10.26

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Lachlan

“It… won’t… budge…”

Sam strained as he pushed on the rock. Lachlan put a hand on his arm, signaling him to stop.

“That might be for the best. We’d prefer not to crush Jen if we can help it.”

Jen gave a faint whimper from beneath the rock.

“Hey, hey, don’t worry.” Lachlan turned his head downward to address her. “There won’t be any Jen-crushing taking place today if we can help it.”

“Not as comforting… as you think…” mumbled Jen.

“Well, excuse me for trying,” he said.

He was no good at comforting people in ordinary situations, let alone in a situation like this.

“If we’re not gonna push the rock, what are we gonna do?” said Sam.

“Well, she said herself that she wasn’t stuck. Maybe she can climb out the same way she climbed in.”

“How?” said Sam. “She can barely move.”

“With our help,” said Lachlan. “She can climb, and we can pull her out.”

He crouched down by the opening and extended his hands.

“Here. Grab my arms.”

Her arms inched toward his, and he clasped her forearms. Her hands closed weakly around his elbows and he pulled.

She wasn’t doing much to climb out on her own, so he had to lean back with all his body weight to pull her from beneath the rock. He felt Sam grasp him under his arms from behind and pull too.

They hit some gravitational turning point and fell backward all at once, the three of them collapsing into a heap on the ground. Jen’s spines snagged the front of Lachlan’s shirt, prickling his shoulder.

“Excuse me, watch the spines,” he said.

“Sorry…”

Jen didn’t seem capable of getting off of him on her own, so he grasped her shoulders, rolling her onto her side as gently as he could. She let out a feeble whimper, tucking her knees and head into her chest and rolling into a ball.

Lachlan looked down at his shoulder where the spines had pricked him. It didn’t hurt, but little beads of blood were soaking into his shirt. He rubbed at it, and found that the reason it didn’t hurt was because it was numb.

So Jen didn’t just have spines, but venomous ones?

He took a deep breath and tried to relax. He didn’t know what kind of weird alien venom was in his system now, but he’d always been taught that if he was bitten by a poisonous snake, staying calm would slow the venom’s spread. Jen wasn’t a snake, but the same principle probably still applied.

Though he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to keep calm in a place like this.

He remained where he was, which unfortunately meant he stayed awkwardly lying on his back on top of Sam.

“I don’t want to alarm anyone,” he said, “but I think Jen is venomous.”

Previous

10.25

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Jen

Jen could see Sam and Lachlan’s legs from where she was huddled.

“I don’t see her anywhere,” she heard Lachlan say.

“Me neither,” said Sam. “What should we do?”

“Probably, uh… we should try to find her. She can’t have gone far. She was just here.”

“Unless one of those things took her again.”

“If her flying around and knocking them out of the air a few minutes ago is anything to go by, I’d say she’s more than capable of avoiding that.”

“The abilities don’t work like that,” said Sam. “They’re not reliable. You can’t consciously turn them on. If it worked that way, don’t you think I would have used mine too?”

“Good point.” Lachlan shuffled his feet nervously. “I don’t like how much smaller and smaller our little group is becoming.”

“Me neither. The two of us have to stick together no matter what if we want to survive.”

“Really?” said Lachlan. “Stick together? I was going to suggest we split up, wander off, and succumb to the otherworldly woods, never to be seen again.”

“Do you have to be sarcastic about everything?”

“Yes.”

Sam sighed. His feet shifted as he moved to lean against the rock Jen was curled up under.

“My ex-girlfriend is missing in an alien forest. Can you be serious for two seconds?”

“Yeah,” said Lachlan. “Yeah. Sorry.”

“Okay. The first step in the solution of a problem is to identify the problem,” said Sam. “That’s easy. Jen is missing and we don’t know where she is.”

“And step two is to conduct research,” said Lachlan. “Consider all the information about our predicament like we did before. Or in this case, Jen’s predicament.”

“Correct,” said Sam.

Ugh, what a couple of huge nerds. If another creature had taken her, she’d be long gone by the time they finished discussing the problem solving process.

