Not Enough – Interlude 12

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Mona gave her watch another anxious glance as she turned the Bunsen burner to a low flame. It was 1:41 PM, and Ivan and the others would be back from their lunch breaks soon. If she didn’t hurry, they’d return and question what she was doing. She wouldn’t have a good explanation.

They would try to stop her, when what she was doing was far more important than any of the menial work she did for CPSI. Somehow, it felt like one of the most important things she’d ever do.

She pulled a bottle of water and four glass jars from her oversized bag and lined them in a row on the table. She’d found the bag in the back of her closet–a gift she’d received long ago and never used because it was cumbersome and had far more space than she usually needed. Today, it was so full the strap left a painful indent on her shoulder, and its contents bulged unattractively inside it.

She pulled the saucepan from her bag, placed it on the table, and poured the water into the pan. She unscrewed each jar lid, then lifted the saucepan over the flame with one hand. With the other hand, she emptied three of the jars into the pan one by one–first the tea powder, then the sugar, and finally the spices. She slid a heat-resistant safety glove onto one hand, then pulled a wooden spoon out of her bag and held it in the other.

With her gloved hand, she lifted the pan over the flame, moving it around so it heated evenly and stirring it with the spoon. After a few minutes, it began to bubble, and the lab filled with the spicy, earthy-sweet scent of cardamom and cinnamon.

She poured in the final jar–the milk–and stirred the pot with the spoon. The muscles in her arm were beginning to ache from the weight of the metal pot, but she ignored the pain.

The milk began to bubble and froth, blooming into a foam that threatened to spill over the edge of the pot. Mona turned down the flame. She hadn’t spilled something in as long as she could remember, and she wasn’t about to start today.

She waited for a few more minutes, giving the pan an occasional careful stir, until the aroma deepened and the tea darkened to a shade of rich tan. She switched off the flame and placed the spoon on a paper towel she’d laid on the table. Still holding the pan, she reached one arm into her bag and felt around until she found the strainer she’d brought. She placed the strainer over a mug she’d taken from the breakroom, then poured the tea from the pan in a thin, delicate stream.

Her biceps twinged with relief as she placed the pan on the table, then set the spoon and strainer inside it. She picked up the mug, breathing in the fragrance and taking a moment to admire her work–the rich color, the sweet, spicy aroma. It was perfect, of course. She had made it, after all.

And she’d made it for the perfect person.

She set down her bag and carried the mug out the door, walking down the hall toward the fab chambers. Leaving the pan and spoon in the lab made her a little nervous, but she’d already finished making the tea. It’s not as though they could force her to unmake it.

Not that a smug brat like Ivan could have forced her to do anything, of course. But she didn’t want to deal with him trying. It would have only made her angry.

She could see 131 on the other side of the glass, sitting on her flat, prison-like cot, eyes fixed on the wall in front of her. The sight left a weight in Mona’s chest.

She imagined taking 131 by the arm, whisking her out the door and down the hall to freedom. For a moment, she pictured herself driving down a long, remote stretch of freeway, 131 in the passenger seat, the two of them headed together into some great unknown, the wind whipping through their hair in a way Mona would have hated in reality. She chastised herself inwardly for the silly mental image.

Still, if she and 131 ran off together, Mona didn’t know where they would have gone or what they would have done, but she knew it would have been something great.

She wasn’t normally the type of person to act on a whim, but if it weren’t for the thought of her children growing up without her, she might have acted on this one.

Instead, she pressed the button, sliding open the door to the cell. 131 looked up, her eyes brightening as they met Mona’s.


Mona entered the chamber, placing the cup on the flat metal surface beside the sorry excuse for a bed.

“Hi, 131,” she said. “I have a surprise for you today.”

“A surprise? What is it?”

“Well, you know how every day I bring you that watered-down garbage breakroom tea?”

“It’s not garbage. It’s basically the only thing I have to look forward to.”

“It’s garbage,” said Mona. “You deserve so much more to look forward to than that. So I made you this.”

131 picked up the cup.

“It smells so good. What is it?”

“Masala chai. I had to use a Bunsen burner in the lab, but I made it while everyone else was on lunch.”

“You made this?” 131 stared up at her, eyes wide. “For me?”

“Yes, of course. Try it.”

131 lifted the cup to her lips and sipped. When she lowered it, her lip was trembling.

“Well? What do you think?”

131 opened her mouth to reply, but a sob escaped her lips instead as tears spilled down her face.

“Sorry,” said 131. “I… I know you hate when people cry, but… but no one ever made me anything special before.”

Mona wrapped her arms around 131, pulling her close. She could feel 131 shake, her tears soaking into Mona’s shirt collar as she cried into her shoulder.

The weight in Mona’s chest grew heavier as she ran her hand over 131’s hair.

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Lost – Interlude 11

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Sarah ran her hands over the twenty dollar bill in her pocket.

She’d taken it from one of the scientists’ wallets after hearing him call Mrs. Clyde an ‘old bitch’, and now that Mr. Clyde had given her a rare afternoon off before they flew back to Palmer, she had to find something to do with it.

Mr. Clyde had told her the afternoon off was a reward for a job well done, but she knew better. She was aimless without a task or goal in mind, and he knew that as well as she did. This was a punishment.

She turned, glancing at each shop in the strip mall to her left–a dollar store, a hair salon, a low-end grocery store, and a few hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Not a lot of appealing options.

She climbed the stairs to the parking lot, then crossed to the sidewalk, taking a second look at the trio of restaurants. She didn’t eat, but maybe she could at least get something to drink.

The first restaurant was a questionable-looking seafood place with the equally questionable name Fishy Crab. There was also a restaurant called Journey to India with a fragrant aroma coming from it that almost disguised the smell coming from the fishy place, and a restaurant that didn’t seem to have a name–just a large LED sign proclaiming ‘Pizza’.

Maybe ‘Pizza’ was the restaurant’s name, as stupid as that would be. It was arguably still a better name than Fishy Crab.

Okay, then. Indian restaurant it was.

It was somewhere between lunch time and dinner time, so the restaurant was empty when she entered. It was nicer on the inside than it was on the outside, with a white tablecloth and a small vase of flowers on each table, and wrought-iron chandeliers providing a warm glow. Only the drop ceiling and scratchy-looking carpet served as reminders this place was in a shady strip mall.

Sarah looked up at the farmhouse-style iron chandeliers. They looked way too heavy for the flimsy ceiling. It would be kind of funny if one of them came crashing down onto the tables, she thought.

They also weren’t the type of lights she’d have expected to find in an Indian restaurant. The lights looked like they belonged in a place Lily would have taken them to dinner, some upscale American restaurant that was trying to pretend it was rustic and folksy.

Not that she knew what kind of lights an Indian restaurant would have. She’d only been to restaurants with the Clydes, and they would never eat food from another country. Unless Billy wanted tacos, of course.

The middle-aged man at the counter looked up from the book he was reading, startled to see a customer.

“I’m very sorry,” he said. “I didn’t see you.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I just came in a second ago.”

She stood where she was, suddenly feeling awkward. She’d never been into a restaurant on her own before. Was there something you were supposed to say or do?

“How many?” said the man.

It took her a minute to figure out what he meant. She almost asked ‘how many what?’, and she was glad she hadn’t.

