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“There’s one question I think we should be asking,” said Lachlan. “Are Sam’s newfound superpowers a permanent fixture? If you wanted to, could you fly or time travel right now?”

“They’re not superpowers,” said Sam, “and I don’t think so. I don’t think it works like that.”

“Try it,” said Angelina.

Sam frowned as though in concentration for a few seconds, then shook his head.

“Nope,” he said.

“So what brought them on in the first place?” said Lachlan.

Sam shrugged. “How should I know?”

“Was it the danger that activated them?” said Angelina.

“No idea,” said Sam. “Angelina, do you still have our notebook? We should be writing some of these questions down.”

“Okay, but my handwriting is really bad,” said Angelina.

Angelina rifled around in her backpack for a minute before finding the notebook, then pulled it out, opened it, and begin scribbling notes.

The notebook was just a touch more worn out for having been in her backpack, smudged with glittery purple ink and something that looked like chocolate.

“What did you do to that notebook?” said Lachlan.

“I don’t mind,” said Sam. “It’s already got blood all over it, so a few sparkles is nothing.”

“Good point,” said Lachlan. “Remind me to buy you a new notebook when we get out of here.”

“Let’s stay focused,” said Sam. “We’re trying to narrow down our observation. So what have we observed about all of us?”

Angelina readied her pen again.

experiment notes & stuff:


1. why did Sam get superpowers?

2. a. what made the powers activate? was it the danger?

what have we observed about all of us?


remembers Lachlan dying 😦

doesn’t seem to have any other powers or anything like that


remembers Lachlan dying probably the most clearly out of all of us


weird time travel

super cool sword skills!

improved reflexes/faster running/more coordinated now than before

vry fast healing

Angelina (ME!!)

remembers Lachlan dying

fell through reality layers? or something????

-no powers that i know of but that weird snake guy said something about me being able to time travel and that me and mrs. sharma r alike somehow??

Mrs. Sharma

really mean T_T Lachlan & Sam say this is not a scientific observation 😦

rly good at fighting/axes/knives

-she got away from the snake guy and apparently me and her are the only ones who were able to do that??

-we don’t know if she remembers Lachlan dying or not and she’d prob get mad if we asked


does not remember dying

NO powers 😡

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“Excuse me,” said Jen. “I couldn’t help but overhear.”

She slowed her stride long enough for Lachlan, Sam, and Angelina to catch up.

“So you were eavesdropping,” said Lachlan.

“We were talking right near her. It’s not eavesdropping if we’re talking near her,” said Angelina. “It’s not like she can just shut her ears down.”

“I don’t remember asking for your input,” said Lachlan.

“You didn’t,” said Angelina. “I gave it anyway.”

“I really didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” said Jen, “but I remember too.”

“I take it this is about my untimely demise,” said Lachlan.

“Yeah,” said Jen. “I didn’t remember at first, but then I heard what Angelina said. You know how sometimes you wake up from a dream, and you know you were dreaming, but you don’t remember it until something happens later that day to jog your memory?”

“Yeah,” said Angelina.

“Like the other day, I had a dream I was in this candy factory, and there were these lollipops that were the most delicious lollipops in the world, but if you ate them twice, you would die, and I didn’t remember until–“

“Is there a point to this little rant of yours?” said Lachlan.

“Oh, um,” said Jen. “Sorry. I was rambling again, wasn’t I?”

“You were fine,” said Angelina. “Lachlan’s just a big jerk.”

“He really is,” said Sam.

“The biggest,” said Lachlan. “It’s part of my charm.”

“Anyway, when I heard what Angelina said, it was like the memory, like, reactivated itself or something. It’s super vague, though.” Jen’s expression grew more serious. “I remember the feelings more than anything. Being really horrified and scared. It was like when you have a nightmare, and then you wake up and you’re jumpy for the rest of the day, even though you don’t really remember it.”

“Interesting,” said Lachlan. “I guess our little experiment has two more test subjects.”

“What experiment?” said Angelina.

“Should we be worried that you just called us your test subjects?” said Jen.

“Yes,” said Lachlan. “Extremely.”

