Project Super Nex, Chapter Twenty-One: Audeus Maxum

One swift step after another was how Freye Urewlil exited the Hereborg, moving down a statue-flanked passage that veered toward a nearby village. On most days and nights people stuffed their way through the roads and set off a clamor. But on this particular night, no one was outside and all the foods, spices, and merchandise were put away. Tall lanterns erected from the rooftops like beacons, their gentle light spreading a silvery swath over the cramped buildings, disintegrating the darkness.
Gripping her staff, wringing a hand over the winged orb on top, Freye weaved through the village to reach her home on the far end — a pyramidal conglomerate of vitreous rocks covered in foggy blisters as if it had been horribly burned. Before opening her door, she lifted her head to peer up at the celestial ringing drifting from the sky. Bright streamers rippled through snippets of clouds and burned them away. Starting out as a sheen of forest green, the streamers segued into a blood red, then golden yellow dappled with dusk purple spots, then muddy brown, and finally cobalt blue flecked with stars of copper.
“My faith, younglings,” Freye whispered after the luminescence faded out of the sky.
“Well . . . we’re here,” Penelope said, waiting with her team as the miners moved ahead to a twelve-foot-wide cirque at the end of this lengthy trail. It scaled so much of Boraker that the silver-leafed trees on its peak were only thirty feet or so above the climbers. Even the distinct teal flashes of fireflies zipping between twigs, wings buzzing, nibbling on leafs, were visible, every little firefly. In the pink stone on the cirque’s other side was the mouth of a tunnel from last week’s mining trip, a mustache of bluish-purple leaves running along the upper lip.
“I’ll tell you guys the truth, I had psyched myself for a more enduring trek,” Sidney said, fingering a breathing mask that hung off her neck. “But flying on the hovercraft was fun.”
A sharp groan burst out of Cooper’s mouth. “Heck, you wanted to get up here on paw? Ya know, a huffin’, puffin’ mornin’ like that gets my bladder swirlin’.” He flexed his formerly-numb arm, tickling his leathery fingers along the coarse scar. A heavy Heh-huh! sort of laugh preceded him saying, “Can’ wait to go back to Cosmo an’ show ev’ryone my newest scuffle score.”
The agents hung back on a gentle slope over forty feet long, dotted with the same large bushes of sea urchins as the ones on the knolls bulging from both sides. A few steps behind the agents the slope took a steep angle down to the forest between here and the beach where they came ashore. Similar territory existed on the opposite side of Boraker and other mountains in the long chain. While the miners took wedges of ribbed glass — Sagmyn called them propellants in the meeting last night — from two mobular-sized gear carriers and plunked them down in the tunnel, and the agents chatted on, Wyatt stared up at the fireflies, his furrowed brow indicating quite a bit of curiosity in their innocent zip-zipping.
“I d-dearly hope the endoskeleton will be as, as sound as Sagmyn claims,” were the
twitchy words that made Wyatt turn to Gene, who was fidgeting with his Gelescent cuffs and frowning over his shoulder at the dagger-like shadows that the sky’s jagged clouds cast onto the steep slope. “I concede, a, a geological disturbance is suppositional, yet . . . it crushes my soul.” He smirked. “No paronomasia intended.” His smirk vanished and his lips moved soundlessly.
Corbin told him, “Soothe, brother. We’re aligned with Lunatark. What more do we need?”
“What more,” murmured Gene, reaching into his vest for the pack of mint gum, the one he bought at Rad-Bio two days ago. About to remove the final piece of gum, he left it inside instead and released a heavy, almost glum sigh. “No, no. I must conserve.”
Drumming a thumb on his college ring, Wyatt turned back to the miners, watching one of them type on the strip of a computer screen built into his arm. Another staked out the tunnel with eight posts that projected holographic tricres, marking the cirque as a restricted area. Having entered commands to start up the propellants, the other four miners stood by and spoke to each other in Lunatarkian.