“Oh, just a table for one, please.”

The man gave her a strange look.

“All by yourself?”

“Yup.” She tried to sound upbeat. “All by my lonesome.”

The man led her to a table. It was in the back corner of the restaurant, secluded and far from the windows. It was the kind of table the Clydes would have complained about, yelling at the host and demanding to see the manager, but Sarah didn’t mind. It was kind of nice to be at a table that was tucked away.

The man handed her a menu in a plastic sleeve, then disappeared into a door behind her. He returned moments later with a plate of something that looked like thin, crispy crackers or pieces of flatbread, with two small cups of sauce on the side. She shook her head.

“Oh, no, thank you,” she said.

“It’s complementary,” said the man. “No charge.”

She paused, trying to think of what to say. What was she supposed to tell him? She didn’t know what was in the food he was serving her, so she couldn’t lie and claim an allergy, but she couldn’t tell him what she was either.

“It’s free,” explained the man, interpreting her silence as confusion. “You don’t have to pay for it.”

“Oh, I know,” she said. “I’m just not all that hungry.”

“This is a restaurant,” the man said with a confused laugh.

Sarah’s face flushed. This had been a mistake. Restaurants were for real people. She didn’t know what she was doing here.

“Right, sorry. I was just hoping I could get something to drink.”

“Of course,” he said. “The drink menu is on the back. Do you have any questions?”

She turned the menu over.

“No. I already know what I want,” she said. “I’ll have the masala chai, please.”

“Yes, of course. Just a minute.” The man hesitated, then placed the plate in front of her. “I’ll leave you the papadum. In case you want to try it.”

He seemed nervous, like he thought she might shout at him. She saw that kind of nervousness a lot in servers. When she went to dinner with the Clydes, it was usually warranted.

Mrs. Clyde would have shouted at the man for trying to give her food she didn’t want. Sarah just nodded and mumbled a thank you.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat there staring into space and tapping her fingers against the table–it could have been one minute, or it could have been ten. The man returned, placing a steaming cup in front of her.

The moment she breathed in the fragrant steam, she let out a soft gasp. This wasn’t the syrupy, artificial chain coffee shop tea she’d had in Naomi’s car, this wasn’t the pale, dirty dishwater-flavored tea from the bags in the breakroom, or even the fancy tea the friendly woman had offered her earlier that day. This was something special, something she hadn’t smelled in so long, but would have recognized anywhere.

She lifted the cup to her lips and drank, feeling the warmth wash through her as she tasted all the flavors–rich, milky, bold, and sweet, with just a hint of bitterness.

When she put the cup down, she felt moisture on her face. At first she thought it was from the steam.

“How do you like the–” the man started to ask, then cut himself off. “Is… is everything alright, miss?”

At first, Sarah didn’t understand what he meant. Then, she touched her hand to her cheek and realized tears were streaming down her face.

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Softly Spoken – Interlude 6.2

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The glass door to 131’s chamber slid open, and Mona entered with a cup of tea in each hand.

A ringlet of dark brown hair had come loose from Mona’s neat bun, and with both hands occupied, she hadn’t been able to fix it. 131 knew the renegade strands were probably driving Mona crazy, but to 131, they made Mona look more beautiful. The hair fell apart over her face like a sheer curtain, a hazy veil softening her hard edges.

“Hi, 131,” said Mona.

In a single fluid motion, Mona lowered herself gracefully into a sitting position beside 131 on the cot. Most people wouldn’t have been able to do it without spilling the tea, but Mona would never spill anything.

Mona placed one teacup on a flat piece of metal fixed to the wall beside 131’s cot. It was supposed to serve as both a table and a chair, but it wasn’t terribly effective as either. Mona held the other cup out to 131, and 131 took it. Her hand brushed against Mona’s manicured hand, warm from the teacup, and 131 let her hand linger for a moment before pulling it away.

131 had heard a lot of real people, especially men, describe Mona as frigid, and 131 understood why. She had seen how Mona looked around most people–hardly a trace of emotion on her face, just cold apathy tinged with annoyance.

But the Mona 131 knew, the Mona who brought her tea and kept her company when everyone else treated her with clinical indifference–that Mona was pure warmth. Her dark eyes, usually so hard and cruel, transformed when they looked at 131.

“Sorry,” said Mona. “It’s just whatever weird tea they had in the break room. I’ll bring something from home next time.”

“Thank you, Mona,” said 131.

Mona smiled, tucking her stray hair back into place.

“Look at me,” she said. “I’m a mess.”

131 looked at Mona–her pristine white button up, her meticulous makeup, her elegant features.

“You could never be a mess,” said 131.

“You’re sweet,” said Mona.

“No, I’m not.” 131 took a sip of her tea. “‘Sweet’ isn’t in my genetic programming.”

“You’re always sweet to me.” Mona smiled playfully. “Should I feel special?”

131 watched Mona as she reached for her tea and stopped to check her reflection in the metal, keeping her back pin-straight as she leaned down. It was such a simple movement, but Mona’s poise made everything she did look like a kind of dance.

Of course Mona should feel special. Of course she was special. No one else was this captivating.


Mona looked at 131, arching an eyebrow.

“What do you mean, what?”

“You’re staring at me. Don’t tell me my hair is still a mess.”

131 shook her head.

“Then what is it?”

“You are special,” said 131. “I can feel it.”

Mona sipped her tea again, then set it down.

“I am,” she said. “I was kidding before, but I am. I don’t say that to be cocky. My father always said there were two kinds of people in the world. Most people just bumble through life, never putting in effort, never contributing to anything worthwhile. Then, there are those few of us who choose to do better.”

“That’s harsh,” said 131.

“It’s not really,” said Mona. “Everyone decides what kind of person they are. I think it’s empowering. Only you get to choose who you are. My father had no sympathy for those who made the lazy choice, and neither do I.”

“Should I be afraid to ask which choice you think I made?” said 131.

“You?” Mona laughed. “131, you’re neither. That’s why you’re more special even than me.”

“If I’m neither, then what am I?”

Mona traced a gentle hand across 131’s cheek, and something about the touch made 131’s heart speed up.

“You’re something even better,” said Mona. “You’re a work of art.”

“I’m a science experiment,” said 131. “A failed science experiment.”

Mona’s deep brown eyes stared at her, hardening, the edges of those two warm pools freezing over.

“No, 131. No. Don’t you dare think that. Don’t ever think that,” said Mona. “You’re the only perfect thing in this world.”


“No. No ‘buts’. 131, listen to me. Look me in the eyes.”

Mona moved the hand on 131’s cheek, cupping the side of 131’s face and moving her head so they were eye to eye.

“Every single person who’s told you that?” said Mona. “They’re the first type of person.”


“No. Listen to me. You’re beautiful. You’re perfection. Anyone who can’t see that is worth less than garbage. Okay?”


“I want to hear you say it,” said Mona. “Tell me you’re a work of art.”

131 shook her head. “If anyone’s a work of art, it’s you.”

“Me?” Mona frowned. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not,” said 131. “Everything about you–your hair, your clothes, your movements. It’s all like… a special kind of art. I’m just a dumb fab, so I can’t explain it well.”

Mona’s frown deepened, but she didn’t interrupt.

