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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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Back Someday – Interlude 26

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Falcon sat on the curb, turning his head slightly to stare at the view from outside the house. Once, the place he was sitting might have provided a picturesque ocean view. Now, in the dark, the street seemed to slope down into a great abyss that swallowed up the pastel shops, houses, and cobblestones.

A few weeks after they’d found him, Melanie and Dominic had taken him outside the city to a park with steep cliffs that had seemed at odds with the rest of the landscape–because they’d been created by stone mining, he’d later learned. He’d still had trouble communicating with his new friends, but Mel had led him by the hand up a trail, then up toward a rocky ledge. He’d stopped walking and tugged on her arm upon seeing a ‘danger: cliff edge’ sign, and she’d tugged back and tossed him a reassuring smile over her shoulder. They’d dangled their legs off the edge and watched the sun set behind the city.

Below them, there’d been a lit pathway overlooking the river, and in the distance, there’d been the skyline, lit up and shimmering, its reflection glistening on the water. But somewhere in between, there’d been complete darkness. Melanie had put her hand up to block the view of the city, and Falcon hadn’t understood at the time–why would she want to block out something so beautiful? Months later, she’d told him. She liked to block out the city, and pretend the world ended at the pathway below them before dropping off into an endless void.

She’d been wrong. The drop down the cliffs into the river hadn’t looked anything like the edge of existence. It had just been the ordinary darkness of a river at night. Looking out into the complete oblivion in the distance, he now knew what the edge of existence really looked like.

A movement out of the corner of his eye startled him out of his thoughts. He turned to see Mahender sitting beside him, staring out at the darkness too.

How long had he been sitting there?

Mahender shot him an apologetic look, then turned back toward the darkness.

Their brothers slept now, huddling together on the cobblestone streets. They could sleep anywhere; they hadn’t been designed to care much about physical discomfort, or maybe they were just used to it after a lifetime of sleeping in glass pods.

Falcon turned to look again at his brothers’ brother–the near stranger who’d saved his life. He wasn’t good at reading moods or facial expressions, but he had a hunch as to why Mahender wasn’t sleeping either.

Mahender had found a family in Falcon’s brothers, but he had a family at home too. Falcon’s brothers were his family, but the new family he’d found was waiting for him back home. He wasn’t ready to leave his brothers, but he knew he couldn’t stay.

Neither of them could, as hard as it was going to be to say goodbye.

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I’m in Deep–Interlude 25.2

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Mona lingered in the venue as the rest of the crowd trickled out. Only a few people were left now; a teenage boy in skinny jeans with messy, dark blond hair was following the annoyed yet patient bass player around, and a few people were lined up at a folding table in the back buying CDs and T-shirts. Mona thought about buying a CD for Emily–the band had been surprisingly good–but decided against it. She didn’t want to risk getting in trouble if Mr. Clyde saw the CD, and it could be hard to predict what kinds of things he’d get mad about sometimes.

The space had felt small when it had been packed with a crowd, but it felt larger now that only a few people were there. There was no seating or even a bar area; just a small stage and an open area for people to stand. Mona had chaperoned Emily at a few concerts, and there had almost always been some kind of seating, even if no one really used it.

The singer/guitarist walked past Mona, heading for the back of the venue, then stopped, giving her a second look.

“Are you here alone?” said the woman. Melanie Graham.

She was blonde, with messy hair, a lot of bad tattoos, and shiny garish pink lipstick that had smudged while she was performing. On the stage, she’d seemed brash and confident, but now, she seemed almost shy despite her garish clothing, hair, and makeup–her speaking voice was far softer than her singing voice, and her shoulders were drawn inward as though she was trying to hide.

“Yes,” said Mona. “You have lipstick on your face.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Melanie.

She stuck her tongue out, licking under her lower lip and smudging the lipstick further.

Mona frowned. What an odd woman. She was clearly a hardworking, disciplined person–otherwise, how could she become so talented at her instrument? But hardworking, disciplined people weren’t supposed to lick lipstick off their own faces.

Melanie seemed to notice the frown and drew her shoulders further inward. At least she had the good sense to be embarrassed about licking lipstick off her own face.

“How are you getting home?” said Melanie. “Are you headed to the train station?”

“No, I’m… not exactly sure. Someone’s supposed to be picking me up, but I don’t know where or when he’s going to be here. He might be picking me up at the park.”

“Hm.” Melanie’s face knit with concern. “That’s nearly ten minutes from here. It’s really late. I’ll walk with you if you want.”

“That’s… really very kind of you, but you don’t have to.”

“I want to. If I let you go by yourself, and then I heard on the news tomorrow something awful happened, I’d feel like shit.” She turned to call to the bassist. “Dom! You’re coming too!”

