The Underneath

The Underneath, Pt. 1 – Gaps 

“Natiq!” Adeena yelled, chasing after her younger brother. “Slow down!” 

The headstrong eight-year-old sprinted through the playground, dodging the other children as if it were his profession. Adeena tried her best to keep up, but the playground’s boisterous other occupants invaded her space, slowing her down. She stumbled, almost collapsing to the ground, and straightened her hijab, growling in frustration. 

“Natiq!” she cried. “I’m going to tell mom if you don’t get over here!” 

As usual, her brother ignored her, smiling mischievously as he reached the playground’s epicenter, a jungle gym twisted up in layers of climbing bars and tube slides and swinging bridges. He glanced over his shoulder at Adeena before crawling into the bottom of one of the biggest slides, a bright green plastic tunnel at least three times Adeena’s height. 

“No, that’s the wrong way!” Adeena chided, rushing to the bottom of the slide, but Natiq had already disappeared, scaling the interior like a spider in its web. 

Sighing, the teenager leaned into the slide, calling out. “Natiq, answer me.” 

The only response was her own voice echoing back at her. 

“Natiq?” she repeated, worry cracking her voice. 

Silence surrounded her, stifling her, as if the sounds of the other children had faded away. Concerned now, she pulled herself into the slide, applying pressure with her hands and feet to scale the angled tunnel. As she climbed, the silence grew more pronounced, and she wondered if the plastic had some sort of sound-muffling feature. 

Sunlight washed across her face as she reached the top of the slide, climbing out onto the top of the jungle gym. She stood up, brushing off her clothes, and looked around, but she saw neither Natiq nor any of the other children who were there just a moment ago. Moreover, the playground itself seemed older now, more decrepit, as if it had aged a decade in seconds. Overhead, the once-sunny sky was now covered in grey clouds, and Adeena thought she saw a dim, green light flicker like lightning within them. 

Adeena knelt down, running her finger across rust-covered metal. “Natiq, please answer me.” 

A gentle breeze moaned across the playground, and Adeena wrapped her arms around herself. 

Is this a dream? she thought. Am I going crazy? 

Across the street, amongst the rows of houses, Adeena saw curtains gently part, and a bony, bleach-white face with thin, bright-red lips peered through the window. When they saw her looking back, they retreated back into the house, and the curtain fell still. 

“Hey!” Adeena called. “Can you help me?” 

She hurried down the steps of the jungle gym, sprinting across the grass and onto the sidewalk. As she prepared to cross the street, movement caught her eye, and she turned to see a large, hulking figure approaching her. She paused, hesitant, and turned toward the newcomer. 

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, moving in their direction. “Have you seen a little boy come by here in the last thirty seconds or so? He answers to Natiq. My mom asked me to watch him, but he got away from-” 

She stopped mid-sentence as the figure drew close enough to make out its features, gasping. 

Lumbering toward her towered an eight-foot, humanoid rat, its features cartoonish, its matted fur covered in oversized street clothes. At first glance, Adeena thought it might be a person in some kind of elaborate costume, but its movements were too stiff, too erratic, like a wind-up toy in its death throes. Some sunlight filtered through the clouds, glistening off of what appeared to be a metal skeleton hidden beneath holes in the rat’s fur. 

“You are not registered, citizen,” the rat-creature boomed, its voice hollow and robotic, its mouth unmoving. “Please provide identification.” 

“Identification?” Adeena squeaked. “I’m sorry, I’m not old enough to have a license.” 

The creature moved closer, extending its furry hand. “Identification is mandatory.” 

“I don’t have any!” Adeena yelled, backing away. “What is going on?” 

“Registering unknown citizen as hostile,” the rat-creature said, its eyes lighting up red. “Deploying countermeasures.” 

It extended its arms, and metal claws protruded from its fingertips. “Please remain calm during your execution.” 

“My what?” cried Adeena. 

The rat-creature raised one arm, preparing to strike, and Adeena crossed her arms in front of her face, heart pounding in her chest. Suddenly, a small boy ran between them, producing two plastic cards. “She’s with me!” 

The creature paused, its red eyes flickering back to black. It leaned forward, examining the two cards. “Scanning. Recognized. One Ahab Van de Berg and one Marsha Van de Berg.” 

Without saying another word, it returned to full height, retracting its claws, and turned around, creakily walking away. Adeena and the boy silently watched its silhouette grow smaller and smaller until it was beyond their sight. Once it was gone, the boy – Ahab, Adeena presumed – turned to her, revealing an angular, bleach-white face with thin, bright-red lips. 

“You have to be careful around Annies,” Ahab said, returning the two identification cards to a satchel slung across his shoulder. “They’re quite volatile.” 

“Are you okay?” Adeena asked. “Your face . . .” 

Ahab laughed. “Right, you just got here. Come with me.  I have a lot to explain.” 

“I can’t go with you,” Adeena replied. “I have to find my brother.” 

“Why do you think I’m here?” Ahab said. “Your brother has been taken. I’m trying to rescue him, and others like him.” 

Adeena’s eyes widened. “Taken? By who? What is this place?” 

Ahab looked around. “Come on, let’s get off the streets. We don’t want to draw attention to you.” 

“To me? Adeena scoffed. 

Ahab motioned toward a space between two of the nearby houses. “I know you don’t know me, but I need you to trust me. We aren’t safe here.” 

He’s just a kid, Adeena thought. Probably no older than Natiq. What harm can he do? 

Nodding, she followed him into the alley, and they began weaving a path between the houses, cutting through yards and hopping over gates. 

“Where am I?” she asked as they walked. “I know I’m not in the same place as before. But everything looks sort of similar.” 

“You’re in what my people call The Underneath,” Ahab explained. “Our scientists theorize that your world, The Overhead, and ours were once the same. One single world. But something changed a long, long time ago, and we became two halves of a whole. Connected, similar, but different.” 

“Wait, so you’re saying that I’m not on Earth anymore?” Adeena asked, incredulous. 

Ahab chuckled. “Well, it’s still Earth. It’s just a version of what Earth could have been, compared to your world. And your world is what Earth could have been, compared to ours. Two origin points, divided into different evolutionary paths.” 

“Different? How?” Adeena inquired. 

“Well, the plant and animal life here is harsher, more predatory. Weather patterns are more consistent; we don’t get many deviations from this mild, overcast sky. Humans have developed differently. You pointed out my face? That’s what everyone here looks like.” 

“Oh.” Adeena averted her gaze. “I’m sorry for being rude.” 

“It’s okay. This is all new to you. Moreover, we Underneath humans have different developmental stages biologically. In your world, in The Overhead, children are born with very little intelligence or maturity or emotional stability. It takes both time and care for those qualities to come to fruition.” 

“What’s it like here?” Adeena asked. 

“Well, in The Underneath, maturity and intelligence are inverted. The younger we are, the better our memory retention, our social skills, our scientific aptitudes. In my world, we’re all born as tiny scientists, slowly awaiting our mental deterioration as we reach adolescence. It’s kind of like your world’s Alzheimer’s, but we spent the first decade and a half of our life painfully aware of its inevitability. As a result, all scientific discoveries and technological developments are achieved solely by children under the age of fifteen, leading to some major differences in modern technology between The Overhead and The Underneath.” 

“Wow.” Adeena stopped walking for a moment, trying to process what Ahab was saying. “So what happens to the adults?” 

Ahab glanced at her. “Nothing good. Most become bitter, delusional, sadistic. Because of the adult-to-child ratio, and due to Underneath adults’ brutal methods, they have a stranglehold on our government and society. Most Underneath children nowadays are forced to work on projects to fulfill the fantasies of psychopaths.” 

