Disclaimer: don't own.
"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." – Winston Churchill, November 1942
The next Monday
Aloysius Philbrick, MBA, was deeply perplexed, and this was not a state in which he liked to be. One of the reasons he had accepted this job as personnel manager at the SkyStore calling center in Allentown, Pennsylvania, was its very monotony, the assurance that nothing substantial would ever change. For Aloysius Philbrick was a boring man, who desired nothing more than a boring life. But today, at least, it appeared that he would not get his wish.
He strode through the rows and rows of identical cubicles in which operators sat, Bluetooth headsets in their ears, fingers poised over their keyboards, waiting to take orders from every part of the country.
As a relatively new hire, the woman whom he wanted to see had been placed at the far end. He used the time to consider carefully how he should approach her: gently, for antagonizing her would serve no useful purpose, but also firmly. This sort of behavior could not be tolerated, after all.
He knocked on the inside wall of her cubicle. "Ms. Wells?"
She smiled broadly. "Mr. Philbrick! What a pleasant surprise. What can I do for you today?"
"Well – " he cleared his throat, stalling for time – "well, in reviewing your sales figures for the past month, I seem to have come across a certain…irregularity."
She was unfazed. "Whatever do you mean?"
"It would appear that you recently sold to a Miss – " he flipped through his notes – "Caterina Valentine, of Los Angeles, something known as a 'Wishing Stone'."
"But, Miss Wells, I've checked and rechecked our inventory, and SkyStore does not offer any such product. It certainly doesn't appear in any of our catalogs."
The young woman spoke clearly, slowly, with great emphasis on every word. "We did sell it. It was discontinued. Nothing is wrong."
Mr. Philbrick, not knowing quite why, found himself repeating: "We did sell it. It was discontinued. Nothing is wrong."
He snapped out of his trance and straightened his tie. "Of course. I was simply mistaken. Forgive me for having bothered you unnecessarily, Ms. Wells."
"Not a bother at all, Mr. Philbrick. Have a lovely day."
"The same to you." As he left, he marveled that he could ever have forgotten the Wishing Stone – one of their most popular items. How on Earth had he become so sloppy?
He shook his head. Olivia Wells was clearly going to go far in this company. After all, no one could deny her anything once they had looked into those captivating gray eyes.
Erwin Sikowitz' stomach rumbled ferociously. It was nearly eight, and his mother still hadn't finished preparing his morning bowl of oatmeal with coconut shavings. Impatiently, he flicked on the small kitchen TV.
"…A spokesman for the United States Geological Survey informed the press that the agency cannot offer any explanation for the sudden worldwide spike in seismic activity. Reports are flooding in of volcanic rumblings and earth tremors in every part of the globe, but the hardest hit area thus far has been south Italy, where an earthquake measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale struck yesterday without warning, devastating several towns along the Bay of Naples. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has promised twenty million euros in emergency aid to the stricken area…"
Why does the news always have to be so depressing? Why can't they ever talk about sunflowers and cute little puppies?
He felt, rather than heard, his phone buzz with a text, and began digging through his grubby vest pocket. At last he found the phone and flipped it open. The message was from Jade:
"Hey, Sikowitz, I can't make it to class today – I'm sick. Sorry."
Scarcely half a second later, it buzzed again, this time with a text from Beck:
"Sikowitz, I'm sick too. See you in a week."
A week? Oh, of course – the two lovebirds must be running off for an impromptu tryst somewhere. "Sick," my eye. He sighed. I should have known that giving them that drive-by acting exercise as Caesar and Cleopatra would get them all worked up…
Buzz. Tori: "Sikowitz, my parents' car won't start. Gonna have to miss class." Hmmm. Well, so much for my theory. Unless it's some kind of bizarre threesome…nah, I doubt Jade would go for that.
Buzz. Cat: "Got my hair stuck in the freezer again! Sorry!"
André: "Had to take my grandma to the doctor." Robbie: "Rex hid my car keys." Trina: "I know I'm not actually in your improv class, but I just wanted to tell you that I can't make it." Tori again: "Please ignore my idiot sister."
"Good Gandhi!" He cried aloud. "My six most talented students, and Trina, all absent on the same day? Has the entire world gone mad?"
