Project Super Nex, Chapter Fourteen: The Hereborg

Traveling to Vestral, parking his mobular in an alley, climbing a pebbly zigzag of a road between low mudstone buildings, Wyatt held up a hand to shield his eyes from the morning light of four suns shining through breaks in the stratus clouds. He sped up the walk to an intersection where the thudding of crates, the sizzling of metal, the tinging of bells, and the shouting of shopkeepers blasted out of open storefronts. In another minute the sharp acidity and tanginess of various spices zoomed into Wyatt’s nostrils, overwhelming his sense of smell so much that he pinched his nose closed. Waving away dragonflies that left whispery trails of purplish light didn’t help to calm him down either.
He hurried along a curved pathway bordered with statues that depicted the most curious explorers of Cosmotic. The chest of every statue contained the deceased figure’s heart. At the end was the Hereborg, one of Torchen’s largest outposts in the universe. Mauve buttresses pressed up against its deep purple walls. The pagoda-like structure rose for ten stories to a louvered rooftop that erected a monument of the Torchen emblem. Up on the porch were large flowers called Meda gushers, pale pink bursts on their thick stamens bleeding down the white-and-creamy petals. Wyatt’s presence made them rustle in their ceramic floor pots. He pressed a button beside the star-engraved door, activating a gentle flute chord.
The door opened in seconds to reveal Freye Urewlil — the real one, hopefully — with her staff, wearing a kilted dress pinned at the shoulders with coppery brooches of Meda gushers. “Good to see you, Wyatt.” She waved him into the foyer. “Thank you for coming on short notice. I know you and your younglings have your venture, but this is essential for your health.”
His jaw tightened as he flashed back to Tortug Terre, where he heard a few of those striking words from the mouth of a disguised Naazang. “I, I know,” he said, rubbing the ache in the side of his neck. “I’d like to learn more about why my energy is fluctuating.”
He paused as light floral scents wafted out of a basket of Meda gushers from the ceiling and into his nose. A never-ending stream of flutes floated out of the walls and settled into his ears. Purple and black stripes glowed from the lattices of diamond-shaped wall lanterns. Between them were stone slabs that had carvings in relief of humanoids, animals, and plants of all kinds. They seemed to be alive, swaying and stretching their upper bodies, never moving their lower bodies, always whispering.
“Don’t stare, please,” Freye warned, sounding even quieter. “Our thaums can see you. Some of them will be accepting of your curiosity, but others . . .”
“What? I’m not staring.” Wyatt swiveled his head the other way. “And my arm, I need it to heal. I woke up today to a bit of soreness there, but it was gone five, maybe ten minutes later.”
“You might be exhausting yourself. Make sure to preserve your energy during the rest of your mission.” Freye led him through one of the corridors curving out of the foyer.
As they climbed a stairway that spiraled up through all ten levels of the Hereborg, Wyatt asked, “Are all these living engravings staring at me for a reason?”
“Our thaums are amazed and slightly frightened by your abilities.”
Wyatt’s eyes zipped back and forth between all the moving engravings, who spoke more loudly and pointed their appendages, staffs, talons, tentacles, and horns directly at him. “They shouldn’t be attracted to Super Nex. I’m not harboring anything mystical or supernatural.”
“Their fascination is unique. This is part of the reason why I invited you.”
Wyatt was led onto the stairway’s seventh-level landing and into a hallway, hanging back to stare down a screeching thaum. Bending its head from side to side, shaking the curly hairs under its lower jaw, the eight-legged beast was thrusting its horns at him.
“Is this one challenging me or something? I’m feeling some aggression.”
“Do not lead on that particular thaum. The courtship rituals of offeens can turn offensive if you’re unwilling to reciprocate.” She hurried him away from the still-screeching beast, down the hall to a door with an engraving of a hand holding onto a full cup. She poised her staff on the lavender spiral handle. “It’s rare that we submit anyone outside of Torchen to these examinations. They aren’t willing to accept the truths that are brought into the light.”
