Sharp Transportation

“No way…,” Greg whispered to himself in awe as he stared out the window. Violet starlight twinkled behind the mint-green clouds. He turned to the person next to him; the mid-20s woman was asleep. The same as every other passenger. As he swiveled his head to scan the cabin he heard a sharp gasp behind him and whipped around to see. Jane, the helpful stewardess that checked him in, rushed to his row.

“How are you awake!?” she whispered. After her question, she looked left and right to make sure she did not disturb anyone else. Greg pointed out the window.

“Why are the clouds green!?” he whispered back, not as quietly.

“Come here!” she hissed like a parent reprimanding her child in public. She gave him a sharp gesture, then walked toward the back. Greg followed. When he got there, he noticed her face changed from minor annoyance to noticeable disappointment.

“This is probably my fault,” Jane sighed. “What’s your favorite number?”

“One,” Greg said. “Why? How does that explain green clouds?”

“I knew it. It’s my first Traverse flight and I was so excited to check in my first passenger,” she pointed at Greg. “You shouldn’t have even been able to buy a ticket, but I’m supposed to ask everyone their favorite number anyway,” she shrugged. “Now I know why.”

“I don’t know why,” Greg commented. “You haven’t explained anything.”

“Sorry,” she sighed again. “This flight,” she paused, then shook her head. “This airline, Sharp Air, has flights that travel between alternate universes,” she gestured out a window at the clouds.

“It’s not exactly an advertised benefit, but those that find it useful know about it. Those that just want a cheap flight are put to sleep. You should be asleep, except our Corona can’t knock out any Uniques.” Greg narrowed his eyes at her.

“Uhuh. I missed the second half of that, but… we’re in an alternate universe?” He asked.

“Yes!” she nodded.

“And how does my favorite number keep me awake?”

“You, me, the pilots and the other flight attendant are known as Unique Souls. You’re #01; El Gallo, The Rooster.”

“Because my favorite number is one?” Jane shook her head.

“Your favorite number is one because you’re El Gallo. Watch. What’s your favorite number?” she asked again.

“One,” Greg replied.

“What’s your favorite number?”

“One. You already know.”

“What’s your favorite number?” Jane continued to repeat the question. “Lie to me,” she added.

“OneTWELVE!” Greg blurted out the two numbers as one word.

“Don’t answer me. What’s your favorite number?”

“One.” Greg rolled his eyes as the answer came out on its own.

“Your soul knows what it is…,” Jane poked Greg in the chest, then she raised her hand to poke his forehead. “…even if your body doesn’t. There’s a Mundo at the next airport that would love to answer all your questions about what that means.”

“Um, about that. How does this work? Where is the next airport and am I ever getting to Florida? The Florida on the Earth I came from?” Jane smiled and nodded.

“We get passengers from other universes to take them back to ours. Going sideways through dimensions loosens up enough time to land, swap passengers and get back to your destination. All within the same time the normal flight takes.”

“So, everything’s working as it should, right?” Greg asked. Despite his calm demeanor, he really needed to hear that everything was okay. Jane smiled; she seemed to recognize that he needed reassurance.

“This is my first time, but the pilots and the other flight attendant have done maybe hundreds. There’s no reason to worry, everything’s on plan,” she patted his shoulder with a smile.

“Alright. Alright, cool. I, uh. I guess I’m gonna go look at the green clouds some more.”

Cyber-bridge

Regina stopped walking. She turned around and saw dozens of lights dotting the distant pier. Then, she faced forward on the bridge again; there was only darkness in front of her.

“That’s one question answered,” the teenager sighed to herself. She learned why the end of the bridge could not be seen from shore. The bridge didn’t end, it just stopped. A tall black hole hovered directly in front of Regina; it swallowed the bridge. “But now I’ve got another question.” She eyed the dark portal, then spun in place to make sure she was alone.

Satisfied that she was, Regina concentrated on the hole; her eyes scanned it. Text filled the corner of her vision.

[Stable Portal. Connected to: AlterNet Server – Cyber City.] [Earth Template: Advanced Technology, Full AlterNet integration.] [Governing Guild: CyberRiot owns and operates Cyber City.]

“Whaaaaat?” she whispered the question to herself. Regina could not decide if she was more confused by the readings or by the fact that she somehow got that information. It meant someone took the time to catalog whatever was on the other side of that portal. It sounded safe, and with a name like Cyber City, it sounded more than inviting.

