Imagine the kind of genius that takes a bat to a hornet’s nest. It was that kind of thinking that ripped Kaira Cade through a hole in the multiverse. One minute she was minding her own business, idling time tempting cats with a pointed laser finger – the next she was in a room of suits and scientists, wondering what the hell.
Someone, she decided, had a death wish.
Before they had a chance to draw their guns she was in the air, shimmering in gold and raining blasts toward every corner. They exploded on impact and seared the surfaces with sparks equal parts deadly and beautiful. She fired indiscriminately but with grace, forcing her unnamed enemies – and they were her enemies – into hiding.
In what fresh hell had she found herself, and why? There was no shortage of foes determined to put her down, and one in particular whose name she dared not ponder.
She paused and searched for an exit. The agents fumbled as their eyes adjusted. One of them blurted, “Glimmer Girl’s gone crazy!”
Glimmer Girl? The masked Kaira Cade pursed her lips. “What in the Great Satan is a Glimmer Girl?”
In the center of the room, crouched by the whirling machine, was a green haired prowler with a mysterious device in hand. Kaira nursed a moments confusion before they turned the orb they held. She started for them, only for the stranger to vanish into thin air. They were of some importance; that much was clear.
Bullets pinged off the walls and sent her for cover, though she would not be held for long. A sweeping blast shattered the barricades. Consoles and debris flew wide, knocking most attackers from their feet.
The lull in action was all she needed to fly for the doors, cut through with a laser slash, and shoot upward into the elevator shaft. Seconds later she exploded through the roof and the resulting cloud of dust. Finally, she was free! The surrounding trees were far from familiar, but whatever. Anywhere was better than this death trap.
But first she turned to the string of vehicles parked on the perimeter. Kaira smiled, knowing where to land her shots for maximum damage. One by one she exploded them into fiery wreckage, and lingered only to hear each tire as they popped. If the agents were going to track her they would have to do it on foot.
“Now to find out where I am,” she spat, and soared toward the horizon where a wide city awaited.
DIVERGENT EARTH (2):
With one look at the world around I knew; something somewhere went horribly wrong. Sure, my home dimension wasn’t perfect – not by a long shot. But chain link fences, manned checkpoints, and barbed wire hollowed my chest to the core.
Attack helicopters circled like a crass internet gag times a thousand, weapons trained on Blitz Boy and I. They opened fire, and we fled like rats. Bullets rained haphazardly, with no regard for the people below. When we flew toward the buildings of the central district for cover they stopped.
Rounding the skyscrapers we lead them higher until they could no longer follow. On beams of light we cut through the smog and into the sunshine, free at last! The blanket was so thick that it covered the world so we couldn’t see – not that we wanted to see.
Blitz Boy roared. “This is what you come home to?”
“Not my home,” I said. Gods help me if it was.
I couldn’t look at him. Bad enough that I was stranded in this place, let alone dragging Blitz Boy for the ride. Even if we were the same person we had our own lives. Bouncing between universes was my journey, not his! And there were no guarantees that either of us would make it home.
Kevin frowned at the clouds. “We can’t just stay up here forever,” he said.
“The smartest move would be to go civilian outside the city, away from the checkpoints.”
He nodded. “You think this place has a Blitz Boy or Glimmer Girl to help us out?”
Like I would know; like I’d ever want to see the version of myself that survived this place. But I said nothing, and forced a smile. “We won’t know unless we find them.” It was as close to a plan as we were ever going to have.
It was time to put on our game faces. Blitz Boy and I charged through the smog, away from the dense metropolis and into rundown suburbia. The choppers circled the distance like flies, seemingly unaware of how far we’d fled.
Even from above the streets were bleak, and only became more so the closer we moved to the ground. Was this Milestone City? Old, torn billboards were barely legible. Boards covered more windows than we could count, and they in turn were strewn with graffitti. No sooner had we touched on the uneven sidewalk than we were struck with the smell of urine and rot.
Only a handful of people dared to walk outside, most of them derelicts; a few stray dogs, no children playing. Perhaps it was a school day, but somehow I doubted that.
