Bookstore

“No, no, no, no,” Gabriel mumbled under his breath, accounting for each woman who entered the bookstore. “No, no, no… no.”

Jeff placed a finger in the book he was reading to mark his spot and turned to look over his shoulder. Gabriel was kneeling on the ground behind his chair, leaning on the backrest with his arms flat across the top. His wings were tucked closely to his back, but were still distinctly poking above his shoulders.

“Do you have to do that?” Jeff asked.

“No. I’m trying to find your match. No, no.”

“That part I’m okay with. It’s the constant muttering under your breath that I have the problem with.”

“Don’t you wish to know that I am trying to help you?”

“It’s actually a bit disconcerting to know that there are so many people who aren’t a possible match.”

“I’m not searching for a possible match, Jeffrey. I am trying to find a perfect match. There may not exist ‘The One’ as you humans call it, but trust me there are a lot of people out there who will suit you.”

“Alright, you’re looking. Please just do it quietly.”

“Yes.”

“Thank you,” Jeff said, returning to his book.

“That was not a yes I will do it quietly. It was a yes, she is a match,” Gabriel said excitedly grabbing the sides of Jeff’s head and guiding his eyeline towards the doors straight ahead.

The woman was glowing with such a bright ethereal light that Jeff couldn’t make out anything beyond her curvaceous figure. He closed and dropped the book onto the ground between his feet and stood. Squinting into the light he tried to make out any more detail as she walked towards the Bestseller table in front of the doors.

Gabriel stepped beside Jeff and as he laid a hand on his shoulder Jeff saw a second figure standing beside the woman. Her outline wasn’t as defined because of the blooming wings sticking out of her back.

“Why can I see her guardian angel?”

“The only way I could make sure that I found the right one was to also see their guardians. Here, is that better?”

Suddenly the glow around the woman and her angel disappeared. Before Jeff could pick up anything about her he became suddenly aware that he was standing in the middle of the aisle and staring. He rushed to the closest table and pretended to look at the book on display at the top of the pyramid while he was actually looking at the woman. Her wavy blond hair and the fact that she was looking down to read the back of a book hid most of her features. However, Jeff could tell that she wasn’t the girl he would normally approach.

“Don’t think about anything, just go and talk to her,” Gabriel prompted. “You already know she is a perfect match for you so it really doesn’t matter what you say. She’s going to be open to talking to you.”

Jeff took a step around the edge of the table and then hesitated when the woman looked up for a second. She was pretty, but she wasn’t extraordinary. Looking at her didn’t make butterflies bloom in the pit of his stomach.

“She is so beautiful,” Gabriel said and when Jeff glanced back at him he smiled uncomfortably. “You weren’t supposed to hear that.”

“You’ve never commented on the attractiveness of a human before.”

“I wasn’t talking about…”

“Wait a minute,” Jeff said and stepped right up into Gabriel’s face so that he could whisper without everyone thinking he was talking to himself. “Is that woman actually perfect for me or do you just want me to talk to her so that you can meet her angel?”

“I admit that maybe she isn’t a perfect match for you. But she is close enough that you could get to know her for me. Be a good wing man. I mean it’s not like I’m setting you up with any of the other messes that walked through those doors this morning.”

Jeff took another look at the woman and as she laughed at something she read he decided that she was in fact beautiful. He had only decided that she wasn’t because she looked way out of his league.

“Alright, but you don’t talk to her angel until I say so. I don’t want to look like some creep who is using you to meet girls.”

Jeff turned and walked confidently, yet casually, towards the woman. He came up beside her slowly and surveyed the books on the table. As he reached forward to grab a book she reached for the same book. Thier fingers touched and they both snatched their hands back as a spark shocked them.

“Sorry about that,” she said and smiled warmly. “I think it’s my new sweater. I’ve been zapping things all day.”

Jeff laughed and said, “No, I’m pretty sure that one was me.” He knew that it was Gabriel’s little joke to have there be a spark between them at their first meeting. Gesturing towards the book they had both been reaching for he said, “Please, you take it. I’d much rather find the new Addams novel anyway.”

“Oh my god, you like Addams too? He’s so good isn’t he?”

