I swipe instinctively and download into what is indeed a garden shed. A surprisingly familiar-looking garden shed cluttered with tools, lumber, paint cans, dead Christmas trees—holy stinkin’ crap.
This is Thrill-Kill’s garden shed!
What the heck is Jan doing here?
I look around nervously. The place isn’t much different from how I remember, except now there are a couple of gas lamps providing light. There’s the overturned orange crate with Thrill-Kill’s dilapidated ThinkPad hooked up to a car battery. There are the poop buckets lining the wall. There’s the giant plywood panel at the back. Thrill-Kill’s kidnapped Jan. I’m sure of it. She’s kidnapped Jan and a bunch of random unfortunate neighborhood dudes, and has resurrected her crypto-crypt for them to slave away in. Unless there’s been a mistake. SuperMegaNet is still beta software. My first time here was an accident, after all. I go over to the orange crate and, kneeling, check the buddy list on Thrill-Kill’s laptop. Jan’s name is on it. That means he added her—or she added him. And he’s come here (or has been forced here) because…why?
I face the plywood panel, the one that, I know from past experience, hides the arched doorway leading down into Thrill-Kill’s dungeon. I want to send myself back home this instant. However, I know if I do, I won’t have the guts to download back after—and Jan could be in trouble. Besides, I have to return to his phone before I can return to mine. Doing so with his parents on the prowl might be the lesser of two evils, but it’ll definitely be awkward. I don’t like awkward.
Walking up to the plywood panel, I heft it aside. Then, before I can come up with anymore doubts, I force myself into the stairwell, carefully taking the steps one at a time, feeling along the wall as I go. An unholy breeze caresses my skin; the stone is warm beneath my bare feet; the darkness presses in. Is that…carnival music playing in the distance? I should go. I barely made it out alive the last time I was here. Yet I’m unable to turn back. I wonder, is it because I’m truly worried for Jan’s well-being, or is it because I don’t want to be ridiculed at his funeral for leaving him in the bowels of Thrill-Kill’s back yard when I could’ve at least tried to mount a rescue? I’m seriously regretting having retired my Joey Martin skin. As embarrassing as the little tyke had been before, he’d also provided a sort of comfort. Like, if I were to battle someone video game boss style, it would be Joey taking the hits, and not me—whether or not skinning works that way. Roaming default, I feel about as vulnerable as can be. Ernie likes to call me Goten, but I don’t feel very Saiyan at all. Especially when, about two-thirds of the way down, I accidentally miss my footing, grab for a handrail that isn’t there, and wind up tumbling head over heels the rest of the way. I arrive upside down and with a loud thud! at the cave entrance’s wrought-iron gate, which has been lowered, and one of the bars of which has become firmly embedded between my battered butt cheeks.
“Uuuuuuuuuhhh…?” I moan.
Question mark intended.
Because on the other side of the gate…
…is something that wasn’t there before, something that I can only describe as a carnival of pain and delight. As in an actual subterranean carnival. The combination of steampunk and woodcraft that is Thrill-Kill’s human suffrage engine is still a central fixture, dark and foreboding as it churns tirelessly away. But all around the humble crypto-cave of yore has been upgraded and expanded, its torchlit chambers now packed with rides and booths and sideshows and wicked music thundering and people laughing, crying, screaming, grimy, bruised, battered, bloody, playing, beating, slicing, flaying—
“Who goes there?” asks a raspy voice to my right.