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The landscape that appeared around them seemed so alien it made Bathsheba’s strange garden sanctuary look like a backyard vegetable garden.

It was night–or at least it was as dark as night on Earth. Slick, red, coral-like trees surrounded them, reaching far up to block most of the sky in a dense layer. More plants, all of them in glassy shades of red-purple, covered the ground; some of them were little tufts growing from the surface of rocks, others had massive, broad fronds taller than she was. She thought she saw something faintly glowing slither under one of the leaves and disappear. Through the thick canopy, a faint ball of light glimmered in the sky far above them, either a moon or a small distant sun, blurry and wavering as though she was looking at it from underwater. The air was heavy in a way that reminded her of summer, but it was cold enough that she was shivering.

This place felt wrong in a way that made her ears crackle when she turned her head. It was obviously hospitable for humans in that there was enough oxygen for everyone to breathe and the pressure wasn’t crushing them to death, but it didn’t feel like it was meant for them.

“Is everyone alive and uninjured?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Falcon’s missing.” Naomi’s voice was tight with panic.

“Belfry’s gone too,” said Chelsea. “He was right next to me.”

“I don’t see Mahender, Nancy, or the dog either,” said Lachlan.

“I told Dominic I was going to keep him safe.” Naomi’s voice cracked. “What am I going to do?”

“Calm down,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“How am I supposed to calm down?” said Naomi. “He’s gone! What am I going to tell Dominic?”

She rubbed at her eyes, brushing away tears.

“If he is in danger, crying like a baby isn’t going to help him,” said Mrs. Sharma. “We’ll do everything we can to find the others, but it’ll be much easier if everyone is calm and rational.”

“You’re right.” Naomi sniffled. “Sorry.”

“Now,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Is anyone missing other than Falcon, Nancy, her dog, Belfry, or my idiot nephew?”

She called out each remaining person’s name, and everyone responded.

“Okay, now that we know everyone else is accounted for, we can focus on finding the others. Since Stellar-whatever said she was going to let us all live, they’re likely to be nearby.”

“Hey, guys!” Angelina called into the trees. “Are you nearby?!”

“Stop that!” said Mrs. Sharma. “We don’t know anything about this place. If there’s anything dangerous out there, we don’t want to attract its attention.”

“No, we should make a lot of noise,” said Sam. “Loud noises scare away predators.”

“They do. Earth predators,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Who knows about the animals we might find here? Not to mention any sapient beings we might run into.”

Ha. Guess someone isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

“So how are we supposed to find them if we can’t call out to them?” said Angelina.

“We can start by listening,” said Mrs. Sharma. “If they’re nearby, maybe we’ll hear them talking. Everyone, be quiet.”

Everyone fell silent. It was eerie how quiet everything was. Jen would have expected a dense forest like this to have birds or insects chirping, but there was no sound except the soft rustle of slick leaves.

Then, somewhere under the rustling, she heard voices almost too faint to make out.

“I think I hear them,” she said. “It’s coming from that way.”

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Oh no. This was all Angelina’s fault. She’d made a mistake when trying to figure out how to get everyone home, and now they were being threatened by someone who could easily kill most of them in minutes.

Angelina had to straighten this out. If she just explained everything, she was sure the strange woman would understand. Well, kind of sure.

Okay, she wasn’t sure at all. But she had to try.

“Can you understand me?” Angelina asked in Italian.

The strange woman had sounded as though she was speaking Italian, but the others had been replying in English as though they understood her. Angelina figured it was one of those situations where some otherworldly being spoke in a universally intelligible way.

She wasn’t always good at getting her point across, so she thought it better to use her native language to make sure she was as clear as possible.

“I can,” said the woman. She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Whatever.

“Angelina, what are you saying to her?” said Naomi.

“It’s fine,” said Angelina. “I’m going to explain everything.”

“Okay, but–” started Naomi.

“I’m listening,” interrupted the Stellar woman. “Explain yourself.”

“We didn’t mean to come here,” said Angelina. “We got stuck in a strange place between realities, and we were trying to get home. Instead, we made a mistake and ended up here.”

“Hm,” said Stellar-whoever. “I suppose that’s plausible. You wouldn’t be the first after all.” She turned to Bathsheba. “She claims they came here by accident. What would you have me do with them, my love?”

