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The snake people peered at them through unblinking yellow eyes, their tongues flicking in the air. One of them was about Zogzhesh’s height with a long, thick tail and vivid red tint to some of his scales. The other stood at least three feet taller, with an olive and brown banded pattern that reminded Jen of a rattlesnake.

“Who’s there?” said the taller snake person.

Mrs. Sharma took a wary step forward.

“My name is Mona Sharma. Who are you?”

“We’ll ask the questions here if you don’t mind,” said the shorter snake person.

“I do mind, actually,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“We’re trying to find our friends,” said Angelina. “Have you seen them?”

The shorter snake person stepped forward, rearing his head up, spreading his hood like a cobra, and letting out a loud hiss.

“I said we’ll ask the questions,” he said.

Jen stepped backward. She’d always been a little creeped out by snakes.

“Settle down, Toxzhesh,” said the taller snake person. “They haven’t done anything yet.”

Toxzhesh turned his hiss on his companion.

“Don’t tell me to settle down!”

The taller snake person ignored him.

“My name is Zarquozi,” said the taller snake person. “We’re the guardians of Bath–“

“Don’t tell them your name!” hissed Toxzhesh.

Zarquozi hissed something at Toxzhesh in the strange snake language, and Toxzhesh hissed back. This went on for a minute, then the snake people turned back to the group.

“You were going to say Bathsheba just then,” said Sam. “You’re the guardians of Bathsheba?”

“That’s no concern of yours,” said Toxzhesh.

“We know her, though,” said Sam. “We just met her. You’re her personal guards or something?”

“No,” said Zarquozi. “We’re the guardians of her garden. Garden guardians.” Zarquozi let out an annoyed hiss. “It sounds ridiculous in your language. Garden guardians. Guardians of the garden.”

“In Italian, it’s guardiani del giardino,” said Angelina.

“That’s just as bad,” said Zarquozi. “In our language, it’s a beautiful, noble-sounding title.” She let out a series of bizarre, guttural hisses. “See? Much better than ‘garden guardians’.”

“Yes. Beautiful,” said Mrs. Sharma dryly.

“Would you consider maybe letting us into the garden?” said Lachlan.

Jen rolled her eyes. Of course they weren’t going to consider that. Why would he even ask? Not only was the answer definitely going to be ‘no’, but it would be harder to sneak into the garden if they needed to later.

Sure enough, Toxzhesh flared his hood out and let out another hiss.

“We are the protectors of Bathsheba’s garden! No one goes in!”

“Nice work, Mr. so-called-smart-guy,” Jen murmered.

Lachlan turned to look at her. Oops. She’d meant to say that under her breath.

“Did I do something to you?” he said. “Ever since we got dropped in this weird forest you keep looking at me like I kicked your mum in the face or something. I understand that I evidently somehow broke up your relationship whilst I was completely unconscious, but–“

Mrs. Sharma whipped around to face them.

“Can. You. Not. Have. Annoying. Teenage. Drama. For. Two. Seconds.”

Jen sighed. Mrs. Sharma had a point.

“Right. Yes, ma’am. Sorry. Not the time.”

“No,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It isn’t.”

“I guess you’re right,” said Lachlan. “It isn’t. Sorry.”

“I don’t know what you humans are arguing about, and I don’t care,” said Toxzhesh. “All I care about is keeping you out of the garden.”

“We do know Bathsheba, though,” said Sam. “I’m sure if you just asked her, she’d tell you it was fine to–“

Toxzhesh hissed again.

“Ask? You think we would dare disturb the wife of She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Crown?”

“So there’s no way you’ll let us in. Fine,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Can you at least tell us if you’ve seen any other humans around here?”

“Just one,” said Zarquozi.

“Who?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“The one they call ‘the Gatherer’.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Calm down,” said Mrs. Sharma.

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

She rubbed at her eyes, brushing away tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It would definitely be a possibility.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And who are you?”

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

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

“Mona Sharma.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bow before me,” said the woman.

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

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

Sam let go of Lachlan, and everyone bowed.

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

No one spoke.

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

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

Mrs. Sharma shot Angelina a silencing look.

“No. It wasn’t hard.”

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

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As Sam fell, his surroundings started to fade away. Not that there was much surrounding him other than an endless void, but even the blackness started to give away to a staticky dark gray and a feverish warmth. He gripped the hand he was holding with all his waning strength; he couldn’t remember why, but it felt important that he didn’t let go.

The sound of air rushing past him as he fell was replaced by the sound of blood rushing in his ears, so loud he couldn’t hear anything else.