“Well, what makes you different?” Adeena asked. 

Ahab sighed. “My parents died when I was a toddler. I’ve been a drifter, self-sufficient and independent, for as long as I can remember. I’ve been looking at this world from the outside, much like you. And I see the things that conspire to tear apart both of our worlds in the shadowy corners of my own.” 

He stopped at the next gate, holding up his hand so Adeena would follow suit. “We’re close to the highway. The roads are dangerous, but crossing beneath the bridges is the quickest route back to my home, where you’ll be safe from the Annies and from . . . other groups.” 

Adeena nodded. “I have another question, before we move.” 

“Go ahead,” Ahab said. 

“You knew my brother was taken. You knew I’d be at that playground. How? In fact, how did I even get here? Did you bring me here somehow?” 

“That’s more than one question,” Ahab teased. “In regards to how you and Natiq got here, it was an accident, of sorts. You two fell through a Gap.” 

“What’s a Gap?” Adeena asked. 

“Gaps are . . . they’re like little holes. Spots when and where the boundaries between The Overhead and The Underneath are weakest. Usually they correspond with intentions, with places that people aren’t intended to be. Under the bed, the back of the closet, behind the mirror. Recently, there was an incident where someone accidentally made it through a Gap after being pulled beneath an escalator. In your case, it seems you two traveled through a Gap by crawling the wrong way up a slide.” 

“That can’t be true,” Adeena responded. “People would be crossing over all the time.” 

“Well, Gaps are fickle,” Ahab admitted. “They’re inconsistent, often moving around intangibly. There are ways to predict or summon Gaps, though. See, Gaps aren’t just breaches in space. They’re breaches in time, in the ethereal energies that connect us. As such, there are moment and circumstances that make Gaps more likely to appear. Anywhere close to the moment of a death, or a birth, for example. Also, certain rare phases of the moon or symmetrical times of the day, as well as inactive broadcasts, like radio or television static, or the busy signal of a phone call that can’t connect. Those moments, in proximity to Gap locations, can be enough for people or objects or animals to slip through sometimes.” 

“So, if we don’t know they’re there, it’s hard for us to stumble through them,” Adeena continued, realization dawning. “Still, I can’t believe no one in The Overhead knows about this.” 

“Oh, I have no doubt that there are those in power in your world who are intimately aware of Gaps,” Ahab said. “But The Underneath is, in many ways, far more dangerous. Leaving us alone is likely the safest thing for your people to do. That’s also why I came to pick you up as soon as I found out you were coming.” 

“Oh, that’s right!” Adeena exclaimed. “That was the other thing I asked. How did you know about me? About Natiq?” 

“Like I said before, Gaps aren’t just in space,” Ahab explained. “They’re in time. For some reason, despite all of our worlds’ major differences, we remain linked in our day-to-day lives. When someone from The Overhead gets hungry and makes a sandwich, their Underneath counterpart often does the same. Inversely, when someone from The Underneath, say, falls in love with a person, the same will eventually also happen between the same two people in The Overhead.” 

A car engine rumbled nearby, and Ahab tensed, looking around. When he continued, his voice dropped to a whisper. 

“Those moments can be a little disjointed, though. The two sandwiches might be constructed hours apart. The two lovers might meet years apart. Because we in The Underneath have spent centuries studying the Gaps, we’ve found ways to predict moments in one world by observing moments in the other. We suspect that’s where concepts like precognition and déjà vu come into play. They’re just side effects of people who are sensitive to Gaps.” 

“So . . .” Adeena hesitated. “How long ago did Natiq enter The Underneath?” 

“For you, it’s been seconds,” Ahab whispered. “For me, it’s been about a week.” 

“A week?” Adeena screamed, and Ahab waved his arms, shushing her. “Who has been keeping him prisoner for a week?” 

Faint footsteps sounded behind her, and she spun around to see three men standing about a block away, partially obscured by the shadows between the houses. She caught a glimpse of suits, of sunglasses, of faces covered in flesh-colored plastic. The men reached into their jackets, producing small objects that Adeena couldn’t quite make out from this distance. 

They have,” Ahab answered, his voice shaking. “The Sleep Police.” 

He grabbed Adeena by the hand, pulling her, and together, they turned and ran for their lives. 

The Underneath, Pt. 2 – Chase 

Adeena and Ahab burst through the fence, sprinting across the nearest street and narrowly avoiding an old sedan whose tires screeched as it skidded to a halt. Looking over her shoulder, Adeena saw The Sleep Police bridging the gap between them swiftly, wielding various tools: A tire iron, a meat cleaver, and an ice pick. The normally benign objects chilled Adeena’s veins in the hands of these strange men. 

“The highway!” Ahab yelled, pointing at a nearby bridge. “We need to get onto the highway!” 

“I thought that was too dangerous!” Adeena yelled back. 

Ahab glanced back at the Sleep Police. “We need a different kind of danger right now.” 

They pivoted into the grass, scurrying toward the car-filled asphalt, the vehicles whizzing past in a blur. As they ran, Ahab fumbled through his messenger bag, producing a short, bright-blue rod that reminded Adeena of the rattling rain stick toys often used to entertain babies. Sure enough, he adjusted something on the rod, and it producing a swooping rattle reminiscent of light rain on a tin roof. 

“I’m sorry in advance for this,” Ahab said as they reached the guard rail separating them from the highway. “You shouldn’t have to see this.” 

They climbed over the guard rail just as a massive truck rumbled by, nearly flattening them. More cars flickered past them, like giant, four-wheeled bullets, the drivers honking at the two children as they carefully tried to cross the road. When they reached the center of the road, Ahab stopped, looking back at the Sleep Police as they vaulted over the guard rail, readying their weapons. They glanced at the incoming traffic, careful to avoid the cars as they menacingly approached. 

Crouching, Ahab struck the rain stick across the ground like a match across sandpaper, and the device rattled again. Blue sparks leapt from the tip of the rod, but rather than generating flame, like Adeena expected, a thick, shin-high wall of ice spread across the road, crackling upwards. Massive, pointy icicles stretched toward the sky, creating a line of frozen spikes. 

“Oh, subhanallāh,” Adeena groaned, backing away. 

The first car passed over the ice, and the icicles dug into the tires, piercing the rubber. The wheels exploded, and the car swerved, almost striking one of the Sleep Policemen as it screeched to a stop. 

“Let’s go!” Ahab yelled. “We need to leave before they come.” 

“Before who come?” Adeena asked, but the Underneath boy just grabbed her hand and pulled her the rest of the way across the highway. 

As they ran, she heard more vehicles run across the spikes, crashing and flipping into each other, and she cringed at the sounds of screeching metal. When she glanced back, though, she saw the accident victims scrambling away from their cars, flagging down other vehicles, who stopped and allowed them to climb inside before speeding away. 

Where are they going? she silently wondered. 

The Sleep Police weaved through the mass of destroyed cars, drawing closer, and the one with the tire iron was already only a few feet away. He dove forward, grabbing Adeena’s ankle, and she collapsed on the edge of the other side of the highway, screaming. The Sleep Policeman towered over the girl, rearing back to bring his weapon down onto her skull, when something pulled him violently backwards, out of Adeena’s line of sight. 

Adeena sat up, confused, and saw the Sleep Policeman on the ground, beating his tire iron against what appeared to be a large, black, faceless alligator. The creature’s long, toothy mouth was clamped down on the man’s leg, and he desperately tried to pull away as the appendage spurted blood. The alligator shook its head from side-to-side, slamming the Sleep Policeman repeatedly against a nearby car door until he went limp, dropping his tire iron. 

