Project Super Nex, Chapter Four: Two Serendipitous Encounters

Neither air bullets from W16s nor heat blasts from pokers inflicted anything more than dents and small burns on Grimhets’ armored flesh as they stampeded out of the vortex. Wyatt and Penelope were quick to switch to energy orbs and switchguns, but it was Gene’s gas bomb that gave everyone a break. He hurled it at a Hagga, and the cap broke off, releasing a sour-smelling acid that rolled across the clearing in a thin band, forcing Grimhets to retreat.
“Fast work, cub,” Marsden said, motioning her W16 to Gene. “Ready more of those. The gas will only hold them back for so long before they open a vortex on our side.”
She was right; the Grimhets on the other side of the gas were sucked into their vortex and then jumped out another one on the Starsapiens’ side. In the midst of the gunfire and orbs, a Rampa caught Gene’s incoming bomb out of the air and stuffed it down its own throat. It didn’t have time to swallow before the acid trailed out the corners of its pinched mouth. Its body melted into an ooze puddle. There was nothing left of the gas bomb.
“Skin my fur,” Marsden murmured, frowning at the selfless Rampa’s remains.
A Hagga, rearing up on its tail, had its eyes on Gene. He was about to draw a bomb out of his bag, but Wyatt dashed in front of him and projected a domed forcefield to repel the Hagga. It slammed into the clearing’s wall of vines and branches and crumpled to the ground. But the crew’s backside was left open, allowing a Fiss to slash its bone claws through the ground and knock them over with a shockwave.
When Gene’s bag flew off his body, a Hagga slipped its tail through the strap and flung it into the vortex. The bag was destroyed in a crunchy gurgle. As Corbin got him up to his feet, Gene shook a fist and cried, “Bane you, bane you!” He rolled back his sleeves. Each wrist had a dark bracelet inlaid with a row of golden orange cubes.
While Marsden ordered everyone using W19s to attach their charged aergen clips, which blasted larger pieces of armor and flesh off Grimhets, Gene clacked his bracelets together and expanded gloves of gel, also golden orange, over his hands. A sign of a diagonally inverted U with a pair of arrows facing each other at the tips was molded into the back of the gloves.
“Are you assured that this is the time?” asked Corbin, a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“Most assuredly,” Gene answered, eyes twinkling, stretching long ropes of gel from his fingers. They knotted together to trap two Haggas that were circling Olympus and two sentries, then threw them into a Fiss fighting with Penelope.
“What the hell is that?” she called, watching the gel ropes retract into Gene’s gloves.
Gene was about to answer, but he whipped around after Corbin tapped his shoulder, and they had to focus on warding off a Rampa.
The battle drew on with Grimhets stealing some of the W16s or pokers, the opening of a third vortex, and Marsden calling after a sentry when it sucked him in. Without a moment’s hesitation she bombarded all nearby Grimhets with charged air bullets.
After Wyatt saved Corbin and Gene from a Fiss by engaging it in a close-range fight and then knocking it out with an energy staff, Corbin heavily exhaled and said, “Thank you very much, Wyatt Durrell, for your unhesitating altruism.”
“Yes, how dauntless of you,” said Gene, enunciating the D in “dauntless”.
Then, without so much as a wail of warning, all the Grimhets raced away from the crew and into the vortexes. They sunk into the ground and left behind ooze blotches. The same thing happened for the vortex on the other side of the gas border, which was thinning out.
Everyone took a moment to rest, and Olympus was the first to say, “Grimhet has never penetrated Gnomivy before. What if Super Nex is expanding their vortex range?”
Wyatt said, “But we’re assuming they’ve stolen Gigalek for weeks, and they only started using the virus today. Maybe they aren’t the thieves after all.”
Marsden’s boots made muffled clumps on the interwoven vines, leaves, and branches as she approached one of the ooze blotches, the spot where her sentry had been sucked to his death. “Do you know what they say about assumptions?”
“Assuming makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.”
Marsden looked back at Penelope with a thin-lipped smile. “Still remember it, Flame.” She glanced down at the blotch once more, then swiveled on her heels and gestured her W19 to Corbin and Gene, who had already gone back on their tablets. “What do you have?”