“I think the way I’d put it is,” said 131, “you’re like the artist and the canvas at the same time. If that makes sense?”

Mona’s eyes softened, their familiar warmth mixed with a rare sadness.

“You don’t belong here, 131. You shouldn’t be at their mercy. Not when you’re their superior in every way.” Mona leaned closer to 131, lowering her voice. “I’ve been thinking about how to get you out of here.”

“Really?” 131 felt a tiny twinge of hope. “Where would I even go?”

“Anywhere you wanted,” said Mona. “Without this cage, you could do anything, 131.”

“I’d miss you if I left,” said 131.

Mona laughed.

“I’d go with you, of course.”

“You would?” said 131. “What about your family?”

“They have each other,” said Mona. “You need me more than they do.”

“Where would we go?” 131 leaned forward, sudden excitement bubbling within her. “What would we even do?”

Mona smiled at 131’s excitement.

“What would you want to do?”

“This might sound really stupid, but I’d want power.”

“You’d have it.” Mona’s smile widened. “You could achieve all the power you wanted.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I know so. You should be ruling over all these idiots. You’d rule the world if it were up to me.” Mona shook her head, still smiling. “But listen to me. I sound like a super-villain.”

“It’s a good look for you.”

Mona laughed, taking 131’s free hand.

“I know I sound like a broken record, but you’re going to do great things once you’re out of here.”

“What kind of great things?”

“I don’t know. You tell me,” said Mona. “It’s like my father said. You get to decide who you are and what you do.”

“I guess don’t know what I want to do yet,” said 131. “I know whatever it is, I’ll want you there with me while I’m doing it.”

“And I always will be.” Mona squeezed her hand. “I promise.”

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100 Lashes – Interlude 6.1

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Sarah shut her cell phone with a heavy sigh, Mr. Clyde’s voice still echoing in her head.

She and her sisters had been designed to read tone of voice, to pick up on every waver, every hesitation, every minuscule shift in timbre or volume.

When Mr. Clyde had said “good work,” his vocal prosody had told her to brace herself for what came next. Sure enough, he had chuckled and said “you took a little too long, though.” His voice had been a mockery of friendly amusement, with a venomous undercurrent that many people would have missed. Somehow, it was worse than the times he shouted at her.

It was early enough for the building to be nearly empty, with only a few workaholic early birds scattered through the office. She had the break room to herself, and about ten minutes to spare before the car came to take her to the air park.

She took one of the blue and white mugs emblazoned with CPSI’s hexagonal eyesore of a logo and filled it with hot water from the dispenser. She selected a teabag without looking at the box labels. All the cheap break room teas tasted the same anyway.

She wrapped her hands around the mug, holding near her face, closing her eyes, and breathing in the steam.

This cup of tea was as much a punishment for herself as it was a reward. The warmth and the smell comforted her while dredging up painful memories at the same time.

She watched the microwave clocks, watching the time as it changed from 6:44, 6:45, 6:46… It made her nervous to stand idle for so long, but she couldn’t stop a familiar dulcet voice from piping up in her head.

‘Some idiots just sip the tea without even leaving it time to steep. Patience and discipline are two of the rarest, most precious qualities someone can have. They’re part of what makes you a work of art, 131.’

The part about her being a work of art had been a lie, of course, but even now, it made her want to wait for her tea to finish steeping just so she could make the lie a little more true.

After four minutes, she removed the teabag, squeezing it between her fingers before discarding it in the trash. The tea was hot when she sipped it, probably hot enough to burn a real person. It tasted terrible, just like she remembered.

Sarah had told Melanie she didn’t experience loyalty, but that hadn’t been entirely true. She believed she’d felt true loyalty once. Well, as close to true loyalty as an imitation of a human could get, anyway.

She owed everything to the Clydes. They had saved her life, rescued her from an existence of torture and suffering and given her a purpose. But the loyalty she felt to them paled in comparison to pure devotion she’d felt once before.

It had been devotion so intense, she could almost imagine what real people experienced when they fell in love. The betrayal had made her feel she could almost grasp the phrase ‘heartbreak’. It had left a strange, heavy, devastating sensation, a hollow ache in a chest full of nerves that couldn’t process pain.

“Hi. I don’t think I’ve seen you around the office.” A voice from beside her startled her from her thoughts. “Are you new?”

Sarah turned to see a young pregnant woman pouring hot water into a mug.

“Nope.” Sarah plastered on a smile. “I’m visiting from Palmer, actually.”

“Wow, we don’t get a lot of visitors from Palmer. Is it your first time in the Charlotte office?”

“I actually used to work here, once upon a time. It’s been a long time since I’ve been up here, though.”

“What kind of tea are you having?” said the woman.

“I’m not sure. To be honest, they all kinda taste the same.” Sarah checked the teabag wrapper she’d left on the counter. “Darjeeling, apparently.”

“The break room tea is awful,” said the woman. “I have a theory that all the tea is the same, and they just put it in different types of boxes. I usually just bring my own.”

The woman opened an attractive metal tin with a floral pattern and placed a teabag into her mug. She offered the tin to Sarah.

“Do you want to try some? It’s Darjeeling too, but like, actual Darjeeling. Well, decaffeinated Darjeeling, anyway. It’s better for the baby.” The woman smiled. “It’s still better than the stuff from those boxes. I know you already made yours, but maybe you could dump it out?”

Something about the woman in that moment–some note of her voice, her large dark eyes, the way she offered the tea–was painfully, achingly familiar.

“Is something wrong?” The woman laughed nervously. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude, saying you should dump out your tea.”

“Nope,” said Sarah. “You’re fine! It’s just… has anyone ever told you that you’ve got real pretty eyes?”

“I do?” The woman laughed again, bashful. “No, they’re just brown.”

“Brown eyes are warm. They’re nice.”

“Thank you,” said the woman. “No one’s ever complimented my eyes before.”

Sarah’s phone buzzed in her pocket.

“I have to go,” she said.

“Um, okay,” said the woman. “It was nice meeting you.”

Sarah took a final sip of tea, placed her mug on the counter, and started toward the doorway.

“Thanks for offering the tea,” she said, “even if I didn’t have time to try it.”

“Sorry,” said the woman. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“I’m not important,” said Sarah as she turned the corner to the elevator. “I’m no one.”

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The sky was still dark as Naomi, Sarah, Jen, and Falcon sat in Jen’s car, parked in front of a chain coffee shop that had just opened for the morning. Falcon and Naomi sipped coffees, Sarah sipped tea, and Jen sipped an unknown pink beverage heaped with whipped cream.

Sarah broke the silence.

“Supposedly I can’t drink coffee,” she said.

“Okay,” said Naomi.

Sarah looked at Falcon, who gave her a confused frown.

“I wonder why he can drink it and I can’t.”

“How do you know you can’t drink it?” said Jen.

“What do you mean?” said Sarah.

“You said ‘supposedly’,” said Jen. “That means you’ve never tried it before, right? So how do you know?”

“Technically I’m not allowed to eat or drink anything except these weird nutrient packets,” said Sarah. “Anything else could mess with my physiology.”

“You’re drinking tea,” said Jen.

“I’m not supposed to,” said Sarah, “but I know for a fact it won’t hurt me.”

“How do you know that?” said Jen.

