“How the grim d’ya shoot Wy? In the arm? With a damn boomerang?!”
“For the hundredth time, Cooper, a Betelark sprayed me! There’s more than one reason why I hate those bugs so much, and the hallucinogenic venom’s at the top of my list!”
“If the gash is not hygienically and promptly bonded, it will suppurate.”
“Gene, are you a first-aid expert? Are you? No, but Sidney is, so zip the lips.”
“Don’t disregard my brother, Penelope. His knowledge is wide-ranging, as we’ve noted.”
“Agents, squabbling will not help us. We need to find a way out of, of wherever we are.”
Everyone turned to Wyatt, who was circling the team, holding a hand over his upper arm, covering the bandaged wound with a Super Nex patch. He was taking in the spindly trees that sprouted from the ashen ground of the moldy-odored wasteland, the hairy slate clouds growing around a black thundercloud on the left, the thick rocks littering the land amidst the disheveled mountain walls. Explosive charges floated under the thundercloud thanks to Web pods that had planted them months ago. They collected weather data from the atmosphere, then combusted and scattered their pieces all over the land. A few fragments plummeted to the ground near Corbin, which made him jump away and shout, “Egads!”
Wyatt rubbed his left wrist to relieve the tiny ache. He tapped the square on his monitor, but no number popped up. Furrowing his eyebrows, he tapped the oval symbol, yet it didn’t send an alert. “Why isn’t this working?” he muttered.
Sidney stepped closer to him and said, “It’s broken? What else is in there?”
Wyatt tapped the triangle. A needle protruded from the wristband’s inner side, poked the skin on top of his wrist, and injected the herbal medication into his body. Rolling his shoulders back and forth, rubbing his neck, he said, “Feels a little less tense.”
“I still need to bond your arm,” Sidney said, bringing out her first-aid kit.
“We don’t have time. The longer we inhale this smog, we choke our lungs — ”
“Yeah, and your wound will get infected even faster. I need to bond it, now. Then we’ll search for shelter. Gene, could you please spread out your Gelescent here?” Sidney motioned to the dusty ground in front of herself and Wyatt.
“With supreme pleasure,” Gene answered, in a pronounced pitch of lofty disdain.
After they sat down on his Gelescent mat, Sidney gently removed Wyatt’s hand and his Super Nex patch from the bandage, which was bloody around the edges. As she peeled that off and began to treat the wound, Corbin said, “We haven’t determined the identity of this location. Is it Grimhet? Or an offshoot of the infernal dimension?”
Pinching her nostrils closed, Penelope sounded like she had a stuffy nose when she said, “I know that tree species.” She pointed at eight large, leafless trees growing in a square pattern. “Hardirin, that’s the name. They’re well-known for toughing it out in this dump.”
“Then maybe — Argh!” Cooper yelled as a columnar rock burst up from below him and grew to a height of nine feet, leaving him on top. He shook a fist and then jumped down, making wide shakes of his head when multiple columnar rocks popped out of the ground ten feet away.
While Corbin and Gene whispered to each other, Penelope peered over her glasses at the column that lifted Cooper off the ground. “The geological unstableness, the hardirin trees, the storm cloud, the exploding charges in the sky. Grimhet is responsible for the rotting condition. A planet fragment that is tentatively orbiting its former home.”
Pipetting thick droplets of a clear liquid on Wyatt’s wound to bond the edges together, Sidney paused for a second, her face reddening. “Crap, are we on Alidiska Min?”
Snapping his fingers once, twice, then checking his phone, Corbin said, “As I thought, the signals are absent. The atmosphere is blocking them. I assume it’s the same for our earbuds.”
Everyone found that they did nothing but softly whine. Wyatt, having lost his earbud, settled on gazing at his palms. The glow split into blotches and then shrunk into dots. He held his hands close together and tried to construct something, even as Sidney told him to sit still, but the energy refused to become anything more than flowingly twitching wisps.
“What’re you doing, Durrell?” Sidney asked, applying a new bandage to his arm.
“It’s being stubborn,” he replied, clasping his hands together, closing his eyes, tightening up his whole face. But the glow died, leaving an emptiness in his hands.
