Project Super Nex, Chapter Nineteen: Nexbrug

“If memory serves me properly, Advisor Wiley led an expedition here that uncovered the primitive form of the Super Nex virus,” Gene said, peering out the window as the pod boosted from the satellite garage to a platform hovering next to one of six planet fragments adhered in a gravitational ring; the segment with the column was in the center space. His face had whitened almost as much as the bumpy surfaces of the fragments, each one wider than a city block. Strings of dim light could be seen looping beneath the bulging edges, giving off an otherworldly glow.
“Yes, before Rad-Bio went to work mutating it,” Penelope said. “I was there the first day they hauled in those packages. Once the strengths of their energy were identified, Warbearer impelled us to upgrade the laboratory security fivefold.”
The pod clicked onto the platform and the door slid open as Wyatt said, “Maybe we should have left those viruses here.”
The rest of the team exchanged reluctant looks before they flew after him in their Enviro-Exos. As soon as they crossed the boundary between the platform and the closest fragment of Nexbrug, they crashed through the dense air to the ground. Rings of light coiled outward from their collective fall, disturbing the spacetime, and then swished over the edge and absorbed into the loops underneath. Penelope almost tumbled off the edge, but she stabbed down the rapiers of both switchguns, leaving a pair of long gashes in the crackly rock.
“Is everybody okay?” Wyatt asked through his Enviro-Exo’s comms channel.
The others responded with general yeses, and Corbin said, “It’s a CGF, a concentrated gravity field. But I was under the impression Nexbrug did not effect it this strongly.” He hunched over, a hand on his knee, his other hand pulling Gene to his feet.
“Thank you,” Gene said, wheezing in spite of his Enviro-Exo’s functional breathing filter.
Corbin made sure his brother stood upright, then spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Our suits aren’t powerful enough to overcome this CGF. It’s safest for us to stay grounded, except for the pockets of space between these fragments.” He pointed at the central fragment, which was larger, cracklier, and more concave than other fragments. Perched atop the slanted column in the middle was a stone figurine holding four overlapped crescents over its head.
“CGF, my ass,” Penelope grumbled at one point, plodding forward with inwardly bent arms and hunched shoulders. When Wyatt extended a hand to her in case she needed support, she made her opinion unquestionably clear by shoving his hand away.
As everyone took their time crossing the fragment, the air seeming to push against them, Wyatt said, “‘Six first.’ What if that’s in relation to the gems and the planets fragments?”
Gene had an arm draped around Corbin as he sniffed, “Six gems, seven fragments.”
“Unless Quentin counted just the gems,” Sidney said, “and then there’s ‘zero second.’ A second step to . . . damn, the only thing that comes to mind is zero matter.”
Cooper added, “Which Quantax now calls negamatter. A bit of it swirls and bwirls ’round this decrepit corpse of a star, but the rest of it got scattered, roams the cosmos now.”
Penelope said, “‘One third’ and ‘There is the flood.’ For some teöforsaken reason the flood part makes me think of the idiotic sewage pipes that burst in my house last year.”
At the fragment’s edge Sidney was the first agent to take a step outside the CGF, looking like she had to push her foot through a wall of hardened goop. Then she kicked her other foot off the ground, activated her Enviro-Exo, and zoomed across the void. When the central fragment’s CGF dragged her to the ground, Wyatt asked through the comms channel, “Sidney, you’re okay?”
“Okay? Okay?” She got up and rose both arms straight upward, beaming. “I’m great!”
Lightly smirking, Penelope said, “Wonderful, Apples, splendid, impressive, all that stuff.”
The rest of the team imitated Sidney to cross the void and reach the central fragment. The thinner air made it easier for them to dash to the column and gather around it. They studied the intersected waves and seashells etched along the diagonal stripes of turquoise metal and creamy stone. The figurine and the crescents on top were built out of the same stone.
“Look for notches, recesses, anywhere we can place the gems,” Wyatt directed, circling the column, drumming a hand on his hip, sweeping his gaze over Nexbrug and the void in a broad arc. “What did Quentin designate as ‘zero,’ ‘one,’ and ‘the flood’?”
