Janet, a black cat, trotted out of the black portal and into an endless wheat field. A golden sun hung high in the bright blue sky but the swaying wheat stopped the light from reaching her on the ground. She sighed when she realized she couldn’t see anything above the stalks. Her fur disappeared as her body stretched and grew upward. In an instant, she became a short, portly woman with a red skull tattooed on the top of her bald head. She spun around scouting the area and spotted Justice’s pink hair. The girl was waiting next to a giant glowing, red orb. The magical ball was large enough for Justice to fit into it and it hovered off the ground. Janet walked toward the girl and she looked up at the approaching woman.
“Team meeting,” Janet said to explain her presence. The girl smiled and nodded.
“Perfect! We can take our new member!” she pointed at the red glowing sphere. “Andrea’s making her character but she’s probably almost done.” Janet sighed heavily to let Justice now how impatient she was; then the short woman shook her head.
“No new members. Team’s full,” she said.
“Full? There’s only four of us! The rules say we need six.”
“The rules suggest six to give everyone a chance to rotate out and get some rest. The minimum is four,” Janet said.
“Why are we sticking to the minimum? What if someone gets knocked out?” Justice asked. She tried to use a general term but both of them knew if anyone was going to get knocked off the track it would be the team’s weakest link: her. Janet shrugged.
“You’re sticking to the minimum because that’s the minimum required to compete. Gravewatch has four members because you can’t compete with less. If it were allowed,” Janet shrugged. “Oren could win the tournament by himself.”
“Well okay, even better. If it doesn’t matter whether she’s there or not why can’t she join the team?”
“Well…you never asked. This is a professional derby team, not an afterschool club. You can’t sign your friends up because they’re your friends. All candidates need to be approved by Ms. Sharp before they even try-out.”
“The first thing you should do is get a tattoo,” Justice said between bites of food. She sat in Donna Chang’s restaurant enjoying a meal with her friend, Andrea, and Andrea’s parents.
“A tattoo??” Andrea’s mother asked while shaking her head. “You’re only 14. You’re not getting a tattoo,” she told her daughter. The woman’s plate sat in front of her untouched. She and her husband both ordered despite disliking Chinese food. Arnold, Andrea’s father, did pick at his food but it only reminded him that he wasn’t a fan. Justice shrugged and continued talking to Andrea.
“It doesn’t have to be a tattoo, and it doesn’t need to be big or anything,” she said while ignoring the adults. “You just need the number 21 on your skin somewhere,” the pink-haired girl cast a glance at Andrea’s mom. “Permanently,” she said while looking the woman in the eyes, then she turned back to her friend. “Brand, tattoo, whatever as long as it leaves a scar.
“You’re not going to join a team that requires you to ruin your beautiful skin,” Martha told her daughter. “If you want to join roller derby that badly we can find you another team.”
“BRITT!” Justice yelled toward the kitchen door. A dark-skinned girl with twin afro-puffs on her head emerged through the swinging door and headed for the table.
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Two big favors?” Justice asked. Britt nodded with a smile.
“Favor one; I want to take Andrea to make an AlterNet character,” she cast her eyes at Andrea’s parents to clue Britt in. “The nanos can awaken her. Favor two; can you please explain Uniques to them? You can prove it better than I can.”
“No sweat, it’s pretty slow right now anyway,” Britt replied. She wiggled her fingers at the air and opened a tall, black portal next to the table. Then she handed Justice a small, pitch black business card.
“Thanks! Let’s go,” She tapped Andrea on the shoulder then dashed through the portal. Andrea followed without giving her parents time to object, then the portal disappeared. Britt sat down in front of the straight-laced, wide-eyed parents.
“What just happened?” Martha asked.
“Where did they go?” Arnold asked at almost the same time.
“Your daughter is special,” Britt said.
“We know and we’d like her back,” Martha said.
“They’ll come back when they’re done, it shouldn’t take more than 15 or 20 minutes. In the meantime, I’ll tell you about your Unique daughter.”
“What do you know about our daughter?” Martha asked.
“Where did they go?” Arnold asked again. He seemed more curious than concerned for his daughter. Britt was glad at least one of Andrea’s parents seemed to trust Justice. She decided she’d rather speak to him than the mother and turned her attention to Arnold.
“Think of roller derby like a video game; they went to make Andrea’s character.”
“Oh. Nice,” Arnold replied with a large smile.
“Your daughter is something called a Unique Soul. She’s the only her in all the universes.”
“Of course she is,” Martha said with a stern voice.
“… so there are other universes?” Arnold asked? Britt nodded; both to agree with him and to congratulate herself for making the right decision. He was definitely the one to talk to.
“There’s an infinite number of alternate Earths; with thousands of other versions of you,” Britt pointed at Arnold. “And her,” She tilted her head toward Martha but did not take her eyes off Arnold.
“I wonder if all of your versions are this rude,” Martha said aloud.
