Dungeons & Exposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. So, what now?” Astrid asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharp Reset

“Your performance in your first few games was…,” Dana Sharp paused mid-pace to look at the group of five girls. Bailey, Jenny, Dirge, Dread, and Britt were seated in Dana Sharp’s office. Each one looked sullen from Dana’s lecture so far. She circled them while informing them about her decision to cancel the Pineapple Cup, and start from the beginning again. Dana searched her mind for the most gentle word she could. “…lacking. It wasn’t the only reason for my decision to scrap the first tournament; but, it was on the list of reasons. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s not even a negative.” Dana Sharp walked to her desk and sat behind it.

“Between us in this room, I know you could have improved enough as a team during the tournament to win. However, from a business perspective, there was an opportunity here to exploit. The representatives of Earth: Pineapple respect the fact that my company is willing to take a loss to accommodate a family emergency.” Ms. Sharp took a moment to nod at Bailey. She sat in the center of the group. Her chestnut ponytail was currently covered by her green hoodie; she pulled it up early into the lecture.

“How’s your dad doing, Bailey?” Ms. Sharp asked.

“Better,” Bailey gave the woman a firm nod. “Thank you, Ms. Sharp.”

“I get to buy you girls more time to practice, and it leaves a positive impression on my clients. This was my decision, girls.” The girls all seemed to relax when they realized Ms. Sharp wasn’t angry at them.

“Here’s what we’re going to do going forward. Jenny…,” Dana nodded at a girl with black spiky hair to Bailey’s right. “…you’re still the captain. Bailey’s father is still recovering, and I want her to be able to miss a day of practice if she needs to. Along those lines, we still need a sixth team member. The trouble is, you’ve become a team already. The window to assign you a sixth member myself has already closed.”

“Again, this is a great opportunity to learn something. Sharp Development acquired a dungeon finder app on one of our Earths called ‘Delver’. We’ve scaled it up to the AlterNet and rebranded it as ‘DRBY’. Dana Sharp waved a casual, dismissive hand at the girls.

“It’s on your nodes now, try it out and find a sixth member you all agree on. And you’re able to share the app with other players to make it easier to find practice games. Get as much training in as you can before the tournament restarts,” Dana Sharp said.

“When is it?” Bailey asked.

“You’ll know with plenty of time. When I decide,” Ms. Sharp replied.

Dreadful Aura

Erin froze in his tracks the moment he focused his Sight on the teenager. He was thankful he didn’t call out to her as he approached to congratulate her on her win. She was too busy basking in the cheers of the crowd around her to notice him standing on the field staring at her.

Erin shook his head to dismiss his Sight and recollect his thoughts. He decided not to approach her right away; she was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. She was tall and athletic with spiked, white hair. And, she was now officially the strongest person on Earth.

One day, a year ago, humans spontaneously developed superhuman abilities. Luckily, the leaders of the world were able to come together quickly to develop a super-powered version of the Olympics. They set a date for a year in the future and opened training camps.

Unlike the training involved for professional athletes, anyone could be superhuman. The winner, Dread, wasn’t the only teenager in the competition, but they were all treated as equals. Her frightening strength wasn’t what gave Erin pause. Her aura was entirely different from every other human he saw; super-powered or not.

Every other person congratulating Dread had a soft purple glow around them. It was the same glow that informed Erin of his new ability. After some practice with it, he found out that seeing someone’s aura was the least useful trait of his ability. With his enhanced vision he could see sharper, clearer,  and farther than anyone. It was useful enough to use often, but not all the time. While approaching Dread, his Sight activated unintentionally. It was only the second time that had ever happened; the first was when humans first got their powers.

The moment he saw Dread’s aura, he knew why his ability turned on. It was scared of her. Her body was surrounded by a ghostly, brilliant, golden skull. It resembled a sugar skull with elegant purple, gold, and black patterns decorating it. The number 42 glowed on the skull’s forehead. When he shook his Sight away, the skull aura disappeared while Dread continued smiling and chatting with her new admirers. Something about the situation didn’t seem right, she seemed friendly enough despite her aura. Erin noticed the crowd around her thinning and decided to get closer before his approach became awkward.

