Keep Me–Interlude 24

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Nancy cracked the door of the plane to peer out, and a medium-sized brown and white dog pushed its way through, opening the door and hopping down to the ground. It barked as it spotted them, the hair on its back prickling upward as it eyed the Brothers uncertainly.

Nancy looked equally uncertain when she saw them.

“Would you all mind standing back?” Mahender said to the brothers.

He knew what Nancy had been through, and what his brothers reminded her of, so he was always careful when he visited her with them.

The Brothers backed up, except for Falcon, who stood glancing uncertainly between Nancy and Mahender. Mahender nodded at him, and he stepped forward with the humans of the group. The dog trotted forward to greet the group, heading toward Sam and Lachlan. The two boys bent down to pet the dog.

“Aw!” said Jen. “Puppy!”

She crouched down to pet it too. Its tail swung wildly back and forth at all the attention.

Mahender had seen the dog a few times, usually from a distance. Once, it had even saved him from a particularly large sister. Usually, though, it gave him and his brothers a wide berth. He couldn’t exactly blame it.

He knew from his many conversations with her that Nancy loved dogs. She’d had pet dogs all her life, and it was one of the things she missed most about home. He wasn’t sure how the two had found each other, but he was glad.

“Mahender.” Nancy’s eyes widened as she took in the large group. “And Sam, and Lachlan, and… sorry, I can’t remember your name.”

Mona Aunty frowned.

“It’s Mona, ma’am.”

“Mona, right, of course,” said Nancy, “and… a lot of new faces too.”

Jen, Angelina, Naomi, and Chelsea introduced themselves. Falcon waved.

“Do you mind if one of my brothers comes forward with the group? This is Falcon. He’s deaf and needs a translator.”

“Of course,” said Nancy. “That’s fine.”

st63, the Brother with a skirt of tentacles stepped forward. The dog tucked its tail and made its way back to the plane, turning around to eye st63 suspiciously.

“It’s nice to meet you,” signed Falcon.

“Hello again,” said Lachlan.

“I’m always happy to have visitors,” said Nancy. “But to what do I owe this large crowd? I didn’t know this many people were stuck here.”

“Most of them got here fairly recently,” said Mona Aunty. “We’re here because one of these kids thinks she knows how to get home.”

Nancy stared at them for a few seconds. Then, she finally spoke.


“Yes, home. There aren’t any guarantees, of course. But she’s explained her reasoning to me, and the logic seems solid. This is the first time I’ve come across anything resembling a real chance at getting out of here, so I think we should take it.”

“Can I ask how we get home?”

“All we have to do is stand in a specific place at a specific time,” said Angelina. “If we all scrunch together, the hole that opens in reality should take us home.”

Nancy looked beyond the group at the Brothers standing there.

“And will… everyone here be going?”

Mahender looked back at the creatures he’d come to think of as his Brothers. He’d been so excited at the prospect of going home, of seeing his mum again, that the thought hadn’t even occurred to him.

“Our home is here,” said st98.

Mahender noticed Falcon fidgeting uneasily with his sleeve.

It seemed like Mahender wasn’t the only person who was conflicted.

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

“Are you okay, C?” said Angelina.

Chelsea had no idea how to respond to that.

“I’m… fine,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I, um–“

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

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

Angelina pursed her lips.

“I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too,” said Chelsea.

“Will you come visit me?”

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

“Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

Angelina turned, looking her directly in her eyes.

“Do you swear it? On your life?”

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

These things were Falcon’s brothers?

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

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

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

“Hi!” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falcon lifted a shaking hand and signaled something.

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

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

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

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

“What happened to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Something Got Away – Interlude 5

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Content Warning: Kidnapping


Mahender perked up as the door slid open with a shrill beep. He covered his ears as the thundering of the fans and machinery outside shook the room. After sitting alone at his desk watching security camera feeds for almost four hours, he welcomed any distraction.

