Project Super Nex, Chapter Sixteen: Telescope

Traveling to Vestral, weaving through the bustling marketplace with its pungent spices and raucous noises, being greeted by Freye Urewlil — it was familiar for Wyatt. However, he had to drag his feet and his arms ahead of one another in the foyer, as if the air was solidifying against him. This made Freye wave her staff around him.
“You’re strangely tense. And the thaums . . .” She gestured her staff to the animated carvings, their appendages stretching farther, their cacophony cluttering the air. One of them reached out and nicked Wyatt’s monitor, which reacted by screeching a small shockwave that lurched the thaum backward. This made the rest of the thaums passionately thrash around.
“I don’t think they’re being much surlier than yesterday,” Wyatt said over the awful howls, letting Freye safely guide him upstairs with a conical forcefield of violet energy.
“Few things rile them up like this. This session might help clear up the matter,” she said, taking Wyatt to the same examination room as before. She brushed the orb of her staff over the floorboards. More of the energy sprawled out to the walls, condensing into Torchen motifs — all their interconnected spirals and curves, the same ones sewn into her kilted dress.
Wyatt handled most of the tests well until he returned to the ZS valuer, gripping the bars arranged between the two pillars, listening to Freye’s reminders of how it will drain his energy and then replenish it. The bolts zigzagged between the bars more jerkily than in the previous session and pierced his body like knifes. A minute later his eyes were closed when Freye, jabbing at the touchscreen, said, “I don’t mean to worry you, Wyatt, but on top of your Super Nex viruses and the alien link, there’s a, a third source of signatures.”
“A third source? Who knows if the alien link is — ”
“Your monitor, the SPACE Union device.” She typed a command into the touchscreen, then stepped off her platform and pointed at his left wrist. “It’s radiating the new ZS.”
“This thing?” His hands still grasped the bars as he wiggled his left wrist.
“Let me clarify myself. The ZS . . . corresponds with Grimhet patterns.”
Wyatt’s eyes darted back and forth between Freye and his monitor. He tilted his head close to his wrist and furrowed his eyebrows. “You know, I bet it became infected when I broke into the Geanthoff hideout on Flordubul. For a second Grimhet material made contact with it. But then I had to tussle with Gargant, and I’d been forced to push it out of . . .”
“Does your second wristband detect your health correctly?” After he said yes, she asked, “May I please inspect the monitor?” She stood there as his hands peeled off the ZS valuer’s bars with muffled crackles. He grasped the monitor and tried to pull it off, lifting the stretchy part of his skin in the process. Resting a hand on one of the coils of iron tied to her belt, Freye asked, “You’re having trouble loosening it?”
“I don’t know,” he mumbled, gripping the item more tightly before trying to jerk it off. All it did was make him feel as if pins shot up and down the bones of his wrist. “Agh,” he muttered as a few drops of dark red blood leaked from underneath the monitor, onto the back of his hand.
Freye retrieved a medical kit to treat a short cut inching down his wrist, away from the monitor. When Wyatt groaned, she stopped uncapping an ointment tube and looked back up at a thin layer of grayness murmuring around his body like a stuffy blanket. She clattered the tube into the kit when his cocoon thickened and the lights on his peculiar monitor intermittently flashed. She aimed her staff’s winged orb at his chest, asking, “Wyatt, how are you feeling?”
His incoherent mumbling urged her to project a fluid loop of purpleness. It struck the swelling cocoon’s puffs of dust and dissolved with a shrill. Wyatt’s eyes were the only part of his body that remained visible; a dot of sickly yellowness pulsed in the center of his pupils. “Wyatt, can you hear me? You have to get rid of this mist!” Freye ordered, but he stayed still and his monitor flashed more brightly. She fired thicker loops, but the fog dissolved all of them with more shrills. She put her staff down on the floor and clasped her hands together, causing her energy to film over them. She reached into the cocoon and grabbed Wyatt’s drooping arms. When the fog shoved her away, her fingers dragged along knotted trails of the dust.