“I’m glad you think so,” Jeff said and pushed a hand through his hair a little embarrassed. “Hi, I’m Jeff Addams.”

The woman looked completely star struck for a second and then thankfully for Jeff regained her composure. “So is this what you do? Hang around in the bookstore and name drop yourself to women.”

“Actually this is the first time.”

“Hmm, well that’s surprising. I thought you would say something about only doing it to the beautiful ones.”

“That’s rather presumptuous of you…”

“Stephanie. And no, I’m just so used to being hit on as soon as a man approaches me.”

Jeff didn’t know what to say. He didn’t agree with all of the feminist and misogynistic propaganda that had been perpetrated recently and he didn’t want to believe that someone he had been told was nearly perfect for him actually believed in it.

“Oh, don’t worry I’m not saying I don’t mind the compliments. I mean just get to know me before you call me beautiful.”

Gabriel might have matched Jeff with Stephanie for his own sake, but at that moment Jeff was more than happy to oblige him and be a good wing man.

“Stephanie, may I buy you a book?” Jeff asked making his own spin on buying a girl a drink.

Unconventional

“Alright you miserable piss stains, listen up,” the Sephiroth cosplayer commanded to the masses before him. “We have a special guest en route who will not take lightly to your shenanigans, cat calling, neck bearding or misogynistic behaviour. Keep your chode dicks in your cheeto covered pants and your mouths shut and we won’t have any problems.”

Excited laughter rolled through the hall and Sephiroth shot them a vicious scowl that immediately quieted them down.

“She isn’t known as the Queen of you fucking nerds for nothing so show some respect and treat her with all due courtesy. Now without further ado here is the girl who needs no introduction. Amanda Beaufort.”

All eyes turned to the back of the hall as Amanda entered in a whirlwind of fluorescent orange hair. With her drab coloured cargo pants, black half sleeved halter top and black gloves it was obvious who she was cosplaying to everyone in the theater. However it was her beautiful, wide open, green eyes that solidified the look.

“Holy crap, that’s the hottest Kim Possible I’ve ever seen,” a thousand desperate virgins squeed as one.

Sephiroth slapped his palm against his forehead and groaned, wondering how he was the only man in a sea of teenage boys trapped in aging bodies. Well that wasn’t entirely accurate there were also just as many girls fawning over Amanda and her pale, lithe body. When she was in fact in her early twenties she easily came across looking somewhere in her mid teens. It made her the most desirable girl at every convention and that was before people even got to see her sarcastic, dismissive nature.

The crowd parted before her as she made her way towards the stage. It was typical behaviour that they all wanted to touch her but if they did the cheetos wouldn’t be the only thing staining their pants. So they kept to a safe distance and ogled her petite body as the carpet developed an enormous puddle of drool.

She threw punches and dodged and weaved as she approached the stage but wasn’t dexterous enough to do any flips or somersaults. Not that it mattered everyone was totally in love with her from the first second anyway.

Sephiroth reached out to grab her hand and pull her onto the stage but she ignored his gesture and he remembered how much she hated physical contact.

She strode directly to the microphone placed one hand on her hip as she cocked them to the side. “Bow before your Queen, peasants,” she ordered.

Ninety nine percent of the crowd hit their knees in perfect synch sending a satisfying thump ringing through the hall. Those who remained standing still bowed their heads in deference and only Sephiroth laughed at her audacity.

As he approached she gave him a quizzical look as if she hadn’t even noticed him when she climbed onto the stage. “What’s the sitch?” she asked, covering the microphone.

“Just feed them some of your usual witticisms and make them feel special.”

“No big!” She uncovered the microphone and widened her eyes even further as she flicked her head and sent the orange wig dancing. Pointing at herself with both hands she smiled and said, “This is what happens when a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon reproduce.”

Sephiroth had to turn his back to stop himself from bursting into laughter. It could never be said that Amanda didn’t have an overabundance of self confidence to go with everything else.

“Marry me,” a prepubescent voice squeaked from the crowd.

Amanda’s face became instantly serious and she picked out the young man in the crowd who had proposed to her. “A Queen needs no man. She commands them.”

That was the last straw and Sephiroth burst into laughter as he removed himself from the stage. The crowd swallowed it all up however and the mass swooning could be heard as he hid behind the curtains.

