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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 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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Oh no. This was all Angelina’s fault. She’d made a mistake when trying to figure out how to get everyone home, and now they were being threatened by someone who could easily kill most of them in minutes.

Angelina had to straighten this out. If she just explained everything, she was sure the strange woman would understand. Well, kind of sure.

Okay, she wasn’t sure at all. But she had to try.

“Can you understand me?” Angelina asked in Italian.

The strange woman had sounded as though she was speaking Italian, but the others had been replying in English as though they understood her. Angelina figured it was one of those situations where some otherworldly being spoke in a universally intelligible way.

She wasn’t always good at getting her point across, so she thought it better to use her native language to make sure she was as clear as possible.

“I can,” said the woman. She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Whatever.

“Angelina, what are you saying to her?” said Naomi.

“It’s fine,” said Angelina. “I’m going to explain everything.”

“Okay, but–” started Naomi.

“I’m listening,” interrupted the Stellar woman. “Explain yourself.”

“We didn’t mean to come here,” said Angelina. “We got stuck in a strange place between realities, and we were trying to get home. Instead, we made a mistake and ended up here.”

“Hm,” said Stellar-whoever. “I suppose that’s plausible. You wouldn’t be the first after all.” She turned to Bathsheba. “She claims they came here by accident. What would you have me do with them, my love?”

“Why, let them go, of course!” said Bathsheba. “Stella, you know I never wish you to hurt anyone who hasn’t tried to hurt me. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“But my darling, some of these humans are different from the others before. See this one?” Stellar-lady gestured at Jen. “She was able to touch the garden gate. I couldn’t let her harm you.”

Garden gate? Was that… the circular portal so wide they couldn’t see the other side from where they stood? ‘Garden gate’ was way too mundane a name for it.

“I don’t want to harm anyone.” Jen mumbled, not looking up.

“You will look at the almighty and glorious She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Crown when you address me!” snapped the Stellar woman.

Jen lifted her head to meet the woman’s eyes.

“I don’t want to freaking harm anyone!” she snapped back. “There! Is that better?”

Angelina flinched. Was Jen okay? What could have possibly happened between the time they’d been sucked into the sky and now to make her so upset?

“You dare speak to I, the all-powerful She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Crown, in such a tone? I should destroy you where you stand!”

Bathsheba put a hand on her wife’s arm.

“Please don’t harm her, Stella. I’m sure she means no disrespect. She’s only suffering from a broken heart.”

Broken heart? Wait, had something happened with Jen and Sam? When?

“That is no excuse for such insolence!”

“Dearest,” Bathsheba’s voice was gentle. “What would you do if I left you for another?”

“Why, I would raze this reality to the ground and then rain destruction upon the earth in a blind rage.”

Oh. Yikes. Angelina hoped Bathsheba never had wandering eyes.

“Exactly. When it comes to matters of the heart, one cannot always be controlled.”

Stella-lady relaxed, the anger disappearing from her expression as quickly as it had appeared.

“Very well. I see your point. Glowing girl, you may live.” She clapped her hands. “Now! Since I’ve decided in my infinite generosity to spare your lives, I supposed I should let you go. Farewell!”

“Wait, what–” said Angelina.

Before she could finish her sentence, the strange vast tube vanished around her.

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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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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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Content Warning: Blood, graphic description of injury


Few feelings can compare to the feeling of being in immediate mortal danger, and being completely unable to do anything about it.

It was a feeling that Lachlan had experienced only once before, after he’d been carried from the truck into that clinical white room, as the gravity of his situation had finally hit him. He felt it again as he struggled against the creature, but this time, there were no drugs to dull the sheer, all-consuming panic.

Sure, his life had been in danger more times than he could count over the past few days, but this felt different. He was unable to move his arms or struggle, powerless to defend himself.

He thought of being paralyzed in the back of that truck, not able to fight back or cry out as he was lifted into that room with no idea what would happen next, and his panic grew. The more he tried and failed to move his arms from his sides and break free of the creature’s grip, the more paralyzed he felt.

He felt detached again as his legs swung a meter above the ground, but this time, there were no drugs to explain it. His friends’ speech blended together more and more, until he couldn’t tell who was talking.

“–thought you said they weren’t dangerous–“

“–usually aren’t, but they can be very strong and sometimes–“

“–just standing there! Why don’t you help him?!”

“–holding him in front of its weak point. I just need to get behind it–“

“–if we can knock it over, I can kick it like I did before–“

The creature lurched, and Lachlan saw the largest skull squid had wrapped an arm around the creature’s leg. More of Falcon’s brothers reached out, prying at the creature’s long arms, trying to free Lachlan. The creature kicked, swaying back and forth toward a shop building on the side of the road.

The creature stumbled, and its arms gave way, losing its grip on Lachlan and sending him flying.