Gene picked at the corner of his tablet. “There is another dense signature emanating from above us.” His eyes shot up to the ceiling. “The oily monstrosities.”
Marsden led the crew up a mossy hill of a branch. The walls had spread out near the end to show open spaces connecting with other branches. Bouquets of tree roots fanned out from the ceiling. Millions of tiny mushrooms grew from their coiling ends. When the branch split off into four paths, they waited for Corbin and Gene to compare the data from their tablets.
Gene whispered something, and Corbin declared, “This way.”
Marsden headed up the branch they indicated, remaining ahead of the crew. Penelope marched fast enough to catch up to her, and she said, “Why did that Rampa sacrifice itself? It could have easily fallen back like a coward, like what any normal Grimhet would do.”
“These aren’t normal anymore,” Marsden said, leaving it at that.
When they reached a clearing where more of the tiny mushrooms grew in bunches on the walls, Corbin said, “The signatures are much stronger, and the source — ”
“Up there!” Wyatt fired orbs at the vortex in the wall ten feet overhead, burning the first few Grimhets as they dropped into the clearing.
The vortex ejected a spurt of goop that absorbed the orbs, though, and the rest of the Grimhets were free to pour out, barging at the crew from all directions, forcing them to scatter, trapping them much more efficiently. It was how Wyatt, fighting alongside Gene, became so focused on fighting a Rampa that a Hagga sneaked up to him and coiled his waist in its tail.
“Release him, serpentine servant!” Gene lashed his gel ropes around the Hagga, but it merely twisted forward, jerking him into the ground. The gel drew back into his gloves, and the
Hagga slithered up a branch with Wyatt in tow.
“One of them’s got Wyatt!” Penelope yelled to Marsden, who whirled around and aimed her W19. But her air bullets sizzled away into a vortex that opened right in front of the branch.
While they were blocked by the vortex, Wyatt was jouncing up the branch by the Hagga’s tail, not able to focus long enough to aim an orb. At the top of the branch the Hagga sped into a spherical space where a network of branches and vines suspended a cabin on a wooden platform. Wyatt was hurled onto the porch, crashing into the door. He scrambled to his feet and fired orbs at the snake, but it weaved through them. He constructed a staff and, when the Hagga leapt at him, smacked it into the floor. The boards creaked but didn’t break.
The Hagga lifted its head and opened its kla-kla-klacking mouth, about to suck in Wyatt. With a firm face he held a hand right over its head and fired an orb into its mouth. Cobalt energy pulsed through its crinkling body with a poomph. It also made an amber-colored nub stick out from between the eyes.
“It’s not . . .” Wyatt said to himself, reaching down, plucking out the key the same way he removed it from the Fiss’s hand. It had those green glimmers as well.
Grunts off to the left made him pocket the key and build a sword, but he breathed out when Corbin and Gene’s heads popped up from the branch leading to this cabin. He lowered his hands and asked, “Why didn’t you come up earlier?”
Gene sniffed, “Why, a vortex obstructed our path until I choked it with my Gelescents.”
Penelope climbed the branch next, asking, “Is that what you call your gloves?”
“Yes, my proprietary gel-molding instruments. The name seems to invoke your derision.”
She did a major eye-roll. “Not at all. I love names that sound like antifungal ointments.”
“Guys, this was inside that Hagga,” Wyatt said, hopping off the porch to meet them on the platform, holding up the key. “Just like the Fiss at Rad-Bio.”
Corbin reached out his hand. “May I see — ” He quickly snapped his fingers when Penelope snatched the key from Wyatt and held it up to her eyes. Then he moved his tablet close to her and scanned the key. Her scowl was clear on the screen, and the false-color settings made Gene flinch when he took a peek.
When Wyatt asked where everyone else was, Penelope jerked her chin down the branch. “Marsden told us to split up so we can survey clearings more quickly. Even she’s anxious, all these moldy monsters intruding into Gnomivy, stealing Gigalek. And this key, is it — ”
“It is Gigalek,” Corbin announced, turning his tablet toward the cabin. “And it was grown in there.” He lowered the tablet to look directly at the cabin, which appeared to have been carved lovingly from a single block of wood. It was twenty feet long, seventeen feet wide, and three stories tall, taking up over half the space of the platform. Chimes of bronze bells and emerald clappers were strung along the porch railing, dinging by themselves every ten seconds or so.
