A palpable buzz ran through Wyatt, chilling his spine. The rest of the team exchanged quick, tense looks. They were in Lunatark. Wyatt looked straight up at the head guard and said, “We believe that something here will help to cure a disease.”
The head guard immediately unclipped a rod from his pike, flicked it into a calipers-like instrument, and held it inches away from Wyatt’s left eye for a scan. Skimming the barcode-like data, tucking the device into his pike, he said, “You are Starsapiens from Cosmotic.”
Wyatt pressed his lips together before replying, “It’s true.”
“You should not have been able to bypass the entryway.”
Gene patted the air with both hands. “Please, troop leader, be patient. I am struggling to understand why you choose to greet us with a handshake of malice. Our arrival should invoke only a charitable commingling of two sentient species — Egads!”
He did that when Penelope gave him a covert kick in the shin. While he rubbed it to ease the pain, Sidney informed the guards, “We need heylenorr to design — ”
“A Super Nex antiviral,” the head guard interjected, pinching his packet. The looped
string contracted and then dilated in width, and the packet’s bottom corner released a whiff of sparkly, sour-smelling dust, which he sniffed up his thick nostrils. “You hope to rid your long-standing foes of their newfound strength, their own supply of cwikmatir.”
Penelope asked, “How do you even know that, and what’s this kuck emerk?”
“Cwikmatir. Super Nex, the animated essence of your mutated viruses. We have known about it for years.” Bafflement washed over the agents as the head guard went on, “We must take you to our Amrohdor, Nekotaros Blodius. His louvwon will be equally eager to meet you.”
“Amrohdor? Nekotaros? Blodius? Louvwon?” Gene said as if his voice belonged to a creaky wooden drawer.
As Corbin whispered to his brother, Penelope elbowed past Wyatt, even though he tried to block her way, and asked, “Do you want to explain why you tried to drown us?”
Two of the Lunatarkians pointed their swords at her face before she could take one more step. The head guard momentarily looked away and said, “We have a duty to escort you to the Alapatium. If you refuse to comply, we will have no choice but to confine you.”
“Alapatium?” Gene wheezed, which made Corbin squeeze his shoulders.
“I suppose you want to confiscate our possessions for security reasons?” Corbin asked.
“Not unless you have anything to declare.”
Penelope clamped a hand on her satchel. “We’re fine.”
When the head guard’s pike beeped three times, he removed the rod and flicked it open again. Tapping the holographic screen, he turned to the other guards and whispered to them in the native language. Three guards hurried off to the beach, leaving the head guard to lead the rest of the group deeper into the forest, where it looked like the fauna and flora of the ocean inspired the nature of this land. A flock of jellyfish-like creatures shot down from the treetops, swishing their tentacles past the group, and disappeared into the bunched-up fronds just as fast. The agents had to avoid stepping on striped manta rays creeping over the soil and burrowing into the knobby stalks of calcareous plants that could have been mistaken for brain corals.
The group passed a herd of animals with the head of a dolphin and the body and antlers of a deer right before they boarded an open-roofed hovercraft, the guards and the agents sitting in two separate sections. Penelope, standing over her seat with flared nostrils, started to pull the wipe dispenser out of her pocket. When Sidney mildly elbowed her and bobbed her head, Penelope threw a sideways glance at the seated guards, who were not afraid to stare right back at her. She even dared to clean her seat in the slowest and widest sweeps, then fold up her wipe and slide into the trash slit of her dispenser.
After one of the guards muttered under his breath, Cooper said to Wyatt, “Heh, that don’t sound like a good thing. They got somethin’ against cleanies?”
The driver wore a helmet with three chevrons, one purple and two red, on the cheek covers. He pressed his hand into the dashboard. Curved fins vibrated from each corner of the undercarriage, zipping the hovercraft between the trees with a gentle hum. Gene and Corbin couldn’t resist the chance to make enthusiastic queries over its mechanics, including the engine class and the dim lights streaming underneath the side paneling. The guards answered none of them. It left the forest behind to fly over a rural area laid out with concentric circles of dirt roads, coral houses, and more of the dolphin-deer animals cantering around the yards.
A short wall acted as the boundary between the hovercraft’s two groups, but Sidney still tilted over it from her bench and said, “You never introduced yourself. What’s your name?”
The head guard cast her a little smirk. “Huron. You?”
“Sidney. Huron, is that your first or last name?”
“Just Huron.” He weakly pinched his packet, dilating and contracting the string again.
“I’ve seen that,” she said, almost whispering. Her eyes had wandered to Huron’s packet as it turned on the string. On the other side was an inked impress of a magenta rectangle with two small blue crescents in the upper-left corner and three wavy purple lines in the lower-right corner. Sidney said more loudly, “That flag on your packet is carved on one of our realidorrs.”