“Mr. Durrell!” Gene squeaked, waving him over so fast that his hand looked like a blur. He tapped a familiar symbol carved into a small bulge at the foot of the column.
“Penelo — ” Wyatt cut himself off when she appeared right beside him with a realidorr. Looking at it, he shook his head. “I need the one with the fern and the quills, from Gnomivy.”
She had already given it to Sidney, but she snatched it back without a word, passed it to Wyatt, and gave an unfazed Sidney a different realidorr. When Wyatt inserted the fern-and-quill one into a cavity just below the carved bulge, it fired out like a bullet and whizzed past his visor. He jerked away, and so did the others. It arrived at an abrupt stop twenty feet over the planet fragment dead ahead, glimmering more boldly, motionlessly levitating.
“Get the other — ” Wyatt stopped as he watched everyone hasten to match the gems with other carvings at the column’s foot. A flicker of lightness loosened his brow and the tiny wrinkles at the corners of his lips. Then he rubbed the dull ache in his left wrist, the monitor emanating a combative mixture of heat and ice. He gripped it with an infusion of cobalt light. It took about ten seconds to mitigate the discomfort.
After the six realidorrs zoomed off to hover over the outer fragments, Penelope drew the disc from her satchel and inserted the nub into a notch up on the column’s edge, where it hung when she let go. “There we go. The disc and the zero.”
Sidney’s mouth scrunched into a slant. “I kind of predicted that, but I thought it might be too obvious.” When the disc made a low hum, she craned her head up. “‘One third’ is next.”
The agents huddled close to the column, staring at the symbols, and then they spread out to capture details of the ground, the fragments, the space outside the CGF. Ideas were thrown around, but none of them amounted to anything until Cooper wandered back to the column and squinted at the figurine, its features eroded to the point of blankness, and the crescents it held up.
Moments later Cooper hollered, “Wanna take a gander a’ this?” When the others joined him, he motioned to the signs engraved into the crescents’ rounded edges. “Saw those before, I’m sure of it. They’re, um . . . Feel like helpin’?”
“Teönor numerals,” Wyatt stated, biting his lip, eyes zooming in on the hooks, knobs, or arrows of each symbol. “My parents taught me those when I was a kid. I don’t remember all of them, but — ” He turned his head away and mumbled, “Third one.” His head turned back and he mouthed the numerals one by one, circling the column until he declared, “It’s the third one in the chain, the third numerical one. If we go from the sign that marks the beginning of the chain . . .”
Penelope said, “What do you expect us to activate it with, a kind hello?”
“Or the flashlight?” suggested Corbin. “Who’s in possession of it?”
“I am, but I think . . .” Wyatt didn’t finish his sentence as he outstretched an arm toward the crescents, standing on tiptoes, and held his hand close to a specific digit. His energy lit it up. A tiny coil of dim light twirled into life above the humming disc. It spread a certain force that gently pushed the agents away from the column with a docile warmth. It expanded through the planet fragments and embraced the realidorrs. In return the fern-and-quill version revolved in multiple vertical circles that sent out high-pitched whum-whum-whums. Then it plummeted down to the fragment itself, vanishing into the rock. The rest of the realidorrs repeated this in turn, and you could see the fragments turning more translucent over time. The loops of light flattened into discs of pulsating green and silver matter.
Cooper clamped his good hand over his butt, exclaiming, “My plumps are suckin’ in, that’s how long this is takin’! What’s that dog tale they gab about the fabric of spacetime?”
“Let’s discuss it at a later time, Cooper,” Wyatt advised, projecting a forcefield over
everyone and the column when the central fragment rumbled upward a few feet. This was a reaction to the ribbons of light that unrolled from the outer fragments and fed themselves to the matter churning beneath the central fragment. That in itself had formed a gyrating funnel up to the column, looking like an inverted tornado. The agents could witness this because the rock was eighty percent see-through at this point, same as the rest of Nexbrug.
Then the music began, seeming to flow from a cosmic violin in the hands of universal strength, a being outside the physical manifestations of Cosmotic. Strings of light arced out of nowhere over the agents and plucked in time with the music. At first it sounded like a pianissimo flute solo, the notes peaceful yet stirring. Then it turned into the accompaniment for a high and wispy voice that sang a millennium-old Teönor song, even more beautifully ethereal than the humno in Halcyonic Foundation.