Wyatt shot his eyes at Sidney when she squeezed his shoulder and said to him, “Wow, your muscles are crunchy! Have you considered signing up for a kinetoplasm healer at Quantax Foundation or one of their outposts? Orshin’s the best. He works on Metakarakt.”
“Orshin is the best of the best!” Cooper agreed, giving his bicep a couple hard pats. “Sponges up tension right here.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Wyatt said over the propellants’ muffled pings as clouds of shiny white grains sprayed from their vents and solidified instantly in the tunnel. The partition soon vibrated with a short screech and dissolved, letting everyone outside view the newly-formed interior walling. Sagmyn instructed two miners to stay at the entry to store the soon-to-arrive
heylenorr and guided the others toward the tunnel.
Penelope told her teammates, “Teö, I’ve never seen such spotless, unblemished, snowy surfaces, not even at RBL. Look at the tunnel, I don’t even feel like wiping it down. It’s — ”
“Impeccable,” Corbin concluded in time with her, slowly snapping his fingers.
“Swell,” she grumbled, pulling up her breathing mask, releasing the strap with a snap,
toggling a dial below the gill-like ridges to turn on the visor’s night vision option. She stalked into the tunnel ahead of her agents and the gear carriers, which hovered with seesawing hums.
The other agents put on their masks, too; Sagmyn had forbidden them from bringing their Enviro-Exos because of the effects they may have on the equipment or the heylenorr with their radiation and electronic signals.
When they caught up to the miners, a mist began continuously puffing from the bowels of the tunnel. It neither leaked into the breathing masks nor stained the endoskeletal walling. No one spoke a word as miners used their tablets to review the status of the propellants and the gear carriers. Then the tunnel descended into a sharper incline, the mist thickened into a fog, and long veins of orangish-yellow brightness shone from behind the endoskeleton.
Penelope asked, “How much farther until we reach the heylenorr?”
Sagmyn answered as he and another miner waved narrow cones to vacuum up the fog, “Point four miles, about five more minutes.” Then he ordered two of his three miners to unload large, lattice-lidded baskets from the gear carriers and switch on their levitation settings.
“The spotlight show is coming!” Cooper told Wyatt in a quavering whisper, clasping his hands into a ball in front of his mouth as if to plug up his excitement. This was a short time before the veins widened behind the endoskeleton and the fog deeper down the tunnel lit up with flickering rays of orange and yellow. Cooper burst off into a quick clomp past most everyone, but Sagmyn grabbed his arm and warned him to stay back.
Eagerness pervaded the trekkers, though, as they huddled under an archway where the widening veins in the walls poured out into a sweeping deposit of mineral chunks ranging from one to three feet wide. Some stuck to the walls and the low ceiling. The rest were crammed into a pit that Sagmyn had informed the agents was fifteen miles deep and stored forty-six thousand chunks of heylenorr. The miners used remote controls to steer the baskets into the deposit.
The agents stood aside and gazed longingly at the minerals, but then Gene kneeled down and leaned over the edge, arms outstretched. Corbin dug his skinny fingers into Gene’s shoulder and warned, “Heedful, brother, be heedful.”
“My my, doesn’t this evoke admiration?” Gene said with a soft squeakiness, grabbing a chunk, backing into the tunnel with Corbin’s help. He gestured for the team to bunch together and held up the roughly-spherical heylenorr, that unique twinkle overflowing from his eyes, his right thumb twitching. “Please let your eyes, so thirsty for the mollifying sight of heylenorr, admire the wondrous aesthetics. The juxtaposition of the coarse outgrowths and the uniform surfaces on the exterior is befitting for creative assimilation.”
Wyatt said, “You sound like a couple cloud-thinkers I knew in college.”
“Mr. Durrell, affectedness and artificiality does not exist in my keenness for expression.”
“Did any of you feel that?” Sidney spoke up, quickly turning her head left and right.
“Feel what?” Penelope asked, before a low rumbling made the heylenorr in the deposit quiver, even dislodging one from the ceiling so that it thudded into the pit.
