The message about the new feeder came while Lori Fisher was trying to get her brother, Ben, to eat his breakfast.
“This is what you said you wanted,” Lori said, putting the toast down in front of him.
Ben, seven years old and blessed with a complexion that made him look perfectly tanned, while Lori herself just looked sallow, glared at Lori and let out a put-upon breath as he pushed the toast away. “I said toast. I didn’t say toast with butter!”
“Toast implies butter, though. Toast comes with butter,” Lori said, and then she looked down as her phone buzzed.
“I didn’t want the butter part!” Ben insisted, playing angrily with a Lego figure on their large and cluttered kitchen table as the toast sat uneaten in front of him. “I just wanted the toast part!”
“Okay, but the butter is on the toast already. I can’t take it off. Can you eat it just today for me?” Lori gave her brother a hopeful smile, then looked down at the phone again and tapped in a response.
“No! I only want to eat what I said I wanted to eat, and that was toast, and not toast with butter!”
Lori looked at the clock on the microwave of their small kitchen. It read 7:17, which meant it was actually 8:21 because she had never reset it after the time change in the spring, and it had been four minutes slow before that. The ferry came by at eight thirty every weekday to take Ben to day care, and while the schedule wasn’t quite as strict during the summer as it was when she was trying to get Ben to school, Lori still got dirty looks from the day-care people if she brought him in late.
The plan had been shopping with a friend, partially school supplies for Ben and partially a new back-to-school outfit for her. Instead today would be spent dealing with feeders . . . assuming Ben ever left.
“Ben, we are almost out of time.”
His eyes brightened, and he pointed above Lori’s shoulder at the sign that hung over the sink. “ ‘Our family might get there late!’ ” he read.
“ ‘But we’ll get there together,’ ” Lori finished without looking back at the stupid sign, which had an overloaded car covered with luggage and a bike and a surfboard, “and that doesn’t mean we can miss the ferry!”
Ben was dressed and was even wearing an appropriate pair of shorts and T-shirt instead of the long-sleeved shirt and heavy sweatpants he’d put on the last time she let him dress himself. He still had to brush his teeth, though. The time it would take to make toast again and convince Ben that it was in fact new unbuttered toast was not time they could spare.
Ben saw her look at the clock, then saw her look at him, and changed his expression from angry to pleading. “I would eat a granola bar?”
Lori sighed. “Superfast?”
“Superfast,” Ben said immediately.
“And a banana,” she added as she reached up into the pantry over the fridge and grabbed a granola bar.
“I will eat a banana if you open it for me.”
Lori tossed him the granola bar, grabbed a banana from the bunch on the counter by the fridge, and peeled it for him. “Deal, little guy,” she said, and put it on the plate next to the awful, terrible buttered toast, which she grabbed for herself. “Superfast. I have to go to work, so I’m going to get dressed. Brush your teeth as soon as you’re done, all right?”
Ben was already chewing on the granola bar, and nodded as he read a page from a comic that had come free with one of his Lego sets and coincidentally included characters from a lot of other Lego sets available for purchase.
Lori’s bedroom was down the hall from her brother’s. She pulled off the long nightshirt she’d slept in and tapped another message at Handler while hunting for a clean bra.
She scarfed the toast, pulled on dark gray slacks and boots she could move in, found a bra, and tugged it on. “You still eating?” she called back out into the kitchen.
“You promised me superfast,” she called with a note of warning in her voice, and pulled on a purple blouse that looked like it was silk but was in fact a high-quality stain-resistant polyester. The outfit made her look like she was in her early twenties instead of sixteen.
“The banana had a dark spot on it!” Ben called back from the kitchen.
Lori glanced at her phone: 8:25. “Okay, leave the rest of the banana and brush your teeth.”
She heard the sound of the electric toothbrush while she pulled her dark hair back into a ponytail and put on just enough makeup to look like an adult—a bit of eyeliner to accent the big dark eyes she shared with her brother, some blush on her cheeks, lip gloss that didn’t actively work against the purple blouse.
It was 8:27. “Shoes on,” she called, and grabbed her wallet and keys.
Ben came out of the hallway with a handful of Legos. “I just remembered, today we’re supposed to bring—”
“No time,” Lori said, cutting him off.
Ben’s face screwed up into a knot of misery. “It’s not fair! You always want me to go fast, and I never go fast enough, and if I don’t bring it, I’ll be the only kid at day care who didn’t bring a Show and Share toy, and . . .”
Lori sighed again and looked at the microwave clock, which now read 7:24 and meant8:28. “Fast, please?”
Ben grabbed the rest of his Legos, shoved them into his backpack, and got his shoes on with remarkable speed. One minute later, she was hustling him out the apartment door, down the stairs, and out onto the sidewalk, where other children were already waiting. Most of them had long pants. A few had sweatshirts.
Lori looked at Ben in his T-shirt and shorts, and then at the overcast sky, and then at the ferry already puttering up the canal toward their stop. “Are you gonna be warm enough?”
“Okay, but it’s a little cooler than I—”
“I’m fine,” Ben said again, as though Lori were the biggest idiot in the world, and Lori let it drop.
The ferry was a stubby boat with old rubber tires hanging from its sides and “Santa Dymphna Eastern” stenciled in above the waterline. Its horn blasted once as it navigated the tricky final turn—their street had been narrow before the rising water turned Santa Dymphna into a canal city—and pulled to a stop at the dock.
“Have a great day,” Lori said as they joined the line of people boarding. “Good listening and good attitude, right?”
“Right. Love you.” Ben hugged her. “Can you pick me up right after day care today?”
“I’ve got work, so go to day care, and we’ll see if I can get you early.” Lori returned the hug, then stepped back and waved as the ferry pulled away. Ben was already chatting with another kid, probably about Legos.
The ferry puttered down the canal, reached the old corner intersection, and chugged carefully through a turn better suited to cars than boats.
Then it was gone, and Lori dug out her phone.
Lori sighed, then switched over to contacts and found “Vickers, J.” She dialed.
Jenn picked up before the second ring. “What’s up, Lorelei?”
“Hey, Jenn. I just got a consult job, and it’s a rush. They need it this morning.”
“Your consult job sucks,” Jenn said in a disgusted but supportive way, and Lori smiled despite herself. “Front Row’s sale is today only!”
“What if we go in the afternoon?” Lori asked as a public ferry came to the dock. She hurried toward it. “Consult might go quick.”
“Sounds like a plan. You’re going back to school fashionable this year, Fisher. No cop-outs. This is the year the boys notice you on the very first day.”
“Sounds good.” Lori rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to you later, Jenn.”
By agreement with Handler, the private taxi would pick Lori up in a public location halfway across Santa Dee, to avoid any possibility of feeders tracing her location back home. Lori hung up and hopped onto the public ferry that would take her there, flashing her monthly card at the driver and searching for a free seat inside. They were all taken at this time in the morning, with commuters in business clothes holding briefcases and phones. Most of the kids Lori’s age were either at work already or sleeping in because it was summer. Lori sighed and found a good spot to lean against the railing on the deck as the ferry chugged into motion.
