Project Super Nex, Chapter Three: The Infection

Wyatt took a seat in the crossbus as the first guitar riff of a song by his favorite band, Emovere, played over the radio. He leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and drummed his hand on his lap while the crossbus zoomed away from the Cerebral satellite, into the spacetime tunnel. There was no one to disturb him, since Penelope was taking a crossbus to her homeplanet of Militin. The final chords trailed off when the crossbus emerged on a rail towards Octoberry Trails, a moon covered with jigsaw pieces of yellows, oranges, and reds. It orbited Utherwold, the planet where he lived with his parents before moving to Metacaract two months ago.
After exiting the crossbus terminal, Wyatt stopped to sniff in the sweetest scents of fresh fruit, then strolled across the street to a flat space on the edge of Gollinger Park called Circlear, where the grass blades grew strangely, curling and knotting together to blanket the soil, hugging his shoes with each softly crunching footstep. Starsapiens were having great fun here, like the couple picnicking beneath a stout tree blooming stalks of teardrop fruits directly from its bark, the girl using a toy drone to play with her pet kingfisher, or the muscly guy in the hot dog sweatshirt sleeping flat on the grass with both arms oddly crossed over his face.
Turning down one of the rutted dirt roads leading deeper through Gollinger, into a dense segment with trees growing over fifteen feet tall on either side, Wyatt outstretched an arm to brush it past the shocking yellow chamill flowers hanging off the trees’ vines. Some of their petals paled to oatmeal, others blushed to flaming red, and a few broke off and flew around Wyatt’s waist in blurs of white.
His parents started bringing him to Gollinger for Halcyonic ceremonies when he was three. They always drew nectar from the flowers of this part, Virtus Ambler. The memory of his first time doing that became unbelievably palpable as his thumb scooped out a sprinkling of pollen from a chamill. The bright orange sun had sunk halfway below the horizon, and he and his parents had strolled up Virtus with nectar syringes in hand.
“See, you hook your index finger and your thumb around it,” Merlin had instructed, kneeling next to his son, holding a syringe close to a chamill. “And you pull back the plunger, but not too fast, or else the nectar will pour everywhere, and we don’t wanna a big mess.”
Ida kneeled on Wyatt’s other side as he received the syringe from his father. “But don’t worry, the flower will be okay. It can produce thousands of pounds of the nectar every day. It soaks in your skin and smells rancid, though.” She looked at Merlin. “Why does it does that?”
“I think because of how it blends with your hormones, something bodily like that.”
“I do it like this?” the young Wyatt piped up, pulling the plunger inch by inch, drawing the silvery nectar out of the flower without a drop falling to the dirt.
“That’s perfect!” Ida cheered, after which Wyatt filled the whole syringe.
Merlin patted his shoulder. “You’re a natural, Wy. But remember, we have to boil it and then cultivate it with the cinnamon for at least a week. Otherwise it’s extremely bitter.”
Wyatt gave a serious nod. “I can wait.” As he handed the syringe to his mother, his eyes caught a small puddle of blacks, grays, and whites blobbing together. “What’s that?”
Chills ran through Merlin and Ida the moment they saw it and then looked up at a small cluster of gray dust swirling off the tree above. “Wyatt, we have to go,” Merlin said in a quiet, breathless voice, picking him up in his arms.
“Dad, what’s wrong?” Wyatt asked, grabbing onto him.
Ida hung back to draw a bottle with a narrow flower bulb floating inside. She spritzed it downward, waiting for a stripe of dirt to pale before she caught up to Merlin and Wyatt.
“Mom, why did you — ”
The muffled gurgling had cut him off, and Wyatt returned to standing here, his arm frozen beneath the flowers. The petals circling his waist now dropped to his shoes, dissolving into the dirt. He reached back to knead the ache in his left shoulder, then went on with his stroll. He wasn’t brushing his arm under the flowers anymore.