Wyatt, sitting next to her, quietly said, “Sidney, let’s keep that info buttoned up.”
“Sure, sure.” She turned away from him and tilted over the short wall again, flashing a clever little smile at the guards. “So, Huron, the flag on your packet, it matches the engraving on one of our gems. We found six of them, as a matter of fact, six gems.”
Out of all the guards, Huron made the clearest expression as his pupils widened just enough to let his curiosity escape and both his pinky fingers twitched back and forth over the pike on his lap. “Realidorrs?” When Sidney shrugged, he said, “Please elaborate on this.”
The agents tried to interrupt her with hushed warnings, but she ignored them. “We dug up six realidorrs and combined them with a portal disc to enter your dimension. It’s all thanks to an extremely resourceful man, a traveler who went by the name of Quentin Medanar.”
“A traveler.” Huron paused. “Do you still have them?”
Sidney gestured to Penelope, who told her in a muted bark, “You shouldn’t tip our hand like that.” She jerked her chin at Wyatt, who was nodding. “Even he’s on the same page.”
Sidney flashed another clever little smile. “It’s okay, Penny. They need to know.”
The hovercraft swished over a perpendicular railway of stone and metal slats sunk into
the soil, leaving behind the country and entering the city. Bubbling through the windows of some skyscrapers were beads of neon light that either collected into large circles or burst into dots. Carbon fiber-like blades stood from octagonal bases in the streets, teardrops of something like pumpkin orange molten glass drooping off the swaying tips. Reflecting all this colored light in artistically messy blobs were brooks that curved past all the skyscrapers and blade sculptures.
“My, my, what novel aesthetics you’ve chosen for yourselves!” Corbin said at one point, squeezing his brother’s shoulders to calm him down; Gene had been darting his eyes everywhere and swiveling his head in all directions, struggling to drink in the Bicap-esque visuals.
Very little chatting took place on the hovercraft until it reached the Alapatium, a temple of various pink, orange, and tan colors, surrounded by three rings of copper columns. Waving from the tip of its conical roof was a flag embossed with a coral, a purple, and an aquamarine crescent, the three of them meshed together in a ring with the concave sides facing inwardly. When Corbin asked about the flag, Huron said it was the tricres, an emblem to represent the trio of crescent-shaped islands that made up Lunatark.
The hovercraft landed in front of a tiled walkway leading to the Alapatium, but the doors hinged open an inch before grinding to a halt. Everyone remained in their seats as the driver fiddled with the controls. Wyatt asked Sidney, “Would you like to comment on the trip so far?”
“I like it. Lunatark reminds me of Cosmotic.”
“Except for when they almost drowned us.”
“Yes, except for that. Everything else is amazing.”
After the driver opened the doors to let out the passengers, he sped the hovercraft away. The guards corralled the agents down a walkway bordered by hedges of sea anemone-like plants. The tricres was also engraved into a paneled handle on each of the double doors. After Huron slipped off his necklace and let a guard ID it, he led the group into the rounded entrance hall. Semicircular rooms were carved out of the walls, open for viewing; one featured a cafe, another displayed half-burnt and -torn papers in glass cases, a third stored aeroflora-like flowers, and so on. Three mineral-laced chandeliers hung from the ceiling and shone as much light as the ammonite-shaped sconces. Statues of the land’s figures and animals sat in wall recesses with plaques of Lunatarkian text set into the plinths.
The guards formed the agents into an orderly line as Penelope told Wyatt, “Whoever the ruler is, he better be a friendly one. Amrohdor, though, it doesn’t give off a dystopian tinge.”
“I don’t think we could gather much from the sound of his kingly title. And who knows? Quentin’s journal didn’t mention how kind this species was.”
Then they passed by a lumpy, three-foot-high crystal whose fuchsia glow surged through wires running down the pillar-like pedestal. When Wyatt asked what the crystal was, Huron answered without turning around, “You should disregard that.”
Wyatt raised his eyebrows and glanced at the floor, which also emitted fuchsia pulses in the panels that everyone stepped on. Cooper grew a boyish smile as he tapped his shoes on the floor, causing the lights to fade in and then fade out. He kept this up until they stopped near the end of the hall. Huron inserted the tip of his pike through a holographic panel, and Lunatarkian letters scrolled across the top edge. A multifaceted circle of pale pink light split open in the floor and let an elevator rise up in front of the group.
When the elevator brought them into a semicircular antechamber, Penelope broke off to peer down at the dorsally barbed lobsters scuttling through a fountain. At the moment that Huron craned back his head and looked down at her from an archway at the far side, she advanced past the fountain with her chin held up and whispered to Sidney, “I’ll say this. I like the decorating job.” She jerked her chin at a painting of many-branched corals growing high into an indigo sky with many slivers of light and two waxing moons facing each other. “I like that, too.”