“I know, what with Garg — ” Wyatt pinched his lips together and rubbed the back of his neck. “I mean, it’s not him specifically. It’s other things, too.”
“Whatever knowledge you absorb from this session, Wyatt, promise me that you will at least consider it, whether it’s gratifying or repulsive.”
“What could I find repulsive?” Wyatt took a step back when Freye held her staff between them, dropping her eyes to the winged orb’s vague face. After he gave a small nod, she hooked the orb’s wings onto the door handle and pushed it down with a creak. The door swung open. She led Wyatt into a room filled with test dummies, weaponry racks, and several pieces of exercise and medical equipment. Affixed to the ceiling were three coppery fish cast in a ring around a pot of Meda gushers. Fabric banners were strung around the rim, depicting deities from Torchen lore and runes. More of the thaum slabs dotted the walls; Wyatt leaned away from one close to his left that had a swarm of mantis-like bugs welcoming him with wide-open pincers and antennae that creaked with every incessant twitch. A large portion of the room’s right half was filled with ladder-like machines that zigzagged fluid-like bolts between the horizontal bars.
“First, I want to give your strength reserves a basic assessment.”
Wyatt held up his wrists, showing his bracelets. “They do the assessments pretty well.”
“I prefer to rely on a zoatic signature valuer.” Freye hurried to one of the ladder machines and tapped a monitor with her staff. She motioned for Wyatt to come closer and told him, “Now, you need to hold out your hands between the bars in the middle.”
“Right there?” He gestured to a space in between two bars, furrowing his eyebrows at the bolts that repeatedly jumped up and down in wavy motions.
“The bolts will not harm you. They’ll transmit into your hands, harvest Super Nex energy, and pass it into the ZS valuer for analyzation.” She watched Wyatt’s tense face and added, “I’m not Naazang. I’m Overseer Freye Urewlil, fifth-generation descendant of Murith Urewlil.”
“Good to know,” Wyatt said, resisting the chance to look back at those chi-chitch, chi-chitching mantis thaums. His hands extended between two of the ZS valuer’s bars. Strong tingles zipped into his bones. His fingertips emitted long beams of light into the machine.
When Freye stepped around to the back of the machine and read the monitor, and Wyatt asked about what it said, she answered, “It’s detecting a large amount of unusual energy in your body.” She swiped her staff across the monitor, and her eyes widened.
“What does it say?” he repeated, retracting his hands from the bars. When she glanced up at him silently, he rushed around to read the monitor, but the Torchen runes were so blurry that he had to rub his eyes. “Freye?”
“My experience with signatures in a multitude of embodiments leads me to conclude that you may — ” She paused. “Your signature may be reflecting something . . . outside Cosmotic.”
Wyatt started twisting his college ring. “Outside Cosmotic.”
“Few people inherit this genealogy. Yours in particular is currently latent.”
“Latent. In what manner?”
“It is in the process of fully developing itself. We need to gather more data.”
Wyatt followed her to a machine close to the ZS valuers. Three W-shaped structures stood on a grid of ridged slats and rose to a height of eight feet. Over a dozen one-inch-thick cables crisscrossed between the Ws. She explained, “This is a strainer. It conducts a stress test to add artificial tension as if you’re expending your strength, although it won’t fatally do so.”
Fatally, thought Wyatt, raising his eyebrows a tad. I’ve never liked that word.
“Once you reach your highest level,” Freye went on, “the point where you can’t safely absorb more stress, the strainer will shut down and return all the energy to your system. When I say so, firmly grip the cables with both hands. It should be uncomfortable, not painful. If the latter occurs, tell me so. I’ll shut it down and let you rest. Ready?”
“Ready.” He extended both hands toward the cables. When she finished typing on the touchscreen and gave the word, his fingers clasped two cable bundles. The strainer initially sent tingling pulsations into his elbows and knees. Once he endured the process for six minutes, the
strainer made him feel as if clamps compressed into his chest, back, and left wrist.
Freye’s eyes flickered up at his strangled grunt. “Do you want me to stop?”
