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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy’s dog whined again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Back Someday – Interlude 26

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

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

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

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

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

How long had he been sitting there?

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

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

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

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

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

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Keep Me–Interlude 24

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

Nancy looked equally uncertain when she saw them.

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

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

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

“Aw!” said Jen. “Puppy!”

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

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

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

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

Mona Aunty frowned.

“It’s Mona, ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello again,” said Lachlan.

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

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

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


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

“Can I ask how we get home?”

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

Nancy looked beyond the group at the Brothers standing there.

“And will… everyone here be going?”

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

“Our home is here,” said st98.

Mahender noticed Falcon fidgeting uneasily with his sleeve.

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

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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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“She’s more than a piece of biotechnology?” said Sam. “Does that mean she’s really advanced or…?”

He trailed off as Mrs. Sharma whipped around.

Naomi couldn’t see Mrs. Sharma’s facial expression, but it was intimidating enough to make Sam look at the ground and say “Okay, shutting up now.”

“I mean that she’s a person, not some tool or piece of technology,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Oh,” said Sam. “Sorry, I just thought…”

“Have I given any indication in the short time we’ve known each other that I cared about what you thought?” said Mrs. Sharma. “If I have, I did not intend to do that.”

“Um, if you don’t mind me asking,” said Naomi, “How do you know Sarah, exactly. One of the… fabs said you created them. Did you create her too?”

“I didn’t ‘create’ anybody.”

“Yes, you did,” said Angelina. “Don’t you have kids?”

Mrs. Sharma sighed.

“That’s obviously not what I was referring to.”

“I thought you did create the fabs,” said Mahender. “I thought that was part of your job.”

“As usual, you were wrong,” said Mrs. Sharma. “No one created the fabrications. It was more complicated than that.”

“Then where did they come from?” said Sam.

“They were grown from a kind of genetic template,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It’s very complicated–definitely not something I’d expect you to understand.”

“Get wrecked,” said Lachlan.

“Try me,” said Sam. “I have an IQ of 140.”

“Who told you that?” said Mrs. Sharma. “Did you take a quiz online?”

“No, I–The test was administered by a professional!”

“Quizilla.com is not a professional,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“My IQ is 152,” said Angelina.

Bullshit!” Lachlan mock-coughed into his hand.

“Wow, mine’s only 106,” said Jen. “Is everyone here but me like, a genius?”

“I can assure you the answer to that question is no,” said Mrs. Sharma.

Naomi glanced back at her friends again, but as her gaze swept across the alley beside them, she saw a dark shape duck into a shadow.

She thought about alerting everyone, but she didn’t want to alarm them if the dark shape turned out to be her imagination.

“I don’t know my IQ,” said Lachlan, “but I think we can safely estimate that it’s over 200. Quite possibly even 300.”

“And you’re calling my IQ bullshit?” said Angelina.

Naomi glanced back at the alley. Something stirred in the dark.

“Um, guys,” said Naomi.

“How do so many of you even know your IQs?” said Mahender. “I wouldn’t even know how to get a test for that.”

“My brothers and I all have IQs of 130,” said the fab with the tentacle hoop skirt.

“Guys,” said Naomi.

“What is it, Naomi?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I think there might be something in the shadows between those buildings over there.”

Naomi pointed to her left.

Mrs. Sharma looked over, reaching over her shoulder into her bag and removing her knife.

“How do you do that?” said Angelina. “How do you just reach into your bag and pull out the exact thing–“

Mrs. Sharma shushed her.

“I shouldn’t even have to say this,” said Mrs. Sharma, “but everyone–be quiet!”

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“Stop that noise this instant!” said Mrs. Sharma. “Are you trying to let every creature in this town know we’re here? You’re far too old to be acting like unruly children anyway.”

“There it is,” said Lachlan.

“It’s not noise,” said Angelina. “It’s Insieme andiam da Mago,’ a cinematic classic.”

“I don’t care what it is. Stop it. Now.”


“Because I’m telling you to.”

“That’s not a reason. Why are you telling me to?”

“I already gave you my reasons. You’re too old to be acting like little kids, and if you keep being so loud, you’ll attract something dangerous.”

“Neither of those are good reasons.”

“Excuse me?”

Angelina put her hands on her hips, which ended up looking awkward because she was still walking.

“I said neither of those are good reasons.”

“This oughta be good.” Sam whispered, probably more loudly than he’d intended.

Mrs. Sharma’s gaze fell on Sam.

“What?” he said.

“You’re shit at whispering, that’s what,” said Lachlan.

