8.1

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Lachlan

Lachlan pushed himself to his feet with shaking hands, his head still buzzing with adrenaline and panic. He leaned against the shop window behind him and waited to catch his breath.

He’d been chased and grabbed by a few monsters since he’d been put in this place, but this time had been the most terrifying. His arms had been completely pinned to his sides this time, leaving him feeling paralyzed in a way that reminded him of when he’d been drugged.

The creature lay unconscious a few meters away. Sam lay near it, the sword he’d been holding on the ground beside him. Mrs. Sharma knelt beside him, feeling his pulse on his wrist. Jen stood nearby, her face knit with concern as she looked down at her boyfriend.

“Is… is…” Lachlan paused for a moment, trying to stop his voice from shaking. “Is he alright?”

“His pulse and breathing pattern are normal. I don’t see any sign of head injury.” She shook Sam lightly. “Sam. Sam, can you hear me?”

When he didn’t respond, she grasped the muscle between Sam’s neck and shoulder, twisting. He opened his eyes, squinting up at her.

“Ow,” he said. “What was that for?”

“I was testing your response to a painful stimulus. And you responded. Congratulations,” she said. “Anyway, you’re awake now. Get up.”

“Get… up?” said Sam.

“Yes, get up. There’s no time to coddle you. You don’t appear to have any serious injuries, and if you want to keep it that way, we need to move before the Dave fabrication wakes up.”

“Seriously?” said Jen.

“As eager as I am to get away from that thing,” said Lachlan, “I can’t help but notice your bedside manner could use a bit of work.”

“Damn it, Lachlan, I’m a biologist, not a doctor,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Sam, get up. If you can’t get up, one of the Stanley fabrications can carry you.”

“Nah, I’m… I’m good.” Sam pulled himself shakily into a sitting position with his good hand. “I think.”

Lachlan stepped forward, offering Sam a hand. Sam took it, and Lachlan pulled him to his feet, then turned to Mrs. Sharma.

“You know, that’s really no way to treat the king among peasants who just saved my life.”

His voice still felt shaky, but he tried to sound as normal as he could.

Mrs. Sharma rolled her eyes.

“If you’ll recall, I also had a hand in saving your life.”

“Yes, but you didn’t do it whilst flying and dual wielding swords.”

“I don’t see how that’s relevant. We need to move before the Dave fabrication wakes up, or we need to take care of it permanently.”

“Take care of it permanently?” said Angelina. “You mean kill it?”

“No, I mean build a rocket ship and launch it to Saturn.” Mrs. Sharma sighed. “Obviously I mean kill it. What else would I mean?”

“I was just asking.” Angelina pouted.

“Even if we kill it, it’s only a matter of time before Zogzhesh wakes up and finds us. Or before the Sarah fabrications come back. Or before we run into some new danger. We have to keep moving.”

“But–” said Lachlan.

“But nothing. This is exactly why I was against leaving my house.”

“You mean why you were willing to leave an innocent woman stranded in this place?” said Mahender.

“I’m not going to argue with you about this–“

“Hey!” interrupted Angelina. “Is anyone going to bring up how whatever-his-name-is was flying a minute ago? And where he got those swords? And where his shirt went? Why are we not going to take a second to talk about that?”

“I hate to agree with Angelina,” said Lachlan, “but I do feel that all of her points warrant some addressing.”

“Believe it or not, I agree with you both,” said Mrs. Sharma, “but this isn’t the time or place to talk about it. We’ll keep moving now and talk about your friend later.”

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Don’t Close Your Eyes — Interlude 18.1

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Content Warning: Death

Sam

Mrs. Sharma looked up from where she was leaning over Lachlan, and Sam’s chest lurched at the sadness on her stoic face.

“What is it?” he said. “Is he gonna be okay?”

“He’s stopped breathing,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Can’t you do CPR or something?” said the girl with brown hair. “Can’t you help him?”

“He’s lost too much blood,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I’m sorry.”

“What… what do you mean?” said Sam.

“Your friend is gone.”

Gone?

Just like that, he was gone?

How was that possible? Just a few minutes ago, he’d been walking around, making fun of Sam, talking and complaining about being stuck here…

No. Mrs. Sharma was wrong. Lachlan wasn’t gone; Sam could feel it somehow. He was dead here, in this time and place, but that didn’t make him gone.

