Project Super Nex, Chapter Two: The Thistle Brothers

“I ordered you to prepare the Grimhets for stealing the virus, not killing Wyatt.”
“Gargant, I had no knowledge that they were aiming to attack him. I believed they would retreat from his presence and — ”
“Stop lying to me, Naazang!” Gargant rose from behind the desk in his study and strode to a window overlooking a factory where thousands of globules bubbled up from a gray sheet. The globules twisted inside out, transforming into Grimhets, all which levitated out the exits. As Gargant’s thoughts absorbed him, he absentmindedly touched the hyacinth in his lapel’s pinhole.
Naazang spoke from a seated position in his sunken chair, “It is purposeless to continue preserving Wyatt. His death is essential to our success.”
“No. You used to convince me that he possessed the strength to expand our army. Why would change your mind now?”
“My sources aren’t entirely reliable. In case you have forgotten, I knew his soul in a different form, a form that was more capable of managing his forces. His current body is not resilient enough to — ”
“You’re also not in a position to question me,” Gargant snapped. “I am organizing all of this according to my own strategy.”
According to my strategy, you mean, thought Naazang. The spark of his yellow eyes dulled. “If you care so much about Wyatt, then why have you missed so many chances — ”
“You know that he is not aligned with Grimhet because he insists on rebelling against our exertion!” Gargant turned away from the window and walked to Naazang with clenched hands, staring down at him with oily black drops whirling in his eyes, deep-set crow’s feet trailing from the corners. His thin nose curved up with as much contempt as the sneer curling his crackled lips. The bulges on top of his bald, wrinkly head looked like a crowd of whitish-gray welts.
The way Naazang raised his chin to look Gargant in the eye cast a shadow over the slate skin of his high cheekbones. “Yes, his soul is very resolute. Very stubborn.”
Gargant paused, waiting to see if Nazaang would continue. When he didn’t, Gargant asked, “Would you like to object to any other issues?”
Naazang sustained a level stare. “No, Gargant.”
“Will you do your best to preserve Wyatt’s spirit?”
“Yes, Gargant.”
He peered out the window again. “Then we shouldn’t argue about about this anymore.”
Naazang nodded and stepped out of the study, his eyes emitting a murky glimmer.
****
“Wyatt?” The whisper rose to a louder volume. “Wyatt, are you okay?”
“Huh? Wh — ” He struggled to open his eyes and say something clearly. He obeyed a strong urge to do neither of those things.
“Can you hear me at all?” There was a note of worry in her brusque-sounding words.
Wyatt waited a few more seconds before opening his eyes again. He was in a clean hospital room with medical equipment beside his bed and a computer and a small TV in the corner. “What happened?” He started to sit up in his bed, but Penelope stopped him with firm instructions to remain lying down. He touched his college ring to assure himself that he still had it, then turned his head to focus on the small red-and-purple bruise on Penelope’s chin, the goop stains on her clothes, and a bandage on the back of her right hand.
“Isn’t this Galen Hospital?” he asked, resting his hands on his stomach.
“Best infirmary in the whole city of Steurap. You were out for a couple hours. A Hagga shot out of a vortex right beside you. I’m puzzled that you’re not dead after that smack in the head. Then the Hagga was about to gulp you up, but I sliced it in half.”
He waited to a second to ask, “Are you trying to express your relief that I’m alive?”
“Don’t flatter yourself, it’s unappealing.” She shifted the purse in her lap. “There were casualties. None of the Overseers were killed. Foxer did dislocate his shoulder, but he popped it back in fast enough. Our Super Nex participant fended off a lot of Grimhets, so that gives support for the virus’s merits.” Her head lifted, her nostrils flaring. “But most of the supplies were taken.”
“As in, the virus bins. So that means . . .”
“Grimhet can infect themselves with Super Nex,” she finished.
Wyatt rubbed the ache in his brow. “This is exactly the trouble we don’t need.”
Before they could talk more, Dr. Lungan entered the room. He conducted a thorough examination of Wyatt before declaring, “It looks like there aren’t any major injuries. I still want to give you an ANI to confirm that you don’t have a concussion.” As two medical technicians came in to wheel Wyatt out to the hallway, Dr. Lungan informed him that his parents were notified and they were on their way.
