“Penelope, I’d like to ask you something,” said Wyatt, entering the kitchen, where his Rad-Bio colleague was stirring a pot of oatmeal on the stovetop.
She pointed her spoon at him. “Shoot.”
“How come you never once mentioned that you’re Sidney’s guardian?”
Penelope growled just as the oatmeal burst into furious bubbling. “She told you?” After he nodded, she turned down the heat and stirred the pot faster to settle down the oatmeal. “No reason. Why, you’re still taking us for lesbians?”
“Not at all. But you’re not pouring your heart out by saying you adopted somebody. Or that you have siblings. Duncan, Roame, and the . . . And the siblings, she said they’re crazy.”
Penelope’s eyes narrowed at him. “Crazy? What about unhinged? In fact, that’s what my whole family is like, a bunch of loony bin escapees.” She turned back to the oatmeal and bitterly laughed. “I’m only half-joking. Foxer took my insane dad under custody for four months and interrogated him for intel on illegal space-time distorters.”
“Is that you why have such a thick shell? Because of your family?”
“No, I’m just a private person. You’re the same way. We both have thick shells.”
“But you were open enough about Marsden discharging you — ”
“Which” — Penelope sharply flicked her spoon Wyatt’s way — “is clearly different.”
His right eyebrow lifted a little. He thought, Does she know why Sidney seems to think Naazang is a greater threat than Gargant? He was about to say something along those lines, but then he swallowed a glob of saliva that made him cough into his elbow. “Water!” he struggled out between coughs. “Water!”
“I opened up a few bottles out there.” Penelope pointed out the kitchen with her spoon. As Wyatt jogged back into the hallway, plucked a bottle off the table, and drank from it, she went on, “You might notice that I already twisted them open. The Thistle brothers tried that yesterday, and their hands became all red and irritated.”
Wyatt swallowed his water and said, “Oh, no wonder I saw them use up the lotion.”
At breakfast, Corbin and Gene revealed that they had unlocked a basement sector of the cavern early this morning and had almost finished repairs on an escape pod. Then Corbin said, “But when we launched it on a test flight, it strayed outside the signal range.”
Cooper moved his bangs around with the handle of his fork. “Ya lost the controls?”
Penelope scoffed, “And here I am thinking you’re engineering prodigies.”
“The pod’s navigation mechanics were flawed!” Gene screeched, stabbing the air with his spoon, making everyone dodge the oatmeal flakes that were flying off. “If only Mr. Medanar had refined the pod just a tad more. This morning I had half a mind to disrobe myself, don a pair of rompers from one of Mr. Medanar’s voluminous closets, and yell out, ‘Step aside, venturers, for
Mr. Ant must unleash his fervor!'”
Wyatt said, “Mr. Ant?”
“An ant infestation in the Thistle household. A few of them crawled into my shirt.”
Corbin added, “I came up with the nickname. An uproarious Sunday, that was.”
Gene nodded to his brother. “Now we are left to, to pinpoint this Super Nex reserve.”
“I hope it works,” Wyatt said, checking his SPACE Union monitor and the Super Nex bracelet that Gene gave him. Both devices flickered between the digits one and two.
“The tablet we found claims that the reserve is still active,” Corbin reminded him.
After breakfast, Corbin and Gene returned everyone’s weaponry, having repaired them throughout yesterday and this morning, and they passed around Sharpoise blasters. They also provided Wyatt with a bronze rod that telescoped into a three-foot staff and popped out a tiny ball on a thin chain. The ball automatically enlarged into a fist-sized ball adorned in ten spikes. Gene called it Dawnaster. Seeing this made Penelope flash a devilish grin and ask the brothers if they could build the same weapon for her sometime.
“When the time is right, you’ll receive an invention, I assure you,” answered Corbin, which made Penelope’s grin fall into a frown.
Gene insisted that Wyatt should carry the pale blue flashlight that was found yesterday, claiming, “My tests confirmed that it reacts to the presence of Super Nex with atomic oscillations in its peculiar structure.” He dwelled on about the item through complex physics formulas.
Wyatt stared at him with a slightly-arched eyebrow, and Cooper commented, “Little T, he lost ya with the ‘tomic oscillatin’ fluff. Do ya wanna give him the damn light or not?”