She watched the buildings go past, the salt-spray smell mixing with the sweet vanilla scent of the ferry’s fuel. This boat had been converted, unlike the old one that took Ben to day care, which still ran on gasoline. The water below the railing churned with the ferry’s passage, but the clear water farther away was gray-green, catching the light of the cloudy sky overhead. Below the sidewalks, Lori saw the lower stories of the old buildings, the ground level before the water rose. They were mostly covered with seaweed now. Here and there, Lori saw the telltale golden glimmer of the miracoral shining from a wall near the floor of the canal.
“I hear they’re encouraging more growth through the canals,” said someone standing nearby. Lori looked over and saw a bearded man in a blue business suit looking down at the miracoral, like she had been. “Maybe engineering a new, hardier strain. If they can get more of Santa Dee energy independent, they can export energy to the mainland.”
“And then we all get rich?” Lori asked.
The man smiled and shrugged. “That’s the hope. More miracoral, less need for oil, anyway.”
The man’s beard was neatly trimmed, and he stood with the easy grace of someone who had lived in Santa Dee long enough to get his sea legs. “It’s lucky that scientists came up with it right as the water rose,” Lori said.
“Luck, or preparation?” the man asked, and shrugged again.
“You mean that the scientists who invented the miracoral might have known the water was going to rise?” Lori added.
And just like always, the man’s face went blank, and he said the same thing they always said. “Guess it was just one of those things.”
“Okay, but why?” Lori pressed. “Why did the water rise?”
“Guess it was just one of those things,” the man said. The casual tone was exactly the same as the first time he’d said it. It could have been a looped recording.
He turned away from her and looked at his phone, seemingly forgetting she existed. A moment later, Lori’s phone buzzed.
Lori got off the ferry at a downtown stop, grabbed a coffee, and waited until a small private taxi pulled up at the dock. A thin dark-skinned man poked his head out of the cab. “Angler Consulting?”
“That’s me!” Lori poured the rest of her coffee into the trash, then tossed the cup into a recycling bin. The last time she’d drunk coffee while wearing a nice outfit, the taxi had hit a wave, and she’d dumped it all over herself.
The driver gave her a hand as she climbed down into the cab. The taxi itself was dark and sleek, and the cab was clean, with leather-backed seats that cupped her body like the ones in nice cars on the mainland. “Any bags, ma’am?” the driver asked. From his accent, she guessed that he was from Africa.
“No, thank you.” Lori flashed him a smile. “You can just call me Angler.”
“Okay, ma’am,” the driver said, smiling back, and settled into his seat. “Just a few minutes to the Lake Foundation shipping center.”
Lori assumed that was where they were supposed to be going. “Great.”
The taxi pulled out, zipping around a ferry. Lori caught a vanilla-scented whiff of a new engine as they pulled around a corner.
“Very busy, the shipping center,” the driver said. “All the traffic, all day. Even for me, and this is not a cargo ship.”
“Lot of people coming in and out?” Lori asked.
“Very much.” He eased around another corner, muscled the taxi ahead of someone’s private boat, and pulled into open water that had once been a large plaza or other low area with no buildings. He opened up the throttle a little, and Lori bounced in her seat as the taxi cut through another boat’s wake. “Oh, they have contact information for you.” He passed her back a card, only half looking at the chaotic wave of boats zipping through the choppy water.
Lori took the card and pulled her phone out again. “Thanks. You’re really good on the water.”
“I drove on rivers back home.” He smiled, caught the sweet spot of another boat’s wake, and eased into a groove. “When my family moved out here, I heard there were good jobs for drivers.”
Lori’s phone buzzed in her hand.
She ignored it. “So why did the water rise, anyway?” she asked. “Did you hear a different explanation back in—”
“Guess it was just one of those things,” he said, and turned back to the front as Lori’s phone buzzed.
The connection setup was easy enough. Lori joined the private network, popped her earpiece free from her phone, and hooked it over her left ear. She heard a crackle as it came to life. “Hello?”
“Hello, is this Angler Consulting?” came a friendly woman’s voice that sounded like it was coming over a speakerphone. “This is Diane Tucker with the Lake Foundation.”
“Oh, you too, Miss Angler!” Diane Tucker with the Lake Foundation said with a lot of enthusiasm. “I tell you, we are so grateful to have you here. This is not the kind of thing we’re used to dealing with at all.”
“That’s how it goes with most people,” Lori said, trying to sound reassuring. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“Well, it started with some of our workers disappearing a few days ago.” Beneath the voice, Lori heard the sound of paper rustling, as though Tucker was turning pages. “Several of them, from the cargo dock. Our security people investigated, and they said it was nothing to worry about, and then the security people refused to leave. All they’ll say is that they’d like to stay. It’s been a few days now, and, well, it just doesn’t make sense. I . . . So that’s when I decided to get in touch with Angler Consulting.”
Tucker’s voice went flat on the last sentence. Lori noticed that people tended to react to questions about how they’d gotten Angler Consulting’s number the same way they reacted to questions about why the water had risen. She knew for a fact Angler Consulting wasn’t listed on the web.
“Well, we’re here now to help,” Lori said as the taxi pulled off into narrow canals again. They were headed toward the western edge of Santa Dee, where all the cargo ships docked, circling around the island to avoid disturbing the great miracoral reefs in the shallow waters between Santa Dee’s eastern edge and the mainland. “How do the security people sound? Did it sound like they’d been drugged, or . . . ?” Or brainwashed or mind controlled, Lori didn’t add.
“Not really, Miss Angler. I mean, they sounded happy. They all just sounded very happy.”
“Okay, but . . . they sounded happy about refusing to leave the cargo docks?” Lori looked down at her phone and typed, “Shells or puppets?”
“Well, that does sound odd, now that you say it like that,” Tucker said, just as Lori’s phone buzzed.
“All right, Ms. Tucker, we’re going to go in and take a look,” Lori said. “As soon as we have any information, we will get right back in touch with you.” Her phone buzzed as she said it.
“Oh, I was told you’d have a channel open the whole time,” Tucker said.
Lori glared down at her phone while saying, “Of course, I’m so sorry, I’ll be happy to keep you on the line while we take care of this.”
“Thanks so much,” Tucker said apologetically. “I know it’s a pain, but my boss, Ms. Lake, really wasn’t sure about bringing in outside consultants.”
“We totally understand,” Lori said. “It’s not a problem at all.”
The taxi pulled out of the canals of Santa Dee into open water. Looking out through the window, Lori saw the water go dark as it deepened beneath them. The taxi turned hard to starboard, and the driver opened up the throttle. Ahead, Lori saw the massive wharfs where shipping freighters brought Santa Dee everything it needed to survive.
