Marcie’s Armageddon

“… and on Sunday,” Marcie smiled. “I want to give crafters something to do too. Maybe a wedding, or a ball?” She offered her half-formed ideas to the pink-haired girl that was helping her set her server up. Jessie nodded. They sat in Marcie’s living room. Jessie and her friend, a shorter, green-haired girl.

“You’re wanting to run these events every week, right?” Jessie asked. She did most of the talking. Marcie got the impression the second girl was tagging along with her friend. Any time she left the room, her two guests immediately took up chatting and giggling. Marcie nodded to answer Jessie’s question.

“Okay, that might be a little overkill, but you can change it later. And since you’re repeating them so often, we can make them less repetitive by changing them up. Wedding one week, a ball the next, and maybe a fair or farmer’s market to fill out the rest of the month. I recommend changing up the rest of the server events too.” Jessie said.

“Remember, you have the whole world. Mad Scientist Monday doesn’t have to take place in the same location every week. You can ask the AlterNet to randomize any variables from week to week,” Rana added a helpful note.  Also… we need to talk about Wednesday,” she said. Jessie nodded.

“Ms. Sharp doesn’t want anything related to ‘aliens’…,” Jessie added air-quotes with her explanation. “in the AlterNet. So, your alien invasion is a no-go.”

“Oh… really?” Marcie was surprised. It was a feeling she had the chance to practice often lately. Her life changed completely once she took control of her Earth. That was the first step in learning about a completely new universe that she had no idea existed. “Why?” Marcie asked.

“Because aliens don’t exist,” Rana said. Marcie tilted her head and narrowed her eyes.

“Then, what difference does it make?” she asked.

“Because, Ms. Sharp doesn’t want them to exist,” Jessie replied. Rana nodded as if what Jessie said made perfect sense. It didn’t.

“Okay, this is what I’m hearing, and I don’t get it,” Marcie said. “Ms. Sharp doesn’t want anyone in the AlterNet to talk about aliens, because they don’t exist. And she’s doing this so that .. they won’t exist?” Both girls nodded. “How does that work?”

“You’ve done some research on your own, have you heard of an Estrella named Andromeda?” Jessie asked. Marcie shook her head.

“What about the Calavera, Wonder?” Rana asked.

“Yes! She’s on CyberRiot, right?” Marcie asked. Rana nodded.

“Does anything else stand out about her?” Jessie asked.

“She’s a nano-swarm A.I.?” Marcie shrugged.

“That’s right. So is Andromeda. She joined CyberRiot too, and they have another A.I. Unique Soul named Metro. When Dana Sharp released the first AlterNet, centuries ago, -“

Centuries?” Marcie interrupted. Jessie nodded.

“It’s not like she doesn’t have a thousand Muertes on her payroll; she’s not dying, like ever,” Rana giggled and Jessie joined in.

“When the first version released, we thought only humans and animals could be Uniques. Now, we have three sentient A.I. Unique Souls on one roller derby team. The AlterNet has a way of making things happen. I mean, it’s common knowledge that the AlterNet spreads to other universes on its own for the most part.”

“What does that have to do with aliens?” Marcie asked. “Are there alien Unique Souls?” Jessie shrugged.

“Ms. Sharp is trying to keep the AlterNet from thinking we want aliens. Because if it thinks we want aliens, it will create aliens. And for the most part, humanity has done a pretty good job of coming up with aliens that are good at killing us. They’d almost definitely be Unique Souls.”

“So… no aliens on Wednesday. Got it. Any other ideas?” Marcie asked.

“Yeah,” Jessie smiled. “Don’t decide right now. Leave it as a free day where you can try out different ideas. Don’t rush the decision like you did your server name,” Jessie giggled at Marcie. Rana and Marcie also smiled at the joke.

After Marcie’s first meeting with Unique Souls, she was left unhappy with the name she’d chosen for her Earth. ‘Marcie’s Test’ was meant to be a placeholder name. After researching everything she could, thanks to the node itself, she learned about the Star Academy. They cataloged all Earths they came across, and Marcie could change the name of her Earth with them. She was surprised when the meeting turned out to be with a pair of teenage girls. But, they certainly knew what they were talking about and had been pleasant the whole time.