“Wyatt, you need to wake up. Wyatt!” she exclaimed, the dust crawling over her hands, up her arms. “Wyatt!” she repeated, after which his eyes flickered at her. A twist of her hand summoned her staff, springing it off the floor, stabbing the orb into her arm. Groans and whitish-gray ooze burst out of that spot as spirally and curvy symbols burned themselves into the crusty dust. It crumbled apart and piled around her feet.
Freye aimed her staff at Wyatt, manipulated her energy into a tube around him, and slowly sucked all the dust and ooze up into the ceiling. Hundreds of Torchen motifs blinked in the tube alongside what could have been the drawn-out bawling of a heartbroken demon. Finally she brushed the orb back and forth in front of the tube until its motifs melted into diamond facets. Each one, for the shortest of time, displayed planets, moons, and entire world circuits; Rad-Bio Laboratory, both the interior and the exterior; and a small number of people from Wyatt’s personal life. After the tube folded into a spiky blob and peeled the dust off his cowering body, it floated upward and vanished into the lattice of Meda gushers in the ceiling.
He keeled over, so Freye helped him sit up, saying as he rubbed the side of his head, “Wyatt? Wyatt, are you clear yet?” She suspended her staff’s orb over his head, but he made a groan and pushed it away. “Do you know what happened?” He shook his head. She pressed a hand on his back to stop him from falling over. “Do you remember where you are?”
He closed his eyes tight and rolled his head around his shoulders. “The . . Hereborg.”
“Can you name all the Overseers?”
“I don’t need a memory test.” Upon absorbing her silent stare, though, he said, “Owen Foxer, Bertice Marsden, Janus Bridger, Tobet Barton, Sumi Olympus, and you, Freye Urewlil.”
“Do you remember what happened moments ago?”
“It, it’s coming back to me. In bits and pieces. The fog and the, the feeling of sick . . . a void. An emptiness.” He looked up when she suspended the orb over his head again. He pushed it away. “If you don’t mind, I only like my brain to be examined with ANI, glia-shaders, and other forms of tried-and-true medical tech.”
“My staff is reliable. It won’t infect you with tumors.”
“That’s what everyone said about DAL imagers four decades ago.” He was staring up at the intricate motifs that had been burned into the wood-metal ceiling and the Meda Gushers.
Freye’s beady eyes softened a little, and she put her staff down. “I do believe the Grimhet signatures have been banished. For now.”
“Grimhet?” He kept peering at the ceiling’s dimly-glowing markings — a mixture of spirals, curves, and diamonds. “No, that can’t be right. It was some other foreign — ”
“It was made up of dust. Dust and smoke and ooze.”
“Oh.” Wyatt massaged the ache trailing up his left arm. “Where, where did — ”
She pointed to his monitor, its innocent-looking dot of light still blinking. “This direct link with your body, you may want to mull over how they could use it for their own advantage.”
He made a weak grunt of a laugh. “Mull over. You sound like the Thistle brothers.” Her quietness made him feign a cough and wiggle the monitor, frowning from the tightness.
“Advisor Wiley should know how to fix it,” Freye said, drawing her phone.
****
In the Advisor’s office in Web Foundation, Xavier was typing on his computer, and he told Wyatt, “You know, I was doing well, thinking how things were flowing smoothly. And then I learn about” — he waggled a loose finger at Wyatt’s wrist — “the monitor. We’ll hook it up to my network and work out the stats.” He plucked a connector cord off the tabletop and hooked up the monitor to the computer, causing lines of data to whiz across the screen. “I don’t know how this was infected. By Teönor, who do you think did the sneaky work?”
“Gargant, of course. He wants to infect me, drag me into his legion.”
“Possibly, possibly. Oh, and it’s downloaded now. If any foreign data is in — ” Xavier leaned toward the computer and stifled a gasp. “Toxins. They look lively. Thing is, it’s stolen some of your personal ZS, even your Super Nex energy. I would shut the monitor down, but that may provoke it again. I’m telling you, I don’t want Grimhet discharges here.”
Wyatt shook his head. “Neither do I. Also, let’s pass on using ‘discharge’ as a way to describe their materials. It has such a, an unpleasant connotation.”
