The sky was still dark as Naomi, Sarah, Jen, and Falcon sat in Jen’s car, parked in front of a chain coffee shop that had just opened for the morning. Falcon and Naomi sipped coffees, Sarah sipped tea, and Jen sipped an unknown pink beverage heaped with whipped cream.
Sarah broke the silence.
“Supposedly I can’t drink coffee,” she said.
“Okay,” said Naomi.
Sarah looked at Falcon, who gave her a confused frown.
“I wonder why he can drink it and I can’t.”
“How do you know you can’t drink it?” said Jen.
“What do you mean?” said Sarah.
“You said ‘supposedly’,” said Jen. “That means you’ve never tried it before, right? So how do you know?”
“Technically I’m not allowed to eat or drink anything except these weird nutrient packets,” said Sarah. “Anything else could mess with my physiology.”
“You’re drinking tea,” said Jen.
“I’m not supposed to,” said Sarah, “but I know for a fact it won’t hurt me.”
“How do you know that?” said Jen.
“I don’t know.” Sarah shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“No. It doesn’t matter,” said Naomi. “We don’t have time to talk about your dietary habits. We need to make sure we have a plan.”
She handed Jen a notepad she’d brought with her.
“Jen, can you take notes for Falcon?”
“Sure!” said Jen.
“The first thing we need to do is get to the machine,” said Naomi.
“That’ll be easy,” said Sarah. “No one will be in the lab this early, and if they are, all we have to do is act natural.”
“Will someone need to stay behind to operate the machine?” said Naomi.
“We can set it on a timer,” said Sarah. “It’s a little more dangerous that way, but it should be fine.”
“Dangerous how?” said Jen.
“If you’re halfway into the chamber when the gateway opens, only half of you could end up in the Pit,” said Sarah. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before though.”
“Um,” said Jen.
“Don’t worry,” said Sarah. “I won’t even set the timer until you’re all safe in the chamber. If anyone gets split in half, it’ll be me.”
“What about once we’re in?” said Naomi. “What then?”
“The most important thing would be to stick together,” said Sarah. “We’ll stand a better chance against anything we run into in there.”
“59… Falcon… he’s not alone,” said the skull squid.
Lachlan wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but the creature’s skeletal faces seemed to relax, their expressions softening.
“He’s not,” said Lachlan. “He’s been with Dominic, Melanie, and Jess for over a year now. I don’t know him well, but he seems happy with them.”
Lachlan decided it might be better not to mention that Falcon wasn’t actually with his friends at the moment.
“That was my biggest fear,” said the creature, “that he was alone. My brothers and I were never meant to be alone.”
“Falcon has a lot of people looking out for him now,” said Lachlan. “We’re all working to make sure CPSI won’t find him.”
“I’m confused,” said Sam. “Who’s Falcon?”
Lachlan shot him a look, silently telling him to shut up.
“I saw his face in your memories,” said the skull squid. “All I wanted to know was that he had someone.”
It could read memories? Creepy.
“Hey, 98,” said Mahender, “if you don’t have any more questions, I think we’ve terrified these two for long enough.”
The skull squid bobbed its mass of heads in a disturbing approximation of a nod.
“You’re right. They’re free to go.”
The ring of creatures around them parted, giving them room to leave.
“One thing before you go, though,” said Mahender. “I suggest heading to the town. It’s your best bet if you want to find medical supplies.”
“Town?” said Lachlan. “There’s a town?”
“It’s almost completely deserted, but there’s medical supplies, some food and even personal grooming supplies.” Mahender grinned, ruffling his own hair. “It’s how I manage to stay so handsome even in a dimension made of nightmares.”
“Technically, it’s not a dimension–” said Sam.
“How do we get to the town?” interrupted Lachlan.
One of the creatures lifted a misshapen, face-covered arm and pointed.
Being pulled into the Pit wasn’t any less nauseating the second time around.
Naomi felt her body reform, squished against the dirty carpet by a heavy, warm mass that lay on top of her. She shoved at the mass, striking at it with her fist.
The mass let out a pained groan, and Naomi realized belatedly that she was hitting Jen.
“Ow,” said Jen.
“Sorry,” said Naomi, “but you were on me.”
Jen groaned again.
Naomi pulled herself to her feet, then offered a hand to Jen and helped her up. A few feet away, Falcon pulled himself off the floor.
“Sarah,” said Naomi, “you know more about this place than any of us. Where should we head now?”
There was no reply.
“Sarah?” Naomi said again.
“Um, Naomi,” said Jen. “I don’t think Sarah came here with us.”