I’m in Deep–Interlude 25.1

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“With all due respect, sir, do you really think all this is necessary?”

Mona had always liked the phrase ‘with all due respect’ because it didn’t specify how much respect was due. In Mr. Clyde’s case, the amount due happened to be none.

“Of course it’s necessary. If you can find out more about how the resource behaves in the ‘wild’, so to speak, it’ll help you learn to avoid careless mistakes with the fabrications in the future.” Mr. Clyde chuckled. “I don’t think I need to remind you about a certain poisoned cup of tea.”

Mona swallowed the anger that welled up inside her at the mention of the poisoned tea. He was hoping to make her emotional, to get a rise out of her. He should have known she was better than that.

“No, sir,” she said.

“Good,” he said.

“You have scientists based in Australia. Perhaps one of them would be better suited for this…”

Mona trailed off, unsure what to call this fool’s errand Mr. Clyde was sending her on. Didn’t the CEO of a multibillion dollar corporation have better things to do than accompany her on… whatever this was?

Mr. Clyde chuckled again.

“Well, it’s certainly a little late for that after we’ve flown down here and gotten you all dressed up.”

“Right. All dressed up.”

Mona glanced down at her ridiculous costume, shifting in the car seat and tugging at her too-tight top. It was a band t-shirt in a size youth medium–borrowed from her daughter–that was stretchy enough for her to squeeze into, but constricted her chest and pinched around her arms whenever she moved. Her jeans were the correct size, but they came with a whole other host of problems. They were those skinny jeans teenagers were wearing, and they were so low-waisted she felt like her underwear would show if she made one false move. Her studded belt was another loan from her daughter; it was a bit big on Emily, but on Mona, it fit when she wore it on the hole closest to the end.

This job so wasn’t worth $7 an hour.

“You’ll blend right in looking like that,” said Mr. Clyde.

“If you say so, sir.”

“You understand why this is necessary, don’t you Mona?”

“Yes, sir,” Mona said.

It was a complete lie. She didn’t see why this was necessary at all, because it wasn’t.

“If anyone else had gotten ahold of the resource we could have taken care of them in other ways,” said Mrs. Clyde, “but apparently, this rock and roll band has quite the following. They’re public figures, and the resource has been spotted and photographed with them multiple times. It’s a tricky situation.”

Taken care of them in other ways? Mona felt a chill run through her. What kind of ‘other ways’ was he talking about?

“Since we can’t take care of this little situation in the traditional way, we might as well make lemonade out of these lemons your nephew gave us,” Mr. Clyde continued.

He emphasized the words ‘your nephew’ as if to imply Mona was somehow responsible for what her idiot nephew had done.

“Here we are,” the chauffer mercifully interrupted. “Centenary Place Park.”

“A park?” said Mona. “Is this where the concert is happening?”

She looked out the window, searching the park for a stage or amphitheater, but she couldn’t see one. She didn’t even see many people; the park seemed mostly deserted at this time of the evening.

“Oh no,” Mr. Clyde said. “The concert’s about a ten minute walk away from here. We don’t want to draw too much attention to you, and your ride here isn’t exactly inconspicuous. You’re a smart young lady. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding it, kiddo.”

He wanted her to walk ten minutes alone in a strange city when it was this dark and find the venue on her own? She shouldn’t have been surprised.

She climbed out of the car, fighting to keep the waistband of her pants at an acceptable level. It was light enough out now and there were enough people around that she’d probably be okay walking to the venue. But what about when she was leaving?

“Mr. Clyde, will I be picked up outside the venue after the concert?” she said, “I’m concerned that it may not be safe–“

Mr. Clyde reached over, pulling the door closed. The car begin to roll away.

Okay, then.

She ran her fingers over the metal studs on her belt.

At least this ridiculous thing would make a pretty effective weapon if I need to defend myself, she thought as she headed through down the path through an avenue of old fig trees.

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The journey back to Mrs. Sharma’s house had been much less eventful than the journey to Nancy’s plane.