Penelope waited in the hospital room for a minute when the door creaked open. A man with an impeccably-trimmed beard peeked in and asked, “Hello, is this Wyatt’s room?”
“It is.” She rose from her chair as a woman with bushy hair the same chocolate brown color as Wyatt’s — the tips had aquamarine accents — followed the man inside. They introduced themselves as Merlin and Ida Durrell, Wyatt’s parents.
When Penelope filled them in on what happened at Rad-Bio and said that Wyatt seemed okay overall, Ida said, “Blessed Teönor,” releasing a little sigh and squeezing Merlin’s hand.
When Wyatt returned, Ida and Merlin immediately embraced their son in warm hugs and kept asking if he was okay. He replied, “I’m perfectly healthy. The doctor should be out with the ANI results any moment.”
Merlin turned to Penelope. “You can never tell when he’s downplaying his injuries.”
Ida brought up, “Did he ever tell you about the time he tried to go to work with stomach ulcers? He was fourteen, and we had to stop him. Merlin called Dr. Fulbright — ”
“Yes, he brought a Tidbits package for lunch the previous day. I told him not to eat the crusty pink pork, but he ignored me.” She leaned towards him with a frown. “And he ate it.”
Merlin raised his thick eyebrows — he looked very much like a middle-aged Wyatt — and guided his son away from Penelope with a hand on his shoulder.
Seconds later Dr. Lungan returned to the room, declaring that the results came back negative for concussive damage and Wyatt can be discharged. He left Galen Hospital with Penelope, Merlin, and Ida, passing under a swiveling sign of three intersected laurel wreaths with a spiral running around them. The symbol, a lourus, was embossed into all the front windows. Surrounding the hospital for miles were blocks and blocks of ovals and cylinders straining to be skyscrapers without quite poking into the sky. A long crossbus was curving like a worm between two skywalks to slide into the entryway of the terminal behind them.
Penelope looked at her watch and said, “We should get back to Rad-Bio and see what evidence we can turn up at the crime scene.”
Ida asked, “Do you want us to drive you?”
“No, thanks, there’s an autocab booth up the road.”
“All right, then. I’m glad we had a chance to meet you, Penelope.”
“Be careful, Wyatt,” said Merlin. He and Ida hugged Wyatt and then went off to fetch their mobular from the parking garage
Penelope drew two Frosmos from her purse and waggled them at Wyatt. “You want them? A sentry took away the daggers, but I snagged these before she noticed.”
“Those’d be nice, thanks.” Wyatt accepted the guns. “How damaged is Rad-Bio?”
They headed for the autocab booth as Penelope said, “The vortexes destroyed about one-fourths of the lab. There was sludge everywhere when I left.”
“Basically, the damage is bad.'”
“Yes, the damage is bad. But at least the reconstruction has already started. And officers are examining why the security went awry. Do you know what happened?”
“The anti-oil ducts, two of them didn’t turn on.”
“Did you forget to reset them?”
“As I said before, no. It must be a glitch.”
“A glitch,” snickered Penelope. “Amusing, Wyatt. And then we have Marsden driving everyone insane with her theory that SPACE Union needs to eliminate Grimhet within a month. Not just the beasts and Gargant. No, she wants to aim at the pocket dimension itself, brushing off the fact that those idiotic rifts ripped apart Hinben and its moons. They were kind of successful in evacuating all six billion citizens, but then three ships got ripped apart, too.”
Wyatt was walking more briskly. “We have a way out in the antiviral. But it won’t get finished until the lab is repaired, which sounds like it will take weeks. We need to make use of our time, and we can start at the crime scene.”
Penelope picked up on his reasoning. “To track zoatic signatures from those vortexes. But the building might not be restricted-access during the investigation.”
Wyatt drew his phone, which looked like a steel-rimmed, rectangular panel of glass. He dialed Dr. Fulbright’s number, stepping away from Penelope when she stood right beside him to listen in on the call. He soon hung up and told her, “A few of the officers are lingering, but they’ll probably leave by the time we get there, and then we’re basically free to poke around Rad-Bio.”
Arching her eyebrow, she marched ahead of him to the booth and ordered an autocab that speedily hovered down their street within two minutes. With a sharp whir it braked close to the curb, floating just above the ground, then landing with a soft thud and a clear puff of air from its exhaust vents. When they were inside, the computer asked, “Name?”