“Why, let them go, of course!” said Bathsheba. “Stella, you know I never wish you to hurt anyone who hasn’t tried to hurt me. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“But my darling, some of these humans are different from the others before. See this one?” Stellar-lady gestured at Jen. “She was able to touch the garden gate. I couldn’t let her harm you.”

Garden gate? Was that… the circular portal so wide they couldn’t see the other side from where they stood? ‘Garden gate’ was way too mundane a name for it.

“I don’t want to harm anyone.” Jen mumbled, not looking up.

“You will look at the almighty and glorious She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Crown when you address me!” snapped the Stellar woman.

Jen lifted her head to meet the woman’s eyes.

“I don’t want to freaking harm anyone!” she snapped back. “There! Is that better?”

Angelina flinched. Was Jen okay? What could have possibly happened between the time they’d been sucked into the sky and now to make her so upset?

“You dare speak to I, the all-powerful She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Crown, in such a tone? I should destroy you where you stand!”

Bathsheba put a hand on her wife’s arm.

“Please don’t harm her, Stella. I’m sure she means no disrespect. She’s only suffering from a broken heart.”

Broken heart? Wait, had something happened with Jen and Sam? When?

“That is no excuse for such insolence!”

“Dearest,” Bathsheba’s voice was gentle. “What would you do if I left you for another?”

“Why, I would raze this reality to the ground and then rain destruction upon the earth in a blind rage.”

Oh. Yikes. Angelina hoped Bathsheba never had wandering eyes.

“Exactly. When it comes to matters of the heart, one cannot always be controlled.”

Stella-lady relaxed, the anger disappearing from her expression as quickly as it had appeared.

“Very well. I see your point. Glowing girl, you may live.” She clapped her hands. “Now! Since I’ve decided in my infinite generosity to spare your lives, I supposed I should let you go. Farewell!”

“Wait, what–” said Angelina.

Before she could finish her sentence, the strange vast tube vanished around her.

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As Sam fell, his surroundings started to fade away. Not that there was much surrounding him other than an endless void, but even the blackness started to give away to a staticky dark gray and a feverish warmth. He gripped the hand he was holding with all his waning strength; he couldn’t remember why, but it felt important that he didn’t let go.

The sound of air rushing past him as he fell was replaced by the sound of blood rushing in his ears, so loud he couldn’t hear anything else.

He couldn’t hold on any longer. The hand slipped out of his grasp.

A jolt of panic coursed through him, shattering the fog in his brain like a panel of frosted glass.

His heart lurched as he changed directions in midair. Then the dizzying sensation of falling backward continued.

This time, though, he wasn’t falling. He was rising.

He couldn’t see Lachlan anymore, but he knew he was there, somewhere below him in the darkness.

A tidal wave of nausea crashed over him as he change directions again–his inner ear’s last desperate plea. Headfirst, he plummeted downward again.

This time, he was in control.

Lachlan faded into view, and Sam grabbed him. For a moment, the force of Lachlan’s fall pulled him down. Then, straining against Lachlan’s weight, he carried them both upward.

Why couldn’t he have gotten super strength as one of his abilities?

He braced himself, then made that stomach-twisting turn, changing his direction through time so he was moving perpendicular to it instead of through it. Lachlan froze in his arms.

Still holding onto Lachlan, Sam slowly flipped over in the air so he was upside down. Then, he dove.

He wasn’t falling anymore; he was moving downward independently of gravity, exceeding his terminal velocity as he flew down toward the rest of the group.

He saw a blurry shape beneath him, and slowed his descent. It had to be them.

But wait. Something was strange about this. For one thing, it should have been too dark for him to see the anything at this distance. For another, the shape he saw was moving.

He stopping descending and flipped right-side-up, keeping his eyes on the shape that was growing rapidly larger as it approached him. As it got closer, he realized it was glowing.

As it approached, he could make out a human outline in the light. It was rising toward him, surrounded by more human shapes. It was–

It was Jen?

She rose up out of the darkness about 15 feet away from him.

The rest of the group floated around her, most of them frozen like Lachlan. Angelina and Mrs. Sharma weren’t frozen, but they didn’t look conscious either.