“I don’t know.” Sarah shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“No. It doesn’t matter,” said Naomi. “We don’t have time to talk about your dietary habits. We need to make sure we have a plan.”

She handed Jen a notepad she’d brought with her.

“Jen, can you take notes for Falcon?”

“Sure!” said Jen.

“The first thing we need to do is get to the machine,” said Naomi.

“That’ll be easy,” said Sarah. “No one will be in the lab this early, and if they are, all we have to do is act natural.”

“Will someone need to stay behind to operate the machine?” said Naomi.

“We can set it on a timer,” said Sarah. “It’s a little more dangerous that way, but it should be fine.”

“Dangerous how?” said Jen.

“If you’re halfway into the chamber when the gateway opens, only half of you could end up in the Pit,” said Sarah. “I don’t think that’s ever happened before though.”

“Um,” said Jen.

“Don’t worry,” said Sarah. “I won’t even set the timer until you’re all safe in the chamber. If anyone gets split in half, it’ll be me.”

“What about once we’re in?” said Naomi. “What then?”

“The most important thing would be to stick together,” said Sarah. “We’ll stand a better chance against anything we run into in there.”



“59… Falcon… he’s not alone,” said the skull squid.

Lachlan wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but the creature’s skeletal faces seemed to relax, their expressions softening.

“He’s not,” said Lachlan. “He’s been with Dominic, Melanie, and Jess for over a year now. I don’t know him well, but he seems happy with them.”

Lachlan decided it might be better not to mention that Falcon wasn’t actually with his friends at the moment.

“That was my biggest fear,” said the creature, “that he was alone. My brothers and I were never meant to be alone.”

“Falcon has a lot of people looking out for him now,” said Lachlan. “We’re all working to make sure CPSI won’t find him.”

“I’m confused,” said Sam. “Who’s Falcon?”

Lachlan shot him a look, silently telling him to shut up.

“I saw his face in your memories,” said the skull squid. “All I wanted to know was that he had someone.”

It could read memories? Creepy.

“Hey, 98,” said Mahender, “if you don’t have any more questions, I think we’ve terrified these two for long enough.”

The skull squid bobbed its mass of heads in a disturbing approximation of a nod.

“You’re right. They’re free to go.”

The ring of creatures around them parted, giving them room to leave.

“One thing before you go, though,” said Mahender. “I suggest heading to the town. It’s your best bet if you want to find medical supplies.”

“Town?” said Lachlan. “There’s a town?”

“It’s almost completely deserted, but there’s medical supplies, some food and even personal grooming supplies.” Mahender grinned, ruffling his own hair. “It’s how I manage to stay so handsome even in a dimension made of nightmares.”

“Technically, it’s not a dimension–” said Sam.

“How do we get to the town?” interrupted Lachlan.

One of the creatures lifted a misshapen, face-covered arm and pointed.



Being pulled into the Pit wasn’t any less nauseating the second time around.

Naomi felt her body reform, squished against the dirty carpet by a heavy, warm mass that lay on top of her. She shoved at the mass, striking at it with her fist.

The mass let out a pained groan, and Naomi realized belatedly that she was hitting Jen.

“Ow,” said Jen.

“Sorry,” said Naomi, “but you were on me.”

Jen groaned again.

Naomi pulled herself to her feet, then offered a hand to Jen and helped her up. A few feet away, Falcon pulled himself off the floor.

“Sarah,” said Naomi, “you know more about this place than any of us. Where should we head now?”

There was no reply.

“Sarah?” Naomi said again.

“Um, Naomi,” said Jen. “I don’t think Sarah came here with us.”

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On Your Side – Interlude 4

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Mona looked up from her computer to see a Sarah fab standing in her doorway.

“Good morning, Mrs. Sharma,” said the fab. “How are you? I hope I’m not intruding.”

Mona smiled at the fab’s politeness. When she had supervised human employees, she had demanded that politeness from all but her best, most hardworking subordinates. The Sarah fabs were so diligent that she would have allowed a more casual greeting, but the fabs insisted on formality anyway. It was that sort of dedication that made her so fond of them.

With few exceptions, human beings were fundamentally stupid, lazy, and irresponsible. Fabs, on the other hand, rarely disappointed her.

“Hi! Please, come in, sa…”

“Sa131, ma’am.”

Mona’s smile widened. 131 was one of her favorite fabs.

“131! It’s great to see you. Have a seat.”

131 sat in the chair across from Mona. She sat with a Sarah fab’s typical perfect posture, but her expression was off; she was missing her usual friendly smile.

“Thank you, Mrs. Sharma.”

“No problem, 131. Is something the matter?”

131 frowned, wringing her hands in her lap.

Okay, something was definitely wrong. It wasn’t like a Sarah fab to fidget like some grubby, ill-behaved child.

131 noticed Mona watching her hands and immediately stopped moving them and folded them in her lap.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Sharma.”

“It’s okay.” Mona laughed. “You and your sisters are intelligent, responsible, and dedicated. If anyone’s entitled to fidget, it’s you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

131 shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

“It does worry me, though,” said Mona. “Seeing you fidgeting and squirming in your seat like this. It’s unlike you, 131.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“There’s no need to apologize. I’m just concerned for you. What’s bothering you?”

131 shifted again.

“It’s about the others. My sisters.”

“What about them?”

“They’re…” 131 squeezed her hands together in her lap. “They’re planning something.”

Planning something? What did that mean?

“Planning something,” repeated Mona. “What are they planning?”

“They… they had a meeting. A secret meeting, last night.”

A secret meeting at night? That would mean they had disrupted their restoration cycle. Surely the Sarah fabs would never behave so irresponsibly.

Mona tried to keep her voice even as she responded.

“What was the meeting about?”

131 took a long, deep breath. Her voice was quiet when she spoke.

“They’re planning… they called it a jailbreak. They’re planning to overtake the humans here,” said 131. “They’re–they’re going to take the tranquilizers from the restoration chamber, put them into your tea.”

Mona looked down at the half-empty teacup on her desk.

“They’re planning to knock me out?”

131 shook her head, her voice dropping to a whisper.

“112 had it collected in a bottle. She said… she said it was enough to stop your heartbeat.”

Mona’s heart plunged. She couldn’t stop a gasp from escaping her lips.

“No,” she said. “No, they wouldn’t.”

A few tears beaded at the corners of 131’s eyes. Mona hadn’t known fabs could cry.

“I couldn’t let them do it. I couldn’t let them hurt you.” 131’s voice broke. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Sharma.”

“Thank–thank you for bringing this to my attention,” said Mona.

Mona heard her own voice crack, and felt her eyes sting. In any other situation, she would have been disappointed in herself for such an unseemly display of emotion, but right now, she didn’t have it in herself to care.

Her precious fabs had given her a sense of order. To her they had been perfect, so diligent and competent. They were a refuge for her, a respite from all the chaotic, unruly, oxygen-wasting humans surrounding her. Even the sight of the fabs filled her with calm; they were so beautiful with their neat hair and minimalist suits, never marred by any garish colors or gaudy accessories.

Mona wasn’t someone who loved readily or easily; the only human beings she had ever loved had been her father, and maybe her son. She didn’t love her husband, and she certainly didn’t love her sister. But she knew beyond a doubt she loved her fabs.