They docked at a wharf that was empty but for them. Lori saw corrugated steel cargo containers stacked on huge pallets, but everything was still.
“Here we are, ma’am,” said the driver, and opened the cab. He started to get out, and Lori waved him back.
“I’m fine, thanks. You go ahead, and have a great day,” she said, and stepped out. She looked back. “Stay safe.”
The driver nodded and smiled, then closed the cab. A moment later, the taxi hummed to life and pulled away from the dock, leaving white water and the scent of vanilla behind it.
“All right, Miss Tucker,” Lori said, “let’s see what we’re dealing with.”
The dockyard was silent as she walked. She kept her steps light, the heels of her boots barely making a sound on the concrete. She slid her phone into her pocket. If Handler had anything else that needed saying, Lori would’ve heard it already.
“Do you see anything yet?” Tucker asked in Lori’s ear, which really helped Lori stay focused and stealthy.
“Not yet,” Lori said, still keeping her steps light. “You wouldn’t happen to have security cameras for the area, would you?”
“Oh, yes! Yes, I do. Here, I’ll call them up, and I’ll be able to watch everything.” Lori heard the sound of fingers clacking on a keyboard. “Here we go. There you are, clear as day. I can see you walking toward the cargo containers.”
“Great,” Lori said. “That’s great, you being able to see me and everything. That’s perfect.”
Her phone buzzed twice in her pants pocket, a special double buzz that Handler used for “No” when Lori was on a job and needed her hands free.
“Wait,” said Tucker. “Something happened to the cameras. How odd. They were working just fine until—”
“That happens a lot in cases like these,” Lori said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Without warning, a voice came over the dockyard loudspeaker.
“Heyyyyyyyy,” said someone who sounded about Lori’s age. “Heyyy hi how’s it going?”
Well, it knew Lori was here.
“Hey so it is supergreat that you’re here,” said the voice, light and breezy and flirty and feminine. “Supergreat and not a problem at all for either of us, neither of us is in any danger right now, especially you.”
“Do you see anything?” Tucker asked over the earpiece.
“Give me just a sec, Miss Tucker,” Lori said brightly, and began to run.
“Hey so listen,” the voice came over the loudspeaker, “do you want to hang out, because I have some friends here who would love to hang out, all of us just hanging out and getting relaxed and not doing anything harmful to each other, and I don’t suggest this to like everyone, but you seem superchill, so if you want to hang out, just find some of my friends, and they’ll bring you to me and not hurt you at all.”
Lori came around a corner formed by a stack of cargo containers and found what was left of one of the security guards.
He’d been a tall, thin man before the feeder had killed him. He was a tall, puffy shell of a man now, his body expanded grossly under his uniform, green-tinged skin visible where his blue shirt strained against the buttons. His pants and shirtsleeves looked like they’d been filled with great thick pool noodles, perfect cylinders that bent like an old rubber doll. His face was a swollen parody of itself, leaking green gas from the mouth and nostrils.
“Hhhhhhey,” the shell said with more breath than he needed, coughing out with more of the green gas, and as he raised the gun in his hand, Lori moved.
She sidestepped the gun, checked his wrist to stop him from tracking the motion, and punched him in the face as he fired past her.
“Oh my god!” Tucker yelled in Lori’s earpiece.
The shell’s face sprayed green gas where Lori’s punch had connected, and she slammed a chop into his hand, sending the gun clanging to the concrete, and then kicked him in his puffy cylinder of a knee, twisting the arm to send him sprawling. She came down on him knee first, another impact that spat puffs of green gas out from between the buttons of his shirt, and then punched again and again.
“Was that a gun?” Tucker shouted.
Finally, something gave, and the body hissed, then sank and yielded underneath her as though it were an air mattress whose cap had come off. She rolled off as it deflated beneath her, trying not to breathe the gas, and the skin itself flaked and crumbled as green cloud ate through it, and then there was nothing but an empty security uniform lying on the ground with a dark little smudge where the head had been.
“Miss Angler, say something!” said Tucker, which was nowhere near as important as the “Hhhhhey” Lori heard from right behind her, along with the sound of another gun’s safety flipping off.
She felt Handler pull her, and for a moment, she was—
Pretend for a moment that you’re looking down at a microbe smeared on a microscope plate. The microbe has lived its entire life stuck between those two planes of glass. As far as it’s concerned, there’s no up or down. Everything in its world is forward, backward, left, or right. Pretend that you took away the top slide, got an eyedropper, and put a tiny liquid blob of something the microbe would find interesting right in front of it.
What would that be like to the microbe? It never thought to look up—it never thought of much at all, really, being a microbe. As far as it’s concerned, that little blob of something interesting just magically appeared in front of it out of nowhere. Maybe it moves forward to eat it, since “eat it” is the primary mode of interaction microbes have going for them. You don’t want that to happen, though, so you take the eyedropper, suck the little liquid blob up, and lift the eyedropper away. Then, just to mess with the microbe a little, you dab the eyedropper behind the microbe and squirt the little interesting thing back out onto the plate.
For you, this is trivially easy, albeit still more trouble than most people would go to in order to play a prank on something that lives on a microscope plate. But for the microbe, what has just happened is an impossibility. There’s no up in its world. There’s no frame of reference for what it just saw. To the best of its knowledge, the interesting thing just vanished, and then reappeared, impossibly, behind it.
Now let’s say you’re the microbe.
—somewhere else, and then she was back, herself again, behind the second shell as it fired at the spot where she had been. She kicked him in the back of the knee, grabbed his collar as he fell, and slammed the heel of her palm into the base of his skull once, twice. He tried to point the gun back behind him, and Lori got hold of his chin and jaw and twisted, and she heard the crunch of what used to be bone and then a whoosh as the neck snapped, and her hands stung as the gas slid through them.
She stepped back as the increasingly empty uniform crumpled to the ground. Her skin felt clammy, and everything was a little brighter than it should be. That happened when Handler pulled her to another place. It took her a bit to fit back in again.
“Miss Angler, are you there?”
“Yes,” Lori said. Her voice sounded wrong in her ears. “I’m here. The guards are dead.” The words were cold, but that was normal, too, when Handler pulled her.
The wisps of gas were trailing back around a corner, and Lori followed them. She no longer tried to be stealthy. It knew she was here.
“Heyyyyyyyyyy hi again hello,” came the girl’s voice over the loudspeaker, “I am superglad you weren’t killed by those guys who I don’t even know how they got in here, and it’s clear that you are more than strong enough to deal with anything you run into, so there’s no reason for you not to come forward and see me and we can get to know each other, because you’re already so close, and you’re not dating anybody, I can tell that, it’s this funny thing I can do, like a party trick, and you and I can be the party, and I can be that thing you don’t have in your life, because I bet you’re pretty lonely, right, aren’t you, I mean if you didn’t want to be with me, why would you be here?”