Regina did not have to debate the decision for very long; it was already half made when she decided to find the end of the bridge. It was why she had a backpack of parts and supplies. She was ready to leave, and she wanted to leave.

The 14 years she’d live until that point confused her and she wanted to leave it all behind. Regina could ask for, and get, anything she wanted, from anyone. She loved it at first until she realized everyone was afraid of her. Not all of her, just the metal parts.

With the decision made, Regina walked forward and stepped into the portal. The night bridge disappeared and she found herself standing in a vast desert with the sun shining overhead. Before she could get her bearings, she heard a woman’s voice.

“Welcome to the AlterNet!” Regina whirled around to find the source; she found a dust-devil forming itself into the shape of a pitch black mannequin. “Please wait here. A Registrar has been dispatched to this location to process you.”

“Process me? Process me how?” Regina asked.

“All cyborgs that wish to reside in Cyber City must be processed. If you do not wish to make Cyber City your home server, you may depart,” the mannequin said and pointed at the black portal behind Regina.

“Does it hurt?” she asked.

“That depends on how accomodating you are,” a man’s voice said. Regina turned to see a tall, lean man with metal arms and legs. When she faced him; the stranger’s jaw dropped.  Her platinum hair shined in the sun, her chrome eyes blazed like fire.

“I don’t believe it…,” he said. It was little more than a whisper, but her enhanced ears heard him. “What’s your favorite number?” he asked.

“47,” she shouted back.

“My name’s Roger,” the man said. He walked forward with a friendly hand extended.

“Regina,” she accepted the handshake once he was close enough.

“Well, Regina. Tell me, what’re your feelings on Roller Derby?” Roger asked. “I’ve got a team you’d be perfect for.”

Royally Lonely

“Sounds like everyone loves this guy,” Tyler chuckled to himself scrolling the messages.

“He’s back. Get ready!”, “I’ve been waiting!”, “I can’t believe it’s time!”

He returned his phone to the nightstand and rolled over in bed. After a few moments, he felt pressure on his bladder. “Damnit,” he grumbled. He threw the blanket off and padded to the restroom in the dark.

After washing his hands, he turned off the bathroom light, returned to his dark bedroom, but stopped at the doorway. A small, dim, red light illuminated a pale figure sitting on his computer chair. The crimson glow came from the outline of a crown on the boy’s pallid forehead. The stranger didn’t appear to be older than 10 or 11, he was a young boy dressed in all black with a prominent widow’s peak that almost touched the red crown.

Tyler gasped. He recognized the boy as something that looked like a vampire, and someone that didn’t belong in his home; he ran to the kitchen. The mid-20s man scrambled, barefoot in boxers, to the knife drawer. Instead of wasting time turning the light on, he used the light post outside to help him find a weapon. After a second he pulled out a medium-sized bread knife. He chose it over the bigger, sharper butcher knife because unlike that one, he knew the bread knife was made from silver. He spun around wildly expecting the young vampire to be right behind him.

Instead, the boy was only just stepping out of the bedroom. His red glow appeared brighter and more sinister in the darkened, tight hall. The boy walked toward Tyler’s kitchen at a leisurely pace.

“Wanna play?” The boy asked. He stopped walking once he reached the threshold of Tyler’s kitchen where carpet changed to tile.

“STAY BACK!” Tyler yelled and waved the bread knife around. The boy looked down at his unmoving feet, then up at Tyler again; he tilted his head.

“I already am. Wanna play?” he asked again. Tyler stopped swinging the knife and relaxed his arm. He lowered the weapon, but not by much; the boy didn’t seem to be threatening him but he still looked dangerous.

“Who are you?” Tyler asked.

“Oren,” Oren replied.

“How’d you get in my apartment?”

“Uh..,” Oren made a quick gesture at the air next to him. Somehow a small, round section of the empty space became darker. Oren stuck his hand into the darker section and it disappeared; then, Tyler felt something grab his hand. Before he could yell in surprise, Oren pulled his hand out of the darkness again. This time he was holding the silver bread knife. “Like that,” he said. Then, Oren grabbed the blade and stuck his hand into the hole again.

Tyler jumped when the handle popped out of a hole in front of him. He accepted it with the realization that this kid could have killed him a dozen times already if he wanted to. Maybe he really did want to play.

“Play what?” Tyler asked. Oren smiled.

