This is a YA science-fiction story where, in the parallel dimension of Cosmotic, Rad-Bio Laboratory has bioengineered the Super Nex virus to help SPACE Union win a lengthy war against Gargant and his bestial Grimhet legion. Not only do the beasts succeed in hijacking the virus, but the Rad-Bio lab tech Wyatt Durrell becomes infected during a Grimhet attack. Now he has to wield his powers and partner with a team of quirky agents to uncover a Super Nex antiviral before Grimhet ravages Cosmotic.
If you’re intrigued, then please check out the first chapter!
“Start the energy construct stage. Sword version.”
The man inside the reinforced examination chamber held his hands out in front of him. He closed his eyes, then opened them, his irises changing from light brown to cobalt blue. Wispy vapors of the same vivid color trailed from his fingertips.
“Sword version,” a woman echoed into her earpiece.
“They heard me the first time, Penelope,” said a young man standing next to her.
With a little glance the young man poised a hand over his tablet, the screen half-filled with detailed notes. The gold flecks in his hazel eyes flashed as he watched the participant for today’s demonstration through the window — the wisps from his fingers widening, snaking upwards, condensing into an oblong shape, quickly solidifying into a shining cobalt blue sword.
“Good,” said the woman, Penelope Flame, smirking with satisfaction. She was holding up a telemetric scanner that projected a holographic lens through which to view the exam. Numbers and stat bars at the edges were communicating the participant’s vitals.
“Next, energy orbs,” the young man next to her instructed, noting the speed of the sword’s construction on his tablet.
The participant obliged. He held the sword by its hilt with one hand and used his other hand to grasp the end of the weapon’s blade. His fingers squeezed the blade, and it dissolved into a motionless cloud of bright blue sparkles. Then he re-condensed it into a new form, one that took on the appearance of four spherical objects — energy orbs. He promptly fired them at targets at the opposite end of his chamber.
Penelope gave a tiny nod that made her tight bun of jet-black hair quiver. “Looks like Mr. Easton is of good health. His stats are stable, the energy constructs are solid, his health is the best it’s ever been. I think he’ll be in good shape for the demonstration.” She peered over her ebony glasses and cleared her throat. “Wyatt, you heard me?”
“Yeah, of course.” Wyatt Durrell sent her flat glance. He tousled his chocolate brown hair before taking notes on the orbs’ width and brightness.
She turned to him, and he looked sideways at the penetrating stare from her jade green eyes. “Well, then. What? What’s wrong? You’re not as excited as I thought you would be.”
His eyes moved away to look into the chamber. “Penelope, did you check the virus bins? The formulas, they’re blended correctly?”
“Do you honestly think I wouldn’t do that?”
“Just making sure,” he said, twisting the college ring on his right forefinger. It was a band of four interwoven wires, simple but eye-catching with its coppery iridescence.
Penelope shook her head and looked around at the researchers in the hall. She checked her watch, letting out an impatient sigh.
Wyatt was entering new data into a graph measuring how long the participant could sustain his energy output. “You know,” he said, staring through the window into the chamber, drumming his thumb on the tablet, “if SPACE Union approves Super Nex, it would be a huge accomplishment. I mean, it’s the fruition of all our efforts.”
She gave a scoff. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Our work looks meager compared to what Xavier did, sending his people to locate the viruses on Nexbrug, pitching for SPACE Union to let him bankroll the lab with billions of units. Only Dr. Fulbright can match his contributions.”
Wyatt furrowed his thick eyebrows. “Of course he can. Dr. Fulbright founded Rad-Bio with his own hands and brains, and he’s still head scientist. But we keep it running, the microbiologists, the geneticists, the lab techs. We refined the virus all the way up to this point.”
She sighed and flicked a hand his way. “I stand by my statement.”
They didn’t talk while Easton progressed to shooting orbs at targets levitating in all directions. At the end of the stage, Penelope lightened her voice when she asked, “Aren’t you moving up soon? That’s something to be happy about.”