He took three steps, then froze again. Erin’s Sight spontaneously activated again, now there were two horrifying auras. A flowing black cloak and obsidian scythe now stood next to Dread’s golden skull. Erin shook his Sight away again and spotted the difference. There was one more girl in the crowd that wasn’t there when Erin tried to approach a second time. She wasn’t as tall as Dread, but almost as pale, and she had long ribbon-like black curls flowing down over her shoulders.

Erin wasn’t surprised; teleportation was a known ability. The new girl with the death-like aura smiled and seemed as cheerful as Dread. Erin decided he was more curious than scared and decided to try approaching a third time. The celebratory crowd around Dread had died down to less than 20 by the time Erin was close enough to hear the conversation. It seemed to be perfect timing, because he was in earshot when Dread spoke up.

“You guys have been so awesome, but my ride’s here now,” Dread said. She gestured at the curly-haired girl next to her with her thumb. “But I have a question for all of you; what’s your favorite number?”

“35!” Erin shouted. He wanted to be heard over everyone else. Unfortunately, no one else answered. Over a dozen strangers turned to look at Erin with curious and amused expressions. He felt instant embarrassment, as well as surprise. He never gave it much thought and didn’t know he had a favorite number.

“Then, you’re who we’re here to see,” Dread said.

Recess. Riot.

“You can’t be serious,” Commander Jennings said. He stared at the group of children in disbelief. It was a small class of around 15 six-year-olds; several of them had bright colored hair. In front of them stood a tall 14-year-old girl with spiky white hair and her arms crossed; bored.

“Mr. Jennings, you’re hardly in a position to complain. You requested help; Sharp Development is here to help,” Dana Sharp said. The pale woman in a white suit stood before the Commander with her assistant, Melody, standing next to her.

“But,.. they’re kids,” the Commander pointed out while shaking his head frantically. “I never expected our S.O.S. to reach an alternate universe. I don’t know how you do things over there, but we don’t sacrifice children on this Earth.”

“I don’t either,” Ms. Sharp replied. “Nor do I limit their development with my beliefs. This is a Unique group of children, each one of them is stronger than any of the monsters attacking your cities. Your infestation is honestly a bit of a reward for their hard work; a play date you could say.” Commander Jennings glanced at the children again; they remained quiet while he talked to Dana. He was surprised at how well behaved they were and decided he didn’t know everything about the universe they came from.

“Alright, let’s see some proof first. Before I give the order to throw a handful of first graders at the rampaging monsters,” Commander Jennings said. He motioned for the group to follow him and led them out of his office and toward the motorpool. He reached the decommissioned Sherman on display and pointed at it; it may have been too much but he had other things to deal with. If they weren’t going to be able to help he needed to keep searching.

“Let’s see one of your kiddies move that,” he said.

“Dread,” Ms. Sharp nodded at the tall girl with white hair; the girl spoke up.

“Riot, you’re up,” she said. The group of children whined as one while a small orange-haired girl walked toward the tank with a nervous smile. The tiny girl reached the tank’s tread and squatted; she stuck her hands under the tread and pulled upward. She made a grunting sound as she shoved it up. She lifted the tank surprisingly easily, but she froze once she locked her arms and legs under it. She held it up and strained while she pondered her next move. Commander Jenning’s eyes went wide in surprise. They were stronger than any human on his own Earth, but, the monsters were far more heavy-duty than the tank. If that was as much as they could do, they were still too weak to help. Before he gave his decision to Ms. Sharp, the group of children began chanting and cheering.

“RIOT! RIOT! RIOT!” He looked back to the girl lifting the tank and noticed a faint orange aura collecting around her as the kids cheered.

“YeeeeeAAAAAGH!!!” Riot yelled and heaved the tank using the strength her friends gave her. The tank launched upward; it arced up and landed upside down over 100 yards away; luckily not on any buildings.

“….They’re… all that strong?” Commander Jennings asked.

“At least,” Ms. Sharp replied. “Riot is both the weakest and strongest student we have; you haven’t seen her real strength yet.”

“I believe you,” Commander Jennings nodded. “Alright. The United States formally requests assistance from Sharp Development in dealing with our monster infestation.” Ms. Sharp smiled and nodded; the group of children cheered.