In the next room everyone stared up at the interweaved tubes of water spraying down from the domed ceiling, levitating in a coherent mass, weaving around large crab shells. Passing four archways of bumpy coral on both sides, the agents were ordered by Huron to stand on a tricres-embroidered rug. Facing the guests from the end of the room were four people sitting in seaweed-trimmed thrones of silky braids. Flanking them were two men and two women, each one a guard who crossed over his or her chest a sword with a mountain landscape painted along the bowed blade. Their shakos were embossed with indigo crescents.
Huron briefly drummed the head of his pike against his chest armor. “Omnamor,” he greeted in his unique accent, the other guards echoing him. Before standing with their backs against the walls of rose pink and violet stripes, all the guards tucked their helmets, gauntlets, and weapons into rectangular racks of coral branches that grew from the floor.
“I believe it properly represents my partners to express how pleased we are to meet you, the rulers of your majestic Lunatark,” Corbin said, shuffling a foot on the rug, snapping his fingers behind his back. “You are the oligarchy who manages the sovereignty of this realm?”
“Your universe would actually call us an aristocracy,” responded the only woman at the thrones, tan swirls filling the rims of her eyeballs. Bands of dotted pearls ran along the sleeves of her pleated dress. “We’re pleased to meet you, too. We haven’t been able to welcome progressors in years. I’m Adira. This is my husband, Nekotaros, and our sons, Zlytann and Oraysae.”
Wyatt arched his eyebrows. “Progressors?”
“My land is familiar with your society’s insistent ambitions,” said Zlytann, the maturer-looking of the two sons. His hands, adorned with at least three gem-inlaid rings for each finger, were steeple-clasped over the acute triangles embroidered into the lap of his faded red robes.
“Curious,” Gene cracked, fidgeting with his cuffs. “Starsapiens do indeed stretch forward for the stars of the future, for the bright horizon. Yes, there were centuries past when they treated other species with — ” He stifled a squeak when Sidney stealthily flicked his wrist. Then he released something halfway between a cough and a hiccup.
“Would you like some water?” asked Oraysae, the triangles on his robes thicker than the ones on his brother’s clothing. His eyebrows, which slanted down toward the bridge of his nose, didn’t curve nearly as steeply as Zlytann’s.
“No, thank you.” Gene gulped some air down his sticky throat and attempted a smile that made him look as if he were suffering from a dozen canker sores. He struggled to make eye contact with the man whose deep purple complexion contrasted with sparkling golden eyes that did nothing but sweep left and right over the six visitors. The long, dark scar on his left cheek made it look like a small blade had cleanly sliced off the top layer of skin.
“Now, I would like to confirm that you, the Amrohdor, are Nekotaros?” When he replied
with a deep nod, Gene went on, “Has anyone apprised you of the imperative for our arrival?”
Nekotaros pressed a hand over a polished fuchsia bulb that protruded five inches from the end of a four-foot-long scepter in his lap. He started to sit forth and answer, but Zlytann said, “If you’re seeking the antiviral at this point . . . It will drive you to despair.”
“Why do you say that?” Exhaling a huffy breath, Penelope took a step forward before a
guitar riff pierced the air. She plunged a hand into her satchel and directed her annoyance at the UCT inside, muttering, “Olympus.” She silenced the ringtone as it unleashed the first raucous verses. Looking up at her team, the aristocracy, and the guards watching her with varying looks of interest, she said, “It’s SPACE Union. We’ll talk to them later.”
Wyatt asked, “Amrohdor, how much do you know about the Super Nex virus?”
“You may call me Nekotaros.” As he rose from his throne and clacked his scepter on the floor, the gold filigree of his leather circlet and his pleated tunic reflected the light in subtle waves. He padded off the platform in his openwork sandals of leather and fine pink metal and held his scepter as an upright barrier between himself and Wyatt. “There was a courageous man who, before falling to his illness, devoted all his power to ward off an invasion from Lunatark. He predicted that the next time his kind would step foot in our realm, one of them would be endowed with his powers and all of them would be resolutely motivated to eradicate the virus.”
Wyatt said, “I’m not sure if ‘eradicate’ is the correct word. We’re focusing on the antiviral. After it stops Grimhet, we might salvage the virus for other purposes.”
If a string had gone from Nekotaros’s eyes to Wyatt’s over the next few seconds, it would have been entirely motionless. Then he tilted his scepter forward, but Sidney shot out a hand so that the fuchsia bulb tapped her palm instead of Wyatt’s forehead. “Sorry, but why are you — ”
“I’m going to determine his purity. It’s a simple procedure. Could you lower your hand?”