“You can’t kiss goodbye to your stuff now, we need jet-boots to fly off, find a shelter!”
“Don’t be impatient, Cooper,” Penelope said. “We’ve witnessed a small number of trial participants wax and wane with their energy. We can’t pressure Wyatt.” She waited a few seconds
to cross her arms and stoop towards him. “Regaining your energy yet?”
“Pen, it’s best if we don’t pressure him.”
She stood upright and jerked her chin at Cooper. “Suck it, Roosevelt. Just suck it.”
Cooper, Penelope, Corbin, and Gene didn’t bicker too long before Sidney said, “Guys.” She shook her head at them, then rolled down Wyatt’s sleeve and put away her kit. “There, make sure you take care of that arm. And wait for your energy, let it build over time.”
“We need to leave this place now.” Wyatt still clenched his hands together.
“There’s no need to remonstrate yourself,” Corbin stated. “Depending on what hardships target us, you may experience a power rebirth within a day or two.”
“He is experiencing a power rebirth,” Sidney corrected. “Positive visualization.”
Cooper snorted, “So we gotta imagine ourselves back at, heh, Web Foundation?”
“Mmm-hmm. It’s a very, very simple concept. It does wonders when you believe in it.”
“Pardon me, but we do not have vehicles, communication devices, or Wyatt’s capabilities to augment our task force,” Gene said. “How, how will we flee this teeth-chatterer?”
“I’ll regain my powers.” Wyatt glanced at Sidney. “I mean, I’ve already regained them.”
“An intriguing philosophy.” Corbin paused to snap his fingers. “As for our weaponry, I lost about half my hoops, Cooper’s hammers are twisted, Penelope’s switchgun blades are bent, and . . . I believe Gene and Sidney’s equipment is in sturdy shape. We can scavenge materials from the fallen bomb components around us to start repairs. It’s fortunate that Gene and I are master technological engineers.”
Penelope clapped her hands to her cheeks. “Really? What a shocker! We thought you’re botanists!” She dropped her hands and motioned her elbow to a nearby ridge with irregularly-rounded peaks, looking like it all bubbled high up from the ground and then deflated to a height of less than a hundred feet. “If I recall correctly, that’s Filocht. The rock’s porous, erodes easily into caverns. Let’s see if we can take refuge in one of them.”
Their trek to the ridge took almost an hour, doing them no favors with the dozens of columnar stones bunched between the clusters of hardirin trees in their path. Zigzagging between them, along with every little lift of their feet over the lumpy ground, drew more breath from their lungs than should be required at a time like this.
In the middle of it all Corbin spared the energy to say, “What is also troubling me is that Gargant exercised his might in the form of whisking us onto Alidiska Min.”
Cooper stretched his arms behind his head. “Yepparoonies, an’ we’re still breathin’!”
“So why didn’t he choose to eliminate us, permanently?”
“Kill us, you mean? I’m not sure,” Wyatt said, lifting his chin to look up at the pale green lightning that sliced across the dark sky like machetes. “But at least we’re still alive.”
When they reached the ridge, they discovered swarms of drooling dragonflies and rats with fat hind legs infesting the first three caverns. Orange-cheeked monkeys filled up the next two, defending their territory by throwing squishy clumps of a yellowish-white glob. Cooper yelled as they fled from a third cave of shrieking monkeys, “Oh, that is it!”
“This is getting so gloomily ridiculous that it’s becoming a little funny,” Wyatt remarked.
“Absolutely not!” Gene cried. “No amusement can be extracted from our circumstances!”
Penelope said, “I’m sorry, Gene, but you broke the crybaby alarm. Fix it tomorrow.”
“Execration!” Gene shouted, running straight at Penelope, even though she held out an open palm to hold him back by his head. He grumbled and swatted until Corbin and Wyatt pulled him back. Cooper stood a few feet away, snickering and wiping his forehead with his arm.
“Stop it, you guys!” Sidney stood between Penelope and Wyatt, Corbin, and Gene. “Keep in mind that Wyatt needs time in a soothing environment. Keyword: soothing.” She pointed to a larger mountain in the distance. “That looks like it’s a bit more hospitable.”
