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The sound of screaming came from the direction Lachlan, Jen, and Sam had headed.

“God damn it,” said Mrs. Sharma.

She unsheathed her axes, heading in the direction of the screaming.

“I thought you said you weren’t going to help them,” said Angelina.

Mrs. Sharma shot an annoyed look over her shoulder before disappearing into the trees. Naomi, Chelsea, and Angelina jogged after her.

“What’s going on?” Naomi called ahead. “Are they okay?”

“I don’t know,” said Mrs. Sharma. “They’re not here anymore.”

Naomi’s chest tightened as she slowed her pace, coming to a stop behind Mrs. Sharma. Lachlan, Sam, and Jen weren’t behind the rock anymore.

“What do you mean they’re not here anymore?” said Angelina.

Mrs. Sharma gave her a very unimpressed look.

“I mean they were here, and now they’re not. That’s what ‘they’re not here anymore’ means.”

“Okay, well, where did they go?” said Angelina.

“How should I know?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“You shouldn’t.” Angelina pouted. “It was a rhetorical question.”

The tight feeling in Naomi’s chest grew as she stared at the empty spot where her friends had been standing just a few minutes ago. Well, technically only Lachlan was her friend. She barely knew Sam and Jen. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t terrified for them.

“Do you think something… something took them?” she said.

Mrs. Sharma held her axes at the ready, her whole body tense as she scanned their surroundings.

“Maybe. Or maybe they ran away from something. Either way, whatever danger they were screaming about could still be nearby. We should go back over to the snake guards. Whatever could have come after those three will be less likely to come after us if we’re next to a pair of large, intimidating creatures.”

So they were just going to stand there?

“So we’re not going to look for them?” said Naomi. “We can’t just do nothing! We have to help!”

Mrs. Sharma turned her unimpressed look on Naomi.

“I thought you were the only one here who actually used your brain, but I guess I was wrong. We’re not going to do nothing. We’ll try to find your friends once we can be reasonably sure the threat is over. But we won’t be any good to them dead.”

Naomi flinched under Mrs. Sharma’s gaze, but didn’t back down. Her friend and two other people were in immediate mortal danger, and that danger grew every second they were missing.

“No. I’m not just going to stand here and do nothing. Something just took my friend and two other people, and the longer we wait, the longer they could be hurt or… or…”

Her voice rose in panic as she spoke. Normally, that was something she’d be self-conscious about, but now she was too afraid to care.

“Quiet down!” said Mrs. Sharma. “Don’t yell. If you yell and act frightened, you could provoke an attack. Here’s what we need to do. Everyone move closer together. Stragglers are more likely to get picked off from the group.”

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Chelsea felt Belfry trembling on her shoulder and reached up to stroke his head.

Poor thing. She couldn’t blame him at all; she was pretty sure she was trembling a bit too.

“Angelina,” she said. “Can you tell Belfry everything’s okay? I think he’s shaken up from falling into another reality.”

“Nicky’s freaked out too,” said Nancy.

The dog licked his lips and let out a nervous whine.

“That’s hardly surprising,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Animals are sensitive to all kinds of things humans can’t pick up on.”

Falcon signed something. Mahender, who’d been relaying everyone’s words to Falcon, attempted to translate.

“Sorry… the Stanley fab hand signals don’t translate well to English, so it’s hard to give a word for word,” he said. “He’s asking if we should be worried about what they’re picking up on.”

“Probably,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Like I said before, we’re in a completely alien–“

“What’s that in the sky?” interrupted Angelina.

“What have I said about interrupting…” Mrs. Sharma trailed off as she looked up at the sky.

A long, black line had appeared in the sky just above the wall of greenery surrounding the garden. A breeze began to rustle the leaves around them.

Nancy’s dog whined again.

“I don’t feel so good all of a sudden,” said Sam.

At first, Chelsea thought he meant he didn’t feel good because the strange line in the sky was making him nervous. Then she realized she was starting to feel nauseous and dizzy too.

“Well,” said Lachlan. “This is unsettling.”

The breeze grew in strength, whipping Chelsea’s hair into her eyes and obscuring her view. Her ears popped.

“It’s probably some kind of alien weather phenomenon,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I think we should start looking for shelter. There’s no way of knowing what kind of–“

Mrs. Sharma never got to finish her sentence, because the breeze picked up into a roaring wind. Chelsea’s hair flew upward into her face, some of it catching in her eyes, and under her nose. A metal taste hit her mouth, and she realized her hair was getting stuck under her nose because it was bleeding. A wave of dizziness and nausea washed over her, so intense she fell into a small tree and had to hold onto the trunk for balance. Belfry’s claws dug into her shoulder as he tightened his grip.