Glass shattered as he hit the shop window, nicking his arm and chest as he fell through. He rolled over onto his back, feeling weak and lightheaded as the panic subsided.

Mrs. Sharma ran toward the creature, axe brandished, but one of Falcon’s brothers dispatched it first, wrapping a tendril around its neck, then twisting until there was a snapping sound. The creature crumpled.

Lachlan tried to stand, but he felt too weak.

His friends rushed to the shop, crowding around him.

“Oh, my god,” said Naomi. “Oh, my god, Lachlan.”

“Oh, my god, yourself,” he said.

He looked up at his friends, noticing their expressions of wide-eyed horror.

“What?” he said. “What’s everyone looking at?”

“Shh,” said Chelsea. “It’s okay. Don’t try to talk.”

“Everyone move over,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Let me through to him.”

“No, he needs air,” said Chelsea. “Give him some space.”

“Unless one of you has a master’s degree in biology I don’t know about, I’m the most qualified to help your friend. If you care about him at all, you’ll move out of the way.”

“What are you talking about?” said Lachlan. “I’m fine. Well, as fine as can be expected, considering… you know…”

He still felt so weak, and the feeling was getting worse instead of better. He felt colder than he had before, and there was a strange, empty feeling in his head that made dark spots flicker at the edge of his vision.

Lachlan’s friends moved out of the way, and Mrs. Sharma approached him crouching down at his left side.

“Naomi,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Come lift his left arm above his heart.”

Lachlan looked down at his left arm, and realized why everyone was so worried.

When Sam had lost his fingers, Lachlan had thought there had been a lot of blood. Now, he realized he hadn’t had any baseline for what ‘a lot of blood’ really was. His blood was everywhere, bright red blood spurting from his arm and dark blood flowing from his chest, soaking through his glass-shredded clothes and pooling around him.

“I… oh, fuck,” he said. “Oh, fuck…”

How was this possible? The glass had only cut him a little. Even now, he hardly felt any pain as he bled out onto the shop floor.

How had he not noticed that sickening copper smell?

Naomi held up Lachlan’s arm.

“What are you going to do with that knife?” said Naomi.

Mrs. Sharma cut away the torn pieces of Lachlan’s sleeve at his shoulder. She examined his arm, then pressed down on the inside of it. Whatever she did seemed to ease the bleeding.

Sam pulled off his jacket and removed his undershirt, handing it to Mrs. Sharma.

“Here, maybe you can use this to make a tourniquet or something.”

“A scarf would be better for a tourniquet, but I can use this to bandage his chest. Chelsea, give me your scarf.”

The cold dizzy feeling was starting to overwhelm him as his vision begin to blur.

“Quickly, Chelsea. Unless you want your friend to die. Someone, find me a stick.”

Lachlan fought to stay alert, but he couldn’t stop himself from slipping into unconsciousness.

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Naomi took a step away from Mrs. Sharma.

Being stern was one thing, but making death threats was another, even if the threats were to Sarah’s creepy sisters.

She turned back to look at Chelsea, who looked taken aback by the threat and the knives even though neither had been pointed at her.

“You wouldn’t kill us,” said one of the sisters.

“Why not?” said Mrs. Sharma. “You had no problems trying to kill me.”

“There’s a bit of a difference here, Mrs. Sharma.”

“And what difference is that?”

“We mean something to you. You don’t mean anything to us.”

“I mean something to sa131,” said Mrs. Sharma. “That’s all I care about. I don’t care about you anymore.”

“sa131 is probably dead. Gone. You’ll never see her aga–“

“Do you really want to provoke me while I’m holding you at knifepoint? I remember you all being much smarter than this,” said Mrs. Sharma. “And she’s not dead, if half these kids I’ve somehow wound up babysitting are to be believed.”

“And do you believe them?” said the taller sister.

“About sa131? I don’t have any reason not to,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Now, get out of my way. Unless you’d prefer I use these knives.”

“Why don’t you just have one of Falcon’s brothers hit them out of the way with their squid arms?” Angelina gestured toward the largest of the brothers, a massive squid-like creature with dozens of skeletal faces. “Look at that one! He’s like a… how do you say calamaro gigante in English?”

“My Italian’s a little rusty, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say ‘giant squid’,” said Lachlan.

“Giant squid! Yes! Why don’t we have the giant squid fight them?”

“Why don’t you stay quiet and mind your own business?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“Because it’s a better idea than just standing there pointing knives that they don’t even care about at them,” said Angelina.

“She makes a compelling point,” said Lachlan.

“I’d be happy to help,” said the giant squid.

He had a grating, distorted voice that made Sam, Angelina, and Jen flinch.

“Wow, his voice is scary!” said Angelina. “Anyway, you keep talking about how you’re in a hurry and you have to keep a schedule, but you’re just standing here when you could have them out of your way by now.”