“Nah, don’t listen to him,” said Sam. “It’s kinda this informal experiment we’ve been doing since we noticed my hand healed unnaturally fast. Our hypothesis was that there was a positive correlation between my exposure to this place, and my improved healing, coordination, and reflexes. Given recent events, it seems like our experiment’s gonna need rework.”

“Come on, Samurai,” said Lachlan. “You can’t rework a hypothesis mid-experiment. What kind of a scientist are you?”

“Whatever,” said Sam. “We’ll need a whole new experiment then. Our original observation was that I healed from a traumatic finger amputation in a matter of hours, and that I’ve seen a vast, rapid improvement in my coordination and reflexes.”

“How would you even sum up your new observation?” said Angelina. “You were flying with swords and apparently walking through time, Lachlan died but he’s not dead, and I don’t even know how to describe what happened to me.”

“Can you try to describe it?” said Sam.

“I fell through realities. I don’t know how else to put it.”

“Did it feel like falling backwards?” said Sam.

“Yeah! Yeah, it did, actually,” said Angelina.

“I felt that too,” said Sam.

“That’s all fine and dandy,” said Lachlan, “but we need to narrow down our observation. What do all your experiences have in common?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ow,” he said. “What was that for?”

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

“Get… up?” said Sam.

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

“Seriously?” said Jen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Sharma rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

“I was just asking.” Angelina pouted.

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

“But–” said Lachlan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 17 – The Collapse

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

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

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

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

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

Oh no. Not this.

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

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



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

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

“Is he okay?” said Angelina.

“I’m pretty sure he’s not,” said Sam.

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

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

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

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

“Hm,” she said. “Interesting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is thanatosis?” said Jen.

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

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

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

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

“No,” said Mona.

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

“Um, what are you doing?” said Jen.

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

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

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

“Ew,” said Jen.

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

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

“What should we do?” said Angelina.

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

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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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Lachlan could just make out the dark shape against the building wall. After a few moments, another shape joined it.

“Pardon me for speaking up,” he said, “but our shadowy friend appears to have company.”

“I’m more than capable of looking for myself, thank you,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Well, excuse me for graciously trying to give you a little heads up,” said Lachlan. “Next time I’ll just let you get torn to shreds by the monsters.”

Mrs. Sharma ignored him, turning to face the two dark shapes that approached them from the shadows. They were roughly human-shaped, but it was hard to make out the details.

“Everyone stay behind the Stanley fabrications,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I’ll handle this.”

The two shapes moved closer, and Lachlan froze as he saw their faces.

The sisters.

“Not again,” muttered Sam.

The sisters focused on Mrs. Sharma, stalking toward her. Mrs. Sharma stiffened, shedding her air of confidence.

“Aw, look who it is,” said the taller sister. “Our old friend.”

“It’s been a while, Mrs. Sharma,” said the other, putting a mocking emphasis on Mrs. Sharma’s name.

“Leave me alone,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“But we haven’t seen you in so long,” said one of the sisters. “Don’t you want to catch up?”

Both sisters took a step closer.

“Don’t play games with me,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“But you make it so much fun, doesn’t she, sister?”

So much fun.”

The sisters took another step, their eyes falling in unison on the knife in Mrs. Sharma’s hand.

“How cute,” said one of the sisters. “She’s too afraid to use that knife, even with a dozen Stanleys backing her up.”

“She’s definitely not afraid to use the knife,” said Jen. “I saw her take down this big giant monster, and it was so cool–“

“I don’t need your backup, Jen. And I am not afraid,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I’d just prefer not to harm you if I can help it. Don’t force my hand.”

“Aw, poor thing,” said the taller sister. “It looks like she’s still sentimental about us. Even after we tried to poison her.”

“It would almost be sweet if it wasn’t so pathetic,” said the shorter sister.

“Why are you bothering me?” said Mrs. Sharma.

She sounded as though she was trying to adopt her usual stern tone, but she couldn’t stop an edge of fear from creeping into her voice.

“We were just curious, really,” said one of the sisters. “We’ve never seen you with so many friends before.”

“I wonder what she’s up to. What do you think, sister?”

“I bet she’s still trying to find her little girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend?” said Mahender. “Wait, what?”