“I’m Unique too. There’s only one of me,” she grinned. “So, yeah,” she nodded at the woman then turned back to Arnold. “When a Unique is born, they’re referred to as ‘Slumbering’ until they awaken their powers; that’s done by getting their number on their skin. Then they’re ‘Awakened’.
“She better not come back with a tattoo!” Martha said sharply. “I heard that wolf girl say she would ‘awaken’ Andrea.”
“Justice won’t leave a visible mark on your daughter,” Britt stressed her friend’s name.
“What kind of powers?” Arnold asked.
“Each Unique type has different abilities. Your daughter, #21, can pull anything she thinks about from another universe.” Britt lifted her hand off the table and held it with the palm facing upward; it began to glow blue. Arnold leaned back as he felt a heat current flow out from her hand; as if he just opened an oven. “I’m #35. I can channel plasma from a star.” The glow dissipated and Britt dropped her hand to the table.
“What does this have to do with roller derby?” Arnold asked.
“Most of the competitors are Uniques because we can use our powers in the game.”
“What about the wolf gi-,” Martha interrupted herself when Britt turned and glared at her with brilliant golden stars around her pupils. “What Unique is Justice?” she corrected herself quickly.
“She’s a Zero. That’s what we call…,” Britt pointed at both parents. “…non-Uniques. She has other powers though; besides the werewolf thing.” As Britt explained a small, vertical, dinner-plate sized portal appeared on top of their table. A black cat with a red skull-like pattern on its head walked out of the portal and sat on the table. It looked around the table then settled on Britt. The portal closed behind it.
“Where’s Justice?” the cat asked with a soft, feminine voice.
“She’s making a character for her friend on the Kingdom server,” Britt replied. “Andrea wants to be on Justice’s team.” The cat swished its tail and another portal opened up next to her.
“Her team doesn’t need any more members,” the cat replied. It stood and walked toward the other portal.
“But they only have four members?” Britt asked.
“That’s all they need.” The cat disappeared into the portal, then it closed.
“Honey, are you sure this is the right place?” Mrs. Topps asked her daughter. The three-person family stood in front of a Chinese restaurant. A neon red sign came on as dusk fell around them; it read: “Donna Chang’s”. “We don’t like Chinese food,” she reminded Andrea.
“You and dad don’t like it,” the teenage girl said with a visible eyeroll. “I love it. But we’re here because this is where my new friend likes to hang out.”
“Is she Chinese?” The older woman asked.
“She’s a werewolf,” Andrea replied with a shrug.
“From China?” the mother asked with a concerned tone.
“Dad?” Andrea turned around to ask her father for help. He smiled and reached up to pat his daughter on the head.
“I think your mother’s allowed to give you a hard time if you’re making up stories about werewolves, vampires, and dragons. It’s all in good fun,” he said with a smile. Andrea sighed, but she knew there was no sense arguing. She’d be able to prove she was telling the truth within the next few minutes.
“C’mon,” Andrea led her parent into the restaurant. Despite it being a Friday evening, the restaurant was mostly empty. A single teenage girl sat at a large table; she turned toward the door when the tinny bell over the door signaled new customers. She recognized Andrea and ran over to the trio with a large smile on her face.
“Hey Andy!” she said. When she reached the family the two teenagers greeted each other with a hug.
“Justice, these are my parents,” Andrea gestured at the adults behind her, then turned toward them. “Mom, dad. This is Justice.”
“Hi!” Justice shook the hands of each parent.
“Justice is a werewolf,” Andrea said. “Show them!” she grinned. Justice nodded and stood up straighter. She took several deep breaths, then grunted as if she was straining. She shut her eyes and clenched her teeth. Her head changed shape as dark black fur pushed out of her skin on her forehead. The fur continued to grow out down her face, neck and under her shirt down her arms. Her face became an elongated snout with a black nose and purple glowing eyes.
During the girl’s transformation, Martha Topps stepped next to her daughter while Arnold stepped in front of them. Within a few short moments, the fair-skinned girl was replaced by a black-furred humanoid wolf.
“What do you want?” Arnold asked; his voice trembled with fear. The fur began to recede back into the girl’s skin; her snout grew shorter.
“Orange beef,” the girl, now Justice again, said with a smile. She turned and walked back to the table. Andrea stepped around her dad and followed her friend. Mr. and Mrs. Topps stood in shock watching their daughter chat animatedly with the wolfgirl.
“Table for two?” A sudden, bright voice said behind them. Both parents jumped; Arnold jumped higher. They turned and saw a dark-skinned waitress smiling at them. Her name tag said: Britt.
“She’s a werewolf!” Arnold hissed a whisper at the waitress while pointing at Justice.
“The owner and the cook are dragons,” Britt shrugged. “That’s the kind of place this is.” Arnold looked at his daughter; she was smiling. He did not see that often around the house.
“Is she in any danger?” He asked Britt.
“My daughter,” Arnold nodded at the table with the two girls. “The one that’s not a werewolf.”
“OH! You’re Andrea’s parents? Nice to meet you!” Britt greeted them both with a handshake. She looked at the table and nodded.