“I’m right here,” she tried to say, but her voice was barely a whisper. She felt so weak.

When she’d reached the bottom of the tree, exhaustion had washed over her, the kind of exhaustion that made her feel like her body was melting into the ground. The dim forest had felt unbearably bright, and the dark hollow beneath the rock had called irresistibly to her until she’d crawled in and curled into a ball.

Her golden spines had curled with her, folding and retracting into her body so as not to cut her.

She had wanted to panic, but she’d been too tired. It was taking all her energy just to will her eyes to stay open.

She heard Lachlan speak again.

“In this case, though, we should try to come to a conclusion as quickly as possible. This could be a time-sensitive problem.”

“Agreed,” said Sam. “So we know Jen was at the bottom of the tree a few minutes ago.”

“Yeah, and we know those creatures are around somewhere. I don’t think they took her again. She would have screamed. There would have been more of a commotion.”

“You’re skipping to the third step, but yeah. Agreed.”

“What is the third step, by the w–no, sorry. There’s no time. Don’t answer that,” said Lachlan. “So either something else took her, or she wandered off on her own.”

“Both of those possibilities have their issues,” said Sam. “We didn’t hear a struggle, and she’d know better than to wander off. The third step is ideation, by the way.”

Who cared what the third step was? She was missing and they were treating it like some kind of dorky science experiment.

If she’d had the energy, she would have been really annoyed.

“I’m right… right here,” she said again.

They didn’t hear her.

She saw Lachlan’s legs move closer to her as he leaned beside Sam against the rock. He was standing right beside her, close enough to her hand that she might be able reach him.

Using all the energy she could muster, she shifted her hand, feeling as though she was dragging it through a thick syrup. It took almost a minute to move her hand the few inches to Lachlan’s leg. She brushed her fingers against his ankle, and he yelped.

Every instinct told her to retract her hand back into the safety of the hollow, but she left it extended.

“Ah! Fuckin’-! Fuck! What the fuck? Something fucking touched my–” he whipped his head down to see what had touched his ankle and broke off his string of panicked f-bombs. “Jen?”

He turned around, crouching down in front of the hollow opening under the rock.

“Jen… hey… are you, uh… alright?”

“No,” she mumbled. “Ob…obviously.”

Sam crouched down next to Lachlan, peering into the dark hollow.

“Jen? What are you doing in there?”

“Don’t… know…”

“Are you stuck? Lachlan, do you think if both of us tried, we could lift this rock?”

At the thought of the rock being lifted, she felt a pang of anxiety. She’d be out in the harsh light again, unprotected.

“No. No. Don’t… please. Not stuck.”

“How did you get in there?” said Sam.

“Crawled… in…”

“Something’s really wrong with her,” said Sam. “We have to get her out of there and find that responsible adult lady person.”

“Are you referring to Mrs. Sharma?”

“I’m not good with names, okay? But yeah, her.” Sam turned back to Jen. “Can you get out or do you need help?”

Jen didn’t know how to answer the question. She didn’t want to get out. The dark hollow was safe. She was protected.

But she had to think about this rationally. She couldn’t stay in the dark hollow forever. Sam was right. Something was very, very wrong.

“Help,” she said.

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10.24

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Sam

Sam jumped off a low branch and his feet finally hit solid ground.

Where were his powers of flight when he needed them?

Lachlan was close to the bottom, grasping a branch as he prepared to lower himself to the lowest branch.

While Sam was debating whether or not to offer his good hand and help Lachlan down, Lachlan reached the ground.

“Oh, thank fuck. Land, sweet land.”

“If it wasn’t unsanitary and probably covered in alien germs, I think I’d start kissing the ground right now,” said Sam.

Lachlan turned to the tree, flashing a gesture at it that looked like a ‘peace’ sign with his palm turned inward.

“Are you… doing a peace sign at the tree?”

“What? No. I’m giving it the forks.”

“You’re giving the tree… kitchen utensils?”