Mr. Gibson burst into the room, looking even more red-faced than usual. He hauled two fabs into the room behind him, holding them by their wrists.

The door slid shut, silencing the white-noise roar. Mr. Gibson pulled off his yellow protective headphones, threw them onto Mahender’s desk, and turned to the fabs with a scowl.

“Hello, Gibbo,” said Mahender. “It’s lovely to see you too. How can I help you?”

Some of the other guards had nicknamed Mr. Gibson ‘Gibbo’. Mahender had taken to calling him Gibbo too, mostly because it irritated him. Irritating Mr. Gibson was one of the few entertaining parts of his job.

Mr. Gibson ignored him. He was facing away, but Mahender could tell from Mr. Gibson’s stance he was glowering at the two fabs he’d dragged in.

“What the hell was that?” he said.

The fab he’d addressed–st98 according to his jumpsuit–avoided eye contact, his hands twitching as his fingers tapped against his leg.

Mahender was surprised to see a fab looking so nervous. He’d never interacted with one before, but Mr. Gibson had told him they were mindless automatons. He hadn’t even known they could get nervous.

“What… what was what, sir?” said 98.

98 jumped a little as he spoke, as though the sound of his own voice startled him.

Maybe it did. After all, he did spend all his time bombarded by the ear-splitting roar of the fans and air handling systems.

“Those hand signs you were doing,” said Mr. Gibson. “What the hell was that?”

98 grew paler, his fingers tapping a faster, more irregular rhythm against his leg.

“We developed hand signals as a way to communicate in our loud work environment–“

Mr. Gibson scoffed.

“Communicate? What the hell do you have to communicate about? Just do your bloody jobs.”

“Sir,” said 98. “We usually work alone, it’s true, but sometimes we have to… to convey things to one another, and the hand signals can be a good way to–“

“If you were meant to convey things, you would’ve been designed to convey things. You lot are basically monkeys; you don’t need to communicate anything with hand signs!”

“Monkeys can learn sign language,” interjected Mahender.

Mr. Gibson whipped around, turning his scowl on Mahender.

“If I wanted input from the peanut gallery, Henry, I would’ve asked for it.”

Henry? Seriously? Mahender was used to people butchering his name, but Mr. Gibson didn’t even try.

“My name’s not Henry.”

“You work for me. You’re called Henry if I bloody well say you are.”

Ugh. Mr. Gibson was really something else.

“I don’t believe that’s how names work.” Mahender leaned back in his chair. “Also, I don’t even work for you, I work for a third-party company.”

Mr. Gibson’s face reddened.

“Be that as it may, I have the authority to terminate your employment if I deem it necessary.”

“No, you don’t.”

“I may not have direct authority to terminate you, but I will be speaking to your supervisor at Melbourne Majestic Security about your insubordinate behavior.”

Mahender had only heard that threat about a thousand times.

“Good luck telling him who I am,” he said. “You can’t even get my name right.”

Mr. Gibson gave him a final scowl, then whipped back around to face 98 and 59.

“I’m getting distracted from the matter at hand. You two were using hand signals. Why?”

Mahender wasn’t sure what the problem was. So what if the fabs were using hand signals? It was impossible to hear anything out there. Hand signals seemed like a good idea.

Not that it was surprising Mr. Gibson was making a big deal over it. He was always on some kind of power trip with the fabs, pulling them into the soundproofed rooms to yell at them, or making them do pointless things like line up in numerical order.

“Sir,” said 98. “As I said, it helps to be able to communicate when we’re working together on certain–“

“That’s enough out of you,” said Mr. Gibson. “But I noticed it’s been awfully quiet.”

Mr. Gibson turned his glower on the second fab–59, according to his jumpsuit.

98’s eyes met Mr. Gibson’s for the first time in a wide-eyed stare. If he’d looked nervous before, he was terrified now.

“Well, 59? Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

Some of 98’s fear crept into 59’s expression. He didn’t respond.