Amanda had learned at a very early age that she could play any role. And the role she played best was Queen of the Nerds. The best thing about it was that nobody could dispute her claim to the throne. They were all followers and a beautiful girl telling them what to do was a fantasy they couldn’t deny.

Accidental Encounters

Not this time, Life, I thought stepping outside to a beautiful day. Not this time.

The sun is out, the birds are singing and I’ve got nothing to do all day but sit on my butt and enjoy myself. You will not get me today. I’ve figured out your tricks and I know how to get to Starbucks without coming upon one of your sticky situations.

I closed my eyes and sat on the stoop, leaning against the pillar for support. If I wasn’t watching the world I was less likely to see something I didn’t want to see.

Several minutes later a car honked from the curb and I peered through clenched eyelids at the awaiting Uber. I tried to keep my focus solely on the back door of the car as I approached but there was an enormous lockup and a screeching of brakes that caught my attention before I could stop myself. Halfway between the cloud of smoke billowing from the car’s tyres and where I stood there was a dog humping the leg of a couch that had been abandoned on the curb. On the scale of what I usually encountered in a day a dog going at it with a sofa wasn’t that big a deal. But it did tell me that life was up to its usual tricks.

I scurried into the back of the Uber and stared at the seat between my legs without saying a word.

“Where you off to, buddy?” the driver asked.

“Just the Starbucks down the road,” I replied, keeping my eyes down but unable to close them or I would get car sick.

“Couldn’t have walked there,” the driver said judgmentally, because it was only a one mile trip.

It was too hard to explain why I could walk but I really didn’t want to so I just grunted and that stopped him from continuing the conversation.

As he pulled away from the curb I started to slide down on the leather seats and as I reached sideways to catch myself I saw the enormous stain beside me. He must have seen the disgusted look on my face in the mirror because he started laughing.

“Yeah sorry about the stains back there. Haven’t had a chance to do a proper clean after last night.”

I quickly pulled my hand away from the seat and shifted to make sure I wasn’t sitting on another since he had said stains multiple and not just the one. “What exactly are these stains from? Wait, actually I do not want to know.”

“Better that way,” he laughed, causing a shudder of disgust to roil through me.

I tucked my hands into my armpits and hunched into myself so that I touched as little of the car as possible. Which meant that as he slammed on the brakes I smashed my head into the back of his seat. As I looked up to see what made him stop so suddenly all I saw was his phone being unlocked. He couldn’t minimise the browser and I couldn’t look away fast enough so I caught a few seconds of the porn he had been watching earlier.

Taking an Uber instead of just walking had definitely backfired. I got out of the car as fast as I could and walked away with my head down. We had made it only halfway to Starbucks and in that time I had already seen or been exposed to three sexual acts. For a plan that was supposed to reduce that number, not increase it, I had definitely screwed up.

If I didn’t need a good coffee as badly as I needed to not see anything sexual I would have run straight home. Obviously that meant I had to take the risk. This wasn’t going to go away without the caffeine anyway.

Somehow I made it the last half a mile without being traumatised or run over. It’s hard to decide which I’m more grateful for.

There was construction at the front of the Starbucks, blocking me from entering through the front and directing me to take the side alley to reach the rear entry. If ever there was an apparent trap to draw me into seeing a sexual act that was one hundred percent it. But the only way this was going to end was by having a half caf soy mocha latte.

I stood at the entrance to the alley staring at my feet for almost a full minute before I lifted my eyes hesitantly. The half of the alley was clear but it was what was around the corner and out of view of the street that concerned me.

I entered the alley and stopped before turning the corner to listen out for any noises that might indicate something I didn’t want to see was happening. It was impossible to tell if any of the sounds were from the alley or if they were just part of the street noise.

The proximity of the coffee made me act rashly and I stepped around the corner without lowering my eyeline. The alley was clear but as I walked towards what was at first a dead end because of more construction boards I was exposed to exactly what I should have expected. The construction board fell towards me and as it hit the ground a half naked couple landed atop it mid thrust.

I accidentally locked eyes with the young man lying atop of a young woman before I could look away.

“That’s is it,” I said. “I am so fucking done with this.”