“Won’t that be quite the lengthy trek for us?” Gene asked as Wyatt and Corbin let go of him. He shuffled back and forth in front of the dusty stone wall next to the caverns. “Why have we shifted from pillar to post in this fashion?”
While Sidney tried to calm him down with her metaphysical beliefs, Wyatt turned to the stone wall, intently gazing at a dot of cobalt blue light blinking beneath the surface. He strode close to it and pressed his open hand into the stone under the dot, making a circle glow with a radius of two feet. “Move back!” he said, waving the agents away from the wall’s mechanical whirs. Their widening eyes watched a set of double doors slide apart and reveal a sixteen-foot-wide opening, at which point the whirs stopped. Amber slabs embedded into the cavern ceiling flickered on, followed by a bank of computer monitors along the right wall.
Corbin took a step back and asked, “Am I the only one suffering from a tingling spine?”
“My butt’s got a tickly itch,” Cooper responded. “Does that count?”
“Not when you juxtapose it with the growing chilliness in my hands,” said Gene.
“Let’s see what this place is before we decide on the safety factor.” Wyatt took steady steps toward the entrance. Cooper, Penelope, and Sidney hurried after him. The Thistle brothers trailed behind. The amber glow settled over wires and cables hanging from hooks; rods, slabs, blocks, and lumps of metal, wood, and stone; and worktables nestled in the roomy wall nooks. The amber hue formed the rims of circular recesses in the walls, where even more supplies had been stacked up. Many computer monitors displayed satellite images of Bicap, Utherwold, Militin, Flordubul, and other worlds. A few more depicted research data on fields including physics, geology, biology, chemistry, botany, and astronomy.
“Wow, kudos to the impressive engineering skills of whoever lived here,” Sidney said.
“This is wanting in the latest upgrade,” Gene immediately said, tapping the flickering corner of a computer monitor. “I am considering the concept that the proprietor abandoned this chamber many moons ago.” His voice began to stammer. “Perhaps it, it is astute to de-depart.”
Penelope said, “Wyatt, why did this thing open up for you?”
He turned away from her, sidling past Sidney as she bounced over to a worktables and gushed over how they finally found a refuge. Cooper was close by, peering around the chamber as if Goruly skins were hung on the walls in place of the computers, and he said, “Sure, be happy-go-lucky. In spite of the fact that this is a fuzzy-butt chamber in a place filled with hard-nosed Romuteli cheaters and meadow-muffin-volleyin’ monkeys.”
“Whoever lived here had to have set up camp recently.” Wyatt picked up a tablet from a worktable and pressed the home button. A logo of a sapling cracking out of a seed and unfurling its fragile branches blinked onto the touchscreen. “You’d find this tech at Rad-Bio.”
“Who could be so delinquent as to neglect these materials?” asked Corbin.
Wyatt stepped further into the main corridor. Thick curtains covered the doorways on either side. He pushed aside a curtain and entered a room that was twenty-two feet long, fifteen feet wide, and ten feet high. Dozens of planetary maps, some antique brown and others fresh white, covered the wall. Wyatt stopped at a drawing table in the far end, covered with long rolls of paper, paint jars, brushes, pens, and leather-bound books with empty pages.
” Avoid touching these things, if you can,” Penelope said outside, cleaning a tabletop with a wipe from her dispenser, even though the table was mostly free of dirt. “We don’t know what kind of crud, gunk, gook, or smut covers them. Speaking of which, how is everyone’s hands?” She passed wipes around the team. “Say bye-bye to germs.”
“I am at ease with my dermal microorganisms,” said Gene, wiping his hands anyways.
Meanwhile, Sidney sailed into the room that Wyatt was in, drinking it in with a breathless little chortle. “Looks like a point-by-point map room. Or a document room.”
Wyatt added, “Whoever turned this into their home committed to their exploration.”
Sidney said, “Wonder why he or she used paper maps instead of computerized versions.” She stroked a hand along the edge of a map pinned to the wall. “Gosh, the only things that look like this are those centuries-old Surveil documents in Alphacos Pillar.”