“Justice is trying to get her to join roller derby. Andrea’s in danger of having too much fun.” Britt smiled and waved as she headed back to the kitchen. The couple obviously did not need her help to find a table.
“Roller derby? Oh no. I’ve seen those women on TV, they’re so violent,” Martha whispered in her husband’s ear as they walked to the table.
“Guess what!? Justice said I could try out for her roller derby team!” Andrea said as her parents sat down. Arnold nodded.
“We’ll go cheer you on,” he said. He glanced at Martha and she nodded. Both of them knew not to mention their worries to Andrea.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” Matron Silver asked. The officer that dropped off the scrawny, pink-haired 8-year-old girl left in a hurry. The older woman closed the door and leaned against the edge of her desk to address her new arrival. The girl looked up to meet the woman’s brown eyes.
“Justice,” she said. The woman placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder and leaned forward with a polite, sad smile.
“What a beautiful name they left you with.” Justice was one of the rare kids that ended up at the orphanage by accident. Her parent’s car accident would have left all three of them dead if Justice’s lycanthropy didn’t save her life. “How bad are your changes?” Matron Silver asked. The girl shook her head.
“I can control it already.”
“Really?” Matron Silver raised a grey eyebrow. Justice bit her lower lip.
“Almost,” she admitted. The Matron nodded, smiled, then walked around the desk to sit down across from Justice. She pulled open a drawer and grabbed a folder from inside.
“We’ll find out tonight.” Matron Silver dropped the folder on the desk and gave Justice a somber, sympathetic look. “When I was your age, I hated when people didn’t explain things to me. I’m sorry about your parents, Justice. The accident only happened a couple of hours ago,” the Matron sighed. “…and here you are. I’m sure you feel that things are happening too fast. I want you to know you can slow down and ask any question you want okay?”
“Okay,” Justice nodded. The woman gave her almost half a minute to ask a question, but the girl seemed impatient to keep things moving.
“You don’t have any questions then?” Justice shook her head.
“I know why I’m here,” she tilted her head at the sunset outside the window. “I’d rather be here than a jail cell anyway.”
“Smart girl,” the Matron smiled. “So, when you say, ‘almost’ what does that mean? How much can you control it?” The woman opened the folder and readied a pen.
“If I’m alone and it’s quiet, I can stay in control. My wolf doesn’t like noise though,” Justice said. Matron Silver filled in the top sheet of Justice’s file while she nodded at the girl to keep her talking. “If I lose control my wolf likes to go to the park. I’ve never killed anyone and my parents said that my wolf will anything for cheese.”
“Your wolf sounds easy to manage,” the Matron smiled. “Of course this is your first change here….” she pressed a red button on one corner of her desk. “…you’ll understand that we need to see how well you do for ourselves.” The door opened. A tall, pale teenager with a widow’s peak walked into the room through a sunbeam. “This is Oren, he’ll help you to your room, and stand guard for the night.” Justice nodded and smiled politely at the matron, then stood up. Oren walked out the door first and Justice followed.
“You’re not a vampire,” Justice said the moment they were in the narrow hall. “Sorry, that’s a question. What are you?” Oren stopped walking, then turned to size Justice up. He looked her up and down.
“What?” he asked. Justice stared into his translucent grey eyes.
“You look like a vampire, but you’re not one,” she said. “You’re not a werewolf, fairy, or human either. You’re something I’ve never smelled. Oren’s lips stretched into a small grin.
“You’re interesting too. I’ll explain in your room,” he said, then walked forward again. After navigating the maze of halls Oren stopped in front of one of the steel reinforced doors.
“This is your changing room,” he opened the door. “You’ll get your living room tomorrow,” he said almost apologetically. Justice could see why the changing room was slightly less than a prison cell. Bare floor, bare walls and a set of filled food and water bowls.
“So what are you?” She asked. Oren stepped into the room and closed the door.
“I’m bored,” Oren said. He smiled and made a sweeping gesture at the air with his hand. A black hole, darker than anything Justice had ever seen, opened in the middle of the room. She noted it was tall enough for Oren to step through. “I know where we can play an awesome game though. Wanna come?” Justice did not waste time nodding; she bolted through the hole without a second thought.
The over-enthusiastic young girl was surprised when she saw light on the other side of the hole. It surprised her, even more, when she ran headfirst into a woman. Justice barely had time to register the woman’s white suit before they collided.
“So-” Justice tried apologizing as she collected herself, but a hand around her throat interrupted the word.
“Who are you!?” A shorter woman in a dark suit lifted Justice off the ground by her neck.
“Chill Melody!” Oren shouted behind Justice. “She’s from the orphanage.” Justice was able to breathe again, and she felt the ground under her feet again.
“I’m sorry,” Melody apologized to Justice, then she stood and glared at Oren. Justice did not see the woman she ran into anywhere. “Normally our visitors don’t come down here.” Oren put a hand on Justice’s shoulder.
“She said I was something that she’d never smelled before,” Oren said. “I thought I’d introduce her to the AlterNet.” Melody looked down at Justice and smiled.