Lachlan gave a comically exaggerated sigh and clicked his tongue.

“Typical Samurai. No. The forks. It’s an insulting gesture.” He made the gesture again. “It’s like… giving it the finger.”

“It still looks like a peace sign to me. Why not just flip it off the normal way?”

“Because I do what I want. Don’t question my choice of offensive hand gestures.”

Sam frowned up at the alien tree, then held up the backwards peace sign at it. He wasn’t comfortable sticking up his middle finger, but this unfamiliar gesture was easier. It just felt like doing a peace sign, but in an angry and contemptuous way. Like an anti-peace sign or something.

“Screw you, alien tree,” he said.

“Samurai, remind me to teach you actual swears some time.”

“I’m good.”

“Come on. How will you be able to visit me in Australia when this is all over if you don’t even know the word ‘fuck’? It’d be like not knowing the native language.”

“I know what the cuss words are, I just choose not to use them.”

For some reason, Lachlan started laughing at that.

“What’s so funny?”

“‘I know what the cuss words are, I just choose not to use them,'” Lachlan imitated.

“Shut up.”

“Sorry, that was just… unintentionally hilarious–” Lachlan trailed off into another burst of laughter.

“Shut the fuck up.”

Lachlan stopped laughing abruptly and looked up, meeting Sam’s eyes. Sam was suddenly more embarrassed than when Lachlan had been laughing at him.

“Was that…?”

This was one of the moments Sam would have squinted and looked away if he hadn’t gotten his strange abilities. He still kind of wanted to.

“Yes…”

Lachlan’s face broke into a grin.

“Samurai! I’m so proud I could kiss you!”

Whoa, what?

Okay, no powers of outward emotional control could have prepared him for that sentence.

“Um, I…” said Sam.

“Sorry, I mean, uh…” said Lachlan.

“Well, our feet our on the ground now,” said Sam.

Lachlan raised an eyebrow.

“So we are.”

“You said when our feet were on the ground, we could talk about my, um… confession.”

“I did say that,” said Lachlan. “I didn’t mean the exact moment we got onto the ground, but yeah. We can talk about it now.”

Sam’s heart thrummed in his chest in a way that had nothing to do with the dizzying height he’d just climbed down from.

Then he remembered something that jolted him out of his thoughts and feelings like a bucket of ice water waking him from a deep sleep.

“Jen’s gone,” he said. “Where’s Jen?”

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10.23

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Lachlan

Lachlan willed his hands to stop shaking as he grabbed another branch and prepared to lower himself onto another tree limb. His feet left the branch he was standing on, and he descended for one heart-lurching moment before he found his footing on the target branch.

“I hate this,” said Sam from below him. “I hate this. I hate this.”

Sam had been alternating between repeating the phrases “I hate this” and “don’t look down” like methodical chants since they’d started their descent about five minutes ago.

“You’re not the only one,” said Lachlan as he lowered himself onto another branch. “Oh God, oh fuck!”

“You can do it!” said Jen. “Just keep going and don’t look down!”

Lachlan glanced down before he could stop himself and his whole body seized up as he saw how tiny the foliage farther toward the ground looked. He could hardly see the ground from where he was, so it was hard to judge exactly high up they were. Not that he wanted to know.

“Ah! Oh God, oh fuck, okay!” He looked away from the distant ground, trying to focus on maintaining his balance. “As much as the encouragement is appreciated, every time either one of you says not to look down, I immediately look down and regret every choice in my life that led me to this moment.”

“It’s okay!” Jen hopped down from one branch to another. “See? Just keep moving and think positive!”

As annoying as Jen’s relentless positivity was becoming, she must have been doing something right because she was farther down the tree than him or Sam. They were still close to the top of the tree, while she was nearly halfway down.

“Right, because the very real possibility of falling to my untimely demise makes it so easy to stay positive.”

“I never said it was easy to stay positive, but it’ll help if you try!”

“Yeah, well, at the moment, I’m a bit preoccupied with trying not to slip and plummet to my death but I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”

“I’m pretty sure being sarcastic doesn’t help,” said Jen.