The bassist excused himself from the kid who was pestering him and headed toward them.

“Thank fuck. I thought that Lachlan kid would never leave,” he said. “Where am I coming? What’s going on?”

“We’re walking–” Melanie stopped and looked at Mona. “Sorry, what’s your name?”

Mona paused for a minute, not sure if she should give her real name or not.

“Sarah,” she lied.

“Sarah. Cool. I’m Mel and this is Dom,” said Melanie. “Dom, we’re walking Sarah here back to the park.”

“Alright,” said Dominic. “Hi, Sarah.”

“Hi,” said Mona. “Are you sure you have time to walk with me? Aren’t you busy doing… well, I don’t exactly know what bands do after they perform. But I assume you have to do something.”

“We can spare twenty minutes,” said Melanie. “We’ll just tell Jess and Falcon where we’re going.”

Mona followed Melanie’s gaze to the merch table at the back of the room. The drummer and the Stanley fabrication sat together conversing in sign language while a young woman with dyed black hair sold T-shirts and CDs to the last few stragglers.

So Falcon was what the fabrication was calling himself?

She almost hadn’t recognized him. He’d bleached his hair blond and wore a hideous, brightly-colored floral shirt. His expression was animated as he spoke with the drummer, far from the blank-faced Stanley fabs she’d encountered before.

She noticed Melanie and Dominic giving her a strange look and realized she was staring.

“Sorry,” said Mona. “Your friend kind of reminds me of someone.”

They both looked at her as though expecting her to elaborate.

“She spent a lot of time in a bad situation. Where she was treated like she was less than human. When I first met her, she seemed so blank and robotic. Then, when I showed her the smallest kindness, it was like a wall crumbled and all these hidden depths came pouring out. For some reason, I feel like your friend is the same way.”

Dominic gave Mona a long look.

“And what makes you think Falcon’s like that?”

Oh no. Had she said too much?

“Just a hunch,” she lied. “Something in his eyes, I guess.”

Something in his eyes? Ugh, it was such a cheesy thing to say.

It seemed to appease Dominic though.

“You’re pretty perceptive,” he said.

Mona nodded.

“My friend has better taste in shirts, though,” she said.

“I like his shirts,” said Melanie.

Mona almost said something like ‘you would like them’, but decided against it. Melanie might have been tacky, but she was kind enough to care about a stranger’s safety, and that was worth something.

“Let’s go,” said Dominic. “I want to get back before the pizza gets here.”

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Keep Me–Interlude 24

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Nancy cracked the door of the plane to peer out, and a medium-sized brown and white dog pushed its way through, opening the door and hopping down to the ground. It barked as it spotted them, the hair on its back prickling upward as it eyed the Brothers uncertainly.

Nancy looked equally uncertain when she saw them.

“Would you all mind standing back?” Mahender said to the brothers.

He knew what Nancy had been through, and what his brothers reminded her of, so he was always careful when he visited her with them.

The Brothers backed up, except for Falcon, who stood glancing uncertainly between Nancy and Mahender. Mahender nodded at him, and he stepped forward with the humans of the group. The dog trotted forward to greet the group, heading toward Sam and Lachlan. The two boys bent down to pet the dog.

“Aw!” said Jen. “Puppy!”

She crouched down to pet it too. Its tail swung wildly back and forth at all the attention.

Mahender had seen the dog a few times, usually from a distance. Once, it had even saved him from a particularly large sister. Usually, though, it gave him and his brothers a wide berth. He couldn’t exactly blame it.

He knew from his many conversations with her that Nancy loved dogs. She’d had pet dogs all her life, and it was one of the things she missed most about home. He wasn’t sure how the two had found each other, but he was glad.

“Mahender.” Nancy’s eyes widened as she took in the large group. “And Sam, and Lachlan, and… sorry, I can’t remember your name.”

Mona Aunty frowned.

“It’s Mona, ma’am.”

“Mona, right, of course,” said Nancy, “and… a lot of new faces too.”

Jen, Angelina, Naomi, and Chelsea introduced themselves. Falcon waved.

“Do you mind if one of my brothers comes forward with the group? This is Falcon. He’s deaf and needs a translator.”

“Of course,” said Nancy. “That’s fine.”

st63, the Brother with a skirt of tentacles stepped forward. The dog tucked its tail and made its way back to the plane, turning around to eye st63 suspiciously.

“It’s nice to meet you,” signed Falcon.

“Hello again,” said Lachlan.

“I’m always happy to have visitors,” said Nancy. “But to what do I owe this large crowd? I didn’t know this many people were stuck here.”

“Most of them got here fairly recently,” said Mona Aunty. “We’re here because one of these kids thinks she knows how to get home.”

Nancy stared at them for a few seconds. Then, she finally spoke.