He couldn’t hold on any longer. The hand slipped out of his grasp.

A jolt of panic coursed through him, shattering the fog in his brain like a panel of frosted glass.

His heart lurched as he changed directions in midair. Then the dizzying sensation of falling backward continued.

This time, though, he wasn’t falling. He was rising.

He couldn’t see Lachlan anymore, but he knew he was there, somewhere below him in the darkness.

A tidal wave of nausea crashed over him as he change directions again–his inner ear’s last desperate plea. Headfirst, he plummeted downward again.

This time, he was in control.

Lachlan faded into view, and Sam grabbed him. For a moment, the force of Lachlan’s fall pulled him down. Then, straining against Lachlan’s weight, he carried them both upward.

Why couldn’t he have gotten super strength as one of his abilities?

He braced himself, then made that stomach-twisting turn, changing his direction through time so he was moving perpendicular to it instead of through it. Lachlan froze in his arms.

Still holding onto Lachlan, Sam slowly flipped over in the air so he was upside down. Then, he dove.

He wasn’t falling anymore; he was moving downward independently of gravity, exceeding his terminal velocity as he flew down toward the rest of the group.

He saw a blurry shape beneath him, and slowed his descent. It had to be them.

But wait. Something was strange about this. For one thing, it should have been too dark for him to see the anything at this distance. For another, the shape he saw was moving.

He stopping descending and flipped right-side-up, keeping his eyes on the shape that was growing rapidly larger as it approached him. As it got closer, he realized it was glowing.

As it approached, he could make out a human outline in the light. It was rising toward him, surrounded by more human shapes. It was–

It was Jen?

She rose up out of the darkness about 15 feet away from him.

The rest of the group floated around her, most of them frozen like Lachlan. Angelina and Mrs. Sharma weren’t frozen, but they didn’t look conscious either.

She hovered in the air, her arms outstretched. her arms outstretched, a white light glowing through her skin.

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“We’re not trying to intrude on anyone!” Lachlan shouted over the wind. “We just want to go home!”

Sam could hear Jen shouting something too, but couldn’t make out the words. He imagined the others were shouting similar replies–assuming the others were still nearby, that was.

For all he knew, everyone except he, Jen, and Lachlan were lost forever in this lightless void.

“No one threatens the wife of I, the resplendent empress, and survives!”

“‘Wife of I’?” Lachlan shouted back. “What kind of utter grammatical travesty is that? Just say ‘my wife’!”

Seriously, Lachlan? Of all the times to be a grammar snob, he was picking now?

Sam squeezed Lachlan’s arm, hoping it was enough to convey the message: ‘Don’t antagonize mysterious, powerful alien beings by correcting their grammar.’

His hand prickled again, but this time, he felt the prickling in both hands, and even his feet.

He held his good hand near his face to find his fingers swollen, and the skin under his fingernails tinted a deep purple-blue. He looked at Lachlan to find the effect even more pronounced on his pale skin. Lachlan’s lips were a vivid, violent blue, and his fingers around Sam’s wrist looked like a sunset; a vibrant purple at the tips faded into an angry red.

“We’re not threatening your life!” Sam shouted. “Wait! I mean, threatening your wife! We’re not threatening your life either, though!”

His words came out slurred. He felt suddenly floaty in a way that had nothing to do with being suspended in the air.

“You dare challenge I, the all-powerful She-Who-Wears-the-Stellar-Crown? You? Beings so weak and powerless that losing some of your precious oxygen is enough to scramble your fragile minds?”

Losing oxygen? Wait, but that would mean–

“Challenge me!” said Lachlan. “It’s ‘challenge me’! ‘Challenge I’ doesn’t even make any sense!”

Sam could feel Lachlan shaking, and realized he was laughing.

“Challenge… challenge me!” he wheezed. “Challenge me-hehehehehe!”

Sam couldn’t help it–he started laughing too. Hard enough that it was painful–hard enough that little balls of tears escaped from his eyes and floated away in the wind.

“You dare laugh at the majestic and glorious empress? You dare mock me? How dare you!”

“You–” Sam paused to fend off another involuntary wave of laugher. “You say the word ‘dare’… so much!”

“Perhaps if I extinguish your insubstantial little lives, that shall teach you a lesson!”

“We can’t–we can’t learn a lesson if we’re dead, you… you fuckin’ dingus!” Lachlan shook with laughter again.

“You dare insult the almighty–“

“She said ‘dare again!” Sam interrupted.

“Why don’t you… why don’t you dare to use another word?” added Lachlan.