Xavier cupped Wyatt’s monitor in his hand and said in a solemn manner, “I know what you’re thinking, that you have no choice but to teleport to Lunatark, and staying here would leave you feeling strapped down and useless.”
Wyatt pulled his wrist away from Xavier and rubbed his monitor. “Brilliant guess. And I know what you’re thinking, that staying here is best for me, because, after all, I was lucky the first time. Pushing my luck the next time this troubles me might be risky.”
“Change ‘troubles’ to ‘possesses’ and ‘might be’ to ‘is’ and you have a perfect guess.”
“But luck, both good and bad, is rearing its head into the situation. We might as well toss dice.” When Xavier smirked, Wyatt added, “It’s the truth.”
Xavier laughed weakly. “Making the expedition predictable will be less probable if you step outside the borders of SPACE Union with this infected monitor.”
“I have to go with my team to Lunatark. Nothing to it.”
Xavier’s laugh was much jollier than before. “Day of alternate world/Ascend hill of troubles/Valorous energy core present/Stalwarts joining his ride/They will explore outside.” He sat on the corner of his desk and sniffed in the tanginess of the flash gilli hovering over his head. His eyes shot down at the monitor and then up at Wyatt’s face. “I’ll see if Freye will agree to our, um, the sly state of our nondisclosure. If she’s okay, we’ll be okay, too. Okay?”
“Try to not say ‘sly’ like that. It makes whatever it’s attached to sound harmful.”
“Who are you, Lieutenant Lexicon?”
Wyatt’s mouth curled into a dry smile. “Amusing. Really amusing.”
“You should go home, rest up for the big day.”
They exited the office as Wyatt said, “No, Sidney called me before I left for Vestral. I’ll be meeting her at Halcyonic Foundation. She says I have to ‘cleanse my soul.'”
“Even better! Calm yourself in the pious atmosphere. As for the big day, I’ll meet you, the rest of your stalwarts, and Grant here tomorrow morning, a final conference of sorts before you travel to Lunatark. Your team will also receive phones that use transdimensional currents to communicate between Cosmotic and Lunatark, and maybe some other useful freebies.”
“Good, good. I can’t tell how long this trip will — Wait, stalwarts?”
“Yes, yes. You must’ve heard of the nickname? The media mouths started it a couple days ago. Wavers, Oakley Board, Degrees of Six, all the big names, their gulpers love to chat about your team. The tones of their opinions do vary. Still, you’re stalwarts, like a superhero team from those old comic books, except only one member has superpowers. That’s you.”
“I’m not donning a mask, a cape, and a catchy superhero name, if that’s what you’re — ”
“No, no, the mask-cape combo is so outdated. But the name . . . Well, that’s up to you.”
****
In the middle of a flatland where five-foot-wide stones polished into decagonal platforms were inlaid with the grass and clusters of tall obelisks colored with sweeping strokes of vivid yellow dotted the spaces — in the middle of all that sat Halcyonic Foundation. It was an immense building of half-arches, helical towers, and star-shaped structures, all built from teal- and aquamarine-mottled stone and metal. Flapping along the decagon-etched walls and above the slanted rooftop were faded flags that portrayed àlkun flitting over meadows and fens drenched in either the pure silver beams of sunrise or the supreme golden slivers of sunset.
Sidney had a clever little grin when Wyatt met her at the foot of the entrance stairs. “You have that intense look again. It’s in your eyes. Has a furrow made a permanent home in your brow? And your mouth is very, very tight. It shows through the most when you try to smile.”
“Thanks for the interpretation.” Wyatt’s eyes dropped to the balloon-lettered words printed on the shirt she wore with her open denim jacket — I used to be an ebon rebel. Now I’m a sludgy-slaying rebel. Below it was a scratched decal of two crossed boomerangs and a headless Betelark with a couple slashes breaking up the kaleidoscopic diamonds on its abdomen.
“Durrell, you truly need to relax.” Before bouncing up the stairs she punched him in the arm hard enough that he had to rub it. “So, over the phone, you mentioned it’s been some time since you were last here. How long has it been, exactly?”
“I don’t know. Two years, three. Those gargoyles aren’t familiar.”