She took a graceful leap between two branches that made Lachlan’s stomach turn just from watching.

“I find it very helpful, thank you very much,” he said. “You have your methods, I have mine.”

“Doesn’t seem like your methods are working all that good,” she called up to him.

She was far enough down the tree she had to raise her voice a bit.

“All that well,” he corrected, calling back down to her.

“Whatever!” She jumped onto another branch. “Ignoring you now!”

He was happy to ignore her back; the way she was hopping from branch to branch like the tree was a piece of playground equipment was making him nauseous. He turned to Sam.

“Are you okay?” he said. “You’re saying ‘I hate this’ a lot.”

“Well, I do hate this,” said Sam, “but I’m fine. Are you okay? You’re looking very… green.”

“Oh, me? I’m fine. Great. Peachy. Happy as Larry. Just swell. I love being a hundred meters off the ground on a slippery alien tree–” Lachlan’s foot slipped a bit, and he caught himself on the branch. “Ah! Oh, God! Fuck!”

“There’s no way we’re a hundred meters off the ground. It’s hard to judge, but at most, we’re probably more like thirty.”

“Not helping.”

“How is that not helping? Thirty meters is less than a hundred. That should be comforting.”

“Thirty meters is still a very fatal distance to fall.”

Sam was silent for a moment, not even mumbling that he hated this. Then he spoke again.

“Listen, about what I said earlier…”

“Sam,” said Lachlan. “I want to continue that conversation. I really do. And we will. But I’d prefer to have it with my feet on the ground.”

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10.21

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Sam

Sam had never been good at regulating his emotional expressions before. He’d never understood how people could start or stop crying on command, and people always seemed to know how he was feeling when he didn’t want them to.

Since he’d developed his new abilities, that had changed. He had full control of everything he did now in a way he hadn’t before. Without that newfound control, he would have broken down in tears the moment he’d woken from unconsciousness after he’d watched Lachlan die.

The image of something that had never technically happened in this timeline kept flashing through his mind. He could still hear the glass shattering, still see his friend lying limp on the shop floor. More than anything, he could still smell the blood, like wet copper filling the air and pooling in his nose.

He’d been holding in his tears for obvious reasons–no teenage boy in his right mind would willingly start sobbing in front of a bunch of other teenagers–but now he was the only one not crying. There was no reason to hold back anymore. He let his tears fall.

Jen noticed his tears, and he saw her body move toward him a fraction, her shoulders drawing slightly inward as though she wanted to embrace him, but she pulled herself back.

He reached for her hand with his good hand, and she took it, squeezing it. She offered her other hand to Lachlan who hesitated, then took it. Sam completed the triangle, offering his right hand to Lachlan.

They sat like that for at least five minutes, holding hands and crying too hard to speak. A few times, it seemed like someone was going to stop crying, but then someone else would release a new bout of tears and all three of them would burst into renewed sobs.

When everyone’s tears finally subsided, it was Lachlan who broke the silence.

“So,” he said, his voice still raspy, “this has been fun.”

Sam sniffled. “Fun’s not exactly how I would put it.”

“Come on,” said Jen. “Don’t you feel better now, though?”

She was right. While crying in the treetops hadn’t been fun, it had been cleansing in a way. He hadn’t realized how much he’d been holding back, and he felt a strange relief now that he’d let himself open up.

He nodded, releasing her and Lachlan’s hands. They followed his lead, letting go of each others’ hands.

“We should probably figure out how to get down from here,” said Sam.

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10.20

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Jen

Jen shot up into the air after the creature holding onto Lachlan. She had to save him. She couldn’t let that thing carry him away, especially not after she’d treated him and Sam so badly.

She flew upward as quickly as she could, thrusting her arms straight above her head like a cartoon superhero hoping it would make her more aerodynamic. Something caught on her shoulders scratched against her cheeks, and she fought the urge to brush it off.