Everyone lay on Mrs. Sharma’s living room floor wrapped in scratchy blankets except Nancy, Mahender, Falcon, and Mrs. Sharma. Nancy reclined on the couch with her dog curled up on her legs, Mrs. Sharma was in her bedroom, and Mahender and Falcon had gone outside with their strange brothers.

None of their biological clocks were really in sync with each other, but when they’d arrived at the house, Mrs. Sharma had proclaimed it bedtime, and no one had argued.

Angelina had said the next opening back to their home reality would happen in about nine hours. Assuming she was right, Naomi guessed there wasn’t much to do but rest.

There was something strangely enjoyable about laying on a floor with a bunch of people. It made her feel a little closer to everyone there, even the people she didn’t really know, like Sam and Jen.

She hadn’t been allowed to go to sleepovers in high school, and it wouldn’t have mattered even if she had been; she hadn’t gotten a lot of invitations. She hadn’t exactly been the most popular girl in school.

She was on her second ever sleepover, and while her first had been much more enjoyable than this one, she was beginning to see the appeal.

Naomi lay under one third of a king sized blanket. The other two thirds were occupied by Chelsea and Angelina.

Angelina hadn’t changed out of the dirty nightgown she’d been wearing, but she’d wrapped her hair neatly in Chelsea’s scarf. She lay with her earbuds in and eyes closed, listening to something. Naomi could hear the tinny sound of the song’s beat through the earbuds, but couldn’t tell what it was.

Mrs. Sharma entered the room.

“I’m going to bed. I expect all of you children to be quiet.” She turned to Nancy, her stern tone disappearing as she addressed an older adult. “Good night, ma’am.”

“Good night,” said Nancy.”

Mrs. Sharma’s eyes fell on Angelina, who hadn’t seemed to have noticed her.

“Angelina,” said Mrs. Sharma.

Angelina didn’t respond. Chelsea nudged her gently, and Angelina opened her eyes, removed an earbud, and propped herself up on her elbows.

“Eh?” said Angelina.

She sounded like she’d already been asleep.

“Remove both your earbuds, please,” said Mrs. Sharma.

Angelina sighed, pulling the other earbud out.

“Let me guess, you’re one of those adults who’s all ‘those mp3 players will rot your brain’,” said Angelina.

“No,” said Mrs. Sharma. “In your case, I doubt there’s much there left to rot. But no. That’s ridiculous. All those things do is play music. How could music rot your brain?”

“That’s… a surprisingly cool point of view,” said Angelina.

“No,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It’s the correct point of view. Being cool has nothing to do with it.”

“It can be correct and surprisingly cool at the same time,” said Lachlan from where he lay under the bar, sharing a double blanket with Sam.

“Music enriches your brain,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I always encourage my children to listen to it as much as possible.”

“It’s true,” said Lachlan. “I listen to music all the time, and I’m basically the smartest man on earth.”

Mrs. Sharma let out a quiet scoff.

“What kind of music do you like?” said Naomi.

She wasn’t sure why she’d asked. Mostly, she’d been curious. Mrs. Sharma was a bit strange, and Naomi had trouble picturing what she’d enjoy listening to.

“Do you know The Goldfish Technique?” said Angelina.

Naomi fought the urge to roll her eyes. No, of course Mrs. Sharma didn’t know The Goldfish Technique. Hardly anyone knew The Goldfish Technique. Naomi had almost stopped mentioning them as her favorite band because people would say things like ‘if they’re so good, why hasn’t anyone heard of them?’ or accuse her of making up a fake band for hipster cred or something.

“I do. They’re very good, actually.”

Wait. What?

Naomi felt herself fill with that rare excitement that came from hearing someone from outside of the internet talk about her favorite band.

“But how?” she responded.

She could hear her voice overlap with Lachlan, Chelsea, and Angelina as they all reacted simultaneously. Angelina bolted upright into a seated position and squealed something in Italian, Lachlan said “No fucking way,” and Chelsea just gasped.

“That’s quite an overreaction,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“How did you hear about them? Was it when you lived in Australia? I thought that was years ago! I–” Naomi caught herself and cleared her throat. “Sorry. It’s just a little surprising. They’re not very well known.”