Wyatt clenched his fingers even more tightly onto the cables. “Keep going,” he husked, progressing through further symptoms, including increased torso pressure, pricks in his knees, sore arms, and a strong tightness in the back of his head.
The strainer emitted one long beep before Freye said, “It shut down. It removed most of your energy.” While Wyatt pulled his hands off the cables and took in a breath, she cupped a hand over the orb of her staff. The wings folded together, then spread apart. Her hand pulled back to reveal a small glass, which she handed to him. “Drink this.”
He frowned at the violet swirls on the surface of the drink, the creaking of those antennae growing longer and louder in the distance. “What is it?”
“Wisivich. It will replenish your energy. It’s strongly flavored, so don’t gulp it — ” She stood back when he sipped the drink and then spurted it into the glass, his cheeks turning dark purple. After she fanned him with her staff, the color drained away.
They engaged in more tests before Wyatt said he had to meet the others on Alidiska Min. He refused Freyes’s offer to give him a bunch of mukkfrul, white-splotched mushrooms with fur-frilled caps, and a bottle of amelge, an opaque white beverage with little orange eggs whirling around the bottom. “Vestral has one of the highest life expectancy rates out of all moons, which we owe to our food market,” she reasoned. Then she asked, “Has this been helpful?”
Checking Quentin’s bracelet, which read 87, Wyatt lamented, “I wish the results about my signatures were more conclusive. Nothing even explains my Super Nex fluctuations.”
“I’m sorry. I wish we could learn more, too. I could administer a supplement for your
arm, but that would be hazardous when I’m depending on ambiguous signatures.”
Putting a hand on his arm, Wyatt rejected the drugs and agreed to a session tonight. As Freye led him out of the room, he made sure to walk on her left — the side opposite the mantis thaums, which were clacking their pincers at him.
Tan and dark brown hurricanes could be seen from space swirling across the humongous planet’s crackly patches of orange and red from space. Starsapiens lived on this planet inside Warbearer-secured viviomes. All the rectangular structures rose more than two hundred stories into the sky, storing thousands of cities and suburbs, air purifiers, artificial sunlight suppliers, and strictly-guarded entry and exit ports. The viviomes are armored against “ice bricks,” huge blocks of frozen liquids and rocks that the hurricanes flung at them. Militin is also where Warbearer Foundation and several of the militarized Intention’s outposts have been planted. Over four hundred viviomes have been constructed on six of the fifteen moons that orbit the planet.
The agents all parked their mobulars and met on the street, two of them wearing notably good-humored clothes. Sidney was in a skirted blouse that read If I spend a minute telling you what this equals — followed by a quantum physics equation taking up five lines — will you stay and listen? Cooper combined his sleeveless suit with cargo shorts that had shiny decals of puffy beignets decorated with a heavy sprinkling of confectioners sugar.
Iridescent signs that read Amour-Propre Stance in Progress blocked the roads two blocks around Terpisliope Hemisphere, forcing the agents to shoulder their way down the sidewalk, past all kinds of people waving balloons and banners of the same iridescent shine as the road signs. Corbin said over the jazzy rock music blasting from a nearby stage, “Wonderful, this turnout, quite wonderful! Militin normally doesn’t attract so many members of the APS community.”
“Hey hey, I’ve attended lotsa stances!” Cooper hooted, taking a flag from a freebies table, waving it over his head. “Yeppers, I love this, seein’ the liberty, guys kissing guys, girls kissing girls, guy-girls and girl-guys. Lots n’ lotsa beautiful people.”
At the end of the street was the twenty-story dome of brick and glass. Arcs of rainbow light crisscrossed between the rotating panels of holographic ads for upcoming concerts. Massive monitors in the dome played continuously-looped videos of past events. On the Hemisphere’s front courtyard, the team herded past statues of a five-member band wearing fake tigon heads, wearing military jackets over medal-embellished t-shirts, playing up a raucous performance with electric guitars and drums and a keyboard.