She caught up to the creature and instinct took over as she rammed her shoulder into it from behind. With a shriek, it released Lachlan, sending him plummeting back down toward the forest hundreds of feet below. A moment later, the creature fell down after him.

Jen let herself drop down toward Lachlan, trying her best not to think about how nauseatingly, terrifyingly high up she was. She caught him telekinetically about 50 feet above the canopy and slowed their descent, drifting downward to where Sam sat on a tree branch staring up at them with wide eyes.

She set Lachlan on a tree limb, then sat down beside him. She could see him trembling, his knuckles white as he clutched the branch.

“Are you okay?” she said.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’m just peachy. There’s nothing I love more than being whisked into the sky by… by flying nightmare monsters…”

His voice cracked as he trailed off, turning his face away from her and Sam.

“Lachlan, are you okay?” she asked again.

When he turned to face her again, his face was red and streaked with tears.

“Yeah. Yeah, I… must’ve gotten something in my eyes when I was up there.”

“Do you want a hug?”

“Oh, yes, a hug from the recent ex girlfriend of the guy who just confessed his feelings for me. That sounds like just what the doctor ordered right now.”

Okay,” she said.

She guessed she deserved that sarcasm.

He wiped his eyes and shook his head as though he was trying to shake away the crying spell.

“I’m alright, really.” He sniffled. “I just… might have developed a lifelong case of intense acrophobia in the past few minutes. Your concern is… noted and appreciated, though.”

She nodded. She wasn’t sure how to respond.

“If it makes you feel any better,” said Sam, “I changed after I developed my abilities. I have more control now. I’m better able to regulate emotional expressions. I guess what I’m saying is if it weren’t for that, I’d be crying now too. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.”

“Better,” said Lachlan. “Thanks.”

“Anytime,” said Sam.

The two boys’ eyes met, sharing a long look. Jen averted her eyes, feeling her own tears starting to well up.

“Jen,” said Sam.

Jen looked up. Lachlan and Sam were both staring at her.

“What?” she said. “What’s wrong?”

“You’ve got something…. growing out of you,” said Sam.

A jolt of horror surged through her as she threw a frantic glance down at her body, thrashing around to examine her arms and legs and nearly falling from the branch.

She had what? What could be growing out of her? An alien parasite?

“What?!” she shrieked. “What’s growing out of me? Get it off!”

She felt Lachlan’s arms steady her from behind, preventing her from falling.

“Wow, Samurai, couldn’t you have said that in a more alarming way? I don’t think you terrified her nearly enough,” he said.

She was almost–almost–relieved when she saw what Sam was referring to, if only because it wasn’t an alien parasite. Prickly, golden spines erupted from her skin, starting at her shoulders and running down the front of her torso in two lines, ending at her hips. They were about three inches long, in fractal-like clusters that reminded her of pine needles, tearing and snagging at the fabric of her shirt.

After everything she’d had to deal with, she had freaking spines now.

The tears that had been threatening to fall a few seconds ago finally came.

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10.19

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Lachlan

Okay, focus, Lachlan’s logical brain said. This isn’t the time to be thinking about romantic confessions. My brain needs all metaphorical hands on deck if I want to make it out of this one alive.

He was just above the canopy now–he could see the garden walls, which seemed to extend infinitely into the sky, and the red forest, which went on past the horizon. He thought he saw something reaching up past the treetops in the distance, but it winked out of view as the creature holding him bobbed up and down.

The other two winged creatures burst from the treetops nearby with Sam and Jen hooked in their long, curved talons, and Lachlan finally got a good look at the creatures that were holding them.

They were roughly humanoid in shape, with long, spindly bodies, slick oily red skin the same color as the vegetation, and wide leathery bat-wings that looked like they had a span at least three times as wide as Lachlan was tall.

With any luck, Sam or Jen’s new superpowers would kick in any minute now. But Lachlan didn’t want to rely on luck.

Okay. Alright. Think, Lachlan. Think.

They were only a meter or two above the canopy, and the foliage beneath them looked thick enough to catch them. If the creatures released them now they’d probably be injured but it wouldn’t be certain death.