Then there were the crunches of someone stepping on dry leaves. He slowed down and peered into the shadows of the bunched-up trees. The crunches were still there, and he drew one of the Frosmos he had taken from Rad-Bio. Then a crumble from behind made him do an about-face and fire five air bullets. All of them hit their targets, but clattered off the Grimhets’ bodies and dropped to the ground. Wyatt frowned as he saw only tiny dents injuring the shards of armor embedded into their skin. Next, they made a run for him with outstretched appendages. Wyatt ran the other way, looking back every two seconds or so, shooting over his shoulder.
Other than the armor shards and their slightly larger dimensions, the Grimhets didn’t look any different at first. But then a Hagga jumped at Wyatt, transforming into a fuzzy orb of cobalt blue energy in midair. He looked back in time to throw himself sideways into the deep woods. The orb curved towards him, but his air bullets repelled it into a Rampa, and they both dissolved. Now he took a rapid hike further into the woods, ignoring the branches scratching his hands and face and the shrubbery clawing at his pants and shoes.
The minute popping noises made him look back at his Frosmo, which was only firing thin puffs of smoke. He tossed the empty weapon at a Fiss and drew his second Frosmo, saving the ammo for now. Wind rushed down his throat as he picked up the pace, but the Grimhets were still pursuing him. Compounding this were all the wisps of dust rising from the soil around him and then bursting into vortexes, melting the flowers and trees, upchucking monsters, pressing Wyatt to bolt far ahead in spite of his lungs panting for a break.
When he bounded out from the woods, almost tripping on a rock, he dashed down the new dirt road for a moment before a vortex split the ground twenty feet ahead of him. Two Fisses popped out and changed into the same cobalt blue orbs as the Hagga. Wyatt was about to shoot them, but the vortex sucked the Frosmo out of his hand and into its blotchy mouth. The orbs shot past his head with pounding whirs as he dodged them, and then he stumbled over a loose stick and crashed on his side. He ignored his painful aches and the ringing in his ears, scrambled to his feet, and bolted away from the vortex. But those Grimhets from earlier, along with newcomers from the increasing number of vortexes, blocked his path.
“Rot them,” Wyatt mumbled, pulling his college ring up and down his finger to get out his anxiety of seeing Grimhets everywhere, even in the deep woods on either side of the dirt road. They were closing in on him, arching their bodies, uttering all kinds of hungry noises. The Fisses-turned-orbs whirled overhead. One of them dropped straight to Wyatt, but he jumped back and it burst into cobalt dust.
It glimmered on the brown soil, full of vigor even after it had fallen apart. Many Rad-Bio employees praised it, calling it beautiful and hopeful, but Wyatt could not think of a word to describe the sight of these glimmers. He kneeled down and scooped up a small pile in his left hand. It shone even brighter and emanated a faint warmth into his palm, down his arm, and into his chest. His wide eyes would have gazed at the glimmers forever if that pounding whir had not pained his ears and made him look up at the second Hagga-turned-orb. It would have struck his head if he hadn’t put up his hand.
It plunged itself into his palm, shattering into tiny shards, soaking a thin liquid through the small cuts in his skin, spreading the energy throughout his system. He couldn’t scream because a pins-and-needles sensation paralyzed his entire body. He slumped to the ground, a glow of the brightest cobalt blue lighting up his body, flaming powerfully in his hands and chest.
This scene entranced the Grimhets into a standstill until the fire in his body dimmed. Then one of the Haggas speedily slithered over, lifting up its bulbous head and widening its mouth. But Wyatt rolled over, and the Hagga got a mouthful of dirt. Wyatt punched it with enough force to embed it halfway into the ground. Big chunks of ragged skin flaked off the impact point. Some of the Grimhets stumbled back, but others actually continued to close in on him. This latter group included a Rampa that bared its teeth and eyeball-tongue and swung down its arm much faster than a Rampa normally would. He splayed out his fingers, the tips sparkling with tiny wisps of light, and projected an upright dome of cobalt blue energy in defense. After a claw flew off the Rampa’s fist from the force of the unsuccessful attack, Wyatt blasted the beast
into the surrounding Grimhets with a burst of luminous orbs.