Penelope jutted a thumb at them. “Kermes, what a ragtag of note-scrapers.” She ran ahead of Wyatt, stuck out an arm to block him from the triple sets of double doors, and wiped grease smears off the handles and the windows. “Teö, where are custodians when you need them?”
Wyatt said, “I think it’s been shut down the past few days.”
“Like that’s an acceptable excuse for bad upkeep of hygienic welfare.”
“Kindly hush,” said Corbin, he and Gene thumbing their phones and a pair of wirelessly-connected, squarish devices that they called nodes. “Marsden hasn’t answered my calls, so we must bypass the security independently. Peculiarly, some adjustments were already initiated.”
Gene said, “Yes, by an unidentifiable source. But do not allow the tentacles of distress to spiral around your heart, for our engineering craft is unsurpassable — ” Gene’s mouth froze open after Cooper pushed open the double doors on the right. “Oh. How . . . fortunate.”
Everyone herded inside as Wyatt glimpsed at Gene and repeated, “Tentacles of distress.”
The six of them stopped in the three-level foyer, flanked by long balconies curving out from the walls on both sides. A scatter of torch-like bulbs and news panels dimly lit up the musty space. News banners orbited a holographic centerpiece floating over the agents of a crimson-dotted shield coiled by a fur-tipped tail of red and orange stripes. After Wyatt waved the portal disc around, Corbin said, “Fleck my circuit, allowing these panels to remain operational when this stadium is devoid of musical disport is so wasteful.”
Wyatt tapped the disc along a wall. “Militin loves to circulate the media flares.”
Gene said, “Still, it is such a cavalier attitude towards pecuniary supplies and geothermal plants. This morning, Hephast Domains suffered from a thirty-six percent decline of capital — ”
“If I can’t mute your news, I’m going to fall asleep and punch a hologram at the same time.” Penelope marched up to Wyatt. “I need the disc.”
He looked back at her. “Fine.”
Gene adjusted his vest and sighed, “Why are you profusely fidgeting with the disc?”
Penelope waved it near a ticket counter, answering, “Experimentation, reaching around the corners with unabashed fingers, that’s how we’re finding the gems so far.”
Gene sighed again more quietly and dialed his phone. When the signal bars on the screen disappeared, he said that he would step outside to call Marsden. But he tried to push open a door, and it stayed shut. He jiggled the handles of all three double doors, and all of them stayed shut. “Allies,” he called back after checking his phone, a bit squeaky, “these entryways are barred.”
“Barred?” said Sidney, backtracking with Wyatt, Penelope, and Corbin to join Gene at the entrance. “Hack into the system. Plus, weren’t they unbarred before?”
“Squarely my point. Someone has tampered with this network, either with a darkworm or a burrow-beetle.” Gene showed the thousands of lines of computer codes zipping across his phone. “A positron current will unleash projectile electrocution if we impose physical force. I had been led to believe they removed this security feature months ago.”
Wyatt said, “In other words, lightning will fire at us if we break down the doors.”
“Technically, lightning occurs in the sky. Otherwise, your abridgment is proper.”
While they were talking, Penelope reached into her satchel for something warm and vibrating. It turned out to be both realidorrs, which buzzed stronger when she pulled them out. Darting her eyes at the disc, she let go of the gems, and they clicked onto the disc, pivoting around the outer rim with a soft scraping noise.
Sidney looked at her first. “Penny, are you — ”
“Shush.” She held the disc up to her eyes as the gems spun around and around until they suddenly pointed in one direction, continuously vibrating. And then she dashed across the foyer.
“Where does she think she’s speeding off to?” asked Corbin, holding back a squeak.
“Wait up, Penny!” Sidney called, dashing off next, forcing the others to chase after them.
Penelope headed wherever the realidorrs pointed, relying on the device like a compass, throwing open doors, clomping through hallways, racing up a staircase, muttering to herself. She ended up bursting into the mezzanine of a stadium that had dimly-lit squares and triangles of red, orange, and white interlocked together in the sprawling ceiling. She peered over her glasses at the gems, which were pointing at a raised stage on the far end. She couldn’t wait for Wyatt to build everyone jet-boots, so she zipped down a flight of stairs.