“And now they look very, very disturbed.” Sidney directed a light twist of her hand at the miners, who had been guiding baskets into scooping heylenorr up the tunnel but now paused the work to speak in low voices and throw fearful looks around the deposit.
Wyatt approached them, a furrow running down his brow as he focused on the computer strips in their arms blinking all sorts of icons. “Is there a problem?”
Sagmyn exchanged more quiet words with his miners, then turned to Wyatt. “Vibrations too minuscule for us to sense preceded those tremors, according to the data transmitted by our watch center’s seismology branch. Sometimes these are natural.”
Wyatt’s eyes darted down at his wrist when it felt like needles were sticking into his skin. “Temporal shredding and black holes are natural. Perfectly natural. So if there’s any risk of a humungous mountain crushing us, we need to leave.” His eyes shot upward when an even louder rumble rolled through the space.
The heylenorr chunk slipped out of Gene’s shivering fingers. Corbin pocketed three splinters that cracked off and returned the chunk to Gene. He dropped it into the deposit, though, and tugged at his curls as a loud buzz and a string of Lunatarkian words resounded through the space. One of the miners unclipped a radio off his belt, speaking to it at a fast pace.
Sidney, listening in, told her team, “I think they mentioned . . .”
“Mentioned what?” Penelope said, urgency cutting through her voice.
Before Sidney could respond, Sagmyn said, “The watch center has detected a submarine at a distance of point nine miles from the edge of Ortsaid Bae. The rooks stationed along the shoreline confirmed this, but I could not contact the miners outside. Something is jamming our radios. If I’m correctly recognizing the source, then” — he regarded Wyatt with a look of half deference and half indignation — “we need to leave.”
As if on cue, a shuddering whine shot out of the tunnel and echoed around the deposit. A mess of rattles drummed from the distance, followed by the carts of heylenorr tumbling out of the tunnel. Wyatt jumped in front of everyone and projected a forcefield, then split it in half like curtains to push back the pile. He helped people up after the next bout of tremors made them topple over. Both gear carriers rocked from side to side and krak-a-clattered along the floor.
Wyatt hurried everyone up the tunnel in his forcefield over the next few minutes. In spite of the tremors none of the endoskeletal walls were cracking, even as the cacophony of pounding rumbles and piercing whines grew louder and louder. Then the moment arrived where the group climbed high enough to crane their heads up to the dot of light at the entrance. They moved even faster, and the dot appeared to widen. But the sharpest tremor thus far ruptured the right wall, and fragments burst out and shattered Wyatt’s forcefield. Everyone fell to their knees, but he pulled them back up with his wisps — his hands burned and his monitor felt like a spiky bracelet of ice — and called out, “Keep moving!”
Then a rock, one of many spilling out of the new break in the wall, struck Gene on his ear. Screeching, he tottered backward into Wyatt’s arms.
Corbin spun around from up ahead. “Brother!”
“Keep going!” Wyatt said, carrying Gene in both arms, projecting a forcefield to push Corbin up the tunnel. Cooper, Sagmyn, and the miners had surged out the entrance first, followed by Penelope and Sidney a moment later, and then Corbin arrived and bumped into Cooper.
Lugging a groaning Gene, bolting between the dispersions of rocks and dust, shooting his eyes up at the blanket of cracks on the ceiling, taking one over-the-shoulder glimpse at the tunnel collapsing several feet behind himself, Wyatt thought, Just a little further. He fixated his gaze up at the entrance, at his agents and the light behind them. But a violent twist of a quake yelled up the tunnel, and his eyes shifted to the large rock exploding out of the left wall. It slammed him into the other wall, but not before he heaved one last breath and hurled Gene out of the tunnel. Then large parts of the endoskeleton fragmented, rocks exploded, and the tunnel collapsed.
Corbin caught Gene and backed away from the dust, which was settling across the cirque and the urchin bushes. Cooper crossed his arms tight, his bangs drooping over his brow. Sidney crinkled her eyes closed and covered her pinched lips with one hand. Penelope glared at the tunnel’s collapsed remains. Corbin sat Gene on the ground and looked off at the space around it with a cloudiness that seemed to stretch the bags under his eyes.