“Intimidating, I know. They’re based on soldiers who, according to Halcyonic, number in the thousands to line Teönor’s borders and defend the empire from demonic invaders.”
The fleshy-faced gargoyles stood in shallow wall recesses to guard the entrance. Each one crossed long fingers in front of its muscly body and had light hair braided into a helmet around its head. A row of ten àlkun was carved into the top edge of each recess.
Sidney was far ahead of Wyatt on the stairs, so she unbolted the heavy door, molded with more of the kingfishers, and pushed it open on its hinges with a long creak. “What’s wrong?” she asked after Wyatt took a backward step.
“Nothing,” he said, running a hand over his short hair, poking his head into an entrance hall the size of a large cathedral. Swaying from the ceiling were tapestries akin to the flags outside, with heavy fabrics and embroidered designs of Teönor entities, Cosmotic’s celestial bodies, and runes from varying religions. Stained-glass rose windows — some displaying àlkun, others veiled figures clasping opal-encrusted cups in their rounded hands — were darkened enough to let only strings of light leak into the Foundation.
“It’s the humno,” Sidney said, referring to the distant chants of a spiritual dialect. “I love coming here in time for that.” She motioned him into the entrance hall, let the door creak closed, and waved an arm around the space, warmed by an omnipresent illumination of silvery and orangish hues. “So? Any thoughts on the peacefulness?”
“Peaceful, yes.” Wyatt whipped his head left and right. “Isn’t the humno for ghosts?”
“A blessing for the spirits who live in this hallowed house. Why, you’re ghost-o-phobic?” When he shook his head, she went on, “You shouldn’t be. It’s not as if all of them wanna possess Starsapiens or bedevil those who struck them down with grief. The ones here are content.”
They strolled through the entrance hall and a corridor curving up to another large hall on the second level, where brassy wall pins held wooden cubes with faces of beaky, golden-eyed Starsapien bulging from the sides. Along the way they talked about Quantax’s recent attempts to teleport to alternate realities, Web’s reaction to the hypothetical task of gathering intelligence on extradimensional aliens, and other contemporary news.
Then Sidney bobbed her head at an open archway built entirely from àlkun feathers. “It’s the incaron. Let’s go there.” She swooped Wyatt inside by his arm.
“Slow down, we’re not racing off to Lunatark!”
Tittering, she slowed down in a room with concentric ovals of tiered benches surrounding an elaborately painted gazebo in the center. A mobile of goblets, coins, and colorful panels revolved from translucently silver beams twenty feet up.
“Now this place, I recall,” Wyatt said as Sidney let go of him and twisted a peach-like fruit off the bough of a potted tree. “My parents brought me here for the weekly ceremonies. The food, the singing, the community, everything was abundant.” He looked down on the fruit in Sidney’s hand as she tore off a stiff leaf growing out of the top. “I never liked pinepersems. Too sharp for my taste buds.”
She chomped the whole leaf and said, “It’s an acquired taste. Luckily, they’re things to which I’ve grown very, very accustomed. Like Penelope. And Cooper.” She paused to bite off a large chunk of the fruit, laughing when sparkly juice dribbled out of the fruit and down her hand. “Damn, it’s messy!” She started to reach into her jacket but stopped when Wyatt constructed a napkin for her. She said thanks and used it to dry her hand, then cupped it around the pinepersem and led Wyatt into an aisle through the benches. Sidling into the second-to-lowest bench, the two of them chatted over what changes Halcyonic Foundation underwent after the renovation.
“I tried playing the d’ivoir,” Wyatt said after Sidney mentioned her proficiency with a piano-like object on the gazebo. “But I turn all thumbs with the keys. It’s too bad, because the music really is soothing. There’s this one album my parents played when I was little — can’t recall the name, for the life of me — but the d’ivoir was the main piece for every song.”
He stared at the d’ivoir on the gazebo, then flicked his eyes sideways at Sidney. She had her elbow propped up on the back of the bench, her chin rested on that hand, her head cocked so that she was staring more at the back of his head than at the front. He fiddled with his monitor, which caused an ache to pulse into his fingers. Managing to keep a straight face, he asked, “Is it okay if I hear you play? You don’t have to, but any song you want — ”
“I was hoping you’d ask!” She nibbled on the last bits of pulp around the pinepersem’s ridged core, having eaten the fruit and the leaves throughout the chat. She hopped off the bench and sidled out to the aisle with Wyatt. The way she clamped her teeth into the core and sucked out the juice made him raise his eyebrows.