Sidney gave the air a light sniff and said, “Wow, they do need someone to take the helm of custodian here. It reeks of sweat and something sorta like . . . frog butter.”
Wyatt oddly smiled at her. “You don’t know what frog butter smells like.”
“No, I do.”
The second they were on the stage, the disc and the gems sho out of Penelope’s hand and clanged onto the floor. A hole slid open between them, letting a marbly, eight-foot-tall column cla-clunk, cla-clunk out of the stage. Glyphs of a six-legged beast were deeply incised in several rows around it. Helix-, fork-, and flag-like signs were marked in between the beasts.
Gene said, “Hmm. I see. Mmm. Comrades, what is this object of deceit concealing?”
Sidney had a far-away smile as she shrugged. “It doesn’t have to be deceitful.”
“Oh, I comprehend, I comprehend. Are all of you blissfully incognizant of the Antakliss? Even you?” Gene gestured a hand to his brother, who took a step back and shook his head. “Well, Halcyonic and Cerebral once pooled together their resources to breed transgenic creatures and infuse them with Grimhet-neutralization instincts.”
The column released an abrupt series of stony snaps. The ringed sections rotated and split open diagonal lines. An oval recess slid open near the column’s top and popped out a granular egg. It fell to the floor and rolled to Penelope’s feet with a steady rattle. She gave it a firm kick, knocking it against the column. A thin crack shot through the egg’s beige heptagons and the lined patterning of thick white and light gray. What sounded like hollow bones clacking together broke out of the crack. Penelope rushed to retrieve the disc and the realidorrs.
“Wyatt, if my faculty is still as sprightly as Arestoll, your cautiousness compels you to tote along air bullet guns in your stock?”
“Frosmo, only the highest-level ABG brand in today’s market. Why do you ask?”
“Frosmo uses the aér alloy for its spark nodes, which will be most befitting to ward off
our enemy.” Gene sucked in a breath as the crack on the egg grew a couple inches, letting more of the bony utterances escape. Then he exhaled and resumed in a sped-up tone, “Its genetics is ghastly, allowing it to absorb most energy directed at it. Electricity, magnetism, radiation, even your lauded Super Nex powers, the Antakliss will absorb them as sources of vitality.”
When the egg’s crack split off into thirds, Penelope said, “Anything else, Mr. Data?”
Then everyone jumped back from the egg when it exploded fragments all over the stage, grazing the agents. A serpentine form of beige, white, and light gray spots wriggled out of the egg. A second one popped out on the other side. The third and fourth protruded just before the fifth and the sixth. They all thrashed around as the egg contorted into a quickly-expanding mass of angular bumps. Then a seventh bulge sprung out one end of the oblong body, twisting around, opening its jaw inch by inch with a weak cry of that uniquely bony pitch. Finally the eighth bulge unfurled from the rear end and lashed into the stage, sending stone pieces flying upward.
“This comes fairly close to what I’d expect from a monster’s grotesque hatching,” Wyatt said with some dryness, biting his lip, reading 77 in his monitor.
Gene took a shaky sidestep toward him. “This horror is incapable of gaining additional strength from those air bullets. If — ” His left eye twitched when the Antakliss’s bony knocks turned low-pitched and it started to pull itself up to its wobbly paws. “Pass around the Frosmos, if you please!” Gene said, shaking his loose fists at Wyatt.
He gave one to Cooper and a second to Penelope, keeping the third for himself. He shot the Antakliss’s head with three air bullets. Roundish dents were left in the hard, semi-scaly skin. Its total silence contrasted with Gene’s duck-like gurgling. The six-foot-long Antakliss canted its head from side to side, making the agents wonder if they were staring at a face that belonged to a wolf or a lizard. Very thin hairs covered the creature, reflecting dingy glimmers at a few specific angles. Its wiry tail curved up three feet high and wagged, sending out a light wind.
