Mandy awoke in a small, cramped room on a small, hard cot. She had a terrible headache, the worst she’d ever had. And she was no stranger to headaches, as migraines ran in the family. Her mother had them a few times a year, which left Mandy to be in charge of her sisters while their mom was out for the count for up to three straight days. She’d yet to have a migraine, but she imagined it couldn’t be too different from what she was currently experiencing. She swung her legs over to the side and bent over the edge of the cot, holding her head in her hands until the pounding subsided a little bit. There was a tray just in front of her feet, which was just in front of the door, where there was a small slot that could be unlocked so the tray could slide in. There was what appeared to be a sandwich wrapped in foil, an apple, and an incredibly tiny bottle of water on the tray. To her right was a wall. To her left there was a small toilet, and above it, a sink, jammed into the corner between her cot and the wall. It was basically a prison cell, although she knew in her gut she wasn’t in an actual prison as the small window at the top of the room wasn’t barred, and the door was a proper heavy door made of metal, not just a row of bars. But she was either in total shade or the light into the window was totally blocked, as no real light ever seemed to shine into the room. She felt in her pockets; they’d taken everything. She was trapped in this room, alone, with no way out and nothing to do.
Reaching forward, she picked up the tray and unwrapped the sandwich. She took a bite and discovered it was formerly a hot ham and cheese sandwich, but apparently enough time had passed that it was stone cold again. She picked up the apple and took a bite; it was mealy, but she was so hungry, both the sandwich and apple were gone in seconds. Initially, she’d wanted to try and save the water so she wouldn’t be left with no food or drink, but the water seemed to help her aching head, and she drank the entire mini bottle in three seconds flat. Slowly, the events of the concert came back to her memory, and her head pounded more. She reached up and felt a large lump on the back of her head, presumably from where she’d been struck and knocked out by that horrible man. He’d taken her prisoner, and her little sisters. No, her sisters! She was sure he had taken them, too, and clearly separated all of them because they were too great a force together. She just hoped they were okay right now. If anything serious happened to them, she’d never, ever forgive herself.
True, getting kidnapped was pretty serious, but it’s not like she could’ve stopped it from happening in the moment, since she was being kidnapped herself! Now they were trapped in whatever this building was. Of course, she couldn’t see her sisters, but she could sense them. They were near, and safe. Well, as safe as they all could be given the circumstances, which were admittedly not very good at the present moment.
Mandy attempted to keep track of time by the trays that arrived, but either she was way off in her counting or the trays arrived sporadically, like they’d completely forgotten about the existence of their captive until someone exclaimed, “Wait, don’t we have a teenage girl and her little sisters held against their will here? Should we maybe, y’know, feed them?” It made her weak and afraid, this lack of food. But what had she done to even deserve to be imprisoned in such a place? True, she’d traveled through perceived time and space, into other worlds and possibly other galaxies, but she’d never heard of a law against interdimensional travel. At least, not on Earth, but maybe such a law existed in other places? Did this make her some kind of space cowgirl outlaw? The thought would perk her up occasionally in her darkest moments, imagining joining a roving band of outlaws in outer space, speaking (and swearing) in Mandarin, wearing a lot of cool leather clothes, and shooting shiny guns at the real bad guys. She imagined outrageous adventures, slipping into half-dreams, because her body was too exhausted from a lack of food to do much else. Were there other people imprisoned here for the same reasons? How cool would it be to jailbreak a whole building full of space rebels out of their cells. They’d all be so grateful that they’d let her join any of their crews. But what about her sisters? She knew rebellious, brilliant girls with possible superpowers weren’t exactly treated well onboard ships or within larger groups. Nah, she and her sisters would have to band together to get out of here themselves, and if they happened to save other people along the way, so be it.
In the midst of one of these half-dreams, she suddenly heard the slot being unlocked. Her eyes opened, and she bolted the four steps to the door as the slot opened and the tray was being placed inside. Mandy grabbed the tray, threw it on the floor, and stuck her face into the slot. “Hello? Who’s there? Where are my sisters?!” she yelled, her voice getting louder and higher-pitched with each question. A familiar face appeared, looking directly into her eyes. Jackson’s eyes looked stricken, ashamed of himself, but he was clearly trying to look tough and show no outward sign of distress for helping to capture her and her sisters. “Shh! Keep your voice down. I can’t talk to you,” he said quietly in that unplaceable accent. “I’ll get in trouble.” “I don’t give a rat’s ass if you get in trouble,” Mandy hissed out in a voice that scared even herself. Jackson jumped back slightly, taken aback by the fury fueling her words. “You tricked me, and my little sisters, and now we are imprisoned in, in, in … wherever the hell this place is. I don’t know if they’re okay, I am certainly not okay, and you need to bring me answers. You owe me,” she said, her voice barely audible. “I … I … I’m sorry,” Jackson said. “Your sisters are okay. I had no choice; I had to trap you. You don’t understand what’s happening here. You’re safe as long as….”
