I looked at Sara, first at the raised fingers of her hand, and then back at the huge organic constructs breaking through the ground, miles in the distance. “And that’s you?” I asked weakly.
She smiled, gave me a little wave by wiggling her fingertips. Moving simultaneously, with no lag time at all, the huge shapes stabbing up at the sky in the distance bent down, then rose back up. A minute later, the wind from this movement nearly bowled me over.
Sara was… Hell, I didn’t even have the words to describe it. Desperately, I wished that I had anyone else here, any other team member to help me try to understand.
“Sara, where are the others?” I asked next. “Henry, Corinne, Jaspers, the other members of my team. Are they still…” I couldn’t bring myself to say that they might be dead, or inside the fractured mental dimension of the monstrosity.
She frowned. “They’re… in the in-between place,” she answered finally, her face screwed up in concentration and her eyes distant and unfocused. “They fought back, like you did, said no. But they didn’t have me to show them the way out. So they ended up stuck.”
I looked around. Over a few paces away, at the top of the hill, I spotted a patch where the grass hadn’t managed to take root. I walked over, picking up a stick and looking down at the bare sand.
“Can you draw me a diagram, a picture?” I requested, once I realized that I had no idea how to even build a frame of reference.
Sara followed after me, and I tried desperately to ignore the soft sound of that cord, dragging along the grass behind her. She took the stick from my hand, frowned down at the ground for a minute.
“I think it’s like this,” she said, bending forward and tracing a circle in the soft dirt. Around this smaller circle she put a larger one, making the shape of a donut. “In the middle is the Unity.”
“The Unity?” I echoed.
She nodded. “That’s the name of it. The real name, not what you called it.”
Personally, I felt like ‘monstrosity’ was far more descriptive, but I didn’t want to distract Sara partway through her explanation. “Okay, that’s the middle,” I said. “That’s where… where we were?”
“That’s where everyone is,” she answered. She smiled. “I like it there. Everyone I know is there.” Her smile faded. “Except you.”
“But you’re out here, now. You’re not in there.”
That made her pause, and I saw her brow wrinkle as she thought hard. “I think I’m both,” she finally answered with a shrug. “I can be there, and I can be here. But I don’t have to go back and forth from one place to another.”
Worth exploring, later. “What is the other circle?”
She pointed at the middle space, between the two circles she’d drawn. “This is the in-between place,” she said. “And if you leave Unity, if you refuse it, you go back to this place. It’s sort of… it’s like that thing that goes around castles?”
“No, with the alligators.”
I frowned for a second, but then it clicked. “The moat,” I filled in.
“Yeah, the moat. That’s what the in-between place is. You can’t just leave Unity and go back out to the real world, because it’s hard to get to the real world. There needs to be a space for you. And if there isn’t a space, you instead just get stuck in the in-between place.”
I thought back to our escape from that horrid nightmare with my wife, or the thing that claimed to be my wife. “And if we’d gone through that door in the wrong direction, or you hadn’t been there to help me escape…?”
“You would be in the in-between place,” Sara nodded. “But I carried you over it, to here.” She pointed at the outside of her drawing, outside the second circle. “This is the world, where we are now.”
“Can you get the rest of my friends out here, Sara?”
She looked down at the circle, screwing up her face. “I don’t think so. If they’re in the in-between place, I can’t get to them. It’s like they’re…” She stopped, apparently failing to find a proper metaphor. “I don’t know. I can’t hear them, can’t get to them. I can only talk with everyone in Unity.”
I wasn’t going to let it go that easily, but I had other questions. “Sara, do you know what Unity is doing right now?” I asked instead, trying to keep my question from sounding aggressive. A note of fear laced through my voice, but I did my best to keep it shoved down.
Again, Sara’s eyes half-closed, as if she was listening to a voice that only she could hear. “I’m not sure,” she finally said, re-opening her eyes. “I hear lots of voices, but I don’t know if they’re just people, or if it’s more. I can listen to them, but they’re all saying different things.” Suddenly, she was looking up at me, her eyes watering and filling with tears. “Brian,” she got out, her voice choked.
Oh, crap. Even with that thing attached to the back of her head, Sara was still undeniably herself, a girl not yet even into her teenage years. My heart wasn’t made of stone; I stepped forward and held out my arms to her. She fell into them, and I squeezed her tightly.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said, trying to make the hollow words sound true. “Just stay with me, Sara. We’ll figure this out.”
She nodded, but she kept crying. I felt the tears soaking into my shirt… and more drops of water hit the top of my head.
I frowned, looked up. Above me, in a previously cloudless sky, heavy clouds now gathered, their undersides dark and ominous. Already, more drops were falling down, splashing against the grass and my head and shoulders.
The rain would come second to the crying girl. “Sara, try to focus on breathing,” I said to her, rubbing her back with my hand. The back of my palm bumped against that awful cord, but I didn’t let it throw me off. “You’re here, and I’m here, and that’s all that matters right now. We’ll handle this.”
“Okay.” She still sounded sad, but she was able to pull in a deep breath, her little shoulders shaking. She loosened her arms from around me, and I gently relaxed my hold on her.
I leaned forward, looking down at her. “There you go. Come on, hasn’t my team taught you anything about being a brave soldier?”
She blinked, tears clinging to her lashes. “Corinne says that a good soldier knows that others depend on her,” she volunteered hesitantly.
“That’s right. And right now, there’s a lot of people depending on us.” I put on my bravest smile. “We can cry, but only after we’ve done all that we can to help those people.”
She took another breath, wiped at her eyes. “I can help them,” she said.
“There you go. We just…” I honestly didn’t know what we needed to do first. “We need to find a place to take shelter, come up with a plan.”
“Yeah, against the rain…” I frowned, looking up at the sky. Already, the clouds that had been swarming in the sky were vanishing, almost as if they were being boiled away. “…but also for the night,” I finished, fighting the sense that something else was happening.
“Oh. Like a tent?”
“Yeah, that would work…” I started, but stopped as Sara squeezed her lips together and lifted her fingers.
All around me, tendrils erupted from the ground. I didn’t even have time to scream… as they came together over my head, weaving into a roof.
Well, that worked… I suppose…
To be continued…