“The white button, not the red one, you skinny geek! The white button!”
Gene’s hand stopped whizzing over the dashboard. “Your guidance is marvelously impassioned. Would you like to indulge it?” He motioned to his own pilot’s chair.
“I’d love to. In fact, I will.” Penelope threw off her seatbelt and zipped off her seat, out the musty cabin and into the cockpit. “Go on, Gene, lift your butt off the chair.”
“No! Your guidance is obnoxious! Leave us be!” Gene rubbed his hands in zigzags all over the dashboard and the windows. “My bacteria, you despise my bacteria!”
Cooper waved an arm between Gene and Penelope. “Genie, I’d normally root for you to get it all smeary, but we’ve gotta schlazoom from Porktopia at, hoo-boy, right about now!”
Meanwhile, Corbin was pacing up and down the cabin, fiddling with his phone. He kept passing Wyatt and Sidney, who sat on opposite-facing seats and looked out the windows at the dozens of vehicles stacked in humongous racks. A few were cylindrical with finlike extensions sticking up from the front and rear ends. Bulky builds, double-rows of claws along the edges, and crimson paint jobs made the rest stand out; the Romuteli hadn’t made any effort to disguise the fact that they were Warbearer gunships.
“I’m really sorry about not warning you earlier,” Sidney told Wyatt, even though her eyes had already expressed the apology. “Those Romuteli almost caught us outside this shed — ”
Not making eye contact with her, he leaned down to peek at the sack he had bonded to the underside of his seat. “It doesn’t matter. We’re getting away from them,” he said, sounding confident enough as if the anticipated trouble of teleporting to Lunatark would be acceptable, as if remaining secluded in Cosmotic did not become more and more of a tempting idea.
The instant Penelope pierced Wyatt’s head with, “He looks dazed, should I give him a slap,” he blinked away the fuzziness in his eyes and angled his head away from the window.
Sidney replied, “No, he’s done introspecting.”
Wyatt looked at them first, then Corbin, who was sitting down and playing with his phone, and finally into the cockpit. “Gene, Cooper, are you doing okay?”
Groaning as if vulnerable to motion sickness, the gunship hopped four feet off the floor at a sharp tilt that tossed around the passengers. It dropped back to the ground with a ringing clang, scraping its side along a rack, and then lifted back up a little more smoothly.
“Slip ‘im on out, slip ‘im on out,” mumbled Cooper, constantly holding a lever at a slight angle, twisting switches, rechecking the meters in the dashboard.
Gene, making use of his own piloting skills, called back into the cabin, “Pardon us for the graceless flight. These antiquated gunships crumble in comparison to the current ones employed by Warbearer. We might as well be steering an untamed mammonte.”
He couldn’t have summed it up more clearly, what with the gunship drifting and tilting in all directions and knocking into racks. This did come to the team’s advantage when Romuteli poured into the shed with bazooka-like weapons supported on their shoulders. Before they could get halfway through forming a barrier, the gunship dove to the floor and ran over ten of them. The rest scattered but then chased the gunship on foot, pelting its multilayered shells of armor with spiky balls that left silvery sparks in their wake.
With the toggle of a switch Cooper sent the signal to roll up the entry door, giving Gene time to tighten his grip on the steering levers and speed the gunship across the rest of the shed. The chains pulling up the door tangled into a knot, though, leaving it halfway closed. Gene let out a cry of desperation, but Cooper told him, “For Bicap’s sakes, Genie, blam the door away!”
With the double-tap of a keypad Gene extended the side cannons and volleyed hundreds of dark metal slivers from their individual barrels, shredding the door apart. “De Dyus!” he shouted, high-pitched, keeping his bloodshot eyes wide open as he zoomed the gunship through the dust cloud that hung in the door’s destruction.
Even as Romuteli burst out of the vehicle shed, stamping over the leftover fragments of the door, and were joined by their brethren flooding in from the surrounding avenues, none of their spiky balls could fly high enough to even brush the gunship’s belly. They resorted to firing oil-tipped arrows that did nothing but make its armor look as if Warbearer had painted it ripples of crimson and black and dots of gray, as if testing out a new camo pattern.