“Ev-eventide, the swarms of, of Stie, grisly fo-folds of the Rither, begone,” Gene quietly sputtered, stirring and groaning, eyeballs drifting in all directions. He used a bruised hand to rub his ear, reddened with abrasions. The stinging sensation made him let out a high grunt. “I cannot count the tornadoes tearing th-through my brain. The discom-combo-bobu . . . Ah, the relentless confusion.” His words coiled into a fit of stammers after he lifted his head and blinked at what had happened to the tunnel.
“His energy, it has vanished,” Sagmyn stated, studying the continuously straight lines that ran across his tablet. He whispered something to the miners, who then zigzagged between urchin bushes and disappeared behind a knoll on the side. Sagmyn turned to the agents and said, “Stay here until I return. Cythudor may have docked.”
Corbin questioned, “Where are the miners you stationed out here? Why did they leave?”
“They would never voluntarily abandon their posts. Stay here, please.”
“Cythudor?” Sidney breathed after Sagmyn ran off for his miners. Wandering back to the tunnel, the mistiness in her eyes thinned when they turned to Gene. “He did it for you. I hope you appreciate that.” She pulled off her breathing mask and threw it down with a thump.
He made a groan as he frowned over his shoulder. “The sickly gook would have to pump through my heart, arteries, and capillaries for such thanklessness to survive in my body.” He pushed himself up on an arm and a foot with Corbin’s support and briefly stood upright. Then he toppled into Corbin with a yelp, wagging a finger at Sidney. “Spurning me, a shame for — ”
“Stuff the huus dung already!” Penelope barked, holding up her arms between Sidney and Gene. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost faith in that aggravating lab tech? We’ll drag him out by his balls if need be — ” A growly mumbling bubbled up her throat when Sidney pinched a small bunch of Super Nex dust off the shoulder of her Warbearer camo jacket.
“Such funny energy,” Sidney faintly said as the cobalt blueness dimly glittered between her index finger and thumb. Grit gleamed in her eyes after she pocketed the dust, and she took a slow step towards the tunnel. “You’re right, Penny, we’ll drag him by his balls.”
“Don’t talk ’bout him like he’s a rag doll,” Cooper said, arching his body from side to side and outstretching his arms. Then he looked up at the sky and his mouth mouth fell open. “Cry for my beignet, don’t tell me it’s Cythudor? Looks really techno.”
The others turned to gawk at a hologram as massive as four Warbearer gunships hovering midway between the teal ocean’s choppy waves and the grayish sky’s dagger clouds. The emblem depicted a hand clenching a globe, its strong fingers burrowed into the lands and seas. Looking closely, you could see a power-button-like symbol with a trifurcated line merged with the globe.
“Tyrobe,” Sidney spoke up. “Crap, remember what Oraysae — ”
“Who the hell cares about this Tyrobe?” Penelope barked. “First things first. Help me dig out that troublemaker.”
Corbin and Sidney joined her march to the collapsed tunnel. Cooper was about to do the same thing, but instead he ambled across over to Gene on the right side of the cirque. “Whoa, the jigglin’ did a huge crunch on the land!” Mouth agape at the dozens of rocks that had crushed everything on the slope, Cooper craned his head upward and whistled low. “Looks like it started all the way near the peak. Whaddya make a’this, littler man? Maybe Sid’s right, a setup, a slick op by Tyrobe?”
Twisting the top button of his shirt, Gene glanced at the far-off hologram. “Perhaps.” His gaze dropped to the half-crushed bodies of the miners at the bottom of the avalanche, and he gave the button a twist that almost ripped it off. “Oh my,” he wheezed, scraping back his foot.
Cooper reacted similarly when he saw the bodies by crinkling his face in several forms and croaking, “Okaaayy, so we know they’re not playin’ hooky.” He swiveled on one foot and clomped across the cirque. “Penelope, mind scorin’ me a wipe? My forehead’s a sweat sprinkler.”