Through the hair in her face, she could see the rest of the group wavering too, some of them grabbing onto nearby objects for balance. Angelina had fallen back into the plant she’d climbed out of, and Jen had splashed backward into the fountain and was picking herself back up again. Nancy, unable to grab anything for security without dropping her dog, started to fall backward, but Mahender caught her shoulders from behind and steadied her. Sam grabbed Lachlan’s shoulder for balance, sending both of them crashing to the ground.

It was hard to tell, but it looked like most of the group had nosebleeds too. Sam’s was the worst–bad enough that a few drops had escaped his chin and were rolling down his chest.

Lachlan was pointing at the sky, shouting something Chelsea couldn’t hear over the roaring wind.

When she looked up, it took a few seconds for her to control the hair that was whipping into her face enough to get a clear view.

The thin line had expanded into a wide gash, and it was growing by the second.

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Content Warning: Blood, graphic description of injury


Few feelings can compare to the feeling of being in immediate mortal danger, and being completely unable to do anything about it.

It was a feeling that Lachlan had experienced only once before, after he’d been carried from the truck into that clinical white room, as the gravity of his situation had finally hit him. He felt it again as he struggled against the creature, but this time, there were no drugs to dull the sheer, all-consuming panic.

Sure, his life had been in danger more times than he could count over the past few days, but this felt different. He was unable to move his arms or struggle, powerless to defend himself.

He thought of being paralyzed in the back of that truck, not able to fight back or cry out as he was lifted into that room with no idea what would happen next, and his panic grew. The more he tried and failed to move his arms from his sides and break free of the creature’s grip, the more paralyzed he felt.

He felt detached again as his legs swung a meter above the ground, but this time, there were no drugs to explain it. His friends’ speech blended together more and more, until he couldn’t tell who was talking.

“–thought you said they weren’t dangerous–“

“–usually aren’t, but they can be very strong and sometimes–“

“–just standing there! Why don’t you help him?!”

“–holding him in front of its weak point. I just need to get behind it–“

“–if we can knock it over, I can kick it like I did before–“

The creature lurched, and Lachlan saw the largest skull squid had wrapped an arm around the creature’s leg. More of Falcon’s brothers reached out, prying at the creature’s long arms, trying to free Lachlan. The creature kicked, swaying back and forth toward a shop building on the side of the road.

The creature stumbled, and its arms gave way, losing its grip on Lachlan and sending him flying.

Glass shattered as he hit the shop window, nicking his arm and chest as he fell through. He rolled over onto his back, feeling weak and lightheaded as the panic subsided.

Mrs. Sharma ran toward the creature, axe brandished, but one of Falcon’s brothers dispatched it first, wrapping a tendril around its neck, then twisting until there was a snapping sound. The creature crumpled.

Lachlan tried to stand, but he felt too weak.

His friends rushed to the shop, crowding around him.

“Oh, my god,” said Naomi. “Oh, my god, Lachlan.”

“Oh, my god, yourself,” he said.

He looked up at his friends, noticing their expressions of wide-eyed horror.

“What?” he said. “What’s everyone looking at?”

“Shh,” said Chelsea. “It’s okay. Don’t try to talk.”

“Everyone move over,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Let me through to him.”

“No, he needs air,” said Chelsea. “Give him some space.”

“Unless one of you has a master’s degree in biology I don’t know about, I’m the most qualified to help your friend. If you care about him at all, you’ll move out of the way.”

“What are you talking about?” said Lachlan. “I’m fine. Well, as fine as can be expected, considering… you know…”

He still felt so weak, and the feeling was getting worse instead of better. He felt colder than he had before, and there was a strange, empty feeling in his head that made dark spots flicker at the edge of his vision.

Lachlan’s friends moved out of the way, and Mrs. Sharma approached him crouching down at his left side.

“Naomi,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Come lift his left arm above his heart.”

Lachlan looked down at his left arm, and realized why everyone was so worried.

When Sam had lost his fingers, Lachlan had thought there had been a lot of blood. Now, he realized he hadn’t had any baseline for what ‘a lot of blood’ really was. His blood was everywhere, bright red blood spurting from his arm and dark blood flowing from his chest, soaking through his glass-shredded clothes and pooling around him.