Cooper twisted around in his co-pilot’s seat and flashed double finger-pistols at the passengers. “Wy, Corby, Sid, Penny, sit back an’ hold tight to your balls, ’cause this ain’t — ”
“We don’t have balls.” Sidney gestured to herself and Penelope.
“Then adopt the fig-leaf!” warned Gene, opening the cannons again to tear an opening through the domed netting that enclosed Jeefa. The links strewed everywhere in the sky, some of them plinking on the gunship like a short but thick fit of rain. The sight of it flying out of the dome made the packed ring of Romuteli encircling Jeefa’s border walls erupt in guttural screams and thrust their weapons into the air.
“My oh my, my predictions were incorrect. None of us were mutilated!”
“Cool ‘gumes, Genie.” Cooper unclipped his shrunken hammers off his belt and rattled them in his hands for mindless fun while Gene chewed mint gum and rambled on to him about Cerebral’s latest research on the shadowy valleys of Einros, one of Utherwold’s nine moons. The gunship pressed onward to the sheet of clouds blurring the relentless lightning above, fleeing the fury of the Romuteli and the crude buildings of Jeefa.
“Good job, Sidney,” said Wyatt, giving her a small nod of thanks. “If you hadn’t scouted the border and known about the sheds, I think they would’ve captured us.”
In the middle of Penelope wiping her hands clean and grumbling about the Romuteli chasing them back to the central towers, Cooper’s voice trumpeted, “Gah, don’t knot up your curly curls, Genie! I’m just sayin’, it’s outta the cosmos!” He emerged from the cockpit with a petty swagger and asked Wyatt if he could sit in the next seat over. When he said yes, Cooper dumped himself onto the cushion, scooted his butt from side to side to get comfy, and folded his arms together behind his head.
“Are you okay there?” asked Wyatt, glancing at the back of Gene’s head in the cockpit.
Cooper’s mouth teetered into a crooked grin. “Don’t need a rehashin’.” He dropped down off his seat and stuck an arm underneath Wyatt. “Don’t ya wanna get out the shiner?”
“Let me help with that,” said Wyatt, getting down as well so he could release the sack from the cushion’s underside. It dissolved in his lap to reveal the chunk of metal that he had ripped out of Shemoaniir’s safe, the realidorr still embedded in it. He tried to dig it out with his fingers and then a little energy chisel, but he pulled too hard and banged Cooper with his elbow.
“Please, passengers,” Gene declared through the intercom, his clipped voice resounding over Cooper’s shouted gibberish, “minimize all fracases during our satellite garage-bound trip.”
Sidney started to stand. “If you want, I’ll — ” She sat down when Wyatt handed the safe chunk to Cooper, who stopped rubbing his knee and held out his big arms to offer assistance.
Cooper rested the chunk in his lap, pressed his left hand facedown on the lower half, and cupped his hand in a circle around the realidorr. He failed to pry it out with the edge of his enlarged hammer, so he moved on to copying Wyatt’s tactic of digging it out with his fingers. The ringing and booming of thunder drowned out his moaning words as the gunship ascended further through Alidiska Maj’s gassy atmosphere.
Corbin said, “My hoops may prove helpful — ”
For one bit of time the passengers’ faces either lost slack or twisted up with Gargant-ish wrinkles. Cooper was actually blank-faced when those cloudy beige droplets sprayed from the cavity where he cracked out the realidorr partway and sizzled into the skin of his right forearm. Then, with a stomach-wrenching yell, he toppled off the seat, and the safe chunk clattered to the floor, dislodging the realidorr into a skitter across the floor.
“Oh dear, what calamity are you — ”
“Keep piloting, Gene!” Corbin briefly scampered into the cockpit and murmured to his brother in their secret language, in a voice of grim solemnness.
