Feng Min tells herself that she is not having a nightmare.
Waking up in unfamiliar surroundings next to people she doesn't know is something that's been happening more than she'd like lately, but that's not the disorienting part. It's that it's never been like this before.
She is not having a nightmare because it feels too real. She's too real, shaky fingers curling over her palms, cold sweat down her neck, that collapsing-heart feeling she'd always get just before she'd have to walk out on stage at a competition. Before she'd stopped.
She is not having a nightmare because it's more likely that she's dead, and this is Hell. Her place here, she thinks, is probably earned.
She is not having a nightmare because she recognizes that there are rules and boundaries to this world. Logic.
She is not having a nightmare because forever is not a concept that her human brain can process.
The others tell her, It's hard for everybody at first.
At first, against forever. Feng Min thinks that most people are truly naïve.
After she gathers her bearings and makes her way towards the light she can see shining through the trees, after the strangers huddled around the campfire cautiously approach and begin telling her the most ridiculous bullshit Feng Min has ever heard in her ridiculous bullshit life, after they tell her to sit down for this, after they attempt to explain something they call the Entity, after they say I don't know to almost every question she asks, and after they finally leave her alone by the fire to absorb the news that she is effectively damned to an eternal Hell, Feng Min discovers her cell phone in her pocket.
She had forgotten all about it. Now it sits in her hand, cracked glass and colorful charms and all. Completely cold atop her palm. Dead.
Feng Min immediately knows that the others don't necessarily trust her. Not the way some of them trust each other. She's observed the relief that spreads into Meg's eyes when she's called forth by the Entity alongside Claudette or Dwight. She's seen the way that Quentin and Laurie cooperate during what the other people call trials, working together to keep everyone alive. Or the way that Tapp and the old guy — Bill? — seem to have this unspoken ability to play off one another's strengths, throwing the enemy off their game.
They don't extend the same faith to her, but she gets why. It's not just that they've all been here longer than her; it's the way Feng Min has chosen to survive. She doesn't think they really understand; she's trying to be pragmatic. The first trial she'd been in, she was so afraid that she'd frozen in place as the Wraith had come upon her. She only had to experience that feeling once before she began recalculating her strategy. After dying for the first time, actually dying and then waking up again, she was forced to accept that all of it was real. Is real. The fear and the pain and the dying. All of it. Worse, the Entity is real, and it just knows things about her. When she first awoke and found herself wearing her team uniform — something that had been collecting dust in her closet for almost a year — it felt like some kind of sick joke was being played on her.
There's one thing Feng Min knows, something she's defined her entire life by: there is no allowance for compassion when it comes to survival. Early on in the trials, Feng Min identifies the most efficient way to live through them: stay quiet, complete generators quickly, and look out for herself only. She comes to see how staying focused on those three things is often the difference between life and death. When she runs past an injured ally, it's not as though she wants them to come to harm. She's not cruel or sadistic; it's not like she enjoys seeing someone get their guts ripped out, or that she has anything personal against any of the others. It's just that she's trying to avoid that same fate.
Feng Min knows that all games are ultimately a test of the player's ability to make the right calls when needed, no matter what the cost. To step up when beckoned to. No quarter. She's died enough times on that hook already, at the same rate as any of the rest of them. She figures that it all sort of balances out at the end.
Never mind, then, the terrible first impression she'd made, and the fact that they don't really know her, the fact that most of them don't even seem to want to. Feng Min is used to that. Especially lately, in the past that had been severed from her body and left behind in another world.
There is one person — they call each other survivors, like the word hasn't lost all effectiveness by now — who kind of reminds Feng Min of herself. He's got the unfocused, familiar gaze of someone who spends a lot of time inside their own head instead of in their surroundings. Jake Park usually stands around like he doesn't know what to do with his hands. When most of them choose to gather by that endless campfire (she'd stared into it for what felt like hours one time, and experienced no pain, no blindness), Jake is usually out by the forest's edge, sometimes slipping quietly into the trees.
Eventually, the curiosity gets to her, and she does something unusual: she starts a conversation.
"What's out there?" The sound of her own voice, so underused lately outside of screaming, makes her wince.
Jake turns, his eyes flicking over her. If he's surprised to see her, he doesn't show it. "Whatever you find. There are no directions. Eventually, it always takes you back to the campfire."
Feng Min glances into the tree line. "What do you mean?" she asks, although she has an idea. She may not be a professional any more, but she still knows video games. All the times she'd tested the limits of a game world, walked to the edge to see what would happen. Trying to see if her character would hit a wall or get flung across the map or get stuck there or—
or fall into the abyss.
"The fog can take you to the rest of the Entity's world. Outside of trials. Eventually, it brings you back. Don't think it enjoys us wandering too much. We have to go out there sometimes. Scavenge for supplies, clothes. It doesn't matter which direction you walk." Jake's shoulders roll dispassionately.
Feng Min wonders, for a moment, about walking out there, to experience it for herself. She's so tired of the fire's yellow light, its burnless heat, its endless, suspended entropy. "What about the...?"
"Those monsters?" he completes for her, his voice low. "They're there, too. Dormant, sometimes. But dangerous. They can still hurt you. We try not to disturb them."
So they live here, somehow. Just like she does now. She realizes that she hasn't even thought yet about the possibility that the Entity's servants are anything more than varied ways to punish them all. Keeping them on their toes, ensuring they never get too comfortable with any one strategy.