There was still something Sam could do to save him, though he didn’t understand it exactly.

Sam prided himself in being able to understand the logic behind most everything he encountered. On the rare occasion he couldn’t wrap his head around something, he usually liked to step back and analyze a situation before he acted.

He didn’t bother analyzing this time.

The sounds around him begin to blur and overlap–talking, arguing, and at least two people crying–until they sounded like distant white noise.

Sam took a step in a direction he didn’t understand.

On the first day of his internship, he’d been forced to do a trust fall; to stand on a picnic table and drop backwards, to hold his breath, close his eyes, and entrust his safety to a bunch of morons standing below him. He’d lost his nerve standing on the table, refusing to move to the edge and fall, and the orientation leader had told him he was too hostile, too belligerent. He hadn’t argued, because somehow being labeled difficult was less embarrassing than admitting he was scared.

Finally, Chad from marketing had convinced Sam to turn around, to move a little closer to the table’s edge and see how he felt. If he still wasn’t comfortable, he could always get down, but he should at least try being a good sport.

As soon as Sam had moved close enough to the table’s edge, Chad had winked at the orientation leader, and Sam had found himself pushed from the edge of the table, airborne, tumbling backwards as his heart lurched into his throat and spun around.

The whole exercise had done absolutely nothing for his ability to trust strangers.

The sensation Sam was feeling now, as he took that first strange step, reminded him of falling off that table, if that heart-lurching feeling had been multiplied a hundredfold. It was all the worst parts of riding a looping roller coaster; Sam fell backwards, forwards, and down at the same time, his sense of equilibrium setting off blaring alarms in his head.

All the while, his feet were still on the ground, moving one in front of the other.

For a moment, he turned to his side–though which side, he wasn’t sure–and saw one of the girls in their group. It was the dark-haired girl with some kind of European accent, the one who was friends with Chelsea.

The girl looked at him, her eyes wide with panic and confusion, then stumbled, falling to the ground, blurring, and vanishing from view.

Sam continued walking, following his instincts because he had nothing else to go on.

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7.11

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Lachlan

Lachlan was getting really tired of this place.

He couldn’t make sense of anything here. Where had the snake man come from? Why did Mrs. Sharma, Angelina, Chelsea and the bat thing all seem to know him?

Why were Chelsea and Angelina carrying around a little Italian-speaking bat creature in the first place?

An empty flower pot vanished from a porch with a ripping sound, and Lachlan sighed.

At first, he’d been enjoying the mysteries of this place and debating with Sam how things might work here. But that was before the mysteries of this place had gotten completely ridiculous.

Maybe his initial theory had been right. Maybe everything here was just a drug-induced fever dream.

Or maybe the mad scientist who had Lachlan’s brain in a jar was feeling particularly sadistic today.

The group split to walk around the snake man, and the two sisters followed, just outside their group’s perimeter. Lachlan accidentally made eye contact with one and she reached out a strange, toothy hand and snapped it at him, then winked.

“Oh, fuck off,” he said.

Sam echoed his thoughts as they stepped over one of the snake man’s massive arms.

“I hate this place.”

Before Lachlan could agree, Sam froze, glancing behind them.

“What is it?” said Lachlan.

“There’s something following us.”

“Of course there is,” said Lachlan. “Because the Donner sisters and the fucking snake man weren’t enough trouble.”

“We should probably tell Mrs. Sharma.”

“Probably,” said Lachlan. “Somehow, I doubt she’ll take us seriously until whatever it is actually starts trying to have us for a delicious afternoon snack.”

“Afternoon doesn’t actually exist in this place,” said Sam.

“Eh.” Lachlan shrugged, looking back over his shoulder.

He could see what Sam was talking about now; a tall, humanoid shape shambled toward them, its neck bent at an unnatural angle.

“Excuse me, Mrs. Sharma,” said Sam.

“What?” she said.

“I think we’ve got company.”

“Seriously? ‘We’ve got company’?” said Lachlan. “I didn’t realize we were starring in a mediocre action movie.”

“Shut up,” said Sam.

Mrs. Sharma sighed.

“This had better be worth my time. What kind of company?”

“Company of the… monstrous persuasion,” said Sam.

“Great.” Mrs. Sharma sighed. “Just great. This is exactly what we don’t need right now. Everyone, stop walking, slithering, flying, or whatever your preferred method of locomotion.”

