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The sound of screaming came from the direction Lachlan, Jen, and Sam had headed.

“God damn it,” said Mrs. Sharma.

She unsheathed her axes, heading in the direction of the screaming.

“I thought you said you weren’t going to help them,” said Angelina.

Mrs. Sharma shot an annoyed look over her shoulder before disappearing into the trees. Naomi, Chelsea, and Angelina jogged after her.

“What’s going on?” Naomi called ahead. “Are they okay?”

“I don’t know,” said Mrs. Sharma. “They’re not here anymore.”

Naomi’s chest tightened as she slowed her pace, coming to a stop behind Mrs. Sharma. Lachlan, Sam, and Jen weren’t behind the rock anymore.

“What do you mean they’re not here anymore?” said Angelina.

Mrs. Sharma gave her a very unimpressed look.

“I mean they were here, and now they’re not. That’s what ‘they’re not here anymore’ means.”

“Okay, well, where did they go?” said Angelina.

“How should I know?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“You shouldn’t.” Angelina pouted. “It was a rhetorical question.”

The tight feeling in Naomi’s chest grew as she stared at the empty spot where her friends had been standing just a few minutes ago. Well, technically only Lachlan was her friend. She barely knew Sam and Jen. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t terrified for them.

“Do you think something… something took them?” she said.

Mrs. Sharma held her axes at the ready, her whole body tense as she scanned their surroundings.

“Maybe. Or maybe they ran away from something. Either way, whatever danger they were screaming about could still be nearby. We should go back over to the snake guards. Whatever could have come after those three will be less likely to come after us if we’re next to a pair of large, intimidating creatures.”

So they were just going to stand there?

“So we’re not going to look for them?” said Naomi. “We can’t just do nothing! We have to help!”

Mrs. Sharma turned her unimpressed look on Naomi.

“I thought you were the only one here who actually used your brain, but I guess I was wrong. We’re not going to do nothing. We’ll try to find your friends once we can be reasonably sure the threat is over. But we won’t be any good to them dead.”

Naomi flinched under Mrs. Sharma’s gaze, but didn’t back down. Her friend and two other people were in immediate mortal danger, and that danger grew every second they were missing.

“No. I’m not just going to stand here and do nothing. Something just took my friend and two other people, and the longer we wait, the longer they could be hurt or… or…”

Her voice rose in panic as she spoke. Normally, that was something she’d be self-conscious about, but now she was too afraid to care.

“Quiet down!” said Mrs. Sharma. “Don’t yell. If you yell and act frightened, you could provoke an attack. Here’s what we need to do. Everyone move closer together. Stragglers are more likely to get picked off from the group.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Calm down,” said Mrs. Sharma.

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

She rubbed at her eyes, brushing away tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sam didn’t want to let go of Lachlan until he was sure Lachlan could stand on his own, but he didn’t want to make things awkward either.

He was going to have enough awkwardness on his hands with Jen assuming they made it out alive. The last thing he needed was even more of it.

“If I let go of you, are you gonna fall?” said Sam.

“It would definitely be a possibility.”

“Then I won’t let go for now. Let me know when you’re feeling steadier on your feet.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Lachlan gave a thumbs up. His fingernails still had a slight blue tint.

“Are you okay?” said Sam. “You still look pretty blue.”

“I think I’m as fine as one would expect considering we just got sucked into a void and presumably suffocated based on how alarmingly blue my hands are looking. What happened?”

“That’s… pretty hard to explain,” said Sam.

“I believe we can provide that explanation,” said the unfamiliar human voice that had spoken to them before.

Sam looked over toward the source of the voice to see a woman. She was somewhere between Mahender and Mrs. Sharma in age, with freckles and mouse-colored hair styled into a bun with curled ringlets falling down around her shoulders. She wore an old fashioned looking dress with one of those huge skirts that puffed out in the back and a jacket-like bodice with three buttons decorated with little stars. It almost looked like a historical dress, but the deep blue material had an unearthly sheen to it.

Mrs. Sharma moved forward, stepping between the newcomer and the rest of the group.

“And who are you?”

“I am Bathsheba, wife of She-Who-Wears-the-Stellar-Crown.” Bathsheba did a little formal bow. “Might I know your names?”

Mrs. Sharma narrowed her eyes, observing the woman for a few seconds as if to check for a trap. Then she replied.

“Mona Sharma.”

The rest of the group followed her lead, each person giving their name with Mahender translating for Falcon.

“Very happy to make your acquaintance,” said Bathsheba. “I believe you’ve already met my wife.”

The globe above them flared brighter, and a glowing spot about seven feet tall appeared in the wall nearest to them. The air buzzed with energy, taking on a smell and taste that reminded Sam of right before a thunderstorm. Then a woman walked through the wall.