“Are none of you capable of shutting up and walking quietly? It’s bad enough I have to deal with my idiot nephew. One ill-behaved child is more than enough.”

“I’m 25,” protested Mahender.

“Then act like it.”

“I wasn’t even doing anything! I was just walking quietly! I’m not even the one you’re mad at right now! Besides, it’s not as if they were even doing anything wrong. They were just having fun. Just because you hate fun doesn’t make it inherently wrong.”

“I don’t hate fun. I just have very little tolerance for immature people and immature behavior. Do you know what I was doing at 25?”

“Yes, because I’ve heard your ‘what I was doing at 25’ speech a thousand times. It never gets more interesting, by the way.”

“I was actually making something of myself. I was working hard, taking care of my family and furthering my career.”

“And how’d that career work out for you?”

Mrs. Sharma clenched and unclenched her fist.

“That’s beside the point.”

“Is it, though?”

“I’m not going to have this argument again,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Not now.”

“This whole conversation is really making me appreciate my family,” whispered Sam.

“And just what do you mean by that?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Here’s a suggestion, Samurai,” said Lachlan. “You might want to stop whispering things about the scary axe lady.”

“You know nothing about my family,” said Mrs. Sharma. “And do not call me the ‘scary axe lady’. I’m not some horror movie villain.”

Mahender signed something to his brothers that made Falcon hold back a laugh with his hand. Mrs. Sharma shot them both a look.

“I’m making a new rule,” said Mrs. Sharma. “No one except me and Naomi are allowed to talk until we get to the town’s outer wall. That includes signing. And singing.”

“Me?” said Naomi.

Mrs. Sharma’s expression softened a fraction when she looked at Naomi.

“You’re the only one in this group who hasn’t pissed me off today. If there’s danger or anything important I need to know, you can be the one to tell me.”

“Oh, um, of course,” said Naomi. “Sure.”

“So if the danger is noticed by anyone other than Naomi, we’ll all just have to die, then?” said Lachlan. “Makes sense.”

“Lachlan’s a butt, but I agree with him,” said Angelina. “If there’s something dangerous, I’m saying something, and I don’t care if you get mad.”

“I could have done without the first part of that statement,” said Lachlan, “but your support is appreciated nonetheless.”

“When I said no talking, I meant starting now,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“So you’re just not going to address our extremely valid concern then,” said Lachlan. “Wonderful.”

“I’m not going to say it again,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I want total silence until we get to the outer wall. Do I make myself clear?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you wearing?” she asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” said Lachlan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When they arrived at the half-arch door of the plain white house, there were voices coming from inside.

“That’s weird,” said Mahender. “She doesn’t usually have visitors.”

“Do you know who it could be?”

“No idea. The only other human person I’ve met in this place is this woman called Nancy. But she lives in an aeroplane on top of that giant building. She doesn’t leave if she can help it. I usually bring her supplies from the town. I can’t imagine she’s here.”

“Could it be a non-human person?” said Naomi. “There seem to be plenty of those here.”

“Hi!” said the creature with the tentacle hoop-skirt.

“Nah, she doesn’t really care for my brothers, and she hates Daves.”

“Daves?” said Naomi.

She felt a nudge at her shoulder and turned to see Falcon signing something. One of his brothers translated.

“We ran into one before when we first entered the Pit. It chased us for a while.”

“Oh. Right,” said Naomi. “What about the Sisters?”

“The Sisters are a whole other… complicated thing,” said Mahender. “I don’t think it’s one of them. Maybe it’s one of your friends.”

Naomi shrugged and raised her hand to knock on the door.

“Wait,” said Mahender. “Just one second.”

“What? Why?”

Mahender leaned toward the tall window beside the door. At first, Naomi thought he was trying to see in the house, but then he started ruffling hair with his hands. When he was finished, he shook his head back and forth, then looked at his reflection again. Then, he did the same thing with his beard. When he turned back to Naomi, the hair on the right side of his head stuck out at an angle that seemed to defy the laws of gravity.

“Well?” He said. “How do I look?”

“Um, were you… trying to fix your hair? Because it… looked better before.”

“Perfect.” He grinned. “I’m ready.”

Okay, then. Weird, but whatever. She had more important things to worry about. She knocked on the door.

She heard footsteps and muffled arguing, then the door swung open.

A short, brown-haired girl stood in the doorway waving at them. She looked far too young to be Mahender’s aunt, and she seemed very familiar. It took Naomi a moment to realize why.

“Angelina? I… what?”