Just as the music faded, making the agents long for it to play forever, a goopy spurting noise leaked from overhead. Widened eyes, frozen breath, grave frowns, all their signs of apprehension were reasonable when they spied the oily vortex poisoning the space right above the CGF’s uppermost boundaries. It bellowed the deplorable shrieks and roars ahead of the eruption of Grimhets. All of them smashed into the great forcefield that Wyatt had domed over the fragment and rebounded into space. Some of the monsters splattered into goop.
“We’ve safely teleported to Lunatark, we’ve safely teleported to Lunatark,” Sidney said to herself, hope in her eyes as hundreds of strings flew up and tied into a ball above the disc.
Gene turned to Wyatt with a squeak of a sigh. “How probable is it that this spacetime ingress will open before those monsters destroy your shield and violate our safety space?”
“Let me focus. I think the star of the show is making his grand entrance.”
Between the vortex and the Super Nex dome, a misshapen gray forcefield protected the the twists of dust and oil inside until they condensed into Gargant. Taking a moment to grimace down at the agents and the portal they were so close to opening, he yelled an oath, roared down to the dome, melted a hole through it in sludge form, and regained his physical body in time to fire ooze and dust at the agents.
At the same time that Wyatt was trying to repair the main dome — Grimhets were doing a good job, unfortunately, of cramming their oozing selves through the hole by the dozens — he was also projecting a second, smaller forcefield to repel Gargant’s attack. Cooper and Sidney fired their hammer and boomerangs to smack him out of the air. Dust swirled around him to pad his fall on the fragment, and he held up an open hand at the team from twenty feet away.
“Starsapiens, you must realize the senselessness of your goals! Lunatark is nothing but a fantasy, a mirage dimension. I know you wish to uncover this heylenorr, but all — ”
“Chief Assbag, come closer so I can stuff my switchguns down your throat,” Penelope insulted in her brashest tone, stomping his way, bombarding him with air bullets.
“Children!” he yelled, the bullets dotting his body with little wounds of oil. He whooshed around Penelope as smoke to avoid her switchgun slashes. He darted all the way to Wyatt and punched through the forcefield, jostling him into the column with a loud thud.
****
“Your task in Lunatark is to impede our adversaries from harvesting any heylenorr. You do understand this, Shemoaniir?”
“I do.” She rubbed a leather-gauntleted hand over her hook, which was longer and thicker than before. “When I return, the realidorr will be in my possession again. I promise you!”
Naazang pivoted from Shemoaniir to the shadowy being who had darted Gene, taking a step closer to it. “Your task is of equal importance, Sigint. I trust you also understand.”
When Sigint nodded, Shemoaniir said, “I’d like to ask something,” and stepped into the shards of gray light twinkling from the chandelier high overhead. Now they reflected off the shells of metal affixed all over her body like a horrible collection of casts. From in between tangled sinews spilled out, shuddering when she grunted, “Why do you need Sigint? If you ask me, it gives off the air of one of those Web dragonflies. How do you know it — ”
“Its loyalty doesn’t need to be questioned,” Naazang intoned, his yellow eyes calmly boring into her. “You’re quite vigilant. You must have troubled Durrell and his allies.”
She squeezed her hook in both hands and started to reply, but it came out as a croak. Naazang traced an air circle beside his waist to open a dot of light behind his minions. A light wind pulled on their backs as he told them, “The Gigalek keys have built up enough strength for the links, so you should be able to survive the teleportation. You may destroy the keys afterwards if the links become overwhelming.” He opened his hand, widening the dot into a full-sized portal that sucked in Shemoaniir and Sigint, leaving Naazang alone in the large, dark living room.
****
“Please, pretty please, proud and promising portal, you’ve gotta open up for us!”
“Ah, Mr. Cooper Roosevelt, be candid when you inform me whether you truly believe in asking the cruel loom of spacetime to weave us a blanket.”
Cooper held a hand horizontally at his knees. “It worked when I was this high!”
“And I’m damn confident you haven’t grown one bit!”