Cooper unclipped a shrunken hammer off his belt, about to give a squeeze to enlarge it, but Gene screeched, “Halt, Cooper!” He shot a tense look at the Antakliss as it took in the agents and the stadium with two pairs of vertically-slotted eyes. He said in a hushed voice, “Offending it with most solids, including your hammer, will impel it to project fragments at us.”
Sidney asked, “What’s the best technique to kill this wart, then? Can we do it now?”
“Not now. There is only one gap in the shield, which Halcyonic and Cerebral designed as a fail-safe measure for destroying the creature. That would be a small opening in its throat.”
Wyatt deadpanned, “The throat. Yeah, that’s better than any of the other weak points.”
The Antakliss rhythmically drummed all three arched claws of each paw into the floor. Still turning its head left and right, it took slow step after slow step toward Penelope, a look of pure wonder in its widening eyes that opposed her glare. She stood her ground and aimed Wyatt’s Frosmo at it. “Get away, you bonewolf!”
“Oh, you must be emanating benevolence, making it perceive you as an attractive being.”
“Benevolence?” she scoffed, flicking her Frosmo at the Antakliss. “Babies are like this, too, always staring at me, smiling like I’d be the kindest mother in the whole damn universe. But I hate kids, and this thing reminds me of kids. So get back, you creepy reptile!”
“Keep distracting it,” Wyatt said, taking the portal disc from Penelope’s satchel, building himself jet-boots, hovering over to the column, rubbing a hand over the slightly-domed top. He rested the disc atop the column, but even when he pushed the disc down, rotated it, and ran its edge along the column’s sides, nothing happened.
After Corbin asked where the realidorr might be hidden, Cooper stuffed the Frosmo into his belt, kneeled down, and twisted his head so he could squint underneath the Antakliss. Eyes widening, mouth tightening into an O, he said, “Huh! There’s a tiny golden bulge in its belly.”
“It’s getting provoked already,” Penelope said, sidling away from the Antakliss as its eyes narrowed, squeezing out the wonder and filling up with smoldering ferocity. Circling her faster, baring six five-inch-long fangs, letting out more bony knocks from its throat, it reared up on its four hind legs and stretched both forelimbs toward her satchel. She clamped a hand over it and jerked back, but the Antakliss managed to catch a claw through the top flap’s corner.
“Oh no, it is discerning your knapsack as a former Grimhet possession.”
The flap corner ripped off as Penelope tore the item away from the Antakliss. “Satchel!”
“Yes, satchel!” Gene yelped. “Dispose of it before the Antakliss correlates it with you!”
She snagged the folded maps from inside and handed them to Sidney, then held the satchel high over her head. The Antakliss made several swings of its forelimbs, but she dodged all of them. Its bony knocks loudly bounced around the stage. It made a small jump from its two rearmost legs but was not able to clamp its jaw on the satchel.
“You want it? You want it?” she said, backing up on the stage. The Antakliss cocked its neck, groaned, and snapped its head forward as if to bite her stomach. She sidestepped it and waggled the satchel in the air. “Then get the damn thing, bonewolf!” She lobbed it all the way up to the second tier of seats.
“Good throw,” Wyatt commented with some lightness in his voice. All of that fell away to let the darkness overtake his face when the Antakliss emitted a low string of bony clatters. Then it lurched itself toward Penelope, shoving her body into the stage’s rear wall with its forelimbs, opening its incisor-cluttered jaw around her head.
“Penelope!” Sidney screamed, about to cast a boomerang at the Antakliss.
But Penelope drew her switchgun and zipped out the rapier, wedging open the creature’s mouth right before its fangs would have dug into her head. “Stay back!” she yelled to the team, kicking the Antakliss across the stage, getting up with Sidney’s help, watching Wyatt trap it with a spherical forcefield against Gene’s warning. “He’s right, Wyatt. You can’t hold down the creep forever,” she said, picking fragments of its belly out of her legs.