How would he get the creatures to release them, though? And would that even be the best course of action? What if he somehow got the creatures to drop them only for them to end up with broken legs in a hostile alien forest?

Would it be better to wait a few seconds to see if Sam or Jen’s abilities activated? Did they even have a few seconds? A few seconds was all it would take for the creatures to shoot up into the sky and make escape by falling impossible.

A flash of gold light from Jen’s direction interrupted his thoughts. The creature let out a hawk-like shriek, dropping her. She fell for a split second before ending up hovering just above the canopy. The creature fell too, dropping out of the air as though stunned and crashing through the canopy.

The creature holding Sam stopped, hovering in midair, and Jen took advantage of its distraction, charging it and ramming a shoulder into its chest. It let out a similar shriek to its companion, and dropped Sam. Jen quickly ‘caught’ him via telekinesis and placed him on a nearby branch.

A moment later, the second creature fell from the air and through the canopy.

Jen headed for the creature holding Lachlan, but she wasn’t quite fast enough.

Lachlan’s stomach churned as his captor shot into the air so fast he felt like he was on one of those slingshot carnival rides. He finally surrendered the last of his logical thought processes and let his panic consume his mind.

He increased his kicking and screaming tenfold, even though he wasn’t sure why. Struggling wasn’t going to do him any good. This thing had a vice grip on his shoulder, clutching him like a bird of prey with a rabbit, and even if he somehow managed to break that grip, a fall at this height would be lethal.

He couldn’t stop struggling though. If he stopped struggling, he’d be admitting that it was over. That there was nothing more he could do.

He couldn’t be helpless. He just couldn’t. He had to keep fighting.

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10.17

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Lachlan

“You see,” said Sam, “the thing is… it was when we were in that tube thing. I don’t know how much you remember, but everyone started falling and it seemed like we were all done for.”

“I must have been mercifully unconscious for that part,” said Lachlan.

Something seemed to shift in the thick, red vegetation behind Sam, and Lachlan tried to ignore it. This was one of the worst places he’d ever had a serious conversation.

“Yeah,” said Sam. “Well, when we started falling, the same thing that happened to me back when I saw you die happened again. Well, kind of. I didn’t move through time, but I did start flying. You and Jen were the only two people near me, and I was only able to grab one of you…”

Oh. That explained a lot.

“I take it from the fact that we’re having this conversation that I was the one you grabbed,” said Lachlan.

Not that he wasn’t grateful that Sam had saved his life, but he didn’t really understand it. He and Sam had become fast friends for two people who had annoyed one another from the start, but they’d still only known each other for a few days. Why would Sam choose to save him over Jen, even in a split-second unconscious decision?

“Yeah,” said Sam.

Lachlan wasn’t sure what to say.

“Sam,” Jen cut in, “You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. If I’ve pressured you into this, I’m sorry. I’m really mad at you right now, but you don’t deserve to be forced into something like this. No one does.”

Sam sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.

“You’re not forcing me into anything,” said Sam. “Lachlan wanted to talk, and I’m making the choice to tell him.”

“I’m still lost here,” said Lachlan. “Tell me what?”

“Well,” said Sam, “you see, it’s like this. Um, I had this psychology class last semester and the professor said something…”

“Okay,” said Lachlan.

He had no idea where Sam could possibly be going with this.

“She said… um, she said romantic love is nothing more than a chemical reaction in the brain. Dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. It can be reduced down to a mere chemical formula. It can be manufactured in a lab. Which I’m sure is no surprise to you seeing as you think everything’s controlled by a mad scientist.” Sam chuckled nervously.

“I… see?” said Lachlan.

He definitely did not see.

“Any two people, she said, if they were stranded on a desert island, regardless of sexual orientation, compatibility, anything like that, their brains would eventually start releasing those chemicals if they were stuck with each other for long enough, and they’d fall in love with each other.”

“Alright,” said Lachlan.

