Summoning Answers

“Sorry, pal,” the demon said. “Not interested.” The red-skinned demon in a navy blue suit waved his hand dismissively at William.

“What?! Why?” William shouted. “You buy souls and I’m ready to sell.” He’d known about the summoning ritual for years. He’d had a fairly rough life, but he swore he’d only sell his soul as a last resort. And now, it seemed it wasn’t even an option. The demon rolled his eyes, but sighed. He wasn’t in a hurry to get back to work and he could kill some extra time if he took time to explain. Plus, William looked like he needed a win.

“We do buy souls,” the demon replied. “The problem is, yours isn’t for sale.” William shot the demon a confused look.

“I’m telling you I’m ready to sell,” he said. The demon shook his head.

“Yeah, that’s not up to you,” he said. “It’s up to your soul.”

“Bull,” William said. “A good buddy of mine sold his soul a decade ago; he didn’t have any problems.” The demon nodded.

“He probably wasn’t a Unique Soul, like you.”

“What’s so special about my soul?” William asked.

“Well,.. uh..,” the demon hesitated for a moment as he looked for the right words. “Alright, I don’t want to deal with a whole lot of questions,” he said. “I’ll explain it to you, but just take everything I say as fact for now. If I have to go into every aspect, … well I don’t want to,” he said with a chuckle.

“Okay, sure,” William said. He already didn’t have anything left to lose when he summoned the demon.

“Alternate universes exist,” the demon said. William’s eyes shot wide, but he managed to hold his tongue. “Your buddy that sold his soul; he probably has a Zero-,” the demon noted a new look of confusion on William’s face.

“Zeros are his alternate universe doppelgangers,” he said. William seemed to accept that and he continued. “He probably has Zeros in other universes. Those Zeros exist because his soul is still fragmented. So, what your friend sold was only a small portion of his soul. Fragmentation is part of the whole process; your soul gets divided up and sent out into the universe to learn different lessons. Over time, as the Zeros die off, they get reconstituted into a single, Unique Soul; like you.  There’s more nuance, but that’s the gist,” the demon said.

“So… why can’t you buy my soul? It seems like it would be a good thing for Hell to get a whole soul.”

“A few different reasons. The first is, as I mentioned, you don’t have the power to make that decision. Zero souls are only fragments so their body gets to call the shots. In your case, you’re a complete soul, so it’d be kind of silly to let your body decide things when you’re not even awake.”

“What do you mean?” William asked, then immediately clapped his hand over his mouth. “Sorry,” he squeaked out.” The demon nodded in understanding.

“Unique Souls have two phases. Slumbering, or Awakened. You’ll be Slumbering until you get your number, 52, etched on your skin. Tattoos are the most common. Though other things, like branding work too. Once you’re Awakened you get to unlock the full abilities of your soul.”

“Abilities?  Like superpowers?” William asked. The demon shrugged.

“Some are like superpowers, like super strength or regeneration. Some are just handy abilities like talking to fish, or, in your case, talking to plants.”  William burst into laughter.

“So, you’re telling me if I get a tattoo with the number 52 on it, I can talk to plants? How’d you know my favorite number?” The demon raised an eyebrow at William’s questions, but decided to answer.

“Yes, you’ll be able to talk to plants. And, your favorite number is your favorite number because that’s what your soul chose during the process. The easiest way to identify a Unique Soul is to ask them their favorite number. If they instantly answer a number between 1 and 54, without hesitation, they’re probably a Unique.”

“So I go get a tattoo and you can buy my soul?” William asked. Although, he was a bit less interested in selling it and instead started to wonder what he could do with the ability to talk to plants. The demon shook his head.

“Simply put, it’s against the rules for Hell to buy Unique Souls.”

“Oh c’mon. Hell’s following rules now? Whose?” The demon chuckled and simply pointed upward.

“I thought Hell’s whole thing was breaking rules.” The demon shrugged.

“Religious propaganda. Hell exists to serve a purpose, and we do it well, while following the rules.” William grew comfortable with the demon answering his questions.

“So what’s the purpose?” he asked.

“That’s going to be your last question,” the demon said. A sulfury, yellow plume enveloped the demon. It began to clear immediately and the demon was gone. But, William heard his voice one more time.  “Have you ever tried playing chess by yourself?” 

Friendly Future

Rosario watched the sunset with a quiet mind for the first time in five years. There was no one in view to distract her with timers counting down above her head; there was not another human around for miles. She would know.

Five years ago, she woke up with a pounding head and disturbing images of all her loved ones dying. Rosario wondered if she went crazy, then dismissed the question because she was lucid enough to ask it. She spent a long six months in a psychiatric hospital but eventually learned how to make sense of it all. It helped that two of the deaths she foresaw happened while she was being treated.

Over the years Rosario improved at ignoring things that weren’t relevant to her. The clocks counting down to stranger’s deaths were easy to ignore; the screaming, crying chaos that filled her ears was not.