“A little surprising?” Angelina leaned forward under the blanket, bouncing up and down. “A little surprising?! We just met someone who likes the greatest band in the whole wide world, and you’re saying it’s just a little surprising? How did you hear of them? How did you find them? What’s your favorite song? Isn’t Jessica just the coolest?”

“I regret saying I like them now.” Mrs. Sharma sighed. “No, Naomi, to answer your question, I didn’t hear about them when I lived in Australia. That was about fifteen years ago. The band members were children then.”

“Then how?” said Angelina.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t find them on my own,” said Mrs. Sharma. “The answer to that question has to do with CPSI.”

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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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Not Enough–Interlude 22

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They were studying his DNA?

Sam felt a queasy horror building in his chest.

They’d been studying his DNA this whole time?

He’d interviewed for so many internships before getting this one. He was smart–he knew that–but it had felt like every single interviewer had underestimated him. In most interviews, he’d answered every technical question correctly, and still been challenged like he didn’t know what he was talking about. There had been times he’d given answers to hypothetical engineering problems that he knew would work, and the interviewer dismissed him, asking pointedly why he’d decided to use a particular kind of cable or size of electrical wire, then talking over him so he couldn’t justify a choice that should have been obvious.

The non-technical parts of the interviews–the ones that should have been easier–had been even worse. A lot of interviewers had wanted him to be outgoing and assertive. They’d talked a lot about breaking stereotypes in the engineering field and promoting diversity, all while wanting to pigeonhole him into a personality type that didn’t fit.

The CPSI interview was the only one he’d walked away feeling good about. He’d thought he’d finally found a workplace that would value his intelligence and not expect him to be something he wasn’t.

And it had all been a sham.

Worse than that, he was being studied without his knowledge like some kind of specimen.

“Why are they studying us?” he said.

Before his trip through time, he would have had trouble keeping his voice even. Now, the even, steady tone came easily.

“I assume Sam and Jen are familiar with the special type of plastic CPSI uses in their packaging, but for Lachlan and Angelina’s benefit, there’s a special type of genetically engineered microorganism that produces it,” said Mrs. Sharma. “CPSI saved so much money from switching to the new plastic that it got Mr. Clyde thinking about how biotechnology could increase his profits even more.”

“Going from creating microorganisms to creating people?” said Lachlan. “Ethics aside, that’s a leap and a half.”

Mrs. Sharma nodded. “No one ever accused the Clydes of being rational or reasonable.”

“Please don’t tell me they used our DNA to create the fabrications,” Sam said.

The sick feeling grew inside him at the idea of sentient life being created from his DNA just so it could be imprisoned and abused in the name of making some greedy CEO even richer.

“No,” said Mrs. Sharma. “The fabs weren’t based on anyone’s DNA.”

That was a small relief at least, but not enough to ease the weight in his chest.

“What are they using it for, then?” said Sam.

Mrs. Sharma frowned.

“That’s one thing I was never able to figure out.”

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Angelina, Sam, and Jen spoke almost all at once.

“So do you remember Lachlan dying?” said Angelina.

“This place is changing our DNA?” said Sam. “Is that dangerous?”

“Why don’t me and Angelina have cool powers?” said Jen. “Why do only you and Sam get them?”

Mrs. Sharma sighed.

“I don’t have the answers to all your questions. I can’t even be completely sure what I’m telling you about is the reason we’ve all changed,” she said. “But what else could it be?”

“Is there like, a test for this weird DNA thingy?” said Jen.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Sharma. “There is ‘like, a test for this weird DNA thingy,’ as you so articulately phrased it. You and Sam are CPSI employees, correct?”

“Yuppers,” said Jen.

“Okay.” said Mrs. Sharma, “and did you both receive a blood test after your interview?”

“Yeah…” said Sam. “I thought that was pretty weird.”

“I thought so too,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I found a lot of things weird about my interview, like how I was being interviewed by the CEO himself. Or how he got strangely excited when I mentioned I was from Jaipur. He wasn’t familiar with the city; he didn’t even know how to pronounce it. But he kept asking questions. He kept asking me about the Jal Mahal, saying he wanted to visit it. Asking if I saw it a lot as a child, trying to figure out how close to it I lived. I didn’t understand it at the time.”

