“I think I’ve seen one of your friends,” said the man, who’d introduced himself as Mahender. “You said his name was Lachlan, right?”
“Yes!” Naomi said, louder than she’d intended. She tried to calm her tone before she spoke again. “Sorry–yes. His name’s Lachlan. You’ve seen him? Is he okay?”
“He seemed to be.”
“And what about the other two people I mentioned?”
“I’m sorry,” said Mahender. “I haven’t seen them.”
Naomi’s worry must have shown on her face, because Mahender quickly added, “I’m sure they’re fine. As someone who’s been here for years, I can tell you that this place isn’t as scary as it seems.”
“I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, but that hasn’t really been my experience.”
Mahender laughed sympathetically.
“I guess you’re right. I can’t tell you how scared I was when I was first sent here.”
“We were all scared,” said the creature with the tentacle skirt, “but it helped that we weren’t alone.”
“That’s great,” said Naomi. “The only problem is that my friends are alone.”
“Lachlan wasn’t alone,” said Mahender.
“He wasn’t? Who was he with?”
“Someone called Sam. He was about your age. Do you know him?”
Sam. Where had she heard that name?
Hadn’t Jen mentioned that her boyfriend was named Sam?
Naomi couldn’t assume for sure it was the same person–Sam was a common name, after all. But maybe Jen had been right. Maybe her boyfriend really had been sent here too.
“Not exactly, but I think I know someone who does know him,” said Naomi. “Unfortunately, she’s the one we lost running away from… whatever that thing was.”
“I told your friend he should head toward the town,” said Mahender. “If I were you, I’d go there as well.”
“Town?” Falcon signed. The creature with a face on his chest translated.
“We’ll take you there, if you like,” said one of the creatures.
“Um, yes, that would be good,” said Naomi. “We’d really appreciate that.”
“Just follow us,” said Mahender. “It’s not too far from here.”
Naomi walked beside Mahender while Falcon and his brothers walked behind. Well, the more human-shaped brothers walked. It was hard to tell how the ones with visible legs were moving forward.
“So there’s a town here?” said Naomi.
She had trouble imagining what kind of town would be in a place like this. Was it a town full of monsters, or were there people living there?
“Yes. It’s more like a ghost town, though,” said Mahender, anticipating her question. “All the people are gone.”
“What happened to them?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “The place looks abandoned, though. The only person I’ve seen there is my aunt.”
“My aunt worked for CPSI too. I think this place is where they throw their more inconvenient employees.”
“Why did they throw your aunt in here?” said Naomi. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Nah, it’s fine,” said Mahender. “I don’t really know, though.”
“She didn’t tell you?”
“My aunt and I aren’t really on the best of terms,” he said. “She stuck with us for protection in the beginning, but she ended up going off on her own.”
“Why would anyone want to be alone in this place?” said Naomi.
Mahender chewed on his lower lip, breaking eye contact.
“Well… she didn’t want to be alone, exactly. We sort of, well…”
“You sort of what?”
“I’m not proud of it, but I asked her to leave.”
“You told your own aunt to leave? In this place?”
“I know, I know, it sounds bad,” he said. “We had this big fight, and I told her I couldn’t stand being around her anymore, and that I wanted her to leave me alone. I wouldn’t have done if I didn’t think she’d be fine on her own.”
“How could anyone be fine on their own in a place like this?”
“She wouldn’t have been at first. It’s why I stuck with her for so long. But after a while, she started to change.”
“What does that mean? Change how?”
“It was very subtle at first. She was a little bit stronger, a little bit faster. Before we knew it, she was taking on fabs three times her size and winning.”