“Wonderful,” Ms. Sharp said. Melody gave Commander Jennings a clipboard loaded with several forms that she wasn’t holding seconds before. He had no idea where she pulled it from. “I just need a few signatures from you first.”

Sharp Education

“Excuse me,” Randy stopped by one of the teachers directing kid traffic in the halls with his daughter. “I’m having trouble finding her room,” he raised the orange-haired girl’s hand. “Could you point us the right way?”

“Sure,” the friendly teacher smiled at both of them. “What’s the number?”

“42? We looked all over, but the highest room number we found was 30.” The teacher’s smile all but evaporated and her sparkling eyes dulled. She turned and pointed down the hall.

“Take a left at the end of the hall, first door on your right. If you think you’re in the wrong place, you’re there. Be sure to knock,” she answered with her back to them. Then, she shifted her attention back to directing children without another word.

“Oh, okay,” Randy was puzzled by her sudden coolness. He led his daughter down the hall and his paranoia started wondering if she somehow knew of his daughter’s abilities. He shook his head and looked down at the girl. Her long orange hair was tied back in a single braid that bounced against her back while they walked.

“Remember, no rough stuff, okay?” The girl nodded vigorously while smiling up at him.

“Like eggs!” she replied. Randy and his wife went through hundreds, maybe thousands of eggs trying to teach her how to play carefully.

“And no running,” he added.

“Like turtles!” she giggled.

“And please listen to your teacher like you listen to us,” he said as they turned left. Randy stopped immediately at the first door. It looked narrower than the other room doors and was closed. He looked to the next door and saw a bright classroom full of kids through the open door, then shrugged. “Well, it looks like the wrong place,” he grabbed the knob and opened the door.

He expected a bright and full room like the rest of them; he found a dark, small janitor’s closet that reeked of cleaning supplies.

“Definitely in the wrong place,” he said and closed the door again. “I think that teacher didn’t like us for some reason,” he said while looking around for someone more helpful.

“Daddy! Knock!” the girl said. Randy laughed.

“There’s no one in there, darling,” though he reached out and knocked just to humor her. He turned to look down the other hall, then heard the janitor’s closet open. White spiked tips appeared from behind the door, followed by a pale, teenage girl’s face. She stepped out from behind the door, but kept it open, and smiled at Randy. She was the last thing he expected for a teacher. She wore a red t-shirt with a yin-yang logo on the front and a pair of blue jeans. She looked nothing like the dresses and slacks worn by the rest of the staff.

“Looking for room 42?” she asked. Randy gave a half-confused nod. “C’mon in,” she stood aside and held the door open. Randy peeked inside and his eyes went wide. Instead of the janitor’s closet, he found a white room, bigger and brighter than any of the other rooms in the school. Randy counted about eight kids sitting together in the middle of the room, they all turned to face him when he walked in.

“I’m Dread, what’s your name?” The teenager dropped to one knee and asked Randy’s daughter. The moment he heard the girl’s name, Randy felt a bit relieved. He always felt a bit of guilt over his daughter’s name. He loved it, and it felt right to him and his wife. But it was an unusual name, like Dread’s.

“Riot,” his daughter said with a proud smile.

“Go make some new friends, Riot. I need to talk to your dad for a second, okay?” she said. Riot nodded eagerly, Randy squeezed her hand because she looked ready to run. She got the message and took slower than normal steps. Dread laughed and looked at Randy.

“I’ll bet she’s faster than that,” Dread said.

“Uh.. no, no. I mean, yes, of course, but she likes moving slow.” Randy stumbled out the reply and Dread laughed again.

“I’m sure you noticed this was a janitor’s closet,” she said. “Riot was assigned this class for a reason, we know how special she is.”

“What do you mean?” Randy narrowed his eyes at her. He didn’t question the hidden room very much because his daughter had superpowers. He was willing to accept that there are likely other mysteries in the world. However, the fact that she was put in a special class because of her abilities made him worry about government experimentation. Dread’s smile grew wider.

“Don’t worry, she’s perfectly safe,” Dread walked to a nearby desk that Randy hadn’t noticed and grabbed a manila folder from it. She turned and handed it to him.

“This will explain everything, and there’s a number you can call if you still have questions.”