Before he could finish his sentence, a man’s voice called out, “Jackson! Are you done with that nonsense yet?” “Yes sir, Mr. Jones!” Jackson yelled back. “I’ll be right there.” He shot one quick glance through the slot. “I’ll be back,” he whispered, shutting the slot and locking it. Mandy pressed her ear against the thick door. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it was clear this Mr. Jones guy was unhappy with Jackson and was making it known to whomever might be nearby. She picked up her tray of food, and went and sat on her bed to eat. She slowly chewed the sandwich and let Jackson’s words take over her brain. Her sisters were okay. That’s good, at least she knew they were safe for the time being. Jackson allegedly hadn’t had a choice in what he did to her and her sisters, and he was clearly part of a much larger organization that was up to no good, if they were in the business of kidnapping children.
It seemed like not much time had passed when Mandy heard what she thought was the tray slot opening up. She awoke from a haze and found, instead, Jackson standing in her cell. She almost shot up to hug him, then remembered what he’d done to her and her sisters, helping this Mr. Jones kidnap them and trap them in these cells. But there was a small part of her that remembered how kind he had been before the concert; how he had fed them and housed them; how they’d danced together without a care in the world just moments before the world turned upside down…. She stayed seated and glared at him as much as she could while he quietly shut the door. When he turned to face her, she got up quickly and slapped him straight across the face. Jackson took it without flinching. “I suppose I deserve that,” he mumbled quietly. “You’re damn right you do!” she said. “Let me out of here right now, and take me to my sisters!” He looked chagrined. “I can’t do that. I don’t know where they are.” He saw the scream forming on her face, and he quickly cupped his hands over her mouth to suppress it. “Shhh!” he chastised. “This whole place is under surveillance. If you’re too loud, someone will hear you, and they’ll come in and take me away and I’ll never be able to help you.” She screamed one more time before nodding and taking his hands off her mouth.
“Why did you lie to me?!” she said. “You told me my sisters were okay, now you’re saying you don’t even know where they are? This is absurd!!” He looked pained. “I know your sisters are here somewhere in the compound, but they won’t let me near them. I know they’re alive and being fed and taken care of, probably better than you are. They’re in a highly secure area that most people can’t access. But I also know they won’t be okay for long, which is why I’m talking to you. I’m trying to help you.” Mandy sat back on the bed, taking in what Jackson just said. Her sisters really were okay, they were just under lock and key, probably because they really are exceptional humans. Mandy was just … Mandy, despite whatever her sisters had told her. They were all descended from goddesses, but Mandy was just doomed to be average, chasing after her tiny genius siblings forever. The tears were soaking her face before she even realized she was crying. Jackson sat down next to her and started to rub her back.
“I’m sorry for what I did,” he said in a quiet, pleading voice. “I didn’t have a choice. I was forced into turning on you. I was supposed to turn you in the moment you arrived on Bailiwick, but I couldn’t. You were so beautiful, and your sisters were so sweet, I did what I could to at least keep you happy until the inevitable occurred.” Mandy could barely hear him over her sobs, but she could recognize the tone of his voice as true. He meant what he was saying, not that it excused anything he did. “You should’ve warned me,” she said between sobs. “You’re right. I should have,” he said quietly. “I won’t ever forgive myself for that.” Her tears dried up, and she looked him in the eye. “Why were we kidnapped anyway? Who brought us here, and why?” Jackson sighed and removed his hand from her back and put his face in his hands before beginning his story.