She hovered in the air, her arms outstretched. her arms outstretched, a white light glowing through her skin.

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Sam was already missing his glasses, and squinting against the wind made it almost impossible to see what was going on. Everyone was looking up at the sky, and Lachlan was pointing, but at first, Sam couldn’t make out what they were looking at.

He finally saw it–a faint black scar in the fluorescent blue sky that seemed to be expanding, growing wider like some kind of demonic grin.

Then, the sky opened up.

The blue parted, opening like a hinged dome to reveal a second black sky beneath. His ears popped again, and the warm air seemed to freeze around him.

The wind grew stronger.

When Sam was little, his dad and grandma had taken him on family beach trips every year. When he was eight, their trip had been cut short when a hurricane had suddenly shifted its course toward the North Carolina coast. He’d woken up to the sound of waves crashing too close to his room, and as his dad had rushed him to the car, the wind had picked up.

It had been unlike anything he’d felt before. Palm trees had bent, and one had snapped with a violent crack and crashed to the ground. He’d clung to his dad, terrified he might blow away if he didn’t hold on tightly enough.

The wind that now battered his face and threatened to tear his jacket from his body made that hurricane seem like a refreshing breeze.

The ground fell away from him as he was lifted into the air, and he reached for Lachlan, realizing too late that he’d reached with his right hand.

To his relief, Lachlan’s hand closed around Sam’s wrist, strong and sure.

Sam tried to replicate what he’d done when he’d moved through time–to stop their ascent and pull everyone back to safety–but he didn’t even know where to start. It was like trying to trying to bend one of his missing fingers. His brain knew the right signals to send–he could even feel the absent finger bending sometimes–but nothing actually happened.

He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting to feel an impact as the wind threw him against a tree or back onto the ground, but it didn’t come. The wind was relentless, carrying him higher and higher as he clung to Lachlan like a lifeline, even though his hand wasn’t very good at clinging anymore.

Just when he’d started to wonder if the wind would blow them upward forever, it began to ease. It didn’t stop, but it weakened enough that it was no longer carrying him upward. Instead, it blew around him, ruffling his jacket, as he hung suspended in midair.

His nose was still bleeding, but the blood wasn’t dripping down his face anymore. It pooled inside his nose, filling it with a copper smell and taste. He felt a few drops escape and drift away without rolling down onto his lips.

How did this make any sense? For gravity to be low enough that his and Lachlan’s combined mass could float like this, there couldn’t be enough atmosphere for this much wind.

Sure, he’d been able to fly before, but that had been different. Hed been different.

He opened his eyes and looked down, expecting to see the garden from far above. He saw only absolute darkness. He gripped Lachlan’s arm tighter, until that strange, prickling pain shot through his right hand.

He looked up at Lachlan, checking that he was still there–that his firm grip on Sam’s wrist wasn’t a phantom sensation like the twisted pain in his lost fingers.

He was there. It was almost too dark and windy to make out his features, but he was there–an anchor in the cold, empty void.

Sam saw Jen’s blurry silhouette too, the wind lashing her long hair across her face. She stretched her hand toward him, calling out something he couldn’t hear, but she was too far for him to reach.

A voice boomed around them, cutting through the wind and reverberating through Sam’s bones. It was a voice like that of the skull squids, but somehow even more distorted. Even less human. Sam wanted frantically to cover his ears, but he fought the urge. He couldn’t risk letting Lachlan slip away. He couldn’t lose his anchor.

“Who dares intrude upon the sanctuary of Bathsheba, wife of She-Who-Wears-the-Stellar-Crown?”

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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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The first thing Lachlan did when he felt his body reform into a solid shape was examine his hands to make sure they were still intact.

Yep, they were both still there. He flexed his fingers a few times, then looked at his feet. Feet and legs were less important because he didn’t need them to play guitar, but he still wanted to keep them if he could help it.

When he was satisfied that he still had all his limbs, he pushed himself into a seated position and turned his attention to his surroundings.