GET DOWN!” An unknown woman shouted in Rosarios’ mind, then she sighed. She was no longer alone. Somewhere, someone walked into Rosario’s perception. From testing, Rosario guessed the stranger was still two miles away; the edges of her power. However, experience suggested the stranger was much closer. Her voice was crystal clear and loud.

“Hi,” the same voice said, from behind Rosario. The shouting in her mind did not make her flinch; but, the quiet, unexpected, greeting caused Rosario to jump to her feet and spin around. A short, young lady with a black bowl cut giggled but took a step back. She put her hands up with her palms out. “Sorry, sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” she said.

“Hi,” Rosario was surprised more than anything. The woman’s voice echoed in her head again, ‘GET DOWN!’, just as loud as moments before. Rosario suddenly doubted all the things she thought she learned about her powers. Either they didn’t work the way she thought, or this woman appeared from nowhere right behind her.

“I’m Penga,” she smiled at Rosario and offered her hand in greeting. Rosario hesitated, but only for a moment. She’d spent the last four years refusing to make new friends. And, she learned that if she pushed someone out of her life far enough, their deaths would disappear from her vision. But, something wasn’t right. Either with Rosario herself, or maybe Penga. It was that curiosity that encouraged Rosario to make the new connection.

“Rosario,” she shook Penga’s hand. The vision came immediately, and she did not understand it. She saw herself standing next to Penga, shaking hands. Just like they were now, at Rosario’s camp spot.

What?” Rosario heard and watched herself ask. ‘What what?’ Penga replied in her vision. Then, Penga looked up suddenly and yelled, “GET DOWN!” A pressurized jet of water shot out of Penga’s hands

and shoved Rosario onto her back. Then, Rosario spotted a pure white, winged unicorn with a glowing golden horn in the air. It seemed to be charging down toward her, then changed direction when Penga intervened. The beast landed on the ground long enough to impale Penga, then it flew up again to carry off her corpse. The vision faded. 

It was so confusing, she repeated it out loud. “What?” she asked no one.

“What what?” Penga asked. A blur of action later, Rosario watched the unicorn fly off into the sunset with her mind quiet again. She was too stunned to panic. Part of her wanted to report something to someone, but she did not have anything substantial to say that wouldn’t get her laughed at. She was already laughing at herself.

“I don’t even believe me,” she giggled to herself.

That was nothing. Watch this,”  Unexpectedly, a new vision played out before Rosario’s eyes. She was with Penga again, but didn’t understand. They were somewhere she’d never seen before; an endless amber wheat field beneath a purple sky.

“Man, that was something,” Penga said, suddenly, next to Rosario. “You okay?” she asked. Rosario began nodding her head, but after several up and down motions, it began to angle. After a moment she was shaking her head, ‘no’.

“I think I’m crazy,” Rosario said.

“HAhahaaha,” Penga laughed heartily. “Why do you say that?”

“I just saw you die,” Rosario replied. Penga nodded.

“Yeah, I did. That thing’s almost impossible to solo.”  Rosario tilted her head in confusion at Penga, and the young woman noticed.

“Wait…,” she said. “What class are you?” Penga asked.

“Class?” Rosario asked with a shrug.

“No wayyy….,” Penga grinned and took a step forward. “What’s your favorite number?!” she asked with more eagerness.

“52,” Rosario answered. It seemed like an odd question considering everything else that was happening, but it stood out to her. Five years ago a tattoo artist laughed his head off at the fact that she liked a number so much she wanted it on her. Now a complete stranger was interested in her favorite number.

“NO WAY!” Penga jumped up and down. She closed the gap between them and grabbed her shoulders excitedly.

“You saw me die? Before I died?” she asked quickly. Rosario gave her an uneasy nod.

“YESSSS!! THANK YOU!” she cheered, but had enough common sense to scream away from Rosario’s ears.

“You’re dead,” Rosario said. “I’m crazy. I might be dead too…,” she wondered.  Penga shook her head frantically; her bangs trembled with the motion.

“No, this is great, sorry,” Penga immediately calmed down and let go of Rosario’s shoulders. “Have you seen my next death?” she asked. Rosario nodded.

“Are we in danger?” she asked. Rosario shook her head. “Okay, first of all, we’re best friends now,” Penga said. “Second of all, best friends communicate. I’m not good at explaining things, we can put you in touch with Mundo later. But, in the meantime, I can try to answer any immediate questions you have. So, shoot.”

“You died?” Rosario asked. “And… came back?”

“I died,” Penga nodded, and smiled. “Then, I respawned.”

Upward Growth

“Thank you for coming in, Lisa,” Dana Sharp said. The pale woman in a white suit did not stand from behind her desk to greet Lisa. She simply nodded at the chair in front of her. Dana Sharp’s assistant, Melody, stood close by at attention, in a black suit.