“Penelope,” Sidney told her, “follow your own advice and zip the lips.”
Rolling her eyes, Penelope shot a Hagga about to lunge at Cooper and Gene. The two of them stayed close to the column, defending it from Grimhets so it could absorb the Super Nex energy running through its fractures and the strings could regather with the disc. Wyatt’s collision didn’t blast it apart, but the disc would have flown away had Gene not been quick enough to snag it. The others took up the task of forming an outer ring to fend off Gargant and the rest of the Grimhets that had made it through the forcefield hole before Wyatt closed it.
Then a one-foot orb of silver and white was borne out of the ball of strings, radiating solid rays of light that forced the agents and Gargant to block their eyes or turn away. None of the Grimhets were fast enough, so they were blasted into goop and dust. The light froze Gargant, melting into his skin, coloring it a rich white, smoothing the ridges in his face, shrinking the bulges in his head until he was bald like any ordinary Starsapien. Even his hyacinth was affected, its petals spreading from his lapel, the white and gray stripes growing vivid.
As for the agents, the light ensconced them in a soft warmth and slowly transformed them into millions of multicolored specks — not quite dust, but something alive. All of it channeled into the orb, the light sucked back in, the orb and the disc vanished, and Gargant was left behind on Nexbrug with the goop and dust of Grimhet staining the fragments. He lost all the splendor that the light gave him, but a misty tunnel running between here and there entranced him . . .
****
Time slowed to a standstill around the agents as they whizzed through a tunnel of the same silver and white light as the orb. However, it did not blind them; the rays pierced their eyes and cascaded out the rest of their bodies, mottling their skin golden. They deactivated their creaking and beeping Enviro-Exos, not caring about how the tunnel may affect them. As it turned out they remained perfectly healthy without the suits for the rest of the trip.
Then something bright and warm swallowed them up again, different from when they entered the tunnel. It felt mortal and tangible, a hand dragging them down from the sky into a space of streaking flashes. Their shoes touched down on the polished floor of a round chamber that was actively materializing out of the surrounding emptiness. Oblong pools of pale blue water ran around the rim. Rectangular crystals of purple and red spots grew from the floor between each pool. Painted all over the thirteen-foot-high ceiling were signs of four concentric circles of foamy ocean waves, with two crossed canes between the upper half of the outermost circle and the second circle; each sign was nestled by a slanted crescent.
The agents spent a few silent minutes wandering around the chamber, arms and legs feeling jiggly, a swishing sensation drifting about their heads. Once Cooper padded the sweat on his nose with his sleeve and massaged his jaw, he said, “Okay, honey mice, whaddaya thinkin’? Did we make it? Looks Lunatark-y to me.”
“It is,” Wyatt immediately responded. “We made it.”
“Oh my my, you are unusually confident in your declaration, Mr. Durrell.”
Wyatt turned away from Gene and walked off to swirl a long energy staff in one of the pools. The water rippled loosely and emitted a faint scent of gourmet chocolate and Vestral spices. He dissolved the staff and tensed up his brow at the etchings of jellyfish-like creatures in the bottom of the pool.
“Favors of teö, the precious little things hopped along for the ride!” Sidney chirped, picking up a realidorr from the clump of materials on the floor.
“Well, isn’t that convenient,” Penelope said, scooping the other gems and the disc into her satchel. She let Sidney keep the last gem, watching her tap it on her pendant.
“Whoa, am I going off the wall?” Cooper said after he pressed his ear against the wall and sidled to the right. “Unless it’s one o’ those weird sensory phenomena like phantom organs, I think I’m hearin’ voices . . . Yeppers, this is a private chat.”
The others hustled to the wall, with Gene hanging back and then joining them when his brother waved him over. The muffled voices disappeared almost at once, motivating Sidney to thrust a boomerang into the wall. Neither that nor Penelope’s switchguns left a scratch. Wyatt was next, pressing his open hands into the wall, infusing it with a pulsing sheet of cobalt energy that only served to explode between his hands and propel him into Gene.
“Let’s not get too rowdy, guys,” said Sidney as she and Cooper helped them up. “We don’t wanna announce our arrival to whomever is outside this chamber.”