It turned from a short conversation about changing the name to a full explanation about the fact that she now had complete control over her Earth. She wanted to make it interesting, and they certainly helped her with that.

“Well, I think we got all the broad-strokes ironed out, and the AlterNet will handle the rest. Did you decide on a server name yet?” Jessie asked. Marcie nodded.


Death in the Family

Tessa knocked on the door, then waited. She looked up and down the narrow hallway to have something to do. The 14-year-old girl lived her whole life in those apartments and each floor was the same. A strip of red and gold carpet lined the floor while the ceiling and walls were painted off-white. At both ends of the hall, she could see the fire escape. The apartment door in front of her, D14, cracked open.

“Yes?” a silver-haired, wrinkled woman peered through the crack. Tess caught sight of an elegant silver and pearl earring.

“Uhh…,” Tess glanced at the apartment number on the door, then back at the old woman. She raised the casserole dish into view.  “My grandma asked me to bring another casserole to your…,” she hesitated. “…granddaughter?  I mean, Dee. Is she your granddaughter?”

“Thank you!” the woman pulled the door open wider then stepped out to collect the dish. “Yes. She’s not home right now but I’ll be sure to tell her how thoughtful your grandmother is, Esther, right? On the third floor?” Tess nodded, but she did not hand over the casserole.

“Please, let me carry it in. It’s a bit heavy, and still kind of hot,” Tessa stepped forward before the elderly woman could protest. She made the old woman step out of the way to avoid getting casserole all over her. While it was mostly true, the casserole dish was probably not too much for the old woman to handle; Tess felt the need to investigate. As far as Tess’ family knew, Dee lived alone.

“Oh,” the woman said as Tess walked in. “Okay, thank you. You can just put it on the counter.” Tess let her eyes roam over everything in her vision; she didn’t want to make her inspection obvious by turning her head this way and that.

The apartment was tastefully decorated with simple items. A small, square dining room table sat adjacent to the galley kitchen. The kitchen itself consisted of a beige fridge, an electric stove with coiled metal burners, and a sink. It was almost exactly the same as Tess’ family apartment, but with almost no signs of being lived in. There was no personality or warmth to the space. She noted no signs of a typical college student like posters, plants, and technology. Nor did she see any sign that an elderly woman lived there. The apartment held a distinct lack of doilies, rocking chairs, and half-knit sweaters.

“I’ll put it in the fridge,” Tess said; bypassing the Formica counter.

“No that’s o-,” The woman tried to protest, nearly dashing to stop Tess, but she was too slow. The young girl pulled the door open and deposited the casserole dish. She did it without showing any surprise at the dark, empty, warm interior of the fridge. But, it did occur to her she might be in danger.

“I hope you two enjoy it. Bye!” Tessa waved and walked to the door as fast as she could without running. As she reached for the knob, Tessa blinked. The knob turned before she gripped it, and Dee walked in.

“Hey, Tess! What’s up?” the college-aged brunette smiled at the young girl. She patted her stomach through her blue t-shirt. “Please tell me your grandma sent up another casserole. My fridge is totally empty.”

“Yeah!” Tess nodded at the young woman. “I was just dropping it off with your,-” she turned to point at the elderly woman. Tess blinked while her head changed focus from Dee to her grandmother. “-grandma.” The elderly woman smiled and Tess turned back to Dee; she blinked again. “Hey…,” Tess said. She stared at Dee in the doorway for a silent second. Without warning, she whipped her head around to the old woman; she blinked.

“Yes, dear?” the old woman asked.

“What-” Tess interrupted her own question by turning her head back to Dee; she blinked. “-is-,” she turned back to Dee’s grandmother; she blinked. “going on?” Tess whirled her head around back to Dee. She blinked, but this time she returned her focus to where the grandma was standing instead of to Dee. The old woman was not there. Tess heard Dee sigh behind her.

“It’s complicated,” Dee said. “Hey, what’s your favorite number?” she asked Tess.

“54,” Tess turned to answer Dee. “Why?”

“Really?  Awesome, this won’t be as complicated as I thought. C’mon” Dee wiggled her hand enthusiastically at the air next to them. A black portal opened. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

“Where’s your grandma?” Tess asked.