“Th-thank you, Ms. Sharp,” Lisa nervously bowed her head as she took her seat. She had been working at Sharp Development for several years already and, it amazed her how enormous the company was. It spread across hundreds of universes and Lisa never expected to meet Ms. Sharp. When she walked into work that day, Lisa had a meeting waiting for her. She literally ran through several universes to get to Ms. Sharp’s main office.

Once Lisa sat down, she couldn’t help but notice the numbers above the heads of Ms. Sharp and her assistant. Thanks to working at the company, Lisa learned her ability was to determine someone’s self-esteem. She was thankful to them because it was something she never would have guessed on her own. The numbers began appearing after she got a tattoo. No one ever had the same number for more than a day. It fluctuated within a range, sometimes from hour to hour. That went for everyone except Dana Sharp and Melody.

The highest number she ever saw was 10. She’d seen people on good days slowly rise up to 10, she’d seen people fall to one from 10 because of a simple mistake. Melody fluctuated, but never in a range. Anytime Lisa saw her with Ms. Sharp, Melody was always at 10. The few times she spotted Melody without Ms. Sharp nearby, the number was always 3.

Ms. Sharp on the other hand, was a real puzzle for Lisa. She had no number floating above her head. Her first thought was that it meant she had no self-esteem. However, that seemed silly for the most powerful woman in hundreds of universes. She bought alternate Earths as easily as buying a pair of socks.

The only other explanation Lisa had was a rumor that was common amongst Sharp Development employees. She thought it was a silly rumor, but she could understand the logic. On her Earth, the only way to get to the top of a corporate hierarchy was to be cold and soul-less as possible. She wasn’t surprised to hear gossip around the office that Dana Sharp didn’t have a soul. If it were true, it might explain why she did not show a self-esteem number. But, Lisa refused to believe that. Ms. Sharp made frequent walk-throughs of all her branches. Despite never meeting her formally, Lisa always appreciated that Ms. Sharp had kind words for all the employees she spoke to.

“I hope you don’t mind if I rush through this,” Dana said. “I’m very busy, and you’re very smart. I know you can keep up.” Lisa felt warm inside and wondered how anyone could doubt Ms. Sharp had a soul. Lisa nodded and scooted to the edge of her chair to be more attentive.

“You have the ability to see someone’s self-esteem,” Ms. Sharp began. “While it’s not for me to decide if this is useful for you or not, I will say it’s not of any particular use to Sharp Development. That being said, we both know you’ve done great work in your role and that has nothing to do with your abilities. To avoid misunderstandings I need to be clear. Your current job is not in any jeopardy.” Ms. Sharp took a moment to smile at Lisa.

“If you’re content where you are, I am comfortable with letting you continue. Although, I do believe you could do more for the company. You could be more.”

“I want to,” Lisa replied without hesitation. It sounded like Ms. Sharp was offering her a promotion, and she was ready to take it. Dana gave a curt nod at Lisa’s eagerness but continued her explanation.

“I won’t accept that. You should know what you’re agreeing to first. This isn’t a promotion as much as it is an upgrade. A risky, medical procedure-like upgrade,” she clarified. Lisa’s eyes widened for a brief moment until she got her surprise under control. She did not work for the medical division, but she’d heard stories. But, like the rumor about Dana’s soul, she decided they were just embellished tales.

“What, exactly?” Lisa asked.

“Your excellent performance is what got you into this meeting,” Dana said. “However, it was not a very large pool of contenders. I am specifically looking for a low-tier plant soul because I believe I can upgrade you to a Mundo.”

Lisa sighed at the phrase ‘low-tier’. It was explained to her that she was Unique Soul #52, La Maceta. But, she was also a C-tier Unique. It helped explain why her ability wasn’t very useful. Mundos were Celestial Uniques, they didn’t even have a C-tier, B was the weakest they got. At the bare minimum, any Mundo could talk to everyone on an Earth mentally. Lisa knew something like that would be helpful for Sharp Development.

“I want to help you, Ms. Sharp,” Lisa said.

“Wonderful, Melody will get you sorted. We’re done here unless you have any last-minute questions?” As soon as Ms. Sharp suggested Melody would be helping her, Lisa noticed the number change above Melody’s head. Her self-esteem dropped to a 3 as if she was anticipating being out of Ms. Sharp’s presence. Lisa almost didn’t ask, but she wasn’t sure she’d ever have such a perfect opportunity again.

“Um, just one,” Lisa said. “It’s not about the job, but there’s something I’m curious about.”

“If there’s one thing we value at Sharp Development, it’s curiosity,” Ms. Sharp smiled and nodded.

“I can see everyone’s self-esteem, except yours. You don’t have a number above your head.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Dana replied.

“Self-esteem is what it sounds like. A person’s opinion of themselves,” she said. Lisa nodded because everyone knew that. “I don’t have an opinion of myself. I know exactly what I am, every second of the day. “

“Ohh,..” Lisa was in equal parts awe, and amusement. A giggle escaped her mouth and she felt obligated to explain it. “I asked others about it, but all I got was the rumor that you don’t have a soul,” she said with a broad smile. Dana Sharp returned the warm smile.