Gene let out a gasp, and Corbin said, “You used ‘whomever’ in the correct sense!”
Sidney grinned funnily at them. “You’re not the only grammatically-nimble Starsapiens.”
“Let’s focus, everybody, we need to find an exit,” Wyatt instructed, cupping a hand over the airy warmth building up in the left side of his chest. He paced around the perimeter, brushing his other hand along the wall. The others followed his example, starting to inspect the chamber.
“I wanna punch the nitwit who’s forcing us to put up with this torture,” Penelope growled, hovering down in her Enviro-Exo after five minutes of poking at the ceiling with her switchguns.
“Slow down, Penny,” Sidney said with a breathier lilt, reaching out a comforting hand.
Penelope flicked her hand away and pointed up at the ceiling. “I’m sure you nitwits can hear me, so I’m telling you that we need to find the exit. We’ve devoted too much time and effort to teleport to Lunatark and then get trapped in this, this cave. I hate caves!” She grabbed Sidney by the arms and shook her back and forth. “You make me wanna manhandle things!”
Getting out of Penelope’s grip as the chamber softly rumbled, Sidney said, “Wow, Penny, I think you did a great job of pissing off the local spirits.”
Seconds crawled as everyone distracted themselves with tics like sweat-mopping or hair-tugging. Wyatt appeared the least restless of them all, even with the warmth floating in his chest, even when he checked his infected monitor and Quentin’s bracelet and they flashed 100. Then he quick-turned his head to the thin burble outside the chamber and the wavy lines of aquamarine shining through the walls.
“Wh-what is this, these noises and waves fo-foreboding?” stammered Gene.
“Remember the last verse?” Wyatt coolly replied, sphering a forcefield around everyone.
And it hit the team, with Corbin whirling at Penelope to shoot her his deadliest glare, making his eyes bug out of his narrow head. “If we survive this, I will impart the virtues of tact to you. Do you agree?”
She rolled her eyes and pushed him away with her elbow. “Tact is for slicklippers.”
Wyatt thickened the forcefield when water as pale blue as the pools seeped out of the walls and spurted along the floor. It lapped the forcefield, quietly at first and then growing louder and louder, creeping up the exterior in rippling bulges, enclosing it in a full sphere. Wyatt infused even more energy to stop the forcefield from shattering. The burbling rose to a heavy grumble as the water level reached the halfway point of the chamber. The forcefield bobbed along with the low waves rolling into each other, making it hard for Wyatt to maneuver between the whirlpools and fountains. Everyone donned their Enviro-Exos before a fountain sprayed them up to the ceiling. The forcefield struck it with a distinct keerr-racckk! and dropped back into the water. Wyatt closed the crack at once and dissolved all of the water that had dripped inside.
“Now what happens?” asked Sidney when the chamber was completely flooded.
“I don’t — ” Wyatt’s hands clenched when a howl pierced the water. The forcefield quivered between two funnels shooting down into a pair of squarish drains in the floor. Wyatt pushed forward but had to veer right to dodge a third funnel, and then a fourth and a fifth. The forcefield spun back and forth through the chamber, its agents tumbling over each other amid a shower of exclamations, until it thumped off the wall and into the core of a funnel, spinning in place for a couple seconds and then zipping into a drain.
The forcefield swerved through the curvy passage, throwing the agents all over each other. Wyatt tried to slow down by driving thick beams into the walls, but they did not have enough time to solidify in the rushing water. The whooshes drowned out their shouts, thundering more loudly around the corners, and then turning higher-pitched as they rocketed up, up, up into nothing but an expanse of the lightest ocean blues and greens. The forcefield soared out of the water with the dramatic spraying of a geyser, and at the peak everyone hung in midair.
Gene even took that moment to gaze up at the sheet of bright blue overhead and sigh, “Ah, the free sky.” Then his shout struck everyone else’s like a bunch of knives and hammers bashing and scraping together when they dropped twenty feet into the water. The crash threw everyone into each other. Sinking a few feet, then bobbing up and down, the forcefield started to float along a current in the still sea.
“That was . . . quite a flood,” Wyatt said, getting up from his one-kneed stance.