“Yes, home. There aren’t any guarantees, of course. But she’s explained her reasoning to me, and the logic seems solid. This is the first time I’ve come across anything resembling a real chance at getting out of here, so I think we should take it.”

“Can I ask how we get home?”

“All we have to do is stand in a specific place at a specific time,” said Angelina. “If we all scrunch together, the hole that opens in reality should take us home.”

Nancy looked beyond the group at the Brothers standing there.

“And will… everyone here be going?”

Mahender looked back at the creatures he’d come to think of as his Brothers. He’d been so excited at the prospect of going home, of seeing his mum again, that the thought hadn’t even occurred to him.

“Our home is here,” said st98.

Mahender noticed Falcon fidgeting uneasily with his sleeve.

It seemed like Mahender wasn’t the only person who was conflicted.

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“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.”

“Your 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.”

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Angelina and Chelsea sat side by side on the lumpy bed with Belfry curled up at their feet. It would have been a cozy scene if not for the fact that there was a single wall separating them from a giant snake monster.

“Are you okay, C?” said Angelina.

Chelsea had no idea how to respond to that.

“I’m… fine,” she said.

“Okay!” Angelina sounded far too chipper for their current situation as she squeezed Chelsea’s arm and placed her head on her shoulder. “That’s good!”

Chelsea’s face flushed at the physical contact, and she immediately chastised herself. This was absolutely not the time to be flustered by a girl getting overly affectionate with her.

She was trying to stay focused on the danger at hand, but her mind kept going back to the moment Angelina had pulled her from the snake monster’s illusion. The kiss.

She didn’t know if it had been real or part of the illusion, and it was hard to stop over-analyzing it. If it had been part of the illusion, did that say something about her or her feelings for Angelina? If it had been real, why had Angelina done it? Maybe it had been an attempt to shock Chelsea out of the illusion, or maybe it had been out of relief that she’d started to emerge from her trance.

There was another possibility dancing at the edge of Chelsea’s mind too, but it wasn’t one she was willing to let herself entertain.

“What are you thinking about?” Angelina nudged Chelsea.

Chelsea jumped, inadvertently shaking Angelina’s head off her shoulder.

“Oh, I, um–“

“I’m sorry,” said Angelina. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No, I’m sorry,” said Chelsea. “I’m just jumpy. I’ll be relieved when we’re home again.”

Angelina pursed her lips.

“I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too,” said Chelsea.

“Will you come visit me?”

“Of course I will,” said Chelsea, “and I’ll video call you all the time.”

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

Angelina turned, looking her directly in her eyes.

“Do you swear it? On your life?”

Chelsea nodded. Coming from anyone else, the intensity might have been a little strange or off-putting, but coming from Angelina, it was oddly endearing.

“I swear it on my life,” said Chelsea.

“Good.” Angelina rested her head on Chelsea’s shoulder again. “Good.”



The creature stared down at Naomi and Falcon through hundreds of empty black eyes. Falcon stared back up at it, his face contorted with confusion.

More creatures rose from the openings in the concrete, most of them vaguely human in shape and covered in pallid, gaunt faces that grew from their necks, arms, and legs. Most of them wore jumpsuits that were lumpy underneath, as though more faces were growing out of their chests and backs. Many of them had squid-like extra limbs that ended in sucker-covered clubs.

The creature that had been first to appear reached one of its limbs toward Falcon, until the club part came to rest gently on his face. The confusion on his face mingled with horror.

Falcon did a series of strange, disjointed hand signs that didn’t look like Auslan, or any other kind of sign language, for that matter. The creatures that were humanoid enough in shape to have hands responded with signs of their own.

As they stepped closer, Naomi noticed the eerie similarities between the creatures’ faces and Falcon’s. It was as though someone had taken Falcon’s face and stripped it of the facial hair, the slight pink tinge to his skin–everything that made his face look human and alive.

These things were Falcon’s brothers?

The largest creature reared back, and its squid-arms parted. Naomi stepped back, bracing herself for it to attack.

Instead, a man stepped out of the opening between the arms and flashed her a pleasant smile.

He looked to be in his mid-twenties. He was only a few inches taller than her, with light brown skin, and black hair and a beard that both desperately needed to be trimmed and combed. In his defense, barbers were probably hard to come by in this place.

“Hi!” he said.

“Hi, would you mind explaining to me what’s going on?” was what Naomi tried to say. It ended up sounding more like “Wuh-guh?”

Some of Naomi’s fear and confusion gave way to embarrassment. She always seemed to make a fool of herself when she first met people. Coincidentally, “wuh-guh” had also been the first thing she’d said to Dominic when she’d met him, which was something Lachlan still gave her shit about.

The man chuckled. He seemed to be laughing sympathetically rather than laughing at her, but the fact that he was laughing at all made her more embarrassed.