“Wyatt — ”
“Penelope Flame!”
“Searching for Wyatt Penelope Flame.”
“No, you moronic computer, Penelope Flame, the microbiologist at RBL!”
The autocab emitted a muted thrumming as it hovered one foot off the ground. “Vocal-facial scan verified. Welcome to your local autocab network, Ms. Flame.”
“Welcome to you too. Park us on Semmendel Drive and — Forget it, park us on the corner of Durcle and 10th.” As the autocab zoomed off, she told Wyatt, “You can’t imagine how many incompetent motorists and pedestrians go and clutter Semmendel Drive.”
When they reached the corner of Durcle and 10th, as specified, Penelope paid the fare and she and Wyatt stepped out of the autocab. It sped away with a string of chiming musical notes. Up a dirt driveway was Rad-Bio on its private porcelain circle. The rounded building had triangular projections on the roof that puffed out like sails and squares that jutted from the walls, built only with aesthetics and good humor in mind.
Wyatt’s breath was stolen away as he absorbed the sight of the lab, its former brilliance polluted by the stains of Grimhet. One of the sails had crumbled. Deep fractures and coarse scabs of black and gray goop marred the building. It must have been a Rampa that gouged gashes of a dull, metallic sheen in the tiles just outside the entrance in several places. The intensity in Wyatt’s gaze rose when his head craned up at a wall in the fourth level that opened into a darkness so damp-looking that he could practically see the individual drops clot into filmy tangles that hung in midair.
A forcefield gate was blocking off the lab, so Wyatt and Penelope waved their ID tags to open it up. In the lobby Dr. Fulbright and Xavier were talking, the former tapping his smartglove. He was the first to call out, “Finally, you two are back! Are you okay?”
Wyatt squeezed his shoulder. “Fairly, but I think this ache will last for a while.”
Penelope asked, “What’s going on with RBL so far?”
Dr. Fulbright shook his head, standing tall. “The officers cleaned the goop, but they weren’t much help otherwise. They said it was impossible to track the vortexes’ zoatic signatures, didn’t even try to predict where they might travel to next.”
“And they didn’t even inspect all the Grimhets!” Xavier added, spinning a hand around at the whole lab around them. “Some of them were left upstairs, and I sprayed them with livendula to cover up their icky odor.”
Penelope said, “Muck it all, Warbearer officers can be so careless!”
“No, not them. We’re stuck with Steurap’s private branch, which I’m trying to overturn so Warbearer can handle this directly. I prefer crimson hands, even at their worst.” Xavier tilted his head back and gazed at the ceiling, clearing his throat for a Raellem poem. “They have puffy manes/claws hover and swipe/pounce of gall unleashes/and if blood stains/nay, cover all banes.”
Dr. Fulbright smiled sadly. “I couldn’t have described them any better.”
Wyatt said, “What if Penelope and I run — ”
“We’ll run our own investigation,” she cut off. “My phone has a zoatic app.”
“I was wondering when you’d say something like that!” Xavier threw his hands into the air. “Yes, please, turn this place upside-down for evidence, but not so much that you leave traces behind. Technically, nobody’s supposed to be here, not even us.” He gestured to himself and Dr. Fulbright. “According to Marsden and Foxer, we’re taking a crossbus halfway around Bicap to join them for an Alphacos meeting. I had to postpone a vacation to Vestral with my husband, and he’s so upset.”
Dr. Fulbright said, “I trust this will be over soon.”
“I know.” Xavier motioned a hand back and forth between Wyatt and Penelope. “You two, don’t stay here for too long, preferably no more than one or two hours.”
Wyatt said, “I promise, we won’t be here that long. But what did they say about Super Nex? Did it receive their approval?”
“It’s safe to say,” replied Dr. Fulbright, pushing up his glasses, “that everything will be delayed while Grimhet has our viruses. We’ll be speaking our opinions at Alphacos.”
After Dr. Fulbright and Xavier said goodbye and left, Penelope muttered, “Stick mucks,” and then pointed at separate sides of the lobby. “You go on that side, Wyatt. I’ll go on this side.”