Debbie Blumenfeld, loyal employee of Lufthansa, drummed her fingers on the checkout desk at Los Angeles International Airport. This was going to be a rough day. Natural disasters inevitably meant flights rerouted or cancelled, which in turn would mean angry customers demanding refunds.
Five teenagers approached her. All had their passports in hand, but, she noted curiously, no luggage, save for the packs on their backs. Their leader – a beautiful young woman dressed entirely in black, with an eyebrow ring and streaks of red in her long brown locks – wordlessly shoved her itinerary across the desk.
Debbie examined it. "Well, Miss West, it seems you and your friends have quite a long flight ahead of you. LAX to New York, then Frankfurt, then…Naples? You are aware of the travel advisory that's been issued for southern Italy, I trust?"
"Yeah, we're aware."
"And you're not worried about the risk of seismic activity?"
The girl replied, with a Cheshire cat grin, "Taking risks is what we do best."
"I…see. Is this trip school-related?"
"It's for a study abroad program."
"Just the five of you?"
"Actually, we have two friends who'll be meeting us there. They decided to take…different modes of transport."
"Well, good luck to you all, and stay safe."
She handed them their boarding passes. As the little group headed toward the security checkpoint, Debbie thought, What I wouldn't give to be that young and carefree again.
On the flight deck of the Nimitz-class supercarrier Harry S. Truman, currently assigned to the Seventh Fleet patrolling the waters of the Atlantic just outside the Strait of Gibraltar, Second Lieutenant Joe Carter, USN, shielded his bloodshot eyes from the sun and prayed for his headache to stop. He had downed three aspirin already, with no measurable effect, and his CO would not be the least bit happy if he discovered that the officer of the watch was still hung over from yesterday's shore leave. But what does it really matter whether I'm fully alert, honestly? Nothing ever happens out here…
A speck swept across the thin cirrus clouds high above. He groaned and forced himself to look straight up, lifting his binoculars to his eyes. It was far too small to be a plane, but moving much too fast to be a bird, or any other kind of winged creature…
But it did have wings.
And a human body.
He looked about wildly for someone, anyone, who could tell him whether he was hallucinating, but the deck was empty save for him.
He turned the binoculars out to sea. Something else was coming, speeding over the water's surface, a slender wisp of ceaseless, blurry motion, running too fast to sink, passing along the port side.
It was a girl. A girl who slowed down to wave to him, then accelerated again and vanished into the distance.
At that moment, Second Lieutenant Joe Carter made two vows. The first: that he would schedule an eye exam with the ship's medical corpsman the first chance he got. The second: that he would never touch alcohol again so long as he lived.
Two kilometers north of the town of Minori, Fabrizio Pallati knelt in the ruins of his ristorante and wept.
His father Ambrosio had founded the restaurant, attracting both tourists and locals with his signature dish, spaghetti and clams in garlic sauce. Fabrizio was a poorer chef than his father had been, but a better businessman, and the restaurant thrived under his management. Now it was gone, reduced to charred rubble, mixed with rocks that had fallen from the overhanging cliff when the earthquake hit.
He heard feet scuffling in the dust and rose. Three bizarre creatures were approaching from up the road – purple-skinned beings with no noses, dressed only in loincloths.
"Che cosa volete?" What do you want?
They drew stone knives and advanced threateningly.
They ignored him.
"Soccorso! Aiutami, qualcuno, nel nome di Dio!" Help! Someone help me, in the name of God!
Three blades plunged into his chest at once. He looked down to see a red stain rapidly spreading on his white shirt.
On a deserted stretch of Italian beach, seven teenagers gathered.
"Do you really think we can do this?" Robbie Shapiro asked. "I know that we're even more powerful than we were before, but this – this threat could destroy the whole world. And we're still just kids."
Tori Vega shook her head. "Not anymore. Not after everything that's happened."
"I hate to say this, but Vega's right," said Jade West. "Like it or not, we've got a responsibility now, and we can't shirk it. Humanity needs us."
"I never asked for any of this," Trina Vega grumbled.
"I'll take you shopping in Rome if you help," said Jade.
"I'm in," she instantly responded.
The young seer looked at each of her friends in turn. "Everybody ready?"
They silently nodded assent.
"Then let's go save the world."
TO BE CONTINUED