“And we’re done fucking,” the man said and high fived his partner over her bare chest.

I ran into Starbucks as fast as I could and snatched the first cup of coffee I saw out of someone’s hand. It burned my throat and probably seared off my tastebuds permanently but I didn’t care. The man I snatched the coffee from was furious as I ignored him and walked back into the alley.

The couple had already removed themselves and I breathed a sigh of relief. For at least the next twelve hours the only sexual encounters I would run into would be of my own doing.

Ochlocracy

When Oscar stepped onto his back patio he almost decided that abandoning his life and fleeing into the wilderness was his only option. The neighborhood kids that he had yelled at for partying on a Wednesday night had taken their payback a step too far. Instead of there being a ten metre long and five metre wide infinity symbol burned into the grass his entire backyard had been concreted. The kids had obviously worked all night to ensure that when the behavioural drones passed overhead Oscar would be added to a list and rounded up. Never to see the light of day again.

Instead of running, however, Oscar realised that if he was in the process of reapplying the symbol when he was arrested he might be able to explain his way out of the situation. So he ran to his small tool shed and found a tin of paint buried in the back. The paint was an almost solid mass, but he eventually managed to stir it into a liquid with a lot of water and a broken branch.

He didn’t have time to plot the symbol and ensure it was millimetre accurate so just started painting it as best as he could free hand. Halfway through the first curve a blinding light appeared in front of him and he froze in his tracks. At first he thought he had been flash banged as he shied away from the light and threw himself to the ground.

“Excuse me,” a voice with a totally unrecognisable accent said. “Could you tell me where and when I am?”

Oscar rolled his head to the side and realising that he hadn’t been blinded by the light looked at the man standing in the middle of his yard. Not only was the accent impossible to place but the tight bodysuit was like nothing he had ever seen.

“Who they hell are you?” Oscar said as he climbed to his feet. “And what just happened?”

“I’ll tell you everything after you answer my questions first,” the stranger said, looking just as perplexed by Oscar’s appearance. “When and where are we?”

“It’s the eighth of August 2015 and you’re in Melbourne.”

“Okay good,” the stranger said, nodding and exhaling sharply with relief. “Just one more question and I’ll tell you everything. What type of government do we have?”

“An Ochlocracy.”

The stranger suddenly seemed to notice the half painted symbol beneath his feet as his eyebrows raised in confusion. “What the hell is an Ocli.. a whatever that word was?”

“An Ochlocracy. It’s a form of mob government. Whatever the biggest issue is at any given time controls the way the country is run. The focus can shift within minutes though and your entire day to day life can change without you knowing. There is no one leader or any parties. It’s just absolute chaos and nearly impossible to keep up with. Which is why even though I’m totally fascinated with what you have to say I really need to finish painting this symbol. Right now the mob in charge is all about infinity.”

Oscar picked up the paintbrush that had gone flying from his hand when he hit the ground and quickly finished the symbol. The stranger stepped out of the way and peered into the three neighbouring yards commenting on the infinity symbols drawn in each of them.

When Oscar was finished and comfortable with the fact that he had saved himself from a life in a deep, dark hole he focussed entirely on the mysterious stranger who had appeared in his yard. “Time to tell me what the hell is happening here.”

The stranger pulled at his collar nervously and took a moment to compose himself. “For the last eighteen months I’ve been reliving the eighth of August 1989 in order to find a liveable present.”

Oscar thought trying to simplify an Ochlocracy would be the hardest concept he would deal with today, but the stranger had blown that out of the water. “You what?” he said after a minute, sure that he had misheard.

“The reality that I am from was a dangerous place and it all started on this day twenty six years ago. Each time I go back I change something in order to make a different future.”

“And you’ve been doing this for eighteen months?” Oscar asked skeptically.

“Yes.”

“So you obviously haven’t made the present that you want.”

“No, I have not,” the stranger conceded.

“Doesn’t that tell you that you can’t make a perfect world? Shouldn’t you settle for a world that is liveable and concede defeat?”

“Why would I do that? I get to experience a thousand different alternate realities when everybody else only gets to live in one for their entire life. Sure at first I was trying to find that perfect world, but now I’m just experiencing as much as I can. Eventually I might find a world that I can’t leave at the end of the day, but until then I’m not going to stop.”