“Are you the teacher?” Randy asked. Dread shook her head.

“I’m more like the chaperone. These kids are strong, but I’m stronger.”

“Are they all… strong like Riot?” he asked. “You too?” Dread nodded.

“They have different abilities too, but they’re all very, very strong. I’m sure you did all you could to prepare her for a class with normal kids, but accidents happen. Any of them could easily, accidentally rip off a normal classmate’s head. Luckily, we were able to put together enough of them to make a worthwhile class.”

“Wow, I didn’t know there were so many strong kids in the school district, much less the city.”

“There isn’t,” Dread shook her head. “Usually one per Earth, they’re all from different universes.”

“Different….universes?” Randy asked. Dread nodded and tapped the folder in his hands.

“It’ll explain everything.” Randy opened it and found an information packet. The first page had a corporate logo he didn’t recognize, a pair of red scissors with the name, “Sharp Education”. Before he could ask about the company, he was distracted by a knock on the door behind him.

“Oh!” Dread said. “Sorry to rush you out, but you need to go back to your universe before I answer that,” she wiggled the doorknob once, then opened the door.  “See you at 3,” she said once he stepped out, then she closed the door again.

Custom Footwear

“So he’s fast?” Jenny asked with a smirk. “There’s not a lot he can do in the AlterNet with just speed,” she said. She stood next to an aluminum picnic table in the park meeting with a client. Her hands hovered above the picnic table; a swarm of golden nanos swirled between the table and her hands. Dirge and Dread stood on each side of her while the client, Alliane, and her friend Billy were seated at the table. “But, thanks for the heads up. At least now we know about the new roster,” Jenny smiled at Billy.

“In fact…,” Jenny dropped her hands to her sides; the golden swarm fell to the table like dust. Gold powder completely covered the sneakers she was trying to import for Alliane. “As a wedding gift to you…,” Jenny handed a small golden cube to Alliane; she returned the woman’s payment. Then, she looked at Billy. “…and to say thank you for the tip about LaughTrack…,” Jenny positioned her hands over the gold-covered sneakers. The nanos immediately rose into the air as if she were magnetizing them. Then they began to swirl around the sneakers again like they were trapped in an invisible snow globe. “…you get the guinea pig special.” Everyone except Jenny looked confused.

[What’s the guinea pig special?-Dread] Jenny felt the Whisper from Dread tickle the back of her neck. Somewhere Alliane and Billy would not accidentally notice.

“What’s the guinea pig special?” Billy asked at the same time.

“It’s when I’m working on something new and need to test it out, I do it for free.

“Wait, what are you trying out?” Alliane asked. She sat up straighter and fought the impulse to grab the sneakers off the table. She had no idea what was happening in the cloud of nanos but she did not assume it was harmless.

“Like I told your friend,” Jenny nodded at Billy. “There’re a dozen different ways to import items into the AlterNet. Thanks to hearing about LaughTrack; I just invented a new one.” Jenny continued talking when no one asked any followup questions. “The other ways involve covering the object in a layer of nanos that the AlterNet recognizes. But, with my spec I can make anything out of nanos.” Jenny reached down into the golden cloud and pulled out the pair of old white sneakers Alliane brought. The golden dust settled to the table then disappeared. They left behind a gleaming white pair of sneakers. They looked almost exactly like the ones Alliane wanted imported; but, Jenny held those in her hand.

“Instead of making these usable I made a brand new pair using AlterNet crafting materials. They’re made from Soul Serpent leather so they’re great at channeling Unique energy.” Jenny smiled as she handed Alliane both pairs of white sneakers. “Everything else being equal they’ll be faster than other boots imported the normal way.”

Vanilla Origin

She was beautiful,” Alliane said then returned the node to Billy. He gave it to her to show a picture of a white-haired woman in an orange dress sitting atop a t-rex. “But she looks so sad in that photograph.”

“Yeah. But I absolutely love her,” Billy paused. He took dropped the node into the breast pocket of his navy blue suit. Alliane’s attention darted around the park. She looked every jogger and Sunday-stroller up and down hoping to recognize someone she’d never met. When Billy went quiet she immediately turned to look at him and nodded her head.

‘I’m listening, sorry. You love her…,” she made a rolling ‘continue’ gesture with her hand.”