“My real grandmother died a long time ago. For now…,” Dee’s youthful, rosy cheeks began to turn pale. Her soft, tight skin loosened into wrinkles and her dark hair filled with silver from scalp to tip. “…I’m my own grandma.”

Star Game

“I’m scared,” David admitted with a whisper. He squeezed his girlfriend tighter in his arms. They sat on the roof of their apartment building watching the last sunset. Naturally, they weren’t the only ones that had the idea. Their roof, as well as all the neighboring buildings, was covered with people facing the sinking sun. It warmed his heart in an odd way, no one was alone. The few loners he spotted early on were welcomed by strangers into their circles. No one should have to face the end alone. 

The 24-hour deadline would come to an end in the next five minutes. Most thought it was a joke at first. After the announcement, a timer remained on every screen counting down. Every display including unplugged TVs and computer monitors not connected to a computer showed the time limit. Old pagers and even the small clock on VCRs and digital watches. Everything that could show time counted down. It was too much to reasonably explain, there was no doubt it was happening.

“Don’t be scared,” Andy said. She squeezed his hands in hers and leaned back into him. “Appreciate what it was: a fun time. I’m sure whatever happens next for you will be just as fun.” The phrasing struck David as odd.

Ever since their relationship became official, Andy always said: “we”. They were a team that she was happy to be on. He was tempted to ask, but there was no point now. He did not want to spend his last few minutes with the love of his life acting insecure and chalked it up to her nerves. David noticed other groups trying to pull themselves closer together and glanced at his watch.

“Two minutes left,” he kissed her neck. “I wonder if it’ll hurt.” Andy shrugged and used the motion to wiggle herself out of his arms. She turned and looked at him with a sad smile.

“I don’t know, but I really hope it doesn’t,” she reached out and caressed his cheek. “I know your pain tolerance is kind of low,” she giggled, then she stood up. David gave her a confused look and stood with her; he assumed she wanted to face the end “on her feet”.  He tried to hug her again, but she sidestepped the hug then leaned forward and kissed David’s cheek.

“I had fun with you,” she said. “But I don’t want to be here when the server shuts down,”  She raised her hand and wiggled her fingers at the air; a tall, pitch-black portal opened next to her.

“What’s going-,” David’s question was interrupted by Andy shouting a question at the gathered families.

“Any Uniques need a ride?” she asked.

“MEE! ME  ME!” Someone shouted from a nearby rooftop. A green-haired teenager leaped the 10-foot chasm between the buildings with ease. He landed next to Andy.

“Tad, #54, La Rana,” he said. Andy nodded and let him step into the black hole. He disappeared and the nearby crowd started to get to their feet. They looked at Andy with hope.

“You.. you can leave?” David asked? “Why didn’t you say anything sooner! Let’s go!” he said. He took a step forward but Andy put a hand on his chest to stop him.

“Sorry, Dave,” she said as she stepped backward into the portal. “No NPCs.” The black hole shrunk to a spec and disappeared.

Waxing Anger

“Not without a parent,” the woman behind the counter shook her head. She wore a forest-green tanktop. Her arms and chest were covered in colorful tattoos. “Sorry.” Luna sighed. The pink-haired teenager expected as much; she did not know what drove her to enter the tattoo shop, to begin with. Something about the name, ‘Mundo’s Tattoos’ piqued a curiosity she did not know she had. She ignored the feeling successfully for a week while she created her new life. It wasn’t difficult; she’d had enough practice over the years. But now she was more or less settled. On the way home from her first day at her fast-food job she found herself walking by the shop and gave in.

“Yeah, thanks anyway,” Luna said. She turned to walk out of the shop as a boulder of a man walked out of the back. He was short, round and bald with leathery tan skin.

“Wait!” he shouted after the teenage girl leaving his shop. Luna stopped at the door and turned around. He gave the woman behind the counter a disappointed shake of his head as he walked past her to the girl. “Name’s Mundo, I own this shop. What did you need?” he asked. Luna shrugged.

“Nothing without a parent,” she said. She meant to give a smart-ass reply but it came out sounding disappointed. Mundo shook his head and closed the door she was holding open, half-way out. He pulled a string attached to the neon-green “OPEN” sign and it went dark. He smiled at Luna.