“Sir,” said 98. “I think–“

Mr. Gibson slammed his hand onto the desk behind him, startling Mahender. 98 flinched at the sound, but 59 didn’t.

“I don’t give a good goddamn what you think, fab. I wasn’t talking to you.” He fixed his glare on 59. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

59 was silent.

“Well? Answer me!”

59 still didn’t respond. Mr. Gibson stepped forward, his round face a shade of purple-red. He slapped his hands together centimeters from 59’s face, and the sound was loud enough to make both Mahender and 98 jump.

“Answer me!” Mr. Gibson bellowed in 59’s ear.

59 shrunk back, but didn’t flinch at the noise. It was as though he hadn’t even heard it.

“I don’t think he can hear you, Gibbo,” said Mahender.

Mr. Gibson wheeled around to face him.

“What the hell do you mean you don’t think it can hear me? Of course it can hear me!”

“Well, it’s very loud out there, and the fabs are always out there without any ear protection, so maybe–“

“Their eardrums are designed to withstand sustained sound pressure levels of up to 190 decibels, you idiot–“

“There’s no need for name calling,” said Mahender.

“The only way a fab would have any sort of hearing loss would be if there was a defect in its genetic…”

Mr. Gibson trailed off before he finished his sentence. All color had drained from 98’s face.

“A defect in its genetic code,” finished Mr. Gibson.

“Mr. Gibson. Sir, please,” said 98.

Mr. Gibson sighed.

“A defective fab,” he grumbled. “This is just what I need right now.”

“Mr. Gibson, he’s an excellent worker. There have never been any issues with him. In such a loud environment, there’s not even any reason to–“

98’s voice was pleading and frightened, breaking a little as he spoke. He sounded so human, so unlike the mindless, emotionless drone he was supposed to be.

He was afraid for his brother.

Well, that had some unpleasant ethical implications about Mahender’s job.

“Oh, shut up,” said Mr. Gibson. “Another word out of you and I’m disposing of both of you. We have two mature Stanley fabs in Section 0 ready for activation, and I’d just as soon–“

Without warning, 98 lunged at Mr. Gibson with the speed and desperation of a cornered animal with nothing to lose. He collided with Mr. Gibson, sending him tumbling backward into the desk with a surprised grunt. 98 lashed out again and again with an almost frantic energy, hitting and kicking blindly as Mr. Gibson flailed, trying in vain to escape. Mahender stood up, moving out of 98’s range.

“Do–ow, ow!–do something, Henry!” shouted Mr. Gibson. “Get–ow!–get this bloody thing off me!”

Oh, right. Mahender was a security guard. He’d better do his job, he guessed.

“Hey,” he said. “Don’t do that.”

98 didn’t ease his assault on Mr. Gibson.

Henry!” Mr. Gibson’s shout was louder and more frantic. “Ow! God damn it, Henry! Shoot it! Shoot it!”

Mahender shrugged.

“I don’t have a gun, sir.”

Mr. Gibson raised his hand to his face, protecting it from 98’s onslaught.

“Well, do something! Do your bloody job!”

Mahender raised his nightstick in a halfhearted threatening gesture.

“Excuse me,” he said flatly. “Don’t do that. I have this stick and I’m not afraid to use it.”

The second fab–59–had been still until this point. His head snapped around when he saw Mahender produce the nightstick. 59 thrust out his hand, and Mr. Gibson was torn from 98’s grasp. He flew off the desk, slamming against the wall with a crash, then crumpling to the floor.

What the hell? Since when could the fabs do that?

For a moment, 59 stared at his outstretched hand, looking nearly as shocked as Mahender felt. Then, 59 turned to Mahender, his hand still raised. His eyes were fierce, daring Mahender to move.

Mahender glanced at Mr. Gibson. He was motionless, but breathing.

Mahender dropped his nightstick and raised his hands in a placating gesture as he sat back in his chair.