“When she smiles,” Billy said with a wistful look.

“Why isn’t she there?” Alliane nodded at Billy’s pocket; then, she used the action to start scanning the park again.

“That was the day she died.” Her attention focused on Billy instantly.

“I’m sorry,” she reached across the concrete picnic table to give his hand a short, comforting squeeze. “But why was she sad? She knew something was going to happen that day?”

“Yes,” Billy said. “I don’t feel like talking about that right now if that’s okay…” he said. Alliane nodded. “But can I talk to you about her?” he asked. Alliane was only his second friend; he still questioned everything.

“Of course,” she turned her body to face him as a sign that she was done only half-paying attention. “Tell me your favorite memory.” Billy smiled. “Take all the time you need,” she added. Billy nodded and stopped time around them

“Slumbering Estrellas…,” Billy nodded at Alliane. “… accidentally traverse all the time, right?” She nodded. “It’s the same for Slumbering Muertes. We accidentally stop time. It happened to Vanilla when she was eight. Stopping time is more granular than you might think. Every thing has its own time, and a lot depends on the Muerte’s notions of what time is.” Billy knocked on the metal table; Alliane heard the low echoing vibrations run through the metal. “If we think stopped time should mean no sound waves…” Billy knocked on the metal table again. Alliane did not hear a sound. “Then it means no sound waves. Generally speaking, we only stop as much as we think about.” Billy took in a deep breath, then released a heavy sigh.

“Vanilla stopped every thing. At eight years old. While still slumbering.”

“Everything?” Alliane asked. “So?” She had trouble seeing the trouble if nothing was moving.

“Everything around her. She was terribly frightened and started crying.” Billy shook his head. “She time-stopped gravity too. Her tears just stayed in the air whenever she moved. She tried wiping her tears away with tissue but they wouldn’t absorb. Time passed and they wouldn’t evaporate either. Every morning she woke up with hope, but she only found tears. She traveled the world leaving giant floating pools of tears everywhere she went. She doesn’t know how long it took, in the neighborhood of a thousand years or so,” Billy shrugged. “She drowned the world. Once she had no other place on that Earth to go her body let her traverse to a different one.”

“Whooaa..” a girl neither of them noticed said. They looked up and found three girls. A tall, pale, white-haired girl, a shorter girl with raven curls, and the shortest girl with black spiky hair. The girl with black curls in a black and orange dress was the one that sounded awed. “Your friend sounds amazing!”

“Alliane?” the shortest girl asked. “I’m Jenny. You had some boots you wanted to import?” Alliane nodded, then looked at Billy.

“I thought you stopped time,” she said. The curly-haired girl smiled.

“I’m Dirge. #14, La Muerte.”

“Alliane. #35, La Estrella.” Alliane was compelled to reply, though the introduction answered Alliane’s question. It seemed Dirge was as powerful as Billy.

Dreaded Gift

“That’s it??” Jorge looked at the single five dollar bill in his hand then back to the blue half-genie tethered to the lamp. The genie shrugged.

“You got me,” he said with a genuinely confused look. “I don’t control the magic, I just channel it. The universe says you only need five dollars for the rest of your life? You get five dollars.”

“Can I trade it in for a different wish?” Jorge asked. The genie burst into deep, booming laughter while shaking his head.

“I’m not working retail here,” he said. “You got your one wish.” the genie shooed Jorge away with a gesture. “Move along.” The genie dissipated into light blue smoke that flowed back into the lamp. Jorge grumbled to himself. He thought about kicking the lamp but decided against it. Instead, he shoved his hands in his pockets and walked away from the hidden area.

Jorge jogged around the park in the mornings and that particular morning he noticed some hedges missing. He attributed it to the groundskeepers that were working throughout the park that day. Sounds of chainsaws and hedge trimmers filled the air. Curiosity led him through the opening where he found a small alcove that seemed to be about the size of his modest bathroom. The spot was hidden and closed off from the rest of the area by buildings on one side and the missing hedges and foliage on the other.

The area seemed interesting, but he feared he might be trespassing on someone’s property and turned to leave. Then he noticed a brilliant gleam coming from under a large over-grown blue orchid.