Oscar held his arms out to the sides and said, “Well this is definitely not the world that you want to settle for. I actually wouldn’t even recommend staying any longer than you have to. I don’t know how dangerous your reality actually was but this is a nasty place. You will not survive on your own out there. Especially not when you’re dressed and talking like that.”

“Don’t worry about me, mate,” the stranger said confidently and waved Oscar off. “I’ve faced worlds you could never imagine. Mob rule doesn’t scare me.”

“Even so, there’s nothing exciting for you to see in a day.”

“Oh, but there is. You said the mobs can change their focus like that,” he snapped his fingers, “I’m going to see how much I can do while I’m here.”

Oscar did not feel confident about the outcome of the stranger’s plan, but even if he did manage to make things worse in a day or two whatever changes he made would change again.

“Speaking of which,” the stranger said starting to walk backwards. “Time is wasting and I gave myself strict deadlines to spend in each reality. I can’t waste any more time pondering this with you.”

“Wait, before you go at least tell me what was so bad about your own world,” Oscar pleaded.

“It was a Federation ruled by a publically elected Prime Minister. The problem was that members of the ruling party kept deciding that the elected leader wasn’t doing a good enough job. There were four leadership changes in five years, none of which were voted on by the people. I guess it really wasn’t that different than being led by mob rule. The only difference is that the mob consisted solely of elected officials who should have known better.”

“I can see why you wanted to ensure that didn’t happen.”

The stranger shrugged and said, “After you’ve seen as many different alternate realities as I have you begin to realise that the one you had to start with wasn’t so bad. If I could undo all of the changes I’ve made I probably would and choose that reality as my final resting place.”

“Are you saying that the grass isn’t always greener?”

The stranger looked from Oscar’s face to the freshly laid concrete beneath his feet. “No, it certainly isn’t.”

With that he turned and walked out of Oscar’s yard and his life. Strangely as Oscar thought about everything that had happened he was less confused about a time traveller appearing in his yard than he was about the authorities not catching him without the infinity symbol. Perhaps the Ochlocracy had swung once already without the stranger’s interference.

Bolts

Steven knelt into the shadows beside the locked door and inserted his lock pick into the keyhole.

“You are in direct violation of the law, Steven. If you do not cease your current unlawful acts I will be forced to stop you.”

“You won’t lay a hand on me, Bolts,” Steven said confidently, caressing the tumblers with the pick.

“I did not say that I would touch you. As your Guardian I am forced to inform you of the laws and the punishments for breaking them. In this case—”

“—I get it!” Steven snapped, stopping for a moment to stare over his shoulder at his identical twin in every way. Except for the fact that Bolts was a robot. “You don’t have to remind me every time.”

“Actually it states in my programming that I must remind you. Failure to heed my warning will result in the authorities being contacted.”

Steven’s patience disappeared and all of the progress he had made inside the lock disappeared. He pulled the lock pick out and threw it at the ground. “Oh. My. God. Will you please just shut up?”

“Your illegal activities have been halted so I am able to stop reminding you of the law up until the time at which you see fit to attempt to break the law again. May I suggest that you find something lawful to fill your time this evening?”

“No, you bloody well may not suggest anything. You can tell me how long I will have before the police arrive if you decide to report me,” Steven said, picking the pick back up and holding it near the lock.

“You are currently not conducting any illegal activities that require me to notify the authorities.”

“Just tell me.”

“I am unable to provide information on the whereabouts or reaction times of officials of the New London Police Department.”

“In your opinion would I have time to unlock this door, get what I want from inside and flee the scene before they arrive.”

“I cannot provide guidance that would lead to you conducting further illegal activities other than what I have already witnessed.”

“You always want to give me advice.”

“That is because you are usually not trying to break the law, Steven.”

Steven glanced over his shoulder as he pushed the lock pick into the lock. “Do I get another warning before you contact the police? Because technically I stopped breaking the law and now that I’ve started again you really should give me your whole speech on what laws I’m breaking and the punishment for doing so.”