Jackson had been adopted from an orphanage when he was about six years old, and he had no recollection of his biological family. Nobody at the orphanage knew anything, or at least, wouldn’t tell him anything. His adoptive family was fine, and if they didn’t all exactly love each other they at least got along, but he was always curious about where he came from. He heard about DNA testing, and sent away for a kit just before his 15th birthday, lying about his age because what was the big deal, anyway? When he got his results, he found several possible relatives, and through a lot of research and back-and-forth, he finally found his biological father: Robert Jones, head of a secretive government agency. Jackson left his adoptive family behind on his 16th birthday and traveled to find Robert to meet him and introduce himself. From what he’d found online, it didn’t seem like Robert knew that Jackson even existed. But when Jackson showed up, Robert embraced him like he’d been a dad for years. Jackson felt a sense of love and relief that he’d never felt before, and even telling it to Mandy made him tear up. Jackson moved in with Robert, and for a while, things were wonderful. But as time wore on, Robert’s attitude toward Jackson, and the world at large, seemed to shift. He’d begun working on something called “Project Portmanteau” with the government, and then was laid off, the project apparently abandoned. Robert had decided to keep working on the project on his own dime, fronted by a company called Portman’s that Robert had recently started. It had quickly become a huge online retailer and was the perfect facade for an evil plan. Project Portmanteau had been, originally, about science and the universe and a bunch of things outside of Jackson’s mental capacity. He’d never understood it when he asked his dad about it, and they talked less and less as time went on. But Robert was still his dad, and he had nowhere else to go, so he did whatever his dad asked him to … including helping to kidnap Mandy and her sisters. “My dad does own that hotel, and basically the rest of Bailiwick, so I wasn’t totally lying to you when you got here. I don’t have anywhere else to go, and I can’t refuse him, even when he’s terribly cruel, and….” Jackson trailed off, tears sliding down his own face, and suddenly Mandy finds her role reversed. She pulled him into a tight hug. He cried on her shoulder for a minute, then pulled away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry about everything,” he said. “Now you’re trapped here in the compound, like I am, and I don’t even know why. All my dad said was that you and your sisters are ‘necessary for the Project,’ and he needed you here. And, selfishly, I wanted you here too.”
They looked into each other’s eyes, and Mandy felt her face being pulled towards his. She didn’t care what she looked like right now, or how much older he was than her, or that he had plotted against her. His eyes … she couldn’t refuse, she was going to have her first kiss. She closed her eyes, waiting, knowing it was about to happen….
“Oh, young love. How disgusting.” Mandy opened her eyes and whipped her head towards the doorway. “Dad!” Jackson yelled, standing up quickly. “I, uh, I was trying to convince her to, uh….”
“I can see what you were trying to convince her to do, though she didn’t seem to need much convincing,” Mr. Jones said coldly. “I had a feeling you would be here. You’re the one who made such a fuss when she was locked up, so when the keys went missing, I knew you’d be here.” He gave a smug look to both of them, and Jackson looked at the floor, his face burning. Mandy, however, felt like she’d had twenty cups of coffee and also a raging bull. “WHERE ARE MY SISTERS, YOU COWARD?!” she yelled, storming over and hitting him square in the chest. “Take me to them NOW! We’re leaving this rancid hellscape.” Mr. Jones looked amused, and an evil little giggle escaped from his lips. “Oh, you’re coming with me, sweetheart, but you’re not leaving.”
Two very large guards appeared in the doorway out of nowhere. They grabbed Mandy and shackled her arms together and led her out of the room. She was screaming for help, but nobody else appeared. Jackson watched her be led out, followed by his father, who shut him in the cell. “I think you need a little alone time to think about what you’ve done, son,” Mr. Jones said cruelly as he locked his own child in the vacated cell. Jackson sat on the bed and cried. Mandy could hear the sobs as she was forcefully walked down a long hallway, through one door into another, identical hallway, through yet another door into yet another hallway, until she was eventually led through a door that led to … a basic office conference room. “What the …?” she mumbled without realizing she was doing so as one of the guards shoved her down into an uncomfortable, under-padded chair. She didn’t know a lot about offices, because she was a teenager, but she had seen Office Space and the entirety of The Office (multiple times), as well as various academic conference rooms across the span of her mother’s various teaching/professorial jobs, and this space could have been in any one of them. It seemed impossible that her cell was somewhere around this generic office space, and at the same time, it made perfect sense. Where else to hide people than somewhere innocuous?