I darted into an alley, and in a flash changed from Glimmer Girl to everyday clothing. The green three-quarter length top and overalls stood out, but were still less conspicuous than an incandescent costume.
Something clicked behind.
“Sorry about this, rich girl, but you picked a bad day to go slumming?”
Rich girl? It wasn’t until I saw my attacker that I knew his meaning. Next to the rags and filth he wore I was a runway model. He stared through sickly and desperate yellow eyes; his cheeks emaciated as though they’d collapse into his face. It took both hands to keep the knife from shaking out of his hand, but it remained no less deadly.
I lifted my hands and told him, “I don’t have any money.” Technically a lie, but what I had probably didn’t pass for legal tender in this world.
He scowled with teeth rotting out of his head. “You’ve other things,” he said. “Nice hair, teeth. And I know people who’ll pay.”
Okay. Enough playing around.
But before I could make a move Kevin was on him with a pipe. A single blow was all it took to collapse the attacker to the ground. He dropped the knife for me to kick away with sneakers that seemed like luxury in this place. Seeing him down like that, I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
Kevin caught his breath. “Was he going to-”
“Harvest my organs, I think.” The thought made my skin crawl.
“You sure we didn’t land in a horror movie?” he said.
‘Rich girl,’ the attacker called me. Time to change that image. I pulled the coat from my attacker’s still breathing body and removed his cap. I checked for lice and he was clean. It would have been worth the disguise. The smell of tobacco and old sweat, however, made my skin crawl. I offered it to Kevin, who refused. Guess it was mine.
“The sooner we find a way out the better,” I said.
With hands buried in our pockets we set for the main drag, always making sure to look down, and never making eye contact. This whole planet was the wrong side of the cosmic tracks.
Tanya couldn’t sleep. How could she after what she’d been through? And still no word on Trix.
She scrolled through and refreshed her news feed time and again, but nothing. That seemed only natural considering the facility was in the middle of nowhere. That didn’t stop her from looking. Any semblance of a clue, no matter how trivial, was some comfort. With that she could convince herself that Trix and Kaira were somewhere out there, lost, but safe.
At the end of a fruitless search she collapsed onto the bed that once seemed so big when she was a little girl, but now held only room enough room to lay like a starfish. Hours in front of a monitor strained her eyes, which stung each time she blinked. Tanya frowned and stared at the ceiling. Not even the comforts of her Mom’s house with warm wood panels and wide dimensions could set her at ease.
“Where are you, Kaira?”
“Right here,” she said.
Tanya’s heart stopped cold. She started upright, and sure enough there was Kaira, except it wasn’t. She had the same face, frame and voice as her friend – even the same tight, sardonic smirk – but there the similarities ended. Black was never Kaira’s style – leather jackets, smokey eyes, fishnets and stomping boots. Her ‘casual prep’ was swapped for ‘biker chick’, and on this girl it was more than a costume.
“H-how did you get here?”
Kaira laughed. “I flew. Through the window. Duh.” It wasn’t a joke.
Fighting the tension winding in her jaw Tanya did her best to inhale and smile. The girl across from her was the same who tore out of a secret facility before destroying a line of cars. Did she have something to do with Trix’s silence?
“I was worried about you,” she said, flatly. Real convincing. “Are you okay?”
‘Kaira’ leaned close. “You don’t have to pretend, you know.”
Tanya’s fists balled beside her. “Pretend,” she said. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do.” Kaira sauntered toward the desk, her heavy boots resonating with each step. She sat in the swivel chair and turned on it like a bored child. “I’m not the friend you remember,” she said. “And you’re not my Tanya. Honestly, if she could see you as you are, she’d pound your ass into the dirt.”
The girl paused. “Not your Tanya?” she echoed. What was that supposed to mean? Then she remembered what Trix had said when she found them in her dorm. “You mean you’re from an alternate reality?”
“That’s right,” she said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Reason urged caution, especially in the company of adepts, but threats never flew in Tanya’s world. Trepidation boiled into anger, held in check with a twitch popping on her brow for release. She wasn’t helpless if there was something to hit.