When Wyatt headed for the cabin, Gene piped up, his voice rising a note, “It would be remiss of us to impatiently enter this, this cabin. Consider that Gnomivy may be infected — ”
“This is part of our mission,” Wyatt said, looking over his shoulder so intensely that it embarrassed Gene into blanching and taking a step back.
“Don’t worry, brother,” Corbin interrupted, standing in front of Gene, calmly smiling. “We have tussled with far worse dangers. Remember those Betelarks?”
“The arachnoid beetles,” Gene squeaked, uttering funny gibberish noises that made Penelope exchange a head-shake with Wyatt. Some color returned to Gene’s face as he shuffled around Corbin and asked, “Do you favor introducing us to this . . . cabin? Mr. Durrell.”
“Yes,” Wyatt said, leading them up the groaning steps onto the porch. He pressed his hand on a pattern of crosshatched ridges in the handleless door, and it silently swung open. Corbin and Gene took two steps back in unison and started whispering to each other.
Penelope pursed her lips. “Part of me wants to know if you’re the secret master of the house, and part of me wants to keep that mouth shut because I think you’re going to say yes.”
“No, this is the way you open the door. I thought it was common knowledge.”
“Perhaps, but it does not reduce the ominous fog that is pervading the air,” Gene said.
Wyatt was the only one whose eyes lit up when they filed through the door. Someone could be living here for all they knew, with the sofas and armchairs of rich fabric, desks and shelves with floral etchings, and abstract paintings of Cosmotic landmarks like Alphacos Pillar. The slow-paced treble chords of a lustroviol resounded as if the strings spanned the entire cabin and a cosmic entity was in control of the bow. Wyatt turned on a lamp with kingfishers painted on the shade. It filled the room with a greenish-blue light that made him faintly smile.
“My parents brought me here too,” he said. “All the years of Grimhets opening vortexes have been strenuous, but this place was a shelter for us.”
Gene added, “It is a shelter for all Starsapiens.”
Corbin circled the room, holding up his tablet as amber-colored lines crossed the screen. “If Grimhet has truly gained enough power to access Gnomivy, the last place impenetrable to the poisons, Cosmotic will plunge into its darkest era yet.”
Penelope said, “Meaning we should get to the bottom of this. Why are those — ”
Corbin’s tablet beeped. “The source is upstairs.”
Every step they took to an open stairway made the floorboards sigh under their feet. Wyatt said, “That’s where they store Gnomivy’s seedlings. They’re like life reserves.”
Penelope said, “Who stores them?”
“My parents said it’s always someone special in Halcyonic.”
Penelope wiped dust off the stairway’s bronze-filigreed handrail, and at the second-level landing she and slapped a wipe into Wyatt’s hand. “I saw your hand brush the banisters.”
“Penelope, I used to lick the banisters. I thought the germs were healthy.”
They all gawked at Wyatt before the tablets beeped, forcing Corbin and Gene to read their data. “My oh my, the signatures are amplifying,” Gene said, motioning his tablet down the corridor. “My brother and I once encountered them in the midst of a Grimhet scan on Ovsecuu.”
They slowly moved down the hall and waved their tablets from side to side to scan the rooms. All of them had delicate, frilly plants sprouting from containers of a rippling pink liquid. Wyatt asked the brothers, “On Ovsecuu? they Gigalek signatures?”
“No, Gigalek is singular to Gnomivy, Mr. Durrell,” replied Gene. “Rather, we inspected a gravity warp in the aftermath of a sealed vortex. Even now it persistently lingers.”
“In here,” Corbin suddenly announced, padding into a room.
Edging past racks of cardinal orchids and brown-and-white cowbills, they stopped when Gene tapped the floor with his foot and said, “Is this the spot, brother?” When Corbin nodded,
Gene clutched his tablet close to his chest and wheezed, “Perhaps it would be astute to flee the impending hazard.”