He sat on a smooth, large tile. It felt like stone, but it looked like glass that had been colored a deep, vivid red. Other tiles surrounded it in other vivid hues–greens, blues, purples, and turquoises–all kaleidoscoping away from a massive sandstone fountain. They were in a garden, but it wasn’t like any garden he’d ever seen in person or even in photographs. The colors were too bright, as though they were appearing on a screen where the saturation had been set too high, and none of the plants looked familiar.

Even the sky was too bright, an expanse of blue neon blaring above them. Despite the unnaturally bright sky, the air was warm, heavy, and humid in a way that felt like a summer evening.

A strange, earthy-sweet and slightly smoky smell hung in the air, maybe coming from one of the many intensely-hued flowers surrounding them.

He knew right away he wasn’t anywhere on earth.

Most of the rest of the group sat on the colorful tiles, but Mrs. Sharma and Nancy had ended up on the ground, Angelina had fallen into a large plant with long red and yellow leaves, and Jen was in the fountain, her hands resting on the side as she leaned over toward the rest of the group.

“Not that this isn’t immensely preferable,” said Lachlan, “but where the motherfuck are we?”

Mrs. Sharma climbed to her feet and wheeled on Angelina, arms crossed.

“Yes, where are we exactly?” she said.

Angelina rustled around in the leaves trying to pull herself to her feet, but only succeeding in pushing herself further back into the foliage.

“Well, I don’t know exactly what this place is–“

“Why am I not surprised?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“–but I can tell you what happened. I messed up–“

“That much is clear.”

Angelina thrashed around a bit, then finally emerged from the leaves and pulled herself to her feet. One of her hairpins had captured a long, bright red leaf that hung from the back of her head.

“I messed up when I figured out the opening that was going to happen. It opened in the wrong direction,” said Angelina. “I thought it was opening in the direction of home, but instead it took us here.”

“Are you going to tell us where ‘here’ is?” said Naomi.

“The place we were before was like… a middle place, right?” said Angelina.

“Stuff from our reality’s not supposed to fall into other ones, so it stops halfway through,” said Jen. “Sarah said it before.”

“Right!” said Angelina. “What I’m trying to say is that instead of falling back to our reality, we fell the rest of the way through.”

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“Come on, everyone!” said Angelina. “We have to clump really, really close together!”

The group was clustered together in an alley across the street from Mrs. Sharma’s house. It was easy for Angelina to tell them to clump closer together; she had the good fortune to be on the outside of the cluster. Naomi, on the other hand, was unlucky enough to find herself close to the center of the cluster, squeezed between Sam and Lachlan so closely she could smell the blood on them.

It was kind of gross, but more than that, it made her worry what kind of gross things everyone was noticing being this close to her. She didn’t have makeup on, and her hair was in a dire state. She’d woken up with a mess of tangles, and while Mrs. Sharma had plenty of spare hair brushes, brushing had only served to make the ends of her hair poof out in places. She was in front of Lachlan, with the back of her head in his face, and he had to have noticed her awful hair.

Of course it had to be Lachlan. If anyone there was going to make fun of her hair, it would be him.

No wonder Mrs. Sharma always wore her hair in a bun in this place.

“All comfy-cozy?” Lachlan asked her and Sam.

“Um, no,” said Naomi.

“Whatever the opposite of comfy-cozy is, I think we’re that,” said Sam.

“Well, you all need to get cozier!” said Angelina. “We have to be as close together as possible so no one loses an arm or a head or something!”

Oh. Maybe Angelina wasn’t so lucky to be on the outside. Naomi squeezed in a little closer to Sam and Lachlan.

“Exactly how likely is one of us to lose a head?” said Sam.

Naomi was close enough to him, she could feel him tense up as he asked the question.

“It’s not my area of expertise, but from what I understand, it’s highly unlikely,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Why is it unlikely?” said Angelina.

“Are you questioning me?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“I mean, I’m questioning you, like I’m asking you a question,” said Angelina. “I wasn’t challenging you or anything if that’s what you mean. I just feel like we’d all feel better if we knew the specific reason why our heads aren’t going to fall off.”

“I’d definitely feel better,” said Sam.

Mrs. Sharma sighed.

“131 described the way we all came here as a ‘hole in reality’s floor’, correct?”

“Yep!” Jen piped up from the other side of Sam. “131 is Sarah, right?”