“Well, this is a reflexive response for the times when people start reaching out unusual items toward my company, especially when you’re going for their heads.”
Cooper added, “Plus, he doesn’t wanna be probed. It’s easy to make that out.”
Nekotaros peeked around Sidney’s hand to make eye contact with Wyatt. “This will pose no dangers to you, Wyatt. You’re exuding the energy. You will give the most transparent view of your alliance.” He retracted his scepter from Sidney’s hand. “It will be difficult to confirm your claims unless you allow me to access your mind.”
Wyatt gave her a little nod. Darting her eyes between him and the Amrohdor, she pulled her hand back, the warmth of the scepter bulb sinking into her fingertips as they brushed past the polished surface. Just as the bulb was about to tilt into Wyatt’s forehead, a low strumming of a guitar beat with a background of electronic drumming resonated from his pocket.
He took out his UCT. “Xavier. They must be wondering if we even made it.”
Nekotaros tilted back his scepter again. “You can answer the call.”
“I’ll keep it short.” Wyatt thumbed the UCT and held it up to his ear. “Hi, Xavier. Yes, we did make it. I’m sorry, we . . . Yes, we’re okay. We’re meeting the rulers of Lunatark . . . No, they’re okay. The king wants to probe my brain with a mineral of his . . . No, Xavier, I have to go. But you can tell everybody we’re safe and we’re going to return with the antiviral.”
“Only if the family is bounteous — ” Gene’s words turned into a mumble when Cooper gave the back of his head a noogie.
Nekotaros waited until Wyatt put his UCT away to exert the gentle force of his scepter bulb into his forehead, making him take a small step back as a thin numbness wrapped over his mind. The other agents gave him space. Hundreds of organisms gyrated around the scepter bulb and his head in milliseconds, forming a ringed cloud of blinking snowflakes. His eyes wandered from side to side and then blinked when Nekotaros retracted the scepter from his forehead.
“What were, what did you look at? Did you go inside . . .”
Nekotaros curved his right thumb and middle finger across the fuchsia bulb for some
time. Then he clacked his scepter to the floor and nodded to Wyatt. “It approves of you.”
Running her fingers up and down her pendant’s chain, Sidney asked, “Is there something, um, conscious in your scepter? Like the thaum that live in Torchen houses.”
“It is more active than conscious, cursed with vigor.”
Wyatt’s eyes hardened under his lowering eyebrows. Before he could speak, Gene said, “If I may insert my opinion, I presume that this vigorous bulb is a heortorr.” After Nekotaros asked how he knew about it, Gene stopped tugging at a curl of his hair. “I stumbled upon it in a colorful categorization of rare minerals and rocks.”
Wyatt spoke up, “Speaking of which, I’ve been wondering about this man who predicted our appearance, if his name was Quentin Medanar?”
Nekotaros stood up straighter. “Yes. He was determined to cure himself of the virulent disease that had afflicted his body after Project Super Nex. He invented a portal device and entered this land through underground tunnels laced with realidorr, a mineral that’s highly valued for its spacetime-bending properties. We supplied him with six copies before he left.”
Sidney asked, “Then you did comply with his quest?”
“There was no reason to oppose him,” Zlytann responded, propping up both elbows on his throne’s armrests, his hands remaining steeple-clasped on his knees. “I don’t know if you knew him — ” He paused when the agents shook their heads. “Well, we did, and we enjoyed his company. Those mutating viruses didn’t do much to smother his dynamism, his dreams of saving Cosmotic.” Zlytann’s hands pressed harder together, sticking upward.
Oraysae said, “If I may ask, where are the realidorrs?”
The agents turned their heads a little to Penelope or darted her looks. She placed a hand on her satchel and cast her own look at Huron, who was pinching his packet and staring at her with one squinted eye. “One gem is with Sidney. I have the rest,” she said, pulling up the front flap, tipping over the satchel to show the gems and the disc.
“We never gave him the disc.” Huron marched up to the agents. “I would like to examine them.” When they all leaned away or stepped back from him, he said, “I won’t harm them.”
“I hope not. A dozen times we’ve come this close to shipping our plumpies to the cake shop on the edge of the cosmos!” Cooper held up a hand to pinch the air. “This — close!”
While Huron laid out the items on a cabinet and studied them with his calipers, Adira said, “Mr. Durrell, when you were on the phone, you mentioned heylenorr.”
“Quentin claimed in his clues that it’s the basis for the antiviral. Does it exist?”
Standing up, walking back around the guards and the thrones, Adira stopped at the rear wall and swiped a hand over the embedded shelves. A vertical bar of light opened in the center of the wall and folded into crescents on either side, revealing a bay window with bands of shiny scales running along the edges. “Please take a look at the cliff in that mountain range down there, the cliff with the bright splashes of purple and pink. That is Boraker.”