They stepped out to the main chamber as Corbin said, “I must say, if only Gene and I had prepared a device to convey us away from these locations. I didn’t think those circumstances would unfold into the ever-so-esoteric strings of reality.”
“Esoteric, my ass,” Penelope could be heard grumbling from one of the other side rooms.
“I suppose this is the way life works sometimes,” Corbin continued, “such as when you install a security system after a scamp burglarizes your home.”
Gene added, “Similarly to purchasing life insurance after cardiac arrest afflicts you.”
Cooper said, “Yep, ya don’t buckle the precautionary straps unless ya need it. I mean, how’ll you know if the disaster’s gonna happen otherwise? Ya don’t!”
Penelope marched out of a side room and said, “A lazy philosophy to carry on, by the way.” She clapped her hands two times. “Thistles, how fast can you whip up new gear?”
Corbin responded, “With the charge supplies that may be scavenged from the outdoors, we could assemble a prototype or two before nighttime arrives.”
When indigo lightning bolts streaked across the sky with rolling rumbles, Gene pointed to the open cavern entrance with a shaky finger. “Wouldn’t you believe that it is far too parlous for us to traverse into, into that territory?”
“Don’t worry about it. Cooper will escort you.” Penelope jabbed a thumb at him.
“Say wha’now?” Cooper’s eyes had wandered over tool kits stacked in one of the ten-foot-tall shelves. Now he whipped his head at her, his face tightening into a misshapen frown.
“Yes, what now?” Gene and Corbin said at the same time.
“He’ll provide the muscle. Wyatt, you’ll stay here. Like Sidney said, you need to build up your energy.” After Wyatt nodded, she ordered, “Sidney, you’ll be the boys’ guardian.”
“All right! Come on, guys!” She jogged out of the chamber.
“Too far, way too far!” he exclaimed, leaving the cavern with Corbin and Gene.
“And remember to competently salvage materials!” Penelope called out.
The silence ended when Wyatt said, “Let’s see what evidence we can uncover.”
“Let’s see what evidence we can uncover.”
“I just said that, Penelope.” He paced back to the map room and took closer looks at the small paper scraps pinned to the wall. Out of the many clusters of thin, left-slanted numbers and dashes, Wyatt furrowed his eyebrows at the phrase, Exploration space-time coordinates for alien realities. His gaze shifted to a second paper with geometric shapes scribbled everywhere, two rows of numbers lining the right side, and another sentence that he read aloud. “‘Additional coordinates commonly used by Nefelen apprentice. Avoid tapping into them.'”
“You probably don’t know what Nefelen is Torchen’s archaic term for Grimhet.”
Wyatt turned his head to Penelope. “No, I didn’t.”
“Well, I do. And you probably don’t know that Naazang is the apprentice.”
“I haven’t heard of the guy before today.”
“That’s the way he wants it while he’s learning the trade from Gargant.”
Wyatt shot a sideways glance at Penelope and drummed a finger on the paper for a few seconds before he examined the rest of the maps. In a different room, hundreds of books with cracked spines, faded ink, and light brown paper filled up the stout bookshelves.
“Hey, Wyatt, when you’ve got time, you need to get over here!”
Wyatt rushed from the mini-library to join Penelope in the cavern’s last room on the right, a kitchen where she opened one of six refrigerators. Bowls, spoons, cutting boards, blenders, and other supplies covered the counters. “Someone must have spent a long time here,” he said as Penelope gave him a container. He looked at what turned out to be a package of dehydrated oatmeal, then lifted his chin and scanned the kitchen. He leaned out the doorway and peered down the chamber at the open entrance. “I wonder how we could close the door?”
“We’ll figure it out after the others come back. But yeah, we wanna keep out the critters,” said Penelope, rooting through the refrigerators. “At least the owner stocked up on food.” Her voice turned high-pitched like a little girl’s as she said, “There’s so much food here! Some salsa and tortilla chips? Yes, please! A cut of medium-cooked steak? Yes, please! An eclair? No, thank you!” She saw Wyatt’s smirk and arched her eyebrows. “What?” she asked, still high-pitched.
“I have never, ever heard you talk like . . . like that.”