“I don’t, but that’s unrelated to your particular ability.”

Short Notice

July 19, 2019

“Ready for the final touch?” Mundo asked. The surly, heavy-set woman held the tattoo machine inches off Maxwell’s forearm. His tanned skin was covered with a freshly-inked potted ivy. Long green strands crept their way down his arm; there was an empty spot on its red pot. She released the foot pedal and leaned back in her seat when the pale college student took too long to answer. Instead, he swallowed hard.

“How’s this going to happen again?” he asked. Mundo sighed and set the machine down carefully. She was annoyed but patient; Maxwell wasn’t the first unsure Unique she woke. She offered him a cold water bottle. She felt like he was more nervous about the needle than anything else. He knew the answer but he needed a break. Mundo gave him a friendly smile and an exaggerated shrug.

“It’s impossible to say how exactly. For you it’ll probably be stats floating over the heads of Zeros,” she said. The broad woman looked out through the shop window at the bustling city street outside. “I can see most of them,” she turned back to him. “Once it happens, tell me what you see and I’ll tell you what stat it is.” Maxwell set the water down and presented his arm to Mundo again.

“Ready,” he said. Mundo nodded and grabbed his arm. She leaned on the foot pedal to start the machine’s high-pitched buzz. Mundo touched the tip to the red pot. With a slow, experienced motion she inked in the number 52 onto the pot. Again, she released the pedal to quiet the machine then sat back.

“All done.” She began prepping the plastic to protect it but Maxwell focused his attention at the stream of passersby.

“I don’t see anything,” he said. His eyes danced from head to head: blonde, bald, mohawk. All he saw was hairstyles the same as always.

“Sometimes it’s instant. Sometimes it’s not,” Mundo shrugged. “Give it time.” She wrapped his forearm. She had just finished when he yanked his hand away and jumped out of the chair.

“I SEE IT!” he shouted while pointing out the window. His head swiveled from side to side like a garden sprinkler as he eyed the new numbers floating above everyone’s heads.

“Alright. What do you see?” Mundo said. She stood from her stool and stretched as tall as she could. It wasn’t much; she was taller sitting on the stool. After the stretch, she took several steps to stand next to him and stare out the window.

“A date…,” Maxwell’s gaze hopped from head to head, then he nodded. “They’re all dates,” he pointed at a hurried man in a dark suit. He rushed past carrying a briefcase. “That one has today’s date,” he said.

“Yep,” Mundo nodded. “He’s dying today, you see their death date.”  He faced her with a concerned look.

“Can’t we do something for him?” She met his eyes; hers were narrowed with slight confusion.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because he’s going to die?” Maxwell said. Mundo nodded.

“That’s right. No matter what you do, he’s still going to die. Probably still today, but maybe you can keep him safe until tomorrow or the next day.” She shrugged then she wandered to the customer service counter. “Are you signing up to be a permanent guardian angel?” she asked him. Maxwell sighed and shook his head. Mundo pulled her own bottle of water out from under the counter and took a big gulp. She sighed after she swallowed and sat down on the tall stool she kept there. “Besides…,” she pointed out the window again. “…things change all the time.” Maxwell looked out at the crowd and picked a random, attractive stranger to check her date: it was today’s date also. He started looking at as many as he could. All the dates had changed to today’s date.  Maxwell turned to Mundo.

“What.. what’s going on? Is that supposed to happen?” He asked. Mundo was in the process of lighting a cigarette.  After she exhaled the first puff she smiled at him.

“It looks like everyone out there is going to die today,” she said flatly. Maxwell looked at her; his eyes flitted above her head; she shook it.

“It only works on Zeros, but don’t worry,” she took a long drag from the cigarette and took her time exhaling. The persistent stream of pedestrians stopped. They all stared upward. “… we’re going to die today too.” The still crowd suddenly dispersed in all directions. They ran away screaming in fear. A single white skeleton landed in front of Mundo’s tattoo shop. “Ballisea’s here.”

AlterNet Income

“I’m a cop, remember?” Mick smiled at his twins, Fern and Olive. The three family members sat in their kitchen enjoying breakfast when the subject of money came up. “I think I know how protection rackets work. But it’s a video game.” The twins sighed as one. Without a word they faced each other and shook their fists three times. On the third, Fern held his hand out flat while Olive’s two fingers mimicked scissors. He gave an accepting nod, then stood and walked out of the room.

Mick always enjoyed watching their interactions. He’d always heard twins were close; and, sometimes psychic but his pair seemed to take it to a whole new level. He assumed they were in constant communication with each other. They were only 13, but he could not remember a single instance where they talked over one another. As children, only one of them ever cried, usually Fern.