The blisters that the acid initially left on Cooper’s arm proceeded to fall apart and leave a wide strip of raw skin that reeked of a slab of rotten meat blackening atop a mound of live coals. Beige spots discolored the burn. The skin around the edges started to curl up and bleed.
“It’s okay, Cooper, I’m gonna help you, just, just hold on,” Sidney assured him, melting her first-aid kit out of her jumpsuit’s shoulder. She withdrew a four-inch-tall vial from one of the slotted spaces and poised it over the meaty burn. Wyatt started to step close, but she held up a firm hand to stop him. “Stop. This is very, very serious.”
Cooper sounded like a pig with a stuffy nose when he gurgled, “You said it was okay!”
She only released one syrupy drop, but it was enough, spreading itself thin over the burn, toning down the beige. “It’s okay, and it’s serious too.” When she retrieved a glassy cylinder no bigger than the vial from her kit, Penelope narrowed her eyes over her glasses and stooped down to inspect the item. She began to suggest an alternative, but Sidney’s eyes stopped her — not a glare, just a placid gaze that succeeded in penetrating her target with a no-nonsense air.
Over the next few minutes Sidney inserted the cylinder almost all the way into Cooper’s burn like a pin, mopped up the blood and pus with gauze, and treated it with a second syrupy drop. She cursed under her breath when his forearm bent obliquely and his hand contorted into a claw-like deformity. His wails rarely punctuated his constant, low groans.
Gene did take a backward look, and that was all he had to do to convince himself that he should remain in the cockpit instead of put the gunship on autopilot.
Once the rotten-meat-on-live-coals odor faded, the beige patches of the burn changed to pinks and browns, and the forearm and the hand began to gradually regain their normal positions, Sidney exhaled a slow breath and tenderly squeezed Cooper’s shoulder. “How’re you feeling?”
He hoarsely responded, “Like my arm is half-asleep an’ the bones are beggin’ for an itch.”
She pecked him on the cheek. “You’re healing up. One more thing.” She took a clear
bandage from her kit, adhered one end to Cooper’s right hand, and pulled the other end all the way up to his shoulder. When she let go of the bandage, it stretched tautly over every muscle and weather line of his arm, and every raw peak and valley of his burn.
“Sidney,” said Wyatt, having used an energy-gloved hand to pick up the realidorr from the floor, “what do you make of Cooper’s injury? Would it be dangerous for him to — ”
Cooper’s jaw flapped open. “Ha ha, no way ar’ya givin’ me the gift basket!”
Sidney said, “It’s okay, Durrell, I used an antitoxin to flush it all out of Cooper’s system. His arm will be numb for a bit, but I’ll watch it. I’ll keep taking care of it.”
Wyatt looked at her a moment more before examining the oblong fish with curled fins etched into both ends of the realidorr. He gave it to Penelope for her to store it in the satchel.
After crossing the mile of space between Alidiska Maj’s atmosphere and the satellite garage, Gene parked the gunship in an oversized spot, anxious about leaving it behind to the point where Penelope told him to “stop worrying away his skinny little bones.” Sidney and Cooper also briefly quarreled over whether he could safely drive with one arm numb. When she offered to pay for all fees incurred by leaving his mobular at the garage, he let out a grunt and slouched after her. She drove him to Flordubul along with everyone else’s mobulars.
They landed in the same clearing that Wyatt and Penelope had used a few days ago, less than a mile away from Gnomivy. The trees, the brambles, the bushes, everything flourished just as much as before. Stepping out of his mobular, Wyatt angled his head this way and that way to breath in the air. “It doesn’t smell as nature-blessed,” he said, fidgeting with his monitor.
“What’s happening to our opinions? Now I’m the one who thinks it did away with the aquarium mustiness.” Penelope waved a hand in front of her nose. “Hmm, I smell orabells.”
Cooper, Sidney, Corbin, and Gene spoke up about how they thought the forest reminded them of the sugary moldiness of old ballroom dresses drenched in cheap perfume, the tanginess of tigon blood, the metallic smokiness of an overheated ACINE 1010 processor, and the vague stench of something ancient and alive, respectively.