She was tall–taller than everyone in the group except Falcon. Her skin was a rich golden brown that almost seemed to glow from within. Her shoulder-length hair somehow seemed blacker than normal black hair, as though it absorbed most of the light that touched it. She wore a silver gemstone-encrusted crown that seemed to radiate from her head like sun rays.

Something about her felt powerful, as though she triggered some self-preserving instinct. Even if she hadn’t just opened up the sky and sucked him into it, Sam wouldn’t have wanted to mess with her.

“Met her? That’s an interesting way to say she tried to asphyxiate us.”

Lachlan’s voice was more hushed than usual. Maybe it was because he was still woozy, or maybe it was because the woman made him nervous too.

“Bow before me,” said the woman.

“Why would we do that?” said Angelina. “We don’t even know who you are.”

“I suggest you all bow,” said Bathsheba. “She really is so particular about such things.”

Sam let go of Lachlan, and everyone bowed.

“That’s more like it!” said the woman. “That wasn’t so hard now, was it?”

No one spoke.

“Well? I asked you a question! You will answer when She-Who-Wears-the-Stellar-Crown addresses you!”

“I thought it was a rhetorical question,” said Angelina. “Which of us are you even asking anyway? It’s not like we can all answer at the same time.”

Mrs. Sharma shot Angelina a silencing look.

“No. It wasn’t hard.”

“Excellent!” said She-Who-Wears-the-Stellar-Crown. “Now, onto the topic we came down here to discuss. What were you doing in my wife’s sanctuary? I’ve been kind enough to provide you with enough oxygen to sustain you. Answer carefully if you’d like to keep it that way.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy’s dog whined again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That much is clear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, no,” said Naomi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is it unlikely?” said Angelina.

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

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

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

Mrs. Sharma sighed.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, okay,” said Angelina.

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

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

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

Mrs. Sharma really needed to stop talking.

“Is it almost time?” said Angelina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naomi felt everyone squeeze in tighter.

“20. 19–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was nothing.

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“You know, analysis shows that cave bears were mainly herbivorous. They probably rarely attacked humans.”

Lachlan jumped, his head snapping around to see Mrs. Sharma standing in the doorway.

“Have you just been standing there, eavesdropping on our little heart-to-heart chat?” he said.

Self-conscious and caught off guard at the interruption, he drew his blanket up around his shoulders like a protective shroud.

“Only for a minute,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I came to tell everyone it was time to wake up. I didn’t intend to eavesdrop.”

Angelina looked similarly caught off guard, hugging her backpack against herself like a shield.

“Let me guess, you’re going to tell us we’re weak and we need to toughen up or something,” said Angelina.

“Don’t put words in my mouth,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Why would I call you weak?”

She stepped over Lachlan, taking a seat in one of the stools.

“Like Sam said, it’s a human survival response,” she continued. “Before I came here, I would have said there was no scientific basis for a statement like that, but it’s certainly kept me alive in here, being alert at every moment, constantly scanning my surroundings. I know my own anecdotal evidence is no substitute for a formal study, but it just… feels so obvious.”

“Yeah,” said Lachlan.

“Before my abilities had fully manifested, one of the Sarah fabrications cornered us. She wasn’t fully mature, but she was too large to fight off, and she was vicious. She knocked out Mahender, and then…” Mrs. Sharma lifted her pants leg to reveal the bottom of a curved scar on her calf.

“How did you get away?” said Angelina.

“It was the dog that saved us,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It threw her across the room and gave me time to drag my idiot nephew somewhere we could hide.”

“With your leg like that?” said Angelina.

“In my time here, I’ve learned that adrenaline is an extremely effective painkiller,” said Mrs. Sharma. “With luck, we’ll get out of here today and none of you will have a chance to learn that firsthand.”

Lachlan almost pointed out that Sam had already learned that firsthand, but decided against it.

No one spoke for a minute. Mrs. Sharma braced her arm against the stool as though she was about to stand up and end the conversation, but then Sam spoke.

“Mrs. Sharma,” he said. “Did you ever see any sign of anyone else being trapped here? Other than you, Nancy, Mahender, and the fabrications?”

“Only twice.”

“What happened to them?” said Sam.

“They died. Both times, all I found was the aftermath.”

Sam’s voice was small when he replied, “Please don’t elaborate.”

“Why do you ask?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“I was thinking about what you said before,” he said, “about the hotspots, and the manmade bodies of water. It got me thinking about the first house I lived in, about how we moved right after my mom disappeared. My dad said it was haunted, that things kept disappearing, unexplained stuff kept happening. I thought it was just him being superstitious or coping with his grief or something, but… do you think…?”

“I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I don’t know.”