Penelope focused on wiggling and pulling rocks out of the tunnel, so Sidney responded for her, “She’s busy, Cooper.”
He barely started to wipe his forehead before the joltiest rumble thus far shook the realm as if being unleashed from the agitated magma of a volcano’s guts. Muffled shouts and a string of rocky thuds made the agents back away from the cirque’s left edge. Just beyond that, hundreds of boulders tore up the hill and coughed thick smoke. Now the skin on either side of Boraker’s face was shaved off without mercy, leaving the cirque and the agents in the center unharmed.
After Gene outstretched his Gelescent gloves toward the avalanche and slid out a tablet from beneath a rock on the edge, Sidney said in a voice as dark as a night on Alidiska Min, “Tyrobe has to be responsible.” She went down on a knee and rested a hand on the cirque’s mossy edge. Her gaze moved in a long arc over the city, forests, fields, and beaches, then focused on the wall of translucent light that snaked out of the ocean and hummed in spikes and dips, colored in the same cool white-blue bands as the hologram in the sky.
“Oof, whoever’s tappin’ in, they’re doin’ it from Ortsaid Bay,” Cooper said as the light grew taller and wider with each passing second, like someone was simply pulling it out of the water, curving it over the realm, brushing it past the curved peaks of the highest mountains.
“Crap.” Sidney slapped a hand on the ground and stood up, twirling her zigtail over her shoulder. Pacing back and forth as the others looked on, she said, “I read up on Tyrobe after dinner. It’s this global organization of robots, bio-cyber and all that. It’s made multiple invasion attempts, but Lunatark always warded them off. I don’t know what Tyrobe is doing this time, but” — she flicked her zigtail over her shoulder and whispered a curse of anguish — “Andropis will swarm us like ashwasps.”
Gene made a sound halfway between snickering and sighing. “Andropis? It is already sounding less menacing than Grimhet.”
“So you’re not concerned about them exposing a weakness in the forcefield that used to camouflage this realm and keep it isolated? Because — ”
The dome shrunk into a single point of light in the same place where it had first grown, a few feet ahead of the Ortsaid Bai, with an electronic whoosh. The point of light plunged into the water with a final twinkle. A cluster of thirty pods shot up as if being fired from a geyser.
Corbin instructed his brother, “Stay behind me.”
The sloped sides and the pointed hood of each pod, smaller than a Warbearer gunship,
glowed 3-D holograms of the symbol in the sky. A lack of fins, vents, windows, and other such details made the exterior look impenetrable. Ten pods curved to the right and ten veered to the left, leaving the last ten to spread out and cover Boraker’s mountain range. As Sidney told her teammates that the pods were called Shods, they had to back up from one that was hovering directly in front of their cirque. The hood split in half and flapped open, letting blaster-wielding humanoids march out three lines deep on gliding feet.
When they stopped in front of the agents, they kept their blasters close to their chests and held up their right hand in a U shape, as if they were grasping the globe from the hologram in the sky. That very emblem had its own three-dimensional hologram in the armband worn on each Andropes’s upper right arm. All of them declared in the same sonorous tone, “Audeus maxum!
As the fireflies burst away from the trees on Boraker’s peak and flocked to the sky, leaving irregular jingles in their wake, Sidney said with a humorless laugh, “Great, more mindless minions.”
Corbin said, “If it isn’t too improper, newcomers, I would like to inquire about your — ”
“Saorin needs to speak with an ally of yours, Wyatt Durrell,” interrupted one of three Andropis designated with striped arms. They stood in front of the rest of the Shod unit, which had formed a wide barrier on the cirque’s edge. Their slick bodies emanated iridescently brass sheens, looking perfect and mechanical. Their faces boasted an interlacing of dendritic lines that curved in various directions to form something akin to eyes and a mouth. They appeared to blur the line between their own kind and the Starsapiens facing them.
Sidney asked, eyes toughening, “Do you wanna tell us who Saorin is?”