Several of the creatures went through a series of hand signs as the man spoke, as though they were translating his speech into the strange, disjointed sign language.

“That’s probably exactly how I would have reacted if I’d seen some bloke climb out of a giant skull covered in faces and squid arms,” the man said. His accent sounded Australian.

“Well, it’s not something you see everyday,” said Naomi.

The creatures moved their hands, translating for her to Falcon, who looked close to tears.

“No, definitely not,” said the man. He turned to Falcon. “Hey! I remember you! You’re looking well. I love the hair.”

Falcon lifted a shaking hand and signaled something.

“Thank you,” translated a creature wearing a jumpsuit that was torn at the chest, allowing a second face to peek out. It sounded Australian too, and had a surprisingly ordinary voice.

“Hey, are you alright, mate?” said the man to Falcon. “You look like you’ve seen a–” The man trailed off, looking back at his bizarre companions. “Oh. Oh, yeah. You haven’t seen them since… yeah.”

“Excuse me, sorry, I hate to interrupt this, uh…” Naomi paused, unsure what word to use for whatever was happening. She gestured around her. “I hate to interrupt this, but can someone please tell me what’s going on?”

Falcon did more hand signs. The creature with the face on its chest translated.

“What happened to you?”

“We don’t know,” said a creature with dozens of squid-arms growing out of its waist and spilling down around it, making it look like the creature was wearing the world’s most nightmarish old-fashioned hoop skirt. “The changes were subtle at first. We could sense thoughts and memories. We grew a little taller, a little stronger.”

“We were starving without nutrient packets,” said the creature with the face on its chest. “The more we hunted, the more we changed.”

Falcon did a hand sign that the face-chest creature translated as “Why?”

“We don’t know,” said the man. “Not really. My aunt–” He made a face as he said the word ‘aunt’. “–has some ideas, but she didn’t explain them terribly well. Something to do with the genetic whatever and the abnormal something-or-other.”

Naomi was starting to figure out the basics of what had happened. Falcon’s brothers had been thrown into the place, but instead of being killed, they’d mutated somehow.

“Again,” said Naomi. “I’m really sorry to interrupt, but I was hoping you could help us.”

She was genuinely sorry to interrupt Falcon’s reunion with his brothers, but Chelsea, Lachlan, and Jen were still in danger.

“Well, tell us what the problem is, and we’ll see what we can do,” said the man.

“Our friends are lost here, and we need to find them before something else does.”

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You’re Not the Only One – Interlude 7

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Everything was hot and blinding white. It was overwhelming, so dazzling 59 hardly noticed the hot, gritty ground as it scraped his skin.

Was it always like this out here? How did people see?

For a frightening moment, 59 wondered if his eyes weren’t designed for the outside world. Then, his vision began to adjust, faint outlines fading into view.

He’d lost track of how long he’d been in the back of that truck, in near complete darkness. His eyes just needed time to adapt.

He could make out his surroundings now, though his vision was cluttered with black splotches that danced each time he moved his eyes. The ground was pale yellow with patches of rusty red, unevenly covered in something fine and granular. He remembered the things sticking out of the ground from one of 98’s books; they were plants–scratchy looking ones dotted with tiny, yellow blossoms.

Perched on one of the branches was a small, gray bird.

59 stepped toward it. It fluttered away, disappearing into the branches of another, larger plant.

Until now, his world had been made of sharp angles and straight lines, everything locked into boxes and cages. But the outside world–the real world–was so vast and complex, so bright and open. Plants branched from the ground with wild abandon, continuing as far as he could see. The sky was bright blue, filled with wisps of gray and white, and it went on and on forever so impossibly high above him.

He took a step, then another. There were no walls here. No cages or chambers. Nothing but endless space.

For the first time in his life, he ran.


A pulsating sensation thumped inside his head as he lay on the strange, gritty ground. His skin was red, his throat burned, and most perplexingly of all, water dripped down his face and arms even though the landscape around him was so dry.

He tried to push himself to his feet, but a wave of dizziness racked his body, and his arms slid out from beneath him.

Something was very wrong.

The ground under him vibrated, and something large moved in front of the impossibly bright light in the sky, casting a shadow over him and showering him with grains of debris. He couldn’t quite lift himself enough to see what was in front of him.

Two strange looking people–a man and a woman–leaned over him, concern etched into their faces. They were young–much younger than Mr. Gibson, and maybe even younger than the guard who’d helped him escape.

The man was strikingly attractive–possibly the most attractive person 59 had ever seen, though he hadn’t seen many people. The man had the darkest hair 59 had ever seen, so black it was nearly blue and long enough to nearly obscure his blue-gray eyes. He wore a metal bar through his lower lip, and his skin was decorated, covered in intricate pictures of flowers, fish, dragons.