A loud hiss finally registered in Adeena’s ears, and she slowly turned to survey the wreckage of the highway. Another dozen alligators, varying in size from creature to creature, slithered around the smoking cars, patrolling the area and honing in on the few people remaining on the road, including the other two Sleep Policemen. The Sleep Policemen tried to fight off the alligators, but they were quickly overwhelmed, and they silently succumbed to a gruesome, bone-crunching death. 

Ahab clutched Adeena’s shoulder, spinning her around. “Let’s go. Now.” 

He held up a black, metal whistle, putting it in his mouth.  

Together, the two children climbed down the grassy bank beyond the highway, the screams of the alligators’ victims fading away. Suddenly, four alligators appeared, circling them, baring their long, black teeth. They slithered closer, hissing, and Adeena shuddered in fear. 

Next to her, she saw Ahab take a deep breath, blowing into the whistle. 

The moment the boy exhaled, nausea washed over Adeena like a tidal wave. Her eyes blurred a little as the world began to spin, and she fell to her hands and knees, gripping the grass with clenched fists. Interestingly, though, despite all of these side effects, she couldn’t actually hear Ahab’s whistle. 

Adeena felt a hand grab hers, and she shakily returned to her feet, allowing Ahab to lead the way. She looked around at the alligators, who were all backing away, hissing, some of them even turning around to leave altogether. They continued further down the hill, aiming for a swathe of trees that appeared to be an overgrown park. As they moved, Adeena felt her nausea and dizziness slowly fade away. 

“What were those?” she mumbled. 

“Road Gators,” Ahab answered. “Kind of like your world’s vultures. They have a close connection to Gaps, and often congregate around future accident sites in both worlds to consume the people involved. Creatures of opportunity, but well-known creatures nonetheless. Hence, our deviation onto the highway, and my safety whistle.” 

As they drew closer to the trees, Adeena thought she saw eyes watching from within the park. After a moment, what appeared to be a crow emerged, fluttering beyond the treetops and silently soaring overhead, heading back toward the neighborhoods. Adeena glanced at Ahab, but he seemed to not have noticed as he fumbled through his satchel. Smiling triumphantly, he pulled his hand out of the bag, retrieving a copper-colored key. 

“Now, I just have to find it,” he muttered, waving his hands around. “I’m always bad at this.” 

He finally slapped his hand against something solid, though Adeena saw nothing but thin air. Reaching out with his key, he jiggled it for a second before Adeena heard a resounding click, and a door opened up in space, revealing a hallway. Ahab glanced back at Adeena’s incredulous expression, shrugging. 

“Digital camouflage. People don’t come near the park anyway, but keeping my hideout invisible helps with security.” 

“Why don’t they come near the park?” Adeena wondered aloud. 

“Oh, there are plenty of dangerous animals in The Underneath, just like in The Overhead,” Ahab explained. “But at certain times of the year, heavy plant growth invites malicious insect populations. Skullcap Spiders, Widow Beetles, Fire Hornets, you name it. As long as you stay out of the thorny parts of the woods, though, you should be okay. That’s where they like to nest.” 

Adeena shook her head, chuckling. “Skullcap Spiders. Road Gators. Sleep Police. What a world. Why ‘Sleep Police,’ anyway? They sure didn’t seem sleepy.” 

“Oh, I don’t know what they actually call themselves,” Ahab responded, “on account of them never talking. The term ‘Sleep Police’ was coined by my colleague.” 

“Who is your colleague?” Adeena asked. 

They turned around the corner of the hallway, entering a large room filled with brightly-colored, half-built machines. Tables and screens littered the outer walls, showing different perspectives from the outer perimeter of the hideout. Hunched over one of the tables stood a tall, muscular man with salt-and-pepper hair. The man turned around, revealing a tired, haggard face covered in stubble, a black eye patch over his left eye. 

Not a pale, bony face, though. A regular face, like Adeena was used to. 

“Adeena, meet John,” Ahab said, gesturing at the man. “He’s also from The Overhead. John, this is our new partner in crime, Adeena. She’s the sister of the boy they took last week.” 

John extended his hand. “Nice to meet you, Miss Adeena.” 

Adeena took his hand, shaking it. “Likewise, sir.” 

“Oh, and I guess there’s technically someone else you should meet,” Ahab continued. 

John nodded. “Right.” 

The man turned away from the table he’d been working at, waving his hands at what appeared to be a tuxedo-clad ventriloquist’s dummy, sporting curly brown hair and coal-black eyes. To Adeena’s shock, the dummy’s mouth flapped open on its own, and it spoke in an excitement-filled whisper. 

“Hello, my name is Trina! Would you like to be best friends?” 

The Underneath, Pt. 3 – House 

“What the heck is that?” Adeena exclaimed, backing away from the dummy. 

“She told you her name already,” Ahab teased as he sat down. “She’s an Annie, like the big one you met at the playground.” 

“She ran into an Annie?” John asked. “Are you two okay?” 

“Yes, your fake ID trick worked like a charm,” Ahab replied, nodding. “Though we did encounter some Sleep Police, but we gave those guys the slip, too.” 

The “slip,” Adeena though, shuddering as images of bones crushed between massive jaws filled her head. That’s one way to put it. 

“What am I even doing here?” she demanded. “Are you two going to tell me where Natiq is?” 

Ahab and John traded glances before the former spoke. 

“He’s in a secure holding facility called The Playground.” 

Adeena felt the blood drain from her face. “And why is he there? He’s eight.” 

“It’s not about your brother,” John sighed. “It’s about his doppelgänger in this world.” 

“Right, I remember Ahab mentioning earlier that there are versions of us here,” Adeena responded. “What does that have to do with Natiq?” 

Ahab looked at John. “You want to tell her?” 

John collapsed into a nearby chair, and Trina stood up on the table, hopping into his lap and lying still without a word. 

“Not long ago, I was a bodyguard for a high-level political leader,” John began. “Specifically, for his daughter. Her friend had recently been involved in an abduction attempt; an attempt which I now know was foiled by Ahab here.” 

Ahab shrugged sheepishly. 

“Unfortunately, the girl I was assigned to protect became convinced she was being followed. After the experience with her friend, I took her seriously, but it was too late. These men, the Sleep Police, came for her, murdering nearly a dozen people in the process. I was lucky to survive; they didn’t realize that stabbing me through the eye with a screwdriver wasn’t enough to keep me from my duties.” 

He tapped on his black eyepatch before continuing. 

“Imagine my surprise when I wake up to a house full of corpses, no more Sleep Police, yet somehow, miraculously, the girl is still in her room, curled up and crying.” 

“Oh.” Adeena frowned. “So they failed?” 

John shook his head. “That’s what they wanted us to think. And, honestly, that was what I wanted to believe for a while. It was a convenient answer.” 

He reached down, stroking the dummy’s curly brown hair. 

“But this was not my girl. This was not the person I’d grown to know. She was different; smarter than she’d ever been, but twice as mean. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know how to approach it. Until I found this in her room.” 

He picked up a small, flesh-colored mask from a nearby table, showing it to Adeena. 

“It wasn’t your girl at all,” Adeena said, realization dawning. “It was her Underneath version.” 

“At the time, I didn’t know anything about The Underneath,” John admitted. “However, I’d seen enough strange activity lately to keep an open mind. I confronted the imposter, and she pulled some kind of weapon on me, something I’ve never seen before or since. We struggled, and in the process, I shot her.” 

Adeena covered her mouth with her hands in horror. 