“Um, he left me puzzled, that’s all.” Wyatt took the flashlight from Gene. “Thanks.” He peered into the end that should have had a lightbulb. He twisted the cap on the other end to make klee-klik, klee-klik noises. After tucking the item into his jacket, he aimed his hands at a wall, but
he could not create any cobalt glow or wisps.
“Come on, we should go,” Sidney said, pulling the lever to open the entrance. “The clear weather will make our trek that much easier.”
Penelope asked, “Thistles, haven’t you built jet-boots or flight suits?”
“We directed those mechanics to the pod that made itself scarce,” Corbin said, giving Wyatt a small radio. “We found this in Mr. Medanar’s collection. Contact us if you need to be disentangled from any obstacles, and we’ll follow the signals to define your location.”
Cooper said, “Why aren’t we all goin’ off on this trek?”
“Because people need to guard this cave. Imagine how much of a setback it would be if other people took it over in our absence,” Penelope answered, removing several wipes from her dispenser. She stuffed them into a baggie and handed it to Wyatt. “Better take this.”
“I gotta say, Pen, how can a germaphobe like you stand working in a lab that’s filled with nothin’ but wiggle-wiggly microbial parasites and mutated DNA? What if the protocol poofs away and there’s a whole outbreak of infections? It happens!”
“It’s easier to deal with the materials in Rad-Bio than whatever you’re afflicted with.”
“What, my sweat and smarts?”
“Okay, guys, we’ll be back,” Wyatt said before he, Gene, and Sidney donned breathing masks from Quentin’s stock and headed outside. Before the agents discovered the cavern, they had taken long and heavy steps that matched their deep breaths. With the new breathing masks, it helped them walk at a much faster gait and take clear breaths from the musty air. Gene tracked
the Super Nex reserve on his tablet, treading across the dusty terrain with the others, eyes darting away from the distant indigo lightning bolts that were blurring the leaden sky.
About five minutes in, a female voice that could have been mistaken for a cascade of boulders hollered from behind, “Well, well, well. Looks like we’ve found new skin to harvest.”
The three agents turned to find six Romuteli in all of their muscly, ligament-y, tendon-y glory. Each one of them stared at the Starsapiens with tiny, sunken eyes. The one who spoke was a chief who sported a domed helmet of interwoven leather braids and two stubby, greenish-white horns jutting out the front. More leather hung in her fibrous hair as spirally strips. She gripped a three-foot-long forked hook in her leather-gloved hands. Behind her were two engineers with hammers and pick-axes strapped to their belts, a miner clutching a suitcase-sized laser driller, and two watchmen holding onto bone scythes. Wyatt reached into his pocket for the Dawnaster. Gene put on his Gelescent gloves. Sidney held up two boomerangs.
An engineer sputtered, “You, you’re Wyatt Durrell, the Super Nex warrior! You’ve been causing terror for Grimhet!”
“Really? But they’ve been so kind, I thought they wanted to invite me over for a glass of vinneum and some shortbread,” Wyatt innocently replied.
The chief grunt, “Clamp your chew hole, nobody likes a smart-aleck superhero!”
The engineer, fidgeting with a pick-axe, turned to the chief and asked, “Shemoaniir, shouldn’t we leave?”
The gravelly-voiced female, Shemoaniir, adjusted the blackish-tan leather satchel slung over her shoulder and said, “We need to catch vermin like him. Naazang promised us a big bounty for his capture.” She pushed the tip of her hook into the gray-rimmed magenta stone dangling off her necklace of lumpy rocks.
Sidney’s eyes gleamed with spite. “Naazang, you say?” She held the razor-sharp edge of her boomerangs towards the Romuteli. “Well, bounty hunters, today is your unlucky day.”
“I am taking into account how you are completely ignoring the two of us and regarding Wyatt with your undivided attention,” Gene said, which made Shemoaniir brandish her hook.
Holding onto his Dawnaster, Wyatt unclipped the radio from his belt. “Agents, we need backup! I repeat, we need backup!”
Cooper’s voice responded, “‘Kay, comin’ right there.” It ended with a click.