The woman was tan and blonde, with fluffy, voluminous hair, a metal ring in her septum, and thick, dark paint smeared around her eyes. Her skin was decorated too, but her images weren’t as artful or intricate as the man’s. They looked more like an afterthought, like things she’d scrawled onto herself on a whim.

They were speaking to him–probably asking if he was okay, if he was reading their lips correctly.

The man slid an arm around 59, helping him to his feet. He could see the shadow’s source now–a large vehicle. It looked like a van, but it was unlike any of the few vans he’d seen at the data center. It was far more worn out, with chips of rust and paint flaking off the sides, and it was plastered with dozens of stickers.

A petite woman emerged from the van. Like the man, her hair was so black it tinted blue where the sun hit it, but while his skin was pale, hers was a tawny brown.

She extended a hand to 59. He took her hand, and she tugged him a bit abruptly into the van with one arm.

Icy air blasted from vents on the van’s ceiling, sending a wave of relief cascading over his body. The black-haired woman grabbed 59 by his upper arms, steering him toward the back of the van and into a bench seat with a cover that was so cracked, pieces of padding were spilling out in several places.

The woman turned to her two companions, moving her hands rapidly. The man moved his hands in response, then crouched down, opening a blue and white plastic box with the name ‘Coleman’ embossed on the side.

Their hand signals were far more complex and fluid than anything 59 had developed with his brothers, but what they were doing was unmistakable.

They were talking with their hands!

They moved their lips as they conversed, but 59 was too tired to try to read their lips. The blonde woman leaned over to fish through an over-sized handbag patterned with some kind of logo, retrieved a notepad and pen, and wrote something on the paper. She handed it to 59.

What’s your name?

His name?

He wasn’t sure what to write in response. 59 was his designation, but it wasn’t exactly a name. Still, he felt he had to write something.

He looked around at the inside of the van, as though he’d find an answer in the wild assortment of posters tacked to the upholstery. They were like nothing he’d seen before, emblazoned with words and graphics that didn’t make much sense to him.

A familiar word caught his eye in the sea of loud red and black, on a poster featuring a white and gold object with a wide body and long, thin neck, with six strings running from its top to its bottom.

White Falcon 1957, said the poster.

Falcon wrote down his name, and passed the notepad to the woman.

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Naomi and Falcon walked across the concrete in silence. There had been no sign of Jen since they’d outrun the monster.

Naomi looked down at the silly cat pen in her hand. It stared up at her accusingly with big, goofy cartoon eyes.

If Naomi had pulled her along instead of just running away and assuming she’d follow, would Jen still be with them?

Now Jen was either dead or wandering lost and alone somewhere.

“I’m sorry I called you annoying,” Naomi mumbled to the pen.

They had two people to find now, and Naomi still didn’t have the first idea where to start looking.

She glanced at Falcon and realized he was smiling.

She shot him a glare, and his smile faded into an appropriately guilty expression. He pointed to the notepad she still held, and held out his hand.

This had better be good. There had better be a good reason he was smiling like an idiot when they were stranded in some hell dimension and had already lost a group member.

She handed him the notepad, and he took a moment writing down his explanation.

The ground shook beneath them again, and Naomi tensed, preparing to run again. Falcon put a hand on her arm, signaling her to relax. He handed her back the notepad.

‘My brothers are alive. I don’t know how I know it, but I can feel it. I can feel them. They’re here.’



Oh God.

Oh God, oh God, oh God.

What the hell? What the hell?

What had happened? What was this place?

There was an iridescent light surrounding the four tiny bodies, falling in a direction that didn’t compute. Four eyes of reality, four drops of a vast ocean in four different vessels.

Which one belonged to Chelsea Brown?

Oh, right. The second-largest body, a female human with brilliant red hair that cascaded behind them, strands shimmering in and out of existence as they fell.

Chelsea Brown’s vessel clutched another vessel, a smaller, dark-haired human. The smallest vessel clung to the dark-haired human’s shoulder. It was hard to tell where one of the three ended and the two other began.

The fourth body, larger and covered with olive scales, fell some distance away from the other three, emitting angry hisses as it faded in and out of view.

Stress hormones flooded Chelsea’s body, elevating the heart rate, priming the muscles to run or fight, though the vessel was powerless to do either. The vessel’s fear felt so limited, so infinitesimal in a way that only made the terror more intense. It was more terror than this tiny, insignificant vessel had ever experienced, and it was almost nothing.

In contrast to Chelsea’s terror, the dark-haired human wore a serene expression that didn’t make sense.

The smaller vessel’s designation was retrieved from neural circuits inside one of the four bodies. Angelina Bianchi.