Lori felt herself coming back. The heels of her boots clacked on the concrete with each bold stride as she came down the path between two rows of corrugated steel cargo containers.
“It’s a feeder,” she said to Tucker. “It lures them in, and then does something that hollows them out and leaves the shells to help it get more prey.”
“What are you talking about?” Tucker asked, her voice high-pitched and loud in Lori’s ear. “This is like a monster? You’re saying there’s some kind of, of, of monster in our shipping yard? There are no such things as monsters!”
“Then why did you hire me to come take care of it?” Lori snapped.
“I . . .” Tucker paused, the idea slipping through her brain. “I can’t actually remember. But why would a monster be in our shipping yard?”
Lori blinked. That was a good question, actually.
Then something rapped on the corrugated steel of the cargo container next to her, and she dove to the side, hands coming up ready.
There was nothing.
The bang came again.
It was coming from inside one of the containers.
“Is that you?” Lori asked.
“Noooooooo?” came the voice over the loudspeaker.
“Is what me?” Tucker asked.
Lori’s phone buzzed twice in her pocket.
“Tucker,” Lori said, “something is banging inside one of the containers. It’s . . .” She looked over at it, one of the few standing on its own. The others were all dark red or yellow, but the one that something was banging inside was black, with no logo and no numbers on the side. “It’s an unmarked black shipping container. The feeder says it isn’t her.”
“The feeder says . . . ?”
“Okay, but she’s—it’s been pretty honest so far, for one of them,” Lori said, which made feeders sound a whole lot nicer than they in fact were, “so do you know anything about this black shipping container?”
Keyboard keys clacked in Lori’s earpiece.
“I don’t . . . hmmm.” Tucker paused. “I’m going to contact Ms. Lake. She might know about it.”
“Soooooo you’re still coming, riiiiight?” the voice came over the loudspeaker. “I was getting all bored here by myself, and I know you’re lonely, and there’s a part of you that thinks you don’t deserve to be with somebody, that it’s better for you to be alone, but you know that’s not true, right, we all deserve someone, and you deserve me, and you can just come and find me and we will be together and it will be so beautiful and wonderful and not dangerous for you at all, I promise.”
It didn’t seem like the feeder was in the container. Something else was, and that was bad, but whatever the thing in the container was, it was probably better dealt with after Lori had taken care of the feeder.
Stepping quietly again, back to herself as the last echoes of Handler pulling her faded, she came around the corner, stalked down a lane of containers, and found the clearing.
And there it was.
The concrete had been corroded away, leaving a black-edged pit that opened to the dark water below. And hunched over the edge of the pit was a mass of slick glowing tentacles that—
a beautiful woman, her skin pale as moonlight, facing away from Lori with her dress sliding down so that the muscles and bones of her sexy back played under her skin, and her hair tumbled down in a cascade of shimmering black, and Lori could just see the bare edge of her face, and if Lori just came closer, she’d be able to see her perfectly, and it would be so worth it to see such
—almost looked like a human form when they coiled a certain way and blinked their strange lights.
Lori walked forward.
“Oh, hey, you can actually see me,” the feeder said. Its voice was still coming from the loudspeaker, which hardly seemed necessary anymore.
“And you can read minds,” Lori said, still walking forward. “Messing with the loudspeaker, so maybe you do things with electricity, and that includes reading how the neurons in my brain fire?”
“I can’t help people find true love unless I can read their desires,” the feeder said, “and as a magical creature who travels the world helping people find love, that’s totally something that it makes sense that I need to do, and wow you don’t even believe that a little bit, and most of you just thinks that’s a dumb idea because you know about feeders, but there’s a tiny part of you that just thinks no magical love-creature would ever come to you, because you don’t deserve anyone, and that is so tragic and sad that even though I was okay yes going to eat you before, feeling someone who is this down on herself makes me think that today, just this once, I should try to use my powers for good, and maybe in the process learn a valuable lesson—”
“Is there anything,” Lori cut in, “coming from my brain that makes you think I am in any way believing this?”
“No, but that’s all right,” said the feeder, “because even though you’re really actually pretty good at this whole not-believing-me thing, you are still coming closer, and that’s all that matters, because all of this, the talk and the pheromones I’m pumping into the air and the hallucinatory lights and the mild manipulation of your nervous system to adjust what you see—”
“It’s all a lure,” Lori said, taking the last few steps toward the feeder.
“Right, that is supergood thinking for a human, but see once you’re here, all I have to do is this—”
A tentacle snaked up and coiled around Lori’s arm.
Lori smiled through the sudden pain of whatever venomous ichor stung her wrist. “Okay, but did you ever wonder what the perfect lure for one of you things would look like?”
Pretend you took that microbe on the plate, dabbed something interesting in front of it, and then, as it oozed forward in its own primitive way, pretend you bit down into the plate. Feel the glass crunch and crackle beneath your jaws along with the wriggling whispers of the little microbe who only now realizes what is happening to it, caught by an enemy it never saw coming because it came from a dimension for which the little microbe has no frame of reference. Pretend you are that enemy, no, not an enemy, that hunter, and that you are grinding the glass away as the juices of your maw begin to digest the still-struggling microbe that thrashes, speared on your jaws. Pretend you drag the microbe down into depths it cannot even imagine because the direction has no meaning for it, and that it will vanish forever from that little plate.
Pretend that this is how you feed.
The fangs came out of nowhere as they always did, spearing through the feeder as they clamped down. The loudspeakers shrieked and the tentacles flailed, but the great fangs, sprouting from nothing in an oblong elongated fashion that made Lori’s eyes water to look at them, held firm, and after a few frantic wriggling moments, the tentacles went still.
“When you think about it,” Lori said, “the perfect lure for one of you would be something that looked human, wouldn’t it.”
The jaws receded without losing hold of their prey, pulling up or away or somewhere that made them look as though they were getting farther away without actually moving backward. The feeder, still pinned, went with them.
In a moment Lori was alone on the dockyard, still massaging her stinging wrist. It was red and puffy where the tentacles had touched her. If she’d been a real person, her internal organs would probably be liquefying already, but she healed quickly from just about any injury, and attacks from the feeders themselves could barely scratch her.
And that was why, however nice Handler was in the little texts, Lori never made the mistake of thinking of it as a person.
“Hey, Tucker, good news,” Lori said, hoping that maybe Tucker hadn’t been listening to all of what Lori had been saying for the last little bit. “Your feeder is all taken care of.” With the feeder itself gone, the residual evidence would slide out of this world as well, and once Lori and Handler had gotten paid, even Tucker would probably forget any of this had happened. “You’ll want to have a team clean the area thoroughly in case there are traces of whatever toxins it was using, but most of the danger is over.”
“I’m so very glad to hear it,” said a low, smoky voice that was in no way Tucker’s. “Tia Lake. Thank you so much for all your help.”