They didn’t discover anything over the next few minutes, so they took the stairs to the second floor. In the glass atrium, one of the hallways led to the Grimhet-strewn virus depot. The goop stains covering the doorway made Penelope stand back, remaining outside as she scanned the place with her zoatic app. Data boxes for the twelve carcasses and four gray silhouettes popped onto the screen.
“Out of the sixteen that died here, they only took away four. Teö, those city officers are incompetent asses.” Penelope made a scoffing noise, and she and Wyatt went back to the atrium to search the other depots of lab equipment. No Grimhets were among them.
In the third level were three laboratories, each one focusing on different bacteria, viruses, and fungi. There were goop stains and bits of Grimhet flesh, but no bodies. Nothing of interest was uncovered until, in the third lab, Wyatt saw something like a sharp bone sticking out around a table. He peeked over the tabletop, and what was on the floor made his eyebrows shoot up and wrinkle his forehead, making him look almost like Dr. Fulbright. “Penelope, you might wanna come over here. There’s a Fiss — ”
“Is it dead?” She was by his side at once with a switchgun, scowling at the Fiss sprawled out on the floor. Two of its ribs poked through its chest. All three legs were severed at the knee. A hand was missing. Penelope waved Wyatt to stand aside. She thumbed her switchgun to pop out the rapier, with which she nudged the monster’s floppy head. “Yes, it’s dead.” She handed Wyatt a wipe from her dispenser. “Clean yourself. I don’t know what you touched.”
“What do you think I’d do, use goop as an exfoliant?” Wyatt pointed his shoe at the goop puddling underneath the Fiss, but he wiped his hands anyways.
Penelope snapped on a pair of medical gloves from a nearby box and squatted close to the Fiss. She grasped a leg, wiggled it, pulled it up high, and flipped it on its back. When Wyatt asked her why she wasn’t using her zoatic app, she looked up at him, annoyed as if he had called her by the wrong name. “A distant, sterile scan is no substitute for up-close, grimy inspection.”
“This, coming from the germaphobic microbiologist.”
She flicked a hand at him. “Zip the lips, why don’t you.”
While she pinched the Fiss’s arm, Wyatt paced around it to the other side and swept the floor with his eyes. Something whitish was sticking out from underneath the table, so Wyatt put on a couple gloves and picked up the thing: the Fiss’s missing hand. A pale orangish tip was sticking out of a cavity in the palm. He pulled it out with a brittle crack, whitish dust pouring from the palm, and the object was an old key-shaped cast of green-speckled amber with zigzag incisions along the bit.
“Will you look at that?” He held up the key for Penelope to see. The glint of greedy ferocity filled her eyes as she tried to reach for it, but he stood up and the key was too far away. She lowered her hand, a resentful growl in her throat.
“Did you know Marsden spent a lot of time analyzing a unique amber specimen called Gigalek?” she said. “It’s harvestable only from Gnomivy, this massive plant on Flordubul.”
Wyatt was holding the key very close, turning it left and right, and everything around it blurred out of focus. Only when Penelope called his name twice did he lower the key and blink at her. “Gnomivy? Yes, my parents took me there for weekly blessings.”
Penelope dropped the Fiss’s arm, stood up, and snapped off her gloves. “So you’ve said. And you must know about SPACE Union’s prohibition of Gigalek mining after they realized how much it disturbed Gnomivy and caused it to release toxic gases into Flordubul’s atmosphere.”
After a thoughtful pause, Wyatt inquired, “Do you think Grimhet is stealing the amber?”
Penelope balled the gloves together and tossed it over her shoulder. It bounced up off the edge of a trash can and arced straight back in with a thump. She took no notice of this, saying, “Professor Olympus will have answers. She’s the most updated on Flordubul data.”
She called the professor and informed her about the key, and then she hung up and told Wyatt, “She wants us to meet her at Cerebral University in an hour or so.”
“Okay,” said Wyatt. “Do you mind if we take your mobular there?”
“Yes, actually. I went eight months without recharging the EM coils, and now it’s stuck in an auto shop with a bunch of mucky mechanics. Didn’t you bring your mobular?”
“Someone rear-ended it. On top of that, the motorist didn’t leave a note.”
“I’m sorry, I hate it when that happens. We’ll take the crowded crossbus, then.”