John averted his gaze. “I knew I was done. Life in prison. So, I raided her room of any other strange-looking technology and bolted. I’ve spent the last few months trying to reverse-engineer what happened that night to get some answers. Luckily, Ahab found out what I was doing and got to me before the Sleep Police did.” 

“With this information,” Ahab added, “we did some more research and discovered that this event was not uncommon. All around the world, children of prominent figures in industry, politics, and independent wealth have reported being watched or attacked in the last few years. All of the complaints disappear after a few days.” 

“They’re being replaced,” Adeena gasped. “Is that happening in The Overhead right now? Are a new Natiq and Adeena heading back to my parents?” 

“Maybe,” Ahab answered. “No offense, but your family doesn’t fit the profile of wealth or power that they normally target. I think this was a genuine accident, and the Sleep Police took advantage of the situation to get one more agent or spy or saboteur into The Overhead.” 

“Ahab’s been tracking their activities,” John continued. “Beyond replacing children, the Sleep Police are also creating unrest in The Overhead. They’re exploiting their knowledge of Gaps to cause major disasters in key economic and political areas. Did you hear about the London Bridge?” 

Adeena nodded. “That was them, then?” 

“We think so,” Ahab responded. “And there are more incidents like it. We think they’re manipulating events so that, when the dust settles, their Underneath infiltrators are the ones left in power. God knows what the Sleep Police will do to The Overhead once they’ve gained control of it.” 

“John said that you stopped one of the abduction attempts,” Adeena mentioned to Ahab. “Why didn’t you stop the others?” 

“Well, first of all, Gap predictions aren’t a reliable science,” Ahab admitted. “I don’t have the ability to always finitely predict Sleep Police activities before they happen. Beyond that, though, were my limited methods.” 

“What do you mean?” Adeena asked. 

“Well, when I rescued the girl from her would-be captors, I used Trina.” Ahab gestured at the dummy resting in John’s lap. 

“Right, you said she was an Annie,” Adeena commented. 

Ahab nodded. “Yes. Short for ‘Animatronic.’ Decades ago, child scientists in The Underneath perfected artificial intelligence. Being children, they implanted their creation into dolls and other lovable friends of their own creation. However, the mentally deteriorating adults in power felt threatened by this, fearing that this would be the moment that the children took away their control. So, they legislated that Annies could only be used as security or as playthings, and the AI was stripped of its personality, its independence, and any social intelligence beyond that of an Overhead version of a small child.” 

“Digital eugenics, basically,” John added. 

“Yes,” Ahab agreed. “Anyway, I found this small Annie discarded one day, and I’ve been trying to repair her both mentally and physically ever since. She’s still a little unstable, though, and after her first rescue mission, I wasn’t comfortable using her in the field like that again.” 

“So, who controls the Annies now?” Adeena asked. 

“We thought it was the international Underneath government,” Ahab answered. “However, it now seems to be the Sleep Police. Assuming those two organizations aren’t one and the same.” 

Adeena thought for a moment. “How many Annies are there?” 

“Oh, millions,” Ahab said. “Small toy Annies to watch our homes. Large hulking Annies to patrol the streets. Even the birds; The Underneath’s natural predators led to an avian extinction long ago. Now, the birds you see are all Annies, mechanical spies who can be anywhere in minutes.” 

“Really?” Adeena frowned. “But I saw a bird near your house when we got here.” 

“What?” John and Ahab yelled in unison, jumping to their feet. Trina tumbled out of John’s lap, but deftly twirled through the air, landing on her feet. 

“Yeah.” Adeena pointed behind her. “It flew back toward the town.” 

Suddenly, a red light began flashing in the room, and a message appeared on all of the monitors: PROXIMITY ALERT. Ahab rushed to one of the screens, and the words flickered away, replaced with security footage of at least a dozen Sleep Policemen readying various tools as weapons. 

“Where is that camera?” Adeena squeaked. 

John rushed to a metal locker in the back of the room, opening it. “Right outside.” 

Heavy knocks on the front door. TAP-TAP-TAP. 

John tossed something to Ahab, and the boy caught it, revealing what appeared to be a bright red toy pistol designed like a 1950s-era ray gun. Ahab fiddled with a switch on the side, and the barrel glowed orange. The boy noticed Adeena staring at the device. 

“Heat ray,” he said. “Classic Underneath tech.” 

Adeena saw John pull a short, black rifle out of the locker. 

“Is that an Underneath weapon, too?” she asked. 

John opened a breech on the side of the rifle, loading cartridges into it. “This? This is a shotgun. Call me old-fashioned.” 

He pumped the weapon, chambering a round. 

“What do I do?” Adeena asked. 

Ahab turned around, handing her some kind of dial. “You are getting out of here, through the back and into the park. They won’t follow you there.” 

Thunderous banging on the door now, and Adeena saw the Sleep Policemen using a battering ram through the security monitors. She took the dial, gulping against her parched throat. 

“I thought you said the forest was dangerous?” 

“I said it’s only really dangerous in the thorny areas,” Ahab responded. “That’s where the worst nests are. Use this compass to get out to the other side. Cardinal directions are inverted in The Underneath, so the needle points South, but you’re actually going to be headed Southeast. Stay in that direction until you see sidewalk again, and wait there. We’ll come find you.” 

The door burst open, and the Sleep Police flooded inside, readying their weapons. John took aim, firing a shotgun blast into the closest intruder, who flew backwards into his comrades. Ahab followed suit, pulling the trigger of his ray gun, and another Sleep Policeman burst into flames, waving his arms in pain as he ran back out the door. 

“Trina!” Ahab yelled. “Play rough.” 

The dummy’s head began to spin around. “Don’t play rough with my friends!” 

A Sleep Policeman rushed forward, sporting a kitchen knife, but Trina intercepted, barreling into his shin and toppling him. He tried to return to his feet, but Trina grabbed his arm, twisting it. Something snapped, and the Sleep Policeman squirmed, dropping his knife. Trina scooped it up and buried it into the back of his skull like a carving knife into a jack-o’-lantern. He fell still, twitching occasionally. 

John and Ahab fired into the gathering crowd as their animatronic assistant leapt into the fray, slashing and gouging at the attackers. Adeena backed away from the action, shaking from the burst of adrenaline. 

“Go!” Ahab yelled. “We’ve got this!” 

Turning on her heels, Adeena sprinted into the back hallway. As she reached for the rear door, it burst open, and a hatchet-wielding Sleep Policeman strode inside. She gasped, staggering backwards, and she thought for a moment she saw his plastic face twist into a smile.  

Then, Trina was there, scaling his leg like a mountain climber. He tried shaking her off, but she wouldn’t let go, the kitchen knife firmly gripped between her painted lips. The Sleep Policeman swung his hatchet down at her, but she swiveled out of the way at the last moment, and he buried the weapon into his own leg. As he writhed in pain, Trina climbed up his back, straddling his shoulders like a child demanding a piggy-back ride. Before he could react, she retrieved the knife from her mouth and began stabbing him in the neck repeatedly. Blood sprayed from the arterial wounds, and the Sleep Policeman collapsed, exposing Adeena’s portal to freedom. 

“Uh, thanks, Trina,” she said to the now blood-covered dummy, who ignored her and rushed back toward John and Ahab. 

“Remember!” Ahab yelled at Adeena’s back as she sprinted into the trees. “Beware the thorns!” 