“It was funny,” said Sam. “‘Cause there were these two frat morons in the front row laughing and being obnoxious when she mentioned sexual orientation, and she told them that if they were on a desert island together for long enough, they’d fall madly in love and they got so mad and embarrassed.”

“I’m all for owning homophobes,” said Lachlan, “and I’m not a psychology expert by any means, but that doesn’t sound accurate.”

“Maybe not, but I kinda believed it at the time. Well, I believed it in a way. I thought it applied most people–definitely people like those two jerks–but I assumed I was the exception. I’m a very intelligent person. I thought I was stronger than the chemicals in my brain. And then here I was, stuck here with you, and it took me, what? A day?” Sam gave another nervous chuckle. “Guess I’m not as smart as I thought I was, huh?”

Huh? Lachlan wasn’t following at all. What had taken Sam a day? What was he talking about?

“I’m not even into guys like that, or I didn’t think I was. I thought it was just the thing my professor was talking about. I thought it would go away when we ran into the others. When I saw Jen again. And then it just… didn’t.”

What would go away? What was Sam saying? What did he–

Oh. Oh.

Lachlan suddenly wished Jen wasn’t there with them. Romantic confessions were probably a lot less awkward without the confessor’s ex standing there and listening in.

Come to think of it, this was about the weirdest place to make a confession like this. The rest of the group was a few meters away talking to giant snake people, they were in some creepy red alien forest, and the foliage behind Sam kept shifting like something was rustling through it.

“So there you go,” said Sam. “I’m not expecting you to reciprocate or anything, but there you go. Now the cat’s out of the bag.”

“Sam, I–” Lachlan began. Then he stopped short.

“It’s okay,” said Sam. “You don’t have to say anything.”

“No, it’s not that,” said Lachlan.

There was something shifting through the trees behind Sam, something the same color as the slick red-purple foliage.

Before Lachlan could say anything else, a spindly, taloned hand slipped through the leaves, hooked around Sam’s shoulder, and pulled him backward into the undergrowth.

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10.15

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Lachlan

“The Gatherer?” said Lachlan. “Who’s the Gatherer?”

“That’s none of your concern!” hissed Toxzhesh.

Zarquozi ignored him.

“She’s an adult member of your species, that much we know from her scent,” said Zarquozi, “but that’s really all we know. We only see her when she enters the garden.”

“Why is she allowed in and we’re not?” said Angelina.

“She’s under the employment of She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Crown,” said Zarquozi. “She is allowed in the garden at the resplendent one’s discretion.”

“Fantastic,” said Lachlan. “So all we have to do to get back in is convince a temperamental alien goddess to hire us for odd jobs.”

“Somehow I doubt she’s looking for a chicken chef,” said Sam.

Jen whipped around to frown at them.

“We could have found a way to sneak back in, you know. If someone hadn’t let the snake guards know we wanted to get in.”

Lachlan stared at her for a minute. Jen’s demeanor had changed so much since they’d been swept up into the sky in the garden. She and Sam had broken up–Lachlan had gathered that much–but why did she seem angry at him too? He hadn’t done anything to her. He couldn’t have. He’d been unconscious for almost the entire time.

“I realize this isn’t the time for this conversation,” said Lachlan, “but since you seem so intent on having it, I think we need to discuss whatever problem you suddenly have with me.”

“Seriously?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Yes,” said Lachlan. “Seriously. I don’t think Jen’s personal issues with me should be our priority right now either. But since she seems to want to keep bringing it up, fine. Let’s talk. Let’s hash it out. Jen, what is your problem with me?”

“You were going to sneak into the garden?” Toxzhesh’s hood flared. “No one can sneak into the garden!”

“Not now, dude,” said Sam. He turned to Lachlan. “I, um… I think maybe you’re right. We should talk. But not in front of everyone.”

“How about this?” said Lachlan. “The three of us go over there behind those fucked-up looking rocks and have a little heart-to-heart, and everyone else stays here and finds out more about this Gatherer.”

“Fine,” said Jen.

“No,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Absolutely not.”