Spinning all around himself to continuously fire orbs at every beast in sight, he left them looking like they had been dropped into a boiling swamp. Only a Fiss survived with ridges of glowing energy burning into its gaunt body. Its eyes widened with a low screech, exhaling a cobalt cloud. It ran at Wyatt, leaning towards the left. Holding the palms of his hands close together, he constructed a long sword and stepped aside, thrusting it into the Fiss’s side. He pulled it out, and the Fiss sunk into the dirt.
Wyatt’s legs and arms were shaking. He sat down and crossed his legs, staring at the gray and black ooze smearing his sword, clattering it to the ground, turning his hands inward. He couldn’t dim the glow at all. It did fill his hands and chest with a pleasant, intangible warmth, enjoyable for a few seconds. Then he spread out a disc of energy to dissolve the Grimhets, the goop, and the sword. He looked down both ends of the road and up at the sky; no one was around. Wisps flowed out of his fingers and condensed over his shoes into jet-boots. Their soles emitted flat ovals of energy, boosting him twenty feet upward. He flew away from Virtus Ambler.
As the crossbus terminal appeared in the horizon, he landed on a trail with muddy brown cabbage heads lining the edges. A long, awed hoot stopped him from running off, followed by these burly words. “Now those are some boss jet-boots!”
Wyatt turned to a big-boned, very tall young man. He was wearing a sweatshirt with a cartoonish decal of a gaudy, bejeweled crown hovering over a smiling hot dog that was ten times smaller. It was basking in the clapping and open-mouthed shouts from the hot dog crowd. The guy’s bodybuilder muscles were visible through his sweatshirt. His sandy blond hair fell over his forehead in shaggy tufts.
“Jet-boots?” Wyatt asked, shrugging up one shoulder.
The muscly man snorted, “Don’ be shy, where’d you get them? Testin’ ’em out for a tech giant? They don’t look like any jet-boots ah’ve ever seen, an’ ah’ve seen barrelsful.”
Wyatt slowly replied, lifting his eyes to the sky, “I’m sorry, um, but I can’t anything.”
“Huh, if it’s a closed-lip trial — ” The muscly man’s lopsided grin dropped as he paid attention to Wyatt’s hands. Due to his growing stress, wisps were curling out of his fingers, solidifying into tiny orbs, and dripping to the dirt in small puddles. The noises made Wyatt look down too, and he hid his hands behind his back, clenching his lower arm.
“I’ll be going now.”
The muscly man pouted. “Oh fine.” He kissed the back of his fist and pushed it toward Wyatt, fingers splaying as if to sprinkle magic dust. “Se’yah, jet-boot man!”
Watching him swagger down a sloping road and crinkle a foil packet of tart pear chips out of his sweatshirt’s belly pocket, Wyatt then spun around and dashed up the trail to Circlear, faster than he ever could have with his newfound energy. Not everyone there was having fun anymore, though; half the people had their heads craned up at the sky, making him turn around and look up at the leaden haze and all the black dots scattered around the rim, blotting out the sunset, hovering over the area where he had just fought those Grimhets. The specks of dust and smoke were even chewing up the sweet floral scents. Scanning the people around him as they either took pictures of the sky, made alarmed phone calls, or fled to the terminal across the street, Wyatt joined the third group.
Waiting near the entryway where a crossbus to Bicap would arrive in ten minutes, Wyatt also made his own call. His hands were still glowing dimly, so he tucked them into his pockets and held the phone between his ear and shoulder.
“Wyatt, I was just about to call you,” Dr. Fulbright said after he answered the phone and Wyatt said hi. “There’s this haze alert on Octoberry Trails, over Gollinger Park, and I wanted to tell you to not go there. Grimhet hasn’t opened a vortex on that moon in a while — ”
“Unfortunately, it’s too late,” Wyatt said, glimpsing down at the cobalt energy glowing through his pants pockets. He waddled closer to the crossbus entry, struggling to not let the phone slide off his shoulder. “Do you have some time to talk? It’s about Project Super Nex.”
“Oh, a new development with Grimhet?”
“Sort of. More of a personal development. It is, um, significant. Can we talk in person?”
“I’m back at Rad-Bio. Is that okay?”