“A game I made. The rest of the building plays but you’re new. So, I had to ask you before we play.”

“Oh!” Tyler abandoned the knife completely. He remembered everyone else’s messages. His new neighbors seemed excited and it sounded like they’d done it before; he reasoned it was safe to agree. “Yeah, I’ll play.” He was about to ask how but Oren spoke up first.

“Thanks!” Oren grinned. He clapped his hands while the crown on his forehead grew brighter and brighter. After a few moments it dimmed again, but somehow the kitchen was still filled with light. Tyler glanced out the window and saw a bright purple sky.

“Did you do that? Why is the sky purple?” he asked Oren. The pale boy nodded. Now that there was more light, Tyler noticed Oren’s light grey eyes.

“It’s easier to just move the building,” Oren said.

“To where?”

“To my game! It’s called the AlterNet, it’s on a different Earth.”

“You teleported the whole 15-story apartment building to a different Earth!???” Tyler asked. He was starting to wonder if it was a dream. Oren giggled.

“Yeah, but it’s not a big deal,” he said. “You should see what my mom can do.”

“100-story buildings?” Tyler asked sarcastically. He decided it would be easier on his mind to accept it as a dream and play along. Oren shook his head.

“I moved your building to a different Earth, right? So, automatically that means there are multiple Earths, right?” Tyler chuckled and shrugged; anything Oren said wasn’t real.

“Sure,” he said.

“What I did with your building, my mom can do with Earths.”

“Neat!” Tyler smiled. “She sounds strong. Well, go get your friends so I can learn how to play the game,” Tyler tried moving the dream along; Oren’s gaze fell to the ground.

“My mom says I can’t have friends,” he said.

“What? No way, what about everyone else in the building?” Oren shrugged.

“I can have fun with strangers that happen to be having fun on my server.”

“But, that’s dumb! You can have friends, what’s she gonna do?”

Oren looked up from the floor to meet Tyler’s eyes; his expression was serious and stern.

“Kill them,” he said.

Sharp Secret

“Hold up,” Aurelio raised his hands in a ‘whoa’ gesture. “Say that again, so you can hear what it sounds like.” Jenny shook her head.

“Oh come on,” she said. “We both know what Dana was capable of. Is this really that surprising?”

“But, Satan? THE devil himself is real.. and he gave Dana Sharp a project?” Jenny nodded. “Then…,” Aury grinned. “…is she in Hell? Oh man, I hope she is.” Jenny shrugged.

“No idea, but I’d say that’s a good guess. Anyway, let me finish,” Jenny took a deep breath and stared into Aurelio’s coffee-brown eyes. “I figured out how to do it.”

“Do what?” Aurelio’s brown eyes narrowed.

“The project she was working on. I know how to finish it.”

“Do you want to finish something for Satan?” Jenny nodded with a broad grin.

“She has two Uniques, both Sols, in her lab that have never been born into a body. The project’s goal is to birth both of them in the same universe.

“I know you’re smarter than she was, but how do you have it figured out after a couple of weeks when Dana couldn’t?” Aury asked. Then his eyes widened as he realized another possibility. “How do we know she’s actually dead, and not getting you to finish her work from the shadows?”

“The answer was at the tournament. I’m sure she realized it; if she was still alive she’d have done it herself.”

“The tournament?” Aurelio asked. “What’s the answer then?”

“Wonder,” Jenny smiled.

“Wonder? The Calavera from CyberRiot?” She nodded eagerly.

“She’s a Unique born naturally in the AlterNet. She let me run some tests, and I’m pretty sure I can duplicate the process that gave her consciousness using the two souls…” Jenny paused and met Aurelio’s eyes again. “…with your help. And, Oren’s.”

“Hah, good luck with that; no one’s seen Oren since the tournament. What do you need from me?”

“Your badge.”

“My badge? What badge?”

“You better still have it!” Jenny reached out and gave Aury a gentle shake. “Your mod badge, from when you worked for Dana. She has a private office in her lab that I can’t access without mod priveledges. I’m sure it’s full of helpful info, maybe even some leads on Oren. She always kept a close watch on him.”

“GUYS!” a sudden shout made Jenny and Aurelio jump in their seats. They turned to find a tall, pale teenager in black clothes; he sported a prominent widow’s peak. Then, Jenny turned to stick her tongue out at Aury before she greeted the newcomer.