Corbin shook his head. “Don’t fret. The data claims that the gateway’s throat hasn’t built up enough power to warp itself into existence for another ten minutes.” He shifted his gaze back to his tablet. His eye twitched when vividly-colored lines started to zigzag across the monitor much more jerkily than before. “Oh, er, this is not — We should flee.”
A silvery spark screeched out of the floor and burned into the ceiling. It expanded into a beam between the two spots and folded the room around the Starsapiens into a sphere and then a cylinder. It felt as if something was physically shaking them, the way they shot upward, flew to the side, then plummeted past iridescent flashes, slowing down until they hovered above a dark slit. Then they dropped out of the silvery cylinder and crashed onto a slab of shiny black metal.
“Vexarus!” Gene cried, rolling off Wyatt, scraping his elbow across the slab.
“Where are we?” Penelope asked, lifting Corbin’s foot off her shoulder, standing up.
Wyatt stood next and helped up Gene, swiveling his head left and right to take in the globe-topped skyscrapers that rose three hundred stories at the most. Mobulars, motorcycles, and small spaceships zoomed across the light-dotted tracks that bent and spiraled through the sky, emitting a collective whirring that suited this modern city. The Starsapiens were on a median of a street where mobulars were few and many passersby in checkered sports coats, flower-fringed minidresses, and other flashy clothes regarded them with long, eyeliner-accentuated stares.
“Unless my senses deceive me, we have materialized in one of Ovsecuu’s many zones,”
Gene said. “I recognize the planet’s . . . ah, metropolitan tastes.”
“Let me ask you two something.” Penelope pointed at the brothers. “Which zone are we in? Is this where you did the spacetime warping?”
Gene sniffed, “Technically, we did not initiate the warp in Zone E33. We tested it.”
“I’ll take that as a yes, which means we teleported from Gnomivy’s cabin to Ovsecuu.”
Wyatt said, “Imagine how happy this would make Quantax.”
“Quantax, yes, they’re desperate for a breakthrough to justify their role in SPACE Union,” said Corbin, rotating in place to scan the dark buildings, the dark stratus clouds tinged with waves of dark purple, the generally permeating darkness. Only the tubes of glaring white light hovering over their heads pierced it.
Penelope made a call and soon declared, “Good news. Professor Olympus already picked up on our signatures and the vortex when we entered it. She had Marsden send a mobular from a reserve hangar here to take us back to Flordubul. And they killed lots of Grimhets, too.”
The four of them kept chatting as they jogged across the street and onto the sidewalk. Nearby was a bustling restaurant with maroon-and-violet-petaled flowers floating around the second-level terraces. Corbin’s forest green eyes started twinkling as he stood on his tiptoes to peek over the iron-wrought fence. “Maybe we could snag a table here. Many food connoisseurs have sung praises for Gormett’s delicacies.”
“I wish we could. But our ride awaits.” Penelope pointed to a speeding mobular larger than most models as it pulled over and lowered to the ground with a du-dumph. Compact metal blocks vibrated in the undercarriage between four rows of narrow mag-exhaust vents. Most of the mobular’s upper half was built out of reinforced glass, except for a seven-foot-long strip of metal running through the length of the roof.
Corbin shuffled closer and rubbed a thin hand over one of the oblong pairs of headlights built into the steeply-sloped hood. “Ah, admire its beauty. Overseer Bridger designed it. He recently submitted plans for an autonomous driver update.”
Gene rubbed his hand across the glass next. “Its proprietary shock absorbers received a grade of approbation from SPACE Union in terms of shielding its passengers from — ”
“Stop fondling the damn thing!” Penelope pulled Gene and Corbin off the mobular. “There’s sweat everywhere. Look at it. Look at it!” She flicked her wrist at the smeary window.
Wyatt looked it over as Corbin defended, “We love to perceive curious objects with our hands. When can you resist a lavish ride like this? I know I can’t.”
“I most certainly cannot defy my urges,” Gene said, rubbing the glass, making Penelope pull his hands away for a second time. “Now, to unlock this mobular,” he mumbled, slipping his phone from his crimson jacket. He waved it in front of a door handle embossed with a sextuple of six-pointed stars encircling a spherical satellite — SPACE Union’s universal emblem.