“Oh,” Lori said, connecting Lake to Lake Foundation in her head. “It’s nice to meet you in person. Is Ms. Tucker—”
“This is hardly personal,” said Lake with a little laugh. “What do we call you again?”
“You can . . . Angler,” Lori said. “From Angler Consul—”
“But what is your first name?”
Lori’s phone buzzed twice.
No kidding, she thought, and then realized that she was already opening her mouth to answer, and she thought of ten different names, but her mouth couldn’t work the words.
Susan, Samantha, Sarah, Sally, Lee, Laura Laurie Lori Lori LoriLoriLori
Something in her twisted, and at last, pulling her phone from her pocket with her wrist still stinging, she said, “I’m not supposed to use my name,” and that at least she could get out. “There are privacy concerns.”
“Of course, dear, how very prudent,” Lake said reassuringly. “Now, speaking of privacy, you asked about that container, the black one. Have you opened it?”
“No,” Lori said, but now I have to, and her mouth opened like it wanted to say the words. She clapped her free hand over her lips and looked at her phone in desperation. Past all of the No texts that a double buzz from Handler signified, she saw a new note.
“That’s good, dear,” Lake said. “In that case, we have nothing to worry about. The taxi should be there for you shortly.”
“I hope you’re satisfied with our services,” Lori blurted on autopilot, because this was what she always said, and it was true even, “and if you ever run into any trouble like this in the future, please consider using Angler Consulting again.”
“I will, dear, I absolutely will,” said Lake, and Lori pulled her earpiece away, turned it off, and began typing furiously into her phone.
Lori left the pit where the feeder had been. She started walking back toward the dock, where the taxi would be waiting. Her wrist was almost back to normal already, with just a few little red bumps to mark where the tentacle had grabbed her.
She saw the black shipping container.
There were a lot of things Lori didn’t know. Most of them were things she didn’t want to know, the little blessings still lurking in the shadows next to the pile of horrible awful things she did know.
Her phone buzzed.
If she looked down at it, she’d see whatever it was that Handler wanted her to know. An order, for example, like, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t open the container, that’s a terrible idea.
Handler was always very nice to her. It told jokes and gave her friendly grief and reminded her when Ben needed to take his pills in the morning. It didn’t hurt Lori at all.
But she bet if she’d asked those shells that had once been security guards, they’d have said that the sihuanaba was very nice to them, too.
Lori wasn’t entirely sure she could do something Handler had told her not to do. She thought of her mouth working soundlessly, trying to talk to Lake, but nothing coming out, like her lips and tongue and vocal cords weren’t even hers to begin with. Could Handler do that? If it did, would she even remember it later?
She didn’t look at her phone.
She ran to the black cargo container, flipped the latch, and slid the bolt loose. The door opened with a low creak.
A handful of teenagers blinked at Lori from the darkness inside. They were all locked in restraints, more restraints than normal people would ever need, straitjackets and handcuffs and straps that kept them locked into their chairs.
The nearest one, a boy with light brown skin and dreadlocks and eyes that glittered in the dark of the shipping container, had somehow gotten part of one hand free from his restraints, although the rest of him was still strapped into his chair. The container wall behind him was dented. His fingers twitched as he saw her.
“Hi!” said the pretty blond girl behind him. “I’m Maya, it’s great to meet you!”
“I’m not here,” Lori said. She stepped over to dreadlocks boy, grabbed one of the straps, undid the latch, and pulled it free. “I wasn’t here, I’m not here, you never saw me.”
“Is she hypnotizing us,” the blond girl named Maya asked another girl with a warm tan complexion and bright green hair, “or is she supposed to be invisible?” The girl with the green hair shrugged.
“Hey, Not-Here, I’m Shawn,” said the white guy to her left with a little grin. He was pulling against his restraints. “If you could maybe undo my strap as well while you’re not here . . . ?” From his voice, she thought he was from the South, maybe Georgia or the little bits of Florida that were still left.
Lori stepped over and undid the straps on his chair as well. Dreadlocks boy was pulling himself free. She was already regretting this. Five teenagers—Maya, green-haired girl, dreadlocks boy, Shawn-from-Georgia-or-Florida, and a small, dark-skinned boy Lori thought might be Filipino—all in a shipping container at a site that already had a feeder and whatever was going on with Tia Lake.
“Okay, you can get yourself out the rest of the way,” Lori said, and stepped back. “And help the others.”
“I’m on it,” Shawn said, still grinning. “Thanks for the not-help. Tapper, you pop Hawk, and I’ll get the girls.”
“I’m actually good,” said Maya, and slid her fingers out from where the straps crisscrossed under her chin. “I’m flexible.” She waved at Lori.
“Why did you not do that earlier?” the girl with the green hair demanded.
“Well, the door was latched shut from the other side, so . . . ?”
“I was never here, okay?” Lori said again.
Then she ran to the dock.
The taxi was already waiting for her when she got there. It was the same driver, and he smiled and helped her into the cab, ma’aming her as he did.
Lori settled into her seat, smiled, and asked him to go. She didn’t look at her phone. She didn’t look back to the dockyard. She didn’t look at anything.
“Yes, ma’am. She’s aboard now,” the driver said, and Lori froze.
The taxi exploded, a big greasy fireball that spat shards of metal and fiberglass into the water and across the dock, leaving only smoke and charred debris floating in the flaming wreckage.
Cold and clammy from Handler’s pull, Lori watched the flames die on the water, now a hundred meters away, from the safety of the cargo containers.
It was Monday morning.
Lori came around the corner of the black shipping container. The kids inside were still pulling free and helping each other.
“Hey,” she said. “I have to destroy the Lake Foundation before Thursday, and I need your help.”
Maya had mostly slid out of the restraints when the pretty girl with the silky dark hair who’d opened the door for them came back, and she waved again. “Oh hi, I’m Maya. I’m introducing myself because you weren’t here before,” she said, and winked. “That’s Tapper helping Hawk, who’s been kind of in and out.”
“I got electrocuted,” Hawk muttered, groaning. “You all just got drugged.”
“And Shawn is helping . . .” Maya paused and then took a good run at it. “Eeeyara?”
“Iara,” said the girl with the dark red skin and the green hair. She’d said she was from Brazil, and Maya, who was from Nebraska, was still having trouble with the name. The accent was cute, though.
“Right, and that’s Shawn helping Iara.”
“I need your help,” the girl who’d rescued them said again.
“And why do we care about what you need?” Tapper asked, tearing the straps free from Hawk. Hawk began to untangle himself, still dizzy. “You were scared to stick your neck out when we needed you, but now we drop everything—”
“Tapper!” Iara said sharply.
“I did help you, though,” the girl said. “And now I have three days before the Lake Foundation finds out who I am and comes after me and my brother, so I need to take them down before that.”
“Okay,” Maya said.