“OREN!” she shouted using the same tone he did then followed it up with a giggle.

“Great news,” Oren said; he stood up straighter and puffed out his chest. “I’m celebrating my 18th birthday by having a derby tournament. I want you guys in it: say yes.” Aury and Jenny’s different answers came out at the same time.

“No,” Aury said.

“Yeah!” Jenny jumped out of the couch to hug Oren.

“Great! Help me spread the word: the winning team gets their own server.”

“No,” Aury repeated.

“Yeah yeah, Jenny already said yes. This is gonna be awesome!” Oren waved his hand at the air to open a tall black portal. “I can’t wait to tell my mom I have friends!” he jumped through the portal; it closed behind him leaving Aury and Jenny alone again.

“His mom?” Aury asked. “Did we know he had a mom? I mean, of course he has one but do you know who she is?” Jenny shook her head and sat down next to Aury again.

“No, but if you find your badge, I”ll bet Dana knew.”

Lunar Eclipse

“I think it’s over-” the polite stranger fell mid-response. He attempted to point at some place further along the plaza before collapsing to the ground. Astrid heard the sound of dozens of bodies hitting the ground along the side-walk. The 14-year-old girl had a feeling she was close to the place she was looking for and stopped someone to ask.

“Huh,” Astrid said to herself. She shrugged and wondered if it was normal for people to collapse in groups on this particular Earth. Then she heard footsteps. She turned to see a man in a black suit approaching her with interest. He was tall, lean and pale; his dark suit and sunken eyes made him look like he walked out of his own open-casket funeral.

“Hey!” Astrid smiled at him. “Do you know where Mundo’s Bar is?”

He stopped walking and looked around at the bodies on the cement, then back at her.

“Why didn’t it work on you?” he asked. Astrid shrugged.

“I don’t know. So.. Mundo’s Bar?”

“Why aren’t you more…” he paused while he searched for the right word. “…concerned?” he asked. Astrid sighed heavily and floated a foot off the ground.

“I got my own problems to deal with,” she said. “I don’t care what you’re up to.” She sank back to the ground. “Can you point me to the bar or not?” The lean stranger took a step toward Astrid while holding his hand out toward her. She felt a wave of tingles tickle her brain and she giggled.

“Awww, you’re just a baby Corona,” she said. He stopped walking again with a surprised look on his face. “That’s why it didn’t work,” she added. “You’re not strong enough to mind control me.”

“You’re just a little girl!” He laughed. “Of course, I’m strong enough!”

“You should come with me to Mundo’s bar,” Astrid said with the concerned tone of a teacher. “It sounds like you have a lot to learn about yourself. It’s better for Mundo to explain it to you or you might try to control the wrong person.”

“I don’t need the advice of a little gi-,” Astrid hovered off the ground again and floated away. “Hey! Where are you going!? he shouted after her. She did not slow down or turn to acknowledge him until he started running after her. “You’re going the wrong way!” he shouted. That did slow her down. “Mundo’s is the other way,” he pointed to the right when she turned to look at him.

“C’mon!” she said and floated the direction he pointed in.

They traveled in silence for three blocks until he pointed at a building with a neon green sign on it that said, “Mundo’s Bar”. Astrid floated in with the stranger in tow. A large, round woman sat behind the bar; she looked up from her newspaper when Astrid and the man entered.

“Her too? Why isn’t she asleep?” he asked in surprise when he noticed she was moving. Astrid giggled.

“I told you, you have a lot to learn,” Astrid said. Then, she turned her attention to the woman. “Hey, Mundo! This Corona,” she gestured at the dark-suited man. “…doesn’t know anything. Also, can I get a taxi?”

The heavyset woman nodded; as she did a black hole opened under Astrid’s sneakers.

“Thanks!” Astrid shouted as the hole swallowed her whole, then she disappeared.

“What! Where’d she go!?” The stranger asked. Mundo shrugged.

“Dunno, I didn’t have a chance to get her a ride.” Mundo sat up straighter and looked at him.”So, you’re the reason everyone’s asleep?” She asked, then gestured at the barstool in front of her. “Have a seat.”

