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

“There it is,” said Lachlan.

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

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


“Because I’m telling you to.”

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

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

“Neither of those are good reasons.”

“Excuse me?”

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

“I said neither of those are good reasons.”

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

Mrs. Sharma’s gaze fell on Sam.

“What?” he said.

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

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

“I’m 25,” protested Mahender.

“Then act like it.”

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Sharma clenched and unclenched her fist.

“That’s beside the point.”

“Is it, though?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” said Naomi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They walked down the street together, Falcon’s larger brothers surrounding the group protectively. At times, they all had to crowd together to squeeze down particularly narrow stretches of road.

Naomi stood to Chelsea’s left. Angelina was at her right side, clinging onto her arm.

“Give C some space, Angelina,” said Naomi.

“It’s okay,” said Chelsea. “It’s nice having you here, Angelina.”

“Chelsea’s being too nice, but she’s been through a lot today,” said Naomi. “Give her some breathing room.”

“Oh, and I haven’t been through a lot today?” said Angelina. “For your information, I fell through an abyss! I got chased by a snake man! I fought a giant three headed monster with a really small sword! The sword was actually scissors, but that’s not important.”

Oh. Naomi felt a pang of guilt. She’d been so focused on Chelsea, she hadn’t even considered that Angelina must have been through some equally bizarre shit.

“Right. Sorry,” said Naomi. “I didn’t realize.”

“C, if you do want space, I can let go of your arm,” said Angelina. “Just tell me.”

“I don’t mind, really,” said Chelsea.

Naomi noticed Chelsea had a slight flush to her cheeks. Maybe her face was pink from the cold, or maybe Angelina was embarrassing her with the excess physical contact and she was too nice to say. Either way, Naomi decided not to force the issue anymore. Chelsea was a grown woman and could take care of herself.

“Are you sure?” said Angelina.

“I’m sure. In fact…” Chelsea linked her arm with Naomi’s so the three of them formed a chain. “There. Perfect.”

Naomi startled as she felt another arm slide under her left arm, linking with hers. She looked over to see Jen standing beside her.

“Hi! Are the girls linking arms?”

Naomi stared at her, not sure what to say.

“We’re off to see the Wizard,” sang Jen as she skipped a few steps.

“I love that movie!” said Angelina. “Want to learn how that song goes in Italian?”


“Okay, it goes like this… Insieme andiam da Mago…”

The cute little bat thing on Angelina’s shoulder perked up at the singing.

“In… inseam…”

“No, no, no. Insieme.


Naomi tried to tune Jen and Angelina out as Angelina continued teaching Jen the song. She glanced at Chelsea who was watching Angelina with a good-natured smile.

Naomi felt a tap on her shoulder and turned her head to see Lachlan and Sam behind her.

“Naomi, I need to talk to you for a second,” said Lachlan.

Naomi unlinked herself from the chain and fell back a few steps. Jen quickly re-linked herself with Chelsea.

“Sure,” said Naomi. “What did you need to talk about?”

“Nothing,” said Lachlan. “You just looked like you needed rescuing from Tweedledee and Tweedledum up there, and as a dashing, manly hero, I figured it was my duty to aid a citizen in distress.”

“A citizen in distress?” Naomi raised an eyebrow. “Not a damsel?”

“Of course not. I’m not a misogynist.”

“Really?” said Sam. “You’re commenting on the ‘citizen in distress’ thing, but not the ‘dashing, manly hero’ thing?”

“If you’ll recall, Samarskite, I happen to have saved your life countless times.”

“Countless? It was more like two times, maybe.”

Naomi wondered what the ‘Samarskite’ thing was about. She didn’t even know what Samarskite was, but Sam’s name definitely wasn’t actually short for it. Did Lachlan and Sam have inside jokes already?

“I was going to comment on the ‘dashing hero’ thing too, actually,” said Naomi. “We both know it’s bullshit. You’re definitely going to hold this over my head the next time you need a favor.”

“Nah,” said Lachlan. “I’d also accept your unwavering loyalty and your eternal reverence and adoration.”

“I think I’ll just do the favor,” said Naomi.

“Your loss.”