The doppelganger’s grinned broke the corners of her mouth. “That’s more like it.”
“What do you want?” Tanya snapped.
“I want information,” Kaira said. “What is this place? Where are the checkpoints? Who is this ‘Glimmer Girl’ chick?” She stopped in her chair, and mulled what seemed to be a bad taste. “Near as I can guess she’s me – or a version of me – twisted by this… this… would-be utopia.”
That anyone would think of the world as a utopia gave Tanya pause. What kind of a person thought that way about modern day America?
“Which got me to thinking,” Kaira said, “if there’s a version of me in this world, then maybe there’s one of you, too.” The bad taste looked to ease, and the doppelganger sighed. “She’s one of the few people I can stand, you know. Such a wicked imagination. If she could see you now-”
“Yes, I’m Glimmer Girl’s friend,” she said, “but I don’t have anything to do with her hero life. Not anymore.”
“Then what were you doing out in those woods?”
Tanya didn’t have an answer. She’d made the choice, but fate had other plans. To think, it was only yesterday when she found Trix in her dorm; only yesterday when she stepped back into the world of the strange. She could have chosen to walk away, and yet…
“Where’s Kaira?” she pressed. “My Kaira.”
“What makes you think I know?”
Tanya hesitated. “Reasons.”
Kaira rolled the chair closer. She leaned with menace. “You should tell me those reasons.” It was not a request.
There was a knock on the door. Tanya’s heart near-leaped out of her chest. From the other side came the voice of her stepfather, Tony. Thank the gods he knew better than to come inside without permission.
“Tanya? Who are you talking to?”
Kaira glared at the facsimile of her friend. “It’s just me, Mr. Yung!”
His voice eased. “Oh, hi Kaira! I didn’t know you were coming over!”
“Yeah, I hope that’s okay!”
Tanya snatched the other girl’s forearm and seethed. Threatening her was one thing, but even the thought of going after the people she cared about pushed her over the edge. Adept or not, the daggers in her eyes promised what would happen if this Kaira crossed the line.
“Naturally,” Tony called. “We’re ordering pizza! Just the usual, girls?”
Tanya opened her mouth, though Kaira spoke over her.
“That’d be great, thanks!”
The adult footsteps started down the stairs, and the two were alone again. Kaira pried the other girls fingers from her arm and squeezed a silent threat back.
“Where were we?” she said. “Ah, yes. Your Kaira, my Tanya. Tell me everything I want to know, we’ll eat some pizza, and then I’ll let you go.”
Tanya grit her teeth. Her body shook, ready to explode. “Who the hell are you?”
Kaira, however, blinked cooly with shadowy eyes. “If Glimmer Girl is your light in the dark,” she said, “then I am a match to the flame.”
Once she had wanted distance. Now, more than ever, Tanya needed her own Kaira.
DIVERGENT EARTH (2):
There wasn’t a corner untouched by grime baked on by lifetimes of industrialization. It permeated the windows, the brick, even the skin of people who took on a sickly orange and ash. The world itself was sick, in body and in soul.
Gods, I couldn’t wait to get out.
Kevin and I found new threads by way of a goodwill store, or at least what was left of it. Charity didn’t seem to go far around these parts. People either exploited their generosity, or regarded it with outright hostility. The shattered windows cut short some of the choice phrases sprayed on the building.
Torn jackets, worn baseball caps, and ill-fitting shoes were the order of the day, saturated in the muted tones of the environment. They were second or third generation, and never glamorous even when they were new. Nice things made a target if my first encounter was anything to go by.
“So what’s the plan now?”
We shuffled down the street, hands in pockets, and scanned from the shadow of our visors. Only a few buildings had power, and in those buildings every person and their dog were huddled down to the entrance. The second most important resource to clean water was a place to cook food, and dumpster fires didn’t always cut it.
I shrugged. “We find a library? Find some basic resources… find out what happened to this place, to these people. Maybe find another Glimmer Girl.”
“Or Blitz Boy.”
Kevin frowned. “You really think a place like this would fund a public library?” he asked.