When they were toddlers, Fern would do all the crying, even if Olive was the one that needed something. It was extremely hard on his marriage; their mother felt like she wasn’t up to the job because she couldn’t figure out what was wrong with Fern. Luckily, they realized the answer was as simple as checking both of them in time to save their family.

Once that problem was solved, life became easy. With their needs met, the twins seemed content to spend time in each other’s company. Mick and his wife joked that the twins were talking psychically. Sometimes, Mick was more than sure it was true. The way the twins moved and spoke made Mick feel like they were one person in two bodies.

“Dad,” Olive sat up straight and looked at her father. “You’re getting focusing on the wrong thing. First, it’s not a video game, it’s a Virtual Reality game. It’s not real, but it feels real.” She flicked the edge of her juice glass with her finger to make a ‘ping’ sound. “As real as this.”

Mick wasn’t dumb. He researched the AlterNet before he bought access for the twins. He knew it was more than them sitting in front of a monitor at a keyboard because he dug the soil beds in their shared room.

“I get that. And I can see how people in the game would pay for your protection. But that’s game money,” he said.

Dad,” Olive said. Her voice carried more teenage condescension than a 13-year-old should have. “You’re still focusing on the word ‘game’. Just think of it as a different reality.”

“But it’s not real, it’s virtual,” Mick countered.

“It’s more than virtual,” Olive said while shaking her head.

“It’s like an alternate reality,” Fern said as he walked back into the kitchen. He returned to his seat next to Olive. While he sat down, Olive reached out and placed her node on the table in front of her dad. She tapped the screen, then pointed at a section for Mick to look at.

[Sharp Bank: Balance: $73,000.00 ] His eyes widened. He banked with the same company and recognized the balance as legitimate.

“I collected a service fee for a quick demonstration,” Olive said. As she spoke, Fern held out a small, luminescent, golden cube. “This is a payment from one of our clients in the game. First of all, as you can see…,” Olive said.

“You can see it. Even in our real world,” Fern finished Olive’s thought while he waved his hand over the cube for show. “You might think I brought any little toy from my room,” Fern said. He reached forward and placed the sugar-cube sized currency on the center of the node.

“But, I didn’t,” Olive said. The golden cube disintegrated into white powder. Instead of collecting in a pile, the powder vanished before it landed. Even though his attention was already on the node, Olive pointed at a specific line again.

[Sharp Bank $127.38 cents deposited after currency exchange.] Mick checked the balance again.

[Sharp Bank: Balance: $73,127.38]

“It’s.. real,” Mick said. He stared at the node until the screen disappeared; it left behind a card-sized piece of transparent glass. Suddenly, he looked up.

“Can I join your gang?” he asked. Both twins’ heads shook side to side in unison.

“Dad,” Olive said.

“You’d make the rest of the guild uneasy,” Fern said.

“You’re a cop, remember?” Olive said.

Rooted Star

“I hope you’re willing to give me more than that,” Vinny winked at Cael as they hugged. He arrived to pick her up for their first official date as a couple and she greeted him with a quick peck on the lips.

“A ton more,” Cael replied with another quick peck. “But first, now that we’re official I need to confess some things to you.” A blur of white caught Vinny’s attention and he checked the space above Cael’s mocha curls. The number 7 hovered above her head followed by the word, ‘billion’. It surprised him so much he needed to take a step back.

“Vin?” Cael was suddenly concerned.

“What.. uh.. what kind of things?” Vinny asked. He racked his brain trying to decide what it meant. He’d been able to see numbers above people’s heads for years. It was never really more than a minor curiosity for him. He did not know what the numbers meant, but he never saw a number above a five over someone’s head before; now his girlfriend displayed 7 billion. If there was ever a time to figure out what it meant, it was now.

“Sit down,” she led him to her red loveseat and coaxed him into sitting down next to her. However, he leaned closer to the other end of the couch than to her. “No matter what I tell you, I’m still me. Nothing about me has changed. The truth is I have some powers that I don’t want to keep secret from you in our relationship.” Cael sighed and looked into Vinny’s dark eyes.

He watched golden stars begin to glow in the center of her light-brown eyes.

“Powers like yours,” she said. The glow faded from her eyes. “Not exactly like yours,” she added. “You can see stats and stuff; I see what someone is.”

“You know what I can do!?” Vinny asked with wide eyes. “Since when?” Cael grinned; gold stars flashed in her eyes again.

“Since we met,” she said.

“Do you know what it means!?” Vinny closed the distance between them; he took her hands in his to beg for the answer.

“What what means?” Cael asked.

“The numbers!”

“Oh,” Cael shrugged. “No. That’s kind of up to you. You can see pretty much any statistic you want so whatever the numbers mean is going to vary. Now that you know, try it on me,” she said. Vinny stared above Cael’s head, but no number appeared.

“There’s nothing there,” he said.

“Think of a statistic. I know! Wonder how many donuts I’ve had today.” Vinny nodded and focused.

I wonder how many donuts she’s eaten today,” Vinny wondered the question as deliberately as he could. ’03’ appeared above Cael’s head.