“What’s the Jal Mahal?” said Jen.

“A palace,” said Lachlan.

He hadn’t actually heard of it, but based on its name, he could still answer the question confidently and look smart.

“Yes, but what kind of palace?” said Mrs. Sharma.

Oh. He hadn’t expected follow-up questions.

“A… palatial one?” he said.

So much for looking smart.

“I’ll give you a hint since you clearly need it. ‘Jal’ means water.”

“A palace in the water?” said Sam.

“How did they get the palace into the water?” said Angelina.

“I’m not dignifying that with an answer,” said Mrs. Sharma. “but it’s not in just any water. A manmade lake.”

“Ohhhh,” said Jen.

“Yeah,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Oh.”

“So Mr. Clyde is specifically looking for employees with this altered DNA?” said Sam.

“It seems that way,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Especially when you look at the major CPSI offices around the world. Charlotte, Danjiangkou, Borgo San Severino. They all correspond to the hotspots.”

“But why would he do that?” said Angelina.

“So we can be studied.” There was a flash of bitterness in Mrs. Sharma’s eyes. “I didn’t realize I’d signed up as a lab rat until it was too late. At least I was lucky enough to be one of the lab rats who knew what was going on. I guess that’s more than I can say for both of you.”

Sam and Jen exchanged a look, eyes wide.

“They’re studying our DNA?” said Sam. “Why would a packaging company want to study people’s DNA?”

“It’s not a packaging company,” muttered Jen.

“What?” said Sam.

“That’s what Mr. Clyde said, remember?” said Jen. “When I asked my question about the future of the packaging industry in that meeting. He said it wasn’t a packaging company. It’s a company about people.”

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“Our DNA was altered?” said Sam.

“Is there an echo in here? Yes, our DNA was altered,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Well, four of the five of us.”

“Whose wasn’t?” said Jen.

“Isn’t it obvious?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“No,” said Angelina.

Mrs. Sharma shot her a look. “Who here hasn’t displayed any new and unusual symptoms or abilities?”

“Me,” said Lachlan.

He didn’t know whether to be relieved that some mysterious force hadn’t warped his DNA, or disappointed he didn’t get to have cool powers.

“You,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“He died and came back to life,” said Jen. “How is that not unusual?”

“I didn’t actually die and come back to life,” said Lachlan. “I died, and Super Sam here reversed time to bring me back.”

“You’re both wrong,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Lachlan didn’t die and come back to life, and no one reversed time.”

“It’s not even possible to reverse time,” said Angelina.

“Debatable,” said Sam, “but yeah, that’s not what I did. I just moved backwards through it. That’s not the same thing.”

“I’m so confused,” said Jen. “If Lachlan didn’t come back to life, and time didn’t get reversed, how is he alive?”

“We’re getting off topic,” said Mrs. Sharma. “We weren’t discussing Lachlan. I was explaining what happened to the four of us.”

“What did happen to the four of us?” said Sam.

“I’ll try to explain so you can call keep up, but I won’t make any promises,” said Mrs. Sharma. “There have always been weak points in our reality–“

“The Bermuda Triangle!” Jen interrupted.

Mrs. Sharma frowned at her.

“Sorry,” said Jen. “It was something Sarah was saying before. Something about time and space and ripping a hole in reality’s floor.”

Mrs. Sharma nodded, her expression softening when she heard Sarah’s name.

“Ripping a hole in reality’s floor,” Mrs. Sharma repeated. “I like that metaphor. 131 always had a knack for making complex concepts seem simple. And yes, the Bermuda Triangle is an example of a major hotspot for naturally-occurring weak points.”

“No way,” said Sam. “The Bermuda Triangle is a myth.”

“Looks like you’re myth-taken about that,” said Jen.

Angelina laughed.

“Bad puns aside, you really were mistaken,” said Mrs. Sharma. “The Bermuda Triangle is no myth. It’s one of the largest hubs of unstable reality in the world. But there are many smaller, less active ones too. There’s some correlation between with unstable air masses in the atmosphere, and with altered weather patterns caused by large manmade bodies of water, but I’m not a meteorologist so I don’t know enough to explain further.”