The Underneath, Pt. 4 – Thorns 

Adeena gasped for air as she ran through the forest, wincing against the twigs and branches that caught on her clothes and slapped her face. As she burrowed deeper into the foliage, she felt her foot snag an exposed root, and then she was tumbling downhill, tucking her arms and knees into her chest to avoid injury. She finally came to a rest in a small valley, groaning from the bruises she’d accrued along her descent. Reaching up, she tried to straighten her hijab, but it was gone; all she felt was her long, brown hair piling up around her neck and shoulders. 

“Oh no,” she lamented aloud. “My parents are going to be so mad.” 

Standing up, she moved forward, retrieving the compass that had miraculously survived the fall with only a small crack in the glass. The needle swiveled for a second, settling on its magnetic pole. 

South, Adeena remembered. And I’m going Southeast. 

She trekked into the trees, following the compass directions as she dove deeper into the forest. Soon, the sounds of Ahab’s battle faded, along with every other noise beyond Adeena’s own breath. She felt the temperature drop rapidly as darkness encroached upon all sides, and she wished that she’d had the chance to ask Ahab for a flashlight before her exodus. 

“Or whatever wacky thing they use for flashlights,” she corrected herself aloud. 

Suddenly, a little girl’s voice called out in the distance. “Hello? Is someone there? Please help me!” 

Lowering her compass, Adeena angled to the left, rushing toward the voice. “I’m coming!” 

She pushed her way through a particularly dense thicket, stumbling out the other side into a small clearing. In the center of the grassy spot sat a small, black-haired Underneath girl, quietly crying into her baby-blue dress. As Adeena approached, the girl looked up, wiping away her tears, smiling back with her thin, red lips. 

“I thought I heard someone,” the girl whispered. 

“It’s okay,” Adeena said, easing into the clearing. “It’s just me. How did you get here?” 

Something scratched her ankle, and she looked down to see a small thorn bush nestled against her leg. Pulling away, she glanced around the clearing; similar bushes circled the space, small and almost unnoticeable. But Adeena noticed, and her blood ran cold as she remembered Ahab’s words: Beware the thorns. 

“Honey, come over here,” Adeena whispered, crouching to the same level as the girl. “This is a dangerous part of the forest.” 

The girl rose to her feet, smiling wider. “Not for me.” 

“Excuse me?” Adeena asked. 

“I said, this isn’t dangerous for me,” the girl repeated. “And it isn’t dangerous for them, either.” 

Her eyes drifted upward, into the trees, and Adeena followed suit. High above, stretched between the branches of the clearing, hung thick, grey spider webs, each strand almost the thickness of Adeena’s forearm. Thousands of small, black, fist-sized spiders scurried across the web, and as Adeena watched in horror, they began to descend toward her on their own personal strands. 

“But you’re right about one thing,” the girl continued, her voice lowering an octave. “It is dangerous for you.”  

Eight large, black legs emerged from her neck, applying pressure to her shoulders until her head popped right off, like a LEGO figurine. Instead of blood, however, more black spiders fountained from the girl’s neck stump, tumbling to the ground and crawling in Adeena’s direction. The girl’s head also leapt to the grass, quickly scurrying forward. 

“No!” Adeena screamed, backing out of the clearing. “Get away.” 

“Mmm,” the eight-legged head hummed. “You’ll make a nice new vessel.” 

Adeena spun around, sprinting back into the trees, panic accelerating her heartbeat. After a minute, she snatched the compass from her pocket, realigning herself back toward Southeast. She heard skittering sounds as tiny, sharp legs clacked across the bark-covered trees and rocky earth, and she tried not to imagine their pincers digging into her head, hollowing out her skull. 

“Come back, little one,” the spider-girl sang. “It will only hurt for a moment.” 

Adeena felt darkness encroach upon the edges of her vision as she hyperventilated, her feet pounding against the forest floor. Strands of web whipped past her on both sides, adhering to the tree trunks and growing taut. Ahead, sunlight exposed another clearing through the foliage, and Adeena aimed for that, hoping to shift directions and lose the spiders in the process. Large thorns whipped against her face as she broke through, and she felt blood trickle down her nose from a cut on her forehead. She tripped, falling face-first into the dirt. 

Silence surrounded her, and she paused, holding her breath. 

No more girl’s voice. No more scurrying spider legs. No more flickering web strands. 

Slowly, cautiously, Adeena rose to a seated position, turning to look behind her. 

Staring back, only inches from her face, sat the sharp-toothed, spider-legged girl’s head. 

Adeena covered her mouth, crawling backwards, further into the clearing. She looked around the spider-girl frantically, realizing that the trees surrounding the clearing were black with the bodies of fist-sized spiders. They shuddered, but from excitement or fear, Adeena could not tell. 

“You’re lucky,” the head whispered, its eyes darting around the clearing nervously. “This time.” 

With that, the spider-creatures retreated back into the forest, disappearing into shadow. 

Adeena exhaled slowly, the action evolving into a long sigh of relief. She stood to her feet, almost kicking a large, red-and-black flower about a foot away. Stepping back, she admired its beauty, the spotted pattern spiraling into an almost shiny-looking center. As she watched, she realized that the clearing was littered with similar flowers, almost like a little garden. 

Are these what scared away the spiders? she thought to herself. Maybe they’re toxic or something. 

Adeena started to back away, checking the edges of the clearing for lingering spiders, when the flowers began to vibrate. She paused again, anxiety welling up in her chest. 

“What now?” she muttered under her breath. 

One by one, the flowers exploded into the air, filling the clearing with small, buzzing dots. The dots swept around her, blowing back her hair, and rushed beyond the clearing, leaving the once-lush space black and decaying. Adeena stood in silence for a moment, wide-eyed, but the clearing remained calm, though far less pretty than before. 

Something tickled the back of her left hand, and she looked down to see that one of the dots had stuck around. Leaning closer, she realized the thing looked like a ladybug, with a red carapace covered in black dots. This ladybug, however, was tiny, no larger than the head of a match. It slowly crawled across her skin, heading for her fingertips, but made no attempt to bite or sting her. 

“Adeena!” a voice called in the distance. 

Adeena froze. 

Allah help me, she thought. If those spiders are back, I’m just going to die right here. 

“Follow the sound of our voices!” a second person chimed in.  

This time, she recognized it. 

“Ahab?” she hesitantly responded. 

“This way!” she heard John call. “You’re close to the other side!” 

Adeena looked down at her hand, but the little ladybug had vanished. The spot where it had stood itched a little, but as she scratched it, the sensation went away, leaving behind a numb patch of skin about the size of a quarter. 

She shrugged, jogging to the other side of the clearing and peering beyond. In the distance, she saw what appeared to be a pair of flashlights waving back and forth through the trees. Hurrying toward the lights, she drew close enough to make out three humanoid silhouettes, their sizes wildly varied. After a few more steps, she saw the faces of Ahab, John, and Trina emerge from the gloom. 

“Thank goodness, it’s the three bears,” she said. 

Ahab looked at the others. “If Trina’s too small, and John’s too big, does that make me just right?” 

Adeena blushed. “I guess it does.” 

Something scurried through the treetops, and John looked up, gripping his shotgun. “I advise we leave.” 

Nodding, Adeena followed the others through the trees, absently reaching down to scratch her hand again. 

The Underneath, Pt. 5 – Disarmed 

Adeena followed the others beyond the trees, exiting onto a small one-way road pressed so close to the back that roots and vines had grown out onto the sidewalk. She looked around, but no one else seemed to occupy the area, leaving them in the shade. Parked on the edge of the road sat a small, light-green sedan, and as sinister voices whispered through the trees at Adeena’s back, she shuddered, hurrying toward the car. 

“How did you get this?” she asked, opening the rear door. 

Ahab and John traded glances. 

“Uh,” Ahab mumbled, “we asked nicely?” 