The Antakliss sucked in the forcefield’s energy, cobalt streaks covering its body, and blew Wyatt off the stage. The switchgun was still wedged in its mouth, so it slowly closed up its jaw to snap the rapier apart, then crunched the metal and spit them out in two lumps of semisolid metal. With a roar of bony knocks it swung a paw to smack away Cooper’s hammer heads, whirled around on all six paws, and leaped onto the stadium’s second tier in pursuit of Penelope’s satchel.
Gene cried, “Mr. Durrell! I admonished you, I foresaw this, but your ignorance has led to the endowment of your Super Nex energy upon a horrifying — ”
“Gene, you think this is scarier than Grimhet?” Wyatt looked back at Penelope. “Are you okay?” When she gave a scoff, he shrugged and mumbled, “Just checking. It almost bit off your head.” He turned away from her and muttered, “Cantankerous.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing.” Wyatt hovered off the stage with his jet-boots. “Gene, what if you could wrap it up with your Gelescent, and then let Cooper, Penelope, or me shoot it in the throat?”
A twinkle in his eyes, Gene rubbed his hands quickly. “My my, shrewd thinking. The creature cannot absorb the polymorphous gel of my gloves. As long as I do not strike it with excessive force, the exoskeleton will not shatter.” Swiping his thumb over his bracelets caused the golden orange gel to mold over his hands and exude a pulsing warmth. “Does anyone wish to make a brave advance for the Antakliss first?” he said with a forced smile.
“As much as ya’d like to pet the mongrel with your chalk white mitts.”
“Cooper, what a flawed pejorative. It is a mixture of lupine and reptilian chromosomes.”
As Wyatt and Gene took off to the second tier, Penelope asked the others, “Hey, did you hear Durrell say something earlier?” They shook their heads, and she said, “Humph.”
They joined Wyatt and Gene to watch the creature stop gnawing the satchel like a chew toy, toss it onto a chair, and spin toward the agents. It jumped at Corbin, but Sidney struck it with a trio of boomerangs to propel it through two rows of seats. Everyone dodged the fragments and then engaged in direct combat with the Antakliss, which was giving off a tinge of Super Nex energy. No one listened to Gene’s warnings about their improper attacks, not caring much about the exoskeletal fragments flying out and cutting them. Then Gene whipped narrow projections out of his Gelescent gloves and wrapped them around three of the Antakliss’s legs.
Corbin fingered the signaler on his belt and precisely aimed two hoops. One of them snagged on a forepaw that the creature held in front of its head. The other hoop clanged off a chair and clattered to the floor, sending out small ripples. The vibrating hoops shot together underneath the chairs, jerking the Antakliss headfirst into an armrest. More gel stretched from Gene’s gloves, narrowly twirled around its body, and compressed it into the whole chair.
“Penelope, Cooper, Wyatt, fortify the posts!” Gene said, sterner than usual. “Wyatt, I wish for you to be the first one to puncture its throat lining with air bullets.”
The three of them cocked their Frosmos. Wyatt kneeled in front of the foe. Cooper and
Penelope stood next to him. Gene crept his Gelescent over the body and around its jaws so that Wyatt could wedge the Frosmo past the fangs and the extremely bumpy tongue. Before he could squeeze the trigger, though, a gel arm elongated so thinly that the lower jaw hinged into Wyatt’s hand and stuffed it into the upper jaw’s fangs. Two of them dug into his wrist.
“Get going, Gene!” Sidney shouted, standing close by with two boomerangs.
“Dashing repays with a lashing!” Gene screeched, clenching his hands, tightening up the Gelescent arms, pushing the Antakliss into the floor.
Wyatt latched a hand on the jaw, trying to pull it up and free his other hand. Pushing his fingers so forcefully into the plated skin thrummed a cobalt glow throughout the Antakliss’s head. Then the energy returned to Wyatt by shooting across his fingers in the sharpest blades of light. He gave a shout and jerked his hand away, leaving his other one to remain trapped in the slowly-closing mouth.