Lachlan headed for the rocks. Sam and Jen followed him.

“What did I just say? Come back here this instant. I–” Mrs. Sharma sighed. “Why do I even bother? Whatever. If you three get eaten, I’m not coming to save you.”

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10.14

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Jen

The snake people peered at them through unblinking yellow eyes, their tongues flicking in the air. One of them was about Zogzhesh’s height with a long, thick tail and vivid red tint to some of his scales. The other stood at least three feet taller, with an olive and brown banded pattern that reminded Jen of a rattlesnake.

“Who’s there?” said the taller snake person.

Mrs. Sharma took a wary step forward.

“My name is Mona Sharma. Who are you?”

“We’ll ask the questions here if you don’t mind,” said the shorter snake person.

“I do mind, actually,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“We’re trying to find our friends,” said Angelina. “Have you seen them?”

The shorter snake person stepped forward, rearing his head up, spreading his hood like a cobra, and letting out a loud hiss.

“I said we’ll ask the questions,” he said.

Jen stepped backward. She’d always been a little creeped out by snakes.

“Settle down, Toxzhesh,” said the taller snake person. “They haven’t done anything yet.”

Toxzhesh turned his hiss on his companion.

“Don’t tell me to settle down!”

The taller snake person ignored him.

“My name is Zarquozi,” said the taller snake person. “We’re the guardians of Bath–“

“Don’t tell them your name!” hissed Toxzhesh.

Zarquozi hissed something at Toxzhesh in the strange snake language, and Toxzhesh hissed back. This went on for a minute, then the snake people turned back to the group.

“You were going to say Bathsheba just then,” said Sam. “You’re the guardians of Bathsheba?”

“That’s no concern of yours,” said Toxzhesh.

“We know her, though,” said Sam. “We just met her. You’re her personal guards or something?”

“No,” said Zarquozi. “We’re the guardians of her garden. Garden guardians.” Zarquozi let out an annoyed hiss. “It sounds ridiculous in your language. Garden guardians. Guardians of the garden.”

“In Italian, it’s guardiani del giardino,” said Angelina.

“That’s just as bad,” said Zarquozi. “In our language, it’s a beautiful, noble-sounding title.” She let out a series of bizarre, guttural hisses. “See? Much better than ‘garden guardians’.”

“Yes. Beautiful,” said Mrs. Sharma dryly.

“Would you consider maybe letting us into the garden?” said Lachlan.

Jen rolled her eyes. Of course they weren’t going to consider that. Why would he even ask? Not only was the answer definitely going to be ‘no’, but it would be harder to sneak into the garden if they needed to later.

Sure enough, Toxzhesh flared his hood out and let out another hiss.

“We are the protectors of Bathsheba’s garden! No one goes in!”

“Nice work, Mr. so-called-smart-guy,” Jen murmered.

Lachlan turned to look at her. Oops. She’d meant to say that under her breath.

“Did I do something to you?” he said. “Ever since we got dropped in this weird forest you keep looking at me like I kicked your mum in the face or something. I understand that I evidently somehow broke up your relationship whilst I was completely unconscious, but–“

Mrs. Sharma whipped around to face them.

“Can. You. Not. Have. Annoying. Teenage. Drama. For. Two. Seconds.”

Jen sighed. Mrs. Sharma had a point.

“Right. Yes, ma’am. Sorry. Not the time.”

“No,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It isn’t.”

“I guess you’re right,” said Lachlan. “It isn’t. Sorry.”

“I don’t know what you humans are arguing about, and I don’t care,” said Toxzhesh. “All I care about is keeping you out of the garden.”

“We do know Bathsheba, though,” said Sam. “I’m sure if you just asked her, she’d tell you it was fine to–“

Toxzhesh hissed again.

“Ask? You think we would dare disturb the wife of She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Crown?”

“So there’s no way you’ll let us in. Fine,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Can you at least tell us if you’ve seen any other humans around here?”

“Just one,” said Zarquozi.

“Who?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“The one they call ‘the Gatherer’.”

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