Penelope cleared her throat and said in her normal voice, “It’s a habit of mine.”
“I’ve worked with you for six years. I have never heard you talk like that before. Ever.”
“I tend to use it exclusively in front of some people. Don’t make such a big deal about it.”
In the cavern they found two more mini-libraries, a space filled to the brim with welding materials, and a fully-equipped bathroom. Wyatt was in the middle of flushing the toilet when a voice with a background sigh broke in, “Salutations, Ms. Flame and Mr. Durrell!”
“Gene, you’re back early,” she said, coming out of the bathroom with Wyatt.
“I returned from the farthest part of our trek with a bounty of charge pieces that are ready to undergo mechanical transformations. When the others are present, I may start.”
“Nope, you have to start working right now. We need new gear.”
Faltering under the weight of the materials in his arms, Gene piled them on a worktable and climbed onto a stool. “If you say so.”
Penelope swiveled back to Wyatt. “So, anything more to do?”
“May I visit the bathroom? I prefer to traverse outdoors as sparsely as possible, but — ”
“You can use one right here, Gene,” Wyatt said, pointing to the bathroom.
“A genuine lavatory? Splendid!” Gene jumped off his stool and raced down the corridor. “Thank you very much! But where is the door?” he called from inside the bathroom.
“Oh.” Penelope started to pull the curtain closed, then jumped back when Gene uttered a sudden, bat-like screech. “I’m sorry! I didn’t see anything! I — ”
Wyatt and Penelope stepped back as Gene padded to the doorway, a hand clenching onto the waist of his pants, where his belt had been loosened. He shriveled up his nose at them and pulled the curtain closed. They stepped back even further from the trickling in the bathroom.
When Penelope said that they found a kitchen, Gene said, “How is that feasible? Well, I could comprehend that, since this abode is installed with a powder room that is beyond belief. Gosh, what sublime equipment!” The flushing noise was followed by a quick zzwipp! He washed his hands and said, “You may enter the bathroom. I have clothed my manly contents.”
“They looked more ‘boyly’ to me,” Penelope snickered.
“You claimed that your eyes had ignored everything!”
“You’re right, they didn’t. I, I meant that they would look more boyly.”
Gene groaned as Penelope and Wyatt entered the bathroom. He dried his hands with a towel hung on a wall hook. “How does this towel remain so soft and fluffy even though this shelter has resigned itself to neglect for, well, an unspecified period of time?”
Wyatt said, “That’s what makes us believe someone inhabited this cave recently.”
“Hey, shouldn’t you get back to work, Gene?” Penelope pointed out of the room.
“Oh, work the horse with your whip. It is not as if I have to care for dozens of my bodily sensitivities!” Gene’s pace stopped when he glimpsed at a small crack in the corner of the left wall. “I suppose the two of you never noticed this glaring detail here.”
“No.” Wyatt motioned for him to move back, stepped up to the wall, and peeked into the crack. He extended his hands and kept them still, expecting Super Nex energy to flow out of his fingers. When that didn’t happen, he lowered his hands and wedged them into the crevice.
“What are you doing?” Penelope asked. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Wyatt slipped his fingers out when a loud crack leaked from the crevice. The wall panel slid up into the ceiling and stopped with a final whine to leave a three-foot-tall space at the bottom. Wyatt couldn’t wait to crawl into it, the dust on the floor sticking to his clothes.
Penelope followed him and ordered, “Gene, get your skinny little butt over here.”
“Ah, so my posterior was visualized to you?”
“Oh, get over yourself. I didn’t see that much!”
“Tsk-tsk, I do not favor your vacillation,” Gene said, crawling through the ten-foot-long passage. He stood up in a space where panels in the ceiling lit up, illuminating a painting of a fuchsia sunset washing over a beach on the wall, a small bed with the blankets tucked in, and a nightstand with a boat-shaped lamp. “This appears to have once been a bedchamber,” Gene said as he, Wyatt, and Penelope brushed grime off their clothes.
Wyatt walked around the room and stopped at the nightstand. He opened three drawers, lifting out an empty pen and an equally empty notebook from the middle one. Penelope narrowed her eyes at the nightstand and marched closer to it. Then Gene’s throaty yell made them pivot on their heels. He rushed back to the painting as Wyatt asked, “Gene, what’s wrong?”