“She’s not my girlfriend, and it’s none of your business,” said Mrs. Sharma.

Lachlan couldn’t tell whether she was talking to Mahender, the sisters, or all three at the same time.

“I’d give up on that if I were you,” said the taller sister. “I’m sure she’s dead by now. I bet she’s been chopped up for parts.”

“I bet she was awake when they did it,” said the shorter sister. “I bet she screamed. I bet–“

In a single fluid motion, Mrs. Sharma pulled a second knife from her bag with her free hand and lunged forward, holding a knife point to each sister’s chest.

“If you want to die, keep talking. Otherwise, I highly recommend you leave us alone.”

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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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“Hold on a minute,” said Mahender. “Did you say ‘finding our way out of the Pit’?”

“Yes, that’s what I said,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Congratulations. At 25 years old, you’ve finally learned how to listen and pay attention. If you were 20 years younger, I might actually be proud.”

“Well, you’re a delight as always.”

“Unfortunately, it seems you still haven’t learned not to be sarcastic to your elders.”

“You were being sarcastic to me first,” said Mahender. “Maybe I learned from your example.”

Mrs. Sharma’s fist clenched.

“You’re in my house, and you will show me proper respect.” Mrs. Sharma turned to the rest of them. “That goes for all of you, too. Is that clear?”

Lachlan noticed her directing especially pointed looks at him and Angelina.

“Yes, ma’am!” said Jen. “Crystal!”

“Good,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Now, let’s get back to the matter at hand. Finding our way home.”

“I don’t understand, though,” said Mahender. “Where’s this coming from? We’ve been here for years. I thought you’d given up on making it home? You’ve been so obsessed with finding–“

“25 years old and you still haven’t learned how not to interrupt me.”

“Oh, I’ve learned. I just choose to do it anyway.”

Mrs. Sharma’s jaw clenched so hard, Lachlan saw it from all the way across the dim room.

“You irritating, disrespectful little–“

“Ahem,” said Lachlan. “If I may interrupt–“

“You may not,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“If I may interrupt,” Lachlan continued, “the two of you clearly have some family issues you need to work through. But maybe you could consider tabling that discussion until after we all escape from the murder pit. Just a suggestion.”

“Fair enough,” said Mahender. “Sorry.”

“Fine.” Mrs. Sharma paused, looking each of them in the eye as if daring them to interrupt again. “Angelina, you somehow appear to have information that could be useful to us, and you believe you’ve discovered a way back to our plane of reality. Can you tell me what you think you’ve figured out?”

“Sure!” said Angelina.

“Excuse me,” said Mahender.

Mrs. Sharma’s jaw clenched again.

“She looks like a cartoon character, the way her vein’s popping out of her forehead like that,” Jen whispered just loudly enough for Sam and Lachlan to hear.

“What was that?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Nothing, ma’am!” said Jen.

“Really?” said Mrs. Sharma. “If it’s nothing, then why is it important enough to interrupt our discussion about getting home?”

“Um, because…”

“She said you look like a cartoon character,” said Lachlan.

Mahender huffed out a laugh into his sleeve.

“Excuse me?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Hey!” said Jen. “Tattle much?”

“I look like a what?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Well, I, um,” said Jen. “I didn’t mean–“

“She didn’t really mean you look like a cartoon character. She just meant you’re so mad right now, you look a little cartoon-ish,” supplied Sam.

“Lucky for you three idiots, I have more important things to focus on than your childish insults,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“What do you mean childish insults?” Sam protested. “I said you don’t really look like a cartoon character. How is that an insult?”

“And why am I included in the ‘three idiots’?” said Lachlan. “If you recall, unlike these two, I didn’t actually say anything about you. I’ve been a perfect little angel.”

“If anything, what I said was a compliment,” said Sam.

“I don’t really think you look like a cartoon character,” said Jen. “You look very nice.”

“I know I look nice. You’re not winning any points with me by sucking up.” Mrs. Sharma sighed. “From this point forward, I am going to ignore any further remarks from the three stooges here unless they directly pertain to our conversation.”

“If we’re talking about going home, we need to include Nancy,” said Mahender. “She should be a part of this conversation too.”