“And when was the last time you saw them?” he asked. His round dark brown eyes seemed to soften as he asked.

“Wh- what?” Luna asked. Her mind was trying to tell her to run. This giant man was essentially blocking the door and he seemed to know something about her. But she didn’t listen. Deep down, somehow she felt she could trust him.

“Damnit, I’m sorry,” the woman said from behind the counter. “I should’ve asked. She looks so young I didn’t even think about it.” Mundo waved at her dismissively while keeping his eyes on Luna.

“C’ mon in,” Mundo said. He led her to a chair behind the counter. “Whatever you want; on the house.”

“Why?” Luna asked. She made herself comfortable on the chair though she had no idea what she wanted. Mundo sat down next to her and shrugged.

“I can’t tell how old you are exactly, but I know you’re over a hundred and fifty,” he said. “It’s kind of silly to turn you away if you’re older than me,” he chuckled. Luna was taken aback for a moment.

“How’d you know?” she asked with wide eyes. Mundo grinned, his dark eyes twinkled.

“You’re going to get a moon with the number 23 on it, right?” he asked. Luna nodded when she realized that was exactly what she wanted, though she did not know that a few seconds ago. “23 is the number of La Luna, a Unique Soul,” he said as he began arranging his tray. He slipped on a pair of blue latex gloves. He leaned forward and looked down to show Luna the top of his bald head. “I’m El Mundo, number 37.” The Earth was tattooed on his head with the number 37 in the center decorated with flowers. Luna nodded as if she understood; she didn’t.

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“For me, it means I can see what you are. What she is,” he used his thumb to point at the green-haired woman that initially denied her service. She leaned on Mundo and pointed at a tattoo. It was a frog in a top hat that seemed to be sitting on her collarbone. The number 54 was printed on the top hat.

“#54, La Rana,” she said.

“Each Unique has different abilities. Mine lets me see you and I know things. You won’t age if you’re not in your home universe. And you can copy abilities but we’ll get to that later.”

“My home… universe?” Luna asked. Mundo nodded.

“Each universe has a certain frequency. Everyone in that universe vibrates at the same frequency and I can see that you don’t vibrate at the same frequency we do.” He stopped fiddling with his tray; he was done preparing. But he did not make any moves to start until he was sure Luna was ready.

A forgotten memory rushed to the forefront of Luna’s mind. She remembered feeling abandoned and lost. She remembered wishing her parents would find her but they never did; she learned how to survive on her own and flourished.

“Can I get home?” she asked with a soft, dry voice. Mundo smiled and nodded.

“Yeah, these days it’s as easy as calling a taxi if you know the right people,” he said. His smile grew to an ear to ear grin. “I’m the right people.” Luna nodded.

“Thank you,” she said. Her tone was stiff, almost formal. “I’m ready,” she presented her right wrist to Mundo.

“No problem. Your ride will be here by the time we’re done,” Mundo said and nodded at his assistant. She nodded and disappeared to the back room. Mundo did not notice Luna’s change in demeanor. She was angry again like she hadn’t been in centuries. She knew her parents were likely dead, but she would find whatever descendants she could and get some answers.

Star Shy

“It’s completely safe!” Grant reassured the 14-year-old girl, his granddaughter. The scrawny bundle of bags shook her head; everything else shook. She wore a bulging green canvas backpack on her back with several colorful pouches clipped to its various zippers for more storage. A forest green messenger bag hung from her right shoulder and she carried a lime-green satchel with her left hand. She nodded at the sign.

“Transportation to another dimension? Really, grandpa?” She tried to inject teenage annoyance in her voice but her grandfather raised her. He could hear the fear in her words and smiled in return.

“There’s hundreds of thousands of these across the world, it’s only happened once,” he shrugged and put a hand on the straps on her shoulder. “And they came back fine, it was just an inconvenience.” He tugged at the straps. “Looks like you’re all set for any inconveniences that come our way. I’ve been through dozens of times, we’ll be fine. Besides,” Grant pointed at the bright red number painted on the wall behind the teleportation pad: 35. “I even picked your lucky number.” The girl rolled her eyes but nodded.