Now he walked out of the niche five dollars richer but in a worse mood than he started the day.

“What can I even do with five dollars?” he grumbled to himself as he cut through the park to his car; he decided to skip the rest of his walk. “Screw it,” he decided. “I’m blowing it the first chance I get.” As he made his decision a jingling bell caught his attention.

“Perfect,” he smiled a bit to himself when he noticed the ice cream cart setting up shop for the day. Ice cream for breakfast seemed like the perfect indulgence to fritter away his newfound wealth.

He changed course to head to the stand. He noticed a tall, pale girl with spiky white hair and a shorter girl with raven curls spilling off her shoulders, walking toward it as well. They reached the vendor first.

“You guys still use paper money?” Jorge heard the shorter, dark-haired girl ask the vendor with an annoyed tone. She pulled out a clear, glassy rectangle about the size of a playing card.

“Cash only, no card,” the vendor replied. He held two cones, each with a single scoop of vanilla. Both girls sighed.

“Nevermind,” the shorter one said. They spun on their heels and turned to walk away. The vendor shrugged and started to lower the cones back into the cooler. As they walked away Jorge remembered his decision to blow the fiver first chance he had.

“How much for the two cones?” he asked. The two girls heard his question and stopped walking to turn around.

“Five even,” the vendor replied.

Why the hell not?” Jorge said. “I got it,” he traded the five dollar bill for the two cones, then took a step to the two girls to gift them the cones.

‘Thank you!” the shorter girl said then immediately began lapping at the white ball.

“Thanks,” the taller one said as she accepted the cone. “You didn’t have to, you know. I mean, we’re not starving or anything,” she shrugged. “Just didn’t have cash.” Jorge nodded.

“Yeah, it’s cool. It’s a beautiful morning for ice cream,” he chuckled. “I hope you enjoy it.” He gave them a polite wave, then headed back to his car.

“Hey wait, we need to pay you back,” Dread said.

“WATCH OUT!!!!!!!!!” Jorge heard someone yell and turned to see a uniformed worker in a hardhat frantically waving his arms at him and pointing upward. Jorge looked up to see a large tree falling directly on top of him.

Stupid universe,” Jorge had time for a final thought as the tree was about to crush him. He closed his eyes.

“Hey. Are you gonna move or what?” Jorge recognized the taller girl’s voice and popped one eye open. She stood there holding her cone and looking at him with a sly smirk. He looked up at the tree and noticed it wasn’t moving. It remained fixed in the air at a 45-degree angle about to squash him.

“What the hell is going on?” he asked her. Then he stepped out from under the hovering tree. The tall girl pointed at the shorter one behind him.

“Dirge can stop time. I’m Dread,” she extended her free hand and Jorge shook it.

“Jorge,” he said.

“You clear?” Dirge asked from behind him. Jorge looked around himself then took a few more steps out of the way.

“Clear,” he said. The moment he did the tree finished crashing into the ground. “Thanks,” he said.

“Now we’re even, right?” Dirge asked. The short girl walked up beside Dread. Dread shook her head.

“Nah that doesn’t count,” she said as she reached into the pocket of her blue jeans. Then she pulled out a clear, glass card like Dirge had. “You would’ve done that anyway,” she smiled at her friend then turned her attention to Jorge.

“Here. We don’t have any cash but this’ll work if you swipe it at any credit card reader. There’s no limit.”

“What? Are you serious?” Dread nodded and Jorge eagerly accepted the gift. “Why aren’t you using it?” Dirge held hers up and Dread showed him two more.

“We got plenty and we’re just passing through anyway.” As she said that Jorge noticed Dirge making gestures at the air with her free hand. A tall black portal opened next to them.

“What the hell?” Jorge asked. He turned around to see if anyone else noticed the large hole in reality, but everyone in the park was frozen in time again. The workers that were rushing to help him hovered in the air mid-step.

“See ya around,” Dread waved and stepped into the black hole. Dirge followed.

Dreaded Surprise

Robert’s phone chimed for the first time in two years. The forgotten sound distracted him from his lunch and he stared at his phone in silence. After several seconds he reached for the phone with a shaking hand and checked the notification.

No way…” he navigated to the message; a comment on his latest video.