An obvious follow-up question surfaces. "If they can still hurt us, why don't they just come here to the fire?"
Jake shakes his head. "It's something about the light. We think it repels them. This is the one place we can feel temporarily safe in our alleged eternal punishment." Feng Min thinks he's trying to be funny at first, but when she looks up into his face, she sees no smile. He has yet to make eye contact with her.
"Is that what you think is going on? We're being punished?" She crosses her arms.
"We all have theories," he says. "Like we told you, we don't know a lot— just whatever's been passed on to us. And there's nobody around willing to answer our questions."
"Yeah," says Feng Min, pausing. She feels a swell of discomfort. She's afraid of what might come out of her mouth if she talks too much. She doesn't think she should get to know any of these people too well.
Jake says, "So... Feng Min, huh? Do you have an English name?"
Before she can really stop herself, her defensiveness kicks on. Out of the many, many things her parents had given her that she had given back, often without gratitude, her name was not one of them. "Do you have a Korean one?"
"Mmm," says Jake. "Point taken."
"How long have you been here?" she cuts in abruptly, and before he can answer, she clarifies, "How long does it feel like you've been here?" It's a loaded question. Time here is an amorphous thing, a formless void that does not align with the rules of this dimension. Time has been discarded by the Entity, because time would steal their lives away in a moment if it could, and it can't have that. It needs them too much.
"Forever," says Jake, and he looks like he means it. "It feels like I've been here longer than I've been alive, but at the same time... My life... everything before still feels like it happened just seconds ago. So close I could just reach out and grab it..." He trails off and makes a vague gesture, gloved hand flexing in the air and clenching around nothing. "And then it feels like it's been a thousand years, sometimes." Jake gives a sort of laugh, surprising her. It's barely a huff, just him exhaling, and she gets the sense again that he doesn't spend a lot of time talking to other people.
Neither does she, for that matter. Feng Min returns to sit by the fire and await her next punishment.
Things happen within the nightmare unpredictably. Trials just begin, with little warning, the black fog thickening before their eyes and dissipating to reveal that it has brought a select number of unlucky survivors somewhere else. Feng Min can't figure out how they actually get there. It goes with her altered experience of time; she's become unable to measure it in any meaningful way. The others tell her that she'll get used to it. That you could measure it if you wanted to, if you had a watch and wanted to watch the seconds tick by, but time doesn't really mean anything any more, not when your existence — not life, that doesn't seem like the right word, it feels like a curse in her mouth now — is just a series of tortured loops.
Time is nothing, Feng Min tells herself. Time is something humans made up to know when the Earth was turning. Time is a measure of mortality, a concept no longer within her grasp.
She can still experience something parallel to sleep. She can close her eyes and slip away briefly from her surroundings, but she's not sure that she ever actually gets any rest; it's more like falling into a lukewarm pit of tar, laying on the surface of it, waiting to sink below the black. She asks the others if they ever feel well-rested after sleeping around the campfire; they all shake their heads no.
The due date for any chance that all of this could be a bad dream has come and gone.
Feng Min is lost in a forest. Mother's Dwelling, Jake once called it. She'd wanted to ask where they'd gotten such a ridiculous name for it, then realized that she didn't care. It doesn't matter. She's reserving all of the emotional energy she's got for trials.
She has been here before. Died here before. She's not sure how many times. The forest is still a remote and alien world to her. Like all of the Entity's realms, something doesn't feel right about it. There's an unnatural energy in the air, carried by the fog. She has never spotted any animals, aside from the Entity's crows. The trees are more still than any Feng Min has ever seen, even though a perpetual rain falls. It is a world locked in a state of nourishment, anticipating growth that will never come.
The cold is starting to make her fingers numb. They're shaking slightly as Feng Min works on the generator in front of her. She keeps making mistakes; it's hard to see what she's doing with the rain running down her face and getting into her eyes. Her clothes are soaked through, and she knows she's going to really start feeling it soon. She has to keep her blood pumping, she thinks as she flexes her wrists. She can feel a twinge of pain, the way she used to after long marathon sessions of gaming.
She hasn't yet heard the thud, thud, thud that means hide, or run, and she's already got her eyes on the next point she plans to take after she finishes her current generator. She tries to allow some of the tight-chest tension to drain out of her, the anxiety and barely-suppressed terror that's got her stomach churning. She'll contend one thing to the Entity: it's just as scary every fucking time she has to go through one of these trials. It never gets any less terrifying. She will never overcome the feeling of dread in her stomach at knowing she has been selected for punishment.
Punishment. There's that word again.
Did she deserve to end up in this situation? Did any of them? It's a question she's been avoiding thinking about. When she'd first arrived, Feng Min wondered if this place was a purgatory where they all awaited a final judgment. Or maybe this was the judgment. Maybe she'd finally gone too far that last night on Earth (are they still on Earth? She's not sure) and died, and this is Hell, after all. But to accept her damnation would be to accept that she'd been a failure in life.
Hadn't she, though?
The generator lights up above her head. Feng Min can only enjoy the sight of it for a moment before she needs to be on the move. She's picking her way through the tall grass, swiping her wet hair out of her eyes, when she hears it— the telltale humming of the one the others called the Huntress floating on the mist somewhere behind her.