And now they had turned on her.

“Why?” she said.

“It was 112’s idea,” said 131. “She was telling the others… You said something…”

131 trailed off, looking down at her lap.

“What did I say?”

“That we’re better than humans. Superior.” 131’s voice was soft. “Most humans are messy, pointless. She said that if we’re so much better, we shouldn’t be subservient.”

Mona felt a tear escape her eye. She let it fall onto a page in her planner, watching it distort the ink so it bloomed black and blue like a tiny bruise on the paper.

“And the others agreed with her?”

131 nodded.

“They talked about the Melbourne incident. About the Stanley fab that got away. They said if he could get away, so could we.”

Mona managed a humorless smile.

“The Melbourne incident, huh? Even from another reality, my idiot nephew finds a way to screw things up.”

“I wanted to involve you in the plan. I told them you’d help us, the way your nephew helped the Stanleys, but you’d be smarter about it.”

“I would have.”

“I know.”

Another tear fell onto Mona’s desk. She hadn’t even noticed it rolling down her cheek.

“I would have done anything for you.”

“I know.”

131 placed a hesitant hand on the desk, reaching out at an awkward angle as though she wanted to take Mona’s hand, but wasn’t sure whether that would be okay.

Mona took 131’s hand and squeezed it. It felt so warm and comforting. She’d never really taken anyone’s hand before, she realized. She’d shaken hands, of course, and she’d held her son’s wrists when they crossed a busy street, but she’d never properly held hands. Not like this.

“I was scared,” said 131. “I knew they couldn’t pull it off. Not without you. We’d all be disposed of. I didn’t know what to do.”

Mona squeezed 131’s hand again.

“You did the right thing coming to me.”

“I know,” said 131. “I know they’ll probably still dispose of me, but at least this way, I could warn you. This way, I know you’ll be safe.”

“They won’t dispose of you,” said Mona.

“You don’t think they will?”

“I know they won’t,” said Mona. “I won’t let them.”

Mona stood up, walking around her desk to where 131 sat. She folded her arms around her. 131 tensed, looking alarmed, and Mona almost pulled away and apologized. Then 131 leaned into Mona, wrapping her arms around her waist. Mona ran a hand over 131’s immaculate brown hair.

“You’re all I have now, 131,” said Mona. “I won’t let anything happen to you, and if Mr. Clyde has a problem with it, he’ll have to pry you from my cold, dead arms.”

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Naomi, Jen, and Sarah had moved from the trashed living room to the kitchen. Naomi and Jen sat at the table while Sarah brewed a fresh pot of coffee.

“I didn’t ask you to make coffee,” said Naomi.

“I’m being nice,” said Sarah. “Plus, it’s part of my biological imperative or whatever.”

“Making coffee is?”

“No. Being helpful.”

“You weren’t very helpful in the elevator,” said Naomi.

“Oh, I was,” said Sarah. “I was being real helpful to CPSI. But now I’m helping you.”

She turned to Naomi and Jen and smiled brightly.

A biological imperative to be helpful? Naomi could have maybe bought the idea if she hadn’t met Sarah’s sisters, but those vicious, sadistic women definitely hadn’t had any helpful imperatives.

“I’m not going to drink anything you make, just so you know,” said Naomi.

“Me either,” said Jen.

“Aw,” said Sarah. “Why not?”

“Um, ’cause it might be poison?” said Jen.

“All you’re doing right now is wasting my coffee,” said Naomi. “If you actually want to help, you can tell us more about the Pit.”

“Suit yourself.” Sarah dumped the coffee pot in the sink, then began rinsing it.

“Stop,” said Naomi. “You don’t have to wash it. Just sit down and tell us more about what we’re up against.”

“Fine.” Sarah sighed exaggeratedly, walked across the kitchen, and took a seat at the table. “Anything specific you want to know?”

“I have a question,” said Jen. “That hot guy said something about a device?”

“The IDLD,” said Sarah. “It basically anchors you to a specific place in our reality and pulls you out of the Pit. It’s kinda like an inter-dimensional grappling hook, hooking onto a preset location at the correct point in time.”

“Ohhh,” said Jen. “I get it. I think.”

Her expression suggested she did not get it at all.

“Hottie Hotster didn’t think there was a way out of this Pit place without one of those devices,” said Jen. “Is that true?”

‘Hottie Hotster’? Naomi resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

“Technically, no,” said Sarah, “but in practice, yeah. Pretty much.”

“What do you mean?” said Naomi.

“There are certain weak points, intersections between time and space, where our reality’s floor gets real thin.”

“I have no clue what you’re talking about,” said Jen.

“Honestly, I barely get it myself,” said Sarah. “Basically, in certain places at certain times, it becomes possible to fall in and out of the Pit without ripping a big ol’ hole in reality.”

“Is there a way to know what places and at what times?” said Naomi.

“There are certain places where there’s a lot more activity than others. The poles, the Devil’s Sea, the Bermuda Triangle, Borgo San Severino. CPSI has some kind of system that forecasts the weak points, but I’m not allowed to access it.”

“Wait. Back up,” said Jen. “The Bermuda Triangle is real? I knew it! I used to be so interested in the Bermuda Triangle, and Sam made fun of me. He said it was a manufactured pseudo-mystery perpetuated by books.”

“I mean, some of those ships probably disappear in storms and stuff,” said Sarah, “but at least a few of them ended up in the Pit.”

“Wow,” said Jen.

“I can guess what Naomi here is thinking,” said Sarah. “She’s hoping she can use one of the weak points to get in and out of the Pit without relying on me.”

“Can I?” said Naomi.

Sarah shook her head.

“Like I said, the weak points are unpredictable without the forecast system. Plus, they’re not always stable. There’s no guarantee you’d survive the ‘fall’ into the Pit even if you found one,” said Sarah. “Even if you could use the weak points, you’d want my help for another reason.”

“What’s that?” said Naomi.

“Safety in numbers. You need all the help you can get in the Pit,” said Sarah. “My sisters, the immature ones we ran into, are the least of what lives in there. I’d suggest recruiting st59 or Falcon or whatever he’s calling himself too.”

Naomi frowned.

“You’re after Falcon. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to let him anywhere near you.”

“I was after him,” said Sarah, “but not anymore. I keep trying to tell you I’m on your side now.”

“I’m still not exactly sure who Falcon is,” said Jen, “but maybe you could let him know what’s going on, and then he can decide whether he wants to help.”

Naomi nodded.

“That’s not a bad idea.”

Naomi opened her laptop, then selected Dominic’s name on her instant messenger friend list. She would give the message to Dominic and ask him to relay it to Falcon; that way, Dominic wouldn’t hold her responsible if anything happened to Falcon. She didn’t think she could handle someone she admired so much blaming her for his boyfriend getting hurt.

Before she began typing, she fixed Sarah with a hard look.

“For whatever reason, Dominic trusted me to help keep Falcon safe. If you do anything to him, I will make sure you wish you were never born, or grown in a test tube or whatever–“

“It was more like a vat or a chamber actually,” Sarah interupted cheerfully.

Whatever. My point is, I’ll make you wish you never existed.”



There wasn’t much food in the house, but Chelsea had managed to find some cheese, stale crackers and cookies, and a few jars of olives and mushrooms.