Naomi looked over at Sam, trying to find a sign indicating whether or not the talk about ‘rescuing’ her from his girlfriend had offended him. He didn’t look upset, but he had one of those faces that was hard to read.

“I hope you’re not mad that we’re talking about rescuing me from your girlfriend,” said Naomi. “It’s not that Jen’s not great, it’s just that–“

“It’s cool,” said Sam. “I know she can be kind of… a lot.”

“And then you combine that ‘a lot’ with Angelina’s ‘a lot’, and you get, well… whatever this is.”

Naomi gestured ahead of them. Angelina and Jen sang the song together, while skipping at a walking pace. They seemed to have roped Chelsea into joining them too. Jen sang with a heavy American accent, likely mispronouncing at least half the lyrics. Angelina seemed to be having trouble matching her pace to the other two, skipping too quickly and dragging poor Chelsea along with her.

“Do you think we should rescue Chelsea too?” said Naomi.

“Nah,” said Lachlan. “She actually likes Angelina for some reason. Besides, I somehow doubt Mrs. Sharma will let this go on for too long.”

“I’m honestly surprised she hasn’t already made them stop,” said Naomi.

“Ten bucks says she’ll blow up at them within the next five minutes,” said Sam.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you wearing?” she asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly,” said Lachlan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know who it could be?”

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

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

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

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

“Daves?” said Naomi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Why?”

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

“Well?” He said. “How do I look?”

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

“Perfect.” He grinned. “I’m ready.”

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

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

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

“Angelina? I… what?”

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

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

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

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

“Hi, auntie,” said Mahender.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow, she’s that bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So how do I make her like me?”

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

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

“Why is it a point in my favor?”

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

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

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

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

“What else will give me points with her?”

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

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

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

“When did she live with you?”

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

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

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


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

“How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you ever heard of The Goldfish Technique?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, right, fair enough. Sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mahender sighed, then his face tightened in a wince.

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

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

Mahender sighed again.

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

Naomi fixed him with a look.

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

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

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

“He seemed to be.”

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

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

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

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

Mahender laughed sympathetically.

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

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

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

“Lachlan wasn’t alone,” said Mahender.

“He wasn’t? Who was he with?”

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

Sam. Where had she heard that name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“So there’s a town here?” said Naomi.

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

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

“What happened to them?”

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

“Your aunt?”

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

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

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

“She didn’t tell you?”

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

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

Mahender chewed on his lower lip, breaking eye contact.

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

“You sort of what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean? Change how?”

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

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

“Are you okay, C?” said Angelina.

Chelsea had no idea how to respond to that.

“I’m… fine,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I, um–“

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

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

Angelina pursed her lips.

“I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too,” said Chelsea.

“Will you come visit me?”

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

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

Angelina turned, looking her directly in her eyes.

“Do you swear it? On your life?”

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

These things were Falcon’s brothers?

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

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

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

“Hi!” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falcon lifted a shaking hand and signaled something.

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

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

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

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

“What happened to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Naomi and Falcon walked across the concrete in silence. There had been no sign of Jen since they’d outrun the monster.

Naomi looked down at the silly cat pen in her hand. It stared up at her accusingly with big, goofy cartoon eyes.

If Naomi had pulled her along instead of just running away and assuming she’d follow, would Jen still be with them?

Now Jen was either dead or wandering lost and alone somewhere.

“I’m sorry I called you annoying,” Naomi mumbled to the pen.

They had two people to find now, and Naomi still didn’t have the first idea where to start looking.

She glanced at Falcon and realized he was smiling.

She shot him a glare, and his smile faded into an appropriately guilty expression. He pointed to the notepad she still held, and held out his hand.

This had better be good. There had better be a good reason he was smiling like an idiot when they were stranded in some hell dimension and had already lost a group member.

She handed him the notepad, and he took a moment writing down his explanation.

The ground shook beneath them again, and Naomi tensed, preparing to run again. Falcon put a hand on her arm, signaling her to relax. He handed her back the notepad.

‘My brothers are alive. I don’t know how I know it, but I can feel it. I can feel them. They’re here.’



Oh God.

Oh God, oh God, oh God.

What the hell? What the hell?