59 walked over to 98 and placed a hand on his shoulder. 59 lowered his hand to his side.

“Please don’t blast me into a wall for asking,” said Mahender, “but what just happened?”

The fabs ignored his question.

“I need to get him out of here,” said 98. “How?”

Mahender thought for a second.

“Freight entry is in Section 1. There’s a loading dock. You’d need to get him into the back of a truck without being seen. The doors are locked, but…”

Mahender removed his key card and placed it on the desk.

“If you were somehow able to steal a guard’s key card, you’d be able to get in.”

“You’re helping us,” said 98. “Not because we’re making you, but because you want to. Why?”

Mahender shrugged.

“Gibbo–sorry, I mean Mr. Gibson–treated you like you weren’t human. Like you were less than.”

“We’re not human,” said 98. “Not really.”

“It’s the same way he treats me,” said Mahender. “I was listening to him talking about disposing of you like you were nothing, and I realized he’d do the same to me if he could.”

98 nodded and took the key card.

“Besides,” said Mahender. “I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he finds out a fab escaped.”

“Will you lose your job?” said 98.

“Maybe,” said Mahender. “Probably. I’ve been looking for new work anyway.”

As much as he needed this job, it would be hard to justify working here to himself after seeing how human the fabs seemed.

He turned to the computer monitors by the desk and found the one displaying the freight entry security feed. He disabled the cameras.

“Oh no,” he said. “I seem to have accidentally disarmed the cameras in Section 1. I hope there won’t be any security breeches there.”

The fabs stared at him.

“Go!” he said. “Before another guard notices that the camera is off.”

The fabs headed for the door, and 98 pressed the exit button. 59 paused as the door slid open and made a gesture with his hands.

“He says thank you!” shouted 98 over the roaring fans.

Mahender knew neither of the fabs would hear his reply, so he smiled and gave them a salute.


Mahender struggled against his own handcuffs as two other guards hauled him into a lab in Section 10. About a dozen Stanley fabs filed in behind him. Their hands were bound too, but they didn’t resist.

“You can’t do this!” he said. “You won’t get away with it!”

“Won’t we?” said Mr. Gibson.

“My aunt works directly under Billy Clyde himself. If she finds out you’ve done this–“

Mr. Gibson gave him a skeptical look.

“Your aunt?”

“Mona Sharma. Overseer and specialist of operations in–“

“Oh, that’s right. I’ve met Mona. Pretty girl, but so unpleasant. She’s mentioned her nephew, but I never made the connection until now. Small world.”

“Yes, well, she’s Billy Clyde’s direct report, so if you–“

Mr. Gibson snorted.

“Mona’s hardly a high-ranking member of this company. And if my memory serves, she doesn’t exactly think highly of you. If she gets word of this, she’ll probably send me a bouquet.”

Mr. Gibson wasn’t wrong. Mahender’s aunt would have sold his soul for a piece of cheese. And she was lactose intolerant.

Still, his bluff had been worth a try.

“I think you’ll find we can get away with whatever we want,” said Mr. Gibson. “You have no meaningful connections, no wife or girlfriend, no close friends. As far as we’re aware, you won’t be missed.”

Mr. Gibson’s words sent a cold chill through him, even if they weren’t entirely true. Mahender’s job had been the main reason he hadn’t had a social life. Was that why the guards here had to work such long late hours in such an isolated environment? So they wouldn’t make any meaningful connections? So they wouldn’t be missed if they had a sudden conflict of morality and had to be ‘disposed of’?

“My mum will try to find me. She’ll–“

“Your mum. Reena Stephens, correct? I’m not too worried about her snooping around.” Mr. Gibson sneered. “I’m sure immigration services will be happy to take care of her for us if she decides to stick her nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Mahender felt another cold chill.

“We do our research,” said Mr. Gibson. “We have to be thorough in case one of our guards steps out of line. We know all about how your parents split up. How Mrs. Stephens obtained permanent residence under false pretenses.”