“Shouldn’t we inspect the rest of — Never mind,” said Wyatt in response to Penelope’s gaze of fire, tucking the key into the hip pocket of his pants. He put the Fiss’s hand in one of the lab sample baggies, then disposed his own gloves.
They exited Rad-Bio Laboratory and headed down three blocks to a crossbus terminal, busy with rows of monitors displaying hundreds of routes between planets, moons, and satellites. There they caught a crossbus minutes before it soared out of the terminal and into the sky. Just outside the atmosphere it slowed down and slid onto a thirty-foot-long track that circled Bicap in a geostationary orbit. Spacetime warped into a tunnel around the crossbus, making the stars, Bicap, everything outside curve into blurred arches of light and darkness. The tunnel compressed itself inwardly, and the crossbus vaulted forward and vanished with a dot of light.
Minutes later it zoomed out of the tunnel and slid onto a track attached to the edge of Newet, the satellite where Cerebral Foundation and Olympus University shared space — a satellite hundreds of thousands of light-years away from Bicap. The crossbus track weaved between tapered campus halls of scrolled wood and rectangles of grass dotted with glittery bluebud willows, toward the five-story building in the middle of the University’s properties: Cerebral Foundation.
The Foundation was the headquarters of all things history-and education-driven in its Intention. Burnished beams of ocher oak were embedded into angled sheets of thick bronze by the dozen. Rows of triangular windows lined the first three floors, while octagonal windows took up the top two floors. On the rooftop was a launchpad where a small pod took off, presumably to deliver documents, artifacts, or other valuable contents. Cerebral’s emblem — a crinkled scroll tied up by a sprig of violet-green leaves and round, sky blue arisberries — was emblazoned on the door panels.
The crossbus docked in the terminal and all the passengers filed out. While Wyatt and Penelope strolled through the campus, they talked about the specifics of the Gigalek-mining ban, and he started to take the key out of his pocket. But Penelope hissed, “What the hell?” and clenched his hand, covering the key from sight. “You don’t know who’s spying on us.”
He stifled an irritated noise. “This is our alma mater. I feel safe here. So should you.”
“Spend a year being surrounded by tigon cubs with tails up their asses, and you would become paranoid, too,” she defended, finagling the key out of his grip, stuffing it into her pocket as they passed a park where an arts professor and her students were sketching a bluebud willow.
They climbed the entrance stairs of Cerebral Foundation and passed under a marble archway supported by pillars wrapped in olive branches. Their lower halves were carved in an architectural style called sculderture — stacks of ancient books and looseleaf papers to brace the symbolic pathway to knowledge, commonly seen in Cerebral structures.
At the entrance was a receptionist sucking on some meat stick. He threw it under his desk when Wyatt asked, “Hello, we’re here for an appointment with Professor Sumi Olympus.”
The receptionist typed something into his computer. “Identification, please.”
Wyatt gave him his ID badge for a scan; Penelope reluctantly did so, frowning at the guy’s greasy fingers. After scanning the badges, he gave them back and said, “You’ll need bracelets.” He typed another command into his computer and printed out stiff plastic security bracelets that he fastened around Wyatt and Penelope’s wrists.
“Grubby-Fingers should be fired,” she muttered, wiping her badge clean.
They progressed through the entrance hall, where planetary circuits were frescoed against the cosmic bluish-black of the ceiling. People were filing in and out of doorways with tablets or folders, wearing different-colored suits to indicate the sciences on which they do research. A sentry scanned Wyatt and Penelope’s bracelets, then sent the elevator to the second floor.
The second they walked into a waiting room, a computer voice rang out, “Professor Olympus has not finished her meeting yet. Please enjoy our amenities in the meantime.”
The office door had a gold-plated name tag that read, Sumi Olympus, Headmaster of Olympus University, Cerebral Overseer, Direct Descendant of Cerebral Originator. Wyatt sat in one of the chairs and picked up the latest issue of Bioengineering, flipping through the pages too fast to read any of the articles. Penelope remained standing, arms crossed, carping to Wyatt how annoying it was for Olympus to boast about her Originator ancestry.
Then the office door swung open a bit, and a clear voice that Wyatt recognized as the professor herself was heard asking, “Do you need any more equipment?”