Everyone obeyed, even the sisters. The group turned around to face the creature.

Lachlan realized with a jolt that the creature was only a few feet away now, stretching its long, thin arms toward him. Before he could react, it was right in front of him.

He cried out as its arms tightened around his body, jerking him away from the group.

A girl shouted his name, probably Chelsea or Naomi.

He could hear his companions’ panicked voices overlapping, blending together and fading into the background as he fought to get away.

His feet left the ground as the creature lifted him into the air, swinging him back and forth. He kicked backwards and pulled at the arms holding him, trying to free himself, but the creature was too strong.

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Interlude 17 – The Collapse

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Zogzhesh

Zogzhesh flicked his tongue out and tasted the scents–the many unremarkable human scents, the strange and artificial scents of the creatures surrounding the humans. In the midst of all those unexceptional smells, four of the humans stood out–a strange, otherworldly edge to their ape pheromones.

There were two more humans with the power of the terrible ones?

It didn’t matter. There were more urgent things to focus on than that. The mature female human had pulled something from her bag, and the metallic smell made him think it was a weapon.

She was puny, but size could be deceiving. More importantly, dozens of the artificial creatures stood behind her, some nearly as large as him.

Zogzhesh felt his mouth begin to yawn open involuntarily as the unfamiliar sensation of fear crept in.

Oh no. Not this.

He had to make his retreat. He would go back, find Angelina Bianchi before she’d accumulated the entourage, and she would help him get home. He had to get away from these dangerous creatures before–

It was too late. He felt his head bend backward, his body convulsing as he dropped to the ground.

<><

Mona

Mona watched the snake man writhe around on his back for a few seconds, then grow still, tongue lolling out of its mouth. A few drops of blood trickled onto the cobblestones. Moments later, a rancid smell filled the air.

“Um,” said Jen. “What the heck just happened?”

“Is he okay?” said Angelina.

“I’m pretty sure he’s not,” said Sam.

One of the sisters poked the snake man with her foot.

“I think he’s dead,” she said. “Why don’t we eat him?”

“It’s no fun if he’s dead,” said the other sister. “I like my meals screaming in terror.”

Mona did her best to ignore them as she looked down at the snake man. She walked behind him, and leaned down to look at the top of his head. His eyes moved, following her as she walked around him.

“Hm,” she said. “Interesting.”

“Interesting is one word for this,” said Lachlan.

“What’s with the smell?” said Sam. “He died two seconds ago. Why does he already smell like roadkill?”

“He said he was a time traveler,” said Angelina. “Maybe it has to do with that?”

“He’s not dead,” said Mona. “He’s in a state of thanatosis.”

“I remember that word!” said Jen. “Thana-whatchamacallit. You said it to that monster right before I met you!”

“If you’re calling it ‘thana-whatchamacallit’, then you don’t remember the word,” said Mona, “but yes. The Dave fabrication you saw was in a state of partial thanatosis. This is a much more elaborate deception.”

“What is thanatosis?” said Jen.

“It’s an adaptive behavior in which animals take on the appearance of death,” said Mona.

“Oh!” said Jen. “So basically he’s playing possom.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” said Mona. “Virginia opossums do something similar.”

“Is he trying to lull us into a false sense of security?” said Jen. “Should we be like, running away?”

“No,” said Mona.

She sheathed her axes and leaned down at the snake man’s side. She pushed, rolling him over so he lay face down. Tongue still hanging from his mouth, he flopped back over onto his back.

“Um, what are you doing?” said Jen.

Heterdon platirhinos,” said Mona. “The eastern hog-nosed snake.”

“Okay then,” said Jen. “I’m still totally confused.”

“It’s a species of snake with an expandable neck, sometimes mistaken for a cobra by idiots who don’t realize cobras don’t live in North America. It’s known for its very convincing ability to play dead when threatened. It spasms, flips onto its back, and even emits a foul-smelling glandular secretion.”

“Ew,” said Jen.

“Wow,” said Sam. “That… is actually really interesting.”

“It is,” said Mona, “and pretty funny for something that claims to be all-powerful.”

“What should we do?” said Angelina.

“We do nothing,” said Mona. “We pretend he’s not even here.”