Mrs. Sharma gave no response other than a quick, dismissive glance backward.

In the dark space between the two houses to their right, movement caught Naomi’s eye. She waited, watching to see whether it happened again. It did.

Why did everything in this place have to hide in the dark?

Naomi looked back at her friends to see if anyone else had seen the movement. Everyone seemed focused on the stalemate between Mrs. Sharma and the two sisters.

Naomi looked back between the houses, then glanced back at Chelsea to see if she’d noticed yet.

The bat-like creature on Chelsea’s shoulder looked alert, its ears perked up and eyes wide, and its short fur fluffed out like a cat’s.

At first, Naomi thought the little creature was responding to the tense standoff between Mrs. Sharma and the sisters. Then she saw the creature’s eyes and ears flick over to the space between the houses.

Naomi was just debating how best to get Mrs. Sharma’s attention when Mrs. Sharma spoke.

“I can hear your sister shuffling around in the dark between houses over there,” she said. “Was that the plan? The two of you come up and irritate me, and then big sister in the shadows comes out and ambushes us?”

The two sisters exchanged a look.

“We don’t have another sister with us,” the shorter sister said. “It’s just the two of us.”

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

He trailed off as Mrs. Sharma whipped around.

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t ‘create’ anybody.”

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

Mrs. Sharma sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

“Get wrecked,” said Lachlan.

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

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

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

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

“My IQ is 152,” said Angelina.

Bullshit!” Lachlan mock-coughed into his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, guys,” said Naomi.

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

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

“Guys,” said Naomi.

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

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

Naomi pointed to her left.

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

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

Mrs. Sharma shushed her.

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

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Naomi glanced behind her at the rest of the group. Mrs. Sharma had asked Naomi to walk next to her to more easily point out danger, and Naomi wasn’t sure she liked being appointed Mrs. Sharma’s right-hand woman.

In high school, Naomi had been singled out as the teacher’s pet more than she would have liked, and the resentful looks from her classmates had been almost unbearable.

She studied each face, searching for signs of that resentment. Chelsea, still linked with Jen and Angelina, gave her a warm smile. Naomi tried as well as she could to return it.

She made eye contact with Lachlan, who mouthed the words “suck-up”. She rolled her eyes pointedly at him, then turned back around before he could see her face flush.

Was he annoyed with her, or was he just being Lachlan? Sometimes, it was hard to tell.

“So Naomi,” said Mrs. Sharma. “What are you studying in school?”

Mrs. Sharma was making small talk with her now? Ugh. Not only would it make her look more like a suck-up, she’d have to worry about Mrs. Sharma judging her answers to questions.

“Um, I study music,” said Naomi.

She hated how awkward and unsure her voice sounded.

To Naomi’s surprise, Mrs. Sharma smiled at her and gave an approving nod.

“That’s great. Not enough people study music seriously.”

“Really? Honestly, most adults just tell me that it’s a waste of time, or that I’m never going to make a living doing it or something.”

“Money isn’t everything,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It’s important–don’t get me wrong–but it’s not everything. Few things are a waste of time if you dedicate yourself to them and fully commit. Being a musician is something that takes a lot of discipline. And if you apply enough discipline, you can make a living doing almost anything.”

“I, um, mostly play rock music,” Naomi said.

“So does my daughter,” said Mrs. Sharma. “She wants to study it in college too someday.”

“How old is she?”

“Her twelfth birthday is coming up.”

“Wow, she’s twelve and she’s already picked her college major?”

“She had it picked out since she was eight. She always knew what she wanted to do with her life, and she’s always applied herself. My son’s the same way.”

“What does your son want to do?”

“He doesn’t know yet, but he’s only nine, so he’s got lots of time. He’s one of the top students in his class, so he could do anything he wanted. Right now, he’s saying he might want to teach like his dad.”

“Where does your husband teach? Maybe I’ve taken a class with him before.”

Naomi glanced back at her friends again, hoping she wasn’t earning any resentment by making polite conversation.

“UNCC. He teaches computer science.”

“That’s where I go to school. I wouldn’t have had any of his classes, though.”

“No, I guess you wouldn’t have.”

The conversation fell into a lull, and Naomi wondered if it would be rude to bring up Sarah.

Then again, if she fell out of Mrs. Sharma’s good graces, she wouldn’t have to worry about her friends thinking she was a suck-up.

“So, uh, sorry if I shouldn’t be bringing this up, but how do you know Sarah?”

Mrs. Sharma gave her a long look.

“It’s complicated. It’s hard to explain without knowing how much you know.”

“I know you were some kind of scientist for CPSI. And I know she’s a piece of biotechnology.”

Mrs. Sharma’s more easygoing expression fell from her face, her steely look returning.

“No. She’s way more than that.”

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