“I’ll go over there right now. Thanks, Dr. Fulbright.” In three seconds Wyatt slipped out a hand, hung up, and stuffed his phone and his hand back in the pocket. He didn’t have to worry, since no one was paying him the slightest bit of attention. But he had plenty of time to pay attention to his own hands, their glow pulsing every minute or so on the crossbus trip to Steurap, Bicap, and the autocab ride to Rad-Bio.
Wyatt paid the fare and stepped out of the cab a block early, though, because of the two motorists throwing insults at each other in front of Semmendel Drive. He did a double take at the woman with jet black hair tied back into a tight bun with a scrunchie, and then he waited for the shouting to end and the other motorist to squeal away before moving down the sidewalk. Penelope was making an attempt to squeeze her white pickup truck — a Maesse B6, one of the largest, longest-lasting models in the mobular industry — into a parallel parking spot between a mini-mobular and an SUM. A spirited electric guitar chord shot out her open windows, and she
was singing along with the energizing vocals.
After she succeeded in parking, albeit with a small bang on the SUM, she hopped out of the Maesse and stooped down to look at the SUM’s front bumper. “It’s fine,” she told herself, swiveling and then stopping at the sight of the lab tech. “You’re here, Wyatt.”
“You’re here, Penelope,” he responded, mocking her voice.
“Don’t be a smart-ass.” She locked her Maesse with the mobfob alarm. “I’m glad those mechanics weren’t as mucky as I thought they’d be, although I could have spent those 250 units on a dinner at Gormett’s, splurged on a nightcap of Rommerl.” She shook her head with a growl.
“You could recharge your EM coils next time.”
“Again, don’t get smart.” Along the way up Semmendel Drive to Rad-Bio, whose wounds were still visible from afar, Penelope asked, “Why do you look worse than before? Your clothes are all dirty and there’s a new bruise on your cheek. And do you know why we’re here? Dr. Fulbright didn’t say much over the phone, but he sounded urgent.”
“Really? I didn’t mention — ” His eyebrows lifted up and then furrowed together.
Penelope asked, “What was that?” Wyatt didn’t look at her, so she pressed on. “Hey, what was that thing you did with your eyebrows? It only happens when you’re anxious, which doesn’t matter because you’re constantly stressing about something on some stupid level — ” Her eyes dropped to the fuzz of cobalt blue in his hip pocket. Saying that her eyes burst into flames, especially when she zipped ahead of Wyatt to peek at the other glowing pocket, would only begin to describe her emotions.
“Oh my Teö, you got infected with the fuuhhh — ” She shook a fist at him, spun around, and stormed the rest of the way up to Rad-Bio.
After using their ID badges to open the forcefield gate and enter the lobby, they waited in silence, Penelope glaring at Wyatt every five seconds. When Dr. Fulbright emerged from the stairs, he smiled at them and said, “Good to see you again. But I’ve been on edge wondering — ”
“Wyatt’s infected with the Super Nex virus.”
Wyatt shot Penelope a look of deep annoyance, while Dr. Fulbright processed this by wiping his glasses clean. Then he regarded the lab tech. “Wyatt . . . is this true?”
Wyatt took a long, deep breath before he told them about the travel to Octoberry Trails, the Grimhet ambush, the Hagga that changed into an orb and absorbed into Wyatt’s hand, and his efficient defeat of all the Grimhets with his new powers. He showed the palm of his left hand, covered with tiny cuts from the shattering of the Hagga-orb, stained with blue dots.
Dr. Fulbright stared at Wyatt’s hand, adjusting his glasses. “How are you feeling now? Do your abilities differ at all from what you’ve observed in the trial participants?”
“They’re the same so far.”
Penelope turned to Dr. Fulbright. “We need to test him. He could mutate into a Grimhet.” When she caught Wyatt’s skeptical face, she defended, “I’m speaking seriously.”
Wyatt replied, “I fully acknowledge that.”
“If we’re going to test him, then you know he has — ” Dr. Fulbright waited for Penelope to nod to him, and then he turned to Wyatt. “We’re about to take you to the restricted-personnel room to conduct this test. In order to do that, you will be obligated to keep the sensitive content inside confidential. Only a few people including myself, Penelope, and Xavier can access it.”
Wyatt responded in his most solemn manner, “I promise to keep it confidential.”
