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Naomi and Mahender walked a little ways behind Falcon and his brothers. It felt like they had been walking for a long time. Naomi wondered if they were getting close to the town. It was hard to see anything in front of them with the largest of Falcon’s brother’s blocking the way.

“So,” said Naomi, “what kind of music do you like?”

She felt stupid and awkward trying to make idle conversation, but she had to distract herself somehow. If she was silent for too long, she’d have to think about just how stuck she was.

Mahender and his aunt hadn’t found their way out after years of being in the Pit. What hope was there for Naomi and her friends?

“I don’t know.” Mahender shrugged. “A bit of everything.”

“Have you ever heard of The Goldfish Technique?”

Naomi didn’t usually bring up her favorite band around strangers because almost no one had heard of them. Mahender was from Australia, though, so maybe he would have. Besides, talking about something familiar might make her feel better.

“I can’t say that I have,” he said. “I’ll have to give them a listen. If I ever make it out of here, that is.”

And just like that, the conversation had come back to how hopeless things were. So much for taking her mind off things.

Mahender must have noticed some change in her expression, because he added “It’s not so bad here, though. Not really. It’s scary at first, but it gets better.”

The attempt to comfort her only made the dread in her chest swell larger, until she was surprised by its size and strength. His words felt like a nail in a coffin, reinforcing the idea that there was no way out.

Would she grow old in here, alone and forgotten? Or would something kill her before she had the chance?

“I know you’re trying to make me feel better, and I appreciate it, but it’s not working,” said Naomi.

Her tone came out more harshly than she’d intended.

“Ah, right, fair enough. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

Mahender was silent for a moment. Then he spoke again.

“The town’s not very big,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll find your friends in no time.”

Another attempt to make her feel better. At least this one was actually a little bit effective.

“Thanks,” said Naomi. “I really hope you’re right.”

Mahender opened his mouth like he was going to say something, then stopped.

“Were you going to say something?” said Naomi.

Mahender sighed, then his face tightened in a wince.

“My aunt is living in the town,” he said. “She might have seen your friends.”

“Okay, great,” said Naomi. “Let’s go talk to her.”

Mahender sighed again.

“It’s like I said before,” he said. “She can be… difficult.”

Naomi fixed him with a look.

“My friends are in danger,” she said. “If your aunt might be able to help me find them, I don’t care how difficult she is. Take me to her. Now.”

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“I think I’ve seen one of your friends,” said the man, who’d introduced himself as Mahender. “You said his name was Lachlan, right?”

“Yes!” Naomi said, louder than she’d intended. She tried to calm her tone before she spoke again. “Sorry–yes. His name’s Lachlan. You’ve seen him? Is he okay?”

“He seemed to be.”

“And what about the other two people I mentioned?”

“I’m sorry,” said Mahender. “I haven’t seen them.”

Naomi’s worry must have shown on her face, because Mahender quickly added, “I’m sure they’re fine. As someone who’s been here for years, I can tell you that this place isn’t as scary as it seems.”

“I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, but that hasn’t really been my experience.”

Mahender laughed sympathetically.

“I guess you’re right. I can’t tell you how scared I was when I was first sent here.”

“We were all scared,” said the creature with the tentacle skirt, “but it helped that we weren’t alone.”

“That’s great,” said Naomi. “The only problem is that my friends are alone.”

“Lachlan wasn’t alone,” said Mahender.

“He wasn’t? Who was he with?”

“Someone called Sam. He was about your age. Do you know him?”

Sam. Where had she heard that name?

Hadn’t Jen mentioned that her boyfriend was named Sam?

Naomi couldn’t assume for sure it was the same person–Sam was a common name, after all. But maybe Jen had been right. Maybe her boyfriend really had been sent here too.

“Not exactly, but I think I know someone who does know him,” said Naomi. “Unfortunately, she’s the one we lost running away from… whatever that thing was.”

“I told your friend he should head toward the town,” said Mahender. “If I were you, I’d go there as well.”

Town?” Falcon signed. The creature with a face on his chest translated.

“We’ll take you there, if you like,” said one of the creatures.

“Um, yes, that would be good,” said Naomi. “We’d really appreciate that.”

“Just follow us,” said Mahender. “It’s not too far from here.”


Naomi walked beside Mahender while Falcon and his brothers walked behind. Well, the more human-shaped brothers walked. It was hard to tell how the ones with visible legs were moving forward.

