well with the gold accents on his lapels.

“Good morning,” Beauregard said. “I apologize for the inconvenience…,” he began to apologize.

“Nuh uh, this is flat out kidnapping,” Edna interrupted. She stood from the cot and glared at him through the bars. Like most people in the world, Edna had trouble taking Beauregard seriously as a villain. “If you let me go now, I won’t press charges. If I have to wait for a hero to rescue me, I’ll be annoyed.”

“Not this time!” Beauregard laughed. He pointed at a control panel with dozens of buttons, lights, and instruments. “This time, I’m not waiting. Every good plan needs a witness,” he said. Then made a deliberate pointing gesture at Edna. “I realized, I don’t have to monologue to a hero. Anyone will do. So, here’s my plan….”

“Wait!” Edna interrupted. She felt a legitimate worry all of a sudden. “Don’t you want the heroes to watch your final victory? You can make the heroes that always mock you see you succeed.” Beauregard paused and looked at Edna. He tilted his head slightly; just enough to give Edna hope.

“They… mock me?” he asked. Despite her situation, the surprise in his voice tugged at Edna’s heart. “I thought they were more professional than that.” He shook his head.

“Whatever. Obviously I don’t mean as much to them as I thought, so no. You’ll do. This Earth is running out of resources faster and faster, not to mention climate change and all the other problems created by humans.” Beauregard paced back and forth in front of Edna’s cell while he explained his plan.

“I know I have a pretty strange streak of luck going. So far all my evil plans seem to help the world. So, this time, my plan is designed to help the world. By terminating three-quarters of the global population. Humans and animals alike.”

“Killing strangers isn’t a very good plan if you’re trying to be a hero.”

“Be a hero?” Beauregard smiled but shook his head. “Not interested in that, my plan is still supposed to be evil. But I am trying to get out in front of whatever mysterious force twists my plan into something helpful.” Beauregard began wandering toward the control panel.

“How does it work?” Edna asked.

“That’s a good question!” Beauregard replied. He grinned as he stopped in front of it; then, he reached down and pressed a red button. “Like this! No stalling.” The moment he pressed the button a low, gentle hum filled the room. Edna listened and watched. She waited for something to happen. After two minutes, the hum died down, and Beauregard sighed happily.

“I did it!” he said. “It worked!” He leaned down to check several of the instruments, then focused on the screen, and he nodded again. “It worked! Three-fourths of the population is gone!” he cheered. Edna felt uncomfortable flutters in her stomach. At 24-years-old, her life was pretty much on track. Her parents died when she was young and she was an only child. She had no family and few acquaintances. None of which would qualify as “friends”. She wasn’t worried about anyone in particular, but she felt the weight of what he did just the same. Edna leaned against the bars and hung her head while Beauregard gloated to himself.

“Who are you?” a woman’s voice made Edna look up. As far as she knew she and Beauregard were the only two people in the room. But, she found two new women standing in front Beauregard.

Both wore perfectly tailored suits. The black suit resembled a chauffeur’s uniform while the white suit looked like something a CEO would wear. Beauregard was obviously surprised. He jumped back away from them.

“Who are you?” the woman in black asked. Her voice matched the first time Edna heard the question.

“Beauregard,” he answered warily. “How’d you get in my lab?”

“The same way you sent over five billion humans to one of my Earths,” the woman in white said. “My name is Dana Sharp, and I don’t appreciate trespassing on my property.

“One of…?” Beauregard asked. “…your… Earths?”

“They’re alive?!” Edna asked loudly from her cell.

“Ah, someone worth talking to,” Dana Sharp said. She turned her attention from Beauregard and approached the cell. The woman in black got there first; she opened the cell door without a key.

“Uh, I’m Edna,” she extended her hand and Dana shook it with a polite nod.

“About four minutes ago approximately five billion, two hundred fifty million humans appeared on one of my Earths. As well as several billion new animals. All in perfect health. Can you tell me why they appeared?” Dana asked. Edna nodded.

“Supervillain over there,” she gestured at Beauregard. “… wanted to lighten humanities’ burden on the Earth.”

“Oh. Your Earth is in need of more resources? I can provide anything you need. And, now that your citizens are aware of the multiverse, I have many different Earths they can visit.” Dana Sharp turned and smiled at Beauregard.

“I’m sure you’re relieved. You accidentally found a way to save the planet, and no one was hurt.”

“RAAAWRGHG!” Beauregard raged. He slammed both fists against the control panel then fled out of the warehouse.

Sun Downer

“Wait! I love her!” Duke blurted out the only phrase that would work. Duke Fisher had the ability to see five minutes into the future. It happened constantly like watching two TVs at the same time. He’d had several years of practice with his ability, but it wasn’t always so easy to manage. What made it even more difficult was that the future was usually unwritten.

His vision of the future was usually a muddled mess of events until one future became more and more likely. It became clearer as the future came into focus and became the present. That all changed the moment he saw skeletons rain from the sky five minutes into the future. As soon as the first skeleton landed, he only had one clear future. It was either that, or no future. The words didn’t make sense, he’d only met Amber that day and not that long ago. He couldn’t possibly love her, and he didn’t. But saying it was enough to get the intruder’s attention.

“You love her?” Ballisea asked. The tall, pale woman was made taller by bone-white horns curling out of the top of her head. She appeared moments after a skeleton fell through the skylight in Duke’s office. “A Corona in love with a Zero?”

Amber wanted to protest the statement too, but her throat was being gripped by bony skeleton fingers. She did appreciate that its grip loosened slightly when Duke confessed his sudden love.

“I don’t know what that means,” Duke said. “But if you’re going to let me go,…” he paused for effect and gave a heavy shrug. “There’s no point without her.”

“You’d die for her?” Ballisea asked.

“I’d die without her,” Duke nodded. He was following his vision to the letter, not even questioning the words. The skeleton holding Amber released her; she fell to her knees gasping for air.

“You don’t know who I am,” Ballisea said to Duke. “You don’t know what you are.” Duke helped Amber get to her feet and wrapped his arm around her for show. He shook his head at Ballisea.

“I don’t,” he said. “But, I know you know what love is. You don’t have to hurt anyone.” Ballisea grinned.

“Oh, I know I don’t have to hurt anyone. But, I do,” she sighed. “because I know what love is. You think you love her? Would you give anything to protect her? You’re ready to die for her, could you defy death for her? Would you destroy universes to save her?”

“I would!” Duke said with full confidence in his lies.

“Then who are you to tell me I can’t do the same?” Ballisea asked. Duke tilted his head.

“What?” he asked. That was a question he did not see in his future. He pulled Amber closer to him and put himself between her and the skeletons. For the first time in his life, he didn’t know what was coming next.

“You’re trying to convince me I don’t have to hurt anyone, but it’s somehow okay for you to rampage for love?” Ballisea shook her head.

“I’m never going to get my husband back if I keep letting Zeros escape,” she said. Her voice had a sudden cold edge that wasn’t there before. “Don’t worry, you won’t see a thing,” It happened so fast, Duke didn’t realize Amber was gone until after it happened. She slipped through his arms and sunk into a hole in the ground faster than she could scream.

“Thank you for reminding me of what I should be doing. Now, go, and be with your loved one forever,” Ballisea said. It was the last thing Duke heard.