He was right. Something bad happened here, and the people never recovered. Books slipped to the lower tier of importance when resources were in short supply. Just like in my world, a lack of education was key to keeping the cycle of poverty turning. If ever a world needed saving it was this one.
An ill wind blew through the street. Who am I kidding? They were all ill winds; but this wind was worse somehow. The residents knew, and scurried like rats. Doors slammed, blinds shuttered, and lights went dark. Ominous dread poured into every crack, while shadows from above grew more dense.
We turned to the coming threat. They were chrome black, and starkly decorated with authoritative bald eagles. Five metal bodies, each standing at least fifteen feet, lowered to the ground by the thrusters on their boots. In place of heads the robots had monitors, each projecting the face of the remote pilot that guided them.
Kevin bent into an alert crouch, and I did the same. These guys probably weren’t big on questions.
The face of Salvatore Ortega blinked onto one of the screens with glaring detail. His head was shorn and his moustache trimmed, but there was no mistaking those hard features bearing down.
“SURRENDER NOW AND AVOID THE DEATH PENALTY,” the robot said. His voice boomed throughout the streets, and rattled in my bones.
I raised my hands. “But… we didn’t do anything!”
“YOU ARE NON-CITIZENS TRAVELING UNPERMITTED THROUGH A REGULATED AREA,” Robo-Ortega said. “FORTUNATELY THE REPUBLIC COULD ALWAYS USE MORE SLAVES. ACCEPT THIS LENIENCY, OR DIE.”
How deep did this nightmare run? How much more could we stand? Kevin and I took stock of the situation, and with a look made our choice. We exploded into light and charged. As Glimmer Girl and Blitz Boy, it was our place to resist.
“There’s something wrong with this world,” Laser Lass mused.
On the surface it was paradise – fresh air, clean water, freedom of movement without corporate checkpoints – but appearances often proved deceiving. A single glance was all it took to recognize the problem; wars, conflict, disharmony, all of which stemmed from the lie of all being equal. Without leaders brave enough to do what was terrible and necessary, and to quiet the ever-mewling masses, this world was doomed to fall apart.
Meeting that pale shadow of Tanya Truman only drove the point further. Where was her spark? Where was the endless thirst to step on her rivals? The girl she knew was rage incarnate – a delightful fury unblemished by reason, that drove her righteously from one goal to the next. She was never the sort to sit in her room, crippled by indecision. Blech.
Whatever. Not her problem. So long as Laser Lass had her and hers she would deal.
She circled the city through the air, and came down in the middle of a place called ‘Centenary Park’. Of all the lackluster sights this was the most soothing. Trees were something of a rarity in Laser Lass’ world. Perhaps this world had some hope, and realize climate change before it was too late.
The evening grew late, and though the park gates were closed Laser Lass was not alone. She wandered along the dirt path and came to a stone bridge where a group of – ‘misspent youths’ seemed the most appropriate term – were gathered. Boys, mostly; wearing ill-fitting clothes, never smiling, interrogating each other to find who was the most ‘gay’.
One of them dared to whistle. “New costume, babe?” called another.
Laser Lass flared threateningly. Her body was an altar to sexuality with fishnets and leather telling a story of power. Only a rare few would share the experience with her, be they so fortunate. Her eyes radiated with hate and fire from the supernatural. They thought her like Glimmer Girl, and for that she would never forgive them.
Heat like death nipped at their heels, sending the boys running. It was the only warning they would get. Their next meeting would end in a hospital visit, and countless skin grafts they could never afford.
She clutched her arms, naked without her reputation. What good was power if others didn’t know to fear it?
It was then she became aware of another presence, one more bold than a group of kids hanging out and getting high. Already at the limit of her tolerance, Laser Lass lashed out at the trees, only for her blast to cut through a plume of red smoke. Funny, that power alone shouldn’t be enough to smoke a body.
What she did not expect was for the smoke to curl into the shape of a man’s body. She paused, knowing the phenomena well, though not in this color or tint. Laser Lass stilled herself and placed her feelings to one side. At last, a real fight!