“It wasn’t like that!”

“Unfortunately for her, the law doesn’t care what it was or wasn’t like.”

“Leave my mum alone. I’m warning you.”

“Maybe we will. Maybe we won’t,” said Mr. Gibson. “Either way, you won’t be in much of a position to do anything about it where you’re going.”

Mahender looked at the guards holding him. He’d seen them in passing before, though they’d always been unfriendly.

“Don’t do this,” he said. “If they do this to me, they’ll just as soon throw you away too if you become inconvenient.”

One of the guards, a burly blond man who Mahender thought was named Barry, grunted, shoving him forward toward the chamber.

“It’s Barry, right?” said Mahender. “Don’t you see what they’re doing? They’re keeping us isolated. They’re making us easy to get rid of.”

Barry ignored him, giving him another rough shove.

A man in a lab coat unlocked the chamber with his key card, and the glass door slid open. Barry and the other guard threw Mahender in, and the door slid closed.

The technician pressed a series of buttons on a panel.

“You can’t do this to me! Let me out!”

Mahender lifted his cuffed hands and pounded them against the glass, his fists stinging as though he was slamming them into solid rock.

The last thing he saw before a sickly green and black fog consumed his vision was Mr. Gibson’s smug, sneering, red face.

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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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The figures edged nearer to Lachlan and Sam, closing in on them. Some of them periodically jerked or jolted backward as Nikola focused on them, but it wasn’t enough to keep them all at bay.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut and clutched his head as if to block out the danger. He reminded Lachlan of someone assuming crash position on a plane.

Unfortunately, though, this wasn’t the kind of threat they could brace themselves for.

“I hate this place,” said Sam as one of the figures advanced on him. “I hate this place.”

The figure drew closer, its tendrils rearing back like snakes about to strike.

“Sam! Watch out!” said Lachlan.

He wasn’t even sure Sam had heard him.

The figure lashed out, wrapping its tendrils around Sam, encasing his body. He struggled for a moment, then burst free, severing many of the limbs that held him and throwing the figure backward with surprising force.

Lachlan felt cold, smooth tendrils wrap around his wrists. He tried to pull himself free, but their hold only tightened the more he struggled.

Seriously? He couldn’t shake off a few measly tendrils from his wrist, but Sam could break himself free? Lachlan struggled harder. He was not about to let himself be bested by some nerd.

Another figure reached for Sam, and Sam lashed out at it with a frantic kick, sending it flying backward into another figure.

The tendrils on Lachlan’s wrists pulled him upward, lifting him off the ground.

“You shouldn’t have fought me,” said the skull squid. “I was after him, not you.”

Lachlan opened his mouth to reply, but another voice came from behind him–one that sounded very human and ordinary contrasted with the skull squid’s distorted booming.

“Hold on, hold on,” it said. “Put him down, 98. What are you doing?”

The creature placed Lachlan back on the ground and released him.

Lachlan turned to look for the voice’s source, but he saw only the creature. The voice spoke again, seeming to come from inside the creature.

“You’re attacking two kids and their puppy?” said the voice. “Seriously? What are you, the Sisters?”

The tendrils closest to the creature’s body parted, unweaving to reveal a man sitting inside, lounging against the wall of tendrils behind him.

“Hi,” said the man.

“Um… hi?” said Lachlan.

Lachlan stepped back warily. The man looked human, but so had the creepy sisters. Lachlan wasn’t about to trust anything in this dimension or universe or whatever this place was.

The man slid out from his bizarre resting place and smiled, raising a hand in greeting. He was in his mid or late twenties, with black hair and a short, unkempt beard. His eyes widened as he took in Sam’s blood-soaked clothes.

“I’m sorry,” said Lachlan. “Who the fuck are you?”

The man looked taken aback for a moment, then laughed.

“I’m–” he began.

One of the figures spoke.

“He’s our brother.”