Without hesitation Bolts started to reel off a long and complicated warning but Steven chose to ignore him and focussed on the lock instead. Within thirty seconds the lock clicked open and he turned and smiled at Bolts who was still talking in technobabble. He reached for the door handle while staring at Bolts.

As soon as the door opened a millimetre Bolts changed what he was saying mid sentence. “…I have contacted the authorities and they will be here imminently.”

“What the hell Bolts?” Steven said, springing to his feet and pulling the door open. “Don’t I get a warning?”

“I have been warning you for the past thirty seconds, Steven.”

“Whatever,” Steven said, too pre-occupied to argue and knowing that he didn’t have long before the police arrived. “Just follow me.” He stepped into the house and started to make his way towards the light at the far end of the dark hallway.

“I cannot be complicit in illegal activities,” Bolts called as Steven got further away and he remained outside.

“Is it a higher protocol for you to protect me at all costs, or for you to obey the law,” Steven asked in a forceful whisper, turning his head for just long enough to speak and then moving forward again. He heard Bolts’ approaching footsteps on the floor and smiled ruefully.

Steven stepped into the lit room and approached the table. He quickly peered into the cloth sack that sat alone in the centre of the table. Happy with what he saw inside he sprinted out of the door while tying the hefty sack to his belt. He turned down the alleyway away from the main road and ran as fast as he could. Bolts easily kept stride, his footsteps falling exactly where Steven’s feet had landed only a half second before.

Before they turned out of the alley Steven glanced backwards and saw a police officer and his Guardian running towards the crime scene. They were in the light of the main road and Steven and Bolts were in the dark shadows, so he was certain that they’d remained unseen.

Steven navigated through a maze of alleyways, getting deeper into the slums and closer to freedom. They stopped running when they entered a gypsy camp and Steven pulled his jacket up over his head and hunched his shoulders. He ducked behind a concrete pillar and started to slowly catch his breath as Bolts stood beside him calm and composed. The night was eerily silent, so as his breathing relaxed it became obvious that running footsteps were approaching.

“Why does it sound like they’re on our trail, Bolts?”

“I’m updating them with your location, Steven.”

“What! Why the hell are you doing that?” Steven gasped and took off running again; not that it would do any good with Bolts directly behind him all the way.

“You have broken thirteen laws in the last eight minutes. You must be detained by the authorities and receive your punishment.”

“Thirteen! I can only think of four.”

“Possession of break-in instruments. Forcible entry. First degree burglary. Indecent act. Vandalism. Trespassing. Invasion of privacy. Resisting arrest. Making a Guardian implicit. Hostage taking. Extortion. Possession of stolen property and breach of trust,” Bolts reeled off at super speed.

“I don’t even know how to respond to that,” Steven said. “Wait did you just say breach of trust? Really? You cannot be serious.”

“I know no other way than to be serious, Steven.”

“Don’t I know it,” Steven said drily. “Is there a way that you will stop informing to the police without me handing myself over to them?”

“If you were to die it would no longer be necessary for the authorities to locate you for punishment. However, I would continue to lead them to your body so that you could be properly looked after.”

“If you were joking I wouldn’t feel quite so freaked out right now.”

Steven continued running until he saw a crowd of homeless men gathered around an oil drum fire. Seeing an opportunity he rushed forward and threw a punch at one of them, intentionally just grazing his face. The man instantly lunged at Steven with rabid ferocity. Steven jumped backwards trying to stay out of his grasp and called, “Protect me, Bolts.”

Bolts immediately grabbed the man by the back of his shabby winter coat and slammed him beard first into the ground. As soon as Steven was out of Bolts’ line of sight he turned and fled into the night. It seemed like the only way he was going to get away from the police was to abandon Bolts.

Steven froze before turning the first corner and looked out of the shadows towards Bolts who had already subdued the man and scared the others away. Bolts was looking around frantically to locate Steven without finding his hiding place.

For the first time in his entire life Steven stepped behind the wall and lost sight of Bolts. It was a freeing feeling but also completely frightening. Since his birth he had never been somewhere without Bolts knowing exactly where he was. He didn’t know what would happen without having his Guardian there to protect, advise and guide him. But he couldn’t afford to be locked in jail.