“Awesome skating!” from a user named ‘Star35Torque’. The video showed Robert skateboarding an obstacles course he built himself through a mall. Thanks to not having to run the rat race, Robert was able to devote all his time to his passion. He recorded his course run with different cameras and edited them all together into one smooth ride. It started on the second floor at one end of the mall and ended on the first floor at another end.

“Who are you?” he replied to the comment. Robert stared at the phone intently for 10 minutes, but no reply came. He sighed and set the phone down, but he was not discouraged. “They probably got busy,” he reasoned, then looked around at his mess. It was about time to move again anyway. Robert became lazy about his personal space and tended to change houses instead of cleaning up. The brief hope that he might have visitors soon prompted him to relocate to the next house he had his eye on.

He drove to the small two-bedroom brick house. Robert spent the rest of the day organizing his new home and gathering supplies. No one had replied by the time Robert got into bed, nor by the time he woke up. He was in the middle of breakfast when his phone chimed again. He grabbed it without hesitation then navigated to the message.

“Britt (not Brittany!). Who are you?” the reply said. He hurried to type a reply.

“My name’s Robert. I’m the last man on Earth.” He did not get a reply until two hours later.

“LOL! Lucky you!” That was not the response he expected.

“Not lucky! Where are you? Can you help me?” he responded. He wasted the day waiting for a response that never came. He wanted to be close to home in case Britt stopped by. Britt replied while Robert was eating breakfast the next morning.

“Help you what?” She answered. Robert wondered whether she deliberately avoided the ‘where are you’ question or not; and, it bothered him. After two years of not worrying about what anyone else thought, he found himself searching for meaning in each interaction.

“Help me,..” Robert typed his reply but stalled. He actually didn’t know what he wanted help with. Aside from the lingering loneliness, he loved the freedom he had. “Help me not be alone.” He waited in bed until her reply came.

“Are you asking me out?” Britt replied after two hours. Robert chuckled when he read her question, then responded.

“I don’t know you enough to ask you out. I’ve been the last person on Earth for two years. Where did you come from? Can I go there?” He tried being as direct as possible. His notification chimed during his usual breakfast time the next morning, but he was not eating anything. He skipped cooking breakfast because he did not want to have his hands occupied when she answered. Not that she answered anything.

“Why?” she asked.

What do you mean, ‘why’?” Robert mumbled to himself. It seemed obvious. But the more he searched for a why the less he found one. Robert realized he had not been as lonely as he thought he should be until another human interacted with him. He loved the freedom. He loved making videos with the expectation that no one would see them. The videos were just something he enjoyed. Robert realized he had not enjoyed making a video in two days. He took his time thinking. If she stuck the pattern he had two hours to answer. Finally, he found a ‘why’.

“I’ll run out of food eventually.” He answered.

“K. I can bring you food if you want to stay, or give you a ride if you want to leave. Where you at?” Britt replied. Robert figured out her schedule and knew he had time to think about it. She responded twice a day and he got the impression that he would not be able to leave until the second time.

If I want to leave?” Robert scoffed at the suggestion, but deep down he knew the answer. “Of course I don’t want to leave,” he said to himself aloud. He loved his life except for the background fear of starvation, and occasional loneliness. Britt solved both problems in a way that did not require him to leave.

“Food would be great!” Robert pinpointed his location and shared it with Britt. He knew she would not respond until the morning, but he did not feel tired at all. His decision energized him and he sat down to plan his next video.

“K. See ya at 11ish.” Britt’s morning reply said. Robert spent the two hours cleaning up and making himself presentable. He sat down by the door at 11 on the dot and waited. At 11:05 there was a light knock at the door and Robert threw it open without checking the peephole. He discovered four teenage girls standing on his doorstep. The tallest one, a pale girl with white spiky hair, held two large red and white bags that Robert recognized as Chinese food.

“You said you were lonely, so I brought friends,” the dark-skinned girl stepped forward and smiled. “I’m Britt. That’s Dread,” she pointed at the tall girl. “Jenny,” she pointed at an Asian girl with black spiked hair. “And the tiny one is Dirge,” Britt pointed at a  short girl with black flowing curls.