Across the room from her was a whiteboard absolutely filled with scribblings she could hardly decipher. There were diagrams, equations, drawings, notes, notes about notes, and then Mandy realized the writings went from the whiteboard and onto the walls, up onto the ceiling, and back down onto the wall behind her. It looked like at least two sets of handwriting, possibly more. Clearly, whoever was working on this … whatever this was, they’d spent a little too much time on it. An obsessive, disturbing amount of time. Mandy’s heart started to race. “I see you’re admiring my work,” Mr. Jones said, sitting at the head of the table, facing the door. “If you call realizing that you’re completely insane ‘admiring your work,’ sure, why not?” Mandy responded, flipping her head so her curls bounced haughtily. To her surprise, Mr. Jones burst out into full, gut-busting laughter, complete with tears in his eyes. “Oh, that was hilarious; thank you so much,” he said, dabbing at his eyes. “It’s been so long since I’ve laughed. All I do is work, as you can tell. Project Portmanteau takes all of my time. This is not the only conference room covered in my work, but it is the one that’s closest to completion.” Mandy just stared at him, unsure what to say next. She also had a feeling that Mr. Jones might just freely talk to her, like a villain so stereotypically does when they confront the hero of the story. But, to her surprise yet again, Mr. Jones just sat and stared at her. His expression was completely blank, and so were his eyes. He didn’t seem to blink. Mandy was unnerved, and after a good minute or two of silence, she blurted out, “Where are my sisters?”
A smile spread across his face, but nobody told his eyes, which remained cold and fixed on Mandy’s petrified face. “They’re safe, for the moment,” he answered. Mandy decided to play his game and kept her stare on his face, not moving her gaze for an inch. The stare-off felt like it lasted hours, though it couldn’t have been more than two or three minutes. “They are here, not far away, but you clearly cannot see them,” he said suddenly. “We have them constrained in separate cells, for they are very powerful little things, and we need them for the Project.” He scrutinized her face further, seeming to look for further clues. “They say you are even more powerful than they are, but I don’t believe them. I think they’re bluffing, trying to save their sister. Admirable, for small children, really,” he said. “Why do you need them? What is this Project about, anyway? An old leather suitcase? Trying to make a new word that’s as popular as ‘brunch?’” Mandy asked in that sarcastic tone that only a teenage girl can pull off successfully. “Hardly,” he answered in a voice that nearly matched her tone, though faltered because he was a creepy middle-aged dude and not a feisty teenager.
Mr. Jones stood up from the table, picked up a pointer that had been sitting on the tray underneath the whiteboard, and pointed at something scribbled on the board. Mandy couldn’t read it. “No, I don’t expect you to know what this says, because my handwriting is truly terrible when I’m in the groove. No time to really slow down and parse out the letters and words, I have to just write it down as it’s going through my brain. I’m sure you understand.” In spite of herself, Mandy felt her head nod once before she stopped herself. No more agreeing with this man. But that nod had encouraged him to go on, and he finally started to unravel.
“When I began working at the government, we were working on a project dubbed Portmanteau, as you know already thanks to my son.” He practically spat the last two words out, clearly disgusted by his relation to Jackson. Mandy had to fight the urge to try to get up and hit him with her shackled arms, but the guards were still posted at the door, and she knew enough that doing so would be a bad move. So she sat, and listened. “The government was looking into the possibility of space and time travel. Does that sound far-fetched? There are many branches of the government that do all kinds of things you’ve never heard of, and never will hear of, because they’re extremely classified. Sometimes these things do get out, and they’re written off as conspiracy theories, or one-offs that a crazed agent did of their own volition. But I’m here to tell you that it’s all true. Don’t trust your government, kid,” he said, slapping the pointer on the table in front of Mandy, making her jump in the uncomfortable chair. “I worked on the Project for years. I gave it my all. I abandoned my family, the rest of my career, everything, to work on Portmanteau. I was convinced it could work. Travel through time and space was possible. It was something I’d wondered about my whole life. I studied science and physics from a young age, got multiple advanced degrees in the subjects, was overly qualified to be the one to discover it, to change the way we view the world and what we as humans are capable of!” As he spoke that last sentence, his voice gradually rose in pitch, until he was screaming at the top of his lungs.