They stepped up onto the gazebo, its smooth surfaces blooming with àlkun zipping between silver men and women with three-horned wings. They had the same beaky, golden-eyed faces as the ones on the cubes outside. The d’ivoir resembled a rhinoceros with its heavy build, two thick horns sticking up from one end, and lots of thick folds sunk into the aged wood. Sidney smiled and stroked the three layers of mottled creamy keys, then the bundles of beige-splotched reeds protruding up top.
“Anything specific? I can cover Emovere. Penelope says you like that band.”
“Um . . . No, I’ll let you select your own song. What do you like the most?”
Putting the napkin-wrapped core in her jacket, making some kind of smacking noise that sounded like she was trying to get the pinepersem juice off her palate, Sidney sat on the bench and wiggled a hand over the keys. “I’ve listened to ‘Telescope’ by Marnie ever since I was little.” She patted a spot on the bench, and Wyatt sat there. She pressed down on four keys with one hand. Delicate low notes thrummed from a grid of wires tautly strung between golden rings inside the d’ivoir, contrasting with the reeds’ crisp twitters.
“What’s wrong, Sidney?” Wyatt asked when she clasped her hands together in her lap.
“Feeling rusty.” She glanced sideways at him and squeezed her pendant. She took it off her neck fast enough to snap up the amethyst-beaded chain with a ja-jackle. “My parents, um, they played this all the time. For lots of ceremonies and private events. They loved this grand old relic, treated it like a living being.” She clunked her pendant on top of the d’ivoir case.
“Does it feel like no time’s passed by?”
She forced out a short chuckle. “Take a big u-turn there.” She played a random tune, then looked up at the iridescent sparkles winking on the gazebo’s glassy ceiling. “Shift is perpetual. This Foundation, Starsapiens’ ideologies, our cherished sciences and religions . . . nothing is immune to shift. And it never shows up without stretching time beyond whatever boundaries you think exist.” Sighing, she replaced the pendant around her neck, gave the warm amber an extra squeeze, and pressed down the same four keys as before. When she sang, her voice was surprisingly deep and pensive with flinty flashes of her lilting accent, intertwining with the solemn dreaminess of the d’ivoir’s melodies.

I crave eyes beyond the mundane
They thirst to know the border
Cardinals are my bane
Preaching to respect the sacred order
But why should I surrender one single star
They’re a treasure
Shafts reach so far
Horizons wash at my pleasure
Roseate, silvern, gray
My eyes can see eternal
I can become until dark of day
Or until all spiral into infernal

I peek through my telescope
Many things for which to grope
I lie flat on the heath
Red sun of life and ashen nebula of death
I walk up the stairway
One final look at Revolith Bay

Daylight only lasts for so long
Night sweeps over my sight
I’m an innocent voice in my song
Fighting, striving for the light
What a sin to each myopic king
They surrender the stars and the dust
Nothing in the astronomy wing
So much fades into lust
I can reach, I can feel, I can see
Why so bright and so clear
Too bright, too clear for me
It burns as I shed a tear

I peek through my telescope
Many, many things for which to grope
I lie flat on the heath
Red sun of life and ashen nebula of death
I walk up the stairway
One final look at Revolith Bay

One final look at Revolith Bay
Everyone’s eyes crave like mine
Roseate, silvern, gray

Sidney’s hands hovered in the air after the final chord, which was as wistfully mellow as her tone. When she rested her hands on the keys, Wyatt blinked and darted his eyes away, bright with wonder. “That’s . . .” he started to say with breathless thought. Then he looked directly at her and inquired, “Did you consider developing your talents in the music industry?”
She let out a chortle and playfully punched him, although it wasn’t hard enough to make him rub his arm. “It’s extremely fun, it’s a hobby, a leisurely activity. Moving up the ranks of Web and Halcyonic with the values that were ingrained into me, though, that . . . that is what I choose to pursue. Like you with microbiology.”