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Interlude 16 – Nightmares

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Mona

Then

Mona had never felt smaller than she did now, staring up at this being that claimed to be a god.

He was lying, obviously. His presence felt anything but divine. Besides, a god weighing people’s sins and judging them was such a Western, Christian idea.

Mona wasn’t an expert on Christianity, but she didn’t think any part of it involved snake men and giant pendulums.

She tried to swallow her fear, to make her expression defiant as she stared up at the snake being.

“What are you?”

He spoke again in the strange language that wasn’t Hindi, English, or anything else she recognized. Somehow, she understood it.

“I’ve told you before, mortal. I am the almighty Zogzhesh, the decider of your fate.”

“You’re lying.”

“How dare you accuse the great and powerful Zogzhesh? Tremble before the mighty cosmic pendulums of justice!”

Before she could respond, the pendulums began to swing faster, and the strange rushing sensation in her ears picked up until it was loud enough to overwhelm her other senses. She couldn’t see, or feel the strange hot air on her skin. The rushing was all she could perceive.

When the rushing died down enough for her vision to return, the snake man was gone, replaced with the much smaller figure of an older man. His silhouette, the way he held his back and shoulders ramrod-straight, it was all so familiar.

It couldn’t be.

She gasped as the light hit his face.

“Pita-ji…”

Her father fixed his eyes on her. He’d been known for his stern expression, but his eyes had always softened when he looked at her–his favorite daughter.

They didn’t soften this time.

“I’m very disappointed in you,” he said.

“I–but why?” was the only reply she could manage.

“You failed.”

She felt the threat of tears sting the corners of her eyes.

“Your sister was always going to be a disappointment. But you? You were supposed to make your family proud.”

“I–I always tried–“

“No! What did I always tell you? You decide who you are and what you do. You decide whether to be lazy and irresponsible, or to do something with your life. You failed, and that means you didn’t try. Not enough.”

“But I–I thought–“

“You threw everything away. Your whole family. Abandoned them for her.

The tears escaped Mona’s eyes and begin to roll down her cheeks.

“I didn’t abandon them. It was CPSI. They put me here,” she said. “And I’m her family too. I was the closest thing to family she had.”

“And you failed her too, didn’t you? You failed everyone you ever cared about, and now you’re here. You have no family left. You’re nothing.”

“That’s–that’s not–“

“What do you think will become of my grandchildren, growing up without a mother?”

Images flashed before Mona’s eyes, images of her children, of Nick and Emily. They were ten years older than they’d been when she’d seen them last, but she couldn’t have mistaken them for anyone else. She saw Emily sleeping her days away, ditching class to get high, screaming at her father that she hated him. Nick, in a filthy apartment bedroom, surrounded by trash and dirty dishes, crying until his voice was hoarse. Emily sitting lethargic on a couch while her keyboard collected dust; she hadn’t played music in months. Missed tests and failed classes. The voices of professors and teachers calling her brilliant children ‘lazy’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘stupid’–

No. No, this was all wrong.

Her children would never end up that way. Her children were stronger than that.

“How dare you,” she said to the thing pretending to be her father.

><><<>>

Now

Mona tried to keep her expression neutral as she faced down the creature who’d turned itself into a mockery of her father.

She wasn’t going to let her composure crack, not in front of 131’s sisters, not in front of the unruly group of college kids and Stanley fabs she’d managed to accumulate, and not in front of this thing.

“Don’t help him with anything,” Mona said to Angelina. “I don’t know what help he thinks you can give him, but he can’t be trusted.”

“I know that!” said Angelina. “But I agreed to help him get home, and he agreed not to eat me or my friends, so I kind of have to.”

The snake man fixed his cold eyes on Mona, flicking his tongue at the air.

“I see you’re still holding a grudge, mortal. You’re so full of anger. What would your father say?”

Mona sheathed her knives, placed them into her bag, and slid her axes from their holsters.

“Mention my father again and see what happens.”

“Well,” said the taller of the Sarah fabs. “This just got a little more exciting.”

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7.10

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Chelsea

Chelsea looked up at the shadow shifting between the two houses, suddenly glad that Angelina hadn’t let go of her hand after they’d stopped singing. She squeezed Angelina’s hand tighter.

Jen turned to Chelsea and Angelina with a bright smile.

“We’ll be fine! Look how many of these guys we have on our side.” Jen gestured toward Falcon’s brothers.