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I’m in Deep–Interlude 25.2

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Mona lingered in the venue as the rest of the crowd trickled out. Only a few people were left now; a teenage boy in skinny jeans with messy, dark blond hair was following the annoyed yet patient bass player around, and a few people were lined up at a folding table in the back buying CDs and T-shirts. Mona thought about buying a CD for Emily–the band had been surprisingly good–but decided against it. She didn’t want to risk getting in trouble if Mr. Clyde saw the CD, and it could be hard to predict what kinds of things he’d get mad about sometimes.

The space had felt small when it had been packed with a crowd, but it felt larger now that only a few people were there. There was no seating or even a bar area; just a small stage and an open area for people to stand. Mona had chaperoned Emily at a few concerts, and there had almost always been some kind of seating, even if no one really used it.

The singer/guitarist walked past Mona, heading for the back of the venue, then stopped, giving her a second look.

“Are you here alone?” said the woman. Melanie Graham.

She was blonde, with messy hair, a lot of bad tattoos, and shiny garish pink lipstick that had smudged while she was performing. On the stage, she’d seemed brash and confident, but now, she seemed almost shy despite her garish clothing, hair, and makeup–her speaking voice was far softer than her singing voice, and her shoulders were drawn inward as though she was trying to hide.

“Yes,” said Mona. “You have lipstick on your face.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Melanie.

She stuck her tongue out, licking under her lower lip and smudging the lipstick further.

Mona frowned. What an odd woman. She was clearly a hardworking, disciplined person–otherwise, how could she become so talented at her instrument? But hardworking, disciplined people weren’t supposed to lick lipstick off their own faces.

Melanie seemed to notice the frown and drew her shoulders further inward. At least she had the good sense to be embarrassed about licking lipstick off her own face.

“How are you getting home?” said Melanie. “Are you headed to the train station?”

“No, I’m… not exactly sure. Someone’s supposed to be picking me up, but I don’t know where or when he’s going to be here. He might be picking me up at the park.”

“Hm.” Melanie’s face knit with concern. “That’s nearly ten minutes from here. It’s really late. I’ll walk with you if you want.”

“That’s… really very kind of you, but you don’t have to.”

“I want to. If I let you go by yourself, and then I heard on the news tomorrow something awful happened, I’d feel like shit.” She turned to call to the bassist. “Dom! You’re coming too!”

The bassist excused himself from the kid who was pestering him and headed toward them.

“Thank fuck. I thought that Lachlan kid would never leave,” he said. “Where am I coming? What’s going on?”

“We’re walking–” Melanie stopped and looked at Mona. “Sorry, what’s your name?”

Mona paused for a minute, not sure if she should give her real name or not.

“Sarah,” she lied.

“Sarah. Cool. I’m Mel and this is Dom,” said Melanie. “Dom, we’re walking Sarah here back to the park.”

“Alright,” said Dominic. “Hi, Sarah.”

“Hi,” said Mona. “Are you sure you have time to walk with me? Aren’t you busy doing… well, I don’t exactly know what bands do after they perform. But I assume you have to do something.”

“We can spare twenty minutes,” said Melanie. “We’ll just tell Jess and Falcon where we’re going.”

Mona followed Melanie’s gaze to the merch table at the back of the room. The drummer and the Stanley fabrication sat together conversing in sign language while a young woman with dyed black hair sold T-shirts and CDs to the last few stragglers.

So Falcon was what the fabrication was calling himself?

She almost hadn’t recognized him. He’d bleached his hair blond and wore a hideous, brightly-colored floral shirt. His expression was animated as he spoke with the drummer, far from the blank-faced Stanley fabs she’d encountered before.

She noticed Melanie and Dominic giving her a strange look and realized she was staring.

“Sorry,” said Mona. “Your friend kind of reminds me of someone.”

They both looked at her as though expecting her to elaborate.

“She spent a lot of time in a bad situation. Where she was treated like she was less than human. When I first met her, she seemed so blank and robotic. Then, when I showed her the smallest kindness, it was like a wall crumbled and all these hidden depths came pouring out. For some reason, I feel like your friend is the same way.”

Dominic gave Mona a long look.

“And what makes you think Falcon’s like that?”

Oh no. Had she said too much?

“Just a hunch,” she lied. “Something in his eyes, I guess.”

Something in his eyes? Ugh, it was such a cheesy thing to say.

It seemed to appease Dominic though.

“You’re pretty perceptive,” he said.

Mona nodded.

“My friend has better taste in shirts, though,” she said.

“I like his shirts,” said Melanie.

Mona almost said something like ‘you would like them’, but decided against it. Melanie might have been tacky, but she was kind enough to care about a stranger’s safety, and that was worth something.

“Let’s go,” said Dominic. “I want to get back before the pizza gets here.”

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