Wyatt clipped the radio to his belt, and a watchman said, “Even with support, you’re still no match for our strength. You scrawny skin aren’t — ” A sharp sound similar to the ripping of paper rang out as the spiked ball of Wyatt’s Dawnaster tore through the Romuteli’s chest. The next swing crumbled apart the rest of his tendons.
“Scrawny skin,” Wyatt flatly repeated. He swung his Dawnaster again to make the Romuteli retreat, after which Gene projected Gelescent blasts at Shemoaniir, who deflected the shots with her cane. Sidney dodged the cane-swings and returned a sweeping kick. Shemoaniir fell over and dropped her satchel. A watchman and the engineers tried to attack Sidney, but Gene and Wyatt blocked their way and engaged them in fast-paced combat.
Sidney hurled two boomerangs to block a swipe from Shemoaniir’s hook, making it clank back so that the blade inflicted a thin slice across Shemoaniir’s shoulder. It also cut her necklace, so she had to pick it up from the ground, ignoring her shoulder’s loosened muscle fibers. She shouted to her minions in their native dialect. They all shuddered and their eyes shrunk even more, but they nodded. She sprinted away, leaving a trail of deep footprints, and dove into the ground like it was water, sinking instantly into the dust, leaving the Starsapiens to blink stupidly.
“What — ” Wyatt stopped when he had to clang his staff against the watchman’s scythe.
Sidney’s boomerangs narrowly missed a thick laser shooting out of the miner’s driller. Wyatt noticed this and seized the watchman’s scythe, throwing it between the laser and Sidney. After the scythe disintegrated, she sprinted off, gripped the miner’s arm, and jerked him to the ground. She tore away his bulky weapon and fired two lasers. He shared the scythe’s death.
One of the engineers had been knocked to the ground earlier due to a whack from Wyatt, but he rose back to his feet and started to spin around with his outstretched pick-axe. The wobbly action didn’t stop Gene from firing Gelescent strands around his legs and lashing him into the ground, puffing up a ring of dust. Gene whipped him upward and then jerked him down to knock him out, repeating the tactic for the second engineer.
In the middle of Wyatt deflecting the second watchman’s bone scythes with his staff, four air bullets zipped out of nowhere, piercing the watchman’s chest. Wyatt, Gene, and Sidney spun around to witness Cooper, Corbin, and Penelope running down from a small hilltop.
“Sorry we didn’ join your mischief right off the bat, though you were doin’ mighty fine without us,” Cooper said with a crooked grin, banging a hammer head into the engineers who had regained consciousness and broken out of the Gelescent strands.
Hefting a backpack, Corbin said, “Pinpointing the signals in this fog was a bit difficult.”
Penelope gave Sidney a hug and asked, “Are you all okay?”
Wyatt answered, “We’re okay. Thanks for coming.”
Gene stood over the miner’s muscly remnants and cheered, “Victory over the ill-omened wretches of Romuteli! May the rest of your brethren encounter — ”
“Gene, we don’t need to listen to your complicated rant.”
“Penelope, I have a heart, and your stricture is contusing it.”
“I don’t care!” she whispered, smirking when Gene crossed his arms.
“Shemoaniir forgot something,” Sidney said, motioning a boomerang to the satchel.
Wyatt picked it up and flipped open the top flap. He handed out a gray-tinged Gigalek amber key, four stained shurikens, a canister of wide pills with a reddish liquid swirling in their hard shells, and two greasy computer tablets. Penelope grunted, “I hate greasy things,” as she dropped a tablet back into the bag and produced her wipe dispenser to clean her hands.
Corbin said, “Romuteli established a partnership with Grimhet, although the bond has been strained as of late. She did mention abducting Wyatt to collect a reward from Naazang. She owned this key as well. It’s still perplexing that we are constantly encountering these items.”
Sidney said, “Don’t forget the Web packages filled with synthetic amber.”
A small swirl of dust blew onto Wyatt’s cheek and ear, so he used his hand to brush it off. More swirls circled around the other agents as he said, “Grimhet has to be smuggling them out somehow. Gene, how close is the Super Nex reserve?”
“We only need to sustain our gait for approximately ten more minutes.”
Everyone hurried off to follow the tablet’s marked path, pulling at their tight breathing masks, holding their hands over their eyes. This last action was meant to block out the dust that continually rose off the ground, whirled around them, and rapidly fell back down. The whispery winds increased into intermittent howls as Gene told everyone to stop. He kneeled down, holding the tablet inches over the ground, tapping the touchscreen for a long time.
