A Nightmare

Crick. Crick. Creak.

Lily froze when the window made a bit more noise than normal. But nothing happened. Neither of her grandparents noticed, it wasn't the kind of noise that was going to wake them up. She took a deep breath. She was about to do something stupid, but it was something somebody needed to do. Unless she was colossally mistaken, but... She breathed in again and shook her head. It was too much of a coincidence. It had to be related. Carefully, she started crawling out of her window.

There wasn't any real drop, her bedroom was on the bottom floor. It was just a little awkward to try and stealthily climb through a window frame in the dark. But she managed it without making a bang or faceplanting, so that was a win. She even managed to prevent the usual thud when she shut the window behind her. Everything else aside, it was nice to get some fresh air. Lily took a deep breath, trying to still her nerves for a second. She adjusted the purse she was carrying, strap slung across her. It wasn't a very big bag, but it wouldn't block her back like her bookbag. Hopefully that wouldn't matter, but...

No, it wasn't going to matter. It would be okay. She had her phone, set to silent, a standalone flashlight, a hammer, and a whistle. It wasn't a very complete toolkit, the whistle was frankly an afterthought, but she wouldn't need much. It wasn't going to be much. She would just go to that building, not very far away. It was late enough that it should be empty. She would hang around where that guy had been. If she heard someone trapped in there, like maybe he had, she would call the cops. If she didn't find anything, well, then that would be it. Simple.

It wasn't raining, and the puddles from yesterday were gone. There were only a couple clouds in the sky, but she still couldn't see that many stars. It wasn't totally dark, not with all the lights. A couple cars passed by her as she walked, going in one direction or the other. Things were bright, still connected and safe. Nothing to worry about.

It felt almost as if it took too little time to get to the street from before. It was eerie. There wasn't another surprise car loitering in it, or anything like that. Absolutely nothing special. Lily took a deep breath, even as she felt herself getting queasy. It was just barely any farther. She stopped right before the alley, in the spot she had eavesdropped before. She peeked around the corner, and there was nobody there. It was just an alleyway. That wasn't as relieving as she would have hoped.

She made herself turn the corner, walking slowly down the alley. And there was the building, the door that guy must have hanging out around. It was large, but not tall. There were a couple windows. And... The lights were still on.

That should have been enough to turn around. Lily knew her whole plan was ridiculous. If this was what she thought it was, a kidnapping ring's warehouse, then hanging around it was incredibly stupid. Poking into it even worse. And even thinking that was ridiculous, why would they put it there? Why in Wade at all? But she couldn't just turn back now, and tried to casually amble down past the building. She couldn't see into the windows, just the light coming out past the blinds and—did businesses put curtains in windows? And one of them was just totally dark.

She let her nervous amble draw towards that one dark window. It was stupid, it wouldn't mean anything, but if she could just give an attempt at searching and come up empty... It would all be a big coincidence. The person that guy had heard had left by another exit shortly after he arrived, or something like that. People were still at work there, or just left the lights on for the benefit of whoever would open in the morning. If anyone noticed her, she could just play herself off as some irresponsible delinquent and skedaddle. And if it wasn't a coincidence... She would get her evidence, she would get out, and the cops could sort it out. It would be okay.

She could see inside the dark window. Only barely, she couldn't make anything out inside with the glare, but there wasn't a curtain. The window was slightly cracked open at the bottom, maybe for air, and just enough for someone to get fingers under. Nerves tingled in her fingertips as she inched her way toward the window. That would look suspicious, if anyone was watching, but it wouldn't matter. Just another few steps and...

Someone was crying. Lily felt almost like her heart stopped, and she froze for one, two, three stupid seconds before moving the rest of the way. The crying was very clearly coming out through the crack, hushed, like someone was trying not to make too much noise. But she could hear it. It was scared, it was hurt, it was real, it was all real. Lily's throat caught. She suddenly felt sick, and lost, and almost weightless, and then it was like something yanked her back down to reality by the ankle.

She lurched, and steadied herself with eight limbs. She swallowed hard, and willed her stomach to settle as the tentacles wriggled in under the window and lifted. She hadn't meant to do that, but she was going with it now. She couldn't bear to run away and call the police and hope they listened, when she could possibly save someone right then, right there. Almost without thinking about it, she slipped through the window, easily and gently. Lily fished out her flashlight, clicking it on.

The room wasn't very large, almost like a glorified storage closet. On either side were large racks of shelves littered with tech clutter, folders, and nothing else important. There was a door, and no light was slipping in from underneath it. There also wasn't anybody else in there with her. Even the crying had stopped. But there was no way she had just imagined that. Maybe the next room? But... Lily took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Then she whispered.