“You’ve had three donuts?” he asked. Cael nodded.

“Wow, this is… you’re amazing!” Vinny leaned forward and kissed Cael on the lips.

“That’s not everything yet,” Cael said. She wiggled her fingers at the air and a plate-sized portal opened to hover in the air next to her head. “I’m actually from a different universe. There are many, many alternate universes out there and I have the ability to travel between them at will.”

Vinny had been seeing numbers above people’s heads for years. He was open to the unexpected and mysterious. Rather than waste time doubting Cael, Vinny used his newly mastered abilities instead.

How many Earths has she visited?” Vinny wondered and glanced up.

“93” hovered above her head in white numbers.

“Okay, wow,” Vinny said. “I think we’re in for an interesting relationship.” Cael agreed and leaned forward to kiss his lips. “You’d better keep those coming,” he said. “I’m going to need a lot more.”

Fluttering white numbers caught Vinny’s attention as Cael leaned in for another peck. He looked up, ‘7 billion’ floated above Cael’s head.

I can live with that,” Vinny thought. Now that he knew the number meant he wrapped his arms around Cael and pulled her closer.

Quiet. Riot.

“Yeah,” Turbo sighed to himself. “I’m lost.” The boney teenager searched for the front office of his new school for 20 minutes. The school was as large as the only college campus he’d been on, with several satellite buildings. It took him that long to wind his way through the courtyards and crowded halls to get from one end to the other.

The halls were crowded and loud and he had trouble finding anyone that wasn’t already in a conversation to ask for directions.

Turbo ended up in a building that was likely a gym. The waxed wood flooring seemed to emit a soft pale glow. The rows of bleachers on opposite sides were the biggest clue to the building’s purpose.

“Doing better?” Turbo heard a soft voice coming from under the nearest set of bleachers. If the gym wasn’t so quiet he wouldn’t have heard anything at all; it was almost a whisper.

Alright!” he cheered internally. Turbo doubted a whole crowd would be hiding out under the bleachers. He hoped he could finally get some directions. It did occur to him that the person might be up to something they didn’t want to get caught doing. Instead of peeking in, he spoke up from where he was.

“HELLO!??” he shouted. “ANYONE IN HERE!!!??”  

“Shhhhh!!!” a hissing sound came from under the bleachers. A tall, lithe girl with short, light blonde hair dashed out of her hiding spot.

“Sorry,” Turbo smiled at her and lowered his voice to a normal tone. “I’m just looking for-,” she interrupted him again by dashing forward and clapping her small hand over his mouth.

“Shhhh!” she said again. “Whisper.” Before Turbo could react another voice spoke up.

“It’s okay, Nia,” a girl with bright orange hair walked out from under the bleachers. “I’m fine now,” she said. She walked to Turbo as Nia pulled her hand off his mouth.

“I’m Riot,” she said and extended her hand. “This is Nia,” she tilted her head at the blonde.

“Petunia to you,” Petunia glared at Turbo.

“Turbo,” he shook Riot’s hand with a broad grin. His name had plagued him for all of his short life. He loved it, but he always felt out of place going to school with Johns and Janes. But on his first day at Toku-High, he met someone named Riot. He instantly felt more positive about the year ahead.

“Everything okay?” he asked. He needed directions, but that could wait for a moment.

“Yeah,” Riot nodded. “There’s just a lot of noise and excitement in there. “She waved in the general direction of the main building. “I need a quiet place to calm down and Coach Dread said I could use the gym.”

“Oh, okay,” Turbo nodded. “Well, I don’t really get it, but it sounds like everything’s cool. So.. can one of you…,” a quick glance at Petunia’s cold brown eyes told him it wouldn’t be her. “…point me toward the front office. I still kind of need to register.” The girls giggled at him, but Riot nodded.

“Yeah, lemme see your node,” she said.

“Uhh… is that a thing I get when registering?” he asked. Petunia sighed and rolled her eyes, but Riot continued to smile. She reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out a card-sized pane of glass.

“Do you have one of these?” she asked.

“Oh!” Turbo reached into his pocket and produced his own. Riot touched her node to his. When she pulled it away a white arrow appeared on the display pointing to his right side. He turned slightly and the arrow moved like a compass needle. “Awesome,” he said. “Thanks!” He smiled, waved, and turned to follow the arrow.

“Bye-bye,” Petunia waved.

“Hey wait!” Riot said. “You’re a Calavera too, right?”

“Uhh… ?” Turbo shrugged.

“What’s your favorite number?” Riot asked.

“42,” Turbo replied, then paused. “Wow. Didn’t know I had one.” Again, both girls giggled at him. Riot walked a circle around Turbo looking him up and down.

“Turbo, huh?” she wondered aloud. “I wonder what you can do.”

“Do?” he asked. “What do you mean?”