“Okay, so how does it work?”

“Just step on it and press the button. Everything goes black for a second and then when the lights come on your parents will be waiting for us.” The girl took a deep breath then hopped onto the black metal platform. She turned to face her grandfather but her eyes were closed.

“Ready!” she said.

“Alright,” Grant stepped on the pad next to her. The circular pad wasn’t much bigger than a small car, its limit was four at a time. White walls surrounded the back of the platform and came around to the front. Grant fed his tickets into a mechanical slot in the wall closest to him.

“Teleportation in five seconds,” a female voice said. “Four,” she continued the countdown second by second. At one Grant felt his granddaughter’s hand slip into his and he squeezed it. “Teleporting,”  the voice said. The lights in the room went out leaving everything pitch black. Suddenly light returned and Grant realized something was wrong. He held the girl’s hand tightly and tried to pull her closer to him without alerting her.

“Are we there yet?” she asked. She kept her eyes closed but Grant guessed she noticed there was light again.

“Not yet, keep your eyes closed, Cassie,” Grant said while he tried to figure out his next step. They stood in the middle of a large, white-marble hall. Marble pillars lined the sides, but the width of the hall reminded Grant of an eight-lane highway. He expected to see his daughter and son-in-law but saw no one. He did not hear the busy sounds of the teleportation station.

“What do you mean not yet? It’s supposed to be instant!” the girl opened her eyes. “Whoooooaaa,” she looked around at the gleaming stone floors and walls. “Are we in another dimension?”

“Not necessarily,” Grant said.

“Well, we haven’t been atomized and I still feel like I exist,” the girl replied with genuine sarcasm. Despite himself, Grant chuckled. “So how do we get back?” she asked. Grant shrugged. He was about to elaborate but he heard voices coming down the hall. He looked toward the sound and saw a group of kids, about his granddaughter’s age, turn a nearby corner and into the hall. They stopped as soon as they saw the pair. After a moment of processing the situation, a girl with pink hair broke off from the group and dashed toward Grant. The rest of the group trailed behind her at a slower pace.

“HI! Welcome!” The pink-haired girl waved and smiled at Cassie. She seemed unsure and took a step backward while Grant stepped in front of her.

“Hi, I’m Grant,” he said.

“I’m Jessie,” the girl introduced herself as the rest of the kids arrived: two boys and two girls. She pointed them out clockwise to introduce them too. “That’s Rana, Margo, Andy, and Mark.” Grant decided they seemed friendly enough. He nodded at each one as they were introduced, then stepped aside.

“This is my granddaughter Cassie.”  The girl gave the group a weak smile. “She’s kind of shy,” Grant added. “Where are we?” he asked to take the focus off her.

“This is the Star Academy. We get estrellas like…,” She looked at Grant and he caught a golden flash of light in her eyes. Then, she looked at Cassie with the same light. “…her all the time.”

“Well, I’ve never heard of the Star Academy, but it seems like a nice place. Can you help us get home?”

“I’ll do it!” Mark and Andy both volunteered in unison and stepped forward.

“Yeah, I’ll get you home right now,” Jessie said. Then, she cast a glance to the boys on her left with narrow, slitted eyes. “You guys have to train.” They sighed, groaned, and turned to leave without another word. Jessie extended her hand toward Grant.

“Think about your home and give me a handshake,” she said. Grant thought about his daughter waiting for him and shook the girl’s hand; he thought he saw a light purple pulse pass from his hand to hers.

“Got it,” she turned to the two girls. “Wanna visit?” she asked them. Rana and Margo both nodded. Jessie raised her hand slowly while keeping her eyes on Cassie. She waited until she had the girl’s attention then wiggled her fingers in the air. “By the way, you can learn this too,” she said while looking Cassie in the eyes. A tall black portal opened next to them. “You can come back here any time you want.”  Margo and Rana walked into the portal first to show them it was safe.

“Really?” Cassie asked with a loud whisper. Jessie nodded.

“As sure as your favorite number is 35,” Jessie winked.