“I… oh, fuck,” he said. “Oh, fuck…”

How was this possible? The glass had only cut him a little. Even now, he hardly felt any pain as he bled out onto the shop floor.

How had he not noticed that sickening copper smell?

Naomi held up Lachlan’s arm.

“What are you going to do with that knife?” said Naomi.

Mrs. Sharma cut away the torn pieces of Lachlan’s sleeve at his shoulder. She examined his arm, then pressed down on the inside of it. Whatever she did seemed to ease the bleeding.

Sam pulled off his jacket and removed his undershirt, handing it to Mrs. Sharma.

“Here, maybe you can use this to make a tourniquet or something.”

“A scarf would be better for a tourniquet, but I can use this to bandage his chest. Chelsea, give me your scarf.”

The cold dizzy feeling was starting to overwhelm him as his vision begin to blur.

“Quickly, Chelsea. Unless you want your friend to die. Someone, find me a stick.”

Lachlan fought to stay alert, but he couldn’t stop himself from slipping into unconsciousness.

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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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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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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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Naomi glanced behind her at the rest of the group. Mrs. Sharma had asked Naomi to walk next to her to more easily point out danger, and Naomi wasn’t sure she liked being appointed Mrs. Sharma’s right-hand woman.

In high school, Naomi had been singled out as the teacher’s pet more than she would have liked, and the resentful looks from her classmates had been almost unbearable.

She studied each face, searching for signs of that resentment. Chelsea, still linked with Jen and Angelina, gave her a warm smile. Naomi tried as well as she could to return it.

She made eye contact with Lachlan, who mouthed the words “suck-up”. She rolled her eyes pointedly at him, then turned back around before he could see her face flush.

Was he annoyed with her, or was he just being Lachlan? Sometimes, it was hard to tell.

“So Naomi,” said Mrs. Sharma. “What are you studying in school?”

Mrs. Sharma was making small talk with her now? Ugh. Not only would it make her look more like a suck-up, she’d have to worry about Mrs. Sharma judging her answers to questions.

“Um, I study music,” said Naomi.

She hated how awkward and unsure her voice sounded.

To Naomi’s surprise, Mrs. Sharma smiled at her and gave an approving nod.

“That’s great. Not enough people study music seriously.”

“Really? Honestly, most adults just tell me that it’s a waste of time, or that I’m never going to make a living doing it or something.”

“Money isn’t everything,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It’s important–don’t get me wrong–but it’s not everything. Few things are a waste of time if you dedicate yourself to them and fully commit. Being a musician is something that takes a lot of discipline. And if you apply enough discipline, you can make a living doing almost anything.”

“I, um, mostly play rock music,” Naomi said.

“So does my daughter,” said Mrs. Sharma. “She wants to study it in college too someday.”

“How old is she?”

“Her twelfth birthday is coming up.”

“Wow, she’s twelve and she’s already picked her college major?”

“She had it picked out since she was eight. She always knew what she wanted to do with her life, and she’s always applied herself. My son’s the same way.”

“What does your son want to do?”

“He doesn’t know yet, but he’s only nine, so he’s got lots of time. He’s one of the top students in his class, so he could do anything he wanted. Right now, he’s saying he might want to teach like his dad.”

“Where does your husband teach? Maybe I’ve taken a class with him before.”

Naomi glanced back at her friends again, hoping she wasn’t earning any resentment by making polite conversation.

“UNCC. He teaches computer science.”

“That’s where I go to school. I wouldn’t have had any of his classes, though.”

“No, I guess you wouldn’t have.”

The conversation fell into a lull, and Naomi wondered if it would be rude to bring up Sarah.

Then again, if she fell out of Mrs. Sharma’s good graces, she wouldn’t have to worry about her friends thinking she was a suck-up.

“So, uh, sorry if I shouldn’t be bringing this up, but how do you know Sarah?”

Mrs. Sharma gave her a long look.

“It’s complicated. It’s hard to explain without knowing how much you know.”

“I know you were some kind of scientist for CPSI. And I know she’s a piece of biotechnology.”

Mrs. Sharma’s more easygoing expression fell from her face, her steely look returning.

“No. She’s way more than that.”

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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?”


“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.


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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Naomi, Mahender, and Angelina followed Mrs. Sharma down the hall.

“Why can’t Falcon come in?” said Angelina.

“He’ll be safe outside,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I can’t say the same for my useless nephew, or his new friend. Besides, my house has limited space.”