Royal Request

Paz lurched awake and ready to fight. The last thing she remembered was being kidnapped by a giant spider. The 14-year-old girl sat up in a comfortable bed in a dim room that she did not recognize; and, she was not alone. The loft-like room almost seemed to be as large as Paz’s house. She rested on what she guessed was a king-size bed with red silk sheets. A pair of ornate wooden nightstands decorated both sides of the bed; each had a small lamp. A lit fireplace was tucked into one wall. A woman sat on a rocking chair, reading by firelight until she heard Paz move.

“Wh- Where am I?” Paz asked. She recognized the pink-haired woman as one of the teachers from school when she turned her attention to Paz.

“Calm down. You’re safe now,” the woman said. She stood from her seat and crossed the room to sit on the bed. “The guard spider brought you here.” Paz exhaled a bit of relief. At least she was still on the same Earth. Thinking about her mission caused her to look at the woman with new appreciation. It could not be a coincidence that she ran into this particular teacher.

“Ms. Knight?” she asked. “Where’s Oren?” Ms. Knight’s delicate features hardened and her eyes narrowed.

“Who told you he was here, and who did you tell?” she asked Paz.

“No one!” Paz said. “It’s why I came alone.” she looked down at the red sheets and lowered her voice. “Jenny told me accidentally, but I promised her I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“Jenny…,” Ms. Knight growled in the back of her throat, then she shook her head and looked back at Paz. “And? What do you want, an autograph? Your own nanos? If you’re just here to ask for things, go home.” Paz shook her head.

“No! I’m not asking for anything, someone is asking for him.” Anger flashed in Ms. Knight’s eyes and she stood from the bed.

“So you’re just going to hand him over to someone else that’s going to use him like Dana Sharp did?” She said with harsh sarcasm. “Or maybe this person only wants to kill him like Mommy Ballisea? Hmm? Oren wants to be left alone until the tournament.” Paz climbed out of bed during Ms. Knight’s accusations to plead with the woman. She shook her head.

“No! It’s not like that, it’s…,” Paz hesitated. It sounded crazy, and if she had not been there to see it she would not believe it either. “… it’s an NPC,” she said. That gave Ms. Knight a moment’s pause.

“What?” she asked the girl.

“On Oren’s server, there’s an NPC asking for him. We think she might be a Unique.”

“Uniques can’t be born on AlterNet servers,” Ms. Knight said matter-of-factly. Paz nodded to show she knew that. 

“That’s why it’s odd,” Paz said.

“Which server?” Ms. Knight asked. “Oren has several.”

“Uh..,” Paz made a gesture with her hand as if she were plucking something out of the air, but nothing happened. “… there aren’t any nanos here? I need my node,” she said.

“This room is isolated from AlterNet nanos, just tell me about the NPC,” Ms. Knight said. “Is she part of a quest?”

“It’s a 900-year-old server,” Paz nodded. “There’s a quest in a goblin cave. At the back, there’s a cage with a princess in it; she’s the one asking for Oren.”

“Tell me more about the cave,” a man’s voice said. Paz jumped and looked toward the new voice. A tall, lean, young man stood in one corner of the room. His skin was so pale he almost glowed in the dark, he wore all black clothes. Ms. Knight sighed and sat back down by the fire to keep reading. Now that Oren decided to talk to the girl himself, she had nothing else to do.

“Oren!” Paz cheered and eagerly explained the cave quest.

“There’re no monsters on the way in, but there’re four or five ambushes on the way out.”

“You said one of my servers. 900 years?” he asked. Paz nodded. Distant memories flickered at the back of Oren’s mind as he tried to remember what his life was like so long ago. He remembered what belonging to a family felt like. “Show me,” he said. A tall black portal opened in the center of the room. Paz nodded and jumped into the portal. “You too, Justice,” Oren glanced at Ms. Knight with soft eyes. “Please,” he added.

Royal Reference

Poe felt like he slammed into a wall of noise the moment he stepped into the pizzeria. The loud laughter of children melded perfectly with the cacophony of video game sounds and the normal murmur of a restaurant. It was so packed, he considered taking his order to go; but, he gave a quick glance around the place first. The short, lean man wandered to the counter while searching for a seat.

He counted at least three separate children’s parties before he spotted an empty table. He thought a whole empty table was odd in such a crowded restaurant, then he noticed a mostly empty table next to it. A familiar green-haired woman sat at the table alone. Her purple and black hoodie pledged support for Gravewatch, a popular roller-derby team. She was about halfway through an extra-large pizza. The table on the other side of her was also empty.