When Feng Min had first encountered the Huntress, she'd been taken off-guard by the humming. It had sounded so sweet, a sort of lullaby that beckoned you to curl up inside of it. The Huntress was a woman bigger than any Feng Min had ever seen, but the soft fabrics and the rabbit's mask she wore seemed to offer comfort. She was little more than another monster, though. Just like the others.
Feng Min can still remember the split-watermelon sound her own skull made when she'd caught a hatchet in the back of her head the last time she had been to the forest. She'd heard the wet crack happening right between her ears.
She bolts at the first few floating notes, picking a track through the trees that puts one of the cabins into view. She lurches herself over a window. Her tights snag on the frame and tear before she bounds up the planks leading to the sodden, rotting upper half, where she huddles in a corner, shivering, waiting to see if the Huntress has picked up her trail. The cover up here isn't good. The cabin is barely standing to begin with.
The heartbeats grow louder. Feng Min trains her eyes on the one entrance she can see from her position. She's straining her ears for the sound of footsteps, but she's having trouble placing them with all the rain falling outside.
When the pulse suddenly changes direction and fades away, she feels a lightheaded, dizzy relief. She's been feeling like that a lot more often the more trials she experiences. As she starts to get a feel of the tasks before her, the right ways to move, to run, to hide, she's begun to feel something familiar: the rush of adrenaline.
Feng Min has sought it all her life. She's always had something to prove to someone, and if she hadn't, she'd find something. The competitiveness had merely come as a side effect of her need to establish herself as someone worthy of respect. But, here, here... she allows herself to think that maybe it could be a strength, not a weakness that had cleaved her from her family and from everything she'd ever worked for and loved.
Feng Min cocks her head towards the sagging doorway and listens for a woman's voice, but hears nothing. She eases herself up from her hiding spot and crawls towards the chest against the wall. Her search yields a flashlight that she hopes she won't have to use. One of the first things the other survivors had told her was to scavenge as much as she possibly could during trials, whenever she possibly could, especially if she wasn't willing to venture into the forest beyond the campfire. Their advice is unnecessary, however; Feng Min has looted a thousand chests in just as many video games. The most useful thing are the tools, in her opinion.
She lets herself drop from the awning and lands in the grass. Distantly, she hears another generator whir to life. Who have they lost? She's only spotted Meg so far, and Meg hadn't stayed long before she'd gone running to disrupt a commotion they could hear nearby. Feng Min is impressed by her ability to outmaneuver the monsters they called killers, but she can hardly bring herself to act so selflessly. She's watched Meg run in headlong into one of these monsters to get it to drop Claudette. Feng Min isn't about to go trying that any time soon. She can't risk it. Nothing personal.
They're all different levels of selfless, her fellow damned ones, and all of them are probably more selfless than her.
Feng Min locates the final generator, adjacent to one of the exits. She can see it right there. Knowing she's so close makes it hard to focus on what she's doing. Her fingers are moving sluggishly; the cold has sunk through to the bone.
Something rolls across the atmosphere. A ripple, and then a deafening peal. Feng Min hears a scream cut into the sky, and she looks up. She does not want to look, but she does.
It is a great black thing, enormous and edgeless, slipping through a slit in the sky. Its presence is the world entire, commanding worship, their lives in its literal hands. There is a shower of sparks like hellfire that evaporates all the rain around it. Feng Min watches the claws descend, and then she gives herself permission to stop looking. It will ascend whether she watches it or not.
She holds her breath when the wires spark and then smoke, and covers her face to anticipate an explosion, but the generator just gives a muted buzz and dull thud, and she exhales, picking up them up to try again.
In the end, she and Meg make it out, but not Dwight or Ace. Meg looks stricken and angry as she limps into the gateway, heartbeats pounding up behind her. Feng Min stands on the edge of the imperceptible border, the one thing that will make her untouchable to the Huntress, or any of these monsters— at least for now.
"I couldn't do it," Meg pants. "Not fast enough." She scrunches her face up, eyes closed, a deep crease forming between her brows. "Not fast enough," she repeats, hoarser, quieter, holding a hand against her ribs, where blood wells up underneath.
"Come on," says Feng Min, and they slip through the veil just as the Huntress appears in the entrance to the gate behind them. Feng Min can hear her snarl her displeasure and arm herself— but she doesn't have time to grab them before they're gone, the world reforming around them. The campfire fades into view, and her clothes are suddenly dry, too. A consolation prize, at most. But the victory, however temporary, feels good.
Feng Min takes in the sight of the campfire and thinks that if she can outplay it, maybe she can make the Entity sick of her. Make it want to put her back where she belongs.
Claudette asks, "Have you seen it yet?"
Feng Min tips her chin up, pulling her eyes off of the campfire. She's tired of staring at it, but she can't bring herself to experience another empty sleep, and doing anything else means having to rub shoulders with her fellow prisoners— a distraction she can't humor. She knows it'll only slow her down in trials to become too invested in any one of them. And she knows — more than anything else — how easily people can turn on one another.
"Seen what?" she says, brushing her bangs out of her eyes. Feng Min doesn't mind Claudette, compared to the others. She's smart and resourceful. The latter is what matters most here; there's barely any use for the former in the nightmare, not with the endless repeating nature of their lives. No need to think, no need to question, no need to dream; it would be ideal if Feng Min could hit an off switch in her brain and drop blissfully out of awareness of what her existence has become.