“Sure you did,” Adeena retorted, absently scratching the back of her hand. The numbness had spread from the size of a quarter to almost silver-dollar size, but she saw no rash or bite marks, so she told herself not to worry. 

“Fair warning, though,” John said. “We’ve been compromised, so there’s been a change of plans.” 

Ahab nodded. “Our time is severely limited. We’re headed to The Playground right now to rescue Natiq and the other Overhead children.” 

“How are you going to do that?” inquired Adeena, trying to massage circulation back into her now fully-numb hand. 

John turned around and pointed to a box in the seat next to Adeena. “Ahab built an electrical pulse device that should be powerful enough to shut down the site’s defenses. From what we can tell, it’s mostly guarded by Annies, with a few Sleep Policemen to cover redundancies. The EMP will cripple them long enough for us to find the kids and get out.” 

“Then what?” Adeena pressed. “We have nowhere to go here.” 

“Not here, no,” John agreed. “I have a safe house back in The Overhead. We’ll all go back through the gap you entered earlier today. Recently-accessed gaps have a weaker breach threshold.” 

“And I know how to exploit that,” Ahab added, stroking Trina’s hair while she sat in his lap. 

The numbness began to crawl past Adeena’s wrist, and she frowned, vigorously rubbing her arm. Suddenly, cold, sharp steel found its way under her throat, and she stared into the coal-black eyes of a blood-soaked ventriloquist’s dummy. The knife in the doll’s hand pressed against her jugular, and Adeena held her breath, wide-eyed. 

“Someone’s got a secret,” Trina whispered in an excited sing-song voice. 

“Sorry, she’s just reacting to biological readings,” Ahab apologized. 

John sighed. “You couldn’t make her less creepy about it, though?” 

“Look,” Ahab snapped, “when you know how to remap an artificial consciousness from scratch, you can have an opinion on her personality quirks, okay?” 

“Blood pressure elevated,” Trina continued. “Major fluid loss registered, along with diminishing muscle mass.” 

“Wait, what?” Ahab said, spinning around in his seat. “She’s not bleeding. She looks fine.” 

“Well, my left hand is kind of numb,” Adeena admitted.  “But I don’t think it’s-” 

“Stop the car,” Ahab commanded, and John obliged. Both exited the vehicle, gesturing for Adeena to follow. 

“What is going on?” demanded Adeena, stepping onto the sidewalk. 

“Trina,” Ahab said, ignoring the girl, “Scan Adeena for foreign bodies. Left arm.” 

Trina’s black eyes flickered green for a few seconds. “Widow Beetle nest present. Descending from forearm to elbow.” 

“I’m sorry, what is present?” Adeena cried. 

Ahab retrieved his heat ray gun. “John, do you have a mouth guard?” 

John reached back into the car, rolling up what appeared to be a washcloth. “This may have to do.” 

“Okay.” Ahab closed his eyes. “Restrain her.” 

John reached around Adeena from behind, forcing the wad of cloth into her mouth as she struggled. Holding her head and neck in place with one arm, he used his other hand to extend her left arm. She tried to pull away, screaming, but her cries were muffled past the washcloth. 

“I’m sorry, Adeena,” Ahab whispered, adjusting the controls on his heat ray gun. Trina came to the boy, and he took aim at her knife, depressing the trigger. After a few seconds, the edge of the blade turned orange, smoking a little as the dried blood vaporized. 

“Trina,” Ahab said, fiddling with the gun again, “please proceed.” 

Immediately, so quickly that Adeena hardly registered the movement at first, Trina leapt into the air, slicing the knife down into her left arm with enough force to sever the appendage right past the elbow, the heat of the metal cauterizing the wound in the process. Her arm landed on the sidewalk, crumbling into a mass of thousands of the tiny ladybug-creatures she’d encountered in the forest. Before they could scatter, Ahab took aim with his heat ray, and the insects burst into flames, disintegrating into ash. 

John released Adeena, and she ripped the cloth from her mouth, sobbing hysterically. “You cut off my fucking arm!” 

Ahab held out his hands apologetically. “I’m sorry, I didn’t have a choice. Widow Beetles infect and multiply inside animal tissue like a virus, replacing the cells with more of themselves. If we had waited even a few more minutes, they would have reached beyond your arm, to your brain and lungs. I did this to save you.” 

“Ahhh!” Adeena screamed animalistically, running forward to kick Trina. 

The dummy casually side-stepped the attack, watching Ahab for further directions, and Adeena stumbled forward, almost falling. Before she could collapse, though, John and Ahab were there, holding her up. Leaning into John’s ribcage, she let out another scream, this one devolving into more tears of loss and pain. 

“I’m so sorry,” Ahab whispered quietly. “I’ll make you a new arm. A better one. I promise.” 

________________ 

An hour later, Adeena, John, Ahab, and Trina sat inside their questionably-obtained sedan, examining the nondescript building across the street. It seemed rather dull and grey, like a basic warehouse, but Adeena spied old, unlit neon signs hanging off the walls covered in phrases like “Fun for the family!” and “Free food for adults over 40.” 

“This is it,” Ahab said. “I have a rough map of the interior. Once we activate my EMP, we’ll be lucky to have five minutes before the Sleep Police on site catch on and reroute power to the Annies. Then, we’ll be on borrowed time.” 

He reached over to the now-opened box next to Adeena, retrieving a device that looked like an old VCR with a small satellite dish mounted on top. Angling the dish toward The Playground, he pressed a few buttons, and the device hummed to life. Ahab grabbed Trina, who was examining the EMP, and pulled her up to the front seat, plopping her back into his lap. 

“Sorry, Trina,” he said, “but trust me, you don’t want to be in front of that thing when it fires.” 

As the EMP primed, Adeena reached over to the elbow-length stump where the other half of her arm used to be. 

“Alright,” Ahab announced. “Counting down. Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . fire.” 

The satellite dish bucked a little, and across the street, the neon signs lit up for a second before exploding in a shower of sparks. Though the street had felt quiet before, it seemed even more quiet now, as if a noise beyond Adeena’s conscious registration had also fallen silent. Ahab typed a few commands into the EMP, reading the metrics on a small screen embedded near the bottom. 

“No more electrical readings from inside the building,” he confirmed aloud. “I think it worked.” 

“Now what?” Adeena asked, letting go of her arm stump. 

John retrieved his shotgun, loading fresh shells into the breech. “They call it The Playground, right? Let’s go play.” 

The Underneath, Pt. 6 – Playground 

As Adeena and the others hurried across the street to the Playground entrance, Ahab reached into his satchel, retrieving his heat ray gun. He fiddled with it for a moment as they reached the building, pressing themselves against the wall on either side of the entrance. Balancing his shotgun in one arm, John leaned over with his free hand and tested the barrier. 

“Locked,” he whispered. 

Ahab nodded. “That was to be expected.” 

He took aim at the door with the heat ray, and the handle melted into orange slag, burning a hole straight through the lock to the other side. As Ahab lowered his gun, John stepped forward, shouldering the door open. Together, the four of them crept into a wide, pitch-black room, with only the ambient light from the streetlamps outside to guide them. 

“Trina,” whispered Ahab, “illuminate.” 

The dummy’s eyes lit up bright green, casting beams of light into the space. As Adeena adjusted to the sudden brightness, she registered loops and tunnels, bars and slides. Winding stairs led to multiple floors, and various platforms dropped back down to the ground. 

“It’s . . . it’s an actual playground,” she whispered. “But it’s massive.” 

John nodded. “Yeah, that’s gotta be at least a few stories tall. Probably several secure rooms closer to the center. This might be a little maze-like.” 