The smoke coalesced into a figure with skin red as the fires of hell. He wore a business suit with a loosened collar and a million dollar smirk. The stranger raised his hands and lowered his head.
“Please, I’m not here to fight. My name is-”
“The Purple Poltergeist,” Laser Lass said. The strange reeled. “Except that you’re not purple. Let me guess. The ‘Scarlet Spectre’. No? How about the ‘Crimson’… what’s a ghost word that starts with ‘C’?”
“My name,” he continued, “is ‘The Red Wraith’. And you… are not the Glimmer Girl I know.”
She seethed. “Laser Lass. I don’t know any ‘Glimmer Girl’, and if I did I’d have kicked her ass a long time ago!”
“And what of my ass?” The Red Wraith smirked.
“Depends. What do you want?”
The villain stepped into the evening sun, and grinned a wicked grin. Perhaps a better question might have been what didn’t he want.
DIVERGENT EARTH (2):
The machines bore down on us in gargantuan strides and snatched with three clawed fingers in each hand. Blitz Boy and I flew between them, but they were fast – faster than any giant robot had a right to be.
It was one thing for a writer to dream up a pop horror, and another to bring it into the world. What kind of monster wanted walking machine men to exist? Not much time to find an answer between swipes and blasts.
Blitz Boy raged with everything he had, but it was no good. Beams deflected off their shells like drops of rain. We poured on the concussive blasts, hoping to throw them off their feet, but could barely handle one each! A third would move to circle us in and divide our attention.
Terror froze in my veins. In this place we were truly alone. Even if we slipped away, where would we run? There were checkpoints everywhere! Dogs, fascists, helicopters, and a people divided against themselves too cowed to stand up to the real threat.
Doom lingered with a black metal claw, and though it was in vain we still fought.
“LET IT BE KNOWN FOR THE RECORD THAT WE OFFERED TO BE LENIENT,” the projection of Ortega said. “HOWEVER, IT WOULD SEEM OUR FUGITIVES WOULD PREFER DEATH OVER A LIFE OF SERVICE.”
‘Service’, he said, after saying he’d recruit us as slaves. The horror never ceased. Yeah, I was afraid, but I was also mad as hell. Nobody in any universe should be forced to live this kind of life.
Blitz Boy took my hand. “We’ve gotta go.”
He was right. Both he and I were ill equipped for this showdown, and though my anger boiled over it was just that; a feeling made impotent in the face of superior strength. It didn’t stand to serve anyone, least of all ourselves. So we ran, and then we flew; faster than a jet, riding on beams of light.
Just then, something sharp exploded in my back. I hit the asphalt, grating and sparking. Even through the numb sheen of a holographic body it hurt. A thousand stings continued to press. Thank the gods my powers held reactively, or I’d be mince meat.
It was a short jump for the nearest cover. The air was stolen from us, but it was faster than running. Kevin and I ducked behind an upturned dumpster and tended our wounds. Hard light glistened in the open flesh and pulled together in seconds. The force of it wrenched through our bodies, mostly spent.
Suppressive fire rattled against the metal, and my nerves. I guess they weren’t fussy about where to hold the execution.
“We’ll find a way out of here,” Blitz Boy said. He was in even worse shape, wide eyed and wild with panic – or maybe he looked the same. This was bigger than either of us knew how to handle.
Then it stopped. We were still as we listened to metal grating against metal, before something heavy struck the ground. Two somethings. The impact sent tremors through my chest, doing nothing to ease the tension.
Somehow the silence was worse, but we couldn’t run from it. With a resolute nod Kevin and I peeled from either side of the dumpster and looked onto the road. There were the robots, in pieces, bisected across their chests and arms. The wreckage lay in a haphazard pile and whined in the absence of function.
A stranger stood at the base of it. I should have been thankful. He saved our lives, after all. Seeing him I froze. The blue coat was new, and he didn’t have a beard, but the gaunt features, graying widows peak, and mounted gauntlet I would recognize anywhere.
Kevin placed his arms on my shoulders and kept me on my feet. “What is it?”
“Well,” said Dr. Theodore Fellows, “are you coming or not?”
To be continued…