"Well... Sorry, let me back up and explain. People appear here all the time. They're here, and then they're not... We're not sure just how many have passed through here," says Claudette, shaking her head. She drops into a sitting position next to Feng Min. "But for all of that, sometimes we find things left behind by people who used to be here. Or you'll hear something passed by word of mouth. Things they've learned about how this place works."
That perks Feng Min's interest. She'd been told before by the others about their rudimentary knowledge of some things (watch out for a symbol on the ground that looks like this... try to scavenge for plants that look like these, and take them with you if you manage to escape the trial... remember, there's another exit that opens up if you're the last person alive... when you hear a screech, it means she's teleporting...), but she wants to know as much as she can. Anything that will help her get better at dodging fate.
"It's a sort of... thing that you can experience when you sleep, sometimes," says Claudette. "After you've been here long enough, you'll become aware of it."
"What?" says Feng Min, her brows lowering. "Like a dream?"
"No," says Claudette. "It's not anything that we can explain." She looks like she's a little frustrated that she can't articulate it for Feng Min. "It doesn't look like anything, but you'll know it when you're there. It's a... state of existence. Everything is flat, but you just know what's happening. It's an expansion of your mind. You don't see or hear or think or feel anything. But you know what's happening."
A rare laugh bursts from Feng Min, one high, disbelieving note. "What? That doesn't make any sense."
"None of this does." Claudette smiles grimly, like she understands. "How do I... Oh, I've got it. Okay, have you ever heard of something called 'blindsight?' Some people with functioning eyes who are blind because of damage to their brains have been proven to be able to identify shapes and edges in front of them, even though they can't actually see them. There's been a lot of studies on it. They still receive that information despite not being able to see." Claudette takes a breath. "There are more senses than we think. Humans just typically don't have access to them all. But here..." Claudette looks almost wistful about it, like she wishes the circumstances were different so that she could appreciate the wonder of it.
It's a lot to take in, and Feng Min can only think of one question. "How will I know that I'm... there?"
"You'll just know," says Claudette. "You'll just be there. You'll be able to feel that thing there. The Entity. I think that whatever it is, it's a part of the Entity. And if you spend enough time in it, you'll start... changing."
Feng Min pulls her knees up to her chest, staring down at her sneakers. There are speckles of dried blood on them. Her own, probably. "That sounds like a reason to be afraid of it."
"I know. But you'll become aware of things that will help you survive. Your mind will give you new senses. You'll be able to use them during trials," says Claudette. "You'll be able to detect where the others may be, or where you should be going next. You might even eventually get a feel for where the... killer is."
"So it gives you ESP," says Feng Min dryly, her mind latching onto the first trope she can think of.
"If that's how you'd like to refer to it," says Claudette. "We call it the Bloodweb. Or... others started calling it the Bloodweb, and that's just what it's called now, I guess."
"And this happens to everyone?"
Claudette nods. "It's going to happen to you, too."
She wonders if her parents have felt her absence. If time is passing for them the way it passes for her. That could mean that no time has passed at all, or, like Jake described, it could mean that a thousand years have come and gone; Feng Min cannot be certain which is more likely. She thinks they probably wouldn't notice that she had gone missing for quite a while. It's sort of comforting; she doesn't like the idea of them mourning her. She had already betrayed them so much. She knows how much she'd hurt them by running away from home, defying their expectations, always seeking an escape.
Maybe they'll go back to China once they realize that she's never coming back. She hopes they do. She hopes they don't waste their time looking for her and that they go back to the place they began and start again without her. They deserve that much. So many years of hard work and struggle in the U.S. had only brought them a missing daughter.
Feng Min thinks that she's always been an escapist, for as long as she can remember. Video games, when she'd been younger, and then the pursuit of infamy. The drive to be the best had mutated into a monster that had swallowed her up whole. Sometimes, she suspects that this whole nightmare dimension might be her brain finally snapping like a dry twig. Her turbulent adolescence had brought her... what? Nothing, now. Nothing that matters. It's all gone now, all the brief victories and high pressures and the self-destructive spiral with it, too.
She's thought a lot about the last thing she'd been doing before she appeared in this place. Another blackout drunk bender, hanging out around the back of a bar, trying to get a hold of one of her former teammates, begging him for a ride back to the dorms she was soon to be evicted from. He was the only one that answered, the only one who still seemed comfortable talking to her now since the rumors of her expulsion from the Laser Bears had been confirmed publicly. Her tongue had gone all gooey in her mouth when he'd asked her if she'd been drinking again. She'd hung up in anger and accepted a ride from a man who had pulled over for her. She remembers getting into his car. After that... she doesn't remember. And then she woke up here.
Thinking of the sort of person she's become over the past year makes Feng Min's guts roil. There's a sense of serving out her sentence in this place— retribution for potential lost, opportunities wasted. All because she'd had no idea how to cope with things. With anything. She remembers the smugness she'd felt when she'd taken the first opportunity to move out to the west coast after being signed to a team, like she'd finally gotten to say, Look, you were wrong to her parents. To say that she had been a disappointment to them would be an understatement.
There's a grim satisfaction in knowing that, if anything, this place is keeping her sober and forcing her to stay focused on something. If she tries to look at it all like it's a game she's playing and she's doing the necessary grind towards victory, it doesn't seem so bad. Until it gets hard, or scary, or excruciatingly painful, or deadly.
But until then, it doesn't seem so bad.