Naomi couldn’t see Jen, but she could feel what she assumed were Jen’s arms around Sam’s waist.

“Think about someone falling into a hole. If your body falls into the hole, and your arms remain outside, your arms aren’t going to fall off. You’ll either pull yourself out of the hole, or your arms will be dragged down too.”

“Oh, okay,” said Angelina.

“The problem would be when the hole closes before you fall all the way in. Then your body would fall through the hole, while your arms would be left outside. We’re working with a time constraint here, not a space constraint.”

Well, that didn’t make Naomi feel any better.

“Like I said, it’s highly unlikely,” said Mrs. Sharma. “The only way I can see it being possible if the parts of us outside the opening create some kind of resistance. That would make dismemberment a very real possibility.”

Mrs. Sharma really needed to stop talking.

“Is it almost time?” said Angelina.

“You’re the one who figured out when this opening would occur. You should know whether it’s almost time.”

“Well, I don’t,” said Angelina. “I’m bad at keeping track of stuff like that.”

Naomi couldn’t see Mrs. Sharma’s face, but she could imagine her disdainful expression.

“If you were smart enough to figure out how to fall between realities, you’re smart enough to keep track of time. Your problem is that you’re lazy.”

“I am not! Are you going to answer my question or not?”

Naomi could picture Angelina’s expression even more clearly than Mrs. Sharma’s. She was definitely pouting.

“Since you didn’t keep track, I guess I have to,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Yes, it’s almost time. We have about 30 seconds.”

Naomi felt everyone squeeze in tighter.

“20. 19–“

Oh no!” Angelina interrupted. “Oh no, oh no!”

Angelina’s words sent panic buzzing into Naomi’s head.

“What do you mean ‘oh no’?!” said Naomi. “Don’t say ‘oh no’!”

She could hear the rest of the group voicing similar panic. Even the dog was barking from where he sat in Nancy’s arms.

“We have to stop!” said Angelina. “I made a mistake!”

“No!” came Mrs. Sharma’s authoritative shout. “Nobody move! It’s too dangerous! There’s no time! We only have five seconds!”

Naomi squeezed her eyes shut as the tearing sound filled her ears, but it didn’t make a difference. Sam and Lachlan fell away from her, ripped away by that unnatural green static that she could see without using her eyes. She felt the now familiar, but no less sickening sensation–the nightmarish shuddering as her body seemed to liquefy, pulled inward and down as though she’d lied down on top of a shower drain and then suddenly melted.

Then there was nothing.

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Angelina, Sam, and Jen spoke almost all at once.

“So do you remember Lachlan dying?” said Angelina.

“This place is changing our DNA?” said Sam. “Is that dangerous?”

“Why don’t me and Angelina have cool powers?” said Jen. “Why do only you and Sam get them?”

Mrs. Sharma sighed.

“I don’t have the answers to all your questions. I can’t even be completely sure what I’m telling you about is the reason we’ve all changed,” she said. “But what else could it be?”

“Is there like, a test for this weird DNA thingy?” said Jen.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Sharma. “There is ‘like, a test for this weird DNA thingy,’ as you so articulately phrased it. You and Sam are CPSI employees, correct?”

“Yuppers,” said Jen.

“Okay.” said Mrs. Sharma, “and did you both receive a blood test after your interview?”

“Yeah…” said Sam. “I thought that was pretty weird.”

“I thought so too,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I found a lot of things weird about my interview, like how I was being interviewed by the CEO himself. Or how he got strangely excited when I mentioned I was from Jaipur. He wasn’t familiar with the city; he didn’t even know how to pronounce it. But he kept asking questions. He kept asking me about the Jal Mahal, saying he wanted to visit it. Asking if I saw it a lot as a child, trying to figure out how close to it I lived. I didn’t understand it at the time.”

“What’s the Jal Mahal?” said Jen.

“A palace,” said Lachlan.

He hadn’t actually heard of it, but based on its name, he could still answer the question confidently and look smart.

“Yes, but what kind of palace?” said Mrs. Sharma.

Oh. He hadn’t expected follow-up questions.

“A… palatial one?” he said.

So much for looking smart.

“I’ll give you a hint since you clearly need it. ‘Jal’ means water.”