“Hi, Naomi!” said Angelina. “Hi, guy I don’t know!” She stood on her toes to see who else was standing behind them, and her eyes lit up. “Oh! Falcon’s here! And you all must be his… brothers? Hi!”

“Angelina, what are you doing here?” said Naomi.

Before Angelina could answer, a woman rounded a corner inside the house and strode toward the door. She looked enough like Mahender that she had to be the aunt, but she was still a bit younger than Naomi had expected; she only looked about ten years older than him. She guessed it made sense; Mahender had said his aunt had gone to college in the nineties.

The woman pushed past Angelina, causing her to exclaim indignantly, and stood in the doorway, arms crossed.

“Hi, auntie,” said Mahender.

“Hi, idiot,” said the woman. “What do you want?”

Wow. Mahender hadn’t been exaggerating about his aunt being mean.

When Naomi pictured a judgmental aunt, she tended to think of backhanded compliments, or vaguely disparaging questions about her grades or love life. She had some relatives she considered difficult, but she couldn’t picture any of them greeting her with the words ‘hi, idiot’.

She pushed past her nerves and tried to smile at the woman, extending her hand for a handshake.

“Hi, you must be Mahender’s aunt. My name is Naomi.”

The woman accepted the handshake. Her nails were painted, which seemed odd for someone stranded in a place like this. Hadn’t Mahender said his aunt was supposed to be practical?

“I’m Mrs. Sharma,” she said. “You and my useless nephew can come in. Your fabrication friends will have to wait outside.”

Naomi looked back at Falcon, who gave her an encouraging nod.

“Can you tell him we’ll be back as soon as we can?” Naomi asked one of Falcon’s brothers.

The brother nodded a few of its heads and relayed the message.

“Great.” Naomi pushed her shoes off with her heels and moved them to the side with her foot. “We’ll be right back.”

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“I should probably prepare you to meet my aunt,” said Mahender.

“Wow, she’s that bad?”

“She’s worse, honestly,” he said, “she can be extremely… judgy.”

“I have aunts like that. I think everyone does.”

“Not like her, they don’t,” he said. “She has a very specific worldview, and a very black and white view of people. She either likes you, or she really, really doesn’t. If she doesn’t like you, there’s a good chance she’ll call you an idiot and slam the door in your face.”

“Wow.” Naomi felt a stupid, nervous giggle escape her lips. “No pressure.”

“I don’t mean to make you nervous,” said Mahender. “I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

This was not what she wanted to hear right now. Between her being trapped in a pit between realities and her friends’ lives being in danger, she had enough to worry about. Now she had to impress someone’s judgmental aunt?

“So how do I make her like me?”

“There are a few things that help. Your outfit will be a point in your favor.”

Naomi looked down at her skinny jeans and plain black t-shirt. She couldn’t imagine why these clothes would impress anyone.

“Why is it a point in my favor?”

“It looks nice, but it’s simple. It’s not frilly or fancy,” he said. “It’ll give her the impression you care about your appearance without being vapid.”

“So if I was wearing a poofy pink dress or something, she’d refuse to help me?”

“That depends. Exactly how poofy are we talking?”

Naomi realized from Mahender’s expression that he’d been making a joke. She forced a polite laugh.

“What else will give me points with her?”

“Be very polite and respectful. She thinks very highly of herself, so it won’t hurt to suck up to her a bit.”

“You know a lot about how your aunt thinks for someone who tries to avoid her.”

“Well, when someone lives with you for four years, you tend to learn a lot about them,” said Mahender.

“When did she live with you?”

“She did her undergrad at a university near where my mum and I lived.”

“Her undergrad? For some reason, I was picturing her as being older than that.”

“Well, it was a while ago. Nearly twenty years ago, I think. I was just a kid.”


“It’s funny you say that, though. I remember thinking she was so much older than she was. She was seventeen, and she dressed like she was forty.”

“How so?”

“She wore these nineties power suits to class. Some of them had shoulder pads and everything.”

“That’s not so weird,” said Naomi. “A lot of business majors have to follow dress codes.”

“I don’t think she was a business major,” said Mahender. “She ended up working as some kind of scientist.”

“Okay, I take it back. That is weird,” said Naomi. “Was she a scientist for CPSI?”

“Yeah. She worked with the biotechnology team for a while, I think.”

What was it Sarah had said? That she was a piece of biotechnology?

“Um, can I ask what specifically she worked on?”

“She worked on a lot of things, from the sound of it. Some days, she just had to fetch coffee and file papers. Other days, well…”

One of the creatures–the one with a hoop skirt of tentacles–fell back, joining the two of them.

“Other days,” finished the creature, “she made us.”

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