Another wave of laugher came over Sam, weaker this time. In fact, every part of him was feeling weaker. His head buzzed, and Lachlan’s face was growing blurrier and blurrier.

“While you mock me, your companions plead for their lives!” came the thunderous voice. “Know that your insolence has doomed them all! Prepare to die, human fools!”

Sam felt his heart lurch as the dizzing sensation of falling backwards hit him–the same sensation he’d felt when he’d walked through time, defying every law of physics to undo Lachlan’s death.

He was doing it! He’d unlocked his latent abilities again, and once again, he was going to save the day!

He was–

Wait. No. He was actually falling backwards.

Oh no.

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Sam was already missing his glasses, and squinting against the wind made it almost impossible to see what was going on. Everyone was looking up at the sky, and Lachlan was pointing, but at first, Sam couldn’t make out what they were looking at.

He finally saw it–a faint black scar in the fluorescent blue sky that seemed to be expanding, growing wider like some kind of demonic grin.

Then, the sky opened up.

The blue parted, opening like a hinged dome to reveal a second black sky beneath. His ears popped again, and the warm air seemed to freeze around him.

The wind grew stronger.

When Sam was little, his dad and grandma had taken him on family beach trips every year. When he was eight, their trip had been cut short when a hurricane had suddenly shifted its course toward the North Carolina coast. He’d woken up to the sound of waves crashing too close to his room, and as his dad had rushed him to the car, the wind had picked up.

It had been unlike anything he’d felt before. Palm trees had bent, and one had snapped with a violent crack and crashed to the ground. He’d clung to his dad, terrified he might blow away if he didn’t hold on tightly enough.

The wind that now battered his face and threatened to tear his jacket from his body made that hurricane seem like a refreshing breeze.

The ground fell away from him as he was lifted into the air, and he reached for Lachlan, realizing too late that he’d reached with his right hand.

To his relief, Lachlan’s hand closed around Sam’s wrist, strong and sure.

Sam tried to replicate what he’d done when he’d moved through time–to stop their ascent and pull everyone back to safety–but he didn’t even know where to start. It was like trying to trying to bend one of his missing fingers. His brain knew the right signals to send–he could even feel the absent finger bending sometimes–but nothing actually happened.

He squeezed his eyes shut, waiting to feel an impact as the wind threw him against a tree or back onto the ground, but it didn’t come. The wind was relentless, carrying him higher and higher as he clung to Lachlan like a lifeline, even though his hand wasn’t very good at clinging anymore.

Just when he’d started to wonder if the wind would blow them upward forever, it began to ease. It didn’t stop, but it weakened enough that it was no longer carrying him upward. Instead, it blew around him, ruffling his jacket, as he hung suspended in midair.

His nose was still bleeding, but the blood wasn’t dripping down his face anymore. It pooled inside his nose, filling it with a copper smell and taste. He felt a few drops escape and drift away without rolling down onto his lips.

How did this make any sense? For gravity to be low enough that his and Lachlan’s combined mass could float like this, there couldn’t be enough atmosphere for this much wind.

Sure, he’d been able to fly before, but that had been different. Hed been different.

He opened his eyes and looked down, expecting to see the garden from far above. He saw only absolute darkness. He gripped Lachlan’s arm tighter, until that strange, prickling pain shot through his right hand.

He looked up at Lachlan, checking that he was still there–that his firm grip on Sam’s wrist wasn’t a phantom sensation like the twisted pain in his lost fingers.

He was there. It was almost too dark and windy to make out his features, but he was there–an anchor in the cold, empty void.

Sam saw Jen’s blurry silhouette too, the wind lashing her long hair across her face. She stretched her hand toward him, calling out something he couldn’t hear, but she was too far for him to reach.

A voice boomed around them, cutting through the wind and reverberating through Sam’s bones. It was a voice like that of the skull squids, but somehow even more distorted. Even less human. Sam wanted frantically to cover his ears, but he fought the urge. He couldn’t risk letting Lachlan slip away. He couldn’t lose his anchor.

“Who dares intrude upon the sanctuary of Bathsheba, wife of She-Who-Wears-the-Stellar-Crown?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy’s dog whined again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, no,” said Naomi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is it unlikely?” said Angelina.

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

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

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

Mrs. Sharma sighed.

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

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

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

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

“Oh, okay,” said Angelina.

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

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

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

Mrs. Sharma really needed to stop talking.

“Is it almost time?” said Angelina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naomi felt everyone squeeze in tighter.

“20. 19–“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” said Lachlan.

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

“How did you get away?” said Angelina.