“A palace in the water?” said Sam.

“How did they get the palace into the water?” said Angelina.

“I’m not dignifying that with an answer,” said Mrs. Sharma. “but it’s not in just any water. A manmade lake.”

“Ohhhh,” said Jen.

“Yeah,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Oh.”

“So Mr. Clyde is specifically looking for employees with this altered DNA?” said Sam.

“It seems that way,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Especially when you look at the major CPSI offices around the world. Charlotte, Danjiangkou, Borgo San Severino. They all correspond to the hotspots.”

“But why would he do that?” said Angelina.

“So we can be studied.” There was a flash of bitterness in Mrs. Sharma’s eyes. “I didn’t realize I’d signed up as a lab rat until it was too late. At least I was lucky enough to be one of the lab rats who knew what was going on. I guess that’s more than I can say for both of you.”

Sam and Jen exchanged a look, eyes wide.

“They’re studying our DNA?” said Sam. “Why would a packaging company want to study people’s DNA?”

“It’s not a packaging company,” muttered Jen.

“What?” said Sam.

“That’s what Mr. Clyde said, remember?” said Jen. “When I asked my question about the future of the packaging industry in that meeting. He said it wasn’t a packaging company. It’s a company about people.”

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“Our DNA was altered?” said Sam.

“Is there an echo in here? Yes, our DNA was altered,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Well, four of the five of us.”

“Whose wasn’t?” said Jen.

“Isn’t it obvious?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“No,” said Angelina.

Mrs. Sharma shot her a look. “Who here hasn’t displayed any new and unusual symptoms or abilities?”

“Me,” said Lachlan.

He didn’t know whether to be relieved that some mysterious force hadn’t warped his DNA, or disappointed he didn’t get to have cool powers.

“You,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“He died and came back to life,” said Jen. “How is that not unusual?”

“I didn’t actually die and come back to life,” said Lachlan. “I died, and Super Sam here reversed time to bring me back.”

“You’re both wrong,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Lachlan didn’t die and come back to life, and no one reversed time.”

“It’s not even possible to reverse time,” said Angelina.

“Debatable,” said Sam, “but yeah, that’s not what I did. I just moved backwards through it. That’s not the same thing.”

“I’m so confused,” said Jen. “If Lachlan didn’t come back to life, and time didn’t get reversed, how is he alive?”

“We’re getting off topic,” said Mrs. Sharma. “We weren’t discussing Lachlan. I was explaining what happened to the four of us.”

“What did happen to the four of us?” said Sam.

“I’ll try to explain so you can call keep up, but I won’t make any promises,” said Mrs. Sharma. “There have always been weak points in our reality–“

“The Bermuda Triangle!” Jen interrupted.

Mrs. Sharma frowned at her.

“Sorry,” said Jen. “It was something Sarah was saying before. Something about time and space and ripping a hole in reality’s floor.”

Mrs. Sharma nodded, her expression softening when she heard Sarah’s name.

“Ripping a hole in reality’s floor,” Mrs. Sharma repeated. “I like that metaphor. 131 always had a knack for making complex concepts seem simple. And yes, the Bermuda Triangle is an example of a major hotspot for naturally-occurring weak points.”

“No way,” said Sam. “The Bermuda Triangle is a myth.”

“Looks like you’re myth-taken about that,” said Jen.

Angelina laughed.

“Bad puns aside, you really were mistaken,” said Mrs. Sharma. “The Bermuda Triangle is no myth. It’s one of the largest hubs of unstable reality in the world. But there are many smaller, less active ones too. There’s some correlation between with unstable air masses in the atmosphere, and with altered weather patterns caused by large manmade bodies of water, but I’m not a meteorologist so I don’t know enough to explain further.”

“Not that this isn’t fascinating,” said Lachlan, “but what does this have to do with us?”

“It has nothing to do with you,” said Mrs. Sharma. “We’ve been over that. But it has a lot to do with your friends here. When I started working for CPSI, I was given access to a map of these hotspots, and one in particular stood out to me.”

“Which one?” said Jen.

“If you give me a second, I’ll tell you. Jaipur. The city where I grew up. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but obviously, I zoomed in out of curiosity, and found the center of the hotspot just a street over from my childhood home. I didn’t understand the implications of it at the time.”