He stuttered, “Th-th-there!” He pointed a shaky finger to the body leaning back against a corner of the room. Shallow pits and thin cracks covered its off-white skin. Its lower jaw twisted to the side, leaving its dry mouth as wide open as its sky blue eyes. The spindly fingers of its left hand gripped a skinny, foggy vial with dribbles of a yellow liquid pooled in the bottom. Faint blue blotches stained its clothing and discolored its double chin. Dangling from the neck was a chained necklace with the name Quentin Medanar etched into a hexagonal tag of iron.
“Looks like Grimhet leftovers.” Penelope pointed to the flaky grayness caked into a blobby shape on the floor, trailing away from one side of the corpse.
Wyatt stooped and slowly unwrapped the corpse’s hand to take the vial. He sniffed the sickly yellow liquid and instantly wobbled back in response to the curdled-milk stench. When a yell of pain resounded from behind him, he looked over his shoulder and stepped off Gene’s foot.
“I’m sorry! Are you okay?”
“The majority of my foot is pounding with pain from your careless stomp. So, no.”
“I’m sorry again, but this liquid, it just reeks.”
“Oof, it’s gotta be a noseworker if you’re puttin’ it that way!” Cooper called out.
Gene whipped around, and Wyatt and Penelope were right behind him. “Cooper, where are you?” Wyatt asked, outstretching his arm to hold the vial far away from his nose.
“I’m invisible!” Cooper wiggled out from under the wall and flashed his eyebrows. “Just messin’ with ya.” He waggled a hand, and Wyatt handed him the vial. With one sniff his head arched back and he blew a raspberry. “Wowza! Holy cascabel! That stinks like P.U.!”
Emerging from under the wall with Corbin, Sidney gave a shaky smile that expanded into a laugh. “I wonder what that could be.”
“Whatever it is, it’s mighty foul! Oof, yikes!” Cooper exhaled a loud breath and held the vial out to her, who stepped back and shook her head. “Suit yourself!” He stared into the vial for another moment before he returned it to Wyatt.
“Where did you acquire that?” Corbin said, itching his neck. “From this ghastly corpse?”
Cooper kneeled down and tapped the corpse’s hexagonal tag. “Quentin Medanar, it says on this little thingy. Quentin, Quentin. Don’t know no Quentin.”
“I think he was in a PSN clinical trial,” Wyatt said. “I can’t recall other details of his ID.”
Penelope said, “I recognize his name too. Which means he had Super Nex powers.”
Gene said, tugging at the neck cuff of his shirt, “Coincidentally enough, he is apposed with a hardened layer of Grimhet mush on the floor. Perhaps we should invest certitude in the theory that the animals or their sadistic masters took advantage of Mr. Medanar’s mortality.”
Sidney said, “We can dig up more data from Rad-Bio as soon as we leave Alidiska Min.”
“Oh, and we also found a piece of paper in the map room,” Wyatt revealed. “It listed off space-time coordinates that the Nefelen apprentice uses. Nefelen is — ”
“Grimhet,” Sidney finished, squeezing the bulging thing under the chest of her jumpsuit. “So . . . and Quentin Medanar, do you know if he was Quantax-affiliated? Just curious.”
“I’m not sure,” Wyatt muttered, shaking his head. “Did you find more charge pieces?”
“Yeah, but we had to cut it short after all those columnar rocks kept popping up. We have to be on high alert for that when we’re outside.” Sidney glanced sideways at Cooper’s pout and half-smiled. “Everyone’s in good spirits nonetheless.”
Penelope ordered, “Gene, Corbin, you two need to chug away on our gear. Why don’t you take care of the amber, too.” She scooped the pieces from Geanthoff out of her pockets and handed them over. The other agents followed suit.
Corbin and Gene obliged Penelope without another word, crawling under the wall to start their engineering work. The rest of the team split up to familiarize themselves with the rest of Quentin Medanar’s mysterious cavern.
“How the grim d’ya shoot Wy? In the arm? With a damn boomerang?!”