The figure had the same TV commentator voice as the skull squid minus the distortion. It creeped Lachlan out, hearing a voice that belonged in one of those breakfast news programs his mum liked coming from something so grotesque.

He hoped his mum was okay. She was probably sick with worry about him.

“Your brother?” Sam raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I don’t see much family resemblance.”

“Our adopted brother,” said another creature.

“Okay, great,” said Lachlan. “That explains absolutely nothing.”

“He helped save one of our own,” said the skull squid. “For his troubles, CPSI threw him in here along with the rest of us.”

“I’m still confused,” said Sam.

“I think I get it now,” Lachlan began.”CPSI created these monst–“

Several of the creatures let out low growls. One of them took a menacing step toward him.

“Some of my brothers aren’t fans of the ‘M’ word,” said the man.

“Uh, I was going to say monstrously… handsome gentlemen,” finished Lachlan. “Then CPSI threw them in here for some reason. Am I getting this right so far?”

The man nodded.

“You did something to help them, and were imprisoned in the murder pit for your troubles,” said Lachlan, “so these monst–uh, messieurs adopted you to raise as one of their own.”

“Nice save,” said Sam.

“I’m not sure how you would know most of that, but that about sums it up,” said the man. “I’m Mahender, by the way.”

Sam and Lachlan introduced themselves.

“Are you okay?” Mahender glanced at Sam’s bloodied clothing again. He looked at his brothers. “You didn’t do this to him, did you?”

“No,” said Sam. “It was these… these women–“

“I think you called them the Sisters,” Lachlan volunteered.

“Ah, the Sisters. Say no more,” said Mahender. “Do you want me to have a look at your hand?”

“Are you a doctor or something?” said Sam.

“I’m a security guard. Or at least, I was one.”

“In that case, I think I’ll pass,” said Sam.

“Fair enough.” Mahender nodded. “Can I ask how you ended up stuck here?”

“Someone sent me here, and I have a sneaking suspicion it had to do with this CPSI company people keep mentioning,” said Lachlan. “As for my good pal Sam here–“

“We’re not pals.”

“–he works for CPSI and somehow managed to send himself here in his immense brilliance.”

“Ah, he works for CPSI,” said Mahender. “That explains why my brothers are after him.”

“All humans working for CPSI are complicit,” said the skull squid.

“What about me?” said Mahender. “I worked for CPSI, sort of. Well, technically, I worked for a third-party company, but that doesn’t really help the point I’m trying to make.”

“You made the choice to help our brother,” said one of the creatures. “You went against CPSI even though it meant sacrificing everything.”

“For one thing, I had no idea I was sacrificing everything at the time,” said Mahender. “For another, you can’t fault this kid for what happened to us. He probably had no idea how bad CPSI is.”

“I’m starting to get an idea,” said Sam.

“The way I see it,” said Mahender, “we’re all victims here. We’ve all been shoved into another reality. We shouldn’t be fighting each other.”

The creatures looked at each other, considering. Then, they looked at the skull squid.

“I don’t want you to hurt them, 98,” said Mahender. “Please.”

The skull squid sighed.

“Fine,” it said. “They’re free to go.”

“There you go,” said Mahender. “We’ll tell you where you can find first aid supplies, and then you can be on your way.”

So that was it? It was really that easy?

Lachlan looked at the ring of creatures surrounding them.

“Great. Thanks. Fantastic,” he said. “Could some of you maybe move over so we can scamper off on our merry way?”

“Not yet,” said the skull squid. “First, we need to talk about 59.”

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Waking Up – Interlude 2

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59 started awake as he felt a hand on his shoulder. He whipped his head around, then relaxed a little when he saw 98 standing in front of him.

59 looked around the restoration quarters. The fluorescent lights were off and the rest of his brothers still stood motionless in their pods. The large digital clock above the doorway told him it was 2:10 in the morning. He had never been awake before his restoration cycle completed, and he felt strange and a little dizzy as he stepped out of his pod and gave 98 a questioning look.