The smallest curve of a smile brought itself to Wyatt’s face. He reined it in just as fast. “Yeah, I can’t wait. Dr. Fulbright says that I’ve been contributing a lot to Project Super Nex and the promotion is well-deserved.”
“You are quite the genius, aren’t you?” Penelope said, with a hint of sarcasm. “Starting out with a double major in microbiology and virology at twelve, and you were this small.” She held a flat hand at her elbow. “Now you’re eighteen and . . . a little bit bigger.” She moved that hand up to her temples.
“Come on, we squabble about this too much. We’re the same height.”
“We will be the same height, don’t worry.” Then she spoke into her earpiece, “Send in the doctor for a final check-up.” She waited for the participant to exit the chamber before clipping the scanner to her belt and turning to Wyatt. “Let’s go.”
They headed to the end of the hall, unclipping ID tags from their belts and waving them at the door, near a wall panel with Rad-Bio Laboratory’s logo — a glowing white R overlapping an askew silver B, an abstract golden L curving around them. Along the walk through a tubular hall and a glass atrium to the elevator, Wyatt slowly said, “So, Overseers from a few of the Intentions will be here. I wonder if Warbearer will accept the virus — ”
“Marsden has to be a nitwit to not accept it,” Penelope barked, glaring at him from the corner of her eye.
His face was unmoving, but his eyes darted away from her. “But she’ll scrutinize PSN with the same austerity as anyone else in Warbearer.”
“And her scrutiny will turn up no flaws, so stop being a worrywart.” She reached into her pocket for her dispenser, a stubby little thing that looked like a toy remote control, and tapped one button. Wyatt raised his eyebrows when it ejected a whole wipe from a slit of an opening that she used to press for the elevator, then to hit for the ground floor. His stomach felt as if it were dropping to his shoes when the elevator lurched upward.
The doors opened to reveal a wide lobby decorated with Dr. Fulbright’s curious taste in art — murky paintings of winged reptiles perched on mountain peaks and flying over dense forests, miniatures of multifaceted towers with dried tears of white blobs dripping down their sheer black stone, hundreds of small gears perpetually chunking together inside glass cubes.
Over two dozen people were, looking around in anticipation, engaging in small talk, listening to soft jazz play over the speakers. Some were microbiologists and lab techs. Others were sentries dressed in crimson uniforms with pale red stripes on their belts; their rounded manecaps were trimmed with faux tigon fur of blood-orange and black patches. A few more people were high-ranking SPACE Union members. The closest ones were Owen Foxer, Overseer of Web, the intelligence-gathering Intention, and Xavier Wiley, one of his Advisors and Project Super Nex’s financier. Foxer, dressed in a slim white coat and dress shoes, had a sense of stillness about him, keeping both arms hanging like dead weights at his sides, speaking with a deep and clipped whisper as if he were confiding a grave secret. He was reminiscent of an ice king, especially since he had translucent silver daggers hanging from his belt loops like dangling icicles.
Xavier was the exact opposite, his hands and arms telling a grand story in tune with his words. A stocky man with a round belly, his build threatened to pop the silver buttons off his waistcoat, which was embellished with a glittery design of bell-shaped flowers in yellows and pinks. His voice was warm like melting butter as he recited to Foxer an earthy, Raellem-style poem about the mating habits of Vestral wheatfowls.
Wyatt spotted the balding head of his mentor, Dr. Grant Fulbright, and veered away from Penelope to talk to him. He wasn’t as animated as Xavier, but still gave off stature as one of those broad-shouldered people that just looked smart, dressed in a navy blazer and a cream ribbed turtleneck. He appeared to be in perpetual thought, perhaps because of the deep wrinkles that lined his forehead; his eyes that were intelligent, vigorous, and melancholic at the same time; his thick oval glasses; or his spotless white smartglove.
Dr. Fulbright was tapping a little keyboard in the lit-up back of his smartglove, but he stopped when Wyatt arrived. “Wyatt, good to see you! Excited for today, are we?”