“So there’s a town here?” said Naomi.

She had trouble imagining what kind of town would be in a place like this. Was it a town full of monsters, or were there people living there?

“Yes. It’s more like a ghost town, though,” said Mahender, anticipating her question. “All the people are gone.”

“What happened to them?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “The place looks abandoned, though. The only person I’ve seen there is my aunt.”

“Your aunt?”

“My aunt worked for CPSI too. I think this place is where they throw their more inconvenient employees.”

“Why did they throw your aunt in here?” said Naomi. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” said Mahender. “I don’t really know, though.”

“She didn’t tell you?”

“My aunt and I aren’t really on the best of terms,” he said. “She stuck with us for protection in the beginning, but she ended up going off on her own.”

“Why would anyone want to be alone in this place?” said Naomi.

Mahender chewed on his lower lip, breaking eye contact.

“Well… she didn’t want to be alone, exactly. We sort of, well…”

“You sort of what?”

“I’m not proud of it, but I asked her to leave.”

“You told your own aunt to leave? In this place?”

“I know, I know, it sounds bad,” he said. “We had this big fight, and I told her I couldn’t stand being around her anymore, and that I wanted her to leave me alone. I wouldn’t have done if I didn’t think she’d be fine on her own.”

“How could anyone be fine on their own in a place like this?”

“She wouldn’t have been at first. It’s why I stuck with her for so long. But after a while, she started to change.”

“What does that mean? Change how?”

“It was very subtle at first. She was a little bit stronger, a little bit faster. Before we knew it, she was taking on fabs three times her size and winning.”

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

“Are you okay, C?” said Angelina.

Chelsea had no idea how to respond to that.

“I’m… fine,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I, um–“

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

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

Angelina pursed her lips.

“I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too,” said Chelsea.

“Will you come visit me?”

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

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

Angelina turned, looking her directly in her eyes.

“Do you swear it? On your life?”

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

These things were Falcon’s brothers?

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

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

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

“Hi!” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falcon lifted a shaking hand and signaled something.

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

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

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

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

“What happened to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Something Got Away – Interlude 5

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Content Warning: Kidnapping


Mahender perked up as the door slid open with a shrill beep. He covered his ears as the thundering of the fans and machinery outside shook the room. After sitting alone at his desk watching security camera feeds for almost four hours, he welcomed any distraction.

Mr. Gibson burst into the room, looking even more red-faced than usual. He hauled two fabs into the room behind him, holding them by their wrists.

The door slid shut, silencing the white-noise roar. Mr. Gibson pulled off his yellow protective headphones, threw them onto Mahender’s desk, and turned to the fabs with a scowl.

“Hello, Gibbo,” said Mahender. “It’s lovely to see you too. How can I help you?”

Some of the other guards had nicknamed Mr. Gibson ‘Gibbo’. Mahender had taken to calling him Gibbo too, mostly because it irritated him. Irritating Mr. Gibson was one of the few entertaining parts of his job.

Mr. Gibson ignored him. He was facing away, but Mahender could tell from Mr. Gibson’s stance he was glowering at the two fabs he’d dragged in.

“What the hell was that?” he said.

The fab he’d addressed–st98 according to his jumpsuit–avoided eye contact, his hands twitching as his fingers tapped against his leg.

Mahender was surprised to see a fab looking so nervous. He’d never interacted with one before, but Mr. Gibson had told him they were mindless automatons. He hadn’t even known they could get nervous.

“What… what was what, sir?” said 98.

98 jumped a little as he spoke, as though the sound of his own voice startled him.

Maybe it did. After all, he did spend all his time bombarded by the ear-splitting roar of the fans and air handling systems.

“Those hand signs you were doing,” said Mr. Gibson. “What the hell was that?”

98 grew paler, his fingers tapping a faster, more irregular rhythm against his leg.

“We developed hand signals as a way to communicate in our loud work environment–“

Mr. Gibson scoffed.

“Communicate? What the hell do you have to communicate about? Just do your bloody jobs.”

“Sir,” said 98. “We usually work alone, it’s true, but sometimes we have to… to convey things to one another, and the hand signals can be a good way to–“

“If you were meant to convey things, you would’ve been designed to convey things. You lot are basically monkeys; you don’t need to communicate anything with hand signs!”