She comes to learn that most types of wounds, even the ones that look really bad, aren't that painful in the end. Mostly because of adrenaline and shock. The Entity seems to hold nothing against the human body. It lets them all bleed and spit and choke and cry, even if it doesn't let them get sick or grow hair or age or change in any perceptible way. It wants blood, and it gets blood, and it can have a refill any time it wants.
The place Laurie once identified to her as Haddonfield has an eerie familiarity about it. The cars and homes are outdated, sure, but Feng Min had grown up in a suburb a lot like this one after her family had moved to the U.S. She'd been 7 at the time. She'd played on a street just like Lampkin Lane throughout childhood.
But... there's nothing really natural about it. Feng Min has noticed that the Entity doesn't really seem to have an understanding of what it's trying to replicate. She finds obstacles in strange places, or objects where they shouldn't be. Debris and detritus lays everywhere within the realms. Old pallets. Tires. Abandoned cars. Remnants of human life that no longer belong anywhere. A lot of the places that hold trials seem to be ever-shifting, the features changing every time Feng Min happens across one, so that they all blur together, impossible to identify or begin to memorize. The single walled portion of Lampkin Lane looks like a memory of a memory of a memory. She doesn't like being here. It gives her an incredible feeling of dread.
The most interesting thing about Haddonfield, Feng Min thinks, is that it's Laurie's hometown. She wonders what Laurie has done to deserve that. Laurie apparently knows the monster that stalks this realm, too. She calls him Michael Myers, and the fact that the killer has a plain, normal, human name creeps Feng Min the hell out. It implies that he's a person, and to accept that is unconscionable right now. What kind of person could do things like this?
It's like that with some of the others, too; they know some of these monsters, or the places they seem to be tied to. They know their names. Feng Min is astounded. She can only be grateful that she hasn't recognized anywhere the nightmare has taken her, yet. She doesn't think she could bear seeing a place she once loved warped by the Entity for its torture trials.
Right now, she's trying to stay quiet as she carefully takes the stairs down into the basement of a home. She knows there's a generator down here because she's seen it before. Being down here gives her a claustrophobic feeling of panic, but panic is something she's becoming more used to tamping down. She needs to stay sharp.
She has no tools; she hasn't been able to find any yet. But she's becoming steadily more confident without them. Feng Min has built her own computers since she was 14; she has a rough idea of how things fit together, and repairing generators is largely about reconnecting power sources and pushing parts back into place. EZ, she thinks.
Her hands are getting sticky with oil. The nervousness surges up again, and she takes a deep breath that she regrets, because it tastes like the smoke the generator is putting out. She can hear footsteps pounding on the grass outside a window. Feng Min goes still for a moment to try to get an idea of direction, but they've faded before she can tell. It's still enough to make her want to investigate, and she wipes her hands on her shorts and carefully picks her way up the stairs.
Once she's up there, she can hear the footsteps again, rustling the grass. She creeps over to the window — there's never any glass in them, she'd noticed a while back — and slides out of it, pausing once she's on the other side.
And then, suddenly, out of nowhere: heartbeats, making her regret that she'd come up.
It's Quentin, his pale face even paler than usual, bone white in the moonlight. Poor kid. He looks like he needs a good sleep more than any of them. He looks so forlorn a lot of the time, like he's already accepted all of this. Even being so young. But, right now, he just looks afraid.
Feng Min doesn't need to hear him twice. She's not about to turn around and look at what's following him. She knows that the Shape called Michael Myers has an uncanny ability to just appear where they are. He is indiscriminate with his knife, the mask betraying nothing. She has never heard him make a single sound.
Cutting across the street, Feng Min wonders — it's not the appropriate time, really — why the Entity thinks Lampkin Lane needs so many garbage cans.
She spots Nea inside of one of the houses across the street. She's working on a generator that rumbles to life at that very moment. Feng Min sprints towards the porch and spares a quick look over her shoulder. Quentin is right behind her, and only a few paces from him is Myers, who doesn't seem to be in any particular hurry towards the inevitable. She has to make a decision, fast. Turn to her instincts and reflexes and let that do all the rest.
What she ends up doing is cutting away into the bushes at the last moment, right before she reaches the porch. Quentin stumbles into the doorstep. It's a moment that costs him. As soon as Feng Min has disappeared around the back of the home, she hears the scream. Quentin. She closes her eyes for a moment, winces, is guiltily glad it's not her.
She can hear Nea shouting, and the sound of Quentin yelling in pained protest. She doesn't want to look. She mustn't look. Where is her objective?
She finds a generator in a nearby backyard, with plenty of cover on most sides of her body. No sign of heartbeats.
Shaky hands. Wire to wire.
Across the street, a scream pierces the false night.
Wire to wire.
"Focus!" she hisses under her breath. Where's the adrenaline when she needs it now? She gropes around for it helplessly, trying to identify it somewhere in her body, but it is not there. She's just scared, and the situation is spinning out of control.
She can hear indiscriminate shouting in Nea's distinctive sharp voice. Something awful is happening across the street.
Sparks fly from the generator, stinging Feng Min's hands. She feels the zaps like little burns, pulling them back to her body with a yelp of pain. She hears thudding footsteps coming around the fence and looks up. Jake is there, his hood pulled halfway up, partially muffling his mouth. He seems surprised to see her there, but he looks like he's in a rush.
"Are you...?" he prompts with urgency. His eyes are trained towards the source of the screams.