A nearby brother who still had hands gave them a thumbs up. Chelsea gave him a smile and wave that felt awkward.

Mrs. Sharma was still facing down the two sisters. Chelsea couldn’t see her face, but Mrs. Sharma’s posture was almost too rigid, to the point of making her look afraid.

“You expect me to believe that you have no idea what’s back there in the shadows?”

“Someone’s flattering herself. We don’t expect you to believe anything,” said the taller sister. “You’re not in charge of us anymore. We don’t care enough to lie to you.”

“I’m not flattering myself, and I’m not under any misconception that you care about me. You’ll lie to anyone. Whether or not you care has nothing to do with it.”

There was another movement in the shadows between the two houses. Then a humanoid figure about three meters tall rose up.

She heard Belfry sniff the air, then felt him begin to tremble.

As the figure approached, she could make out the silhouette of four massive, powerful arms.

“What the heck is that thing?” said Jen.

“That’s definitely not one of our sisters,” said the shorter sister.

“Hey,” said Angelina. “We know that guy!”

Zogzhesh walked toward them, his tongue flicking in the air.

“You know a giant snake monster?” said Lachlan.

“I’m not even gonna ask,” said Sam.

“Probably a wise decision,” said Lachlan.

Mrs. Sharma’s body grew even more rigid, folding her arms defensively in front of her. Chelsea wondered how she managed the defensive position while still holding onto the knives.

“It’s you.” Mrs. Sharma’s voice was small, with a subtle tremor.

“We meet again, Mona Sharma,” said Zogzhesh.

“What do you want with me?” she said.

“You think I’m here for you? I see you’re still as self-important as ever.” Zogzhesh stroked his chin with his scepter. “Then again, your ego was what allowed you to escape my judgement.”

“If you’re not here for me, then why are you here?”

“Angelina Bianchi stands behind you, correct?”

“One of the kids behind me is named Angelina,” said Mrs. Sharma. “She said she encountered you before, but I’m not sure why you’d be looking for her.”

“Hi!” said Angelina. “What’s up?”

Angelina let go of Chelsea’s hand and started forward, pushing her way between Naomi and Mrs. Sharma with her shoulder so she stood in front of Zogzhesh and the two sisters. Chelsea was surprised Mrs. Sharma didn’t scold Angelina for shoving her.

Chelsea wished Angelina wouldn’t stand so close to three very dangerous creatures. She wasn’t sure if it was her imagination, but the two sisters seemed to be eyeing Angelina more hungrily than Chelsea was comfortable with.

“You promised to help me return to my home,” said Zogzhesh. “It would seem you’ve forgotten your promise.”

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7.9

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Naomi

Naomi took a step away from Mrs. Sharma.

Being stern was one thing, but making death threats was another, even if the threats were to Sarah’s creepy sisters.

She turned back to look at Chelsea, who looked taken aback by the threat and the knives even though neither had been pointed at her.

“You wouldn’t kill us,” said one of the sisters.

“Why not?” said Mrs. Sharma. “You had no problems trying to kill me.”

“There’s a bit of a difference here, Mrs. Sharma.”

“And what difference is that?”

“We mean something to you. You don’t mean anything to us.”

“I mean something to sa131,” said Mrs. Sharma. “That’s all I care about. I don’t care about you anymore.”

“sa131 is probably dead. Gone. You’ll never see her aga–“

“Do you really want to provoke me while I’m holding you at knifepoint? I remember you all being much smarter than this,” said Mrs. Sharma. “And she’s not dead, if half these kids I’ve somehow wound up babysitting are to be believed.”

“And do you believe them?” said the taller sister.

“About sa131? I don’t have any reason not to,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Now, get out of my way. Unless you’d prefer I use these knives.”

“Why don’t you just have one of Falcon’s brothers hit them out of the way with their squid arms?” Angelina gestured toward the largest of the brothers, a massive squid-like creature with dozens of skeletal faces. “Look at that one! He’s like a… how do you say calamaro gigante in English?”

“My Italian’s a little rusty, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say ‘giant squid’,” said Lachlan.

“Giant squid! Yes! Why don’t we have the giant squid fight them?”

“Why don’t you stay quiet and mind your own business?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Because it’s a better idea than just standing there pointing knives that they don’t even care about at them,” said Angelina.