“Monkeys can learn sign language,” interjected Mahender.

Mr. Gibson whipped around, turning his scowl on Mahender.

“If I wanted input from the peanut gallery, Henry, I would’ve asked for it.”

Henry? Seriously? Mahender was used to people butchering his name, but Mr. Gibson didn’t even try.

“My name’s not Henry.”

“You work for me. You’re called Henry if I bloody well say you are.”

Ugh. Mr. Gibson was really something else.

“I don’t believe that’s how names work.” Mahender leaned back in his chair. “Also, I don’t even work for you, I work for a third-party company.”

Mr. Gibson’s face reddened.

“Be that as it may, I have the authority to terminate your employment if I deem it necessary.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I may not have direct authority to terminate you, but I will be speaking to your supervisor at Melbourne Majestic Security about your insubordinate behavior.”

Mahender had only heard that threat about a thousand times.

“Good luck telling him who I am,” he said. “You can’t even get my name right.”

Mr. Gibson gave him a final scowl, then whipped back around to face 98 and 59.

“I’m getting distracted from the matter at hand. You two were using hand signals. Why?”

Mahender wasn’t sure what the problem was. So what if the fabs were using hand signals? It was impossible to hear anything out there. Hand signals seemed like a good idea.

Not that it was surprising Mr. Gibson was making a big deal over it. He was always on some kind of power trip with the fabs, pulling them into the soundproofed rooms to yell at them, or making them do pointless things like line up in numerical order.

“Sir,” said 98. “As I said, it helps to be able to communicate when we’re working together on certain–“

“That’s enough out of you,” said Mr. Gibson. “But I noticed it’s been awfully quiet.”

Mr. Gibson turned his glower on the second fab–59, according to his jumpsuit.

98’s eyes met Mr. Gibson’s for the first time in a wide-eyed stare. If he’d looked nervous before, he was terrified now.

“Well, 59? Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Some of 98’s fear crept into 59’s expression. He didn’t respond.

“Sir,” said 98. “I think–“

Mr. Gibson slammed his hand onto the desk behind him, startling Mahender. 98 flinched at the sound, but 59 didn’t.

“I don’t give a good goddamn what you think, fab. I wasn’t talking to you.” He fixed his glare on 59. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

59 was silent.

“Well? Answer me!”

59 still didn’t respond. Mr. Gibson stepped forward, his round face a shade of purple-red. He slapped his hands together centimeters from 59’s face, and the sound was loud enough to make both Mahender and 98 jump.

“Answer me!” Mr. Gibson bellowed in 59’s ear.

59 shrunk back, but didn’t flinch at the noise. It was as though he hadn’t even heard it.

“I don’t think he can hear you, Gibbo,” said Mahender.

Mr. Gibson wheeled around to face him.

“What the hell do you mean you don’t think it can hear me? Of course it can hear me!”

“Well, it’s very loud out there, and the fabs are always out there without any ear protection, so maybe–“

“Their eardrums are designed to withstand sustained sound pressure levels of up to 190 decibels, you idiot–“

“There’s no need for name calling,” said Mahender.

“The only way a fab would have any sort of hearing loss would be if there was a defect in its genetic…”

Mr. Gibson trailed off before he finished his sentence. All color had drained from 98’s face.

“A defect in its genetic code,” finished Mr. Gibson.

“Mr. Gibson. Sir, please,” said 98.

Mr. Gibson sighed.

“A defective fab,” he grumbled. “This is just what I need right now.”

“Mr. Gibson, he’s an excellent worker. There have never been any issues with him. In such a loud environment, there’s not even any reason to–“

98’s voice was pleading and frightened, breaking a little as he spoke. He sounded so human, so unlike the mindless, emotionless drone he was supposed to be.

He was afraid for his brother.

Well, that had some unpleasant ethical implications about Mahender’s job.

“Oh, shut up,” said Mr. Gibson. “Another word out of you and I’m disposing of both of you. We have two mature Stanley fabs in Section 0 ready for activation, and I’d just as soon–“

Without warning, 98 lunged at Mr. Gibson with the speed and desperation of a cornered animal with nothing to lose. He collided with Mr. Gibson, sending him tumbling backward into the desk with a surprised grunt. 98 lashed out again and again with an almost frantic energy, hitting and kicking blindly as Mr. Gibson flailed, trying in vain to escape. Mahender stood up, moving out of 98’s range.