The agents joined her at the window’s perfect view. Past the Alapatium’s outer walls was a small forest of tubular corals, succeeded by skyscrapers and other parts of the city, the vividly colored cliff, the pink beach where the agents had landed, and a sliver of fresh blue water on the horizon. Sidney said, “Boraker, is it where you keep the heylenorr?”
Adira rested a hand on the windowsill, the tiny pearls on her sleeve clinking together as her eyes flicked over the sights of her land. “The heylenorr grows in thousands of underground deposits, most which are far too deep and geologically unstable for us to safely access. However, they’re all interconnected to Boraker, whose deposits are closest to the surface and stable enough for our miners to collect heylenorr for its widespread medicinal purposes.”
Wyatt asked, “Could this heylenorr be used as a Super Nex antiviral?”
Nekotaros tipped his scepter toward the Starsapiens. “It has healed many of our society’s previous epidemics. It’s likely that it would rid Grimhet of their viruses as well.”
Zlytann warned, “But the mining treks do carry a moderate share of risks.”
Gene pivoted away from the window and blanched at him. “Risks?”
Corbin, who had been constantly shuffling his feet inside his shoes to relieve his itchy soles, draped an arm over his brother’s shoulder as Zlytann turned in his throne and went on, “Last month a cave-in killed three miners and left nine others with severe physical debilitations.”
Cooper’s jaw dropped open and then snapped closed. “Ha, well, ya gotta have drones!”
Oraysae ambled over from his throne, his pupils of squashed semicircles tightening for
the first time. “There are certain events that has made Lunatark reject artificial intelligence and any related technology. We solely depend on our reliable citizens.”
“I get the gist now. You’re robophobic. Or dronophobic. Whatever you prefer — ”
“We are not fearful of robots. We are not victims. We merely learned to beware visitors.”
“Okay, I see,” Penelope clipped, “and you think that gives you the right to drown them.”
Zlytann started, “A minor cost for the sake of defending our — ”
“Zlytann,” Nekotaros intoned, tilting his scepter toward his son. Then he turned back to the visitors with a face that struggled to loosen up his tense eyes and his flat mouth. “The trek occurs once every month. The most recent one was last week. For a situation of this urgent scale, I can deploy the miners again. Your assistance in the trek would be greatly appreciated.”
Penelope stated, “You have our word, we have no problems assisting.”
Gene whispered to his brother, hooking his thumbs into his vest pockets, before Huron piped up, “I’ve verified the realidorrs and the spatium torus. But there are abrasions from the strain of teleportation. I need to store them until they can be repaired.”
Wyatt said, “What if we want to keep them?”
“They need to be repaired now, or else they could malfunction.”
It took a few seconds for Wyatt to look at Penelope as if he was being requested to cut off his finger. But she nodded to him and said, “As soon as they’re fixed, we need them back.”
Huron said yes, patting his pouch to indicate where he had them. Then Sidney said, “Is that what you call it, a torus? Quentin liked the name, too. We call it a portal disc.”
“This torus was designed years ago in our realm. They stabilize radiation links between fatigued minerals. We never gave one to Mr. Medanar, though.”
Corbin proposed, “He must have reverse-engineered the design in Cosmotic.”
Huron looked past the visitors at Nekotaros. “What about the trek?”
“It could take place tomorrow morning if our progressors have adapted to our realm.”
“We can do that,” Wyatt answered, his eyes flashing with intensity.
Gene angled his head to the side and murmured to himself, which made Corbin glance at him and then question, “Wouldn’t it be proper for us to be educated on the miner prerogative?”
“The head of our mining committee will meet you later for that purpose,” Huron said, pinching his packet three more times before he pulled the looped string out of his mouth and tucked the whole item into a side pocket of his shoulder pouch.
Adira said, “We’ll be happy to accommodate you in the Alapatium. You may attend
yourselves to the guest rooms, food, spas, libraries, everything except the basement. That is the only restricted area.” For less than a second her eyes swept over her husband, her sons, and all the guards in the room. “Also, we would be honored to invite you to dinner.”
All the Lunatarkians stared at her in some odd fashion, letting the Starsapiens exchange small frowns and shrugs with each other. Then they received a flick of the hand and a jerk of the chin from Zlytann, who said, “I’m sorry, but that doesn’t conform to the visitor courtesy. And they cannot enjoy our delicacies — ”
“They’re our guests, Zly. It is our privilege to make them comfortable.” Adira turned to the agents, still smiling lightly. “Would you like to join us for dinner? I promise, the dishes are delicious. Quentin couldn’t devour enough of them. And we would love to learn about the latest developments of your home and share the customs of our own realm.”