What had happened? What was this place?

There was an iridescent light surrounding the four tiny bodies, falling in a direction that didn’t compute. Four eyes of reality, four drops of a vast ocean in four different vessels.

Which one belonged to Chelsea Brown?

Oh, right. The second-largest body, a female human with brilliant red hair that cascaded behind them, strands shimmering in and out of existence as they fell.

Chelsea Brown’s vessel clutched another vessel, a smaller, dark-haired human. The smallest vessel clung to the dark-haired human’s shoulder. It was hard to tell where one of the three ended and the two other began.

The fourth body, larger and covered with olive scales, fell some distance away from the other three, emitting angry hisses as it faded in and out of view.

Stress hormones flooded Chelsea’s body, elevating the heart rate, priming the muscles to run or fight, though the vessel was powerless to do either. The vessel’s fear felt so limited, so infinitesimal in a way that only made the terror more intense. It was more terror than this tiny, insignificant vessel had ever experienced, and it was almost nothing.

In contrast to Chelsea’s terror, the dark-haired human wore a serene expression that didn’t make sense.

The smaller vessel’s designation was retrieved from neural circuits inside one of the four bodies. Angelina Bianchi.

The vessel called Angelina produced a series of communicative sounds that Chelsea’s brain processed into meaning. The sounds were labored, uttered with great difficulty, but their tone was soft and calm.

“It’s… okay. Don’t… scare. It’s… all okay.”

But everything was far from okay! Everything was incomprehensible! The four bodies were falling in reverse now, in a direction that couldn’t possibly exist, and it was impossible to remember.

Which one belonged to Chelsea Brown?

Did Chelsea Brown exist at all?

Did it matter? The distinctions between the four bodies, between everything, suddenly seemed to irrelevant.

The neural circuits no longer perceived the four bodies. There was only the sensation of falling, being sucked into the iridescent, swirling nothingness.

An otherworldly voice cut through the nothingness, speaking to the four lost vessels. It spoke without language, but its tone was startlingly ordinary–soothing and gently admonishing at the same time, like a kindly grandmother who’d found a litter of stray kittens hiding on her porch.

“How did you ever get in here? Come on, let’s get you back to where you belong.”

A fifth body, vastly, infinitely larger than the other four, reached out two shining tendrils to catch the falling vessels.

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Falcon thrust his hand out at the creature, but his invisible force barely slowed its rise. For every tendril that lost its grip on the concrete, two more seemed to appear from below.

Falcon turned to Jen and Naomi, his brow knit with effort, and mouthed a single word.


Well, he didn’t have to tell Naomi twice.

She took off running, hearing Falcon’s footsteps behind her as he caught up to her and then passed her. She couldn’t hear the creature behind her, or at least, she didn’t think she could. She wasn’t sure what something with so many gross, slithery limbs would sound like as it moved, and she really, really didn’t want to think about it.

Falcon wasn’t as far ahead of her as she would have expected given how much taller than her he was. It almost seemed like he was slowing down so she and Jen could keep up, which was kind of sweet despite being incredibly stupid.

Then again, Naomi guessed it didn’t matter how fast he was as long as he was faster than the slowest member of the group. It was like that joke about the two guys running from the bear: “I don’t have to outrun the bear–I just have to outrun you!”

Naomi noticed with a chill that there were no sounds behind her–not the creature in pursuit, nor Jen’s footsteps. Maybe Jen had just taken off in a different direction and separated from the group, Naomi told herself, trying to channel some of Jen’s earlier optimism. Maybe Jen just had very light footfalls.

Or maybe the metaphorical bear had picked off the slowest runner.



Chelsea and Angelina stood by the window together as Belfry perched on the windowsill in front of them.

They watched through the dim green light outside, waiting for another chunk of the world to appear or vanish. Angelina had scrawled some kind of diagram in a notebook she’d been carrying with her. Each time an object disappeared, she’d scramble to mark it on the map with such enthusiasm that the notebook ended up sliding from her grip more than once. Her hands were dotted purple with ink.

“You were right.” Angelina held up the notebook. “Look.”