The agents took a few backward steps from a midair dot that lit up between them and the striped robots. It expanded into a hologram of an angularly faced humanoid with the same sleek bodies as the Andropis, although it stood out with a pale dress that bloused out above the waist. Her eyes refused to waver from the agents, washing a certain gentleness over them. A slanted S overlapping a reversed S, both curvy and leaf-tailed, was stippled on her forehead. Her mouth opened to let out a voice that flowed along such a relaxed wavelength that the agents, for the shortest of time, slowly blinked, their whole faces clouding over.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am for the opportunity to introduce myself. I am Saorin, the Righten of Tyrobe. Ms. Flame, Ms. Appleton, Mr. Roosevelt, Mr. Thistle, Mr. Thistle, you have been excellent samples to observe. I’ve no questions as to why your technocracy is relying on you to save them. Would you mind my borrowing Mr. Durrell for some time?”
Penelope drew a switchgun from her hip holster. “Sidney, is she an Andropis, too?”
“Forgot to tell you, Andropis is the plural form. Andropes, singular. And I’m very, very certain that she’s much higher than the foot droids. Aidu is the head, and she’s the right hand.”
“Correct, Ms. Appleton. Your brain must be ripe for a neuro-computational scan.”
Cooper waved his hands between Sidney and Saorin. “Sorry, gal, but you opened a gorge right in the middle of our mission, ’cause we want some heylenorr, yet you bots are settin’ off quakes, prob’ly keyin’ up chaos for Lunatarkians. We also gotta see if Com’dore’s alive.”
Saorin’s eyes darted past the agents. “I’m sensing him. His lovely emissions.”
Gene raised a hand and popped up his head from the crowd. “You are disturbing us.”
Penelope took a hard step forward, flaring her nostrils. “Let me kindly explain something to you, Saorin. We don’t associate with people who almost get us killed.”
“Are the aliens who almost drowned us exempt from your point?”
She ignored Gene. “And we’ve fought off more villains and obstacles in a compressed period of time than most people endure. I am sick and tired of this crap. You, your Andropes —”
“Andropis,” Sidney whispered out the corner of her mouth.
“You, your Andropis, Tyrobe, all of you will receive a brief note in our log, briefer than
you can say ‘Starsapien Peace Advncement for Celestial Entities.’ That being said, if you want to pillage Lunatark or kidnap Wyatt, you’ll have to drag our bloody, bruised, battered asses into the vessel that dragged your own hard-asses all the way out here.”
Saorin’s smile broadened with humor — genuinely lighthearted humor rather than the smirkingly sarcastic kind. “Your tongue is as fiery as I thought it would be.”
“As they excessively remark in the movies, ‘Ain’t you seen anything.”
Sidney corrected, “No, Corbin, it’s ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.'”
“I wish you could comply with my needs,” Saorin purred, eyes lowering to the ground and then lifting up at the agents again. “Your camaraderie could become the basis for a profound partnership inside Tyrobe. But persuading you to change your attitude would be disrespectful and pointless for headstrong samples like yourselves. If only there was a way to spare you. However, we’ll preserve Mr. Durrell. You have my vow.”
Before her hologram dissolved, the agents were already drawing weapons against their blaster-cocking opponents. Cooper made the first move by dispatching his hammer heads on the ones in front with the striped arms, slamming them into other Andropis.
His teammates jumped into action. Corbin maneuvered his hoops in swings and throws to repel Andropis or rip their bodies apart. Gene shoved them off the mountain or trapped them like bugs in sap by launching elastic masses of gel from his gloves. Sidney combined her agility with her boomerangs, engaging in close-range combat that may leave an Andropes with its head twisted one-eighty degrees or with a gaping stomach wound that pumped clear blood of organic and mechanical strains. Penelope shot Andropis, thrust her switchgun rapiers through their lithe bodies, and sometimes did both simultaneously.