They entered the combined living room and kitchen area, and as Mrs. Sharma moved out of the way, Naomi saw who was standing by the couch, bruised and a bit disheveled, but alive.


Naomi’s relief was the kind that washed every bit of tension and worry from her body so abruptly it left her legs feeling weak; it was a wave that swept over her, threatening to knock her off her feet.

Naomi ran over to her friend, falling into her arms.

“Naomi! Not that I’m not happy to see you, but how are you here?”

“Oh, my God, C! You’re alive! You’re safe! When that woman said she put you here, I thought…” The threat of tears stung the corners of Naomi’s eyes, and she fought them back. “I’m so glad you’re okay!”

“The rest of us are okay too, thanks for asking!” said a familiar voice from behind Chelsea.

Lachlan, who was sitting on one of the two barstools in the kitchen, swiveled around to face her.

One time, Lachlan had video called her the morning after a particularly wild night out, informing her with some extremely misplaced pride in his voice that he’d woken up wrapped in a tarp in his neighbor’s driveway. The bags under his eyes now were twice as dark as they’d been then.

The clothes he wore were very un-Lachlan-like–white slacks that would have been stylish if they had been clean and a size larger, a light blue button-down shirt, and a jacket with red stripes. Each item would have been nice paired with something else, but together, it all clashed horribly.

“What are you wearing?” she asked him.

“What am I wearing?” he said. “Oh, sure. Chelsea gets all your tearful concern, and I get outfit criticism.”

“To be fair,” said Mrs. Sharma, “you and Sam both look horrible.”

“First of all,” said Lachlan, “I’d like to see you try to pull together an outfit in the dark from a stranger’s closet. Secondly, I’ll have you know that I’m handsome enough to pull off a paper sack, and Sam here’s not too hard on the eyes himself for a massive nerd. We make extradimensionally-scavenged chic look good.”

Naomi looked at the boy sitting backwards in the barstool beside Lachlan, arms resting on the stool’s backrest. The other boy’s clothes were equally mismatched; he wore a similar, dirtier pair of white slacks that looked like they’d been tailored for someone just a bit bigger than him and a brown aviator jacket over a white undershirt. The jacket suited him, at least.

Jen sat on the countertop between the two boys, holding onto the unfamiliar boy’s hand, which was bandaged with strips of cloth.

He must have been the boyfriend Jen had been looking for.

“Having to wear scavenged clothes is not an excuse,” said Mrs. Sharma. “All of my clothes were taken from strangers’ houses.”

“Well, some of us have bigger things to worry about than picking out a matching outfit,” said Lachlan. “Excuse us for having our priorities in order.”

“You think I don’t have bigger things to worry about?” said Mrs. Sharma. “You think I don’t have higher priorities? One of the most important things you learn in life is how to handle all of your priorities at once.”

“Doesn’t it make more sense to focus on the most important priorities?” said Lachlan.

“Yeah,” said Sam. “Why not dedicate your energy to the things that matter most and not waste any of it on stuff that really doesn’t affect anything?”

“Exactly,” said Lachlan.

“I don’t have to answer to two children who think they know better than I do,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Spoken like a true person with no counterargument,” said Lachlan.

“I could come up with a counterargument,” said Mrs. Sharma, “but arguing with teenagers is not one of my priorities.”

“But putting together a swanky outfit is?” said Lachlan.

Mrs. Sharma turned her nose up at him and addressed the rest of the group.

“Anyway.” She cleared her throat. “First thing’s first. Jen, get off of my counter. Sam, if you’re going to use my chair, sit properly. I swear, it’s like all of you were raised by animals.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Jen slid off the counter and landed on the floor. “Sammy, you heard the lady!”

Sam rolled his eyes as he turned around to sit the right way.

“Now,” said Mrs. Sharma, “everyone look at me and pay attention. We need to discuss our way out of the Pit.”

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Sure enough, Chelsea stood in the living room, along with two other girls. A short blonde girl Lachlan didn’t recognize stood beside Chelsea, while a familiar-looking girl with chin-length brown hair lounged on the couch, her legs dangling over the arm. It took Lachlan a moment to realize who the brunette girl was.

“Angelina? I… what? How the motherfuck are you here?”

Before Angelina could answer, the blonde girl let out a shriek, running toward Sam and nearly knocking him over with a hug.

“Sammy-wammy! You’re alive!”

Sammy-wammy? Lachlan would have to remember to give Sam a hard time about that.