He did the hand sign for confused.

98 smiled, then handed 59 the object he was holding.


59 obliged, turning the object over in his hands. It was a stack of paper with one edge fixed together, bound in a thick cover. On the cover was a picture of three winged creatures with pointed faces, along with the words “The Field Guide to the Birds of Oceania: 7th Edition”.

59 looked up at his brother, signing the word confused again.

98 traced four letters in the air with his finger.

B. O. O. K.


He pointed at the object and signed ‘open‘.

59 opened the object–the book. On the paper was a picture of a brown creature with a hooked, pointed nose and outstretched wings.

Adults are usually 40 to 50 cm long and have a range of plumage colours, with light and dark forms and variety of intermediates. Darker forms are typically found in the tropical north of the bird’s range, while paler forms are found further south in Central Australia. Juveniles resemble dark adults with less pronounced barring on the tail–

59 stopped reading. He didn’t know many of the words in the book, but he understood now. 98 was showing him information about the outside world.

‘How?’ signed 59.

‘Stolen. Bag,‘ replied 98.

He’d stolen it from someone’s bag?

‘Careful,’ signed 59. ‘Dangerous.’

‘Relax.’ 98 smiled and beckoned 59 to follow him.

98 led 59 across the room, then crouched behind his restoration pod, beside a linoleum floor tile that looked particularly worn out. He pried at the tile with his fingers for a second before it came loose, revealing a hole in the concrete containing a small stack of books.

Stolen, 98 signed. He looked around at their sleeping brothers, then looked back at 59 and put a finger to his lips. Secret.

59 nodded, handing the book back to 98.

‘Secret,’ he agreed.

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Monsters in the Dark – Interlude 1

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He stood in silence and listened. As he concentrated, the fluorescent lights’ humming gave way, and he began to hear the minds in the rooms around him.

He heard two of his brothers in the room to his right, both still small and weak, but he ignored them for the time being. He was hungry, and needed to focus on his hunt. He would share his kill with them when he was done, and they would grow more powerful. One day, if they survived long enough, they would grow as powerful as he was.

He kept listening, until he found an immature Sister in a room to his left.

She was still small like his little brothers, with just four limbs and one head of dark brown hair. She fled before he entered the room, and he slithered after her, forcing his way through the doorways.

The Sister turned a corner and he lost sight of her, so he stopped and listened. He tried focus on her and tune out other sounds, but noise buzzed around him; below him he heard more of his brothers, more of his prey, and a few others that would prey on him. Above him, he heard–

Wait. Above him? That wasn’t right. There shouldn’t be anything above. There was never anything above.

Limitless blue skies and relentless sun. Brown-green waves crashing on an empty beach, two thousand feet below. A smiling man with a white mustache. A crowd, bustling with excitement, watching little airplanes looping through the sky. A basement smelling of oil and fuel.

He shook one of his heads. The thoughts from above didn’t make any sense. They weren’t like anything else he’d heard in this place. They didn’t belong.

Falling, struggling for control. Shouting over the thumping roar of pistons. A thick, dark green fog that swallowed everything. The sound of metal against metal. An impact. Fires flaring up, then fizzling out.

His curiosity overcame his hunger. He reached up, tearing ceiling tiles loose until there was an opening large enough for him to squeeze into. Then he crawled up the wall and began to slam his limbs against the concrete roof until it gave way.

The source of the strange thoughts was standing on the roof. She stared at him, and he stared back.

She looked almost like his usual prey–small, humanoid, two arms, two legs–but something was off. With her tin-colored hair and lined face, she looked as though she had aged, but that wasn’t possible unless…

“You’re real,” he said.

“I’m human, if that’s what you mean,” she said. Her voice was raspy.

For a moment, he considered devouring her. He was still hungry, and after what her kind had done to him, tearing her limb from limb would have provided him some small comfort.

His curiosity won out again.