The fight was brutal over the next few minutes in part because a typical Andropes waved its blaster, clawed at the agents with sharp fingers, and basically thrashed around until its head, arms, and legs were severed and its chest was crushed or stabbed. Also, a new ten-Shod wave would descend upon Boraker moments after the agents wiped out the preceding wave. But there were times when they exchanged silent, knowing looks that communicated how familiar it felt to battle such relentless enemies — enemies that were a salient reminder of Grimhet.
The team was so busy that they could not focus on a crucial issue. It was about to be brought back to their attention, though. After Corbin held up two hoops to push an Andropes at Penelope so that she could run it through with her switchguns, she slid it off the rapiers and jerked her chin at the caved-in tunnel. “Corbin, why haven’t you dragged out his sorry ass?”
“I didn’t know that was my duty. But I won’t quibble.”
Penelope backed up, eyes slitting at Corbin as he scurried to the tunnel and prepared a set of four hoops. She also remained aware of her surroundings and fired air bullets at an Andropes sneaking up to her side. Then a blush of cobalt leaked from the rocks in the tunnel, astonishing both Penelope and Corbin into motionlessness.
“On your posterior!”
They spun around at Gene’s shout, but he had already soaked five Andropis in gel, and Sidney and Cooper had the honor of bashing them to pieces. They didn’t even notice the cobalt spots growing more prominent in the tunnel until a striped Andropes ordered, “Stop!”
The Andropis and the agents stopped fighting to watch the glow spread into the air around the tunnel. The compacted rocks dissolved into a collected cloud of interwoven energy wisps. Even when the striped Andropes ordered, “Initiate!” to make its subordinates fire plasma coils out of their three-barreled blasters, the cloud did not react with even one twitch. It only dissolved when the tunnel blasted a wide forcefield, propelling away half of the Andropis.
Sidney couldn’t help but chortle as energy orbs bombarded the remaining Andropis of the fourth wave. She sprinted ahead of the others, punching Wyatt’s arm the moment he stepped out from the lingering energy fog. “Finally!” she beamed, laughing more lightly. She punched his arm again, not as hard, and gave a sideways shake of her head. “One tremendous oddity.”
Wyatt had been holding his crooked elbow and rubbing a pink spot on his neck. Bruises and cuts in other parts of his skin were shrinking due to his enhanced healing. The heaviness in his face melted, and he told her in his solemnest manner, “I’m no spark.”
“That” — Penelope came up on his side and jabbed the butt of her switchgun into his shoulder — “is the most damn truthful thing that’s come out of your mouth.”
“It’s good to see you too, Penelope. And be careful, this arm is still healing.” He motioned to his arm, the one Sidney hadn’t punched.
Corbin and Cooper welcomed Wyatt in their own effusive ways, but Gene peeked over his brother’s shoulder to stare at Wyatt with the cool observation of a researcher taking notes on a creature that somehow survived a dangerous laboratory experiment. When Wyatt said hello to him as kindly as he said it to everyone else, Gene looked away and mumbled, “You are alive. That is wholly beneficial for . . .” He turned his head to Wyatt and said more clearly, “Time is dwindling. We need to persevere in unity against these invaders.”
Cooper thumped Wyatt’s back. “Yep, lotta stuff’s been jigglin’ our barrel. To blue-pen events, all the miners are dead or missing; Tyrobe is shakin’ LT; a bio-cyberotic robo-villainess wants to chat with ya, but we gave her a thumbs-down so fast; and these robos have Andropis as the plural form and Andropes as the singular form. Way too jumblin’ for my brain to process!”
“Where’s the gear carrier?” Wyatt asked, which made Penelope point behind him at the crunched rectangle of metal near the tunnel. “Oh.” He stole a look at Boraker’s peak, still devoid of fireflies, and his brow flickered downward. “Lunatark must be putting up a good fight?”
“As far as I can tell, they’re waiting to draw their boot buckles, even though we need some damn support — ” Penelope stopped when a fleet of combat-prepped, hovercraft-like flyve whooshed over the peak of Boraker with high-pitched hums. Semicircles of white-veined glass protruded from the hoods like horns, firing blinding waves of light to melt incoming Shods. She gave a sharp nod and got rid of the growliness in her words. “Finally, the reinforcements.”