A tiny silence hung in the air before Gene lifted his forefinger and said, “Why, it would be ludicrous for us to decline such a kind invitation. Adira, the Blodius family, we shall attend your congregation of Lunatarkian gastronomy, most assuredly a marvelous meal of mellowness.”
Penelope, barely moving her lips, said under her breath, “Teö, enough manestroking.”
“What about your arm?” Oraysae said, looking at Cooper. “Is it broken?”
“Numb. Got poisoned, but Sid fah-lushed it out.”
Oraysae spoke in Lunatarkian to Huron, then told Cooper, “Our medicines may speed the healing process. Huron will take you to the infirmary.”
After Cooper gave an enthusiastic thanks, Nekotaros tapped his scepter’s heortorr bulb on each agent’s right wrist and then traced a large air circle in front of the team, blessing them with good fortune upon their entrance. Oraysae retained the same light eyes and smile as his mother, but Zlytann regarded the agents with a much-tighter face. Huron and two of his guards flanked the agents back to the elevator, with Wyatt fiddling with his infected monitor along the way. What caused him to do this was a speck of eerie coolness in the monitor itself, absorbing into his skin, spreading throughout the rest of the device and numbing a narrow portion of his wrist.
Sidney asked, having darted her eyes at his fidgety movements, “Is it okay?”
Huron looked their way near the elevator. “What are you talking about?”
Wyatt lifted his head and shifted his eyes away. “Nothing. I’m, I’m adjusting my monitor.” As Huron called up the elevator and led the group inside, Wyatt let go of the monitor and flexed his hand, the dots in his palm glowing off and on.
“Tigon’s tooth, I have never seen apples this tiny. Look, Sidney, it’s like you, a mini Apple that I wanna stuff into my pocket, wrap you up all cozy in there forever and ever!”
As Penelope waggled a dot of an apple in the air, Cooper snickered, “Tigon’s tooth?”
“Yeah. Tooth of the tigon. Don’t you get it?” Still turned away from him at the table, she dangled the apple in front of Sidney, having twisted it off a vase of woody stalks, and then tossed it into her own bowl of soft-shell lobsters.
“This is delicious,” said Wyatt, using tweezers-like cutlery to shred apart a fat fish steak.
“Oh yep, straight from the peak,” Cooper agreed, nibbling on a fish chip. His eyes were wandering around the oil paintings of Lunatarkians hosting festivals on beaches and on the Alapatium’s rooftop, festivals with food platters loaded on the tables and partygoers in luxurious suits and gowns dancing to the musicians’ tunes, all of this under the clear light shining down from the plump eye of a full moon and the innumerable freckles of stars.
“And this table brings me back to the one I always had dinner at when I was a kid,” said Wyatt, his hand drumming the velvety surface. Pipes and curlicues of whitish-lavender gel seemed to have sprouted up from the warm carpeting and melted together into the dinner table in question. From above it looked like two broad crescents jointed at the points. Fish, crustaceans, mollusks, grains, fruits, nuts, jellies, and plenty of other Lunatarkian specialties filled the layout of glazed platters and bowls. Levitating over them were orbs of milky light that reflected shiny likenesses of the dinner guests they sailed past.
Zlytann asked, “Where were you born? You strike me as an Ovsecuu kind of Starsapien.”
Some of the dinner guests threw him little looks, including Penelope’s minor eye-roll, as Wyatt responded, “No, I was born on a moon, Utherwold. It’s the home ground to a large amount of Halcyonic members. Last year, though, I moved out of my parents’ house to Metakarakt. It’s much closer to my workplace, so that helps to cut down the travel time.”
“Do you still use crossbuses?” Nekotaros asked, sticking a pipette-like utensil into one of the levitating orbs. He squeezed the bulb to draw out the inner pulp and then dribbled it over his fish entrails. When Wyatt answered yes, Nekotaros said, “Mr. Medanar accused Quantax of being too relaxed with upgrading them.”
“Quantax is busy tending to leptonian jumpers, photonships, negamatter processors, and any number of other experimental technologies in the burgeoning field of physics,” Corbin replied.
Gene added, “Grimhet is consuming much of their efforts, of course.”
Adira said, “As Quentin told us, you’ve fought Grimhet for many years.”
“Many years too long,” Sidney answered, making some weak stabs at her noodles and then taking a slow, long mouthful of an acidic-smelling beverage with a ruffled leaf in the glass.
Oraysae said, “We can sympathize, having been forced to deal with enemies from time to time, ruthless and powerful foes who attempted to plunder our treasures and subjugate our land. An army of robots, Tyrobe, posed itself as our largest threat, but the last attack was years ago.”
Cooper’s eyes popped out. “Robots? Ah-ha-ha! Sounds better than ooze-sweating beasts!”