“With microbiology,” Wyatt echoed under his breath, drumming his thumb on a knob sticking out from the d’ivoir’s side paneling.
They sat there for a minute longer, giving Wyatt time to roll over the song’s mention of Revolith Bay in his head. It was on the coast of his birthplace, Jupinus City, on the planet of Utherwold. His parents took him to Revolith plenty of times to watch many pale orange sunsets shot with indigo light reflecting off the water. They would watch from the ten-sided platforms of polished granite embedded into the gently rounded hills, and then they would walk him up slanted helixes rooted in the platforms that overhung the sea by seventy or eighty feet. A long row of the helixes ran along the inlet, outstretched for centuries since their construction, marked with squarish lines along their sides.
I haven’t gone back there for years, thought Wyatt, rubbing the creases out of his frowning brow.
When he and Sidney exited the incaron, she led him into a relaxed walk through many rooms of the Foundation. The humno had ended, leaving the dull thuds of their steps and the hushed voices of their talk to fill the still air. Sidney’s persistent questioning about Rad-Bio’s work environment made Wyatt ask, “Why the inquisitiveness? Sniffing around for a lab position? I do highly recommend it — ”
“No, I’m merely being inquisitive. I’ve always seen Rad-Bio alongside Penny, and now I want a new perspective from her colleague. How was it to collaborate — No, how was it on your first day? What drew you there?”
Frowning down at reflections in the decagon-scattered floor of iridescent light rippling past the ceiling, he tapped his monitor — it gave off a weirdly icy feeling — and answered, “I simply knew it was the right place for me. I knew it was Dr. Fulbright’s guidance that helped me drill through three years in Olympus University. I knew it was Project Super Nex that would progress his lab to the peak of the mountain. I knew I wanted to be there. To strive.”
She cocked her head. “What did you strive for?”
“To make Cosmotic better, naturally. I have virtues to impress upon it.”
For a short time they let their footsteps become the only sounds to break the air, before Wyatt followed Sidney into a cloister in the fifth and highest level. They watched from behind the colonnade as people in glimmering white, silver-trimmed vests and skirts filed into the open-roofed quadrangle and nestled spheres of translucent wax into candelabras on top of six-foot-tall obelisks. The bases were molded into bird’s feet with taloned toes and an extra talon sticking up from the ankle. Sidney whispered to Wyatt that the people were liuk, Halcyonic disciples who specialized in discerning omens from Teönor through candles. For a minute they watched liuk kneel around the obelisks and coil orange thread around the bird’s-foot bases. Arrows of light dimly glowed in the spheres as they rolled in place and shed the exterior wax in pendulous trails.
Wyatt followed Sidney further along the cloister to a balcony that wrapped around the entire Foundation. Beams extended from the edge of the angled roof, arched about seven feet over Wyatt and Sidney’s heads, and were left to hang their cowrie-shaped ends a couple feet above the helical railing. Tightly twirling around the beams were intertwined cords of teal feathers and tangerine strings, rising up from all over the balcony and past the rooftop structures to converge at a domed cluster in the middle.
Pulling up wicker chairs to a stone table with a ring of ten-pointed stars around a blurry sunburst of white, slate, and pale blue, they gazed past the humming àlkun flocks at the sun and the moon just above the horizon. The half-cloudy sky turned into wavy lines of indigo and violet, along with one narrow band of golden light cutting straight between the sun and the moon.
Sidney said, “So, what’re the gears of your brain whirring over?”
“Nothing big. Trying to put together a picture of how we’ll get this done.”
As he rested both arms on the table, left hand drumming the stone, right hand drumming his monitor, Sidney said, “You shouldn’t concern yourself with trivial matters like that. Same goes for SPACE Union.” When Wyatt shot her an odd look, she quietly laughed. “I know what’s cha-chunking through those cogs inside your big head. They’re tossing us into the vortex because we’re expendable. If we succeed, yay, we come out as heroes for an hour or two and then we’ll be brushed aside for the experts to come in. If we lose, either we won’t come back and everyone will forget about us, or we’ll come back and everyone will ignore us or make light of us.”