“Let me get this straight,” said Sam. “Whatever’s happening to us has to do with these hotspots?”

“Exactly,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Maybe you’re not as hopeless as I thought.”

“Wow,” said Lachlan. “Glowing praise.”

“You said something about manmade bodies of water,” said Sam. “My parents lived off Lake Wylie when I was a baby.”

“Interesting,” said Mrs. Sharma. “The Lake Wylie hotspot is a major one.”

“I’m from Fort Mill,” said Jen. “That’s not far from there.”

“The Borgo San Severino hotspot is a major one as well,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It was even before the disaster.”

“So what does this have to do with our DNA?” said Jen.

“Prolonged exposure to these hotspots causes certain changes to some people’s DNA, but these changes don’t seem to affect functional DNA. At least, not in our home reality.”

“But I’m guessing here is a different story,” said Sam.

“You’re guessing correctly,” said Mrs. Sharma.

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“Your little experiment is a waste of time,” said Mrs. Sharma.

Sam opened his mouth to reply, but Mrs. Sharma spoke before he could get a word out.

“Let me finish. It’s a waste of time because I can give you way more information about what’s happening to you than you’d be able to figure out on your own.”

“Then why did you say it like you were insulting us?” said Angelina.

Mrs. Sharma shrugged. “Because I don’t like you.”

“Huh. Fair enough,” said Lachlan. “As long as you’re willing to share that wealth of information with us.”

“I am, though I’m not sure three out of four of you would be able to understand it, and the one who might be intellectually capable probably wouldn’t put in the effort.”

“I’m the intellectually capable one, right?” said Sam.

Mrs. Sharma scoffed.

“So… me then?” said Lachlan.

Mrs. Sharma scoffed again.

“This is why I can’t stand working with men. They always assume they’re the smartest people in the room, even if the women have just as much to offer. Of course, in this case, all four of you have equally little to offer, but what I’m saying still applies.”

“We didn’t mean–” Sam started.

“No,” Mrs. Sharma cut him off. “The intellectually capable one is Angelina, as surprising as that sounds.”

Angelina paused for a moment to process what Mrs. Sharma had said.


“Her?” said Lachlan.

“I’ll be honest, at first, I judged her the least intelligent of your little band of idiots, but–“

“Hey!” Angelina interjected.

But,” Mrs. Sharma continued, “not only was she able to give a crude yet accurate description of how this place works, she’s also the only one of you four who can speak more than one language fluently. Angelina, I’m guessing you weren’t raised bilingual; correct me if I’m wrong.”

“No,” said Angelina. “I learned English so I could talk to my exchange student friend.”

“So you taught yourself?”

“Kind of. She taught me a lot of it. And I learned some from the internet.”

“Hm. Surprisingly impressive.”

Angelina paused again, unsure how to reply, but Mrs. Sharma spoke again before Angelina had the chance.

“Don’t think I’m complimenting you. Just because I’ve reconsidered your intelligence doesn’t mean I think highly of you now. In fact, I may think less of you.”

“Less? Why?”

“At first, I thought you lacked potential. Now, I think you have potential that you’re not living up to. That’s so much worse.”

“You just met me today,” said Angelina. “How do you know what kind of potential I’m living up to?”

“I have a pretty good idea.”

Angelina started to respond, and felt Jen place a hand on her arm.

“It’s not worth it,” whispered Jen.

Angelina thought about protesting, but decided Jen was right. She’d tried to argue with judgmental people before, and the results were usually the same every time.

“If you’re done being mean to us,” said Angelina, “can you tell us the information about what’s happening to us?”

“I’m not being mean, but fine,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I was going to wait until later, but I might as well tell you now. It might be a little hard for you to understand, so if you have trouble keeping up with what I’m saying, then just try harder.”

“That’s not how that works,” said Sam.

Mrs. Sharma ignored him, continuing.

“I’m not sure where to start explaining. Let’s see. You four know what DNA is, right?”

“Of course we know what DNA is,” said Sam.

“Good, because I wouldn’t have explained it if you didn’t. Basically, your DNA–our DNA–was altered before we were born.”

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