The vessel called Angelina produced a series of communicative sounds that Chelsea’s brain processed into meaning. The sounds were labored, uttered with great difficulty, but their tone was soft and calm.

“It’s… okay. Don’t… scare. It’s… all okay.”

But everything was far from okay! Everything was incomprehensible! The four bodies were falling in reverse now, in a direction that couldn’t possibly exist, and it was impossible to remember.

Which one belonged to Chelsea Brown?

Did Chelsea Brown exist at all?

Did it matter? The distinctions between the four bodies, between everything, suddenly seemed to irrelevant.

The neural circuits no longer perceived the four bodies. There was only the sensation of falling, being sucked into the iridescent, swirling nothingness.

An otherworldly voice cut through the nothingness, speaking to the four lost vessels. It spoke without language, but its tone was startlingly ordinary–soothing and gently admonishing at the same time, like a kindly grandmother who’d found a litter of stray kittens hiding on her porch.

“How did you ever get in here? Come on, let’s get you back to where you belong.”

A fifth body, vastly, infinitely larger than the other four, reached out two shining tendrils to catch the falling vessels.

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Falcon thrust his hand out at the creature, but his invisible force barely slowed its rise. For every tendril that lost its grip on the concrete, two more seemed to appear from below.

Falcon turned to Jen and Naomi, his brow knit with effort, and mouthed a single word.


Well, he didn’t have to tell Naomi twice.

She took off running, hearing Falcon’s footsteps behind her as he caught up to her and then passed her. She couldn’t hear the creature behind her, or at least, she didn’t think she could. She wasn’t sure what something with so many gross, slithery limbs would sound like as it moved, and she really, really didn’t want to think about it.

Falcon wasn’t as far ahead of her as she would have expected given how much taller than her he was. It almost seemed like he was slowing down so she and Jen could keep up, which was kind of sweet despite being incredibly stupid.

Then again, Naomi guessed it didn’t matter how fast he was as long as he was faster than the slowest member of the group. It was like that joke about the two guys running from the bear: “I don’t have to outrun the bear–I just have to outrun you!”

Naomi noticed with a chill that there were no sounds behind her–not the creature in pursuit, nor Jen’s footsteps. Maybe Jen had just taken off in a different direction and separated from the group, Naomi told herself, trying to channel some of Jen’s earlier optimism. Maybe Jen just had very light footfalls.

Or maybe the metaphorical bear had picked off the slowest runner.



Chelsea and Angelina stood by the window together as Belfry perched on the windowsill in front of them.

They watched through the dim green light outside, waiting for another chunk of the world to appear or vanish. Angelina had scrawled some kind of diagram in a notebook she’d been carrying with her. Each time an object disappeared, she’d scramble to mark it on the map with such enthusiasm that the notebook ended up sliding from her grip more than once. Her hands were dotted purple with ink.

“You were right.” Angelina held up the notebook. “Look.”

Chelsea stared at the notebook. The diagram featured multiple layers overlapping each other, lines extending in different directions, and little doodles of things like houses, flowers, and birds. There were several scribbled-over areas when Angelina had crossed things out. Some things were labeled in Italian, others were surrounded by question marks.

“Sorry, I’m… not sure what I’m looking for.”

“The pattern. I started to see it a little bit as we were looking out the window, but it makes more sense now that I draw it,” said Angelina. “See? Look at the ‘X’s and stars.”

Chelsea looked more closely. The drawing had been so busy that she had missed it on her first look. She still wasn’t sure what exactly most of the diagram represented, but the map was dotted with ‘X’s and stars that formed a kind of intricate, incomplete spiral.

“Wow,” said Chelsea. “It’s kind of like a vortex.”

“Some of it is missing because I can’t remember most of what I saw disappear in the crater, but it’s based on that, plus the stuff that disappeared in here.”

“Angelina, this is amazing,” said Chelsea. “How did you figure this out?”

“It was really easy if you saw things disappear in the crater too.” Angelina shrugged, then turned her notebook to another page. “I made a map of where I think things should disappear soon.”

This page was a lot more straightforward than the last, depicting a street lined by pentagons that represented houses. Angelina had marked some places on the map with large stars and labels in Italian.

“When you say soon, you mean…?”

“A few minutes.”

Really? It was that easy?

Angelina turned to Belfry and spoke to him in Italian. He gave an enthusiastic response.

“He’s coming with us,” said Angelina.

“Of course he is,” said Chelsea. “We can’t just leave him here all alone.”

Angelina put down her notebook, stood up, patted her shoulder and said something else in Italian, and Belfry fluttered onto her shoulder. She headed for the door.

“Wait,” said Chelsea. “Are you going now? Just like that?”

Angelina paused in front of the door, swiveling on her heels to face Chelsea.