The door slowly swung upward, letting Gene climb into the driver’s seat. Corbin did the same thing with his own phone on the passenger’s side. Both of them ran their hands all over the dashboard, making Penelope cross her arms. “Gene, I’m not sure you can drive.”
“Ah, a stupendous guess! However, my brother received his mobular license last year.”
This fight stretched on for twenty seconds or so before Wyatt said, “This isn’t something we have to waste time squabbling over. Penelope, you’ll drive.”
She was quick to throw Gene out of the mobular, jump in, and wave her phone over the dashboard. Holographic monitors and buttons lit up. She tapped some of them to turn the radio to a classic rock station, activate the headlights, and turn over the engine with a high-pitched brrr-rrummm! After Corbin and Gene moved to the backseat and Wyatt got in the passenger seat, Penelope pushed down a floor pedal, lurching the mobular backward with an electronic grumble.
“I’m licensed,” she barked, after the brothers exchanged some disgruntled mumbles.
Corbin said, “To engage in what exactly, mobular accidents?”
“Zip your lips, just zip it!” She punched a couple buttons and stomped on the floor pedal harder than before. The mobular pulled away from the curb with an anxious groan. Muttering, she twisted a dial and sharply turned the steering wheel. The mobular lurched backward much farther, scraping its rear bumper along the ground, backing into a motorcyclist with a dull thump.
Penelope shouted curses that made Corbin cover his brother’s ears. Everyone hurried out of the mobular to find someone dressed in a full-body yellow jumpsuit with black stripes and even thinner violet lines running along the arms and legs — the same colors as the motorcycle. This person was a little unsteady but hadn’t fallen off the cycle. A mask fully covered the head, with two eyelike circles of a rich purple that appeared oddly bright and dark at the same time.
“Sidney!” Penelope exclaimed, in the growliest pitch to which her voice had ever fallen.
“Penny, great to see you!” The newcomer had a chirpy lilt of a feminine accent, one that sounded like it was much thicker years ago. She leaned over, cocking her head at the boys and chortling. “Durrell, right? How’s your Super Nex energy? You look moderately calm right now.”
Bobbing his eyebrows, he waited a moment to repeat in a measured tone, “Moderately.”
Penelope said, “Sidney, we’re in the middle of a mission. What — ”
“Sorry, Penny, I didn’t mean to be in the way when your mobular was wildly reversing.” Sidney pinched the neck of her jumpsuit, causing the top of the mask to dimly glimmer. Dots of the material separated, slid down around her head, and absorbed into the black-rimmed neck. Her light blond hair dropped from behind her head in a zigtail, a once-popular fashion trend where the hair, through varying techniques, is shaped into a zigzag ponytail.
“You two know each other? What a coincidence,” remarked Corbin.
“Oh yeah, we’ve known each other for a long time,” Sidney replied, flashing a clever little smile on her heart-shaped face to counter the primitive scowl on Penelope’s angular face.
“Sidney, don’t you have somewhere to be?”
Gene tapped Penelope’s shoulder. He tilted back when she glared over her shoulder. He still summoned the courage to state, “Your behavior is impertinent, Ms. Flame, especially since
you collided with her. Please ask for her forgiveness.”
Darting her eyes at Gene and Sidney, Penelope quickly said, “I’m sorry for being mean.”
After Gene nodded to her and stepped back, Wyatt asked, “Are you lesbians?”
“No,” they answered immediately, Penelope glaring, Sidney chuckling.
“It’s okay if you are, I’m just saying. The APM is alive and well. I knew a couple people in college who happily embraced their homosexuality, and another one was transgender — ”
“We’re not lesbians,” Sidney confirmed, holding a hand over her tightening smile, which kept quivering in time with her zigtail and the laughter crinkles around her almond-shaped eyes.
Before the five of them could talk longer, their heads whipped around at a muted buzz ringing from down the street, the same place where the portal had opened. Silvery-white sparks lit up in midair and drifted to the ground, then popped five feet upward. They collected into an amorphous, spinning mass that split open, letting a muscly man fall out and land on his shoulder with a loud grunt. He rolled out of the way of a Fiss. Nineteen more Grimhets followed before the portal vanished in a dim flash, causing passersby to yell and flock away from the scene.