Ahab cleared his throat, pointing to their left. “Well, we better hurry.” 

Adeena followed his finger to see a ten-foot, hulking Annie with the features of a parrot hunched against the far wall of the warehouse, seemingly powered down. Ahab pointed again, exposing a second Annie, this one designed like a raccoon. As Adeena turned, she saw yet another mechanical nightmare, its tall ears identifying it as a rabbit. 

Gulping, Adeena followed the others into a large, yellow tunnel, their footsteps echoing against the walls as they made their way into the labyrinth. Ahab aimed some kind of sensor ahead of them, frowning. 

“I’m not getting much in the way of heat signatures,” he said. 

“But we know they brought the kids here,” John insisted. “Maybe they’re being kept in a room that prevents outside scans.” 

Ahab lowered his gaze. “Maybe.” 

John stepped ahead of the Adeena and Ahab, leaving Trina in the back to watch their exit. They twisted and turned, curved and crawled, making their way across ladders and steps and ropes. The inside of the massive Playground felt cold and sterile to Adeena, and she shuddered at the thought of being trapped inside for a week like Natiq. 

“Hey,” Ahab finally said, pointing down a hallway to their right. “The schematics we pulled indicated a holding cell in that direction. Not too far from here.” 

Suddenly, rapid footsteps approached, and a Sleep Policeman appeared around a nearby corner, wielding a crowbar. John swung the shotgun in his direction, but he kicked the former bodyguard in the chest, knocking him to the floor and discharging a round into the ceiling. As Adeena’s ears rang, the Sleep Policeman hurled the crowbar at Ahab’s arm, battering the heat ray gun out of his hand and sending it sliding across the floor. 

“Hey!” Trina screeched. “You big meanie!” 

She hurled herself at the Sleep Policeman, swinging her knife, but he ducked below her attack, flip-kicking her in the back so that she accelerated, colliding with the far wall. 

John crawled to his feet, clutching his shotgun, while Adeena rushed to Ahab’s side. 

“Is your hand okay?” she asked the boy, concerned. 

He flexed his fingers for a few seconds. “Yeah. I’ll be fine.” 

Another shotgun blast reverberated throughout the tunnels, and Adeena spun around to see the Sleep Policeman hurtling backwards, the front of his shirt shredded. He tumbled across the floor, where Trina appeared, pinning his arm to the ground with her knife. The Sleep Policeman snarled silently, trying to pull away, but he was firmly planted there. John walked over to him, leveling his shotgun. 

“This is for Paco,” he said, pulling the trigger. 

The shotgun bucked, emitting a spray of pellets that disintegrated the Sleep Policeman’s head from such a short distance. Blood fountained from the decapitated corpse, and it fell still. 

Adeena backed away from the violent scene, covering her eyes with her remaining hand. “I don’t think I’m cut out for this.” 

“Don’t worry,” Ahab reassured her as he retrieved his heat ray gun from the ground. “Once we recover Natiq, we’ll get your family to John’s safe house in The Overhead. No more violence.” 

With that, he reached out, opening the door to the holding cell, exposing a room full of tiny, charred skeletons. 

“Oh . . .” he murmured, stepping back. “Damn.” 

“What?” John said, approaching the doorway. “Is Lena in there?” 

He barged into the room and stopped, dropping the shotgun from his shaking hands. “Where are the children?” 

The others followed him into the room, the walls lined with chairs attached to electrical diodes, the floor littered with blackened bones. Ahab moved to the nearest chair, examining it, while John walked in circles around the skeletons. 

“What is this?” he boomed at Ahab. “Are we in the wrong room?” 

Ahab stepped away from the chair, burying his head in his hands. “These are cranial interceptors.” 

“What the fuck does that mean, Ahab?” John yelled. 

“They, uh . . .” Ahab paused for a moment before continuing. “They use them to extract memories. Forcibly. They download the memories of a subject, but it lobotomizes them in the process.” 

“What does that have to do with Natiq?” John asked. “With Lena?” 

Ahab turned to face the skeletons on the ground. “Don’t you understand, John? The Underneath replacements wouldn’t be convincing unless they knew everything about the original ones. Unless they were debriefed about significant events, personality traits, character flaws . . .” 

“They drained the information out of the children,” Adeena whispered, tears welling in her eyes. “Out of my brother.” 

“And then, uh . . .” Ahab gestured to the floor. “They had no use for braindead bodies.” 

John grabbed Ahab by the shoulders, lifting him into the air and slamming him against the wall. “Don’t you tell me that. Don’t you fucking tell me that Lena is dead.” 

Adeena slowly sat on the floor, curling up in the fetal position as tears rolled down her cheeks. 

“Say something, goddammit!” John screamed in Ahab’s face. 

Ahab stared back at the man, his eyes watering. “I don’t know what else to say.” 

Overhead, the lights flickered on, producing a neon red that filled the horrific space. Adeena heard machines outside roar to life, and heavy, mechanical footsteps approached. 

“Uh-oh,” Trina whispered. 

John snarled, dropping Ahab and snatching the shotgun back off the ground. “I’ll find her myself.” 

“John, wait,” Ahab pleaded. “She’s gone. They’re all gone. But we aren’t. Don’t get us all killed to chase a fantasy.” 

Adeena nodded, wiping away her tears. “Ahab’s right. We couldn’t have done all of this without you. Please don’t leave us.” 

Growling, John ran his fingers through his hair. “Okay. Okay. Let’s go.” 

The exited the room, sprinting around the corner and almost running headfirst into the raccoon-Annie. It growled at them, the voice a chilling mix of mechanical and animalistic, and produced razor-sharp claws from its fingertips. Behind them, Adeena heard the parrot-Annie screech as it approached.  

Trina reached up, tugging at Ahab’s shirt. He looked down, and they stared at each other silently for a moment as John unleashed a barrage of shotgun blasts into the two Annies. Finally, the doll nodded, pointing back at the holding cell. 

“I’m out!” John announced, dropping the shotgun and unholstering his pistol, firing repeatedly into the face of the raccoon-Annie. The machine seemed unfazed as its outer layer of faux fur shredded away, revealing a silver skeleton beneath. It reached out, picking John up and hurling him to the floor with a sickening thud. 

Suddenly, Trina’s mouth flopped open, and a shrill, steady scream emerged. The two Annies froze, shuddering at the sound, and turned to the dummy, eyes glowing red. She raced down the hallway, away from the rest of the group, her high-pitched cry unwavering. The Annies rushed after her, leaving John and the others alone as they stomped away. 

“John,” Ahab said. “We need to get back into the holding cell. It’s sturdier than the other rooms.” 

“Sturdier?” Adeena asked, confused. “Why does that matter?” 

Ahab sighed dejectedly. “Trina is going to save us one more time.” 

He led John and Adeena into the holding cell, careful not to step on any of the bones as they closed the door behind them. Trina’s scream slowly faded away, along with the heavy footsteps of the larger Annies. After a moment, a thunderous explosion rocked The Playground, the shockwave knocking all three people to the floor. Smoke crawled under the crack in the holding cell door, and Adeena coughed, trying to clear her lungs. 

“Hurry, before more arrive,” Ahab said, opening the door. 

Adeena and John followed him, gasping as sunlight washed across their faces. The entire back half of The Playground was gone, along with the rear wall of the warehouse containing it. Warped metal and burning plastic created a trail to freedom, and they followed it eagerly. 

________________ 

The car ride to the small jungle gym where Adeena had appeared was somber, and no one seemed to know what to say for most of the journey. Finally, Ahab spoke up, his voice hoarse and soft. 