“Man…,” Dread stepped into the house without being invited and placed the bags of food on the first surface she found. “You got a whole Earth to yourself, you’re so lucky,” she grinned. Robert nodded.

“Yeah I am!”

Ticket to Ride

“Might as well,” Lucy shrugged. She accepted the plate with two slices on it with a nod of thanks. “We’re all gonna die anyway.”

“Don’t say that,” Mando smiled at her as he plated another pair of slices. “My wish has worked out pretty well so far.” He patted the brick oven on the side. “This thing hasn’t let me down yet,” the older man smiled at the rest of his gathered friends. Though their attention was on the news, not on him. Mando’s large screen TV showed skeletons raining out of black holes in the sky. The view switched to different cities, but it was always raining skeletons. Each member of the small group that showed up took turns looking up at the sky. Lucy laughed.

“You’re right! I remember when it popped out at that banana and honey pizza,” her laughter drew everyone else’s attention. Greg, Mando’s stepson, joined in on the laughter as well.

“We didn’t know what to do with it! HAHA. We left it out and the next thing we know a monkey shows up from out of nowhere and starts eating it!” He doubled over in his seat, red-faced from laughter.”

“And then the doorbell rang,” Carla took over the story with a broad smile. “A clown was going door to door looking for his lost monkey.” She nodded at the pizza oven, then patted Mando on the shoulder. “That monkey’s favorite pizza was banana and honey, the clowns give it to him as a treat sometimes.” She shrugged. “There’s no way any of us could have known that, but it worked. That’s why we’re here today.”

“Or to spend our last day together,” Lucy added.

“Have some faith in the oven!” Carla said with a smile.

“Fine. I have faith in the oven,” Lucy rolled her eyes. After her statement, the oven dinged to let them know another pizza was ready. Mando looked at his guests’ plates, but everyone had at least a slice.

“Did someone want something else?” he asked while he moved to the oven. He grabbed the wooden peel and pulled the pizza out. “Uhh. Looks like ham and pineapple.”

“Gross, no,” Lucy replied first, but the rest of them seemed to agree the pizza sounded disgusting.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH” Lucy shrieked suddenly. Mando looked to see what the problem was. The short woman pointed at a vertical black hole hovering a foot off the ground.

“Get behind me!” Mando moved to stand in front of his guests. He held the loaded pizza peel in front of them. He saw white come out of the portal and panicked. He swung the peel like a catapult to launch the steaming pizza at the portal.

A deafening yell, louder than a train whistle, caused the pizza to explode in mid-air. The volume drove Mando and his friends to their knees. Once they were on the ground the sound stopped.

“Rude!” a girl’s voice said. Mando did not recognize it.

“We probably scared them,” another girl said. Mando looked up and saw three young girls. A tall one with short, spiky white hair, a short one with long black curls, and one between them with short, spiky black hair.

“Hi.” the Asian girl with black spikes waved. “Sorry if we scared you.” Mando felt safe enough to stand up. He helped Lucy up while Greg helped Carla. Once they were all on their feet Mando looked at the dark-haired girl and nodded.

“I think we’re all okay. Sorry for throwing the pizza at you. We thought you were invading. Who are you?” he asked.

“Oh! I’m Jenny,” she smiled. “That’s Dread,” she pointed at the tall white-haired girl. “And that’s Dirge,” she gestured at the girl with dark curls. “Why did you think we were invading?” she asked. Mando pointed at the TV. Black portals continued to rain skeletons on cities.

“We need to leave. Now,” Dread said. Dirge nodded and turned towards the portal.

“What’s going on?” Jenny asked.

“Ballisea’s taking over.” Dread answered her.

“Whoa…” Jenny watched the TV for several seconds. “You said she was powerful… but…. wow..”

“Let’s go, Jen.” Dread placed a hand on her shoulder. The girl nodded and turned to go back into the portal. She caught sight of the pizza remnants on the ground.

‘Oh man! Was that ham and pineapple?” She stopped before entering the black hole. “I love ham and pineapple.” The girl turned toward Mando. “Hey. Got any more?” The oven dinged and Mando nodded.

“I do if you take us with you.”

“Okay,” Jenny smiled.

“And the oven too!” Carla added.

“Uh..”Jenny looked at Dirge. The curly-haired girl nodded with a shrug.