The muscly man brushed his shaggy tufts of sandy hair away from his wide brown eyes, unclipped two tiny hammers off his belt, and squeezed them in his fists. They instantly enlarged into full-sized weapons, and with deft flicks the heads levitated off the handles and whooshed at the Grimhets, smacking three of them.
“Cooper?” Penelope and Sidney called out in unison.
“What the flippin’ fish ya guys doin’ here?” he hollered, ducking a Rampa’s punch. He jumped aside just as Penelope shot its shoulder with her switchguns. Sidney melted a sharp, L-like thing of metal out of a hidden pocket in her sleeve and hurled it like a boomerang to stab the Rampa’s head. She zoomed off on her cycle, circling the Grimhets, throwing more boomerangs. Corbin and Gene stood back-to-back, the former spraying Grimhets with his W19, the latter pounding them to the ground with waves of the golden orange stuff from his Gelescents.
When Wyatt and Cooper found themselves informally teaming up to fight the last few monsters, Cooper let out a guffaw and pointed a hammer at him. “Hey, jet-boot man!”
Stabbing a Hagga before it could attack Penelope, Sidney asked, “You know him, too?”
Wyatt struck a Rampa with his energy staff and said, “We’re acquaintances.”
Corbin commented to his brother, “Small universe.”
With the last two Grimhets standing, Wyatt and Cooper smacked them back and forth with their staff and hammers, respectively, and then blades suddenly stuck out of their chests, having whizzed fast enough so that no one saw Sidney cast them. Twenty Grimhets strewn across the street at the hands of the six Starsapiens made quite a dramatic conclusion for the people who were safe in the buildings, peeking out the windows and taking videos of the battle.
“I hate Grimbrawl media,” Penelope growled, sweeping the witnesses with scornful eyes.
“It benefits SPACE Union, helps them convince Starsapiens that every fight we stand for pushes back Grimhet” — Sidney held up a hand, the fingers formed high above the thumb to make a C — “that much.” With an easy beckon she had her boomerangs shoot out of the dead Grimhets and melt into her arm sleeves.
“Pause the clock, pause the clock.” Cooper flicked his handles to call back the hammer heads, and he clanked them on the ground. “Penny, Sid, jet-boot man, an’ . . . curly reds.”
“Cinnamon, to be precise. This is my brother, Corbin Thistle. I am Gene. You are?”
“Roosevelt, Cooper Roosevelt. Warbearer, Swooper of the 83rd Pride.”
Corbin glanced suspiciously at Gene. “Swooper? Your specialties are raids and seizures. So why did you follow us from Gnomivy? That’s where you entered the portal, correct?”
“Yepparoonies! Got deployed to check the sitch, saw you slip into the cabin.” Cooper paused to shrink his hammers and clip them to his belt, which had a stamp of a chunky, ridged rock on the front. It matched the rough, mud brown surface of his sleeveless uniform, fingerless gloves, and knee-length pants. “Can’ resist the temptation to follow ya, bu’ then I got sucked in
with ev’ryone! Whoo, still givin’ me a rush.”
Wyatt said, “And Grimhets were in the cabin. That’s how they entered — ”
“Nope, never there with me. I was completes solo.”
Everyone processed Cooper’s info for a bit before Penelope jerked her chin at him and Sidney. “Walk and talk, you crag leopards, walk and talk. Gnomivy’s waiting. For convenience’s sake, you’ll come with us. Too much trouble to drive you off at this point.”
Cooper made a whoop and patted the mobular’s hood. Sidney’s smile widened a bit more, and she swiped a hand over her cycle to make it fade from yellow and black with violet accents to a pale blue luster and then flash into nothingness.
“They are stealing my breath!” Gene exclaimed, tugging at a clump of curls on the side of his head. “Magnitude-fluidity hammers, nanomolecular jumpsuit and motorcycle, boomerangs, and, and — Staggering!” He sucked in a huge breath and his face paled, and his brother had to squeeze his arms and whisper to him in a foreign dialect with a rapid staccato.