“Let’s start this test, pronto,” Penelope ordered, letting Dr. Fulbright walk ahead to a large hallway curving away from the lobby. She whispered to Wyatt, “I can’t take my eyes off you for one second, can I?” He didn’t turn to her or say anything, and she rolled her eyes.
Stopping at a locked door in the middle of the hallway, Dr. Fulbright waved his ID badge in front of an adjacent computer monitor and then conducted both an iris scan and a facial scan. The door clicked open, and they filed down a tilted hallway colored much more darkly compared to the whites, silvers, and creams of the lab above. A strip of faint light ran along the ceiling, brightening in reaction to the Starsapiens.
At the third door on the right, Dr. Fulbright repeated the process of waving his badge and scanning his iris and his face. The door clicked open to reveal a room with random-looking gadgets like a wide disc with bronze springs spiraling around its rim or a cracked weapon that appeared to be one thirds-blaster, one thirds-hammer, and one thirds-flail.
Dr. Fulbright explained, “As you can see, this room has a variety of contraptions that are secret for the time being. Some are capable of sparking universal wars. Others are riddled with flint beetles. And the last few are things that” — he took his glasses off to wipe them again, then spent time propping them just right on his head — “things that Starsapiens do not want to know about. We’ve debated whether or not they should be destroyed, but SPACE Union always arrives at the conclusion of hiding them for times when it’s appropriate to call them on. I think this is one of those times.” He motioned a hand to Wyatt. “We’ll be using one of these to find out what is at the core of your powers.”
Penelope inquired, “Are you ready, Wyatt?”
“Yes, I am.”
She used her wipe dispenser to clean the dust off a crate on the floor, then lugged it up in her arms and bu-thumpped it on a table. She opened the lid and lifted something wrapped in tape and plastic, which she tore away to reveal a squarish computer with a warped monitor. “No, that’s not it,” she murmured, tossing it back into the box.
“Don’t break anything, Penelope,” Dr. Fulbright warned, hauling a second crate onto the table to join her in the search.
Wyatt queried, “What does it look like, whatever you’re searching for?”
“It’s a thing,” Penelope curtly answered, rummaging the third crate on the table. “We keep so many inventions here, but nobody cleans it up — Finally!” Grunting, she picked up a heavy, C-shaped object with a touchscreen running along its curved build. Swiping it caused lines of light to speed along the edges. While the device warmed up, she described, “This is a strong-matter reader. It will scan your body to determine the composition of your Super Nex energy. It’s kind of like the ANI at Galen. Here, you have enhanced strength.”
He almost fell forward when she plunked the reader into his arms, but she held him up and then pushed aside boxes and gadgets on a table, clearing away half the surface. She guided him on there and told him to lie flat, saying, “Don’t worry. This is an experimental machine, but the signals it uses to read you should be safe. If it turns out it isn’t, then . . .” She patted him on the shoulder. “We’ll figure out a solution.”
He made a dry smile, but remained silent and nodded. Penelope held the reader directly over his face, concave side down, and moved it along his body. Then she flipped it over to the convex side with some effort and moved it up his body. It beeped after passing his head, and she clunked it down on the table. Wyatt sat up, and he and Dr. Fulbright peered at the touchscreen as it displayed an initial sheen of cobalt blue. It cleared up to unveil familiar microbes of the same color, motionless against a pale blue background.
Dr. Fulbright declared, “They’re authentic. They’re Super Nex virions!”
Wyatt stared at the screen, his hands drumming together. Then he squinted at anomalies floating between the viruses. “What are those gray flecks?”
Penelope tapped the screen, frowning. “Traces of Grimhet. Not direct mutations, but a symptom of simply being surrounded by those oil-oozers.”
“Could they manifest into anything fatal?” Wyatt asked.
“Not now. These traces look benign. But we have to be concerned if they develop into a malignant stage.” Penelope turned to Dr. Fulbright. “Where’s that antiviral?”
Dr. Fulbright sighed. “Xavier and I are speeding up the research on it. We’ll reopen the unharmed parts of this lab tomorrow. Are you two fit for work?”