“Not that this isn’t fascinating,” said Lachlan, “but what does this have to do with us?”

“It has nothing to do with you,” said Mrs. Sharma. “We’ve been over that. But it has a lot to do with your friends here. When I started working for CPSI, I was given access to a map of these hotspots, and one in particular stood out to me.”

“Which one?” said Jen.

“If you give me a second, I’ll tell you. Jaipur. The city where I grew up. At first, I thought it was a coincidence, but obviously, I zoomed in out of curiosity, and found the center of the hotspot just a street over from my childhood home. I didn’t understand the implications of it at the time.”

“Let me get this straight,” said Sam. “Whatever’s happening to us has to do with these hotspots?”

“Exactly,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Maybe you’re not as hopeless as I thought.”

“Wow,” said Lachlan. “Glowing praise.”

“You said something about manmade bodies of water,” said Sam. “My parents lived off Lake Wylie when I was a baby.”

“Interesting,” said Mrs. Sharma. “The Lake Wylie hotspot is a major one.”

“I’m from Fort Mill,” said Jen. “That’s not far from there.”

“The Borgo San Severino hotspot is a major one as well,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It was even before the disaster.”

“So what does this have to do with our DNA?” said Jen.

“Prolonged exposure to these hotspots causes certain changes to some people’s DNA, but these changes don’t seem to affect functional DNA. At least, not in our home reality.”

“But I’m guessing here is a different story,” said Sam.

“You’re guessing correctly,” said Mrs. Sharma.

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“Your little experiment is a waste of time,” said Mrs. Sharma.

Sam opened his mouth to reply, but Mrs. Sharma spoke before he could get a word out.

“Let me finish. It’s a waste of time because I can give you way more information about what’s happening to you than you’d be able to figure out on your own.”

“Then why did you say it like you were insulting us?” said Angelina.

Mrs. Sharma shrugged. “Because I don’t like you.”

“Huh. Fair enough,” said Lachlan. “As long as you’re willing to share that wealth of information with us.”

“I am, though I’m not sure three out of four of you would be able to understand it, and the one who might be intellectually capable probably wouldn’t put in the effort.”

“I’m the intellectually capable one, right?” said Sam.

Mrs. Sharma scoffed.

“So… me then?” said Lachlan.

Mrs. Sharma scoffed again.

“This is why I can’t stand working with men. They always assume they’re the smartest people in the room, even if the women have just as much to offer. Of course, in this case, all four of you have equally little to offer, but what I’m saying still applies.”

“We didn’t mean–” Sam started.

“No,” Mrs. Sharma cut him off. “The intellectually capable one is Angelina, as surprising as that sounds.”

Angelina paused for a moment to process what Mrs. Sharma had said.


“Her?” said Lachlan.

“I’ll be honest, at first, I judged her the least intelligent of your little band of idiots, but–“

“Hey!” Angelina interjected.

But,” Mrs. Sharma continued, “not only was she able to give a crude yet accurate description of how this place works, she’s also the only one of you four who can speak more than one language fluently. Angelina, I’m guessing you weren’t raised bilingual; correct me if I’m wrong.”

“No,” said Angelina. “I learned English so I could talk to my exchange student friend.”

“So you taught yourself?”

“Kind of. She taught me a lot of it. And I learned some from the internet.”

“Hm. Surprisingly impressive.”

Angelina paused again, unsure how to reply, but Mrs. Sharma spoke again before Angelina had the chance.

“Don’t think I’m complimenting you. Just because I’ve reconsidered your intelligence doesn’t mean I think highly of you now. In fact, I may think less of you.”

“Less? Why?”

“At first, I thought you lacked potential. Now, I think you have potential that you’re not living up to. That’s so much worse.”

“You just met me today,” said Angelina. “How do you know what kind of potential I’m living up to?”

“I have a pretty good idea.”

Angelina started to respond, and felt Jen place a hand on her arm.

“It’s not worth it,” whispered Jen.

Angelina thought about protesting, but decided Jen was right. She’d tried to argue with judgmental people before, and the results were usually the same every time.