“Do–ow, ow!–do something, Henry!” shouted Mr. Gibson. “Get–ow!–get this bloody thing off me!”

Oh, right. Mahender was a security guard. He’d better do his job, he guessed.

“Hey,” he said. “Don’t do that.”

98 didn’t ease his assault on Mr. Gibson.

Henry!” Mr. Gibson’s shout was louder and more frantic. “Ow! God damn it, Henry! Shoot it! Shoot it!”

Mahender shrugged.

“I don’t have a gun, sir.”

Mr. Gibson raised his hand to his face, protecting it from 98’s onslaught.

“Well, do something! Do your bloody job!”

Mahender raised his nightstick in a halfhearted threatening gesture.

“Excuse me,” he said flatly. “Don’t do that. I have this stick and I’m not afraid to use it.”

The second fab–59–had been still until this point. His head snapped around when he saw Mahender produce the nightstick. 59 thrust out his hand, and Mr. Gibson was torn from 98’s grasp. He flew off the desk, slamming against the wall with a crash, then crumpling to the floor.

What the hell? Since when could the fabs do that?

For a moment, 59 stared at his outstretched hand, looking nearly as shocked as Mahender felt. Then, 59 turned to Mahender, his hand still raised. His eyes were fierce, daring Mahender to move.

Mahender glanced at Mr. Gibson. He was motionless, but breathing.

Mahender dropped his nightstick and raised his hands in a placating gesture as he sat back in his chair.

59 walked over to 98 and placed a hand on his shoulder. 59 lowered his hand to his side.

“Please don’t blast me into a wall for asking,” said Mahender, “but what just happened?”

The fabs ignored his question.

“I need to get him out of here,” said 98. “How?”

Mahender thought for a second.

“Freight entry is in Section 1. There’s a loading dock. You’d need to get him into the back of a truck without being seen. The doors are locked, but…”

Mahender removed his key card and placed it on the desk.

“If you were somehow able to steal a guard’s key card, you’d be able to get in.”

“You’re helping us,” said 98. “Not because we’re making you, but because you want to. Why?”

Mahender shrugged.

“Gibbo–sorry, I mean Mr. Gibson–treated you like you weren’t human. Like you were less than.”

“We’re not human,” said 98. “Not really.”

“It’s the same way he treats me,” said Mahender. “I was listening to him talking about disposing of you like you were nothing, and I realized he’d do the same to me if he could.”

98 nodded and took the key card.

“Besides,” said Mahender. “I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he finds out a fab escaped.”

“Will you lose your job?” said 98.

“Maybe,” said Mahender. “Probably. I’ve been looking for new work anyway.”

As much as he needed this job, it would be hard to justify working here to himself after seeing how human the fabs seemed.

He turned to the computer monitors by the desk and found the one displaying the freight entry security feed. He disabled the cameras.

“Oh no,” he said. “I seem to have accidentally disarmed the cameras in Section 1. I hope there won’t be any security breeches there.”

The fabs stared at him.

“Go!” he said. “Before another guard notices that the camera is off.”

The fabs headed for the door, and 98 pressed the exit button. 59 paused as the door slid open and made a gesture with his hands.

“He says thank you!” shouted 98 over the roaring fans.

Mahender knew neither of the fabs would hear his reply, so he smiled and gave them a salute.


Mahender struggled against his own handcuffs as two other guards hauled him into a lab in Section 10. About a dozen Stanley fabs filed in behind him. Their hands were bound too, but they didn’t resist.

“You can’t do this!” he said. “You won’t get away with it!”

“Won’t we?” said Mr. Gibson.

“My aunt works directly under Billy Clyde himself. If she finds out you’ve done this–“

Mr. Gibson gave him a skeptical look.

“Your aunt?”

“Mona Sharma. Overseer and specialist of operations in–“

“Oh, that’s right. I’ve met Mona. Pretty girl, but so unpleasant. She’s mentioned her nephew, but I never made the connection until now. Small world.”

“Yes, well, she’s Billy Clyde’s direct report, so if you–“

Mr. Gibson snorted.

“Mona’s hardly a high-ranking member of this company. And if my memory serves, she doesn’t exactly think highly of you. If she gets word of this, she’ll probably send me a bouquet.”