After Wyatt and Penelope nodded, Wyatt asked, “How long for the antiviral?”
“As I’ve said, it will take time. I can’t give an exact timeframe. Best case scenario? One month. Maybe two.”
“Ah.” Wyatt’s eyes lowered.
“We should get to work, pronto,” said Penelope. The three of them replaced the widgets as she added, “I’m stunned you absorbed the energy so well, Wyatt. Normally, we had to double- and triple-check our subjects to make sure they were of optimum physical and mental health before injecting them with Super Nex.”
Wyatt shrugged. “What can I say? I’m just super.”
She peered sideways over her glasses. “Mm-hmm.”
After they locked up the room and returned upstairs, Wyatt mentioned the mission tonight, and Dr. Fulbright asked what it was. Wyatt replied, “We’re surveying Gnomivy with Professor Olympus to see if Grimhet has tapped into the Gigalek.” He added after Dr. Fulbright’s bewilderment further wrinkled his forehead, “Bit of a winding story there.”
“You’re going to be okay on this mission?”
“Of course he will, I’ll be there to watch him,” said Penelope.
After they said their goodbyes, Wyatt and Penelope exited Rad-Bio. Along the downhill walk she offered him a ride back home and a ride to Flordubul tonight, both which he accepted.
After zooming through a spacetime tunnel similar to the ones crossbuses use, Penelope’s Maesse sped toward Metacaract, a planet with patchworks of green fields, gray stone, and brown flatlands. Glaciers were melting into rivers that streamed down mountainsides, but they sunk into wells extending all the way to the plane’s core, so there were no oceans.
“Now, can you please keep yourself out of trouble until tonight?” Penelope said when she dropped him off at Endewen Avenue.
He saluted to her. “Until tonight.”
She was going to say something, but instead she made a sound halfway between groaning and sighing. Her Maesse rumbled off, leaving Wyatt to walk up to a two-level house. It was constructed with bricks and cement slabs, a shingled rooftop, and starry awnings. This old-fashioned design, along with the rest of the houses in this neighborhood, contrasted with the futuristic constructions in most of Cosmotic’s cityscapes.
The first thing Wyatt did was microwave a Tidbits package of wheatfowl casserole for a late lunch. He paired it with a glass of brandy while he spent the next two hours watching his favorite movie, Chameleons for Breakfast, an adaption of a noir novel that centered around three siblings in competing crime families as they all break their backs to survive the Avarice Years. The spirally pendants hanging from the ceiling lit the room with a golden ambience.
He had to pause it before the credits when Olympus called him to confirm that the survey will take place in an hour, involving herself, Wyatt, Penelope, Corbin, Gene, Marsden, and a pride of seven sentries. Then she said, “Mr. Durrell, I heard about your Super Nex infection, and if you want to register for the medications we prescribed the trial participants — ”
“No, Professor, but thank you. I’m handling it well.”
After they said their goodbyes, Wyatt played the movie and let the credits roll, holding out an open hand to let the wisps trail from his fingertips. Moving straight, gracefully waving from side to side, practically dancing through the air to leave curves and spirals and funnels in their wake that could have passed for abstract holographic art — the energy flowed from Wyatt so freely, and it took him along on the journey. Was this because he had observed hundreds of Starsapiens in Project Super Nex perform those same potent actions?
He skimmed paper files and computer reports he had taken for the project for the past six years, but nothing stood out to him. He did this for about half an hour before his phone rang, Penelope’s name in the caller ID. The first thing she said to him was, “I hope you’re standing outside your house, Wyatt. I don’t have to go up to your door like a Hot Beans driver.”
“No, Penelope, don’t tell me you’re outside my house and about to honk — ”
Hrroonnkkk-hrrronnkk!! went the Maesse’s iconic honk outside the house, and Penelope told him over the phone, “Now I’m gonna wait for you, Wyatt.”
He hung up, logged off the computer, put away the papers, turned off the TV wall, and hurried out of the house with his phone in his pocket. When he climbed up into the Maesse, Penelope said, “I didn’t know dirt and goop on clothes was a fashion trend.”