So he ran as fast and as far as he could into the unknown. When he was well and truly lost in a part of the city he had never ventured he stopped. He found a dark alcove to hide in and pulled himself as close together as he could while untying the sack. He carefully rested the sack between his bent legs and held the top of it open with both hands. There wasn’t anywhere near enough light for him to see inside the sack so he pulled out his mobile phone and used the backlight as a dull flashlight. He looked at the object for a few seconds and then reached inside and wrapped his fingers around it.

“NLPD, don’t move,” a stern voice commanded from beside him.

His hand froze on the object and he stared at the face of the police officer. It was the same officer who had been pursuing him earlier and he had somehow managed to approach unnoticed. The officer was standing in the light of the moon so Steven was able to easily see his face and recognise that the man who stepped up beside him was his Guardian. Another figure stepped out of the darkness beside the officer and Steven swore under his breath.

“What the hell Bolts? How did you find me?”

“He won’t respond to you,” the police officer said. “Guardians aren’t programmed to talk in the presence of police officials unless directed to do so. Now hand over what you stole and give yourself up. This is over.”

Steven adjusted his fingers on the outside of the object in the sack and smiled at Bolts. “You’re right that this is over, but I’m not giving myself up.” He squeezed the object and his entire body started to shimmer. “I expected more from you, Bolts.”

Steven knelt into the shadows and moved the lock pick towards the keyhole. A sense of deja vu stopped his hand and he was hit with a flood of memories from the moment he attempted to break into the house until the moment he used the object inside the sack to return.

He placed the pick back into his pocket and looked over his shoulder with a knowing smile at his double. “I expected more from you, Bolts,” he said and called a halt to his first test.

The Queen of Dust

“Your beauty knows no bounds, your majesty.”

“It is not my beauty that should be your concern right now, Count Zeurion,” the Queen said dismissively. “It is my compassion. And unfortunately for you that knows very restrictive bounds. Your incompetence will not go unpunished.”

“But, your majesty what else could you have expected me to do?” Count Zeurion cried, scrabbling to the edge of the dais on his hands and knees. “Standar berries are out of season everywhere except for the Shimmering Isles.”

The Queen extended a bare foot and forced the Count backwards by pressing the ball of her foot against his forehead.

“What I expected you to do was bring me what I asked for. Especially when you know where to source them from.”

The Count rocked back and sat up on his knees so that he was out of the Queen’s reach. “Knowing where to get them and actually accomplishing that feat are a world apart, your majesty. You better than most should know that the Shimmering Isles have been outside of our reach since you went to war with Kercia.”

The Queen looked aghast and after making an almost invisible gesture with her left hand one of the two men at the corners of the dais brought his spear down on the Count’s knuckles. It was an impressive strike seeing as how animated the Count’s arms were and he cried out with surprise and pain.

“Don’t you dare imply that my actions caused this situation. I know definitively that we still trade with the Shimmering Isles.”

“Your majesty, the only trade conducted with them is the illegal goods being shipped without your authorisation,” the Count interrupted and earned another slap on the knuckles.

“Firstly do not ever interrupt me again,” the Queen threatened, glaring down her nose. “Secondly I don’t care what is being shipped. That is a resource that you can and should have used to get me what I’ve asked for.”

“The black market trade routes are not something I can easily influence. Even for you, your majesty.”

“I don’t care how easy it is to do. Just do it or the next time you kneel before me it will be to have your head lopped off. I won’t allow you to get away with incompetence twice.”

The Count dropped his head to hide the fear seeping into his features.

“What are you waiting for?” the Queen barked and threw an orange forcefully at the Count. It missed and skidded across the marble floor before rolling all the way out of the open doors. “Get out of here and find me my standar berries.”

The Count scampered to his feet faster than the Queen had ever seen the rotund man move and he disappeared through the oaken doors.

“Let’s see if whoever is next can delay their fate as successfully as Count Zeurion,” Prince Agdard, one of the two guards protecting the Queen mused.

“I only gave him a stay of execution because I can’t afford to lose his experience right now, brother. Do not sass me or I will happily have the slaves clean you up from the floor instead.”

“Idle threats, little sister. Idle threats.”