The others mumbled in agreement, and Cooper said, cradling his numb arm, “I’m not gonna take whirlpool baths for a looonngg time.”
A small wave rolled the forcefield onto a broad strip of pink sand, pale in the sunlight. Ahead was a forest of fernlike plants between fifteen and twenty-eight feet tall, dark butterflies larger than your hand darting in and out between the waving fronds and the feathery trunks. Far beyond that were mountains that appeared to span all the way from one end of the land to the other. Glass-like shards sprayed out of their steamy heads and into the wispy clouds of the sky, reflecting white and green glimmers, puffing into concentric crescents, descending over the river-necklaced slopes.
“It’s sort of different,” Wyatt said in a voice as far-away as his gaze, looking up at the spurs of violet and magenta jutting out from a mountain range and the silver-leafed trees on the peaks. The adjacent waterfall reflected beams of those vibrant colors into bubbly curtains.
Gene said, “And you are referring to?”
“The portal disc hologram. It’s different from those mountains.”
Penelope squeezed the disc between her hands, eyes narrowing as she compared the hologram to the real mountains. “Stop whining, they’re similar enough. Mountains do evolve.”
“If this is Lunatark — which I’m ninety-nine percent sure it is — I’m incredibly thrilled,” Sidney lilted, staring up at the waves of bright pink metal twirling around skyscraper spires near the mountains. The varied petals that opened and closed atop the buildings made them look like flowers. Kaleidoscopes of light flickered in the walls and windows in the pattern of rippling circles, rotating crescents, and and other moving shapes.
Wyatt dissolved the forcefield as an alert flashed on his HUD. “The air is nontoxic.”
Gene asked, “Is there a secondary source to substantiate your claim?”
Sidney shrunk her Enviro-Exo into its wristband and took in a deep breath. Releasing a raspy noise, barely clamping her neck with both hands, she slumped down to the sand and flailed her legs. Gene jumped back and grabbed Corbin’s hand, both of them shouting foreign curses. Penelope cried, “Sidney! Why the fuck did you do that?!”
Wyatt shot up his eyebrows and began to rush forth, but Cooper stuck out an arm in front of him and groaned, “Sid, this is a horrible time to yank our hootin’ chains.”
Gene squawked, “Hoo-hooting chains? Why, you barbaric — ”
She stuffed a fist against her mouth to muffle the chortling, her cheeks coloring. “I’m okay!” She waited a bit to rise to her feet, brush the sand off her clothes, and readjust her scarf and her pendant. “Frankly, I thought you would take it more lightly.” She looked at Gene’s white face, Corbin’s twitching eyes, Cooper’s pout, and Penelope’s flaming eyes. “But nope, you’re taking it very, very heavily.” She glanced at Wyatt, the rare humor obvious in his eyebrow-flash, and exchanged a smile with him.
Penelope rolled her eyes and shrunk her Enviro-Exo. “Make us think you’re choking, yes, a hilarious prank. Come on, kids, let’s move. Like it or not, we probably need to socialize with the citizens here in order to unearth the heylenorr, so let’s get it done, pronto.” She led them into a brisk crunch-crunch, crunch-crunch walk over the sand, through warm air infused with the lightest scent of an intangible sweetness, past all the tiny waves lapping the beachside.
Cooper inquired, “Do you even care if these aliens turn out to be liverfeasters?”
“I’ll kill them the same way Dagglen did — a hydrogen incinerator.”
“Penny, alien slayers only use that in movies,” Sidney laughed, looking over her shoulder at Wyatt as he sat cross-legged on the sand and stared at the ocean, drumming a thumb on his college ring. She backtracked to him and patted his shoulder. “Durrell, don’t you wanna go?”
Wyatt moved his hands up in a shrug-like manner. “We’re in Lunatark.”
Sidney cocked her head. “Yeah. So, we should hurry to talk to the people here.”