“You’re a Calavera. When you get awakened you’ll be super strong, but you’ll probably also have an ability that fits your name. Coach Dread is a Calavera. She has a sonic scream that can totally be classified as “dreadful”,” Riot chuckled to herself. “Coach Haste can give others super speed. Frost is another Calavera student here. He can…,”

“Make ice?” Turbo asked. Riot wavered her hand in a ‘more or less’ gesture.

“He can coat himself and anything he’s touching in frost. That’s about it, but it makes good armor.”

“And you?” Turbo asked.

“I get stronger and faster from ambient kinetic energy or sonic vibrations. But,.. I can’t really control it yet. So if it gets to be too much I kind of go crazy until I use up the extra energy. I usually go somewhere quiet before it gets to be too much.”

“And I walked in here yelling and screaming,” Turbo shook his head and looked Petunia in the eyes. “I’m sorry,” he apologized to her. He got the impression that he offended her more than Riot.

“It’s fine,” Riot said. “When you get to the office tell them you want to be awakened and they’ll take care of it.”

“Does it hurt?” Turbo asked. Petunia giggled at him, by herself this time.

“You can crack an Earth in two; don’t be a baby,” she said.

“Take it easy, Nia,” Riot said. “He’s new; you didn’t know everything at first.” She turned her attention back to Turbo.

“It usually takes a tattoo or scarring of some kind, but they use nanos to give you a micro tattoo smaller than a bedbug. You won’t feel a thing.”

“Whoa… Nanotechnology? Superpowers? This school is pretty amazing,” Turbo said.

“Wait until you try out roller derby,” Riot smiled. “Think of how much fun you can have with superpowers on the track.”

Friend of Steves

“That’s awesome, Steph,” Dahlia said. “I’m glad you got in,” Her response wasn’t as excitement filled as Stephanie hoped. Their friendship of several years made it easy for her to see that Dahlia was still bothered by her lack of doppelgangers. Stephanie felt a sting of regret for bragging about her invitation and tried to shift the focus to Dahlia. 

“You still haven’t heard anything?” she asked. Dahlia shook her head.

“Maybe there aren’t any more of me out there,” she said. She hated the thought, but she knew she had to consider it. She hoped she’d get to meet at least one other version of herself. Stephanie met a whole guild comprised solely of her doppelgangers only a week after she applied to the Universal Match program. Two weeks after that, they invited her to join them. Stephanie suddenly had dozens of people that would understand her like no one else could. Dahlia hated to admit it, but jealousy blossomed in her.

“You want me to ask the Council?” Stephanie asked. “They’re goofs, but supposedly one of the smartest guilds there is.”  Dahlia met Stephanie’s eyes through narrow slits.

“The Council of Steves is one of the smartest guilds there is?” she asked with more than a hint of sarcasm. Stephanie chuckled but nodded.

“We Steves do get around,” she said with a grin. Despite her sour mood, Dahlia couldn’t help but laugh. She knew Stephanie; if the rest of the council were as determined and curious as her, their reputation would make sense.

“Alright,” Dahlia nodded. “See if you can find out anything for me, please.”

“On it!” Stephanie said. She pulled her node out of her pocket and Dahlia’s envy stirred. The card-sized glass rectangle was only awarded to citizens with doppelgangers. The way Steph explained it to Dahlia was that it worked like a smartphone across universes. She could connect with any of her doppelgangers in the guild from her universe; at the moment she was asking for information.

“That was fast,” Steph said after a moment. She brought the node up and read the display. “Your favorite number’s still 52, right?” She asked as she typed on the node. Dahlia tilted her head.

“Yes. When did I get a favorite number, and how did you know?” She noticed Steph roll her eyes.

“Well, I’ve only known you for 15 years. You hadn’t noticed that any time we need random numbers for something, the first number out of your mouth is always 52? ALWAYS,” she emphasized.

“…hadn’t noticed…,” Dahlia said quietly. She started to wonder what other habits Steph noticed about her that she wasn’t aware of.

“Cool, problem solved.” Steph sat up with a smile. “The Council of Steves totally came through for you.”

“They found other versions of me!?” Dahlia perked up immediately; but, she was deflated when Stephanie shook her head.

“The bad news is there aren’t any other versions of you. Anywhere.”

“What?” Dahlia asked.

“The good news is, that means you’re something called a Unique Soul. You have powers. You, specifically, can talk to plants and see stats above people’s heads.”

“What kind of stats?” Dahlia asked. She focused on the empty space above Stephanie’s dark hair, but didn’t see anything.

“I don’t know, but you need to get a tattoo of the number 52 to activate your powers.”

“Yeah, like I have spare cash right now,” Dahlia sighed. “I guess it’s on the list.”

“Nah,” Stephanie grinned. “Council of Steves has you covered there too.” Before Dahlia could ask what she meant, a tall black hole appeared in the center of her room. A lean bald man covered in tattoos walked out carrying a leather backpack.