“No, thank you, this is adequate,” a male voice replied, far-off as if busy inspecting the equipment. “Especially these microchips. They should extend the scope of our designs.”
“Absolutely!” a younger-sounding voice piped up. “What superior mechanics!”
“We’ll alert you to our conclusions at the soonest possible moment,” said the first voice.
Penelope arched an eyebrow and leaned toward Wyatt to whisper, “Hey, her guests mentioned microchips, scopes, and superior mechanics. They sound like electronics geeks.”
Wyatt did not look away from the thick Bioengineering. “Stop eavesdropping on them.”
She shrugged and stood back up.
A few seconds passed before the office door opened wider, and Wyatt could see Olympus in a fawn pantsuit, her graying hair cut short with a few strands framing her oval face. The long slope of her nose ended in a distinct point that added to her geometric features. “Have a good day, Mr. and Mr. Thistle,” she said, and the two young men she had spoken with now shuffled out of the office, both carrying two boxes of various mechanical components.
Each young man wore a cashmere argyle vest over a button-down shirt, khaki pants, and loafers. They looked like they were brothers, sporting full heads of cinnamon hair that sprung up their curls as if they were just given mild electrical shocks. They both shared a glimmer in their bright green eyes. One boy was thin and short, and his fingers didn’t tap the boxes in the same nervous manner that the other taller, broader boy’s did.
Penelope looked at them curiously as Olympus, the Overseer of Cerebral’s history-preserving and education-promoting values, welcomed her and Wyatt into the office, which was hung with large lithographs of owls and falcons. Olympus sat at her marble desk, a wall of books behind her with Thoughts on Epistemology, The Superego and I: A Psychiatrist’s Ventures, Plota & Seacrots, and other titles. She said, “By Cosmotic, it’s been quite some time since I last saw either of you. I’m relieved to see you’re okay after Rad-Bio.”
“Yes, we . . .” said Wyatt, trailing off, a thumb drumming his college ring.
Penelope suddenly handed the key to Olympus, who carefully held it between the tips of her forefingers. “You said over the phone that this is Gigalek. What led you to this conclusion?”
“It’s the only amber specimen with these green discolorations, usually nectar or other discharges from specific plants in Gnomivy,” reasoned Penelope.
“We found this in the possession of a dead Fiss at Rad-Bio,” said Wyatt.
“Rad-Bio?” Olympus looked up, confused.
Wyatt took the baggie out of his jacket and gave it to her. “It was in that cavity. It’s like someone tried to chisel it out, maybe the Steurap officers.”
Penelope said, “We’re thinking Grimhet may combine Gigalek with the Super Nex virus to boost their strength. As if they hadn’t broken the meter by now.”
The professor looked down at the key again. She got up from her chair, went to a copier-like machine in the back of the office, and opened the lid. She placed the key into a center notch, closed the lid, and typed a command on the touchscreen. “I’ve been keeping tabs on Warbearer reports regarding all activity on Flordubul,” Olympus explained. “Grimhet hasn’t infected it. The planet has maintained its good health. They must be stripping the Gigalek from somewhere else.”
“Is it possible that they’re finding it in their own dimension?” suggested Wyatt.
“Not likely. Every time Quantax sends probes into vortexes to survey Grimhet, Gigalek is one of the materials that’s always absent.”
Penelope said, “When was the last time Warbearer measured Gnomivy’s Gigalek?”
“Four months ago.” Olympus craned her head up at the photos above the machine, photos of graduating classes for the past twenty years framed in scrolled silver. She motioned to one for the year of 2446, remarking, “It feels, Wyatt, as if you left our University’s treasured halls for the last time yesterday. Grant tells me you’re doing very well at Rad-Bio.”
“I only made it there by spending my formative years here,” Wyatt claimed, a wisp of reminiscence in his gold-flecked eyes as he gazed at the smiling graduates of 2446. All of them had worn flowing cream togas with curly ribbons dangling off the right shoulder. Since the toga covered everything but his right arm, Wyatt had itched it all day from the chafing ribbons. He stood on that podium and received a scroll tied up by an arisberry sprig as a graduation token. His eyes swept back and forth through the broad auditorium, occasionally returning to his parents in the middle of the second row. He could barely talk clearly due to the dry thirstiness in his throat; he liked to think it was a thirst for advancing beyond the academic thresholds, making something out of his abilities, helping to improve his world through any way possible.