Wyatt looked down at his shirt, jacket, and pants, all which were still stained with browns and grays from the Gollinger incident. “I guess, coming home, I got distracted.”
Her eyes flicked over him before she turned away. “Flordubul, here we come.”
They drove to the crossmob station under a twilight indigo sky streaked by translucent green rays. Cafes, groceries, boutiques, restaurants, bars, all kinds of businesses lined the streets in Wyatt’s neighborhood, packed into patches between residential houses. At one point Penelope stopped at a red traffic light, giving her and Wyatt time to watch a tavern called The Commander, where a drunken crowd was arm-in-arm, singing a Warbearer anthem, “Every Claw.”
“They’re enjoying the night,” commented Penelope.
“Probably because they’re too liquored up to remember Grimhet,” said Wyatt, which earned a scowl from Penelope before she drove through the green traffic light.
****
From afar Flordubul looked like a fuzzy green dumbbell. When you got closer it all began to separate into patches of recognizable plants. Even closer you saw skyscraper-high trees, shrubbery blanketing entire hills, massive flowers blooming in open fields, and none of it felt unkempt. The plants cooperated as an interdependent ecosystem under the guidance of Gnomivy, the sentient plant that was two blocks away from a glade where Penelope parked her mobular.
Wyatt took a deep breath as he stepped out, scanning the moss curtains draping off the brown-white striped somson trees, the spotted purple bells of cardinal orchids, and the glowing catkins swaying off pillar shrubs. “I love the smell.” He breathed in again. “Pleasingly earthy.”
Penelope stepped out next, turning up her mouth into a smirk. “Really? To me, it smells more like my bathroom when it was overtaken by fungi spores.”
Wyatt constructed two sets of jet-boots that fitted over his and Penelope’s shoes. They boosted into the sky, getting a clear view of a village below where huts were grown out of interwoven vines and leaves. Two children in veiled cloaks of purples and blacks were working together to kindle whitish-violet flames in four torches on the roof of a hut. Torches were already burning bright on other huts.
Soon after passing the village, Wyatt and Penelope reached Gnomivy, a collection of plants all combined into one sentient being. Thick vines and branches weaved around the exterior to form a rough rectangle, repeatedly dilating and contracting as if breathing. Others only moved when they had to part openings for any animals that could crawl, fly, or hop inside.
Whispery breezes rose from the carpet of leaves that Wyatt and Penelope landed on, ten feet away from Gnomivy. They stood there, silently staring at it with calm faces, patient for what they knew would come next. A vertical row of tangled vines eased themselves apart, and the branches behind them retracted into the ground. The new opening emitted a mellow trilling that drew in Wyatt and Penelope. The branches and vines regrew into place behind them.
“I can’t remember the last time my parents took me here,” Wyatt said, taking small breaths as if to save air for the millions of plants around him. Even though the plants were so densely packed that very little outside light could access it, the interior wasn’t dark at all. But the illumination was never distinct; it was merely a part of this being.
“Can’t remember? Are my memories confused, then, because I recall you bragging last year about your parents taking you to a two-day stay here and how enlightening it was.”
Wyatt ran a hand through his short hair. “You’re right, I forgot.” He swept his attention over four thick branches that stretched away from here, opening tunnels through the packed plants. Then he rose off the ground in his jet-boots, stating, “Second branch from the left.”
Penelope squinted up the branch, then said, “Get your ass moving, then.”
When they joined the survey crew, Marsden pulled Wyatt and Penelope aside to supply them with crimson camo uniforms that slipped over their clothing to provide goop-proof armor, aergen clips on the belt holsters, and rods on their arm sleeves called pokers that could extend four feet long and jab at Grimhets with their white-hot heat blasts. Marsden’s seven sentries, her personal pride of elite cubs, were using the same equipment. Olympus, Corbin, and Gene each had a tigon claw pinned to the breast of their clothes.
Olympus said, “We tracked several life signatures from the plants here, but not anything Gigalek- or Grimhet-related.”
“All contents are being examined with our most advanced models,” claimed Corbin. He patted a carbonmesh bag slung over his shoulder. “This is filled to the brim with specialized gadgets for distinguishing signatures lurking in every crevice of this venerable plant.”