“She makes a compelling point,” said Lachlan.

“I’d be happy to help,” said the giant squid.

He had a grating, distorted voice that made Sam, Angelina, and Jen flinch.

“Wow, his voice is scary!” said Angelina. “Anyway, you keep talking about how you’re in a hurry and you have to keep a schedule, but you’re just standing here when you could have them out of your way by now.”

Mrs. Sharma gave no response other than a quick, dismissive glance backward.

In the dark space between the two houses to their right, movement caught Naomi’s eye. She waited, watching to see whether it happened again. It did.

Why did everything in this place have to hide in the dark?

Naomi looked back at her friends to see if anyone else had seen the movement. Everyone seemed focused on the stalemate between Mrs. Sharma and the two sisters.

Naomi looked back between the houses, then glanced back at Chelsea to see if she’d noticed yet.

The bat-like creature on Chelsea’s shoulder looked alert, its ears perked up and eyes wide, and its short fur fluffed out like a cat’s.

At first, Naomi thought the little creature was responding to the tense standoff between Mrs. Sharma and the sisters. Then she saw the creature’s eyes and ears flick over to the space between the houses.

Naomi was just debating how best to get Mrs. Sharma’s attention when Mrs. Sharma spoke.

“I can hear your sister shuffling around in the dark between houses over there,” she said. “Was that the plan? The two of you come up and irritate me, and then big sister in the shadows comes out and ambushes us?”

The two sisters exchanged a look.

“We don’t have another sister with us,” the shorter sister said. “It’s just the two of us.”

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7.7

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Naomi

“She’s more than a piece of biotechnology?” said Sam. “Does that mean she’s really advanced or…?”

He trailed off as Mrs. Sharma whipped around.

Naomi couldn’t see Mrs. Sharma’s facial expression, but it was intimidating enough to make Sam look at the ground and say “Okay, shutting up now.”

“I mean that she’s a person, not some tool or piece of technology,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Oh,” said Sam. “Sorry, I just thought…”

“Have I given any indication in the short time we’ve known each other that I cared about what you thought?” said Mrs. Sharma. “If I have, I did not intend to do that.”

“Um, if you don’t mind me asking,” said Naomi, “How do you know Sarah, exactly. One of the… fabs said you created them. Did you create her too?”

“I didn’t ‘create’ anybody.”

“Yes, you did,” said Angelina. “Don’t you have kids?”

Mrs. Sharma sighed.

“That’s obviously not what I was referring to.”

“I thought you did create the fabs,” said Mahender. “I thought that was part of your job.”

“As usual, you were wrong,” said Mrs. Sharma. “No one created the fabrications. It was more complicated than that.”

“Then where did they come from?” said Sam.

“They were grown from a kind of genetic template,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It’s very complicated–definitely not something I’d expect you to understand.”

“Get wrecked,” said Lachlan.

“Try me,” said Sam. “I have an IQ of 140.”

“Who told you that?” said Mrs. Sharma. “Did you take a quiz online?”

“No, I–The test was administered by a professional!”

“Quizilla.com is not a professional,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“My IQ is 152,” said Angelina.

Bullshit!” Lachlan mock-coughed into his hand.

“Wow, mine’s only 106,” said Jen. “Is everyone here but me like, a genius?”

“I can assure you the answer to that question is no,” said Mrs. Sharma.

Naomi glanced back at her friends again, but as her gaze swept across the alley beside them, she saw a dark shape duck into a shadow.

She thought about alerting everyone, but she didn’t want to alarm them if the dark shape turned out to be her imagination.

“I don’t know my IQ,” said Lachlan, “but I think we can safely estimate that it’s over 200. Quite possibly even 300.”

“And you’re calling my IQ bullshit?” said Angelina.

Naomi glanced back at the alley. Something stirred in the dark.

“Um, guys,” said Naomi.

“How do so many of you even know your IQs?” said Mahender. “I wouldn’t even know how to get a test for that.”

“My brothers and I all have IQs of 130,” said the fab with the tentacle hoop skirt.

“Guys,” said Naomi.

“What is it, Naomi?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I think there might be something in the shadows between those buildings over there.”

Naomi pointed to her left.

Mrs. Sharma looked over, reaching over her shoulder into her bag and removing her knife.