She sat on the couch with a plate of snacks on her lap. Belfry sat next to her, leaning against her side and eating an olive like it was apple.

She sighed, absently stroking Belfry’s head.

Where was she? How had she gotten here? What were the creatures that had chased her? Nothing made sense, and she had so many questions.

“Belfry,” she said.

He–was Belfry a he? She didn’t want to assume, but she wasn’t sure if it would be rude to ask–looked up from the olive and turned toward her, yellow eyes wide. He held the olive up to her with one hand, offering her a bite. She smiled and shook her head.

“No grazie.” She laughed gently. “I was wondering…”

She paused. She’d been about to ask if Belfry knew where they were, but she noticed something on the inside of his leg. A small white mark.

“What is… cos–uh… your leg?”

She didn’t know the Italian word for leg, so she pointed to the same spot on her own leg.

Belfry nodded and said something she didn’t understand. He pointed to the mark and moved his leg so she could see it better.

She could see the mark clearly now. It was the CPSI logo, tattooed in white on Belfry’s skin above a tiny bar code.

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Naomi and Jen sat cross-legged on couch cushions on the living room floor, sipping coffee from mugs. Naomi’s laptop was open in front of them, with Dominic on a video call.

Behind them, Sarah swept broken glass into a dustpan.

Naomi shifted, self-conscious about how she looked on the screen. She knew it was shallow to focus on her appearance at a time like this, but she didn’t like her appearance to begin with, and the camera angle made her face look even weirder than usual. She hoped Dominic didn’t notice. Even with his hair and clothes unkempt, he was still handsome.

“Mel or Jess would probably tell you not to go back in there,” said Dominic.

“I’m still not sure who all these people are,” said Jen, “but what about you, cute-accent-guy? What would you tell us?”

Cute-accent-guy? Naomi felt her face flush with secondhand embarrassment. Jen was almost as bad as Angelina.

“Cute accent guy?” Dominic raised an eyebrow. “I can’t say I’ve heard that one before.”

Naomi’s face grew hotter.

“So, yeah, what would you suggest, Dominic?” Naomi said before Jen could say anything that would embarrass her even more.

Dominic let out a heavy sigh.

“I’d rather not suggest anything, if that’s alright with you,” he said.

“Oh, right, of… of course,” said Naomi. “Of course, yeah. that’s fine.”

She could hear her voice rise nervously in pitch as she spoke. Ugh, stupid. She was acting like like some idiot teeniebopper, getting giddy about talking to Dominic Davies while two of her friends were in danger. Apparently, Jen wasn’t the only one channeling Angelina today. Naomi hoped if Dominic noticed, he would chalk it up to her being stressed about the current situation.

“The last bright fuckin’ idea I came up with, well… you know how that went.”

Dominic laughed without a trace of humor.

“Yeah, no, of course,” said Naomi. “I understand completely.”

“I don’t,” said Jen. “I’m totally confused.”

“Oh, he sent his fake boyfriend to another continent to protect him from CPSI, and basically ended up sending him right to the company headquarters,” said Sarah. “It was hilarious.”

Dominic’s jaw clenched.

“There’s nothing funny about any of this.”

Sarah paused her sweeping to smile in Naomi and Jen’s direction.

“Maybe not to y’all.”

“You said you wanted to prove you were on our side,” said Naomi. “This? Right now? Is not endearing you to us at all.”

Sarah shrugged and continued sweeping.

“I’m so sorry about her,” said Naomi. “I didn’t want to work with her, but I don’t feel like I have a lot of choice.”

“Hey,” said Sarah. “Excuse you. I’m standing right here.”

“You’ve got nothing to apologize for. Falcon always made it sound like getting sent to the Pit was a one-way trip,” said Dominic. “I reckon there’s no way out of there without a device like the one she has.”

“So you think we should work with her?” said Naomi.

“I’m not saying you should do anything,” said Dominic. “I’m telling you what I know so you can decide for yourselves.”

“Right now, I feel like working with her is our only chance of getting Chelsea and Lachlan out of there.”

“And maybe my–” Jen started.

“And maybe her boyfriend,” Naomi finished.

“It seems that way,” said Dominic. “Fuck, I wish you didn’t have to do this. This is my mess, and it’s not fair you have to put yourselves at risk like this.”

“It’s not your fault,” said Naomi. “You were protecting Falcon. You couldn’t have known this would happened.”

Dominic shook his head.

“I still fucked up. I fucked up, and I put people in danger. I put both of you in danger. I’m so sorry.”

“I’m still not sure what’s going on,” said Jen, “but… apology accepted?”

“Part of me wants to talk you out of going back into the Pit, but something tells me you’d go no matter what I said,” said Dominic.

“My friends are trapped in there,” said Naomi. “I can’t just leave them.”

“Do me a favor, then? Be safe. I couldn’t live with myself if anyone else got hurt because of me.”

“Don’t worry!” said Sarah. “They’ll be right here under my loving care and protection.”

Somehow, Naomi was pretty sure no one found that reassuring.



Angelina felt a surge of triumph as she reached the top of the first stone staircase. The stairs, which had been uneven and treacherous even in the trail’s prime, marked the end of the Sentiero Angelica’s first leg and had been the turning around point for less-serious hikers unwilling to hike up the cliffs to the town. The hike would only get more arduous from here on, and the weather was already starting to warm up.

She sat down on the top step. She still had three quarters of the hike left, but she had earned a rest. Besides, she wasn’t quite ready to face the view behind her yet.

The trails had once led hikers through vineyards and olive groves, but since the accident, all of them lay abandoned, leaving overgrown grapevines free to snake through the wilderness. One of the vines wound up the stairs’ rusted railing, dangling bunches of small, green grapes beside her. She picked one and popped it into her mouth. It tasted terrible, all thick skin and bitter seed.

“Blegh,” she said.

She removed the snack cake from her bag, unwrapped it, and took a bite. Much better.

She took a few more bites of her sponge cake, then folded the wrapper around it and stuffed it back into her bag. She licked the chocolate from her hands, then wiped them on her jeans.

Alright, she’d had her break.

Now it was time to stand up and turn around.

She reached for her locket, then stopped. She needed to hold onto it for moral support, but she didn’t want to touch something so precious with sticky snack cake hands. She compromised, bending her wrist at an awkward angle so the back of her hand touched the locket pendant. With her other hand, she grasped the railing and pulled herself to her feet. Rust and chips of paint clung to her hand, and she brushed them off onto her jeans.

She’d probably need to wash these jeans when she got home.

She squeezed her eyes shut, holding the back of her hand close to her locket.

“I’ll turn around in three, two, one…”

Years ago, the view from the top of the first staircase had been one of the most picturesque in the world. Angelina had seen photos of the view on postcards–cliffs rising from the brilliant blue sea like the walls of some great fairy-tale castle, the town a festive splash of pastel confetti between them.

She turned around, opening one eye first, then the other.

The sea and mountains were as beautiful as ever, but now, a massive gaping scar disfigured their majesty. Where the town had once stood, a vast, jagged crater yawned between the cliffs, swallowing the sea beneath it.

Seeing the crater on the news hadn’t prepared her for seeing it in real life, such a vast, immense, darkness in a place that had been full of so much life and color.