“Why did you come here?” he said.

“Come here? Why the hell would anyone come here?” She shook her head. “No, they sent us here. I don’t know how, but I know it was them.”

A man in a linen suit, fanning himself with one hand. A blonde woman, her clothes elegant, her face twisted in rage.

He had only seen their faces in photographs, but they were all too familiar.

“Me too,” he said.

She stared up at him. “I don’t understand.”

“Me either,” he said.

“This is the longest conversation I’ve had with one of you,” she said. “Usually by this point, you start snarling and slithering after me.”

“I still might,” he said. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Well, try to warn me first if you decide to go that route, okay? Give me a sporting chance?”

“I probably won’t.”

“I didn’t think you would.” She shrugged. “Can I ask why you haven’t tried to kill me yet?”

“I was curious,” he said. “Can I ask why you’re not more afraid?”

“Oh, I’m way past afraid.” She sighed. “I’ve been in this place for… I don’t even know how long. Months? Years? I was afraid for a while, but I’m just tired now.”

He nodded the head closest to her. “I felt the same when I first got here. Scared, then tired. If I didn’t have my brothers…”

“It must be nice to have someone,” she said.

“You’re alone?” he said.

“I had Dad for a while.”

The man with the white mustache, this time with a wild beard, his clothes in tatters. A Sister, laughing through all her mouths as she slithered at him, her limbs snaking toward him. Cold, paralyzing terror.

“You lost him,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

She smiled without humor. “Condolences from a monster?”

“I mean it.” He extended a limb toward her. “I’ve lost people too.”

She took a step backward, eyeing his limb warily, and he retracted it.

“Your brothers?” she said.

“Yes. Some of them to the Sisters. More of them to your kind.”

She looked up at him in silence for a few moments.

“I’m sorry.”

He reached out to her again, and this time, she didn’t step away.

“Oh, what the hell,” she said, extending her hand to him.

As gently as he could manage, he wrapped his limb around her outstretched hand.

“This is weird,” she said. “Really weird. But it’s nice at the same time. Since I lost Dad, the closest thing I’ve had to conversation has been those–what did you call them?–Sisters telling me all the gruesome ways they plan on ripping me apart.”

“I’ve ripped many of them apart, if it’s any consolation.”

“It’s not, really.” The woman grimaced. “But if that was your twisted way of trying to make me feel better, I do appreciate it.”

“I have a friend I think you’d like to meet,” he said. “He’s not with me now, but I think he’d want to meet you too. If he says he wants to, I might bring him to meet you sometime.”

“No offense,” said the woman, “but I’ve met friends of yours, and…”

“This one is a little different. Trust me.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” she said.

He unwrapped his tendril from her hand and pointed.

“One more thing. There’s a place if you walk that way, kind of like a…” He paused for a moment, trying to remember the word. “A village. It’s empty, but there are lots of little buildings and places to hide. You might be safer there.”

“Thanks,” she said, “but I prefer to stick around here.”

He heard the prey he’d been chasing earlier beneath him, searching for her Sisters.

“I have to go,” he said.

“So soon?” she said.

“I’m hungry, and I’m sure you’d rather I devour a Sister than come after you.”

“Yeah,” she shrugged. “I guess I would.”

“Besides, I don’t think that friend I mentioned would approve.”

He began to crawl through the hole he’d created in the ceiling. He could see the Sister now, but she hadn’t spotted him yet.

“Wait,” the woman said.

He stopped, and turned his heads toward her.

“What’s your name?” she said. “If you have one, I mean.”

He reached for her hands and felt her tense, but she didn’t resist. He arranged her hands so her fingers interlocked.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“That sign. That’s my name.” He held up some of his limbs, indicating his lack of hands. “I can’t say it anymore.”

“Do all of you monsters have names like that?”

“Not all of us, no,” he said. “What about you? I know all of your kind have names.”

“Nancy,” she said. “My name is Nancy.”

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