"Is anyone there? Do you need help?"

She waited for what felt like agonizingly long, but there was nothing. The room was almost silent, something on one of the racks had a fan going. There wasn't anyone hiding in a corner or behind one of the shelves. Lily fought back the urge to groan. The crying had definitely been coming out of the window, so... maybe past the door? But the burst of confidence and energy was already waning, and she was starting to shudder just at the thought of opening that door. And what if someone came around and shut the window and trapped her? She hadn't seriously expected to use the hammer when she took it out from under the sink. She was such an—

"Who are you?"

Lily almost jumped. It sounded like it was being whispered right into her ear, but there wasn't anybody there. Or... no. She just couldn't see anybody there, that was not the same thing. She tried to steady herself.

"Hi. Um. I'm Lily. I heard crying, and... jumped through the window. Are you okay?"

"I need help."

Lily's heart started beating even faster. She was suddenly terrified. She couldn't guess the age from a whisper, but it sounded like a young woman. Could she get her out safely? Could she get herself out safely? Were there other people in there? Her mother and the guy who had lost that car were still unaccounted for... And she didn't know what was going on with the voice, and that was frightening. But there was no use wasting time. Whoever this was wasn't freaking out about her tentacles, she could pay the same courtesy.

"Okay. I'll do my best. The window is open. We could make a break for it? Or, uh. Are you invisible, or are you not here?"

"I'm here. You should be able to see me."

"I can't."

"I believe I'm on a shelf. I can't see. You should be able to follow my voice. I suppose that means I should keep whispering. To allow you to do that. I am massively relieved you are going to help me. If you really are."

Lily tried to track the voice, but it just seemed to be coming from the same spot as the fan droning on. Maybe space was being warped? Was that why the girl couldn't see, or was she just blind? Would that even make sense? She had no idea, preternatural anything was a confusing mess, but... After a moment's scrutiny, the thing that was humming looked a bit like a laptop. There was the clamshell of a shut lid and a lot of vents, but it was stupidly tall. It was about the same kind of white as an old computer, but there was no way laptops ever looked like that.

"Sorry, all I can see is a device. Like, a computer, maybe?"

"That would be my terminal."

"Your... Is that what you're communicating through?"



That was... It would still be huge, if she could get it to the cops before whatever connection it was using was cut, but it was hardly the daring rescue she thought it would be. Or maybe she wasn't kidnapped at all? Why would she have some kind of terminal access if she was? Couldn't she just use the internet to go to the cops? This didn't make any sense.

"Uhhh. Where are you, actually? What's going on?"

"I'm right here. You're helping me. The people here are... putting me in danger."

"Right here? I still can't see you."

"Oh. I'm the terminal. More or less."

"You... are it? Like, a talking computer?"

That was ridiculous. Not even the right kind of ridiculous. One of those obnoxious prank shows, trying to trick her into thinking she had walked into a sci-fi movie, but no, there was no way anyone planned for her to stumble into this. Or for anyone else to.

"Yes. My name is Portia. Do you still mean to help me?"

"I... Yes. I thought you were a kidnapped person. But I can still help. You're in danger?"

"Yes. The people here. My creator and the others working on me. They want to kill me."


"You don't believe me."

"No, I just... I don't know what's going on. But, okay. No time to sort this out now, in here."

She picked the 'terminal' up off the shelf. It was heavier than a laptop, but still essentially portable. It was plugged into the wall, with what looked like any normal laptop power cord. But maybe it wasn't?

"Can I unplug you? From the wall outlet."

"Yes. I should operate on battery power. And if I lost power I could be turned on again later."


She took the cord out of the computer, and the fans didn't stop whirring. But it probably wouldn't be a good idea to just leave the cord, if she was really going to do this. She was an idiot for doing it, but she wasn't going to half-ass the idiocy. The outlet was in an inconvenient spot, at least while holding the terminal, but she could just about reach it. She could use a tentacle, but she felt leery about putting one right next to an outlet. Then the light in the next room turned on, and it startled Lily enough to make her lose her balance and trip.

"Are you alright?"

Lily hissed, as hushed as she could, as she got back up to her feet. She had managed not to drop the computer, er, Portia, at least. She could hear footsteps in the other room, but didn't know if they were going for the closet or not. Using a tentacle she got the cord free of the wall easily enough, like she should have done in the first place. She started to quietly inch herself backwards, towards the window. She was tempted to scramble out of the window and run for it, but what if they hadn't heard her yet? Portia seemed to have noticed, and wasn't making any more noise. And tripping again could make the whole thing pointless. Worse than pointless. What was she doing? It didn't make sense!

Lily turned her head to the window, and then the door swung open.

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