Poe placed his order, then took a deep breath and walked toward her table. It made perfect sense now; he realized why the place seemed so crowded. Everyone chose to sit closer to the walls of the restaurant. Away from her.

“Evening, Mia,” Poe said pleasantly as he sat down across from her. Her jade eyes flicked up just long enough to confirm her suspicions, then they fell back down to her node on the table.

“Hey, Poe,” she said flatly as she played a game on the glassy rectangle.

“Just, ‘hey’? That’s all I get?” Poe asked playfully. “No death threats?” Mia raised an eyebrow; a stern-faced mother came from somewhere to stand next to Mia. She clenched a cake knife in her fist and glared at Poe.

“Are you back at the B.A.A.?” Mia asked. Poe leaned back, shook his head and showed his palms.

“Nope still retired.” At his words, the angry woman’s face changed to confusion. She glanced around wondering what she was doing there then shrugged and wandered back to her child’s party.

“Then, you don’t get death threats,” Mia replied.

“So…what are you doing here?” Poe asked. Mia looked up at him and tilted her head.

“What are you doing here? Is this your Earth?” she asked. Poe nodded eagerly.

“Huh,” Mia said. She leaned over the table and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Well, if you’ve got any family I suggest you move them to another Earth. For a couple of weeks at least.”

“Why?” Poe asked. He did not have any family but Mia didn’t need to know that.

“It’s not public knowledge yet, not sure if it will ever be,” she said. “The world leaders sold out to Sharp Development. Next week your Earth becomes an official server. You know what that does to Zeros.”

“Since when do you work for Sharp Development?” Poe asked. He was disappointed with the news about his home Earth, but even if he wasn’t retired, it was out of his purview. If the world leaders willingly made a deal with Dana Sharp there was nothing the B.A.A. could do. Mia half-smiled at him and her jade eyes softened for a moment.

“Since my nemesis retired and all his replacements were pathetic.” Mia gave a light giggle. “It’s kind of funny. All it took was me getting bored to get out of the business.” Poe nodded.

“Did Sharp Development cure your boredom?” he asked. Mia grinned.

“Every day brings something interesting.”

“Is that right?” Poe asked. After a silent moment, he looked into Mia’s eyes. “Can you put in a good word for me?”

Royal Decree

“You guys are werewolves?” Lucas asked once the old woman left with their orders. She was far too ancient to be a waitress, Lucas wondered if she owned the restaurant. She also seemed sure about the twins sitting across from him being werewolves. Duchess nodded and scooted closer to her brother, Haste; the action seemed more for solidarity than insecurity on her part.

“Regal already knows,” she said. “He expected it; he explained that Coronas are often supernatural. Like vampires, werewolves, unicorns and even mermaids,” she said.

“Wait, unicorns are real?” Lucas sat up straighter when he asked.

“Apparently,” Duchess nodded. “Just not on our Earth.”

“Wow,” Lucas stared at the twins. Duchess had creamy alabaster skin; her bright red hair was pulled into a tight bun atop her head. Haste’s skin was the same shade of white, but his looked greasier, dirtier somehow. A large galaxy of freckles covered his nose and plump cheeks. His hair was a bright red mohawk running down the center of his bald head. “Real, live werewolves, huh?” he asked. “So full moon and silver bullets? That kind of werewolf?” The twins shook their heads.

“We can change any time we want,” Haste said with a chuckle. “She…,” Haste nudged his sister’s side. Duchess’ face flushed slightly, but she seemed content to let him tell the story. “…changed for the first time when we were five. We were playing in the garage one night and heard a noise coming from a dark corner under some junk. She got close and shined the light on the biggest rat ever; then she screamed and flailed and suddenly she was a wolf. It scared me so much I turned into one too,” they both shared a laugh. “That was a hell of a night,” Haste said with a heavy sigh.

“What’d your parents say? Are they werewolves?” Lucas asked. He regretted the question when Haste’s face lost its smile.

“Our parents came out to see what all the screaming and barking was about,” Duchess said quietly. “They saw me change back to my normal self, and they were happy about it. They already thought I was extra special because I’m a Corona; now to them I was extra-extra special.”

“Then, Haste changed back to normal…,” she continued with a flatter, sadder voice. “…they flipped out, called him a freak and started attacking him to keep me safe. I told them to leave him alone and they did. That was when they started ignoring him,” Duchess said. “Because I told them to.”

