June 20, 2021 Smash ‘Em Up Sunday: Bound by System
“Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.” – Charles de Mar.
Oz stared at the abyss-like portal before him. It stood vertically like an open door to the pitch-black unknown. When he received his assignment that morning, he did not expect to have his reality shattered. He was proud to be considered an official agent worthy of a solo mission. Oz worked for a top-secret organization that recruited and trained magical girls and boys. He regretted that it couldn’t always be done with their consent; but, his organization was keeping humanity safe. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use force; but, Astra did not want to be registered as a magical girl. Oz’s training led him to make threats he hoped he wouldn’t have to fulfill. Then, Astra pulled back the veil.
“Infinite alternate Earths…,” Oz said. “Infinite humans…who are we even protecting?” he asked.
“People,” Astra smiled. She dismissed the portal with a casual wave of her hand. She sensed it was going to be a conversation and moved to the nearest park bench. Ben, her white wolf, lay at her feet once she sat down. “You should protect people. But, you know,” she shrugged. “Take it easy. You do realize you were about to kidnap me, right?” she asked. Oz stood up straighter and locked eyes with the 13-year-old girl.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I really am… I don’t know how I can go back there now.”
“Then, don’t,” Astra said. Oz shook his head. He decided to join her on the park bench.
“I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” he said. “There’s a standard protocol for kidnapping,” Oz said. “It’s not an easy organization to join or leave.”
“Why not?” Astra asked.
“People talk about secret societies all the time,” Oz said. “They’re the real deal. After your spiderfall stunt, they found you pretty easily,” he said. Astra shrugged and giggled.
“I wasn’t even hiding,” she said. Despite himself, Oz chuckled. He needed whatever levity he could get right now.
“You don’t know the machinations they can bring down on me,” Oz chuckled again. “Heck, I probably don’t even know them. They control the world. That’s just the way things are. I’m powerless to change it,” He sighed and leaned forward with his forearms on his knees; he stared down at the gravel park path. Astra burst into a fit of giggles.
“You think they control the Earth?” she asked. “First of all, that’s not even remotely true. Second of all, even if it were…,” Astra nodded at the empty path in front of them; a tall black portal opened. “…just go to another one.” Oz sat up and looked at Astra again.
“What do you mean that’s not true?” Astra shrugged.
“I’ve been to Earths “controlled” by someone,” she said. “When you have control, you don’t have to hide it. They just want you to think they can make anything happen. Your organization might have plenty of resources; but;…controlling an Earth is out of their league.” Oz sighed again.
“Semantics,” he said. “The point is they can make the rest of my life very short and very miserable.” Astra shook her head.
“Nope. The point is you’ve given up trying to find a way out before you started. If nothing else…,” Astra made a gesture with her hand and a new portal opened. “Different Earth?” Oz shook his head.
“I don’t even know how you do that; I definitely can’t do it.” Astra tilted her head at him.
“It’s a portal. Anyone can walk through it.”
“And anyone just might,” a woman’s voice echoed around them. Ben immediately stood on all fours; his fur bristled and he growled at the portal. A tall, pale woman with tall bone-white horns atop her head sauntered out of the portal. She wore a long, flowing black dress that dragged on the floor. She looked at Astra and smiled. “Hola, Estrellita.”
Before Oz could wonder about the stranger a flash of black covered his vision. His mind was confused as to whether he blinked or not; but, suddenly the park was slightly different. The trees were taller than moments ago; the portal and the pale woman were gone. He turned to ask Astra but she was on her feet pulling his arm in a panic.
“RUN!” she screamed. She ran forward down the path with Ben at her side and Oz behind them. His first few steps were confusing. Obsidian darkness flashed over his eyes with every other step. It wasn’t until Oz noticed that Astra looked back to check for him after every black flash that he realized what was happening. Every few steps, Astra was taking them to another universe. Oz had a million questions, but at the moment, he trusted Astra more than he trusted himself.
Before Astra revealed the multiverse, Oz might have been tempted to try and fight the strange woman. He was a relatively new recruit with the organization; but, all his training taught him to be formidable with his magical abilities. Astra’s reflexive flight at the horned woman’s appearance hinted to Oz that he wouldn’t stand a chance. After another black flash, Astra halted. Oz ran into her but managed to slow himself enough not to topple them over.
“Estrellita, you know you can’t run from me,” a now-familiar voice said. Oz would never forget that voice for the rest of his life; and, it was burned into his brain mostly based on secondhand terror. He had no idea who she was. But, he knew that they ran through at least seven alternate universes; and, somehow she was waiting for them.
“Please don’t hurt him, Ballisea!” Astra yelled. She stood in front of Oz and spread her arms wide to defend him. Ballisea’s obsidian eyes flitted to Oz, then back to Astra. She sighed with disappointment.
“Little one, if I was going to hurt that Zero, I wouldn’t have let you take him for a walk. I happened to overhear your conversation, and it sounded like that Earth could use a little shake-up, hmm? Maybe do away with those kidnappers? I really could use the entertainment.” Astra stepped forward and tilted her head at the horned woman and relaxed her arms.
“Are.. you.. asking me?” she asked. “For… permission?” Ballisea sighed.
“For reasons I don’t feel like explaining, yes,” she said with a nod.
“No way!” Astra yelled. She was so excited she jumped in place. “This is because your team lost, isn’t it?” she asked. “EVERYONE saw that game; this is why the stakes were kept private, isn’t it?” she asked with a broad grin; and, standing closer to Ballisea than Oz would have liked. Especially when they were fleeing in terror moments before. Ballisea stared at Astra expectantly, but did not answer the question. “I won’t give you permission if you don’t answer me,” she said. Ballisea narrowed her eyes at Astra for a moment, then nodded.
“No. This is not related to the stakes of that game,” she said. “This is related to the stakes of the next game.”
“The next game?” Astra asked. “But.. your team… kinda died…?” she said.
“I’m building a new one,” Ballisea replied.
“No,” Ballisea cut off Astra’s request.
“Oh. Okay,” Astra nodded, then she looked at Oz.
“Is it okay if she kills all your bosses?” she asked him. Oz replied with a dazed nod. Astra turned back to Ballisea.
“JUST the evil organization. Take your skeletons and leave that Earth alone once they’re gone. I have family there; if you hurt them or any other innocents there, you break the terms,” Astra said. Ballisea nodded.
“Agreed. I’ll leave in peace. Once I finish,” Ballisea said. Then, she dissipated into a black mist that disappeared.
“What the hell just happened?” Oz asked. “First, we’re running for our lives.. then you’re giving her orders?” Astra shrugged and smiled.
“Everyone knows that the game is only fun if people follow the rules.”