Chelsea stared at the notebook. The diagram featured multiple layers overlapping each other, lines extending in different directions, and little doodles of things like houses, flowers, and birds. There were several scribbled-over areas when Angelina had crossed things out. Some things were labeled in Italian, others were surrounded by question marks.

“Sorry, I’m… not sure what I’m looking for.”

“The pattern. I started to see it a little bit as we were looking out the window, but it makes more sense now that I draw it,” said Angelina. “See? Look at the ‘X’s and stars.”

Chelsea looked more closely. The drawing had been so busy that she had missed it on her first look. She still wasn’t sure what exactly most of the diagram represented, but the map was dotted with ‘X’s and stars that formed a kind of intricate, incomplete spiral.

“Wow,” said Chelsea. “It’s kind of like a vortex.”

“Some of it is missing because I can’t remember most of what I saw disappear in the crater, but it’s based on that, plus the stuff that disappeared in here.”

“Angelina, this is amazing,” said Chelsea. “How did you figure this out?”

“It was really easy if you saw things disappear in the crater too.” Angelina shrugged, then turned her notebook to another page. “I made a map of where I think things should disappear soon.”

This page was a lot more straightforward than the last, depicting a street lined by pentagons that represented houses. Angelina had marked some places on the map with large stars and labels in Italian.

“When you say soon, you mean…?”

“A few minutes.”

Really? It was that easy?

Angelina turned to Belfry and spoke to him in Italian. He gave an enthusiastic response.

“He’s coming with us,” said Angelina.

“Of course he is,” said Chelsea. “We can’t just leave him here all alone.”

Angelina put down her notebook, stood up, patted her shoulder and said something else in Italian, and Belfry fluttered onto her shoulder. She headed for the door.

“Wait,” said Chelsea. “Are you going now? Just like that?”

Angelina paused in front of the door, swiveling on her heels to face Chelsea.

“Why should we wait?”

“I just think we should be careful,” said Chelsea. “Your map is amazing, but we don’t really know how this place works yet. I don’t want you to get hurt again.”

Angelina turned back toward the door.

“I won’t get hurt! Come on. Let’s go. If we stand close together by the corner of the orange house, we’ll be out of here in a few minutes.”

Angelina opened the door and stepped outside. Chelsea picked up Angelina’s backpack and notebook and started after her.

“Angelina, wait,” said Chelsea.

Angelina turned around with a smile, not breaking her brisk pace.

“Of course we’ll wait for you. We’re not leaving without–Ow!” Angelina stumbled as her foot caught on a cobblestone. She recovered her balance and kept walking. “I wouldn’t leave without you, C. Follow me!”

Angelina skipped across the street, heading for a house the color of orange sherbet. Chelsea jogged after her.

“We should probably be careful. This place is really strange. Maybe we could watch a few more things disappear before we try this, just in case it doesn’t work the way we think it does.”

Angelina walked around the side of the house and stopped, turning to face Chelsea again. Chelsea caught up with her.

“It’ll be fine,” said Angelina. “It should happen somewhere around here.”

A gruesome thought crossed Chelsea’s mind as she remembered the severed monster head she’d found next to Angelina.

“Angelina, wait!” said Chelsea. “What if this weird effect only takes parts of us? We could be cut in half or something!”

A strange, static-like smell filled the air, and a soft crackling sound began to pop around them. Chelsea reached for Angelina’s hand, to pull her away. Instead, Angelina pulled her closer, wrapping her arms around Chelsea’s waist. Angelina has surprisingly strong arms, but then, she was a drummer after all.

Chelsea might have been embarrassed at being so close to Angelina if the possible threat of being split in two wasn’t looming over them.

“What are you doing?” Chelsea called over the increasingly loud staticky noise.

“If we’re close together, there’s less chance we’ll get cut in half!”

That didn’t even make sense!

“I’m not sure that’s the best idea! We should probably get out of here before…”

Chelsea heard her own voice fade away to nothing as the crackles and pops grew louder. Their surroundings grew brighter and brighter, until the light was so intense it should have hurt her eyes, but there was no pain. She tried to cling tighter to Angelina, but the other girl’s body dissolved in her arms as though made of sand.

The light faded again, until there was nothing but heavy, intense darkness.

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