“And Penelope, you were one of my feistiest pupils,” Olympus spoke up, her voice interrupting Wyatt’s brief drift down memory lane. “When you were in the class of — ”
The machine beeped, and Olympus held a hand over the monitor, tracing it along the data. A little interested-sounding grunt from Penelope made Wyatt glimpse sideways at her just as she seemed to be shaking off her scowl. Then Wyatt looked at Olympus when her hand arched
back from the machine as if a bug pricked her finger.
Wyatt and Penelope moved closer, and the former asked, “What does it say?”
Olympus reached a flat hand for the monitor as if to swat away the bug. “This amber is only three weeks old. It’s not directly infected, but it has been surrounded by Grimhet for all that time.” She studied the monitor some more. “May you excuse me? I have to make a call.”
Wyatt and Penelope obliged. He didn’t go back to the Bioengineering issue, choosing instead to sit on the edge of a chair and drum his thumb on his knee. Penelope, standing next to him, soon asked, “Do you have to make that noise?” She relaxed when the drumming stopped, but then it started right back up in less than a minute, and she let out a grunt.
“Overseer Marsden has approved of surveying Gnomivy tonight,” Olympus said when she called them back to her office. “I have her permission to request your participation.”
Wyatt and Penelope said in unison, “We’ll be there.”
Olympus smiled. “Thank you. I’ll let you keep this.” She returned the key to Penelope, who slipped it into her jacket pocket. “But the Fiss hand, I need to keep for examination.”
“That’s okay,” Wyatt said. “When’s the survey tonight?”
“She’ll call me after organizing her sentries, and I’ll relay the info to you both.”
After they said their goodbyes, Wyatt and Penelope started to walk out of the office, but then Wyatt noticed the asked, “What do you think Grimhet’s planning?”
Penelope scoffed, “Hell if I know.”
Going back downstairs to the entrance hall, they passed by a food court, and a familiar voice leaked from inside. “How peculiar. Where is File D23 from your Gigalek folder, Gene?”
“I do not know. Allow me to search for it.”
Wyatt turned his head to the food court, recognizing the young men — boys, really — as the ones who had the previous appointment with Olympus. The younger-looking one placed his coffee cup on the table and reached into one of three folders on his lap. Rooting through the papers, he pulled one out and handed it to the other boy for review.
“Wyatt, you’re lagging behind.”
“Penelope.” He waited for her to double back to him. “They were the ones who met Professor Olympus.” He pointed to the two boys.
“Oh yeah, the electronics geeks. I wonder what they’re chattering about now.”
“I overheard them mention Gigalek files.”
Penelope arched her eyebrow like a question mark. “Are you sure about that?” When he nodded, she whipped her head at the boys. She whipped back at a steady-faced Wyatt. Then she marched on to the table at which the boys were sitting.
On her approach the older-looking boy smiled and greeted, “Hello.”
The other boy turned in his seat, rearing back from Penelope, darting his eyes above her head as if regarding a giant. “To what do we owe this pleasure? I believe we are unacquainted.”
“He overheard you mentioning Gigalek.” Penelope jerked her head back at Wyatt.
The younger boy rested his folders on the table and darted his eyes at Wyatt. “Yes, Overseer Olympus gave us this as part of our Cerebral edification. We intend to study the security measures that must be implemented to protect this valuable amber.”
“Excuse our impoliteness.” The older boy rested his paper on top of the three-folder stack and stood up. “I am Corbin Thistle. This is my brother, Gene Thistle.” Gene also stood up.
“I’m Wyatt Durrell, and this is Penelope Flame.”
The four exchanged handshakes, and Corbin’s eyes wandered to the ID badges dangling from Wyatt and Penelope’s belts. “Rad-Bio? What a fountain of research it is, a luminous one.”
“Was your appointment with Overseer Olympus related to the ruinous ransacking at Rad-Bio Laboratory?” Gene guessed, thoughtfully pulling at the curls of hair above his left ear.
Wyatt tensed up. “How do you know about that already?”
“Scurrilous gossip about the catastrophe has circulated through every media mouthpiece,” Corbin replied. “Have you uncovered any reliable leads for the defective security?”