Penelope gave him a little push in the arm. “Move out of the way.”
“Do you wish to show any care for my fragile build?”
“Oh, don’t be a prince . . . -ess.” She drew a switchgun from her hip holster, extended the rapier, and chipped away at the ground. When it crumbled apart into a small hole that led to an even smaller handle caked with dust and mud, she twisted it with a wipe-covered hand. A panel next to the handle clicked up, and she pulled it back on its hinges to reveal a boxy compartment.
Sidney stooped over and lifted out a trio of upright cylinders linked together by curved bars. A rubbery ball dangled by coppery wires in the center of the structure. Cobalt light faded in and out inside glass bands running up and down the cylinders. As she turned it over in her hands, Wyatt said, “It might be the core, but it seems . . . it looks dead.”
Sidney said, “Why, just because of the irregularly-glowing bands of light?”
Wyatt nodded as she handed it to him. He slipped a hand between two of the cylinders, snapping back from the whitish-cobalt spark that jumped out of the ball and stung his thumb. The reserve emitted loud whirs and brightened the light in its bands, then fell into a silent and lightless state. The other agents, who had moved back quickly, stepped closer to Wyatt and stared at the reserve. He touched the center ball again, shook it a little, and squeezed the cylinders, but nothing seemed to reactivate it.
“Just out of inquisitiveness, did this invention reinvigorate your abilities?” Gene asked.
Wyatt aimed a hand at the ground and waited, then sighed and shook his head. “No. It’s nothing but faulty.” He reached between the cylinders again, but a second spark lit up between his thumb and the ball. The sting was more painful than the first one and made him jerk the reserve out of his grip, breaking the ball off the copper wires, pinching it between his finger and thumb. One of the cylinders snapped off when the reserve crashed on the ground, and a split ran down another cylinder.
Gene buried his face in his hands. “Oh, this is splendiferous! So splendiferous! Thank
you, Mr. Durrell, for your unsurpassable dexterity!”
“It was dead anyways. It wouldn’t have served any purpose.”
“Your presumption is invalid, for Corbin and I could have tinkered with it. Tinkered!”
Cooper brushed his shoes across the ground and gave small kicks to the scattered debris of the reserve. “Yep, this widget’s a goner. So we lugged our asses out here for, what, nothin’?”
“Not nothing.” Wyatt pocketed the rubbery ball.
“And we can salvage the rest of the contents,” Sidney said.
After Corbin gathered pieces from the reserve in a large plastic bag and stuffed it into his backpack, Penelope instructed everyone to return to the cavern. The howling winds and swirling dust, which had stopped over the past few minutes, came back even stronger. Everyone whipped their heads around at the swaying whirls of small rocks. Their brisk march lasted for a minute before the crackling noises resounded from directly beneath them. They froze in place, although Gene was the only one whose feet wobbled on the ground.
Sidney said, “I’m not sure how much better it is for us to stay still.”
“Well, how’re we — ” Cooper shut his eyes and loudly coughed. “Oh, gross! I swallowed some grimy specks! Why’s it so gusty?”
Penelope held a flat hand over her brow and squinted through the thickening streaks of dust and pebbles. “How can you even ask that? We’re on Alidiska Min, for crying out loud! It gets like this at least once every week!”
“Agents,” Wyatt broke in as he slowly lifted his left foot off the ground, “we need to get through this storm.” His voice rose to a yelling level so that he could be heard over the growing whines and roars. He lowered his left foot on the ground two feet ahead, covering his mouth with one hand while calling out, “I still can’t access my powers yet, so we’ll have to — ”
“Pay heed to the ground, Wyatt!” Corbin exclaimed, keeping one eye closed and a hand clapped over his mouth, using his other hand to point at the ground under Wyatt.
This made him lower his chin and stare at the crackles stretching across the ground every few seconds. They started from his scratched-up shoes and stopped close to Cooper, who sucked in a breath and leaned back. Clenching and unclenching his hands, Wyatt lifted his right foot off the ground. The next step caused another series of crackles to spread out. “It’s okay, just — ” He paused to cough out dust. “Keep moving! It’s the only — ” He stopped to cough again.