The next complainant, Magister Rulio, entered the chamber before the Queen could put her lowly brother in his place. The uneven wheels of the cart he was pushing filled the sudden silence with a low metallic screech that didn’t stop until he reached the dais.

“Your majesty,” he said, bowing so low his head almost touched the ground and brushing the back of his fingers across the pristine marble floor.

The Queen waved him off nonchalantly, paying more attention to the thick woolen sheet draped over the cart. “What ill tidings do you bring me, Fenati?”

The Magister grabbed one corner of the sheet and yanked it off of the cart without preamble. He had learned very early not to dance around when delivering bad news. Bluntness was the best strategy with her and it had helped him become one of her most trusted advisers.

A cloud of dust billowed out of the cart which was otherwise empty.

“This is all that remains of your coffers, your majesty,” Fenati reported.

“So much for being the Queen of the Emerald Islands,” Prince Agdard said. “More like the Queen of Dust.”

The glare the Queen gave her brother was almost enough to turn him into another puff of dust. She held his gaze unflinchingly for almost a minute before facing Fenati.

“How could this have happened? You told me that the Cvuca mines had a limitless supply.”

“No, I definitely said limited,” Fenati responded and shrugged apologetically with his hands upturned. “And with all of your requests of late, like requesting standar berries from the Shimmering Isles, we’ve been delving further into the castle’s treasure reserves. Like Prince Agdard joked about all that remains is dust.”

The Queen opened her mouth but before she could utter a sound Fenati continued.

“Before you ask what I plan to do about it, I’ve already introduced some radical taxes and pushed both Jhaj and Eflihl to increase their support in the war against Kercia. That will of course require you to hand over more land to ensure their added support, but better to keep some of your land and maintain power than to be overthrown because you bankrupted your nation.”

“Watch how far you push your luck, Fenati. Somebody is going to pay for letting it get this far without my knowledge and I think we’d both prefer if it wasn’t you.”

“Too right, your majesty. Apologies for overstepping my bounds. My point is simply that the matter will be sorted with due haste and you will be able to resume your luxurious lifestyle.”

“There will be no resumption necessary because I am not putting a halt to anything,” the Queen said and plucked a grape from the fruit bowl beside her. “Sort this mess out without stopping Count Zeurion’s efforts to attain my standar berries and without this Queen of the Dust moniker reaching the outside world.”

“Yes, your majesty,” Fenati said and performed another impressive bow. “As you desire.”

He wheeled the cart around and left the chambers, shutting the doors behind him.

The Queen instantly glared at Agdard and warned him. “Don’t you even think of mentioning the word dust or you’ll join your older brother in Kercia.”

Agdard raised his hands into the air and acted abashed that the Queen would even suggest he would do such a thing. A grape flew at his head and he snatched it out of mid air, chewing it with a wild grin.

My Best Friend is a Turtle

What do you say when you are a thirty two year old man and somebody asks what you and your mates did on the weekend if your best friend is a turtle? Do you tell them that you went to the aquarium to visit all of his sea creature mates? Or that his name, not his nickname, is Squirtle. And that you’ve trained him to use bubblebeam and bite. Well technically you didn’t train him he just does those things anyway, but he can still do bite on command if you hold food out for him.

I think you don’t tell anybody those things and you just lie. You tell people that you had a relaxing weekend at home. Because for some reason it’s perfectly fine to have friends who are complete assholes but it isn’t okay for your best friend to be a turtle.

Squirtle has never let me down or betrayed my trust, unlike every single person I’ve ever met. Yet I’m the crazy one for wanting to spend more time with him than another human being.

Now to be fair and honest it’s not like I’m some crazy nearly middle aged man who only recently came into possession of his best friend. Squirtle and I have been together for the last three years. A single guy in his twenties with a turtle is also not such a bad thing, but magically turning thirty makes everything a really big deal. And of course my mother keeps asking all of her important questions.

Why don’t you have a nice girlfriend? I’m not going to be around forever when are you going to get married and give me some grandbabies? Why are you playing dress ups with a turtle instead of going out with those nice young people you work with?

Its really only the last one that bothers me because she knows how intolerable people are. Being an insufferable bitch herself.

Anyway I got a bit sidetracked. Hi my name is Stuart and I’m here because my best friend is a turtle.