Mr. Gibson wasn’t wrong. Mahender’s aunt would have sold his soul for a piece of cheese. And she was lactose intolerant.

Still, his bluff had been worth a try.

“I think you’ll find we can get away with whatever we want,” said Mr. Gibson. “You have no meaningful connections, no wife or girlfriend, no close friends. As far as we’re aware, you won’t be missed.”

Mr. Gibson’s words sent a cold chill through him, even if they weren’t entirely true. Mahender’s job had been the main reason he hadn’t had a social life. Was that why the guards here had to work such long late hours in such an isolated environment? So they wouldn’t make any meaningful connections? So they wouldn’t be missed if they had a sudden conflict of morality and had to be ‘disposed of’?

“My mum will try to find me. She’ll–“

“Your mum. Reena Stephens, correct? I’m not too worried about her snooping around.” Mr. Gibson sneered. “I’m sure immigration services will be happy to take care of her for us if she decides to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Mahender felt another cold chill.

“We do our research,” said Mr. Gibson. “We have to be thorough in case one of our guards steps out of line. We know all about how your parents split up. How Mrs. Stephens obtained permanent residence under false pretenses.”

“It wasn’t like that!”

“Unfortunately for her, the law doesn’t care what it was or wasn’t like.”

“Leave my mum alone. I’m warning you.”

“Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t,” said Mr. Gibson. “Either way, you won’t be in much of a position to do anything about it where you’re going.”

Mahender looked at the guards holding him. He’d seen them in passing before, though they’d always been unfriendly.

“Don’t do this,” he said. “If they do this to me, they’ll just as soon throw you away too if you become inconvenient.”

One of the guards, a burly blond man who Mahender thought was named Barry, grunted, shoving him forward toward the chamber.

“It’s Barry, right?” said Mahender. “Don’t you see what they’re doing? They’re keeping us isolated. They’re making us easy to get rid of.”

Barry ignored him, giving him another rough shove.

A man in a lab coat unlocked the chamber with his key card, and the glass door slid open. Barry and the other guard threw Mahender in, and the door slid closed.

The technician pressed a series of buttons on a panel.

“You can’t do this to me! Let me out!”

Mahender lifted his cuffed hands and pounded them against the glass, his fists stinging as though he was slamming them into solid rock.

The last thing he saw before a sickly green and black fog consumed his vision was Mr. Gibson’s smug, sneering, red face.

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The sky was still dark as Naomi, Sarah, Jen, and Falcon sat in Jen’s car, parked in front of a chain coffee shop that had just opened for the morning. Falcon and Naomi sipped coffees, Sarah sipped tea, and Jen sipped an unknown pink beverage heaped with whipped cream.

Sarah broke the silence.

“Supposedly I can’t drink coffee,” she said.

“Okay,” said Naomi.

Sarah looked at Falcon, who gave her a confused frown.

“I wonder why he can drink it and I can’t.”

“How do you know you can’t drink it?” said Jen.

“What do you mean?” said Sarah.

“You said ‘supposedly’,” said Jen. “That means you’ve never tried it before, right? So how do you know?”

“Technically I’m not allowed to eat or drink anything except these weird nutrient packets,” said Sarah. “Anything else could mess with my physiology.”

“You’re drinking tea,” said Jen.

“I’m not supposed to,” said Sarah, “but I know for a fact it won’t hurt me.”

“How do you know that?” said Jen.

“I don’t know.” Sarah shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“No. It doesn’t matter,” said Naomi. “We don’t have time to talk about your dietary habits. We need to make sure we have a plan.”

She handed Jen a notepad she’d brought with her.

“Jen, can you take notes for Falcon?”

“Sure!” said Jen.

“The first thing we need to do is get to the machine,” said Naomi.

“That’ll be easy,” said Sarah. “No one will be in the lab this early, and if they are, all we have to do is act natural.”

“Will someone need to stay behind to operate the machine?” said Naomi.

“We can set it on a timer,” said Sarah. “It’s a little more dangerous that way, but it should be fine.”

“Dangerous how?” said Jen.

“If you’re halfway into the chamber when the gateway opens, only half of you could end up in the Pit,” said Sarah. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before though.”

“Um,” said Jen.

“Don’t worry,” said Sarah. “I won’t even set the timer until you’re all safe in the chamber. If anyone gets split in half, it’ll be me.”

“What about once we’re in?” said Naomi. “What then?”