The others stopped walking when they realized Wyatt and Sidney were behind, and now Penelope throatily sniped, “You two enjoying this tropical paradise? Should the butler bring — ”
Sidney held up a hand, then crouched down to talk face-to-face with Wyatt. “We are here. It may be shocking, but we’re here. We are the first Starsapiens to travel this far in a very, very long time. Mom and Dad, they predicted the day would come, even joked how I’d be part of the expedition.” She quietly chuckled, then tilted toward him to study the lightness in his eyes and the almost-microscopic upturns of his mouth. “No, I want to know. You’re in Lunatark, that’s what you want, you said you want to be here, but you’re being so placid, you don’t — ”
“We’re in Lunatark.” He looked at her out of the corner of his eyes. His mouth curved up a little more. “We deserve to rest.” He produced a vitamin pouch from his suit, squeezed out a paper-thin wafer, cracked it in two, and bit off a corner of one half. He also took an equimed pill, even though he wasn’t experiencing any symptoms from the teleportation.
Blinking at him, twisting her mouth to both sides, Sidney shook her head and turned to the others. “Refuel, guys. Vitamins, equimeds, whatever you want.”
A bemused quietness hung over the others until Cooper tore open a fresh bag of pear chips. Corbin and Gene shuffled off with their phones to take pictures of the beach, the forest, the mountains, everything. Penelope was about to question Wyatt, her combat boots tramping deep impressions into the sand, but Sidney targeted her with a dim glare. This made her do an about-face, tramping back over her own bootprints.
After Wyatt swallowed the last of his wafer and Sidney shared her chocolates with him, he planted his hands into the sand and uncrossed his legs. “Are you ready to go?” he asked her.
She beamed and punched his arm, and they got up to rejoin the others. They debated if they should explore the nearby forest on foot or fly over Lunatark, and Cooper reasoned, “Let’s feel out the forest. We can’t meet them too early, ya know, in case they really are liverfeasters.”
They filed into the forest, alongside a sluggish stream that flowed out of there and into the ocean, as Gene said, “Why must we socialize with them? We can cast about for evidence that may attest to the heylenorr’s existence by ourselves. These inhabitants may be antagonistic.”
“Why are you referring to Lunatark in a way that drips with condescension?” Wyatt asked Gene in his firmest tone.
“Ah, I did not assume you were greatly concerned for the liberality of aliens.”
“I’m only saying that you shouldn’t be judgmental when we have to ask them for help.”
Sidney told him, “Wyatt, you’re not being a good mediator.”
Wyatt flinched back the slightest from Gene, who wore a phantom’s scowl with his pale skin and thin features. But Corbin jumped between them and held out his arms. “Wyatt, my brother didn’t mean it in that manner. He withholds certain fears, you see, but he doesn’t — ”
“How long you gonna blab your gums off for?” Cooper hollered, shooing a butterfly off his thigh. “Did a troublesome thingadoo called ‘the mission’ slip ya brain boxes?”
They all quieted down the moment an accented voice flew out of the trees up ahead, high and crisp with a drawn-out syllable at the end. A series of tinny pings preceded eight seven-foot-tall humanoids striding out from the trees in lockstep, pouches slung over their sloping shoulders. Gripped in their purple-veined gauntlets were either swords with flowing runes of varying pinks along the blades or pikes with similar runes on the broad heads. The three-inch-wide pupils in their beryl blue eyes expanded at the agents. Patches of aquamarine fabric were sewn into their domed helmets and the layered armor protecting each humanoid’s neck, chest, loins, and knees.
The male in front looked like a head guard, since he wore thicker armor than the others, carried a golden-headed pike, and wore a silver-filigreed necklace. Hanging from the corner of his mouth was a looped string knotted to a cloth packet. He tilted his pike toward the agents and spoke in that unique accent, but Cooper itched his ear and replied, “Uh, we don’t speak that. Boss, though, downright boss. Sounds like you’re double-throated. But no worries, we’re here for harmony, peace, unity, all that kindness-and-charity hulloboo. Hey, are ya gonna eat us?”
“Zip the lips!” Penelope hissed. “You don’t ask carnivores if they’re going to eat you!”
Corbin stepped in front of his team and tilted his head up to make eye contact with the tall head guard. Hesitating because of the large, aslant eyes staring down at him, he said, “I’m sorry for perturbing you, but we would like to know where we are.”
The head guard’s eyes passed over each agent for a second or two, sucking on the string in his mouth. His lips contracted right before he uttered, “Lunatark.”

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