“Excited, yes, and tense. I’m hoping the approval will go through.”
“I’m sure it will. Part of me does wish all the Overseers were present.”
Wyatt glanced back at Foxer, then at a swarthy man in a worn blue tweed suit — Dr. Janus Bridger, Overseer of Quantax’s research for cosmology, quantum physics, and the elusive answers to the existence of parallel universes. Wyatt told Dr. Fulbright, “I think it’s best to keep this small, condensed. Anyways, the others are already being supportive; they’ve seen the virus in action. You saw Overseer Olympus’s press conference yesterday?”
Dr. Fulbright’s mouth flickered with a rueful little smile, his forehead wrinkles widening. “Ironic, isn’t it? Just a year ago she was trying to convince Freye and Tobet that . . .” He shook his head and tapped out the rest of a message on his smartglove. “Never mind. We’re here now.”
“Grant, pleasure to see you,” called out a voice, pronounced for its relaxed slowness, as if the speaker had just awoken from a short but satisfying nap. Wyatt turned around, and there was Bridger coming to shake Dr. Fulbright’s hand, his spiky hair looking like it hadn’t been combed in months. Bronze spectacles shielded his blinking eyes. A badge of a clock, also bronze, with intermeshed dials and hands was pinned to the collar of the thin white work shirt beneath his suit.
Wyatt also accepted a firm handshake from the Overseer-physicist, his own grip not relenting in the least. He couldn’t help but sneak a look at the trio of long, pale scars running from Bridger’s thumb and across the back of his hand. From the rumors he heard, they were the “gift” of a failed experiment to create artificial negative matter, or negamatter, three years ago.
Even now Bridger and Dr. Fulbright were chatting about Quantax’s latest attempt to investigate the negamatter loops churning underneath the planetary fragment system of Nexbrug. Wyatt tuned them out after a minute, though, so he could recheck the notes on his tablet. Right as he was about to watch a recording of the test he and Penelope had watched, warm shafts of light fell on his tablet, and he had to look up from the bright reflection. The light was shining through the lobby’s bay windows, shining down from the feathery clouds covering most of the sky. The clouds, so bright and white that Wyatt expected them to burn away any second, appeared to wash the light over everything outside — the circle of glazed porcelain tiles around Rad-Bio, the benches of gray stone with mottlings of white and brown, the hexagonal office buildings lining the nearby streets.
“And Wyatt” — at this Wyatt shifted his gaze to Bridger, who swiveled his way, a few peaks of his hair dangling down over his brow — “You know I appreciate your industrious efforts here. Quite industrious.” Bridger began adjusting his collar clock. “Sumi Olympus and I, we have our Mist Raign expedition next month, and the spot’s still open for a microbiology assistant. We believe some of the native microbe species — ”
“As I’ve said before, I have obligations here, and I will have to decline,” replied Wyatt with a polite smile, touching his college ring. “But thank you for the opportunity, Overseer.”
“Always the gracious one, Janus,” Dr. Fulbright said, resting a hand on Wyatt’s shoulder, and Bridger’s fragile smile looked close to shattering any moment.
The incoming sharp squeaks of shoes against the granite floor preceded Penelope calling, “Wyatt! Where did you run off to?” She marched to a stop between him and Bridger, frowning like someone had spilled ooze on her. “Don’t disappear like that!”
“I’m sorry — ”
Wyatt wasn’t finished before Penelope spun around with crossed arms. “Overseer, trying to steal away our lab tech, aren’t you? Why don’t you go ask Macleod? He’s a fine worker.”
Bridger shot a glimpse at a youngish guy checking his phone while reclining in a leather armchair. Before he could respond, a woman’s voice resounded over the intercom. “Everyone, form a line at the basement checkpoint. Security protocol will commence momentarily.”
Narrowing her eyes at the ceiling for a split-second, Penelope tapped Wyatt’s shoulder and jerked her chin across the lobby. “Come on, no more lollygagging.”