“Speak for yourself,” Shawn said, still fiddling with Iara’s restraints. “What makes you think the rest of us can help?” He shot Maya a look, which seemed really unfair, because they had all been talking ever since they woke up, and they had all agreed that they were in this together.
“Because Lake locked you up,” the girl said, looking at all of them. “She got suspicious when I asked about the container, and she asked if I’d opened it. I took down a feeder out there, and if Lake wanted you enough to kidnap you and lock you in a shipping container . . .” She swallowed and her hands tightened into fists. “I’m guessing you’re not completely human.”
“And you wouldn’t be bringing it up if you were completely human yourself,” Tapper said, glaring at the girl. Now that they weren’t sitting in complete darkness like they had been ever since they woke up, Maya realized that Tapper’s default state seemed to be glaring.
“Guys,” said Hawk, and Tapper looked away from the girl and grabbed hold of Hawk as he stumbled. “She’s on our side. We probably wanna chill and hug this out later.”
“Deal.” Shawn finished with Iara’s restraints and slid them free. “ ’Sides, taking down the Lake Foundation works for me.”
“And me as well,” Iara said, pushing the restraints aside and flipping her wavy green hair back out of her face. “Let us escape, and then destroy our enemies!” She slammed her hands down fiercely on the armrests of her chair.
The chair slid forward, and as the fabric of the straitjacket fell away, Maya realized it was a wheelchair.
“Oh, shoot,” Maya said, “that is going to make it super hard for us to get away. Um, no offense.”
“None taken,” Iara said, and smiled, her lips curving wickedly on her heart-shaped face. “Get me to the water before their boats arrive, and I will show you my world.”
“Boats?” Hawk asked, looking around.
“Wait,” Maya said, “what does showing me your world mean? Was that like flirty or threatening or . . . because I’m okay with either, I mean obviously the first more—”
“Seriously?” Tapper said. “We’re doing this right now?”
“Sadly, alemã, I only like men,” Iara said.
“Someone said something about boats?” Hawk asked.
“See, that’s perfect,” Maya said, “because I only go for girls.”
“Excellent!” Iara slapped the arm of her chair. “Divide and conquer. The women are yours, the men are mine, and the world falls before us!”
“What was it you said about boats?” Hawk asked, and then turned, stepped away from Tapper, and squinted out to the open water visible through the row of shipping containers. “Wait, hang on, I see ’em.”
He took a couple of steps toward the water, and then stopped.
A moment later, a sharp whistling sound like a steaming teakettle zoomed in.
Then an explosion slammed Maya to the floor of the cargo container.
Amid the terrible cacophony of blinding light and roaring noise that shook the metal around them, Maya looked up, blinking. The girl who’d freed them was gone—not dead or anything, just gone— and most of the others were on the ground like Maya. Iara’s chair was on its side, and Iara lay beside it, her green hair covering her face.
The only one still on his feet was the little guy, who stood in the middle of a bunch of scorched concrete. Little bits of flaming debris were scattered around him.
He looked back over his shoulder, completely unharmed as far as Maya could tell. “Dudes,” he said, “I think maybe they know we’re free.”
“Boat’s coming in,” Hawk called, and started walking toward the water. He was finally feeling steady again. Being electrocuted had messed up his balance.
It was a small speedboat, dark and unmarked, like a corporation would have. The pretty girl with the dark eyes had said they were after her. They’d gotten Hawk and the others, so that stood to reason.
Something flashed in the corner of his vision, and he blinked, and then looked down to see that the guys on the boat had arrived at the dock, and now they were shooting at him. Little bullets or casings or whatever it was that actually came out of guns? Bullets, right. Bullets were sprinkling on the ground around him. They were all messed up and flattened, and he almost bent down to check them out, but then he realized that if he did that, the bullets might zip past him and hit somebody.
“Oh yeah, they’re shooting at us too,” he added over his shoulder, “so if you’ve got, like, any powers that help with that . . .”
More bullets bipp ed off him. A couple dinged his head and made him flinch. He wondered what’d happen if they caught him in the eye. He probably didn’t have, like, supereyes. That didn’t make sense.
Of course, it wasn’t like his throat was reinforced by a lot of muscle or bone either, and as a shot dinged his Adam’s apple, all that happened was he started hiccupping, so maybe he should stop trying to make it all work by science.
He squinted, though. For safety.
There were three guys, all grown-ups and all white and wearing dark suits with ties. They were all pretty big and ripped, and they looked like when the guys on the football team dressed up for a game, big shoulders poured into business wear. Their guns were assault rifles, and apparently they held a lot of ammo in each clip, because they were still firing as Hawk came out into the main docking area.
“Dudes, be cool!” he yelled. The guys kept firing. He hiccupped again as bullets bounced off his throat.
“They’re puppets!” yelled a girl’s voice off to Hawk’s right, and he turned to see the girl who’d freed them crouched on top of a stack of containers.
“Puppets?” Hawk looked back at them, hiccupped yet again. “Where are the strings?”
“Probably inside them!” she shouted back, and then ducked down as a bullet plinked off the container where she was crouched. Then she sucked in on herself really fast and was gone, and Hawk looked back at the guys with the guns, and there she was, unfolding out of nothing superfast behind one of them and slamming her elbow into the back of his head.
The guy fell, and the other two spun toward the girl, and then something whooshed past Hawk, and another guy fell with a sudden crack and a flash of light, and Tapper was standing over him with one fist extended, the air around him shimmering like hot pavement.
By now Hawk had finally reached the third guy, who turned toward Tapper. Hawk grabbed the gun, reached up, and punched the guy in the jaw.
The guy’s head came off.
Hawk stumbled back. “Oh, dude, I didn’t . . .”
There was a lot less blood than in the anime Hawk watched. Hardly any at all, in fact, which seemed unlikely. The head bounced back into the boat like a lopsided football, and something wriggled at the top of the headless corpse, and at first Hawk thought it was some kind of automatic movement of the spine or something like in the French Revolution when people got guillotined, and Hawk’s stomach lurched like he was going to be sick.
It wasn’t the spine, though. It was some kind of worm-snake thing, yellow and slick with slime, slithering out of the man’s torso, and as Hawk tried not to throw up in front of Tapper and the cute girl, the thing slid into the water and vanished.
“S’messed up,” Hawk said instead of puking, and he thought of when he was a little boy, and Nanay had told him and his brothers and sisters stories about the aswang, the ghouls that changed their shape and ate people, and she had always finished by hugging them all and telling them that monsters weren’t real, and he really wanted his nanay right now.
“Puppets,” the cute girl said, stomping hard on the throat of the guy she’d taken down. The guy didn’t make any noise, but the thing inside him did, and then the guy’s head split open like a chopped watermelon, and another worm-snake thing slipped out and flopped into the water. “They work the body from inside. Like the hand inside Kermit the Frog.”
“That’s . . .” Hawk hiccupped, almost lost it, and then finished with, “Those are Muppets, that’s totally different.”