“If you’re done being mean to us,” said Angelina, “can you tell us the information about what’s happening to us?”

“I’m not being mean, but fine,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I was going to wait until later, but I might as well tell you now. It might be a little hard for you to understand, so if you have trouble keeping up with what I’m saying, then just try harder.”

“That’s not how that works,” said Sam.

Mrs. Sharma ignored him, continuing.

“I’m not sure where to start explaining. Let’s see. You four know what DNA is, right?”

“Of course we know what DNA is,” said Sam.

“Good, because I wouldn’t have explained it if you didn’t. Basically, your DNA–our DNA–was altered before we were born.”

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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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Just in Time — Interlude 18.3

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Sam took another turn and the wild spinning in his head stopped, lifting like a fog. He was close enough that he could hear Lachlan speaking at the back of the group.

“Seriously? ‘We’ve got company’?” said Lachlan. “I didn’t realize we were starring in a mediocre action movie.”

He waited to hear his own reply of “shut up”, but there was only silence. When Lachlan spoke, his voice was almost too quiet for Sam to make out.

“He’s gone. Sam’s gone.”

“Gone?” came Mrs. Sharma’s reply. “What do you mean gone?”

Lachlan replied, but this time Sam couldn’t make out his words.

So when Sam traveled back to a time he’d already been, his past self would vanish?

He made a mental note to ponder the implications of that later, but now, he had a mission. The important thing was he didn’t have to worry about causing a paradox by having two version of himself exist at once or something.

A shadow shifted in the corner of Sam’s eye, catching his attention. He turned his head. The creature was there, shambling towards the unsuspecting group. Towards Lachlan.

Sam broke into a run, surprised at how light he felt on his feet. Despite being somewhat slight, he’d never been a fast runner. In gym class, he’d finished the mile run in just over 15 minutes. Now, he was moving about twice that speed.

He heard Lachlan cry out as the creature grabbed him, and saw commotion break out among the group. Sam had to act now.

He was armed and ready to fight the monster, but he was so much smaller than it was. If only he could attack from above…

Wait a minute. Maybe he could. He could move in impossible directions, directions that froze time around him as he walked. A mundane direction like ‘up’ was nothing compared to that.

He lifted both feet off the cobblestones and soared upward, fifteen feet above the street.

The group had spotted him now and were staring up at him. Even the monster paused, contorting its head upward to see what had captured everyone’s attention.

Sam took advantage of its distraction, flying toward it and slashing at it with the longer sword in his good hand. It let out a surprised shout and twisted around, snapping a small featureless mouth at him.

“Let him go,” said Sam.

Lachlan’s eyes went wide as he spotted Sam for the first time.

“S… Sam? W-what?”

Sam held the swords up, crossing them in front of him and then slashing the blades downward in a way that he hoped looked cool and intimidating.

The swords were heavy, and Sam didn’t know how to wield them beyond what he’d seen on TV and in movies, but he had enough control over his body that his movements felt smooth and graceful, at least with his left hand. His right hand was a different story; he was able to keep a firm hold on the sword with the bony parts of his missing fingers, but there was an uncomfortable, prickling pain every time he gripped it too hard.

“What, am I supposed to be scared of some loser kid playing with swords?”

The creature unwrapped an arm from Lachlan and swung it at Sam’s head. Sam blocked it with the larger sword, but the impact still shook his body and sent him flying backwards through the air. He stopped a few feet short of the roof of a building and flew back toward the creature.

Behind the creature, Mrs. Sharma retrieved her axes and started forward.

“No,” she said, “but you should be scared of me.”

The creature twisted its head back toward her, whipping out its arm as she approached in an attempt to knock her off her feet. She leapt over the outstretched arm.

While the creature was distracted, Sam slashed at its back again. This time, he drew blood.

Fighting off the mental image of Lachlan lying on the shop floor surrounded by his own blood, Sam held his breath and slashed again.

The creature roared in pain and outrage.

It threw Lachlan, tossing him aside as casually as one would toss a used sock, and Sam’s heart dropped as Lachlan flew through the air toward the same shop window.

Then Sam remembered. Everything was different now.