“I am wielding my anti-Grimhet gas bombs and recharging my Gelescent gloves.” Gene held up a cross-body bag of his own, albeit one of a titanmesh fabric, and readjusted its strap on his right shoulder. “The ooze-thinning gases will melt their bodies, while the gloves will . . . ah, my creations should bewilderingly please you by themselves.”
“Cubs, Professor, you four” — Marsden gestured her W19 blaster at Wyatt, Penelope, Corbin, and Gene — “we’ll survey the northwest corner of Gnomivy first, since that’s where the most Gigalek is being grown.” She pointed her W19 at one of six branches leading away from this spot. “I want you to stay wary of everything in this environment. Don’t let your guard down just because this is Gnomivy. Grimhet is already showing off enough as it is.”
Wyatt, detecting something underneath those words, said, “I don’t understand.”
“Octoberry Trails.” Marsden absorbed Wyatt’s tense face. She pivoted away, her bobbed hair abruptly swishing around. “I almost thought you were behind on the news.”
Wyatt whispered to Penelope, “What is she referring — ”
“Not now,” she cut off, poking his shoulder to move him along.
The survey crew as they followed Marsden up the branch she had pointed out, holding either blasters or pokers. At the end was the designated clearing, an atrium-like space with thirteen branches. Corbin and Gene each ran an examination by using a tablet with a squarish device plugged into the side. Olympus took notes on her phone of the Thistles’ tablet readings. Ordering her sentries, Penelope, and Wyatt to stand guard at nine of the branches, Marsden stood back to watch three adjacent paths with tigon-like vigilance.
When Corbin said that he and Gene were not picking up anything unusual, Marsden flashed her thin smile and wagged her W19 at them. “This clearing contains the most Gigalek amber. It only makes sense Grimhet would target it before anywhere else.”
“Not necessarily. They might wanna target us before anywhere else.”
Gene gasped, “Ms. Flame, that notion is not very alleviating.” He shuddered, his fingers paused in midair, exchanging a nervous look with his brother, and then resumed his work.
Wyatt asked, “Aren’t you used to these occupational hazards?”
Gene pulled once at his curls, answering, “We are not completely acclimated to all of the incalculable conditions, having only embarked on a small number of field missions.”
Corbin snapped his fingers. “But no matter. We are conditioning ourselves to trek forward with nothing but pure fortitude.”
Wyatt considered the brothers for a moment. “Pure fortitude. Good.”
After the examination ended, Olympus briefly conferred with Corbin and Gene, then declared, “None of the Gigalek is missing. There are no Grimhet signatures.”
“Then let’s move on,” Marsden said, leading the crew up a steep branch. She rejected Wyatt’s idea of constructing jet-boots for everyone.
In the next clearing, smaller than the last, everyone took up the same positions as before. Penelope scanned the immense floral setting around her before she sent an inquisitive stare at the brothers. Gene noticed this and paused before giving her a nervous wave. She waved back, then advanced towards him. “So . . .” she said, still gripping her W19. “Electronics and mechanics. What other fields are you skilled in?”
“Another one of our merits is involved with unraveling difficult brainteasers. Give us an anagram, anaquote, word square, or a riddle — ah, those poetically perplexing puzzles — or other types of word-related amusers, and we shall utilize our aptitude to rapidly solve it.”
The eccentric twinkle reentered Corbin’s green eyes as he interjected, “We can also read the thickest books and mentally recall every page as if the book were in front of our eyes.”
“That’s called didactic reading,” Wyatt chimed in.
“Yes indeed,” said Gene. “It takes much effort to foresee how such reserved expertise may play a role in future assignments. But I believe every — ”
“Grimhet signatures are sprouting in the southeast corner,” Corbin warned.
Everyone either cocked their W19s or extended their pokers. Four of the sentries held both weapons. Corbin and Gene quickly packed the tablets into their bags, preparing their weapons when gray ooze frothed out of the ground at the clearing’s edge.
When the vortex’s gurgling grew into roars, Marsden commanded a war cry from the millennium-old tongue of Langd’orguel: “Sangin et mort!” The translation — “blood and death!”

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