Everyone proceeded to the checkpoint, where two sentries directed them through a body scanner, a wand scan, and a frisk. Greeting each person after they were cleared was a tall woman dressed in a garnet red uniform decorated with a lifetime’s worth of golden, silver, and bronze medals shaped into the claws and tigon heads. Six star-tipped claws sewn into Bertice Marsden’s chin-high collar denoted her rank as Overseer of Warbearer and its universal military activities.
Wyatt, two spaces behind Penelope in the line, heard her mutter, “Here we go,” as she became next in line to pass the Overseer.
“For Bicap’s sakes, she’s forgiven you!” Xavier whispered, between her and Wyatt.
Wyatt watched with him as the sentries cleared Penelope and Marsden lent her a thin, maroon-lipped smile. “Flame,” she said, and in one word she exuded the arresting authority that had grabbed everyone’s ears over the intercom.
Penelope automatically nodded to her. “Overseer.”
Marsden’s severely-bobbed, brick-red hair shivered with her head-shake. “You still have the privilege to call me Commander.”
Unblinkingly looking at her with pursed lips, Penelope collected herself almost instantly and stalked down the stairs.
By the time everyone gathered in the basement, mumbling amongst themselves, Easton was in the exam chamber, dressed in a long-sleeved jumpsuit. Foxer was the only silent one, watching him intently through the window, arms crossed firmly over his chest.
Dr. Fulbright and Xavier exited the other end of the hallway and soon emerged in the chamber, joining the participant. Dr. Fulbright tapped on his earpiece. “Can you hear me okay?” When everyone’s earpieces squealed, Penelope rolled her eyes and used her scanner to recheck the system. A few taps on the holographic cube later, she motioned for Dr. Fulbright to continue.
He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “This has been a lengthy journey in which we have invested a total of nine years and over twenty-three billion units. We have high expectations that it will help us arise victorious over Grimhet in this enduring war.”
Xavier said, gesturing his open hands around his chest, “Once inside a participant, the virus thrives immediately, being absorbed by the blood, muscles, bones, everything, to infuse them with its gift packets of energy. The participant possesses enhanced physical traits like strength and speed. Pain tolerance is heightened to block out any of those debilitating sensations they’ll suffer in the field. But countering the injuries is the enhanced healing factor, a useful ability. Honestly, after working alongside Grant all these years I’m still in awe of Super Nex. And another little trick I really favor is this one.”
The participant’s hands glowed that familiar vivid blue. The particles hovered as motionlessly as before and condensed into a long staff, which he then split apart into two long swords.
Dr. Fulbright said, “Focus on whatever you need from Super Nex — a staff, a sword, a gun, a barrage of orbs, anything you have the will to imagine, and you will construct it.”
Marsden clunked two steps closer to the window in her knee-high boots and said through her earpiece, “Dr. Fulbright, Advisor Wiley, both of you have claimed time and time again that this energy is, as Wiley especially likes to call it, ‘vague.’ It’s too hard to identify how it functions and how it may affect Starsapiens, you say, but we’re desperate to defeat Grimhet, so let’s pump my cubs full of the virus and track their progress.”
“I promise you, Overseer, your sentries, your officers, your centurions, your Advisors who mop up the sludge of Grimhet and shield against the arrows of our critical Starsapiens, every one of them will undergo a rigorous test to determine whether they’re fit enough for the infusion. We’re also preparing an antiviral to cure them in case of any emergencies.”
“But out of 4,700 trial participants, only two of them rejected the virus,” Dr. Fulbright continued. “Anyone who’s spent enough time in this lab knows that the immune system is built to perform exactly that job, ridding the body of any foreign invaders. However, one of my lab techs designed an antigen-replication coating — thank you, Wyatt — and added it to the Super Nex virus’s structure, giving it the ability to cloak itself from the immune system.”