He paused, panting heavily, clearly having a moment. “What happened?” Mandy asked tentatively. “The government decided I was ‘too invested and power hungry,’ that the project was ‘not possible,’ that it had taken ‘too much time and money,’ and they couldn’t support it anymore. Plus, I’d isolated my colleagues and superiors alike, as I knew only I could be the one to figure this out. Nobody else was smart enough, talented enough, or brave enough. So I quit, founded this company as a front, and have been working steadily for years on the Project on my own, getting closer to the answers every day. It hasn’t been easy to run a successful business, particularly one that has grown to this magnitude in just a few years, while keeping up with the project. But it turns out that becoming a multi-millionaire means you can do whatever you want and hire people to run the business while you work on your own crazy space ideas!” Mandy was nonplussed, but tried to keep her face neutral as she asked, “What company is this, exactly?” Mr. Jones smiled that weird smile again. “Surely you’ve heard of Port to Man! We started as a shipping business, literally bringing things from ports to customers, but now we supply everything they need, and two years ago we opened several warehouses around the country where we can just ship goods directly to consumers!” Mandy nodded. She had, indeed, heard of this company; it was nearly impossible not to. Because she didn’t have a credit or debit card of her own yet, she had never shopped on it herself, but her mom relied on it to deliver nearly everything to the house when she was too busy to go shopping … which was often, lately, because she’d been working so much, and without dad around….
She realized that Mr. Jones had started speaking again, and forced herself to pay attention. “I always kept out feelers, because I knew I couldn’t be the only person working on this. It was too important! Even once my son found me, I couldn’t be distracted for long. I had to keep pushing, because I knew my rival was working on this, too, and I would NOT be beaten on this path. I would NOT!” He took up the pointer and broke it across his own knee with a guttural growl that turned into a scream. He threw the pieces on the floor, and when he started speaking again a moment later, his voice was eerily calm.
“Then I discovered the tesseract. Of course! I knew it had to exist; all my theories proved it, even though nobody believed me. But I didn’t know how to use it. I couldn’t figure out how to manipulate it to my advantage, which is ridiculous, because I’m a master manipulator! You saw what I’ve done to Jackson! You should talk to some of my employees; everybody hates me, and I love it. Half of them assist me on the Project, though none of them fully understand what I’m after. But that’s besides the point.” He suddenly stopped talking and stared at Mandy. She gulped, tried to calm the sudden rise of bile from her stomach and up her throat. Wishing she’d had more nutritious, hearty food lately, she pretended that she didn’t feel sick and upset and continued to stare right back at him. “So, what is the point, then?” she asked in what she hoped was a defiant voice, but sounded to her like a scared little squeak. “Your family is the point,” he answered, his voice icy. “I said I kept out feelers. I kept tabs on your mother. She thought she kept her own work a secret, but she was wrong. Once I found out that she not only knew about the tesseract, but could manipulate it, I went to her. I tried to explain that we could work together, or that I could make her very rich by buying this knowledge from her. She wasn’t having it, and that infuriated me. So….” He stared at Mandy, his eyes aflame with fury. “You … did you kill my mother?” Mr. Jones suddenly laughed that harsh, disarming laugh again, and a small voice at the door answered. “No. At least, not yet.”
Mandy’s head turned so fast she thought she’d get whiplash, and was stunned to see her mother standing in the doorway, shackled at her arms and ankles. She was extremely thin, and absolutely needed a shower, but it was her mother, her actual mother. Mandy jumped up and tried to run and hug her, but one of the guards got in between them. “No touching!” he said in a deep bass voice as he wrapped his arms around Mandy. She started sobbing into his extremely muscular chest, saying, “Mom! Let me hug my mom!” The guard just calmly picked her up and put her back in the chair she’d vacated. Mr. Jones chuckled, clearly amused at the heightened display of emotion. “Oh, Mandy, I don’t know if I’d be so excited to see her if I were you. I set up traps through time to get you here, because your mother requested her daughters. I know you miss your father; that’s how I got you here. She told me about your yearning for him. You know by now that concert was a ruse to capture you and those bratty twins you call sisters. Howlin’ Coyote was just a guy who vaguely resembled your father lip syncing to old recordings your father had made when he was trying to get famous. But those details aren’t really important.” An extremely evil look crossed his face. Mandy didn’t realize just how evil and scary Mr. Jones could look until this very moment, and that was saying something. “What is important?” Mandy asked in a frightened whisper. Mr. Jones smiled, and this time, it reached his eyes. “Your father is no longer alive, and it’s your mother’s fault.” Mandy’s mind went blank for five seconds, then it just kept telling her that couldn’t be true. “That’s not true. That’s NOT TRUE! NO!” she said, her voice rising to a scream. “Mom? MOM! TELL ME THAT’S NOT TRUE!” Her mother just looked her in the eye and started weeping, while Mr. Jones’s laughter filled the air.