Cooper loomed upon them with a raised hammer, but he stood back when Gene frowned and told him to respectfully retreat. When Gene pinched his gel arms further into the Antakliss and widened its jaws, Wyatt wiggled his somewhat-freed wrist. Then he squeezed the Frosmo’s trigger. A dot of pale light struck the back of the throat with a hollow clatter.
The Antakliss unleashed whines and brief convulsions as Cooper wiped his forehead and asked, “Dammit, does he have to set off a second one?”
Gene gave a small nod, tightening his gel a bit more. “This is a hardy specimen.”
“Aren’t they alway hardy,” Wyatt muttered, squeezing the trigger.
“Mìrced, mìrced, Teö!” Gene yelled when the Antakliss twisted around so violently that it snapped a foot off the floor. He tripped forward, losing his focus on the Gelescent gloves long enough for them to relax around the Antakliss again. Cooper leaped over two rows of seats to stick his hammer handles between the jaws and stop them from biting off Wyatt’s hand. Without hesitation Wyatt fired a third air bullet at the back of its throat.
The golden pin that Cooper had pointed out popped from its underside with a loud clink. Penelope stomped on it and picked it up. Cooper waited for the Antakliss to go limp and its whines to fade away before he dislodged his handles from the askew jaws. “Oof, that wild one had a ferocious tongue, and it didn’t hold back the lickin’! Don’t sweat, ’cause — ”
“We’ll keep on tickin’,” Penelope interrupted, peering over her glasses at his crooked grin. “Cooper, you and the Thistles use irritating slang.” She ignored their hoarse gasps and nudged the Antakliss’s paw with her boot. “Don’t act so shocked, the three of you talk weirdly.”
“I like their lingo!”
“Don’t be a wisewonk, Sidney.” Penelope turned to Wyatt. “Doing okay?”
“Other than the fact that this creature almost severed my hand, I’m feeling . . . yes, I’m feeling pretty good.” A small, shaky smile crawled up his face. “Thanks for asking.”
“Don’t mention it.” Penelope picked up the satchel from the floor, slung the strap over her shoulder, and fingered a clean rip in the flap corner. “I love this thing. It weathers the rowdiness.” She took back the maps from Sidney and replaced them in the satchel. Then she descended from to the stage with her jet-boots, landing next to the lumps of metal left over from her switchgun. She regarded them with a regretful sigh and said, “I’ll miss it.”
Corbin said, “You should order a replacement before our trip to Lunatark.”
“Could you order replacements for your hoops if you lost them all?”
“No, I would build copies, dozens of them. If you require my services — ”
She flicked a hand at him and swiveled away. “Forget about it.”
Wyatt asked for the pin from her, and he studied the concentric squares and heptagons in the column’s domed top. He inserted the pin in one of the tiny notches. He blocked Cooper from grabbing at a drawer that was sliding out of the column. “There’s a surplus of books and movies that show the consequences of sticking your hands into mysterious spaces.”
“I know, but my skin’s thickenin’ against this crap. Besides, you’re the Com’dore who stuck his hand down a growler’s mouth.” Cooper’s lopsided grin lingered as he plunged a hand into the drawer and felt around the cool interior.
Sidney added, “You once had your whole arm engulfed by a jawfox, remember, on an Utherwold mission? Luckily those dagger teeth didn’t pierce your armor.”
“An Alphacos A, Sid,” Cooper said, picking the realidorr out of the drawer. The symbol was a hand of fine proportions gingerly pinching two long feathers by the tip of the shaft. He handed it to Wyatt before rattles and rumbles echoed from outside the arena.
Corbin said, “Can’t we experience a tension-free pause in this adventure?”
“We will, Corbin, just not at this very moment,” Sidney replied over the metallic groans and muffled commands of a resounding Warbearer intonation clashing together from the other side of the stadium. After twenty seconds of the repetitive noises, a fat cannonball barreled through one of the third-tier doorways. It sling itself over all the seats below, crashing directly in front of Wyatt’s forcefield on the stage.

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