“The most important thing would be to stick together,” said Sarah. “We’ll stand a better chance against anything we run into in there.”



“59… Falcon… he’s not alone,” said the skull squid.

Lachlan wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but the creature’s skeletal faces seemed to relax, their expressions softening.

“He’s not,” said Lachlan. “He’s been with Dominic, Melanie, and Jess for over a year now. I don’t know him well, but he seems happy with them.”

Lachlan decided it might be better not to mention that Falcon wasn’t actually with his friends at the moment.

“That was my biggest fear,” said the creature, “that he was alone. My brothers and I were never meant to be alone.”

“Falcon has a lot of people looking out for him now,” said Lachlan. “We’re all working to make sure CPSI won’t find him.”

“I’m confused,” said Sam. “Who’s Falcon?”

Lachlan shot him a look, silently telling him to shut up.

“I saw his face in your memories,” said the skull squid. “All I wanted to know was that he had someone.”

It could read memories? Creepy.

“Hey, 98,” said Mahender, “if you don’t have any more questions, I think we’ve terrified these two for long enough.”

The skull squid bobbed its mass of heads in a disturbing approximation of a nod.

“You’re right. They’re free to go.”

The ring of creatures around them parted, giving them room to leave.

“One thing before you go, though,” said Mahender. “I suggest heading to the town. It’s your best bet if you want to find medical supplies.”

“Town?” said Lachlan. “There’s a town?”

“It’s almost completely deserted, but there’s medical supplies, some food and even personal grooming supplies.” Mahender grinned, ruffling his own hair. “It’s how I manage to stay so handsome even in a dimension made of nightmares.”

“Technically, it’s not a dimension–” said Sam.

“How do we get to the town?” interrupted Lachlan.

One of the creatures lifted a misshapen, face-covered arm and pointed.



Being pulled into the Pit wasn’t any less nauseating the second time around.

Naomi felt her body reform, squished against the dirty carpet by a heavy, warm mass that lay on top of her. She shoved at the mass, striking at it with her fist.

The mass let out a pained groan, and Naomi realized belatedly that she was hitting Jen.

“Ow,” said Jen.

“Sorry,” said Naomi, “but you were on me.”

Jen groaned again.

Naomi pulled herself to her feet, then offered a hand to Jen and helped her up. A few feet away, Falcon pulled himself off the floor.

“Sarah,” said Naomi, “you know more about this place than any of us. Where should we head now?”

There was no reply.

“Sarah?” Naomi said again.

“Um, Naomi,” said Jen. “I don’t think Sarah came here with us.”

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The figures edged nearer to Lachlan and Sam, closing in on them. Some of them periodically jerked or jolted backward as Nikola focused on them, but it wasn’t enough to keep them all at bay.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut and clutched his head as if to block out the danger. He reminded Lachlan of someone assuming crash position on a plane.

Unfortunately, though, this wasn’t the kind of threat they could brace themselves for.

“I hate this place,” said Sam as one of the figures advanced on him. “I hate this place.”

The figure drew closer, its tendrils rearing back like snakes about to strike.

“Sam! Watch out!” said Lachlan.

He wasn’t even sure Sam had heard him.

The figure lashed out, wrapping its tendrils around Sam, encasing his body. He struggled for a moment, then burst free, severing many of the limbs that held him and throwing the figure backward with surprising force.

Lachlan felt cold, smooth tendrils wrap around his wrists. He tried to pull himself free, but their hold only tightened the more he struggled.

Seriously? He couldn’t shake off a few measly tendrils from his wrist, but Sam could break himself free? Lachlan struggled harder. He was not about to let himself be bested by some nerd.

Another figure reached for Sam, and Sam lashed out at it with a frantic kick, sending it flying backward into another figure.

The tendrils on Lachlan’s wrists pulled him upward, lifting him off the ground.

“You shouldn’t have fought me,” said the skull squid. “I was after him, not you.”

Lachlan opened his mouth to reply, but another voice came from behind him–one that sounded very human and ordinary contrasted with the skull squid’s distorted booming.

“Hold on, hold on,” it said. “Put him down, 98. What are you doing?”

The creature placed Lachlan back on the ground and released him.

Lachlan turned to look for the voice’s source, but he saw only the creature. The voice spoke again, seeming to come from inside the creature.