“Jen?” Sam looked startled. “What are you doing here?”

So this was Sam’s girlfriend? She was pretty good-looking, Lachlan guessed, but something about her bothered him.

“I was looking for you because you disappeared, and then there was this girl looking for Chelsea, and then this other lady tried to kill her but I saved her life! Then the other lady was like–“

“That’s enough,” said the woman with the axes. “I can sum it up for you. Jen was looking for you after you went missing. She ran into Chelsea’s friend Naomi, who was looking for Chelsea–“

“Wait, is Naomi here too?” said Lachlan.

“Don’t interrupt me,” said the woman. “Jen and Naomi ran into an… old friend of mine who was working for CPSI. She trapped them here, along with a biotechnologically engineered human calling himself Falcon. They were attacked by a creature and Jen became separated from the group. The end. There. I just saved us all about twenty minutes of listening to Jen chatter on. You’re welcome.”

“I still have some questions,” said Sam.

“So Falcon and Naomi are here?” said Lachlan. “We have to find them.”

“Falcon’s one of the Stanley fabrications, correct?” said the woman.

“I… think so?” Jen looked up, still latched onto Sam like an overly chipper, blonde vice.

“If so, he’ll probably be fine, at least for the time being. He’ll have plenty of allies here,” said the woman. “If I were you, I’d be more concerned about this Naomi you mentioned.”

“Can we like, take a time-out for a second?” said Jen, finally untangling herself from Sam and facing the group. “I think some of us should probably introduce ourselves, because I have no clue who Sam’s hot friend is, and he looks super confused too.”

Hot friend, huh? Lachlan revised his initial impression of Jen. Maybe she wasn’t so bad. At the very least, she had good taste in men.

“Fine,” said the woman.

“Why don’t we go around in a circle and say our name, how we ended up in the Pit, and one fun fact about ourselves?” said Jen.

“No,” said the woman.

“I’ll go first. Hey, y’all, I’m Jen Washer, and I was stranded here by a crazy lady while looking for my boyfriend–hi, Sammy! My fun fact is that I have a black belt in Taekwando.”

“We’re not doing this,” said the woman.

“I’ll go next!” said Angelina. “My name is Angelina–that’s long for ‘Angela’–and I ended up here after I went to Borgo San Severino to look for clues about what happened to my friend Chelsea. My fun fact is that I am the president and founder of the official Italian street team of the greatest band in the whole entire universe–The Goldfish Technique!”

“It’s not a real street team,” said Lachlan. “It’s you and your twelve-year-old sister.”

“Does this mean you’re going next, friend of Sam’s?” said Jen.

Lachlan shrugged. “If I must. I’m Lachlan Newton, I was ambushed outside of my work by what I now assume were CPSI goons, shoved into a van, and thrown into this delightful place. My fun fact about myself is that I’m a much bigger fan of The Goldfish Technique than Angelina is–Oi!” He dodged as Angelina hurled a small, round object at his head. It bounced off the wall behind him and rolled to his feet, and he saw it was a grape.

Angelina was so weird.

“Don’t throw grapes at me!” he said. “What’s the matter with you?”

Angelina stuck out her tongue.

“Oh, that’s very mature,” he said.

“Your butt is mature,” she retorted.

The woman with the axes sighed, rubbing her temples.

“I’ll go next,” said Chelsea. “I’m Chelsea Brown, I was caught by a woman named Sarah and put in here, and my fun fact is that I collect odd things.”

“What constitutes an ‘odd thing’?” said Sam.

“I know it when I see it,” said Chelsea. “Um, I have medical antiques, a Victorian locket with someone’s hair in it, a toad skeleton encased in resin… You know. Odd things. I find them at antique stores and stuff.”

Lachlan gestured at Angelina, who was clinging to Chelsea’s side, draped over her arm like a coat.

“Is she part of your collection?” he said.

Angelina made a face at him.

Jen threw an arm around Sam, squeezing his shoulders.

“Your turn, Sammy!” she said.

“Okay, then,” said Sam. “My name is Sam, a machine sent me here while I was trying to save Chelsea, and my fun fact is that when I was a kid, my family moved out of our house because my dad thought it was haunted. And… I guess that means it’s her turn.” He looked at the woman with the axes.

“Fine,” said the woman. “My name is Mrs. Sharma, I was sent here because I was a CPSI employee who no longer served their interests, and my ‘fun fact’ is that I need an aspirin.”

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