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It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing

Zoe was in the zone. The crowd of metalheads banged their heads in unison to the crunching rhythm of her guitar. Their ages ranged from 14 to 40, and the hair that whipped through the air ranged in color from black to blue to grey, but they were united in their love of The Metal. Their enthusiasm flowed onto the stage, where it raced through Zoe's blood like a surge of electricity. She'd only ever found three activities in Life that ever exhilirated her like this: Saving the world, playing music for an enthusiastic audience, and...stuff.

This wasn't an Octopus Dropkick show. In fact, none of her fellow bandmates shared the stage with her tonight. These were just some guys she'd run into at the local guitar store. She'd just been picking up some replacement guitar strings; she didn't quite have full control over her powers yet, so she kept breaking hers. They'd been posting flyers and desperately asking around. They had a show tonight, but their lead guitarist had been arrested earlier that day. Among other things, he'd apparently punched out a cop, because it seemed like a good idea when he was high on meth. And even had they been so inclined, his bandmates wouldn't have the cash to bail him out until after tonight's gig. They recognized Zoe from the YouTube video of her improvised set in that very store. Zoe, desperately trying to scrounge up enough money for her prom dress so she could avoid becoming any further indebted to her future mother or her boyfriend, gladly agreed to play the role of "hired gun" for an evening.

These guys were alright. They weren't spectacular, but they were competent. With a few more years of practice, a decent manager and promoter, and a lot more discipline and focus, they might actually attract some major-label attention. Zoe clearly outshined the rest of them, but they could at least keep up. She pressed and twisted and pulled at the strings of her prized electric-blue Stratocaster, dragging her solo to its apex...

And suddenly, she blinked, and everything had changed. The dimly-lit all-ages club had morphed into a school auditorium. The bar and pool tables had disappeared, replaced with tables bearing punchbowls. The neon signs above the bar, representing every major brand of beer, was now a hand-painted banner, declaring this to be "Spring Fling '10." The rest of the band, their t-shirts, jeans, and combat boots having been traded for suits and ties, had shifted into a swing-jazz number, while Zoe, eyes momentarily squeezed shut as she lost herself in the moment, continued to play speed-metal. The crowd of moshers and headbangers, now teens clad in formal wear, stopped doing the jitterbug to stare at the stage. Soon, the other musicians followed suit.

Zoe's solo went on for several seconds longer, until she heard the crowd start to boo and jeer. Opening her eyes, she took in the seen with an incredulous "What. The. Fark?!" She glanced down at herself, aghast to see that her "Fear Factory" babydoll-T, spiked belt, cutoff denim short-shorts, fishnet tights, and combat boots had been replaced with a modest blouse and hoop-skirt. "What the farking fark?!" The students shouted "Get off the stage!" and "Play something we can dance to! Not that devil music!" The lead singer sighed, shaking his head at Zoe. "Look, Z, maybe you should sit this one out." The rest of the bandmates muttered behind her back. "Never shoulda let a girl in the band anyway. She probably smokes the reefer."

Zoe's mouth hung open for a second as she stared at her bandmates. Then she kicked over her microphone stand. "Whatever. Fark you sprakholes" she muttered as she stomped off backstage. Once out of sight, she took a deep breath. "OK, something is seriously wrong here." She closed her eyes, concentrating on pushing her thoughts down the psychic channels her parents had spent a lifetime building with her. Mom, Dad, have you guys noticed anything strange in the last few minutes? ... It felt as though her thoughts slammed into a brick wall. For the first time in her life, she felt nothing on the other end, completely alone inside her own mind. Cut off. Her face went pale. "Oh no...oh no..."

She didn't have time to consider the full implications before she spotted movement out of the corner of her eye. A shadow. She spun around, bracing herself against the source of the shadow...only to see that there wasn't one. A shapeless cloud of coarse black spheres, darker than the shadows from which they sprang, lunged toward Zoe, threatening to envelope her. She managed to roll to the side just in time to avoid them, with a far more narrow margin of error than she was accustomed to or comfortable with. The apparent forward momentum of the black dots smashed them against a metal folding chair sitting on the backstage floor behind the spot Zoe had been standing in a tenth of a second ago. The dots surrounded the chair, eneveloped it, and consumed it. For a moment, the space occupied by the chair became a great empty white hole in the universe itself. Then the universe rushed in to fill the void, and it was as if the chair had never existed.

That was all Zoe needed to see. "Fark this!" she screamed as she bolted out the emergency exit, setting off alarms all across the auditorium. She ran between and around cars in traffic that appeared stationary to her, up walls and ceilings, across the surface of the river, whatever presented the most direct course.

She popped in at her Claremont dorm room...only to learn that it wasn't her room anymore. She wasn't in any of the pictures on the desk or nightstand. None of the clothes in the closet were hers. Dammit! I was hoping to pick up a change of cloth- The fraction of a second's hesitation almost cost Zoe her life as the cloud of dots once again sprang at her, this time from inside the closet. "SPRAK!" She took off running again.

Zoe ran, and ran, and then ran some more. She circumnavigated the globe too many times to count. Every time she stopped to catch her breath, for even a nanosecond, the dots were there again, always right behind her, always coiled in some dark corner waiting to strike. Nowhere on Earth could she find any evidence that she'd ever existed. At various points, she'd stumbled across her future parents, their friends and teammates, but none of them seemed to recognize her, and the moment's hesitation to find out almost gave the black dots the edge they needed to overtake her. She was drenched in sweat. Her muscles screamed at her. Her bones ached. Her heart jackhammered against her chest, and her stomach felt like it was going to rip itself in half. And still, she ran.

Finally, after two days with no sleep, or food, two days of no rest, no thinking, just running, Zoe's vision faded and blurred. She felt a numbness creeping up her left arm, and the pain in her heart changed from "pounding" to "stabbing." This is it, she thought, only half-conscious. I'm having a heart attack. I'm gonna die. I'm gonna die, and nobody will ever even know who I was. Face it, Z, you always knew this is how it would go.

Her last efforts brought her to the emergency room entrance of the Freedom City Medical Center, where she collapsed in front of the triage nurse. Nearby nurses hauled her up onto a gurney, performed CPR until someone brought a defibrillator, and frantically wheeled her inside. As the nearest doctor rushed into the room and joined the flurry of activity surrounding the dying girl, the shadows in the corner of the room once again bubbled up into the floating black dots. They consumed the doctors and nurses surrounding Zoe, floated right on top of her...she could hear a hoarse whispering in her ears...You do not belong here...You do not belong anywhere...

But just as the black dots hovered over her, there was a blinding flash of white light. It washed over the room, dissolving the black dots as it submerged them. Zoe smiled weakly. "Booyah." Then her eyes fell closed, her heart monitor flatlined, and she fell limp.

Zoe shot up awake out of her bed. Her sheets and pillow were drenched in sweat. Her eyes darted back and forth across the room. Her room. Her sheets. She exhaled, then fell back against her mattress. Whoa. Shrinks would have a field day with that one. She rolled over and glanced at the clock. 3:00AM. Yeah, I think I'll keep that one to myself.

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