While Corbin and Gene recorded the environment with photos and videos and notes on their phones, and Sidney checked Cooper’s arm, Penelope rooted around her satchel for a copy of the Flordubul picture. “Remember, we’re going for the cabin,” she told Wyatt, holding it in front of him, jabbing a finger at the cabin inside Gnomivy. A rustling bang-bang! echoed off the paper.
“Thanks for the reminder.” He stepped around her and put together the compass. When the shiny green gem pointed forward, he told everyone to don their Enviro-Exos and led them on a short flight to Gnomivy, its millions of plants still gigantic and intertwined as always.
Soon after ducking a curtain of reddish-green moss at one of the entryways, weaving between wavy strings of furry wild berries, and shooting up a thick branch that curved into a vine tunnel, everything began to glow blue, green, orange, purple, brown, yellow, all sorts of lively hues. Some of the plants graduated into a stellar white, others faded to a burnt gold, and the last few retained their original glow. Everyone had to stop, even Wyatt, and enjoy the colors when they streamed out of the plants as thousands and thousands of pollen grains.
“Ah, romantic nature,” Gene said. “It favors us with a spectacle to invigorate our souls.”
The others chatted in hushed tones about Gnomivy, but Wyatt stayed quiet and pressed his monitor, even though his wrist didn’t ache. His eyes darted everywhere as if to look out for vortexes. After the pollen sunk into the plants below, taking the colors with them, he inhaled the clean air for the first time in minutes. The others breathed it in as well. None of them shared a word before they flew up the vine tunnel, to the platform suspended in its pocket of space, up to the cabin’s rooftop.
They did away with their Enviro-Exos, and after a minute or so Penelope was the first one to declare, “I found it!” Everyone joined her at the rooftop’s edge, where she pointed at the fernlike plants and the duo of crossed quills engraved into the wood.
Gene donned his Gelescent gloves, fingers folding together into an X. “Mr. Medanar, what challenges have you arranged for us? Voracious nematodes, perhaps? Classic predators, superabundant in most of the Doun circuit.”
“Let me see this,” Wyatt said, motioning Penelope to move aside. The compass vibrated in his hands as he held it over the engraved wood, which split into small pieces and unfolded into an opening. Just like that the realidorr rose out of the cavity, through the disc’s center hole, and Wyatt plucked it out of the air.
“Damn yeah!” Cooper clapped Wyatt on the back. “Badgerin’ us too long, this whole trail. How’d this cross-brained Quentin piece together this enigma?’, that’s knockin’ my skull!”
“That’s bull, Cooper, you love treasure-hunt movies and books,” Sidney laughed. “You didn’t question Hernando Ramsey coping with complex clues and racing ahead of cutthroat rivals to find that creepy-looking statuette in The Armon Eagle.”
“But it made sense! And it was fun! Ya know, ’cause Grimhet wasn’t on our butt.”
“It’s never fun when you grab Grimhet’s attention.” Wyatt stood up, drumming his thumb on the realidorr. “No traps so far.”
Gene warned, “You do not dare jinx us.”
Wyatt kept staring at the realidorr; its engravings matched the ferns and the crossed quills that used to be in the wood before he opened it. After Penelope outstretched her hand and he put it on her palm, she asked, “Anything else inside that notch?” She reached her other hand into the cavity and felt around the smooth interior. When her thumb moved over an incision in the bottom panel, she smirked and reached over her shoulder. “Disc.”
Wyatt stood still, a hand in the hip pocket of his pants.
“Give me the disc.”
He gave it to Penelope, who lined up the tiny nub on the disc’s outer rim with the equally tiny incision, having to force it in with both hands. The insertion caused the bottom panel to click and hinge up slightly. She stuffed the disc into her satchel and pulled up the panel. A second cavity stored a roll of paper in a clear tube with thick caps on either end.
“A secret compartment atop a secret compartment,” Corbin said, amazed.
Penelope couldn’t pry off a cap with her bare hands, so she held the tube against the wood and raised a switchgun into the air, its rapier extended. But Wyatt projected a small forcefield to clang it away. She twisted her head his way, her eyes blasting fire.