“Why should we wait?”

“I just think we should be careful,” said Chelsea. “Your map is amazing, but we don’t really know how this place works yet. I don’t want you to get hurt again.”

Angelina turned back toward the door.

“I won’t get hurt! Come on. Let’s go. If we stand close together by the corner of the orange house, we’ll be out of here in a few minutes.”

Angelina opened the door and stepped outside. Chelsea picked up Angelina’s backpack and notebook and started after her.

“Angelina, wait,” said Chelsea.

Angelina turned around with a smile, not breaking her brisk pace.

“Of course we’ll wait for you. We’re not leaving without–Ow!” Angelina stumbled as her foot caught on a cobblestone. She recovered her balance and kept walking. “I wouldn’t leave without you, C. Follow me!”

Angelina skipped across the street, heading for a house the color of orange sherbet. Chelsea jogged after her.

“We should probably be careful. This place is really strange. Maybe we could watch a few more things disappear before we try this, just in case it doesn’t work the way we think it does.”

Angelina walked around the side of the house and stopped, turning to face Chelsea again. Chelsea caught up with her.

“It’ll be fine,” said Angelina. “It should happen somewhere around here.”

A gruesome thought crossed Chelsea’s mind as she remembered the severed monster head she’d found next to Angelina.

“Angelina, wait!” said Chelsea. “What if this weird effect only takes parts of us? We could be cut in half or something!”

A strange, static-like smell filled the air, and a soft crackling sound began to pop around them. Chelsea reached for Angelina’s hand, to pull her away. Instead, Angelina pulled her closer, wrapping her arms around Chelsea’s waist. Angelina has surprisingly strong arms, but then, she was a drummer after all.

Chelsea might have been embarrassed at being so close to Angelina if the possible threat of being split in two wasn’t looming over them.

“What are you doing?” Chelsea called over the increasingly loud staticky noise.

“If we’re close together, there’s less chance we’ll get cut in half!”

That didn’t even make sense!

“I’m not sure that’s the best idea! We should probably get out of here before…”

Chelsea heard her own voice fade away to nothing as the crackles and pops grew louder. Their surroundings grew brighter and brighter, until the light was so intense it should have hurt her eyes, but there was no pain. She tried to cling tighter to Angelina, but the other girl’s body dissolved in her arms as though made of sand.

The light faded again, until there was nothing but heavy, intense darkness.

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Angelina lay face-down in the lumpy bed, resting her chin in her hands as Chelsea dabbed disinfectant on her wounds. Belfry had done his best, but as it turned out, bats weren’t the best at applying bandages.

Without the nightgown on, the air was cold enough to make her shiver a bit, but somehow, Chelsea’s face looked redder than before. Hopefully, she was feeling alright.

“I’m so sorry,” said Chelsea. “I should’ve done this to begin with. It’s just been such a… a weird, weird day.”

“It so has.” Angelina nodded emphatically. “This is nice, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“This. Being here with you.”

“It is nice,” said Chelsea. “Not exactly how I pictured our first meeting, but nice.”

“I always kind of hoped I’d meet you at my first Goldfish Technique show. Like, we’d see each other from across the bar and run over to each other all excited and hug in slow motion.”

“Once we get home, I’ll take you to see them.” Chelsea twisted the cap back onto the disinfectant tube and removed the bandages from the first aid kit.

That sounded like the kind of thing people said because it sounded nice, but Angelina really hoped Chelsea meant that.

“When I was 17, I took the train five hours to stand outside when they opened for The Blame Collection in Milan. I could kind of hear them. It was the most beautiful-est sound in the world.”

“You didn’t go in?”

“You had to be 18. I wanted to sneak in, but I couldn’t find a way.”

“Wow,” said Chelsea. “That’s dedicated.”

“Lachlan said I was like a crazy person,” said Angelina, “but he’s always telling me if I was a real fan, I’d have seen the band live.”

“That’s not fair. He lives in the same city as they do. He can see them all the time.”

“He says if I really loved them, I’d have found a way to see them by now.”

“It’s easy to be a fan if you’re lucky enough to see them every weekend,” said Chelsea. “You’re on another continent, and you single-handedly founded the Italian street team.”

“Lachlan said the Italian street team doesn’t count because it’s just me, you, and my sister.” Angelina sighed. “You’re not even Italian, and Martina’s only 10 and she doesn’t even like the band.”

“It counts,” said Chelsea. “How many street teams has he founded?”

“If you and I never get home, do you think Martina will carry on her big sister’s legacy and help the street team live on in my memory? Probably not, right?”

“Don’t say that,” said Chelsea. “We’ll find a way home. If there was a way here, there has to be a way back too, right?”

“Maybe not. Maybe it’s like a… space thing that sucks in planets and stars. I don’t know the English word for it. In Italian, it’s buco nero.”