Regal Conquerors

“The devil?” Dutchess asked. She smiled with the same light condescension that one might have with a child complaining about monsters under the bed. The pale young woman shook her head; the tight red bun atop her head did not so much as wobble. She sat in a Chinese restaurant across from Lucas. He shook his head.

“I’m not the devil anymore than you’re a crown,” he said and patted his chest. “Unique #02, El Diablito,” he shrugged. “Apparently I have a talent for magic and if I got the tattoo I can control minds.” He looked at Dutchess. “What about you? What’s special about #47, La Corona?”

“He said conquerors can take over an Earth pretty easily,” she said. “If I get a 47, I’ll have strangers thrust themselves into my service like I was their monarch or something. Mostly regular people,” she giggled lightly. “I was a regular person this morning.” Lucas shook his head.

“Not looking like that you weren’t,” he smiled. She returned the smile but after he said it, Lucas felt the compliment was clumsy. He moved on. “Mostly Zeros, so some Uniques too?” he asked.

“That’s what Regal said.” She nodded, then she met Lucas’ eyes. “What do you think about him?”

“Regal?” Lucas laughed. “I think he looks like a freakin’ lion walking around in a nice suit.” Dutchess shared a short laugh with him. When it petered out Lucas nodded his head. “We saw him come out of an empty janitor’s closet. Then we followed him into the empty janitor’s closet…,” he spread his arms at the red and gold decor around them. “…now we’re here. I don’t know him well enough to say whether we can trust him. As far as magical ability I think that case is already made.” Dutchess nodded pensively.

“I plan to join him,” she said, then quickly amended her statement. “If Haste wants to.”

“Package deal?” Lucas asked. Haste was Dutchess’ twin brother. At the moment he was in a private room talking with Regal. Lucas hoped they were almost done; it was annoying to sit in a restaurant unable to order until the rest of the group arrived. Dutchess nodded.

“Kind of. He’s my kid brother, but… I’m kind of the only one that looks out for him.” Her eyes went wide. “And now I know why!” she almost shouted. “He would complain to me sometimes that he felt our parents didn’t seem to notice him. I’d talk to my parents about it and everything would be fine for a while, but it wore off.” She shook her head as if she was still processing some of the details of her past under a new light.

“Kid brother, huh?” Lucas asked. “How long after you?”

“Three minutes,” Haste said from beside their table. The pasty, chubby young man in loose jean shorts scooted into the booth next to Dutchess. The baldness on either side of his coppery red mohawk caught a shiny glare as he shuffled in. Neither of them noticed him walk up.

“Where’s regal?” Dutchess asked him. He shrugged.

” ‘Said we should eat. He’ll either be back in a bit or he’ll make sure we have a ride home. Food is on the house too.”

“What number are you?” Lucas asked.

“42, La Calavera,” he smiled. “I’m super strong.” Lucas grinned and shook his head in disbelief.

“It’s kind of amazing…,” he said. “…the things you don’t know about, I mean. This morning I was looking forward to Arcanum 101, but I still thought it was a joke. Now I’m having lunch in what I’m pretty sure is another universe,” he chuckled. “I can’t wait to see what else is out there.” Haste laughed, but it sounded like his humor wasn’t into it. It felt more like a nervous, fearful laugh. The tone caught Lucas’ attention. As he looked up he saw the twins have an intense conversation with their eyes and curt head tilts at Lucas. Haste gritted his teeth but Dutchess gave a firm, decisive nod that proved to be the last word. Haste’s posture slumped as he deflated and he nodded in agreement.

“What’s up?” Lucas asked.

“Uhhh…,” Haste started.

“What Haste is trying-” Dutchess tried to speak up but Haste held his hand up to interrupt her interruption.

“I got it,” he said. “So, um. Dutchess and I are… er..” he made stalling sounds as his eyes wandered around the mostly empty restaurant. Only one other table was occupied by diners. Hosts and wait-staff were nowhere to be seen. “… not human,” he said. Lucas nodded.

“Yeah, apparently we’re all Uniques,” he said with a chuckle. “You’re kind of slow for a guy named Haste,” he said in a tone that he hoped was interpreted playfully. Haste smiled at the joke but shook his head.

“Not that. We’re kind … of … like..,”

“Werewolves,” an ancient, short woman stood beside their table with a notepad in one hand and a pen at the ready. All three heads whipped around to her and she smiled at Lucas.