“We can’t risk harming it,” he stated, curving the forcefield under the tube, tossing it up into his hand. After examining the Rad-Bio Laboratory logo molded into both caps, a light brush of his finger filled one of them with the cobalt blue light. It unscrewed automatically and hinged open. He shook out the paper and unrolled it. He raised his eyebrows at the neat handwriting.
“Looks like Quentin wrote this. ‘Travel to the bound that Okik, Magwe, and Meyfane first opened. Six first, zero second, one third. There is the flood.'”
“See, these are the things people entertained themselves with in their free time fifty years ago, back before they started obsessing over technocracy and parallel universes and Grimhet.”
“Ya can say that again, Sid. Makes my eyes flip more than the last riddle.” Cooper leaned forward to squint at the paper in Wyatt’s hands. His right arm swung over a little, still numb, so he had to hold it back with his other hand. “Yep, eyes still flippin’. Who in Cosmotic are Okik, Magwe, and Meyfane? What bound did they open? Feel like it’s on the tip o’ my tongue.”
Corbin snapped his fingers. “Do you recall the imperative skill that must be implemented in order to solve riddles?” Sidney opened her mouth, but she shrugged when Corbin interrupted, “That’s correct. Abstract interpretation. We need to think more broadly about, say, a secret phrase that may have been shared amongst these three people to refer to this bound.”
“Meenfay, Fayemen . . .” Sidney mumbled, and then the violet in her eyes brightened. “Our Quentin loves anagrams!”
Wyatt looked back at the paper, reading it with a spike of intensity. “The names?”
“Mechin Kiko, the astrophysics professor whose radio seminars I loved listening to years back. Lerrin Gemaw, the Quantax cosmologist who was known as the Starry Bulldog for his fierce support of extra-dimensional expeditions. And — ”
“And Recklard Feymane!” Cooper hooted, loudly enough to make everyone flinch. “A fancy cosmo-genius. Stickthinkers kicked him away for bein’ loopers.”
Corbin informed, “All three of them co-founded the bound theory.”
“Yeppers, which says everythin’ in this universe blew up from a source of mighty energy, the bound, they named it, and it opens a channel all the way to the beignets in the stars, to the parallel universe responsible for our damn lives. And the source was smushed into — ”
“Nexbrug,” everyone said in unison with Cooper.
Cooper dug his thumb into his shirt, pulling it up to wipe his neck free of sweat. “Thing is, why’d Quentin think it was smooth to use that bubblin’ pot of inter-dimensional gunk as an entrance? Does he want us to melt into pure atomic crap at thirty million degrees Hilvin?”
Wyatt involuntarily took a step away when Gene stood next to him all of a sudden and said, “‘Six first, zero second, one third.’ Then ‘There is the flood.’ Recall those directions.”
Corbin said, “I don’t think those parts will make sense until we reach Nexbrug. Might this be the time to retrieve our gems from the vaults?”
Penelope growled, “Ugh, I absolutely hate Militin traffic at this time of the day!”
Groaning, Cooper pivoted a quarter turn to Sidney. “I’m still driving with you?” When she nodded, he made a loud phew! and wiped his neck again.
Wyatt rolled up the paper, slid it into the tube, and recapped it closed. “All right, then. Onward to Militin.”
No one could fly off the cabin before Penelope made them wipe their hands, saying, “You do not want to transmit Gnomivy’s germs.”
“Do not hasten the parking! Your physical safety is your highest privilege!”
“As always, brother, as always.”
The team watched Corbin struggle to inch his mobular back and forth and back and forth. He wiggled into a spot between Penelope’s hefty Maesse and a motorcycle that, except for the long tailpipes, resembled Sidney’s cycle. Gene uttered cries and squeaks and covered his eyes every time someone screeched past Corbin.
“Hey, watch your ass!” Penelope yelled at one particular motorist whose rear bumper grazed the side of Corbin’s mobular. The motorist’s response was the middle finger, but she deflected this with double the power. “Clean the goop from your exhaust, why don’t you?”
