The figures edged nearer to Lachlan and Sam, closing in on them. Some of them periodically jerked or jolted backward as Nikola focused on them, but it wasn’t enough to keep them all at bay.
Sam squeezed his eyes shut and clutched his head as if to block out the danger. He reminded Lachlan of someone assuming crash position on a plane.
Unfortunately, though, this wasn’t the kind of threat they could brace themselves for.
“I hate this place,” said Sam as one of the figures advanced on him. “I hate this place.”
The figure drew closer, its tendrils rearing back like snakes about to strike.
“Sam! Watch out!” said Lachlan.
He wasn’t even sure Sam had heard him.
The figure lashed out, wrapping its tendrils around Sam, encasing his body. He struggled for a moment, then burst free, severing many of the limbs that held him and throwing the figure backward with surprising force.
Lachlan felt cold, smooth tendrils wrap around his wrists. He tried to pull himself free, but their hold only tightened the more he struggled.
Seriously? He couldn’t shake off a few measly tendrils from his wrist, but Sam could break himself free? Lachlan struggled harder. He was not about to let himself be bested by some nerd.
Another figure reached for Sam, and Sam lashed out at it with a frantic kick, sending it flying backward into another figure.
The tendrils on Lachlan’s wrists pulled him upward, lifting him off the ground.
“You shouldn’t have fought me,” said the skull squid. “I was after him, not you.”
Lachlan opened his mouth to reply, but another voice came from behind him–one that sounded very human and ordinary contrasted with the skull squid’s distorted booming.
“Hold on, hold on,” it said. “Put him down, 98. What are you doing?”
The creature placed Lachlan back on the ground and released him.
Lachlan turned to look for the voice’s source, but he saw only the creature. The voice spoke again, seeming to come from inside the creature.
“You’re attacking two kids and their puppy?” said the voice. “Seriously? What are you, the Sisters?”
The tendrils closest to the creature’s body parted, unweaving to reveal a man sitting inside, lounging against the wall of tendrils behind him.
“Hi,” said the man.
“Um… hi?” said Lachlan.
Lachlan stepped back warily. The man looked human, but so had the creepy sisters. Lachlan wasn’t about to trust anything in this dimension or universe or whatever this place was.
The man slid out from his bizarre resting place and smiled, raising a hand in greeting. He was in his mid or late twenties, with black hair and a short, unkempt beard. His eyes widened as he took in Sam’s blood-soaked clothes.
“I’m sorry,” said Lachlan. “Who the fuck are you?”
The man looked taken aback for a moment, then laughed.
“I’m–” he began.
One of the figures spoke.
“He’s our brother.”
The figure had the same TV commentator voice as the skull squid minus the distortion. It creeped Lachlan out, hearing a voice that belonged in one of those breakfast news programs his mum liked coming from something so grotesque.
He hoped his mum was okay. She was probably sick with worry about him.
“Your brother?” Sam raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I don’t see much family resemblance.”
“Our adopted brother,” said another creature.
“Okay, great,” said Lachlan. “That explains absolutely nothing.”
“He helped save one of our own,” said the skull squid. “For his troubles, CPSI threw him in here along with the rest of us.”
“I’m still confused,” said Sam.
“I think I get it now,” Lachlan began.”CPSI created these monst–“
Several of the creatures let out low growls. One of them took a menacing step toward him.
“Some of my brothers aren’t fans of the ‘M’ word,” said the man.
“Uh, I was going to say monstrously… handsome gentlemen,” finished Lachlan. “Then CPSI threw them in here for some reason. Am I getting this right so far?”
The man nodded.
“You did something to help them, and were imprisoned in the murder pit for your troubles,” said Lachlan, “so these monst–uh, messieurs adopted you to raise as one of their own.”
“Nice save,” said Sam.
“I’m not sure how you would know most of that, but that about sums it up,” said the man. “I’m Mahender, by the way.”
Sam and Lachlan introduced themselves.
“Are you okay?” Mahender glanced at Sam’s bloodied clothing again. He looked at his brothers. “You didn’t do this to him, did you?”
“No,” said Sam. “It was these… these women–“
“I think you called them the Sisters,” Lachlan volunteered.
“Ah, the Sisters. Say no more,” said Mahender. “Do you want me to have a look at your hand?”
“Are you a doctor or something?” said Sam.
“I’m a security guard. Or at least, I was one.”
“In that case, I think I’ll pass,” said Sam.
“Fair enough.” Mahender nodded. “Can I ask how you ended up stuck here?”
“Someone sent me here, and I have a sneaking suspicion it had to do with this CPSI company people keep mentioning,” said Lachlan. “As for my good pal Sam here–“
“We’re not pals.”
“–he works for CPSI and somehow managed to send himself here in his immense brilliance.”
“Ah, he works for CPSI,” said Mahender. “That explains why my brothers are after him.”
“All humans working for CPSI are complicit,” said the skull squid.
“What about me?” said Mahender. “I worked for CPSI, sort of. Well, technically, I worked for a third-party company, but that doesn’t really help the point I’m trying to make.”
“You made the choice to help our brother,” said one of the creatures. “You went against CPSI even though it meant sacrificing everything.”
“For one thing, I had no idea I was sacrificing everything at the time,” said Mahender. “For another, you can’t fault this kid for what happened to us. He probably had no idea how bad CPSI is.”
“I’m starting to get an idea,” said Sam.
“The way I see it,” said Mahender, “we’re all victims here. We’ve all been shoved into another reality. We shouldn’t be fighting each other.”
The creatures looked at each other, considering. Then, they looked at the skull squid.
“I don’t want you to hurt them, 98,” said Mahender. “Please.”
The skull squid sighed.
“Fine,” it said. “They’re free to go.”
“There you go,” said Mahender. “We’ll tell you where you can find first aid supplies, and then you can be on your way.”
So that was it? It was really that easy?
Lachlan looked at the ring of creatures surrounding them.
“Great. Thanks. Fantastic,” he said. “Could some of you maybe move over so we can scamper off on our merry way?”
“Not yet,” said the skull squid. “First, we need to talk about 59.”