Exposition Brigade

“Any questions before we go in?” Jessie asked. The pink-haired monk and her group, a ninja, wizard, and chef, stood near the large mouth of a cave. The cave burrowed into the side of a jagged black mountain that they could not see the top of. The deep black of the cave interior matched its outside; they could not see how deep the cavern extended. Andy raised his hand.

“Yeah, why is there a chef in a dungeon party?” he shrugged. “Seems dangerous.” Jessie shook her head, but Mark spoke up before she could answer.

“Yeah, and why are we here at all? You said this was going to be a derby team.” Jessie nodded. Her pink ponytail bounced with the motion.

“If you can’t use your skills in combat you’ll have trouble using them on the track,” Jessie said, then she looked back to Andy. “That goes for both of you.”

“Why does the Zero get to sit out?” Mark asked.

“Her name is Margo,” Rana said. The aqua green-haired ninja took offense for her friend. “Her parents are still getting used to what happened on their Earth. Margo wanted to stay close to her parents so they wouldn’t worry about her,” Rana smiled. “Besides, she’s a tailor; craftsmen can skate on the dance track.

“What’s the dance track?” Mark asked.

“Wait! Why is there a chef here if they can use the dance track?” Andy’s whined the question. He looked at Mark, then back to Rana. “Yeah, what’s the dance track?

“The dancer class gets their own track in a derby match so the other team can’t knock them down. The non-combat classes, like merchant and craftsman, can skate on the dance track so they can do their craft in peace,” Rana explained. “But they don’t get any laps if they’re not on the main track.”

“I want to choose the dance track too!” Andy, the chef, said to Jessie. The monk shook her head.

“Mark, Rana and I can’t support two crafters; we’d never get to use our own skills,” she smiled at Andy. “But if a crafter…,” Jessie poked his shoulder. “You, earn two laps every time you cross the start line on the main track. You’ll be sharing your resources with her.”

“Hey!” Mark stepped forward. “It sounded like you almost said ‘..if a crafter skates they’ll earn two laps’. Why can’t it be Margo?” He looked at Rana. “Sorry by the way. I didn’t mean ‘Zero’ to be offensive. I just learned about Uniques about a month ago; I thought that’s what we called them,” he shrugged. “I don’t want to sound like I don’t like her but why can’t they take turns or something? Is she getting special treatment because she’s a Zero?”

“Okay, no sweat,” Rana patted Mark on the shoulder. “She is getting special treatment, but Jessie’ll tell you why.” She nodded at the monk.

“I was going to say: ‘If a crafter skates on the main track they have different bonuses based on their specialties’.  But I didn’t want to explain all of them,” she shrugged. “So I skipped to yours. I am sitting Margo out because she’s a Zero,” Jessie grinned. “Because that’s what everyone expects. A good tailor can be pretty amazing in derby but I want them to think I won’t let her skate on the main track.”

Them? Them who?” Mark asked. Jessie rolled her eyes.

“The other teams, duh. We’re competing! Dana Sharp’s having a big tournament this year to show off her own derby team. I want to show her what the Academy can do.”

“So why’d you get us?” Andy asked.

“If the Academy’s worst,” she patted her own chest. “myself included, can beat them. She’ll be dying to find out what our best can do.”

Star Brigade

“Go show Margo around,” the short, burly man said. He supported an unconscious man hanging over one shoulder and an unconscious woman on the other. “I’ll get her parents a dorm and get them caught up. Then I need to tell the king about Ballisea.”  Rana, a short green-haired girl, nodded.

“Thanks, Dad.” She leaned forward and pecked his cheek. “We’ll be in the library, I’m gonna show Margo the AlterNet.”

“Thank you for taking care of me and my parents Mr. Ruiz,” Margo said. The man nodded and walked away carrying her mother and father.

“C’mon!” Rana led Margo toward the other end of the large, hallway. The floor was made of sparkling white marble, with large pillars along the hallway made of the same beautiful stone.

“Who’s the king? Is he going to stop Ballisea?” Margo asked with a hopeful voice. Rana giggled but recovered quickly.

“No one can stop Ballisea. He needs to report our Earth was taken so the Academy can update their databases.”