This caught a squint from Huron, standing guard in the corner with a tricres-imprinted packet hanging from his mouth after he had escorted the guests to dinner. “Cooper Roosevelt, Tyrobe has wreaked no less merciless destruction upon our home than Grimhet has upon yours.”
The short period of quietness, interspersed only by Gene’s grunts in as he tried to saw his knife through leathery eggs, was officially broken when Adira pointed out how Cooper’s arm looked well. He grinned, gesturing a fish chip to the elongated patch of jagged dark and light bumps left by his burn. “Yep, your meds are boss!”
Then Zlytann said, “Wyatt Durrell, why didn’t you move to Bicap? That is where Rad-Bio Laboratory is based, so if you’re working there . . .”
“Well, Bicap is also booming in multiple technological industries, making the housing market that much more expensive. I can afford the lower prices on Metakarakt.”
Zlytann licked the fish oil off his spoon. “Why didn’t you find work on Utherwold, then?”
“Lots of Halcyonic sanctuaries, even the Foundation, but very few microbiology labs.”
“I see. It might turn out to be beneficial for you in the case of any future shifts.”
A piece of fish steak paused en route to Wyatt’s mouth, his brow furrowing at the Elm. However, Sidney beat him to asking, “Excuse me?”
“You can’t gloss over the facts. Project Super Nex has opened up a vortex and dragged Rad-Bio into the chaos. Mr. Medanar himself predicted the laboratory’s inevitable closure.”
Sidney leaned forward in her seat to block Wyatt on her left, flashing Zlytann a tight-lipped smile that came close to tearing her face in half. “Actually, it’s doing great right now. It’s drawing up antiviral designs and waiting for us to return with heylenorr.”
“Who knows if your progressors will rely on any more of its enterprises, though.”
“Sure they will. We’re a very, very optimistic society.”
Sidney, dissolving her smile so that her mouth could curve to the side, relaxed her body only when Wyatt rested a hand on her shoulder and slowly pulled her back in her chair. Giving her eye contact without any tension in his brow, he then shifted his gaze to Zlytann and sat up. “She’s right. Starsapiens are gifted with an exceptional perception for creating wonders out of nothingness and uniting with others in prosperous partnerships. Rad-Bio, in fact, goes even further with its out-of-the-cosmos thinking, thanks to Dr. Fulbright.” He swirled around the solid indigo liquid and the pebbles in his glass and took a small sip. “The lab will advance onward.”
Zlytann scraped his spoon along the bottom of his fish oil dish, spooning some of it over his frilly shrimp, causing their two-headed bodies to swell. “That’s a theory to consider.”
During the next short period of quietness, Corbin interrupted it with his stifled coughs as he tried to swallow down a sticky clump of spotted roe. After Cooper joked that he sounded like a dying whale calling out for its lost love, Corbin used his own pipette to draw the inner pulp out of an orb and drizzle it over his mussels. “By the by, what’s this sweet-smelling sauce?”
“The distilled saliva of a specialized cow breed in our private farm.”
Six pairs of eyes darted at Nekotaros, with Gene releasing a squeak and putting down the pipette he had lifted up to a saliva orb. Huron flicked his eyes over the guests and made a tiny smirk. Penelope spooned some of the liquid out of her bowl and into an empty cup as Adira said, “Quentin told us that Starsapiens eat similar delicacies all the time, like shadewing tongues.”
Penelope cocked an eyebrow. “Quentin? No-oohh, the only people who eat gross things like that are extreme food critics and devotees of Torchen and other occult clans.” Her eyebrow cocked higher as Wyatt and Cooper pipetted more of the sauce on their food. “And you two?”
“It tastes good,” Wyatt replied. Cooper wiggled a thumbs-up.
The rest of the dinner was fine, as far as the Starsapiens were concerned. Very little talk centered around the meeting between the agents and Sagmyn, the miner who would head tomorrow’s trek to Boraker, or the supplements that SPACE Union delivered through Quantax’s teleport receivers earlier. The topics adhered to the customs and technologies of Cosmotic and Lunatark while steering away from anything related to Project Super Nex. After dinner Nekotaros asked Wyatt to stay behind, so Huron led the other guests out to the elevator.
Nekotaros walked Wyatt from the dining room to the central atrium, then entered a side hallway by himself. Wyatt had less than a minute to sit down on a conch-footed ottoman and gaze out the open bay windows behind the thrones before Nekotaros returned with a brassy box that barely fit in both his hands. The tricres was stamped into the top lid. He handed the box to Wyatt. “This is for you and your team.”