Feng Min shakes her head. No. "I need to finish this," she says, gesturing to the generator. "I'm almost—"
Jake is gone before she even finishes her sentence, vaulting over the fence and darting away. She can hear him shout, "Hey!" in an attempt at distraction. She can also hear the Entity announcing itself from the sky, and Quentin's gasps and sounds of struggle. Nea sounds like she's putting up a good fight, but it also sounds like she's been hurt.
The generator backfires right in her face. Feng Min lands on her ass and blinks in shock, hoping that Myers is distracted enough not to notice the sound of her mistake. She tries to recover her lost progress as quickly as possible, and soon it starts singing. That leaves one last generator: the one in the basement she hadn't gotten to finish.
Which means that she has to go back across the street. Feng Min cuts through the back door and creeps down the hallway towards the front door. She stops in the open entryway when she gets there, looking around the corner, and gets an idea of what's going on.
Jake is trying to pull Quentin free from the grasp of the Entity, which has its fingers, spider legs, crab claws, tentacles, branches, fucking awful demon talons, whatever the hell they were supposed to call it, caged over Quentin's body. It's a fight that Jake isn't winning. Myers is hauling a thrashing Nea down the street towards one of the hooks, and the way he shoves her down on it seems particularly impatient; it's sharp, and it cuts through her shoulder and chest like a cleaver shredding a steak. Nea immediately begins to struggle, screaming in pain and rage.
Myers turns his attention back towards Jake, within whose arms Quentin has just turned to ashes and been claimed by the sky. Jake starts running. And then he spots Feng Min over by the front door, crouching there. He doesn't shout for her. Doesn't betray her position. He just gives her a look and then keeps running, but Feng Min has the distinct sense that they've already lost.
They do not escape. Not one of them.
At the campfire, Nea rounds on Feng Min immediately.
"What the hell was that?!" she shouts. She's whole and new again with no sign of the trauma she'd just endured. What felt like just seconds (an eternity) ago, Feng Min had been watching her hanging from a hook with blood soaking her jeans bright red. Now, she's whole and angry, and Feng Min has a pretty good idea why.
"What was what?" she asks anyway, just to hear what Nea has to say.
"You just completely fucked Quentin, and that got me fucked!" snaps Nea. She's gotten right up in Feng Min's face, glaring down at her. Nea's got eyes the color of cold steel. They're not kind eyes. She raises a hand, like she's about to prod Feng Min in the chest, so she takes a neat step back.
She keeps her voice low and steady and tells herself just to engage the way she might with an Internet troll. Just calm. Granting no satisfaction. "He tripped," she says.
Not many of the others are paying much attention. Arguments break out over the campfire constantly. Sometimes the survivors take issue with one another, questioning their decisions, trying to probe their willingness to cooperate. These kinds of tactics seem like a waste of time to Feng Min.
"He didn't fucking trip!" says Nea. She rounds on Quentin, who is back there with them, alongside Jake, who has already wandered back to the tree line. "Did you?"
Quentin's downward-turned eyes look even more hopeless as he shrugs. He looks incredibly uncomfortable to Feng Min, like he'd rather not be involved.
But Nea is insistent on her interpretation of the events. "You came towards the house I was in, and you made it look like you were gonna go in there, but then you turned off, and you screwed Quentin up. You acted unexpectedly, so you made him fall over, so you're the reason we all got fucking killed."
Her ranting gains David's attention. He's sitting cross-armed at the fire, looking amused by it all. "What's that?"
"Her!" snaps Nea, pointing at Feng Min. "You're always selfish when you're in a trial. How come nobody ever talks about that? Don't think we haven't all noticed you sneaking around. If that's the way you want to do it, then fine. But not if you're going to let us get killed."
David laughs, low and indulgent. "It's goin' to happen."
"I didn't ask for your opinion!" Nea barks. She turns with an expectant look back to Feng Min, who has been quiet for some time.
Feng Min couldn't find the hatch. She'd tried, after Myers had executed Jake, but it was impossible to go completely undetected between all of the windows and open sight lines. As for Quentin... Nea doesn't understand. It had never been about hurting Quentin. She had made the choice that she had to make. No control over anyone's fate but her own. She doesn't think Nea gets it. Nea is not driven the way that Feng Min is. Not in the way that lets her drill at a goal until she holds the whole multifaceted thing in her hands.
"We're not allies. We're torture victims. Playthings. Patients. Whatever you wanna say," says Feng Min. "You know, like reality TV shows? No one's there to make friends. They're there to win the million dollars."
"This isn't a TV show," says Nea, rolling her eyes. Her cheeks are flushed bright red with anger.
"I didn't say that," says Feng Min. She's trying not to feel intimidated; Nea's a little taller than her, and probably stronger, too. "I'm just saying that I see the rules of the game differently than you do."
"It's not a— did you just call this a game?" says Nea in disbelief. "What about any of this is a game to you? Do you think it's funny?"
Feng Min is annoyed that Nea would draw that conclusion. "No, of course I don't," she says impatiently. She presses her lips together and tucks her chin in so that her bangs cover her eyes while she thinks. "I'm just saying that this place has rules, and the trials have patterns. And I choose to view the trials as a series of tasks that need to be completed so that I don't have to die. So if this were a game, the only team I'm playing for is mine. If it helps you feel better, then I'm sorry. But it really isn't personal."