“How do you do that?” said Angelina. “How do you just reach into your bag and pull out the exact thing–“

Mrs. Sharma shushed her.

“I shouldn’t even have to say this,” said Mrs. Sharma, “but everyone–be quiet!”

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7.5

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Lachlan

“Stop that noise this instant!” said Mrs. Sharma. “Are you trying to let every creature in this town know we’re here? You’re far too old to be acting like unruly children anyway.”

“There it is,” said Lachlan.

“It’s not noise,” said Angelina. “It’s Insieme andiam da Mago,’ a cinematic classic.”

“I don’t care what it is. Stop it. Now.”

“Why?”

“Because I’m telling you to.”

“That’s not a reason. Why are you telling me to?”

“I already gave you my reasons. You’re too old to be acting like little kids, and if you keep being so loud, you’ll attract something dangerous.”

“Neither of those are good reasons.”

“Excuse me?”

Angelina put her hands on her hips, which ended up looking awkward because she was still walking.

“I said neither of those are good reasons.”

“This oughta be good.” Sam whispered, probably more loudly than he’d intended.

Mrs. Sharma’s gaze fell on Sam.

“What?” he said.

“You’re shit at whispering, that’s what,” said Lachlan.

“Are none of you capable of shutting up and walking quietly? It’s bad enough I have to deal with my idiot nephew. One ill-behaved child is more than enough.”

“I’m 25,” protested Mahender.

“Then act like it.”

“I wasn’t even doing anything! I was just walking quietly! I’m not even the one you’re mad at right now! Besides, it’s not as if they were even doing anything wrong. They were just having fun. Just because you hate fun doesn’t make it inherently wrong.”

“I don’t hate fun. I just have very little tolerance for immature people and immature behavior. Do you know what I was doing at 25?”

“Yes, because I’ve heard your ‘what I was doing at 25’ speech a thousand times. It never gets more interesting, by the way.”

“I was actually making something of myself. I was working hard, taking care of my family and furthering my career.”

“And how’d that career work out for you?”

Mrs. Sharma clenched and unclenched her fist.

“That’s beside the point.”

“Is it, though?”

“I’m not going to have this argument again,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Not now.”

“This whole conversation is really making me appreciate my family,” whispered Sam.

“And just what do you mean by that?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Here’s a suggestion, Samurai,” said Lachlan. “You might want to stop whispering things about the scary axe lady.”

“You know nothing about my family,” said Mrs. Sharma. “And do not call me the ‘scary axe lady’. I’m not some horror movie villain.”

Mahender signed something to his brothers that made Falcon hold back a laugh with his hand. Mrs. Sharma shot them both a look.

“I’m making a new rule,” said Mrs. Sharma. “No one except me and Naomi are allowed to talk until we get to the town’s outer wall. That includes signing. And singing.”

“Me?” said Naomi.

Mrs. Sharma’s expression softened a fraction when she looked at Naomi.

“You’re the only one in this group who hasn’t pissed me off today. If there’s danger or anything important I need to know, you can be the one to tell me.”

“Oh, um, of course,” said Naomi. “Sure.”

“So if the danger is noticed by anyone other than Naomi, we’ll all just have to die, then?” said Lachlan. “Makes sense.”

“Lachlan’s a butt, but I agree with him,” said Angelina. “If there’s something dangerous, I’m saying something, and I don’t care if you get mad.”

“I could have done without the first part of that statement,” said Lachlan, “but your support is appreciated nonetheless.”

“When I said no talking, I meant starting now,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“So you’re just not going to address our extremely valid concern then,” said Lachlan. “Wonderful.”

“I’m not going to say it again,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I want total silence until we get to the outer wall. Do I make myself clear?”

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7.4

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Naomi

They walked down the street together, Falcon’s larger brothers surrounding the group protectively. At times, they all had to crowd together to squeeze down particularly narrow stretches of road.

Naomi stood to Chelsea’s left. Angelina was at her right side, clinging onto her arm.

“Give C some space, Angelina,” said Naomi.

“It’s okay,” said Chelsea. “It’s nice having you here, Angelina.”

“Chelsea’s being too nice, but she’s been through a lot today,” said Naomi. “Give her some breathing room.”

“Oh, and I haven’t been through a lot today?” said Angelina. “For your information, I fell through an abyss! I got chased by a snake man! I fought a giant three headed monster with a really small sword! The sword was actually scissors, but that’s not important.”