In response to Dr. Fulbright’s positive mention of him, Wyatt caught a few Rad-Bio colleagues shooting him with looks of acidic envy, Bridger with bright admiration, and Marsden with boulder-heavy suspicion. Foxer, in contrast, continued to mutely stare at the chamber.
Dr. Fulbright and Xavier went from the chamber to a viewing area in the back, leaving the participant alone for the stage where dummy fighters of Grimhets materialized in the chamber. He combined his swords into a spiked club and whacked it against the bulging shoulder of one Grimhet, a Rampa. The squishy crack sounded like he was striking a sack of oil. He tore through the rest of the monsters, slamming a serpentine Hagga into a three-legged Fiss, blasting an apish Goruly with energy orbs, constructing a pike to hurl through a Rampa’s chest.
“Looks like it’s going well,” Wyatt whispered to Penelope as the Grimhets vanished and the aug-reality hologram mainframe created a second wave. Just then, the tablet vibrated in his hand. His brow furrowed at the security code flashing on the screen.
Penelope peeked at it, eyes getting fired up. “I thought you verified that sector.”
“So did I. I’ll be right back.”
Wyatt met sentries on the second floor in a wide storage depot with bins of the Super Nex virus packed into long shelves. Robots shaped like large metal baskets whirred about on their wheels, ready to transport the bins. “Odd,” Wyatt said, reading the specifics of the security code on his tablet. “Two of the anti-oil ducts shut off by themselves.”
A sentry scolded, “By themselves? Maybe you forgot to restart them this morning.”
A second sentry objected, “No, the fail-safe would’ve activated hours ago.”
“Wait.” Wyatt motioned to the grayness that cloaked multiple monitors in the walls and the screen of his tablet. A gurgling noise like a backed-up sink rumbled through the floor, then turned louder from somewhere on the left.
Wyatt took a few steps towards the noise, then immediately stepped away. “Get back!” he yelled to the sentries, who were drawing W16s, the standard Warbearer blaster. Wyatt didn’t have a weapon on him, so he cranked open a container on the wall of Frosmo guns and daggers kept for emergencies like this. He took two daggers and then a gun, making sure all five clips were full of aergen, a reactive gas that compresses hundreds of molecules into a single bullet for each shot.
Gray, black, and white swirls blotched the wall between two shelves, spurting drops of goop on the floor, shelves, and bins, leaving behind smoking burn marks. The faint but quickly rising odor of a sickening grease made the insides of Wyatt’s nostrils burn. With a grimace he tapped his earpiece and started to talk, but a sentry beat him to the alert with his own earpiece. “A vortex is opening in the bin depot on the second floor. I repeat, a vortex is opening — ”
The vortex jutted out of the wall, puking a large glob at the sentry’s chest. He collapsed and uttered a horrific cry. The others backed away and pointed their weapons at him. The ooze from the glob burned through his ribcage and left behind a gaping, black-crusted cavity. The rest of his carcass dried up, his crinkling skin turning gray.
Wyatt could not tear his attention away from the sentry until the roars, growls, and wails rushed out of the vortex. It dipped back into the wall, then threw up a Hagga, a black-and-white banded serpent, with dust constantly shedding off its ragged scales. A sentry shot it out of the air, but it thudded to the floor and reared up to a height of four feet, pure white eyes swelling out of its oblong head. Its mouth opened, revealing molar-like teeth that spiraled around its long insides and vibrated off each other with rapid kla-kla-klack, kla-kla-klacks.
While three sentries killed it with silvery-red blasts from their W16s, two more fought a Fiss, the second Grimhet to emerge from the vortex. It had three long legs — one foreleg, two hind legs, black-streaked bone showing through deep gouges in the skin, pounding their warped hooves into the floor with hollow clops. Its skin sunk into its bony body, especially the belly, giving it an emaciated appearance. Shoulder-length, stringy hair hung around its wide eyes and a mouthless face. Skeletal hands with chipped fingernails spun from its raw wrists.