“Who’s the plant?” he asked. Dahlia turned to give Steph a confused look then noticed Stephanie was pointing at her. The tattooed stranger stepped up to Dahlia and looked down at her. “Where do you want it?” he grinned.

Sharp Eyes

“Well?” Dana Sharp asked. She stood in front of Cathy with her arms crossed while the confused woman wiggled in her seat.

“Well what?” Cathy asked. She was thrilled to be there, in the office of the most powerful woman in the universe, even if she didn’t know why. Dana Sharp saved the human race from extinction using advanced tech. An hour ago someone showed up at Cathy’s office with an invitation from Dana Sharp. Now the woman she admired was looking down at her expectantly.

“Your favorite number is 52…,” Dana said. Cathy was surprised; she didn’t know she had a favorite number, but as soon as Dana said ’52’ it felt right. “… so, what do you see up here,” Dana wiggled her fingers at the empty spot above her head.

“How-…,” Cathy hesitated for a moment, but she trusted Dana. And she obviously knew something. “How did you know about that?”

“Of course I know,” Dana said. That was the only explanation she gave and it was good enough for Cathy. “So what do you see?” Cathy shook her head and stood with an outstretched hand.

“I need to shake hands to see, but all it tells me is when and where you were born.”

“Interesting,” Dana said then she shook Cathy’s hand. The blonde woman’s attention was focused above Dana’s dark hair. The moment they shook hands her eyes went wide; she yanked her hand away in fear and surprise.

“What is it?” Dana asked.

“Universal Error: Data Not Found,” Cathy said. “That’s what it says for your birthdate.”

“Hmm,” Dana thought for a moment. “We’ll try it with a tattoo; present your arm,” she said.

“Tattoo?” Cathy asked as she rolled her sleeve up.

“Right here is fine,” Dana said. She reached out and traced the number 52 on Cathy’s skin with her fingertip. A cloud of white powder gathered on the spot and Cathy felt a burning, stinging sensation. After a moment the cloud dissipated. It left behind a fresh tattoo of the number 52 on Cathy’s arm. Dana grabbed Cathy’s hand while she was staring at the tattoo and shook it.

“Now what does it say?” she asked.

“Universal Error: Data Not Found,” Cathy repeated, then her eyes widened again when more information appeared. “Universal Error: Soul Not Found. Universal Error: Assigned Middleman Not Found. Universal Error: Afterlife Point Total Not Found.” Cathy’s voice grew softer as her confusion overflowed. “What does it all mean?” she asked.

“It means you’re working for me personally, now.” Dana said. “You’ve got all the information I need.”

“Yes, Ms. Sharp,” Cathy nodded eagerly.

Red Sun

Gale ran. She stopped in front of an electronics store to see reports of mysterious black holes all over the world. Skeletons rained from the sky; she looked up and saw a black hole over her own city. She ran the opposite direction and ended up dashing through the park.

A flash of familiar, bright red caught her eyes. She looked and saw a horned woman sitting alone on one of the tables. Her body was highlighted with a red glow that told Gale she was important somehow. Gale took a quick glance around and didn’t see any skeletons chasing her. She approached the woman carefully.

“Excuse me, Miss,” Gale said while still keeping her distance. “There’re some crazy things going on, it might be safer for you at home,” Gale pointed at the large black hole over the city. The horned woman didn’t bother to turn around, instead, she kept her gaze focused on Gale.

“I don’t have a home,” the woman said with a slight smile. Gale was puzzled why this woman was red; it was the first time her ability ever highlighted a person. She did not know everything about her power, but she guessed this woman was somehow important if she was going to survive.

“You can come home with me,” Gale surprised herself with the suggestion, but it made sense and went well with Gale’s sense of helpfulness.

“You don’t even know me,” the woman protested. Gale shook her head.

“I don’t, but death is raining from the sky and I’m not going to leave anyone outside if I can help it. You’ll be safer if you come with me,” Gale added. The woman raised an eyebrow at Gale.

“I’m safe everywhere I go,” she said. The air changed suddenly; a gentle breeze that Gale enjoyed for the last minute stopped suddenly and hair on the back of Gale’s neck stood up. She looked around and found they weren’t alone anymore. Dozens of skeletons surrounded the two women, though Gale never heard them walk up or fall out of the sky. It was then that Gale realized she should have paid more attention to the woman’s horns than the red glow. She initially dismissed the horns as some sort of cosplay and focused on why she needed the woman.

“You’re doing this to the Earth?” Gale asked. “Why?”

“I’m looking for someone,” the woman said, then winked at Gale. “Don’t worry, it’s not you. And you’re not even worth killing.” Gale caught a whiff of sharp mint under her nose. She looked down and found a mint leaf pinned to her shirt. “To thank you for your kindness I”ll send you to someone that will find you useful.”

The park ground disappeared under Gale and she fell into the dark hole. As she fell she watched the red glow dissipate from the woman; Gloria no longer had a task for her. She heard the woman’s voice one more time.

“Tell them Ballisea sent you.”