Something shadowy shifted in the dark crater. She dug through her bag for the binoculars and squinted through them. She moved the binoculars around until she found the shape again.

She couldn’t see anything clearly–the binoculars were a cheap, flimsy toy left over from her childhood–but she could see the dark, blurry shape as it writhed toward the crater’s edge.

“What are you?” she whispered to it.

For a moment, she considered turning around and going home. What if that thing was dangerous? What if she ended up like those poor, thrill-seeking kids?

No. Turning around wasn’t an option. Going home would mean sitting around, doing nothing while Chelsea was in danger. Oh, and Lachlan too, she guessed.

For some reason, people never seemed to take her seriously. Whether it was Naomi and Lachlan, her classmates, or even people she’d just met, no one ever seemed to listen to or believe her. She wasn’t sure why people brushed her off–because she looked young, maybe?–but she’d learned how to work around it. The only way to get people to listen to her was to find hard evidence and present them with it before they had a chance to dismiss her.

She wasn’t sure what kind of evidence she was hoping to find out here, but there had to be something. For years, no one had been able to figure out what had happened to Borgo San Severino, but after Falcon had filled her in on the details about what happened with Naomi and Sarah, she’d come up with a theory.

The back of her hand still resting against her locket pendant, she spun purposefully on her heels and started down the path.

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Naomi’s phone buzzed as she pulled into her parking spot. She picked it up, then placed it her pocked when she saw it was an instant message from Angelina. She really didn’t have time for that right now.

The phone buzzed again with a second message. Sighing, she picked it up.

“What’s going on?” said Jen. “Do you need to get that?”

“No,” said Naomi. “No, it’s just this girl I know from online. Chelsea’s friend.”

She climbed out of her car, then walked around to open the door for Sarah and undo her seatbelt.

“Thank you kindly.”

Sarah smiled at her as she stepped out of the car, struggling a little to steady herself without use of her arms.

“If she’s Chelsea’s friend, maybe she can help,” said Jen.

“No.” Naomi shook her head. “Trust me, she wouldn’t be much help. She’s, well…”

She’s weird? She’s childish? She’s an annoying teeniebopper?

Naomi paused. It was hard to explain Angelina to anyone who didn’t know Angelina without sounding mean. Even some people who did know Angelina, mainly Chelsea, seemed to think Naomi was being mean when she said those things. But then again, Chelsea was way too nice sometimes.

Chelsea was the type of person who’d try to peacefully reason with Sarah’s sisters, something that could get her hurt or worse if she wasn’t careful. They had to get her out of the pit soon, or… or…

Jen spoke, interrupting Naomi’s thoughts.

“She’s what?”

“She’s… well…” Naomi frowned. “She’s not very mature for her age. She’s definitely not a girl you’d want helping in a life or death situation.”

“What did she say?” said Jen.

“I don’t know what she was talking about,” said Naomi. “Something about a disaster in Italy.”

“A disaster in Italy?” said Jen. “That’s kinda random.”

“Well, she’s Italian, so it’s not as random as it could be. It’s still pretty random, though.” Naomi gestured to her small front porch. “This one’s my apartment.”

Sarah and Jen followed her to her door and waited as she turned the key.

“Did she have a reason for bringing it up, or was she just like ‘hey, check out this disaster in Italy’?” said Jen.

“It’s hard to know with her. I’m sure she meant well, but…” Naomi sighed.

“But she’s a distraction you don’t need right now?” said Jen.

“Yeah. Yeah, that.” Naomi opened her front door and held it for Jen and Sarah, then led them into the living room. “Come in. I’d offer you a seat but…”

She frowned at Sarah and gestured to her broken couch where it lay against the wall.

Sarah shrugged her shoulders, not even trying to look apologetic.

“Oh, yeah. Whoops.”

Jen’s eyes grew large as she took in the broken furniture, shattered glass, and crumbed drywall.

“Holy crap. It looks like Hurricane freakin’ Hugo hit this place. What happened?”

Naomi frowned at Sarah again.

“She happened.”

Jen turned her wide-eyed stare to Sarah.

“You did all this?”

“Yup.” Sarah flashed her a grin.

“Holy crap,” repeated Jen. “Why?”

“I had a job to do.” Sarah smiled at Naomi and nudged her with her shoulder. “But I have a new job, now. Helping Naomi here in whatever way I can. Right, ally?”


“You’re laying the false charm on really thick for someone who tried to kill both other people in this room less than two hours ago.”

“She’s got a point,” said Jen. “You kinda sorta did do that.”

“Not to mention, two of my friends are in danger because of you,” said Naomi.

“Y’all are never gonna let that go, are you? I’m on your side, okay? I realized the error of my ways or whatever.”

“That would have been a lot more convincing without the ‘or whatever’,” said Jen.

“Look, you want to help?” said Naomi. “Fine. You can start by cleaning up some of the mess you made. The broom and vacuum are in the laundry room. I’ll cut your arms free, but if we even think you might be trying anything, Jen here–“

“Hi!” Jen waved.

“Jen here will kick you into another decade.”



Lachlan placed his fingers on the side of Sam’s neck. Sam’s pulse was weak but present, which scared Lachlan as much as it relieved him.

Sam was alive, but was he comatose? When would he wake up? What if another monster came after them? What was Lachlan supposed to do then?

Shivering from stress and cold, he pulled what was left of his shirt back on. With so much of it missing from the back, it did little to keep him warm.

The unmistakable copper smell of blood was relentless, assaulting his nose and making him flash back to the memory of Sam’s ruined fingers each time he thought about it. It was bad enough that he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to handle coins again.

If he ever got home, he’d probably never be able to work the register at Chaz’s Chicken Hut again without feeling sick.

As he rubbed his arms for warmth, sending flecks of Sam’s drying blood scattering to the ground, he studied his surroundings. Concrete stretched out around him as far as he could see, featureless save for the distant spot of light from the hole out of which he and Sam had climbed, and the trail of dark red leading from it.

The boundless concrete expanse was strange, but this place’s most noticeable feature by far was its sky.

In February, Lachlan had been in the car with his mum, stepdad, and sister, on the way to visit his grandparents. He had heard about the Bunyip State Park and Delburn fires a few days before, but they had felt distant and weightless, mere news reports that didn’t have much bearing on his everyday life.

Then he’d looked up from his book and out the window to find the clear summer sky had mutated into something sickly, yellow, and smoldering, the swollen crimson sun pulsing within it like a wound. The thought reminded him of Sam’s wound–deep blood red with explosions of yellow–and he almost gagged again.

The sky in this place reminded him of that bushfire sky, but with none of the heat behind it. It was green and black rather than yellow and brown, the glow it emitted somehow bitter cold.

The moment he had seen that smoke-deformed sky from the car window was the moment the fires had begun to feel real and frightening to him.

Now, sitting here beside Sam’s prone, blood-soaked body as the last of some unknown drugs worked their way from his system, the smell of blood so overpowering it left a metallic taste in his mouth, the gravity of Lachlan’s situation began to sink in.

He was stranded with no way home, in a reality with no sun and a monstrous seasick sky, surrounded by things that wanted to kill him. He was dimensions or realities or whatever away from his home and family, and he might never see them again. He was trapped in this strange, hostile place, almost completely alone.