The vortex widened and released more Grimhets as an additional sentry unit hurried into the depot. Close behind them was Marsden, who ordered, “Durrell, leave the lab immediately!”
He slipped out the door and almost ran into a Hagga, who tried to lash him with its bulbous head. He rolled aside, drew his Frosmo, and fired two aergen bullets at its neck. While it flailed itself into a wall, he veered off to a nearby laboratory. A stairwell in the back would lead him downstairs. But a pack of Grimhets rushed him, with a Fiss ramming through the door and smashing it to pieces. One of the fragments flew past Wyatt, grazing his cheek. He ignored this as he jumped over a table, scattering vials and tablets everywhere, and rolled off the other side. He scrambled up to his feet, toward another stairwell, dodging the oil that the Grimhets sprayed from their appendages.
Heading down two steps at a time, Wyatt reached the ground level and opened the door, coming face-to-face with a seven-foot-tall Rampa. Prickly dark gray hair covered its body. Its white-veined arms ended in two six-fingered hands — chipped claws of metal protruding from the thumb and index finger, and elastic tentacles with eyes that squealed with every blink at the tips of the other four fingers. A basketball-sized eye bulged out of its misshapen head.
Wyatt used a dagger to slash a tentacle that the Rampa wrapped around his waist. It made a long wail, showing the triple rows of serrated teeth and the eyeball bugging out of its tongue. Wyatt sidestepped a kick from its wide foot, then tried to squeeze by, but it punched him back into the stairs and lumbered forth on its pair of four-toed feet. With a great groan it lifted a foot into the air, and it would have squashed him if Foxer hadn’t sneaked up from behind and sliced its neck with one of his icy daggers. Its jaw limped open. Its head tipped forward, hanging off the neck by a string of flesh. Foxer moved away as it keeled back on the floor with a thump.
“Thanks, that was close,” Wyatt said, letting him grab his hand and help him up.
Foxer jutted his dagger at the end of the lobby. “Leave.”
“You’re right, I have better things to do than tussle with Grimhets,” Wyatt deadpanned. He raced between overturned furniture and curved around the crumbled remains of a rosewood grandfather clock, passing Foxer as he gashed a Hagga’s tail with one of his silver daggers. Bridger, Xavier, and Dr. Fulbright were nowhere to be seen. Marsden and her sentries were still downstairs stemming the monsters — hopefully. Dead Grimhets were slowly melting in their own growing pools of sludge, exuding more of the nauseating grease that would have made Wyatt throw up if he weren’t racing straight for the entrance.
Getting closer there, Wyatt managed to cripple a Fiss by shooting two out of three of its knobby knees. He took the long way around a twitching Rampa, ten feet away from the entrance now. Penelope was fighting alongside sentries with two switchguns, each one with a slanted handle and a sharp-edged rapier sticking four feet from the end of the barrel.
She stopped to glance at Wyatt in acknowledgement before she saw a Rampa charging headlong at him. “Wyatt, get out of the way!”
He crouched down in time so that the Rampa’s claws and tentacles missed his back by an inch. Penelope shot the Rampa’s shoulder, but it insisted on pushing itself back up and spinning around to target her with its one eye. As if to retaliate for the monster daring to challenge her, she hurled her switchgun and the rapier ran through the eye, sticking out the back of its head.
Penelope helped Wyatt up onto his shaky feet and asked, “You okay?”
He slowly nodded and stammered, “Ye-yeah. Thanks. That was a close one. Again.”
“No problem.” Penelope turned to the Rampa and pulled her switchgun out of its head. “Yeah, that’s what you sludgies deserve for breaking in here and ruining the whole damn Super Nex demonstration!”
“Penelope, it’s dead. It can’t hear you.”
Wyatt saw Penelope glance to his right. Another vortex was swirling into life in the window. She did not have enough time to warn him before it launched a Hagga at Wyatt, their heads bashing together. The last thing he heard before falling unconscious was Penelope screaming, “Wyatt!”