Wyatt said a thank-you as he flipped down the front clasp and hinged up the lid. At once an aroma of a distinct mistiness wafted out of the box and into the room, blending in nicely with the scents of the lamps above. Pillowed in the plush stuffing was a fuchsia jewel polished into a circle, a multifaceted crescent carved into the center. Wyatt’s eyes fixated on the beautiful item, neither twinkling nor glazing over. The instant he plucked it out of the stuffing, a pleasant heat flowed into his thumb and forefinger, through his hand, warming up his bones, pulsating a pale pink glow from his skin, vanishing as swiftly as it appeared.
“I keep a reserve stock of heortorrs in one of my private basement vaults. All of them are mined from the same deposit in a proprietary glade near here. My scepter has been surmounted with one of them.” Nekotaros’s eyes shifted to the item clipped to his throne’s armrest. “Heylenorr has saved the lives of many citizens, but cases where heortorr must be administered instead do exist. For example, cases where you suffer from heortmael, an ailment class that includes any cardiac malformations, apathy, and toxic vascular syndrome.”
Wyatt put the box on the ottoman, clasping the jewel in both hands. “How does it work?”
Nekotaros clasped his own hands above and below Wyatt’s to enclose the jewel. “Doctors transmit their root strength into patients through the heortorr, recharging their heart and erasing the disease.” He paused as the pale pink glow faded into their hands and brightened into a full fuchsia light, exuding the same pleasant warmth that zipped up their arms and into their chests.
Wyatt closed his eyes while the warmth surged back and forth through his body. Then Nekotaros let go of his hands, leaving them cupped around the heortorr, its fuchsia glow already dimming. The warmth faded from his hands and arms, but it still floated in the center of his chest, not at all uncomfortable. His face barely changed except for his opening eyes before he replaced the jewel in the box and said, “Thank you for this. I actually have another one.”
He produced it from his pants pocket, and it did look similar to Nekotaro’s gift, except without the crescent carving. He held it out in his palm, and Nekotaros gazed at it with intrigue. “Did you find that in Cosmotic?”
“Gene gave it to me. He found it in Quentin’s cavern. Do you want — ”
“No, keep both. Keep both of them.” Nekotaros’s golden eyes settled down to a contented state, and he walked Wyatt back to the elevator. “I entrusted Quentin Medanar with my charity. He was different from all other foreigners whom we had met. He was your classic bright-eyed adventurer, but his ill state and his hopes for an antiviral kept him grounded. I only I had known him a little longer . . . But you and your partners are here now, thanks to what has been bequeathed to you.”
Wyatt waited for him to say “I hope you succeed” or “I trust you to carry on Mr. Medanar’s quest.” But he said nothing, and Wyatt had to pay special attention to rubbing at the just-under-the-skin soreness in his monitor-trapped wrist.
Nekotaros called up the elevator to make it rise from the floor, and Wyatt stepped in as the Amrohdor said, “Monus en stelus gude. Look to the moon and the stars.”
Brilliant, another riddle-philiac, thought Wyatt with a mental groan. He said out loud, “Nekotaros, what — ”
And the doors slid closed, separating him from the Amrohdor.
When Wyatt went down to the guest room level and headed through a translucent pink tunnel to his small cube of a room, one of many hovering in the large space, he put the heortorr box in a shelf that displayed nothing but a framed map of Lunatark. Kicking off his shoes, taking off his long-sleeved top to leave himself with a t-shirt, he plopped down on the bed’s woolly comforter and stared up at the glowing ripples that undulated across the ceiling. He didn’t move when the ache flickered in his left wrist, and then it was gone.
He had brought his journal on the trip, and before bed he scribbled a short entry that included Nekotaros’s strange parting words. Then he rubbed the pad of his thumb around his monitor, making the skin look like it had been dragged through a layer of blackish-gray dust. The material was just as thick when he used it to underline the entry. Drumming his thumb on the page left a few blotches beside it.
In a room filled with an orchestra’s worth of ancient musical instruments, Gargant sat at a d’ivoir with stone heads of Haggas protruding from the sides. He was playing a song of long thrums and muffled skirls that flowed around the room and lingered into silence. The notes rose in volume as his fingers bore down on the keys with increasing strength. As the music reached a crescendoing flourish, he thought, Naazang must be conspiring to kill them in Lunatark. I wish I could stop him. But that would be unthinkable.
He gazed off at a wrinkled photo of a boy no older than thirteen with a shock of wavy hair and thin lines running down his cheeks. Torchen motifs were embroidered into his narrow-lapeled suit and his ruffled mittens. It wasn’t long before grayish tears leaked from the corners of Gargant’s eyes and trailed down his cheeks. He let out a deep growl and clamped his hands into the keys, making the d’ivoir’s reeds plaintively twitter.
A palpable buzz ran through Wyatt, chilling his spine. The rest of the team exchanged quick, tense looks. They were in Lunatark. Wyatt looked straight up at the head guard and said, “We believe that something here will help to cure a disease.”