Nea just looks pissed off. But she also looks like she knows that there's nothing she can do about it. Still, she's back in Feng Min's face, sending a chill down her spine. She has a feeling that Nea is not going to be very generous to her any time soon. "That's not the point. It's—"
"Hold on," comes Jake's voice. Feng Min isn't sure how long he's been standing there watching, but he's there now, right by the campfire. "I was there. Look, she... she was trying to finish generators. I'm the one who screwed up. I couldn't grab Quentin in time, then I couldn't get to you in time. I miscalculated. That one is on me."
Feng Min is surprised at what he is saying, and it shows on her face. For Jake to join in a conversation like this seems unusual.
Nea deflates slightly, but her eyes are still narrowed at Feng Min. "I am watching you," she says, like a warning, and then she stalks off, hopefully to blow off some steam.
That remark gets under her skin. Who does Nea think she is? Nothing about this place has made it obligatory that Feng Min do anything except protect her own ass. Gone are the days of teamwork for her.
David snorts. Tapp just sighs from his spot. Bill gives a huff; Feng Min thinks he's half-asleep. She thinks she needs some time alone, too, and she picks off towards the spot Jake usually wanders about. She's not sure if she should be surprised that he follows her there.
If he has anything to confront her about, he doesn't voice it. He just stands there with his hands in his pockets.
"Is she always like that?" Feng Min asks finally.
"She's hot and cold," says Jake. "She reminds me of me. When I was a lot younger, I mean."
"Do you think she hates me?"
"No. But I know she can get carried away sometimes," says Jake plainly. "You've probably seen how... emotionally involved things can get."
That could mean any number of things, but Feng Min thinks he's probably referring to all of them, a little bit. She's observed allies and friendships and rivalries. She's also convinced that some of the others are probably fucking, but it's been hard to confirm that one. Still, she's noticed some interesting patterns for when the others choose to wander into the fog and who goes scavenging together. Not that she cares who Meg is hooking up with, or if, as she suspects, Dwight may be gay. Sometimes, she sees Quentin and Laurie sitting with their heads together, talking quietly. She's had trouble identifying the sort of kinship between them; she wonders if it might be because they're both so young, and both of them are being punished so directly by the Entity.
She can't blame the other survivors for seeking comfort in one another. There's not much else to do in this fucking purgatory; limited ways they can all feel anything aside from terror and despair. But she knows, again, must know always, that she cannot get attached to anyone here. She cannot expend her hope or her despair on anyone but herself. She's always survived that way.
"Yeah," says Feng Min. "I'm not..." she trails off. "I'm not like that." Not a team player.
Jake lowers his chin, looks contemplative. "What did you do? Before all of this?"
She wonders whether or not to share, or if she should anticipate having to justify her own skill. Feng Min is used to having her competency challenged. Not that it matters any more. Not just because she's here in the Entity's realm, but because shortly before she'd ever shown up here, she had been fired from her team.
But it'd still sound better than Oh, nothing; I got kicked off my pro gaming team thanks to a scandal, which led to another scandal, and now I'm an alcoholic failure that gets blackout drunk every night.
It still stings to think about it. GG. You tried to be something. You suck.
"I was a professional video game player for the Los Angeles Laser Bears," says Feng Min, and then she adds, dryly: "It wasn't the American Dream my parents wanted for me."
He slants a brow. "Video games, huh?"
She expects, maybe, to hear a question she's answered a hundred times before (what do you mean video games are a pro sport now? how much does it pay? do you feel like you're treated differently because you're a girl? what are you going to do when you grow out of it?), and says, "Yeah. 2015 and 2016 world champions in Nebula Arc. I main Valden." What she's saying doesn't seem to register any recognition with him. Feng Min shrugs. "It's a big deal if you're into gaming."
"I don't— didn't even own a TV," says Jake, shaking his head. "But that's cool."
No follow-up questions. She likes that, so she asks, "What about you?"
"Mmm. My life isn't complicated." A beat. "...wasn't. Wasn't complicated. I worked outside. I hiked a lot. I went to bed on time every day." He shrugs, as if indicating that's the extent of it. Feng Min knows it can't be, but she also knows better than to pry.
"That sounds like a perfect life right about now," says Feng Min, letting her mind wander to the temptation of missing the comfort of her familiar mattress. "Didn't mean to bring the mood down."
Jake presses his lips together, half-smiling. "Doesn't bother me."
"Thanks. You might be the only one," says Feng Min, reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ears. "I'm going to go to sleep. Or pretend to sleep, or whatever it is we do when we shut our eyes here."
"Alright," he says. He's staring back into the trees, like he always does. She wonders what he's looking for in there, or where he goes when he enters them.
Feng Min turns to go, but she stops when she hears Jake's voice again, abrupt:
"It's Jae-geun. If you were still wondering." He's still looking into the tree line, like he's done now, as if his mind is halfway to somewhere else already.
Feng Min sometimes takes her cell phone out of her pocket just to stare at it. It's a distinctive reminder of her past life. Proof that she once existed. It's got the cracks from all the times she's dropped it. It's got her fingerprints all over it and the charms she'd picked out herself— a folded-paper star, a little Chococat, a miniature joystick that would move if you put your thumb over it. The strap hanging from it is branded with the Laser Bears' logo, and underneath it is the nickname her fans had given her, Shining Lion. After being let go from the team, she couldn't bring herself to take it off. Not even after the news had hit the Internet and sent a tidal wave of gossip through the insular west coast eSports community. Inside this phone is her entire life, if she could only access it. She would give anything to see the screen light up right now with a call from her manager, or her agent, or, fuck, even her mother.