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

“With your leg like that?” said Angelina.

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

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

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

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

“Only twice.”

“What happened to them?” said Sam.

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

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

“Why do you ask?” said Mrs. Sharma.

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

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

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Lachlan jerked awake as something dropped onto his face, fear jolting through him at the feeling of the hard surface beneath him.

He’d woken up a few times in the night, each with the same split second of panic as he thought he’d woken up in the back of the van again.

He opened his eyes, picking up the small, spherical object that had fallen on him. When he realized it was a grape, his fear gave way to annoyance.

He looked up, and sure enough, Angelina was there on one of the barstools, suppressing a laugh. Sam sat beside her, preparing to drop another grape.


“And just what do you think you’re doing?” said Lachlan.

Angelina released the laugh she’d been suppressing and burst into hysterical giggles.

“Seeing how many grapes we can drop on you before you wake up,” said Sam. “The answer is nine, by the way.”

Lachlan pushed himself into a seated position with his elbows. A few grapes rolled off him onto the floor.

“And why, exactly, are you doing this?”

“To satisfy my scientific curiosity,” said Sam, “and because it’s funny.”

Lachlan gave the two of them his best surly frown.

“Excuse me if I don’t see the humor in it,” he said.

Sam and Angelina must have picked up on something in his expression, because their amused expressions disappeared.

“Okay, okay.” Sam held up his hands. “We’ll stop.”

Angelina slid out of her stool, plunking herself onto the floor and leaning back on her hands.

“Why are you so mad about grapes?” she said.

The question could have been confrontational or accusatory, but Angelina’s tone and expression seemed genuinely curious.

Normally, Lachlan would have brushed off a question like that with a brusque retort–he wasn’t one to talk about how he was feeling, especially when he was annoyed–but there was something about the combination of being exhausted and lying on the floor that made him feel more open than usual.

Something about lying on a floor always made him feel a strange camaraderie with whoever was around him.

“I’m not mad, exactly. And it’s not about the grapes.”

“What’s it about, then?” said Angelina.

“The last time I woke up on a hard surface, I was paralyzed in the back of a murder van.”

“Huh?” said Angelina.

“It’s how I got here,” he said. “I was kidnapped by CPSI. I was drugged, and when I woke up, I was on the floor of a van so sus it probably had the words ‘free candy’ spray-painted on the side. When I woke up on the hard floor just now, I had a moment where I thought I was back in the van again.”

Sam climbed out of his stool to sit beside them on the floor.

“And I’m guessing us dropping grapes on you didn’t help,” he said.

“No,” said Lachlan.

“Sorry,” said Angelina. “I should have thought.”

“You didn’t know,” said Lachlan. “I mean, as a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t drop grapes on people, but you didn’t know.”

“No,” said Angelina. “I should have thought, because I know how you feel. It was really scary for me right before I came here too. This creature–one of the sisters–attacked me; it cornered me inside this big pipe and grabbed me, and there was nothing I could do. And now I’m just on full alert all the time. Every time I see something move on the edge of my eyes, or if I see a house that’s about the same size and shape she was, I get so scared for a second.”

“Yeah,” said Lachlan, because he wasn’t sure what else to say.

Angelina had described the feeling so accurately that he couldn’t think of anything else to add on.

“I think it might be the worst feeling in the world,” said Angelina. “When something really, really bad is happening, and you can’t do anything about it.”

“Yeah, probably,” said Lachlan. “Mortal danger, big whoop. But mortal danger where you’re powerless to fight or defend yourself?”

“Bad,” said Angelina.

“I wasn’t going to put it quite so succinctly, but yeah. Bad is an apt enough descriptor.”

“I know what you mean too,” said Sam. “Right after I met Lachlan, one of those Dave things grabbed me, and my life was just… completely out of my hands. Nothing else that’s happened to me has really been comparable to that. Not even getting my fingers eaten off, or watching Lachlan die, or anything. I’m an engineer. I like to think every problem has a solution. But having my life in danger and not seeing a way out was… yeah.”

“Yeah,” said Lachlan.

“Yeah,” echoed Angelina.

“I’ve been on full alert too, like you said,” said Sam. “It’s a natural human response to being in danger. It’s millions of years old.”

“If an early hominid got attacked by a cave bear, he’d spend the rest of his life avoiding anything cave-bear shaped,” added Lachlan.

“I wish cave bears were the only thing we had to deal with,” said Angelina.

“Yeah,” said Lachlan. “The Paleolithic era. Those were the good old days.”

“Yep,” said Sam. “The good old days.”

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