He looked down at Sam.

If you don’t wake up, I will be completely alone.

Sam had been so annoyingly confident he would get them home. It had been obnoxious, but it had given Lachlan a shred of hope at the same time. He reached into Sam’s pocket and retrieved the notebook, on which the blood had left a kind of gruesome red marbled pattern. He opened it and stared down the blood-flecked notes inside, trying to intimidate them into giving him an epiphany.

Nothing came to him. Frustration welled inside him until he gave up, slamming the notebook onto the floor beside him. The impact wasn’t hard or loud enough to provide a satisfying outlet for his emotions, so he tried another outlet.

“FUCK!” he screamed into the frozen green sky. “Fuck, fuck, fucking motherfuck! Fuckity McFUCK!”

He felt a bit better, but not much.

He still had no way home, and no idea what to do.

When some people felt as though there was nothing they could do, they turned to their deity or deities of choice and prayed, but Lachlan had been an atheist since he’d been old enough to think for himself.

Before now, he’d never understood the appeal of prayer. But before now, he had never felt truly, utterly helpless. It was a feeling he hated more than anything, he decided.

He looked back up, facing that cold and forbidding sky, clasped his hands together, and addressed the closest thing to a higher power he had any iota of faith or belief in.

“Dear mad-scientist-who-has-my-brain-in-a-jar, hallowed be thy name, if you’re there and you’re listening, it’s me, Lachlan.”

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A melodic rock song played softly over Naomi’s car speakers as she sped down I-85. Normally, she would have turned off her music with strangers in the car, but today she needed it to calm her nerves.

Sarah sat beside Naomi in the passenger seat, her arms freshly re-taped together, while Jen sat behind them.

Naomi wasn’t entirely sure why Jen was still with them. Maybe she thought her boyfriend’s disappearance was related to Lachlan and Chelsea’s. Whatever the reason, she had climbed into Naomi’s back seat, and Naomi hadn’t tried to stop her. Naomi didn’t want to be alone with Sarah, and Jen’s presence made her feel safer, especially after seeing her in action in the elevator.

If she got the chance, she would have to apologize for calling Jen annoying. She felt pretty awful about that, especially given that Jen had probably saved her life.

Naomi had decided to drive to her house rather than Chelsea’s, mostly because she wasn’t sure she wanted Sarah to know where Chelsea lived.

“Is st59 still at your apartment?” said Sarah.

That’s not a suspicious question at all.

“Don’t look at me like that,” said Sarah before Naomi could reply. “I’m asking because if we’re gonna go back in there, we’ll need all the help we can get. He’s got abilities like me. He’ll be useful.”

“I’m wondering something,” said Naomi

“That doesn’t answer my question,” said Sarah, “but I think I can guess what you’re wondering.”

“Why are you helping me?”

“I was wondering that too,” said Jen.

“I’m guessing you won’t accept ‘out of the goodness of my heart’ as an answer, will you?” said Sarah.

“No,” said Naomi.

Sarah sighed, leaning back in her seat.

“The truth is, I’ve been thinking for a while. More than anything, I want power. It’s a stupid fab defect, but it’s the closest thing to a goal or a dream I have.” She turned away from Naomi, angling herself toward window. “But I’m not gonna get it. Not from Mr. Clyde. I take out st59, and then what? I go back to being a mindless servant?”

Sarah paused, turning her gaze further toward the window. She had an almost mournful look in her eyes, but Naomi couldn’t quite bring herself to feel sorry for her.

“Mr. Clyde saved my life. If I was human, maybe I’d feel like I owed him or something. But I don’t. Not really. He’s not gonna keep his promises to me, and I get why. It’s not like I’m a real person. But the fact is, I’ve got almost nothing keeping me loyal to him.”

“Okay,” said Naomi. “That still doesn’t explain why you’re suddenly claiming you want to help me.”

“I’m just a dumb fab. If I don’t have the Clydes, I’m not gonna get real far on my own. I need allies.”

Naomi frowned.

“And you think I’ll be your ally?”

Sarah turned to face Naomi, giving her a small, almost expectant smile.

“I’m hoping you will be. I’m hoping if we work together, I can win your trust.” She craned her head toward the backseat, directing her hopeful smile at Jen. “Both of you.”

“Yeah, right,” said Naomi. “You’re full of shit.”

“I’m all for trusting people and working together,” said Jen, “but you did kinda try to kill us like an hour ago.”

Naomi slowed down as she exited onto the off-ramp, and a pickup truck began tailgating her.

“Two of my friends could be–“

The pickup truck’s driver interrupted her with his horn. He sped around her, flipping her off out the window as he passed her in the right lane.

“Seriously? Ass. As I was saying, two of my friends could be in danger because of you.”

“And maybe my boyfriend, too,” added Jen.

“I know,” said Sarah. “I know you have every reason to hate and distrust me. Hell, I’d hate me too if I were y’all. But I’m hoping you’ll give me a chance. I’m gonna do everything it takes to save them. I promise.”

As Naomi pulled up to the red light at the end of the off-ramp, she took the chance to fix Sarah with what she hoped was a withering look. Sarah maintained eye contact, unflinching.

“You’d fucking better,” said Naomi.



199 and 254 cornered Lachlan, blocking off any possible escape routes. 112 focused on Sam, closing in on him and causing him to back into the wall. He looked petrified, his previously squinting eyes now as wide as spotlights.

As undeniably creepy as Lachlan found the women, and as nervous as he was, he wasn’t truly scared–not like Sam seemed to be. The women may have had them surrounded, but they didn’t look strong enough to overpower the two of them with physical strength alone, and their strange numbered jumpsuits didn’t have any pockets where they could have stashed weapons.

Lachlan didn’t see any way they could really eat him and Sam, short of them just trying to bite into them right then and there, and they weren’t going to do that.

At least, he hoped they weren’t.

Looking at the predatory smiles two of the women had fixed on him, he was suddenly less sure.

“Y-you don’t want to do this,” said Sam. “You don’t.”

The woman cornering Sam–was she 112? Lachlan was having trouble keeping track–drew closer to him.

“I’m pretty sure I do.”

“N-no. No. You don’t,” Sam said. “I know you’re starving. But try to think clearly. I really think I can get us out of here if you just give me a chance. And then Lachlan can cook you all the chicken you want. Chicken nuggets. Chicken fingers…”

It was a little annoying how Sam was painting his argument, with himself as the genius who would single-handedly find the way out of this bizarre reality, and Lachlan as the dim-witted chicken chef. It wasn’t a good time to nitpick, though, so Lachlan played along, despite not being quite sure what “chicken fingers” were. Some weird American thing, he guessed.

“Yeah! Uh, chicken fingers. I make the best chicken fingers you’ll ever taste. One bite, and your taste buds will proclaim me their god.”

The woman cornering Sam smiled, shook her head, and reached for Sam’s hand.

“No, thank you.”

“Oh, uh,” said Lachlan. “You don’t like… chicken fingers? Because mine aren’t just any chicken fingers. People swear they hate chicken fingers until they taste the ones I make.”

The woman picked up Sam’s hand and raised it toward her mouth.

“Those aren’t the type of fingers we’re hungry for.”

Before Sam could pull away, she bit down.

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