“No, not the people in our lives. Dr. Fulbright, Xavier, family and friends — ”
“They’re the exception. But you’re thinking this about all other Starsapiens. So I’m here to tell you this.” Sidney grabbed the back of Wyatt’s chair, scraped it a quarter-turn to face her, and pointed a finger at his chest. “You have no right to give a damn, a single damn, about their narrow-minded opinions. You have to focus on our mission, on our team, on our success.”
“I am. I’m focusing, I’m relying on the strengths of this team.”
She sat back, warmth returning to her smile. “Great! We’ve found the antiviral, then.”
Wyatt cupped his hands together on the table, staring through a slot of space between his thumbs as his palms lit up the darkness inside, the cobalt fading in and out. He glanced up at a group of ministers as they emerged from a distant archway onto the balcony in feather-fringed robes. A sign of a white circle half-overlapping a black circle was printed on the front of their trapezoidal hats. They held out dishes of berries, and in seconds an àlkun flock dove between the arched beams and pecked at the food with quick twitters.
Deeply inhaling and exhaling, Wyatt didn’t stop watching the àlkun until Sidney shifted in her seat and said, “They keep stealing glances at us.” She bobbed her head at the ministers. When Wyatt made eye contact with one of them, who responded by turning away, Sidney pushed her chair backward and tapped Wyatt’s arm. “Is it okay if we go?”
He nodded and trailed after her to a ten-sided atrium with a mosaic of eye-like runes surrounding a cloaked wisp of a figure, into a corridor with murals of the same eyes running along the curlicue-filigreed walls. Along the way he said, “Would they feel justified if we — ”
“Wyatt.” Sidney pointed at him again. “Ignore them. Their opinions are irrelevant.”
He dipped his chin and quickly nodded. “Right. Thanks for that.”
When they went back down to the ground level, not only could a new humno be heard from afar, but Wyatt had to massage his wrist to loosen up the monitor. It felt like hungry insects were nipping all over his skin. Sidney had turned away to peer through a glass case at a six-armed mummy inside an open sarcophagus, so she didn’t witness his distress.
“Did you enjoy coming here?” she asked as they entered the large entrance hall.
“I did. It was nice to refresh my memories of this place. It’s been a long time.”
“And your arm?”
He reached up for his arm but didn’t quite touch it. “It’s good, thanks for asking.”
Descending the entrance stairs, stopping on the semicircular platform at the bottom, the two of them spent a few minutes chatting about the latest episode of Universal Scientifics. Then she said, “If you want, I can use my connections to get you a seat at a Cerebral forum. You could moonlight as a historian or a philosopher. Branching out does great things for your soul.”
“My passion rests with microbiology and Rad-Bio, Sidney, and nothing else. I don’t want to sink into the quicksand of SPACE Union politics. I have better ways to end my life.”
Her light laugh contrasted with the punch she gave to his elbow. “You’re one tremendous oddity, Durrell. I’m eager to keep tapping at your shell.”
“Okay . . . thanks?” he said after a moment, smiling tightly, raising his eyebrows.
After Sidney pulled Wyatt in for a hug and then sprinted off with no more than a goodbye wave, he gazed up at the moon and its dim beams of silver light in the darkening sky. His palms opened up and unconsciously released wisps into the air, circling the moon, shrinking into tiny twinkles, fading away.
At home on Metacaract, he ate a Tidbit package of mushroom peppermint stew for dinner and watched an episode of Universal Scientifics. He also called his parents to update them on everything except his infected monitor. Merlin and Ida wished their son good luck for the trip and half-jokingly warned him to keep his team out of trouble. In his journal Wyatt jotted a short entry and pressed his left hand into the next page. He lifted it away, and his face hardened at the handprint’s mottle of dull yellow and dark gray.
This absurd monitor, he thought, firmly tapping the device stuck on his left wrist. This absurd, idiotic, constricting, toxic monitor. His face softened when his right hand left a fully cobalt handprint. He sat there for a minute, fixated on the two pages, then closed up his journal and thunked it into the top drawer of his nightstand.

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