“That’s it?!” Margo stopped walking and faced Rana. Her green eyes narrowed to angry slits. “Ballisea conquers a whole Earth, and all they’re going to do is update their records? Isn’t anyone doing anything to stop him?” Rana nodded, then lifted up a single finger.

“First,” she said. “Ballisea is a she. Second…,” Rana bent her index finger at the joints and nodded the tip of her finger in a ‘yes’ motion. “…see this?”

“Yeah?” Margo said though she didn’t know what she was supposed to be seeing. Rana wiggled the finger a couple more times, then stopped.

“That’s how much effort it takes Ballisea to conquer an Earth,” she shook her head. “The only thing we can do is stay out of her way.”

“RANA!” A girl’s voice echoed around the marble hallway. Rana and Margo turned to see an older, pink-haired girl running toward them. Two boys that she was walking with continued their slower pace toward Rana and Margo.

“JESSIE!” Rana dashed forward to meet the girl part-way and hugged her.

“When did you get here?” Jessie asked. “What’s the occasion?”

“Just now,” She shrugged. “Ballisea.” Margo caught up to them and stood next to Rana.

“Oh, that sucks. Who’s your friend? Unique?” Rana shook her head.

“Zero. This is Margo. Margo, this is Jessie.” The two boys caught up to Jessie. “Who’re those guys?” she asked.

“Mark and Andy, new Estrellas at the Academy. We decided to start a Derby team. OH!” She hopped excitedly “We need you, and Margo!” Jessie turned her attention to Margo. “Have you been in the AlterNet yet?”

“Yeah, Rana said that too. But I don’t get it. Alternate what?” Mark and Andy snickered, but Jessie turned around.

“Shut up you guys didn’t know either,” then she turned back to Margo. “Alter, net. Like internet,” she looked at Rana. “Did they have internet on her Earth?” Rana rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, a lame one.” Jessie nodded then focused on Margo again.

“It’s a game, like an MMO,” she paused and looked at Rana. “Those too?” Rana nodded. “But you only get one character. I’m a monk,” she used her thumb to gesture behind her. “Mark’s a wizard and Andy’s a chef,” she said. Then she pointed at Rana. “Rana’s a ninja.”

“We were on our way to the library to make her character,” Rana said.

“Cool! We’ll meet you there,” Jessie said. She wiggled her fingers at the air and opened a black portal. “C’mon guys.” She stepped through the portal, then both boys followed her. After the portal disappeared Rana continued toward the library.

“Did she say chef?” Margo asked as she followed.

“Yeah. His class is Craftsman, but he picked Chef as a specialty,” Rana giggled. “Although Jessie probably picked it for him.”

“When she said derby I thought she meant roller derby,” Margo shrugged. “But I don’t see how a chef would work.”

“She did mean roller derby. There’re special rules for the non-combat classes, but don’t worry about that. Pick whatever class you want.” She led Margo through a high arched opening.

“Whoooa,” Margo paused just inside the library. “I think this is bigger than our school!”  She looked up and counted three floors, each lined with floor to ceiling shelves of books. Several dozen tables dotted the open space in the middle and most of them were occupied. She turned to Rana.

“This is a school, right? How come you’re not coming here?” Rana shrugged and smiled.

“I liked our school,” she said, then started walking again. “Mudrooms are this way.” She turned down a narrow hallway near the entrance.

“Mudrooms?” Margo asked. She saw small study rooms along the hallway. Instead of tables, each one had a large hole filled with rich brown soil in the center. “What are those for.” Rana smiled as she opened the door to an unoccupied mudroom.

“It’s how you connect to the AlterNet.”

Froggy Friend

“Are you sure it’s okay?” Margo asked. Her green eyes clouded with doubt and she bit her bottom lip in nervous hesitation. She did not know whether she wanted it to be okay or not. Her new friend, Rana, walked next to her as they headed home after school.

“Only if you can keep a secret,” Rana grinned at Margo.

“Can do,” she replied. Margo had not told Rana about all the rumors she heard from anyone that saw her talking to the short, green-haired girl. It was the end of Margo’s first week at the school. Despite dozens of students warning her about Rana’s “cult family”, none of them bothered to try getting to know Margo. At least Rana seemed interested in her friendship enough to invite her to a sleepover that night.