“You’re attacking two kids and their puppy?” said the voice. “Seriously? What are you, the Sisters?”

The tendrils closest to the creature’s body parted, unweaving to reveal a man sitting inside, lounging against the wall of tendrils behind him.

“Hi,” said the man.

“Um… hi?” said Lachlan.

Lachlan stepped back warily. The man looked human, but so had the creepy sisters. Lachlan wasn’t about to trust anything in this dimension or universe or whatever this place was.

The man slid out from his bizarre resting place and smiled, raising a hand in greeting. He was in his mid or late twenties, with black hair and a short, unkempt beard. His eyes widened as he took in Sam’s blood-soaked clothes.

“I’m sorry,” said Lachlan. “Who the fuck are you?”

The man looked taken aback for a moment, then laughed.

“I’m–” he began.

One of the figures spoke.

“He’s our brother.”

The figure had the same TV commentator voice as the skull squid minus the distortion. It creeped Lachlan out, hearing a voice that belonged in one of those breakfast news programs his mum liked coming from something so grotesque.

He hoped his mum was okay. She was probably sick with worry about him.

“Your brother?” Sam raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I don’t see much family resemblance.”

“Our adopted brother,” said another creature.

“Okay, great,” said Lachlan. “That explains absolutely nothing.”

“He helped save one of our own,” said the skull squid. “For his troubles, CPSI threw him in here along with the rest of us.”

“I’m still confused,” said Sam.

“I think I get it now,” Lachlan began.”CPSI created these monst–“

Several of the creatures let out low growls. One of them took a menacing step toward him.

“Some of my brothers aren’t fans of the ‘M’ word,” said the man.

“Uh, I was going to say monstrously… handsome gentlemen,” finished Lachlan. “Then CPSI threw them in here for some reason. Am I getting this right so far?”

The man nodded.

“You did something to help them, and were imprisoned in the murder pit for your troubles,” said Lachlan, “so these monst–uh, messieurs adopted you to raise as one of their own.”

“Nice save,” said Sam.

“I’m not sure how you would know most of that, but that about sums it up,” said the man. “I’m Mahender, by the way.”

Sam and Lachlan introduced themselves.

“Are you okay?” Mahender glanced at Sam’s bloodied clothing again. He looked at his brothers. “You didn’t do this to him, did you?”

“No,” said Sam. “It was these… these women–“

“I think you called them the Sisters,” Lachlan volunteered.

“Ah, the Sisters. Say no more,” said Mahender. “Do you want me to have a look at your hand?”

“Are you a doctor or something?” said Sam.

“I’m a security guard. Or at least, I was one.”

“In that case, I think I’ll pass,” said Sam.

“Fair enough.” Mahender nodded. “Can I ask how you ended up stuck here?”

“Someone sent me here, and I have a sneaking suspicion it had to do with this CPSI company people keep mentioning,” said Lachlan. “As for my good pal Sam here–“

“We’re not pals.”

“–he works for CPSI and somehow managed to send himself here in his immense brilliance.”

“Ah, he works for CPSI,” said Mahender. “That explains why my brothers are after him.”

“All humans working for CPSI are complicit,” said the skull squid.

“What about me?” said Mahender. “I worked for CPSI, sort of. Well, technically, I worked for a third-party company, but that doesn’t really help the point I’m trying to make.”

“You made the choice to help our brother,” said one of the creatures. “You went against CPSI even though it meant sacrificing everything.”

“For one thing, I had no idea I was sacrificing everything at the time,” said Mahender. “For another, you can’t fault this kid for what happened to us. He probably had no idea how bad CPSI is.”

“I’m starting to get an idea,” said Sam.

“The way I see it,” said Mahender, “we’re all victims here. We’ve all been shoved into another reality. We shouldn’t be fighting each other.”

The creatures looked at each other, considering. Then, they looked at the skull squid.

“I don’t want you to hurt them, 98,” said Mahender. “Please.”

The skull squid sighed.

“Fine,” it said. “They’re free to go.”

“There you go,” said Mahender. “We’ll tell you where you can find first aid supplies, and then you can be on your way.”

So that was it? It was really that easy?

Lachlan looked at the ring of creatures surrounding them.

“Great. Thanks. Fantastic,” he said. “Could some of you maybe move over so we can scamper off on our merry way?”

“Not yet,” said the skull squid. “First, we need to talk about 59.”

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