But as it is, it's merely an object, a flat rectangle with a bit of weight to it. She can always feel it in the pocket of her shorts when she's running away from the killers, and she sometimes thinks that if it ever slips out during a chase, she might just have to go back for it. Feng Min knows she probably shouldn't hold onto it. There is no real use for it any more.
"Is that an iPod?"
A snort escapes her despite herself, and Feng Min turns, looking up to find Quentin taking a seat next to her by the firelight. The campfire is unsettlingly empty tonight. At least seven of their usual number are nowhere to be found, by Feng Min's count, although she isn't sure who may have been called to the Entity and who may be wandering the fog. Everyone comes and goes in the blink of an eye, only ever floating the surface of the pool of time within the Entity's realm— around and around, circling a drain that does not exist.
"No, it's an iPhone," she says. She holds it up to him.
"Oh. Yeah, I think I've heard of those," says Quentin, reaching up to scrub a hand through his wavy hair.
"What year was it for you?" Feng Min asks right away. She knows that some of the others have significant time discrepancies. For Feng Min, it's 2017; for Laurie, it's 1978; for Tapp, it's 2004. And so on. It's sort of interesting listening to some of them talk about it. Watching Meg and Claudette trying to explain YouTube to Laurie had been undeniably hilarious, although Feng Min hadn't allowed herself to smile or look like she was listening in.
"2009," says Quentin. He's staring at the phone in her hand, fascinated.
"Okay, so they're not really super widespread yet. But wait maybe a year or two. You'll get to carry the Internet in your pocket all the time, so you can troll Twitter on the bus home and stuff." She hands him her phone, since he seems so curious. He immediately turns it sideways to get a look at how narrow it is.
"Wow," he says. "Pretty cool. It's big. I figured phones were just going to get smaller and smaller." He lapses into silence, staring at their cracked reflections in its black screen. "I wonder what it would say if we could power it up. You think there'd be a signal or not?"
"No way," says Feng Min, shaking her head. "I don't think that thing that brought us all here is going to let us take phone calls."
He gives a strained smile. Quentin's face always looks like he's halfway into a grimace. She wonders if he's always been like that, or if it's being here that's made him look so lost all of the time.
"It's missing a few amenities," he agrees. "Didn't even give us a bathroom or a mini-fridge..."
"If this is a vacation, it's the worst one of my life," mumbles Feng Min towards her lap, so he can't see the way she smiles just a bit.
"I can't decide what I think about any of it." Quentin shakes his head. "I thought, maybe..." He goes quiet. His face makes it apparent that his mind has slipped off somewhere far away. "I experienced something like this before I got here. Not... exactly like this, but I mean... another world. One that most people couldn't see. And then I came here."
Feng Min knows that the place called Springwood is associated with Quentin in some way. At least, that's what Bill had told her, the first time she'd encountered it. She hates the empty, creepy preschool, and she hates the thing stalking its halls. She supposes he's talking about that, but she doesn't know anything else about the details.
"So you think this is another world," she says finally, landing on the one remark that seems safest to ask about.
"It has to be, right? With everything that's happening. People don't just die and come back to..." He clamps his mouth shut. "They don't usually do that. But here... I feel like I'm having one really long, really bad dream. But it feels real, so I can only think that it is real."
"Do you think we're in Hell?" she asks bluntly.
"Depends on if you think we deserve to be here," he responds, and the dark cloud in his eyes deepens. "I don't."
"I think I might," she says, plainly, and rolls her shoulders in an overly deliberate forced-casual way.
"I don't think your sins could be this bad," says Quentin. He's lifting up the little star-shaped charm. The shiny pink paper catches the firelight. He turns the phone over in his hand again. "This is cool," he says finally. "I'd love to play around with it and see if I can get it to turn on."
Feng Min thinks that there is absolutely no chance of that happening, but she surprises herself when she says, "If you like it that much, keep it. Not like I need it any more."
Quentin blinks at her. "I was half-kidding." And then his eyes light up— just a bit. "But I've been talking lately with Claudette, about trying to find some kind of way we might start harvesting power, do some scavenging, find some batteries, try to do it off the gens and bring them back... I dunno. It's complicated. But, yeah, if we can figure that out, it'd be amazing if we could get this thing to turn on. Just to know if it's possible here."
Feng Min can see how knowing if an electronic could be powered could provide a lot of insight into exactly what sort of dimension or state of existence they now live in. "I hope you can do it," she says, and she means it, although she doesn't think it'll ever happen.
Later, she runs her hands over her pockets and feels an old, familiar sense of something missing, of instinctively wanting to scan the floor for it. But, she tells herself; she doesn't need her phone. All it's going to do — the nostalgia, the pining for her past life — is distract her. Hold her back. Get her hurt and worse. Feng Min knows she needs to stay focused. There's just no other way to get through the black future before her.
Soon, Feng Min experiences what Claudette had been trying to explain to her. It happens in a way that is impossible to describe, even to herself; her perception of the things around her has simply just changed. She falls into it suddenly, but then immediately feels that she has been there for an eternity. There is no feeling of fear, but there is no feeling of anything else, either; in this space, her feelings do not exist. The Bloodweb is hardly accurately named. Feng Min can later only recall the sense of an endless blackness. The dark had whispered for her, warned her, wanted her. The whispers felt familiar. She thought that they had already been living inside of her for a long time.