Penelope claimed the driver’s seat again in spite of objections from Wyatt, Gene, Corbin, and Cooper. She pressed buttons and tapped holograms, making no indication she was listening to Cooper as he rambled on and on about the next version of the W19 from the passenger seat. Corbin and Gene were behind them, and an extra row of backseats had swung up for Wyatt and Sidney. The ride started out with Penelope scraping the mobular over a sidewalk, but then she
drove straight down the road, turned a smooth corner, and motored along at a steady speed.
“You’re a Cerebral alumnus?” Sidney asked Wyatt, talking over the uptempo rock music.
“What?” he replied, cupping a hand around his ear so he could hear her better.
She leaned over and said, more loudly, “You’re a Cerebral alumnus.”
He reared away from the loudness of her voice, eyes dipping to his college ring. He looked at her and nodded. “For microbiology.”
“Were those formative years difficult?” she asked, cocking her head when his brow furrowed. “I deduced it from the way you’re twisting the ring. You’re venting the stress that comes with any experience as arduous as college. And you’re doing it deliberately.”
Wyatt glanced at the front of the mobular when Penelope turned down the radio and answered her phone. But Cooper, Corbin, and Gene were talking about the hammers now, muffling her words. Wyatt turned back to Sidney and said, “It is college. Cerebral’s the toughest one in all of Cosmotic, you know.”
She chuckled. “I know. My parents also graduated from there. People loved their lectures. I attended every one of them, but I was too young at the time, too flighty to understand them.” Her eyes were even brighter as they drifted away, clouding over, and then they blinked back to Wyatt. “You seem to be handling your powers very, very well. Does it feel strange?”
“Why would it? I can treat the years that I’ve spent observing these effects like a tutorial.”
“But hasn’t it dawned on you that people will talk about you? You’re not a Rad-Bio lab tech to judgmental Starsapiens anymore. You’re a superhero. And if you read comic books or watch their film adaptations, particularly Copperton, you know what happens to them.”
“I don’t have time for that. The lab’s enough to keep me busy.”
She twirled her zigtail around her finger. “Basically, people praise the superhero like he or she is a god, an Üborminscht as Yiezetch said, or the people condemn the superhero like he or she is a demon, a Soty as Yiezetch also said. It’s a shaky tightrope to keep your balance on.”
“That won’t come into play because no one will notice me. If they did, I wouldn’t care. I’m merely helping out while Rad-Bio is out of order and SPACE Union suspends their approval of Project Super Nex. How do you know so much about me, anyways?”
“I ran a background check.” Sidney let out a small laugh. “That’s what everyone’ll do.” She pressed a hand into her hip, melting out a slim case with a design of a wolf curled up and asleep with its two pups molded into the midnight purple exterior. She thumbed open the lid, revealing twenty chocolates of varying shapes, colors, and toppings. She whirled her finger and thumb over them, picked up a coral-and-amber-swirled fudge, and tossed it into her mouth. After she chewed and swallowed, she asked, “Do you want one?” She extended the case to Wyatt.
He shook his head. “I’m not a chocolate fan.”
Her smile fell slightly. She lowered the case to her lap.
Then everyone looked up when Penelope shut her phone and said, “I hate SPACE Union sometimes. First they want us to return to Gnomivy, and now they don’t need us because the survey is over. They’ve determined where Grimhet steals Gigalek, typical bullshit.”
“Hogwash,” Cooper snorted. “Gnomivy seals itself off to to oil-sweaters.”
Wyatt said, “I made that point, too. But they . . . they have the Super Nex virus.”
Penelope turned up the radio again. “I’ll drive you all home.”
Corbin said, “Don’t trouble yourself, Penelope.”
Gene agreed in a higher-pitched tone, “Yes, please, please do not trouble yourself.”
“Trust me, she wants to drive all of us home.”
Penelope pressed the acceleration pedal a little harder. “You know me so well, Sidney.”
The virus is surging through me. I’m letting myself surge with it. These were the last words Wyatt wrote with his right-slanted, small, cursive handwriting in his journal’s latest entry. His open hand glowed as he placed it on the next page, exuding the energy onto the paper. He lifted his hand away, gazing at the cobalt handprint. He put the journal and the pen into the top drawer of his nightstand, switched off the lamp, and tucked himself into bed. Wisps bounced back and forth between his hands for a minute before he fell asleep.

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