“I’m sorry. You know, about Natiq. And Lena.” 

John nodded, his eyebrows furrowing. “I’m sorry about Trina, too. I know how much she meant to you.” 

“It’s okay,” Ahab responded. “I can rebuild her. The core of her consciousness originates somewhere with the source code of the collective Annie AI. I’ll find her in there again someday.” 

The car pulled up to the edge of the sidewalk, and Adeena saw the slide that had started this whole mess sitting empty, only a few dozen feet away. 

“What now?” she asked. “There are no children to save. No families to relocate. It’s just us. Us, and the Sleep Police, and the coup from The Underneath.” 

Ahab turned to face her. “I don’t blame whatever decision you two make. However, to me, this is far from over. We have over a hundred Underneath children masquerading across the world in The Overhead. That we know for sure. I’m going to find them, I’m going to get the answers I need, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.” 

John looked at the boy. “I’m in. What is left for me in either world, anyway?” 

“As long as we get my parents somewhere safe first, I’m with you, too,” Adeena agreed. “Someone has to answer for Natiq.” 

Ahab locked eyes with the girl. “They will. I promise.” 

Squinting against the setting sun, Ahab and Adeena climbed out of the right side of the car, the vehicle temporarily blocking their view of the jungle gym. As John exited the left side, Adeena thought she saw the shadows shift, and a stray beam of sunlight on the ground grew brighter, warping in the man’s direction. 

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing. 

John looked at his feet as the stray sunlight beam crawled up his body, towards his head. “That’s strange.” 

Ahab turned to see what they were discussing, and his eyes widened. He opened his mouth, but before he could speak, the beam of light narrowed, and John’s skull exploded. 

The Underneath, Pt. 7 – Sunset 

As John’s decapitated corpse collapsed, neck stump sizzling, Ahab dove at Adeena, knocking her over. They struck the asphalt, and Adeena saw another silent flash of light. The car windows overhead exploded, the shards of glass red-hot as they splattered into the road. 

“John!” Adeena screamed. 

“He’s gone,” Ahab said, holding her down. “He’s gone. They sent a Solar Sniper. They must have known we’d eventually come back here.” 

Another flash, and the tires near their head burst, the rubber bubbling as it melted. 

“What do we do?” Adeena asked. 

Ahab shook his head. “I don’t know. Solar Snipers, sometimes called ‘Daylight Assassins,’ use a weapon that manipulates ambient light to create bursts of extreme heat and pressure. It has nearly unlimited range, and, as long as there’s light, unlimited ammunition.” 

“So, we just wait,” Adeena said, looking at the sunset. “He won’t be able to shoot us when the night falls.” 

“We’ll, there’s still moonlight,” Ahab responded, “and while it’s not as powerful at night, waiting around another hour guarantees another surprise visit from the Sleep Police.” 

The pavement near their prone bodies exploded in the wake of a fourth flash, and they crawled backwards, away from the car. 

“Where is he?” Ahab murmured to himself, examining the scorch marks on the ground. His eyes froze as they traveled upward, towards the passenger’s side door. 

“What is it?” Adeena whispered. 

Without answering, Ahab reached into his bag, retrieving his heat ray gun. He took aim, pulling the trigger, and Adeena watched the passenger’s side-view mirror droop as it melted off of the car. Ahab dove forward, catching the mirror in his hands as he skidded across the road. Rolling back toward Adeena, he held up the mirror triumphantly. 

“The rifle uses light, right?” he said. 

Adeena nodded. “You’re going to deflect the beam?” 

Ahab grimaced. “I’m going to try.” 

He tossed the heat ray gun to her, and she fumbled to catch it with her remaining hand. 

“It’s on the highest setting,” he said as she adjusted her grip until her finger rested on the trigger. “When the Solar Sniper fires, you should see a second flash at the origin point. Find where he’s shooting from, and burn it down.” 

Adeena nodded, readying herself. 

“Three . . .” Ahab began. “Two . . . One . . . Go.” 

They sprinted around the car, Adeena flanking the left while Ahab flanked the right. Squinting, Adeena watched the row of two-story homes past the other side of playground, lagging behind so that Ahab would be the first to reach the jungle gym. She saw the dying sunlight twist and writhe across the grass, slithering in the boy’s direction, and returned her attention to the houses. 

There, she thought. Blue one, on the left. 

Sure enough, she spied a bright glimmer in the upstairs window of the home, with a small, thin silhouette standing behind the light. As the sunlight converged on Ahab, she lifted her arm, taking aim with the heat ray.  

The yellow light beams rushed up Ahab’s body, congregating around his heart, but as it focused, he quickly raised his mirror, blocking the spot. Adeena saw a flash, and the mirror exploded from the boy’s hands, while a beam of yellow energy carved a smoking divot in the earth a few yards away. 

“That was my one shot!” he lamented aloud. 

Don’t worry, Adeena thought. I got him. 

She pulled the trigger, and flames instantly erupted from the sniper’s window, the backdraft shattering the glass. The rifle-wielding silhouette launched itself from the house, clothes ablaze, and landed out of sight behind a row of cars parked along the sidewalk. 

“Come on!” Ahab yelled. “We don’t have much time!” 

Adeena joined the boy, tossing the ray gun back to him, and together, they sprinted to the jungle gym. As they reached it, Ahab dug through his bag, producing an old flip phone. He dialed a number and put the device on speaker, placing it at the foot of the green tube slide as it began belting a loud, monotonous busy signal. 

“Up or down?” he asked. 

Adeena cocked her head. “What?” 

“Up or down?” he repeated, louder. “Did you crawl up the side originally to get here, or go down it?” 

“Oh. Up.” 

Ahab nodded. “Then this time, we go down.” 

They turned to the cramped, plastic stairs, crawling up them to the apex of the tube slide. As they reached the highest platform, an explosion rocked them, and the nearby swing set evaporated in a shower of molten metal. Adeena glanced back toward the burning house, and she caught a glimpse of the Solar Sniper: Young, feminine, with long brown hair and beady eyes hiding behind a familiar, olive-skinned mask. 

“Is that . . . me?” she gasped. 

“Look!” Ahab shouted, ignoring her. She turned to the slide, within which flickered a dim, green light.  

The Solar Sniper took aim again, the final bits of sunlight converging on the slide, and Adeena grabbed Ahab by the waist, hurling them both into the abyss. They tumbled down plastic, static electricity building up in their hair and clothes, before emerging at the bottom, crumpled in a heap. Behind them, Adeena saw the green light flicker once more before fading into darkness. 

Groaning, Adeena pulled herself out of the slide, collapsing on the grass. Ahab follow suit, and together, they anxiously inspected their surroundings in the setting sun. 

No rust on the jungle gym. 

No pale faces peering through windows. 

No Annies patrolling the street. 

And, it seemed, no Solar Sniper chasing after them. 

To Adeena’s surprise, a giggle bubbled up out of her throat, and she covered her mouth, silencing it with a squeak. Ahab looked at her, and his thin, red lips curled up into a smile as he chuckled a little. She dropped her hands, laughing with him, and as their bodies shook, they embraced. Tears formed at the corners of her eyes, and she felt her laughs devolve into sobs. She cried, burying her face in the shoulder of the boy from another world, mourning Natiq and John and even Trina. Eventually, the tears diminished, and she sniffled, pulling away from Ahab. 

“We have a lot to do, don’t we?” she asked. 

His eyes met hers, and she saw a tinge of sadness behind them. Even deeper, though, glimmered a spark of hope. 

“Yes,” he finally replied. “Yes, we do.” 

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