Now, he could do something about it.

His hands shaking, he dropped the swords, and made one more sickening turn. Time stopped around him and Lachlan hung suspended in midair.

Sam fought off a wave of nausea as he floated downward, wrapping his arms around Lachlan and pulling him to the ground.

He held Lachlan tight as he turned back into linear time, and found himself pushed forward onto the ground by the force of Lachlan’s fall, his back scraping against the cobblestones. An object in motion stayed in motion, apparently, even where time-warping shenanigans were concerned.

The two boys landed side by side on the curb, Sam’s arms still around Lachlan. Sam could feel Lachlan shaking.

Sam looked over at Lachlan, who was looking at him with such intensity it made him nervous. Sam broke eye contact, unwrapping his arms from Lachlan and standing up.

Sam saw the swords a few feet away from him and headed toward them, grabbing the longer sword in his right hand.

The monster spotted him and let out an inhuman laugh.

“Go ahead, loser kid,” it said. “Try it.”

Sam hovered a few feet off the ground, staring the creature down.

“Alright,” he said. “You asked for it!”

He flew swiftly toward the creature and slammed the hilt into its head. It crumpled to the ground.

Sam followed suit, strength leaving his body as he dropped downward toward the street.

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Don’t Close Your Eyes — Interlude 18.1

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Content Warning: Death


Mrs. Sharma looked up from where she was leaning over Lachlan, and Sam’s chest lurched at the sadness on her stoic face.

“What is it?” he said. “Is he gonna be okay?”

“He’s stopped breathing,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Can’t you do CPR or something?” said the girl with brown hair. “Can’t you help him?”

“He’s lost too much blood,” said Mrs. Sharma. “I’m sorry.”

“What… what do you mean?” said Sam.

“Your friend is gone.”


Just like that, he was gone?

How was that possible? Just a few minutes ago, he’d been walking around, making fun of Sam, talking and complaining about being stuck here…

No. Mrs. Sharma was wrong. Lachlan wasn’t gone; Sam could feel it somehow. He was dead here, in this time and place, but that didn’t make him gone.

There was still something Sam could do to save him, though he didn’t understand it exactly.

Sam prided himself in being able to understand the logic behind most everything he encountered. On the rare occasion he couldn’t wrap his head around something, he usually liked to step back and analyze a situation before he acted.

He didn’t bother analyzing this time.

The sounds around him begin to blur and overlap–talking, arguing, and at least two people crying–until they sounded like distant white noise.

Sam took a step in a direction he didn’t understand.

On the first day of his internship, he’d been forced to do a trust fall; to stand on a picnic table and drop backwards, to hold his breath, close his eyes, and entrust his safety to a bunch of morons standing below him. He’d lost his nerve standing on the table, refusing to move to the edge and fall, and the orientation leader had told him he was too hostile, too belligerent. He hadn’t argued, because somehow being labeled difficult was less embarrassing than admitting he was scared.

Finally, Chad from marketing had convinced Sam to turn around, to move a little closer to the table’s edge and see how he felt. If he still wasn’t comfortable, he could always get down, but he should at least try being a good sport.

As soon as Sam had moved close enough to the table’s edge, Chad had winked at the orientation leader, and Sam had found himself pushed from the edge of the table, airborne, tumbling backwards as his heart lurched into his throat and spun around.

The whole exercise had done absolutely nothing for his ability to trust strangers.

The sensation Sam was feeling now, as he took that first strange step, reminded him of falling off that table, if that heart-lurching feeling had been multiplied a hundredfold. It was all the worst parts of riding a looping roller coaster; Sam fell backwards, forwards, and down at the same time, his sense of equilibrium setting off blaring alarms in his head.

All the while, his feet were still on the ground, moving one in front of the other.

For a moment, he turned to his side–though which side, he wasn’t sure–and saw one of the girls in their group. It was the dark-haired girl with some kind of European accent, the one who was friends with Chelsea.

The girl looked at him, her eyes wide with panic and confusion, then stumbled, falling to the ground, blurring, and vanishing from view.

Sam continued walking, following his instincts because he had nothing else to go on.

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