“Not the security, but we did find a Gigalek key,” Wyatt answered.
“Ah, so you are delving into the same field as us!” Gene clapped his hands together. “May we examine your device?”
“No. We have to keep it safe,” Penelope responded.
Corbin quietly snapped his fingers as he said, “It’s curious, because Overseer Olympus just called us about a survey of Gnomivy for its Gigalek tonight. We rejected it, since these files will be occupying our night.” His eyes exchanged an eccentric twinkle with his brother’s, and then he went on, “However, please do not hesitate to call on us for help. We’re knowledgeable in various subjects due to our scholarly backgrounds. We’re also adept engineers.” He took a sip from his coffee cup, spilling a few dribbles onto the tabletop.
“I’ll take care of that,” Gene said, about to grab a napkin, but his brother beat him to it.
As Corbin cleaned up the coffee, Penelope pointed to the folders on the table. “Those are Gigalek files, aren’t they? May we look through them?”
Corbin answered, “Unfortunately, Overseer Olympus labeled this data as confidential.”
“That’s okay,” Wyatt said. “You’re engineers? What do you specialize in?”
Gene kept pulling at his curls. “Electronics, gadgets, computers. You may hand us an assortment of mechanical constituents, and we will fashion them into our best smartphone, tracker, satellite, mine, forcefield generator, or any other device you may visualize into reality.”
“A lot of devices,” Penelope said, the corner of her lips eagerly twitching into a smirk.
Without missing a beat Gene replied, “Most certainly. In fact we will head to Warbearer Foundation to discuss this Gigalek intelligence and share our technological assets with Overseer Marsden. And since your curiosity is rumbling, let me feed you with this nugget: it has been declassified that Warbearer enforced security around Gnomivy for seven years. In fact they have never detected mining or other illegal stirrings anywhere on Flordubul.”
Wyatt bit his lip. “Never detected mining.”
Corbin glanced at his watch and sipped from his cup. “There are other minutiae we could candidly discuss about this topic, but we have to meet another professor in the Foundation.”
Gene finished his coffee and tucked the folders under his arm. “He has comprehensive reports on the geology of diversified planets that he wishes to expound to us.”
“Actually, can you wait a second?” Wyatt asked.
“Of course,” Corbin replied, exchanging that twinkle with his brother again.
Wyatt led Penelope a few feet away, and she asked, “Do they have to join us?”
He stared at her. “What, you don’t like them? Their extra Gigalek knowledge might help. It wouldn’t shock me if they had specialized zoatic readers, which are rare these days — ”
“Let me open your eyes to something, Wyatt. Cerebrals are for the lab, not the field.”
“First, we’re not throwing them onto Alidiska Maj. Flordubul is a peaceful planet. Second, Cerebral trains its members well enough for Grimhet brawls.”
“Not nearly as well as Intelligence. I mean, look at them! They’re geeks! Skinny geeks! The kind you see in movies and books, except they don’t have glasses!”
Wyatt didn’t even blink at her. “So? You have glasses too.”
With a loud scoff Penelope looked at the brothers, and so did Wyatt. The brothers looked back almost instantly. Gene waved, and Corbin followed suit. Wyatt waved in return, and with an elbow nudge Penelope waved as well. Then Wyatt told her, “Come on, let’s ask them.”
Penelope stood still and narrowed her eyes in thought. Then she headed back to the brothers and inquired, “Would you like to join us tonight at — ”
“Flordubul for the Gigalek survey inside the plant conglomeration known as Gnomivy?” Gene cut in. He waited for Corbin to nod to him, then said, “Why, of course.”
Penelope narrowed her eyes at them. “Awfully fast decision. What about your files?”
“We’ll delay them. It’s apparent how much you require our assistance for now.” Corbin shook Wyatt’s and Penelope’s hands. “Thank you, Mr. Durrell. Thank you, Ms. Flame.”
“Wyatt and Penelope,” Wyatt corrected as Gene shook their hands next.
“Until the survey,” Gene said. The brothers waved goodbye before shuffling out of the food court to make their geology files appointment.
Wyatt said, “Going fairly well, isn’t it?”
Watching them until they turned a corner, Penelope said, “I hope you made the right choice. For the record, I still think they’re skinny geeks.”

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