“That’s what bothers you about this?” Tapper glared at Hawk. “Pull yourself together. We aren’t all bulletproof.”
The guy Tapper had taken down shifted, and Hawk saw a worm-snake split the guy’s head open. Then Tapper was there, a blur of motion striking down, and the worm-snake was crushed under his work boots, its head exploding in a spray of green slime.
“These weren’t from the feeder that was here,” said the girl who’d rescued them, whose name Hawk realized he still didn’t know. “Those were shells, with no living human left. These are—”
“Stop! Shut up!” Tapper yelled. “What do I even call you? What are you?”
“Boat,” she said, and pointed. “They knew they couldn’t stop us with just one.” Her voice was dead calm, as it had been since the fight started. It wasn’t calm like she was a cool badass who fought sick monsters all the time, and this was no big deal. It was calm like she wasn’t even paying attention, like she was an action figure and someone had pressed a button to make her say one of seven prerecorded phrases. “How did they catch you before?”
“Drugged my drink,” Tapper said, “and I woke up tied too tight to get free.”
“Oh yeah, I thought that tasted funny,” Hawk said. “Didn’t knock me out, though. I don’t think I do poisons anymore.” The water was bubbling near the dock.
“So that’s when they electrocuted you?” Tapper asked.
“Yeah. Ran the current through a big fishing net,” Hawk said as a big metal tube rose out of the bubbling water. “Hey, what do you think—”
The net exploded from the tube and covered them with a giant wave of black.
The giant net sprang out of the water and fwomp ed down over Hawk and Tapper and whoever the girl who’d rescued them was, and Shawn shook the last of the dizziness away and stumbled to his feet. It was time to tag in.
Wheelchair Girl—wait, no, Iara; Shawn felt like a jerk, because now he was just gonna think of her as Wheelchair Girl, and that sucked, because the accent had been hot for the hours they’d been sitting there talking before they’d gotten free, and she had been superhot before he had seen the wheelchair, and Shawn knew he shouldn’t make it a thing—was crawling back toward her chair. She crawled in a weird way, hunching her legs together and sort of sliding.
“We gotta help!” Shawn yelled, and scooped her up. She was warm and soft and smelled good even after being stuck in a straitjacket for a long time, and her arms slid up and over his shoulders as he lifted her.
“Next time, ask first,” she said, shaking her head. “Ears still ringing. Get me to the water.”
He started running. He couldn’t move at a blur like Tapper—or whatever it was the girl who’d rescued them did, if she was moving at all or teleporting or something—but he’d been strong even before the change, and now he could carry Wheelchair-Girl-no-wait-Iara like she was nothing. “You can swim?” he said between breaths.
“Watch and see.” She shook the last of the dizziness away and gave him a wicked smile.
He was totally gonna get past the wheelchair thing.
Men were pulling themselves up onto the docks from the water, water dripping from their wetsuits. The net was moving around, with the people caught in it struggling, and then one of the men in the wetsuits pressed a button on his wristband, and the net crackled and sparked.
Shawn kept running. The guys in the wetsuits didn’t have guns. Another boat was coming toward the dock, and the guys in the boat did have guns, and Shawn had figured out some cool tricks since the change, but he was pretty sure he didn’t have anything that stopped bullets.
The guys in the wetsuits saw him as he came out onto the main dock. They had face masks and scuba gear that made it hard to see their expressions, but they were pointing his way.
“Throw me!” Iara shouted, and as Shawn adjusted her from carrying position to something like a shot-put position midstride, she unhooked her arms, and then Shawn launched her with all of his strength just as she pushed off him, and he had a moment to think that wow, she had a fantastic butt.
Then she torpedoed into one of the wetsuit guys, and both of them went into the water.
Shawn spun to the second wetsuit guy, who did in fact have a gun, some kind of weird, clunky toy-pistol-looking thing made from black plastic, and Shawn wasn’t sure if it was a speargun or what, but he knew he didn’t want it pointing at him, so as the wetsuit guy brought it up, Shawn lunged in, fingers tightened to a spear point.
His hand punched clean through wetsuit guy’s chest and out the other side. He saw the man’s eyes go blank behind his mask, and as Shawn yanked his arm back out, the man’s mask ripped off, and some kind of horrible snake-worm slithered out and slid into the water.
Which was good, Shawn decided. It was definitely good. He slid the blood off his hand—not that there was much; whatever he did to make himself sharp made the blood sheet right off him. If wetsuit guy had a snake-worm inside him, he wasn’t really a person, so Shawn wasn’t a murderer, and that was good.
He heard the crack of gunfire and saw that the boat was drawing closer. After a second of staring like an idiot, he realized they were firing at him, and he dove to the ground beside the giant pile of netting.
“No, no, no.” He needed to get into the water. A bullet spat off the concrete beside him, and he rolled away, behind the netting now.
“Hang on!” Shawn shouted. “Get down!” He thought, scissors, scissors, scissors, as hard as he could, and then held his hands out like a karate expert doing a chop and sliced into the netting.
His hands sheared through the heavy rope like it was overcooked pasta, and he slashed it free, then hauled it apart with all of his strength.
Under the giant net, Tapper and Hawk crouched. Tapper was twitching. Hawk was blinking a bunch.
“I g-got el-l-lectrocuted ag-g-gain,” Hawk said.
“Where’s the girl?” Shawn asked. “The one who got us out?”
“She got out,” came a voice from behind him, and Shawn turned to see her crouched by one of the containers. She didn’t look good—she was pale, and her blouse and pants were wrinkled, but the weird part was her face. Normal girls freaked out when their nice clothes got messy, or they were too angry to worry about it, sometimes, but she was just . . . blank.
Then gunfire cracked again, and he forgot about Creepy Blank Lady and dove to the concrete. He peeked around the pile of netting to see if the guys in the boat were shooting at him.
They weren’t. Their guns were pointed down into the water on one side.
A moment later Iara leaped from the water on the other side, punched one of the gunmen at the top of her arc, and dove cleanly back into the water like a kung-fu mermaid.
Shawn grinned. “Get them out!” he called back to Creepy Blank Lady. “I’m going in!”
He heard the cry behind him as he scrambled forward, but then he was in the water.
He sucked in a lungful of cool water. The shock of it always hit him like a jolt of adrenaline, the heavy coldness as he went from air to water, the taste of sea salt in the back of his throat. He thrust his arms out to either side and thought wings and pushed and surged through the water faster than any Olympic medalist.
There were more wetsuit guys under the water, holding on to a big machine with a propeller and a bunch of handholds and the tube where they’d shot the netting out. The water here was a dark blue, the wetsuit guys just shadows themselves, and they hadn’t seen him yet.
He glided forward with another flap of his arms, then thought spear point and stabbed at the nearest man. His fingers punched through the guy’s chest, and he flailed as blood clouded the water. Shawn tasted it and freaked out for a moment, kicking away as the man thrashed.