“Your friends trying to say they’re werewolves. Now you know. Ready to order?” she asked.

Regal Prospects

“509… 510..,” Lucas swiveled his head left and right as he walked down the broad, mostly empty hallway. He noticed a couple of students lingering in the fluorescent hall but the fifth floor seemed to be more offices than classrooms. He kept walking. “513… 515!” He stopped in front of a door. He looked through the small window by knob and found a bright class full of eager students. The professor must have cracked a joke because laughter rolled through the room. “That doesn’t feel right,” he mumbled to himself; he dropped his hand that was reaching for the knob and looked down at his schedule again.

[MGC 101 – Intro to Basic Arcanum.  Professor Regal. Room 515.J]

“J?” He checked the door again: 515. He turned and walked up the hall, he stopped in front of two students that were chatting and found the right door. 515.J was written in black marker on a strip of beige masking tape stuck to the door. The door itself was narrower than the other ones in the hallway and there was no window on it. “Huh,” Lucas shrugged and opened the door.

Immediately, Lucas realized the “J” stood for “janitor.” The sharp scent of cleaning chemicals filled his nose before his eyes adjusted to the closet’s darkness. The lights were off, but the room was small enough that stray hall light illuminated it enough. Other than cleaning supplies and paper goods, the closet was empty.

Despite reminding himself every day since he signed up that it was likely a joke, Lucas was surprised. His shoulder slump must have been visible because he heard giggles from behind him when the wave of disappointment washed over him. He turned to face the students.

One was a pasty chubby guy with a copper-red mohawk striping the center of his bald head. He wore long, loose denim “shorts” that reached his shins and a plain black t-shirt. The girl next to him was almost as plump and pale. Her red hair, the same shade as the student next to her, was pulled into a tight bun atop her head. The pair looked like they could be twins, one of which was the obvious favorite. Even though she wore more or less the same thing her clothes made his look like rags. She wore designer jeans and a black cashmere top.

“Intro to Arcanum?” the girl asked with a pleasant smile. Her question interrupted Lucas’ flash of anger. He assumed they were the ones behind the joke course and they were there solely to laugh at him. Her smile disarmed him and all he could do was nod.

“Us too,” she said. “Once we found the empty closet we thought it would be funny to see who else showed up.” She twisted her wrist to glance at a small gold watch that was worth more than Lucas’ education. He briefly wondered what someone with that kind of money was doing at a community college. “Class,” she said with a thick coating of sarcasm. “starts in about two minutes. Want to wait around with us and see if anyone else signed up?” Lucas hesitated. He was about to decline with a shrug but she sweetened the offer. “I’ll treat us all to some coffee after,” she shrugged. “Class or not, we obviously have some similar interests.

“Yeah. Thank you, I’d really appreciate that,” Lucas said. “I’m Lucas,” he offered her his hand in greeting.”

“Dutchess,” she said with a smile. Then, she pointed her thumb at the other guy. “That’s Haste.” Lucas returned Haste’s polite nod.

“So.. are you guys twins?” Lucas asked. Dutchess laughed and Haste replied.

“No,” he said with a serious tone. He looked up and down the empty hall, then leaned closer. “She’s me from an alternate universe,” he whispered.

“Wh.. what?” Lucas stepped back without realizing it. Dutchess immediately punched Haste’s shoulder.

“Stop scaring people,” she said then turned her attention to Lucas. “Ignore him. Yes, we’re twins. I’m sorry…,” she gave her brother a side-eye glance. “…I’m the one that got all the social graces.”

“I’m the one that knows how to shut up,” Haste grumbled under his breath at Lucas too quiet for Dutchess to hear.

“What was that?” she asked with narrow eyes. Has shrugged.

“Nothing, I’m shutting up,” he said. Lucas smiled at Haste’s joke. He was about to ask more about them but Dutchess spoke up again after she checked her watch.

“Well, time’s up. Let’s go see about some coffee.” As the trio picked a direction 515.J opened from the inside. A tall, lean man with a full golden beard and a matching full head of hair stepped out of the room they all knew was empty. His beard and hair together resembled the mane on a lion. The man’s bushy golden brows added to the look. He wore a dark suit coat with dark slacks. His white shirt was obscured by a rich purple vest. He smiled at the three students.

“Hello class, I’m Regal,” he said.

“No shit..,” Dutchess muttered under her breath.