Wyatt said, “Penelope, that’s enough. You could get him in an accident.”
“Sorry, Com’dore, but they’ll print her brain onto a robochip before she listens to that fluff,” Cooper loudly whispered to Wyatt, swirling a pear chip in a cup of chunky dip and popping it into his mouth. He chewed with his mouth closed and swallowed before his eyes popped out. “Slap my knee, that’s a whole Catastrophic Gladiators cosplay group!” He pointed across the street at the flocks of feather-crested gladiators crowding into a building’s foyer.
Absorbing the costumes in all their flamboyance, Sidney commented, “I don’t see many people dressing up as Herus Atlinious these days. Aren’t you still working on your Loor-Gravis costume, Cooper, the one with those chin rings and the tethered axes?”
He ate another chip from the bag clipped to his belt. “Yeah, too bad I can’t find time away from huge-o missions.” Cooper coughed over his next words. “Lunatark, Quentin, riddles!”
After Corbin parked his mobular with a final whu-bunk, Cooper asked everyone if they were sure they didn’t want anything from the nearby snack machine where he got his bag of pear chips. They were sure. After turning around an intersection, Warbearer Foundation was a block ahead. Wyatt glimpsed sideways at Penelope when she paused her gait and tightened her lips. Then she glimpsed sideways at him too, and he shifted his gaze back to the Foundation.
The street forked around the imposing building of crimson stone and rejoined at the back to form an oval. Triangles of all acute or obtuse angles lined the outer walls, making them look studded from afar, as if the most searing flames of a Drathinca wouldn’t leave a dot of smoke on the pockmarked surface. A flag of the Warbearer tigon fluttered from a pole on the tip of the pyramidal roof.
The agents fell into a collective march up a slightly-inclined walkway of rock slabs carved in the profiles of Warbearer members who fought long battles, led quests to expand the known borders of Cosmotic, and invented weaponry to fight enemies like Grimhet. A total of six walkways connected at a fifteen-foot-wide triangle carved with Harlow Marsden’s image from the waist up. The five-claw ranks on his collar and the medals on his uniform were secondary to the weary ridges in his face and the trio of long scars over his left eye. Most of the team dipped their eyes at the ground in some fashion, but Penelope made a point to glare at the Originator.
They were checked at the security gate and given wristbands, like the ones at Cerebral Foundation, before a sentinel escorted them through the laser-rimmed doors. They veered around a tigon with its open mouth full of gleaming red teeth, forepaws planted on a messy stack of bricks, stripes at their brightest all along its body and around the mane. Yes, it was only a statue, but Wyatt still instinctively turned a glowing palm towards it, and the others weren’t slowing down to admire it.
Otherwise, the entrance hall wasn’t quite as austere as the outside. Stars and other angular bits of almond white and pale red broke up the crimson. Surfaces were much more smooth and curved. There was a brightness in the Warbearer portraits’ stern expressions, maybe because they were at home in their Foundation.
While the team waited for their gems, Gene asked Penelope about her time in Warbearer. She arched an eyebrow at him and replied in her grittiest tone, “I’m satisfied at RBL, thank you so much for asking.”
Gene and Corbin exchanged a look of befuddlement before a sentinel returned with what could have been a box of bulletproof wood. He unclipped a coppery triangle from his chest pocket and turned it in the lock three times. A dull bu-bumk came from the box. The sentinel thunked it down at Penelope’s feet and removed the triangle. “Verify the contents. Then the Commander would like to have a word with you.”
Wyatt’s eyebrows crawled upward. “With us? Why?”
All the sentinel did was take a step back and nod down to the box. With a flash of a frown Penelope leaned over, threw open the lid, and took out three plastic bags, each with a realidorr and a tracking capsule. “Let’s get this over with,” she said after a moment of inspection.
The sentinel disappeared into a corridor, reemerging seconds later with Marsden in dress uniform, including her fur-rimmed manecap with its rearward peak. “Agents, I’m happy to see you again,” she greeted, thinly smiling. “I need to speak with Durrell.”