Everyone started to move forward again, even though every step crackled the ground even more, releasing more vibrations and sharp ka-racckk! noises. Corbin, Gene, and Sidney moved faster, while Cooper, Wyatt, and Penelope paced a bit more slowly. After a minute of slow progress, the whines and roars quieted down, and the dust and pebbles collapsed. The agents blinked, brushed the dirt off their hair and their faces, and took more slow steps, still squinting.
Gene said, “A certain concept has entered my mind, and I wonder if its verbal articulation would curse us with even more aerial agitation.”
“I know what you’re thinking, so let’s keep quiet — ” Penelope stopped when a long cracking sound echoed from below. She lowered her eyes and glared as the splits expanded from her feet, raced across the ground, and burst up multiple large stones.
The agents either lurched to the side or fell down, then rolled out of the way of the falling stones. They rose to their feet and called out each other’s names as columnar rocks abruptly grew out of the ground. Some columns stopped at a height of forty feet, while others reached sixty feet. Then a split circled around the lower half of a structure, and it began to tip over. Cooper, Penelope, and Sidney briefly ran away from where the column would land, but Sidney looked back and called out, “Corbin! Corbin, where are you going?”
Penelope looked back next and skidded to a stop, glaring at Corbin’s sprint toward the slowly-falling column, which creaked and thudded as it banged into other columns and toppled them. She let out a growl and flicked a hand at Corbin. “Wyatt and Gene!” She dashed off, and Cooper and Sidney tried to follow her, although the recurring winds of dust and pebbles stopped all three of them from running as fast as they would have preferred. They wobbled to a stop when the first column crashed onto the ground with a thunderous rumble.
“Gene!” Corbin shouted over the cacophony of creaks, thuds, whines and roars as more columns started toppling. “Wyatt!” He cupped a hand over his brow and muttered, “Blasphemy!”
“Corbin?” Wyatt yelled back from more than fifteen feet away, looking all around with Gene but not seeing anything more than dense whirls of dust and blurry columns.
“Corbin!” Gene cried out next, followed by a throaty noise when Wyatt hauled him over his shoulder and bolted forward. “Mr. Durrell, this is ludicrous! Free me from — ”
“Be quiet!” Wyatt pointed forward and lifted Gene above his head with the aim of hurling him to Corbin. Then one of the many columns that had been pushed by the first one fell over completely with another thunderous boom, making Wyatt waver and pause his throw. By the time he recovered, a column started tilting over from the left side. He almost lost his grip on Gene, but he caught him in his arms, whirled around, and dashed off.
“Oh, much gratitude for your altruistic action!” Gene cried as a disordered collection of thuds, cracks, and booms tore out of the columns splitting apart, tipping into each other, and collapsing. “What a significant blunder, Mr. Durrell! Without Super Nex to empower — ”
“Gene, this isn’t the right time,” Wyatt interrupted, carrying Gene over his shoulder. He weaved between two columns that started tilting toward each other, then darted under a series of columns before they could crash down. However, one column keeled over at a much more rapid speed, blocking Wyatt and making him pivot to one side. Then a whole piece of the ground shot upward, throwing him and Gene over twenty feet into the air.
During those few seconds, those precious few seconds as they flew toward a widening pit of ash and darkness, Wyatt removed something warm and vibrating from his jacket. It was the flashlight, but the end where a lightbulb should have gone now blinked an indistinct cloud of cobalt light. Even stranger, the rubbery ball from the broken reserve zipped out of his pants pocket and clicked itself into a crevice on the other end of the flashlight. The cloud solidified into a miniature energy orb.
Without the vaguest reason Wyatt clamped Gene’s wrist. Then the orb hummed out of the flashlight and absorbed into his chest, permeating his body with the power he felt on Octoberry Trails. Gene’s mouth was frozen, but his pale face and beads of sweat dripping down his nose spoke for him. Before a column could crash into them in midair and force them into the pit, the flashlight transformed into a spinning beam of pure energy and projected a spherical forcefield around them. It shrunk into a dot and then vanished.
Wyatt and Gene were gone.
“Penelope, I’d like to ask you something,” said Wyatt, entering the kitchen, where his Rad-Bio colleague was stirring a pot of oatmeal on the stovetop.