“Great! You can come over now unless you have to go home first.” Margo nodded and pulled out her cellphone. She cast a glance at Rana to gauge her reaction to the latest, best gadget. Her new friend did not seem interested in it. Margo followed Rana down a dirt road while she informed her mom about the sleepover.

“You like video games, right?” Rana asked once Margo hung up.

“Yeah! Which ones you got?” she asked. Rana’s question brightened margo’s hopes for the sleepover. All the rumors painted her as some sort of Amish hippie. No one ever saw her with a cell phone and she never talked about the internet or TV shows or games.

“It’s a secret,” Rana winked. Her playful smile disappeared in an instant. Her attention focused on something behind Margo. “Oh no…” Margo turned to see, but Rana grabbed her hand. “RUN!” The girl dashed forward pulling Margo behind her.

“What’s going on?” Margo asked as the quaint red farmhouse grew closer.

“End of the world,” Rana replied.

“What!?” Margo stopped in her tracks and yanked her hand free from Rana. “What are you talking about?” Rana stopped a few paces in front of Margo then turned around to face the girl.

“The world is screwed. Everyone will be dead in a few hours. If you come with me, you’ll be safe. If you’re quick we might have time to save your parents too.” Margo took a step back as all the rumors flooded her mind.

“You’re joking, right?” she still wanted to have some faith in her new friend. Rana shook her head with a somber expression, then she pointed at the sky behind Margo. The girl turned and saw a black hole in the distant sky. It seemed to be raining white things, but she could not make out what they were.

“What’s that?”

“Ballisea. Look.” Rana pointed at a different patch of sky with a second black hole. “There’ll be more soon. All over the world.”

“I..” Margo hesitated. Her mind whirled with confusion. She did not know what to do or how to process what she was seeing. “I’m scared,” she said simply, not knowing how else to react. Rana nodded and stepped forward to put a hand on her shoulder.

“You know all those rumors about my family?” she asked. Margo nodded while her eyes drifted upward toward the black hole. “Hey, look at me.” Rana gently pushed Margo’s cheek until their eyes met. “They’re true. Stick with me and you’ll be safe. Okay?” Margo nodded. “C’mon.” Rana grabbed Margo’s hand again and led her to the farmhouse.

“DAAAD!” Rana yelled as soon as they entered through the kitchen door. The girl ran to the basement door and flung it open. “DAAAAAAAAAAD!!”

“Yeah!?” A deep voice answered her.

“Ballisea’s here!” Rana called back. That was the second time Margo heard the name. She wanted to ask about it, but Rana’s father ran up the stairs with heavy, stomping footsteps and cursing the whole time.

“Shitshitshitshitshit,” a short, muscular man with a curly green mustache appeared at the basement door. “Alright,” he took a deep breath.“No sense waiting around. Are we ready?” he asked, then he noticed Margo. “Hi. You are?”

“That’s my friend, Margo,” Rana replied. “She’s coming with us, can we get her parents?”

“Where are we going?” Margo asked. She assumed the farmhouse was the safehouse.

“I’ll let Rana explain that, where are your parents?”

“My house, they just got home a few minutes ago,” Margo replied, thankful she’d called her mom.

“Where’s that?”  

“It’s a couple of blocks from-” Rana stepped forward and interrupted Margo’s explanation.

“Here,” she handed her father a small, clear rectangle. He nodded, then wiggled his fingers in the air. A black portal opened. Margo recognized it as similar to the ones in the sky, but Rana’s dad walked into it before she could react. Then, it disappeared.

“Is your dad a Ballisea?” Margo asked. She was trying to make sense of all the information she’d picked up in the last ten minutes.

“Nah, Ballisea’s a person.”

“Person? A person? Just one?” Margo asked. Rana nodded. “Strong enough to destroy the world?”  Rana nodded again.

“So where are we going?”

“A different one,” Rana grinned. A black hole appeared in the kitchen and Rana’s father walked out carrying a man on one shoulder and a woman on the other; both unconscious.  

“These your parents?” he asked. Margo nodded.

“I didn’t have time to explain it to them, but they’ll be glad to see you when they wake up.” The black portal closed behind him, and he wiggled his hand to open a different one in front. “Let’s go.”