“A black hole?”

“So it’s basically exactly the same words. Now I feel dumb.” Angelina pursed her lips and stared out the window at the dark silhouettes of long-empty houses. “It can’t really be like a black hole anyway. Things from here can go back to the normal world. When I was in the crater, I saw things from the town appearing, like lamps and envelopes.”

“Lamps and envelopes, huh?”

“And other stuff. It wasn’t just a field full of lamps and envelopes.” Angelina giggled at the idea. “Just an endless field full of lamps and envelopes! That would be so weird!”

Angelina tried and failed to suppress another laugh at the idea of a field of lamps and envelopes. Chelsea laughed too, which was nice, because most people probably wouldn’t have found the idea funny.

“Anyway, if lamps and envelopes–” Angelina stifled another giggle and continued. “If lamps and envelopes can come back from here, you’re probably right that we can also go back.”

“Did you notice any patterns in how the things appeared?”

“Not really,” said Angelina. “It seemed completely random. I don’t think we could predict it.”

“This might sound weird, but I’m not sure I believe randomness exists,” said Chelsea.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you know how computer programs can’t really generate truly random numbers?”

“Yeah,” Angelina lied.

“Since they have to use algorithms, the numbers can’t actually be random. They have a pattern you can predict. Then there are the random number generators that use radio noise from lightning. A lot of people say that’s completely random, but lightning can be predicted too…”

Angelina nodded, watching Chelsea’s reflection in the window as she spoke. Her red hair was falling into her face as she leaned down to apply bandages. She was so smart–she probably knew everything. She was so pretty too, even prettier in person than she’d been on video or in pictures.

“…even things like dice rolls and roulette wheels,” finished Chelsea.

Angelina realized she had missed most of what Chelsea had said.

“My point is,” said Chelsea, “it’s possible to find a way out of here. We just need to figure out the pattern.”

Angelina hoped she was right.



Naomi, Jen, and Falcon walked together across the cold, dark concrete expanse, heading for a distant ledge where the concrete appeared to drop off into nothingness.

Naomi had left her pen in the car, but fortunately, Jen had been carrying another pen in her pocket. Unfortunately, that pen had turned out to be a pink, glitter gel pen shaped like a cartoon cat. The writing it produced was barely legible, and even worse, holding the stupid thing made Naomi feel so silly and childish.

‘Have you been to this place before?’ Naomi wrote.

She passed the notepad to Falcon. For Jen’s benefit, he shook his head no instead of signing it.

So they didn’t even have a guide. Fantastic.

She held out her hand, motioning for the notepad back. He handed it to her, and she wrote another message.

‘Please, at least tell me you know something about this place.’

He wrote something on the pad and handed it back to her. Jen craned her neck over Naomi’s shoulder to see what he had written.

‘It’s dangerous. My brothers and I always thought of it as a death sentence.’

‘Thanks for the reassuring words,’ she wrote back.

Jen motioned for the notepad, and Naomi handed to her.

‘Sarah said there was dangerous stuff in here. do u know what kinda stuff?’

Falcon shook his head again.

Jen wrote another message.

‘look on the bright side! at least up here nothing can sneak up on us!’

She drew a smiley face at the end of her message, despite this being in no way a smiley face type of situation.

A strange screeching roar came from somewhere below them, causing Jen and Naomi to jump. Naomi took the notepad.

‘Something could still come after us from below. We need to be careful.’

‘we’ll be fine!’ wrote Jen. ‘we just need to stay positive!’

She added another smiley face. This girl was really something else.

How were they supposed to stay positive when they were stranded in some kind of pit between realities? When there were unknown monsters lurking below them and they didn’t know if their friends were alive or dead?

They were not going to be fine, Naomi was sure of that much. Right now, though, she had to focus on finding Chelsea. After that, there would be plenty of time to worry about how doomed they all were.

The roar sounded again, louder this time.

‘Something is roaring,’ wrote Naomi. ‘It’s getting closer.’

‘hey now we don’t know that sound is something scary!’ wrote Jen. ‘maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds!’

‘Please be less optimistic,’ wrote Naomi.

The roar came a third time, this time rumbling from almost directly below them, shaking the concrete they stood on.

Falcon looked down, concerned. He gave Naomi and Jen a questioning look, as if to ask ‘was that it?’. Naomi nodded.

Jen didn’t respond, instead staring vacantly at the horizon. It was strange–she’d been annoyingly positive moments before. Now, she looked almost paralyzed with terror.

Before Naomi could ask if Jen was okay, the concrete in front of them began to crack and splinter. Writhing tendrils erupted from the cracks, so vivid blue in color they seemed to glow in the dim light.

So much for staying positive.

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