Penelope slitted her eyes. “About what?”
“A concern of mine.” Marsden beckoned Wyatt with a swift hand gesture. “Durrell.”
He assured his team he would be back, but he also couldn’t ignore Penelope muttering something about Marsden always feeling happy to see someone in her den. Wyatt followed her into a side corridor and up a flight of stairs to a cramped landing, where her authority made fast work of giving the air a tingling sensation. He drummed his fingers along the railing, keeping his voice even. “I hope this concern of yours isn’t so great that you want to curb us.”
The thoughtful stare in Marsden’s red eyes made her look like she wanted to extract one of Wyatt’s eyeballs and peek into the darkness in his head. “That’s the farthest thing from my interests, Durrell. Aren’t you up-to-date with the media?”
“Listening to Starsapiens spark off about how foolish we are to leave Cosmotic and chase a fantasy antiviral doesn’t boost me with fortitude.”
“Then you’re missing out on a wave of accolades. Verity Press shined a spotlight on you and your Stalwarts this morning. My husband is especially enamored of your bold efforts. You’re lucky he’s on your side. He owns the entire network. He wants Cosmotic to see your good side.”
“Like Xavier and Elmo. But I can’t care less about the media. We are concerned with wiping out the Super Nex virus and stopping Grimhet. I have said this a lot.”
“Afterwards, Fulbright and Wiley will promote their project —”
“They don’t know that yet. It’s up in the air.”
Marsden took off her manecap, ran a hand over the peak of faux tigon fur, and tucked it under her arm. “Durrell, the Overseers and Advisors debated whether it’s worth letting the six of you do this. Foxer has his own operatives for which he vouches, and Bridger threw in a couple of his own extracosmologists. But I want to approach it differently.” She took a step up the stairs, then turned to face Wyatt down on the landing. “If you stay here — ”
“No. I’ll see you when we’re back with heylenorr.”
“Durrell,” she called after him as he descended the stairs. “Durrell, we’re working hand-in-hand with Rad-Bio on some of their plans. They’re above your pay grade, but I can put in a word for you, and it will surpass your upcoming promotion.”
Wyatt flatly responded, “Goodbye, Overseer.”
“Did you ever stop to think about how they treated Quentin Medanar?”
Wyatt didn’t stop, but his eyebrows unevenly knitted together. “Rad-Bio gives its trial participants informed consent. Besides, Medanar is an exception.”
This time he stopped and looked over his shoulder when she said, “Yes, an exception. Isn’t that why Naazang killed him?” He watched her from the corner of his eye, and she went on, “I’m glad we know more about his fate, thanks to your short excursion. We know those viruses are developing in your body, feeding off your system. You could be the next Medanar.”
Wyatt looked down at his hands, at the dim dots on his right palm, and then he lifted his head to frown at Marsden. “That isn’t the truth. Dr. Fulbright and Xavier — ”
“You can’t depend on them, Durrell. Why would you let them break your trust twice? But we can cure you. The first operative on Foxer’s list will be your substitute. He’s worked alongside Cooper and Sidney on previous tasks.”
Wyatt’s eyes drifted upward and focused on the strips of yellowish-white light built into the ceiling. Some of them appeared to blur and fade into spots of darkness. Why would you let them break your trust twice? resounded through him, and he looked down at his hands to find that those dots had vanished.
“We can enroll you for the trial within a week, Durrell. Think about it. It may be in your best interests to relinquish your spot on the team. Your life will return to normal.”
Wyatt lifted his head to frown at Marsden again, even more intensely. “No, thank you. If you’ll excuse me now, my agents and I have to travel to an alternate dimension.”
Never before had he felt such a puzzling mixture of shock and austerity emanate from someone’s stare, especially Marsden’s widening, unblinking eyes as she repeatedly flicked her thumb off the rim of her manecap. He turned and descended the stairs before she could scrutinize him further.
“The white button, not the red one, you skinny geek! The white button!”