“Who’s Nancy?” whispered Jen.

“She’s an older lady who lives in an airplane,” said Sam. “She’s been trapped here for a while.”

“So you’re suggesting we leave the safety of my home and walk all the way to Nancy’s plane?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Yeah. My brothers will come with us. It’s not as dangerous as you’re making it sound.”

“That’s out of the question,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“I’m not leaving this place without her,” said Mahender. “And you wouldn’t leave here without me.”

“What makes you so sure I wouldn’t?”

“I know you. And as much as you don’t like me, I know you wouldn’t leave your family behind.”

“Really?” Mrs. Sharma shot him a dark look. “You’re going to talk to me about leaving your family behind?”

So much for tabling the discussion about family issues.

“Well, I, for one, I don’t think we should leave Nancy out,” said Sam. “We can’t just leave her here.”

“Yeah,” said Lachlan. “We should go talk to her.”

“I have an idea!” said Jen. “Why don’t we all vote on it? Everyone who thinks we should go find this lady, raise your hand.”

Everyone but Mrs. Sharma raised their hand. Even the strange little bat-like creature sitting on Angelina’s shoulder raised a hand after Angelina whispered something to it.

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Interlude 15 – Are You Listening?

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The rational part of Sam was relieved that they’d run into other people, some of them familiar. He knew he was safer now, and more likely to make it home. He was relieved Chelsea was okay.

Still, there was a small, irrational part of him that felt intruded upon. Sudden changes in routine always threw him off, and he and Lachlan had slipped into a strange kind of routine in the last day–or however long they’d been there–working together to avoid danger and try to figure out some of this place’s mysteries. When the others had arrived, the shift had felt abrupt and jarring.

He knew it wasn’t fair of him to feel intruded on, not when he and Lachlan had been the ones snooping in Mrs. Sharma’s bedroom, but he found the feeling hard to shake.

Angelina sat on the sofa, looking down at her lap. Mrs. Sharma stared her down.

“The Italian team at CPSI discovered other–look at me when I’m talking to you–other planes of existence layered with our own. How could you have known about that?”

Angelina shrugged.

“Well?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Well, what?” said Angelina. “Like… what do you want me to say?”

Mrs. Sharma sighed, rubbing her forehead.

“I want you to answer the question.”

“I thought I already answered it,” said Angelina.

“Okay, this is going nowhere.” Mrs. Sharma sighed again. “If you’re going to insist on being difficult, we’ll focus on what you know. We can come back to how you know it later.”

“Huh?” said Angelina.

“You said you knew a way out of here. I still find that very hard to believe, but I’m willing to entertain whatever idea you have. Especially given that you know things about the nature of reality itself that should be impossible for you to know.”

“Well, this conversation has taken an unexpected twist,” Lachlan whispered to Sam.

“Yeah!” whispered Jen. “The nature of reality itself? This is like a TV show or something.”

Something that could have been irritation flashed over Lachlan’s face, and Sam wondered if Lachlan felt the intrusion too. Either that, or he was just annoyed by everyone he met.

Sam could understand that. Most people were pretty annoying.

“Like I said before,” said Angelina, “does anyone have a notebook?”

“Yeah, we have one,” said Sam.

He reached into his bag with his right hand. He felt the notebook at the bottom of the bag, but his fingers–

Oh. Right. His fingers.

His palm throbbed as he lifted the notebook with his thumb, ring finger, and little finger.

He’d found it interesting how easy it had been to adjust to his missing fingers, and how little conscious effort it had taken on his part. His hand had quickly and instinctively found workarounds, his ring finger stepping in to fulfill the purpose of his lost index finger.

Still, all the unfamiliar motions were wreaking havoc on his hand muscles, to the point where every motion of his right hand made it more sore. The notebook nearly slipped out of his grasp, but he managed to hand it to Angelina, practically dropping it into her lap.

“Thanks!” she said.

She glanced at his hand, opening her mouth as though she was going to say something, then closed it again.

“No problem,” said Sam.

“Okay!” Angelina looked around at everyone, as if to ensure she had everyone’s attention. “So it’s like this. This page is our reality, and this page is like another layer. And right now, we’re here. In between the pages…”

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