The second wetsuit guy turned and raised one of the toy guns, and there was a bubbling pop as something like a needle or a nail hissed past Shawn’s shoulder with a little buzz of pain. Shawn shouted in surprise, surged forward, and stabbed the man through the chest.
This time he kicked off and out of the blood cloud before he tasted it.
He saw when the snake-worm ripped out of the dead guy. It moved fast in the water, as fast as Shawn, and Shawn stabbed at it on instinct, but the snake-worm curled around the thrust, and Shawn felt its slimy skin around his wrist as it slipped away and wriggled down into the darkness below.
The heck with that. It was time for some answers.
Shawn made his arms into wings again and surged down after the thing that had used the wetsuit guy like a puppet. He stroked down, pulling himself into the dark water. It was deeper than it ought to have been this close to shore. That must be where the snake-worms lived, down in the dark water.
Up above, he saw splashing and the gray-blue silhouette of water rippling on the surface, and then he heard, “Wait!”
It was Iara, her voice cutting through the water with the perfect clarity of a bell. Shawn looked up and saw her shape in the splashing. She glided through the water even faster than he could, her muscular arms pulling her forward with each stroke.
“You take the ones on the surface!” Shawn called up. Unlike her perfect clarity, his voice burbled in the water like a normal person’s, and he wasn’t sure if she could understand him. Still, she was smart. She could figure it out. “I’m going after them!”
He flapped down into the darkness again, ignoring her cry. He’d lost the snake-worm he’d been trailing, but he could still sense the little bubbles of its wake, disturbances in the water that would probably have been invisible to him before but were now as clear as footprints. There were other bubbles too, big green ones floating up from the dark water below. Shawn wasn’t sure where they were coming from.
The snake-worm’s trail led down into the deep, though; maybe there were more of them down there.
He swam down, eyes straining. The blue-gray faded to washed-out black below, and he felt the water grow hot around him.
Then it moved, and green bubbles surged up all around him.
He thrust out blindly through the sudden heat and felt his hand hit something, and then something hit him.
As he tasted his own blood in the water, his scream came out as bubbles.
Lori’s phone was buzzing almost constantly now. Lori hadn’t looked at it.
Hawk and Tapper, the two boys on the ground in the pile of netting, still weren’t moving. Shawn had dived into the water.
Lori had yelled at him to stop. He hadn’t.
She wasn’t sure why she had yelled.
Everything was cold and clammy. Nothing directly threatened Lori right now. She had seen something in the water. No. She had felt it, or Handler had felt it and Lori had felt it because of what Handler had felt, like your fingers imagining the heat of a hot stove because your eyes had seen that it was turned on. She had yelled for the boy not to go in. He had gone in anyway.
Buzz, buzz, buzz, went her phone.
Too many jumps in too short a time. The girl who couldn’t take care of herself had let the monster save her and, as punishment, was now having to remember that she wasn’t really a girl. She was part of the monster, and it was having trouble making her act real.
A bullet panged off a cargo container beside Lori. She looked at the boat with the two gunmen in it, but they were still shooting at the water where Iara, the girl with the green hair, was hiding.
She looked around.
Three gunmen in wetsuits had come around the corner.
Lori remembered the hole the feeder had made in the concrete, opening it up to the water below.
She was moving on instinct, sidestepping the gunman at the front and checking his gun with one hand even as her other fist jabbed into his throat. He stumbled, and she saw another gunman aiming at her and ducked down under the first gunman’s gun to put his body between her and the others, then punched him in the crotch.
His head and chest spat blood as bullets ripped through him, clanging off the cargo containers over Lori’s head, and Lori shoved the dead man into the other two.
She didn’t need to fight. Handler would pull her again if she was in danger. She’d lose more of herself, and that would have bothered her before, but Lori didn’t see why it mattered right now.
Still, it was what she did.
But there were still two of them, and they shoved the man they’d just shot to death aside and aimed at her with their pistols.
Then a section of the cargo container beside them came to life and wrapped itself around one of the men like a giant snake. The corrugated red steel—no, an arm, Lori realized, stretched out longer than any arm and twisted like a bendy action figure and somehow colored to match the pattern of the shipping container, but still with fingers at the end—choked the man and twisted his arm away from Lori. His gun went off pointing at the other man, who went down with his chest bloody, and then the man turned his gun back toward himself, shooting behind him. Lori heard screaming, and part of the shipping container fell off, and then Lori realized it was Maya, the corrugated pattern rippling back into the normal shape of the willowy blond girl holding the man in a chokehold.
He was trying to fire behind himself at her, and Lori stepped in, grabbed the gun hand, and punched him in the throat until he collapsed.
“Oh gosh oh gosh oh gosh, I wasn’t trying to kill that first guy,” Maya said. “I just saw them pointing at you and I wanted to help. I did a season of wrestling. You punched him in the throat. He’s not human either, is he? I mean, not that we’re not human.” Maya smiled hopefully at Lori. “Mostly human? Ish?”
Lori’s phone buzzed again. She took it out and looked at it.
“So should we help Iara and Shawn?” Maya asked. “Or . . . I brought her wheelchair, which, I don’t know, it seemed like she wouldn’t want to leave that behind.”
“What?” Maya said, and Lori realized that she’d said it aloud. “Did he like text you to tell you that? Should we share numbers?”
It was like pins and needles as Lori came back to herself, and it hurt, like biting a sore on the inside of your cheek, all the anger and fear and frustration that make people people rushing back in at once.
Lori felt hands on her shoulders and realized she had stumbled. Maya was steadying her. “Are you okay? You got weird. Did I trigger you? Was it phone numbers, because I don’t know why it’d be phone numbers and not like being shot at or whatever those snake-worm things are that just crawled out of those guys’ heads, but I am totally not judging your trigger—”
“I’m Lori.” Lori stood up straight and squeezed Maya’s hands before pulling them away from her shoulders. “We need to run now, or we’re all dead. Grab the wheelchair.”
“On it!” Maya nodded brightly and looked down at the things slithering back toward the docks. “Oh yeah, you meant literally on both now and run.”
Lori dashed back to the edge of the dock, where Hawk and Tapper were slowly getting back to their feet. “We’re leaving,” she said. “Can either of you drive a boat?”
“I can,” came a voice from nearby, and Lori looked up to see Iara driving a now-empty boat. Her eyes were large, and her legs splayed out awkwardly in the chair, but her hands were steady on the wheel. “There’s something in the water.”
“Yes, there is,” Lori said.
“It killed Shawn,” Iara said. “I don’t . . . I don’t know what it is.”
“I don’t know what any of us are,” Lori said. “Would you like to find out?”
“I have your chair,” Maya added softly.
“Thank you.” Iara swallowed as the boat bumped gently against the dock. “Let us get out of here, then. I wish to call my parents and go home.”