Oh. Naomi felt a pang of guilt. She’d been so focused on Chelsea, she hadn’t even considered that Angelina must have been through some equally bizarre shit.

“Right. Sorry,” said Naomi. “I didn’t realize.”

“C, if you do want space, I can let go of your arm,” said Angelina. “Just tell me.”

“I don’t mind, really,” said Chelsea.

Naomi noticed Chelsea had a slight flush to her cheeks. Maybe her face was pink from the cold, or maybe Angelina was embarrassing her with the excess physical contact and she was too nice to say. Either way, Naomi decided not to force the issue anymore. Chelsea was a grown woman and could take care of herself.

“Are you sure?” said Angelina.

“I’m sure. In fact…” Chelsea linked her arm with Naomi’s so the three of them formed a chain. “There. Perfect.”

Naomi startled as she felt another arm slide under her left arm, linking with hers. She looked over to see Jen standing beside her.

“Hi! Are the girls linking arms?”

Naomi stared at her, not sure what to say.

“We’re off to see the Wizard,” sang Jen as she skipped a few steps.

“I love that movie!” said Angelina. “Want to learn how that song goes in Italian?”

“Sure!”

“Okay, it goes like this… Insieme andiam da Mago…”

The cute little bat thing on Angelina’s shoulder perked up at the singing.

“In… inseam…”

“No, no, no. Insieme.

“Inseam-ay?”

Naomi tried to tune Jen and Angelina out as Angelina continued teaching Jen the song. She glanced at Chelsea who was watching Angelina with a good-natured smile.

Naomi felt a tap on her shoulder and turned her head to see Lachlan and Sam behind her.

“Naomi, I need to talk to you for a second,” said Lachlan.

Naomi unlinked herself from the chain and fell back a few steps. Jen quickly re-linked herself with Chelsea.

“Sure,” said Naomi. “What did you need to talk about?”

“Nothing,” said Lachlan. “You just looked like you needed rescuing from Tweedledee and Tweedledum up there, and as a dashing, manly hero, I figured it was my duty to aid a citizen in distress.”

“A citizen in distress?” Naomi raised an eyebrow. “Not a damsel?”

“Of course not. I’m not a misogynist.”

“Really?” said Sam. “You’re commenting on the ‘citizen in distress’ thing, but not the ‘dashing, manly hero’ thing?”

“If you’ll recall, Samarskite, I happen to have saved your life countless times.”

“Countless? It was more like two times, maybe.”

Naomi wondered what the ‘Samarskite’ thing was about. She didn’t even know what Samarskite was, but Sam’s name definitely wasn’t actually short for it. Did Lachlan and Sam have inside jokes already?

“I was going to comment on the ‘dashing hero’ thing too, actually,” said Naomi. “We both know it’s bullshit. You’re definitely going to hold this over my head the next time you need a favor.”

“Nah,” said Lachlan. “I’d also accept your unwavering loyalty and your eternal reverence and adoration.”

“I think I’ll just do the favor,” said Naomi.

“Your loss.”

Naomi looked over at Sam, trying to find a sign indicating whether or not the talk about ‘rescuing’ her from his girlfriend had offended him. He didn’t look upset, but he had one of those faces that was hard to read.

“I hope you’re not mad that we’re talking about rescuing me from your girlfriend,” said Naomi. “It’s not that Jen’s not great, it’s just that–“

“It’s cool,” said Sam. “I know she can be kind of… a lot.”

“And then you combine that ‘a lot’ with Angelina’s ‘a lot’, and you get, well… whatever this is.”

Naomi gestured ahead of them. Angelina and Jen sang the song together, while skipping at a walking pace. They seemed to have roped Chelsea into joining them too. Jen sang with a heavy American accent, likely mispronouncing at least half the lyrics. Angelina seemed to be having trouble matching her pace to the other two, skipping too quickly and dragging poor Chelsea along with her.

“Do you think we should rescue Chelsea too?” said Naomi.

“Nah,” said Lachlan. “She actually likes Angelina for some reason. Besides, I somehow doubt Mrs. Sharma will let this go on for too long.”

“I’m honestly surprised she hasn’t already made them stop,” said Naomi.

“Ten bucks says she’ll blow up at them within the next five minutes,” said Sam.

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