Then a flyve bearing the tricres on its hood zoomed along the slope, stopping at once in front of the cirque. The agents backed up from the curls of compressed air expanding from its undercarriage. “Cosmoticans, Lunatark is becoming a realm of war,” declared Huron’s voice from a speaker before the flyve turned sideways and swung down a door. He stepped out in the same attire as yesterday, holding out an open hand. “The miners have been escorted to the dosse, a shelter two levels beneath the Alapatium. It will protect you as well. This may last — ”
“Huron, we appreciate you coming for us, but you don’t have to secure us anywhere. If a vortex of Grimhets whirled into Bicap, my team would rally themselves to defeat the legion. Why should we treat this Tyrobe army differently?” Wyatt broke his eye contact with Huron to briefly focus on Ortsaid Bai, where twenty to thirty Shods launched out of the water every half-minute. “Diving into the dark guts,” he muttered, squeezing something inside his pants pocket.
Sidney canted her head to send him her funniest look possible. “What’s that?”
He looked at her sideways but flicked his eyes back to the head guard standing between him and the waiting flyve. “We’ll drive away whatever is at that beach.”
“It’s a submarine, most likely an AT Thriam-class vessel. The latest model is always used for these conquests. You will die if you attempt to break in. I need to escort you — ”
“You don’t have to protect us. It’ll be no worse than sneaking into a Grimhet gathering.”
He waited a few moments as Huron stared back at him without saying a word or changing his stance. “I have a plan in mind. Clear as a skin graft.”
“You’re confident?” Huron scanned the rest of the Starsapiens. “You are all confident?” They responded with yeses and nods, so he dipped his pike towards Wyatt. “Your realidorrs and torus are secure in the basement vaults. They’ll be waiting when you return. May the moon spirits beam luminous.” He spoke a Lunatarkian phrase and tapped his chest armor twice with his pike before he returned to the flyve, which shot down two Shods on its way back to the city.
“Goody, Com’dore, you got a red dot to strike. What type o’ ammo we loadin’?”
As Cooper rubbed his hands, a boyish grin on his face, Wyatt said, “Here’s the thing. You might find it amusing.” He dismissed his forced smile. “I haven’t even got the Frosmo.”
Cooper’s jaw dropped and twitched to the side. Gene pinched the breathing mask around his neck, but Corbin squeezed his shoulder to stop him. Penelope’s eyebrow curved upward. A squeak of a laugh burst out of Sidney’s mouth before she ruffled her zigtail and said with an initial crack, “You, you bluffed Huron into believing he could leave us to our own devices?”
“Bluffing? I only decided that he has to devote his time to Lunatark, not us. If we can enter the submarine — ” Wyatt pulled a clenched hand out of his pants pocket and opened it up. Laying on his palm was a dented key of tanned golden amber with hair-thin veins of purple branching through the interior.
None of the bewildered expressions compared to Penelope’s fury as she picked up the key and wagged it in the air, doing a poor job of stopping her voice from rising. “How — did — a cursed Gigalek key — sneak into your pocket?”
“I know as much about this as I know about the other keys.”
“Moving the issue aside for later pondering, we must outline the intelligence-gathering th-that should be conducted, yes, conducted for such a hazardous intrusion,” Gene stammered, fiddling with the cuffs of his Gelescent gloves. “Is this submarine a craft of metal alloys or other inorganic materials, a sentient organism of bio-mechanical flesh and innards, or, or some other enigmatical eh-eh-entity that is dispensing wave after wave of Andropis?”
The lively crooning of a masculine voice paired with a trilling trumpet resonated from Corbin’s person. Eyes twinkling, he produced his wireless node from his pocket and tapped the screen, shutting off the alarm. “We might establish the infiltration if — Yes, see, this is the Andropes I hacked earlier. It has entered the vehicle, the massive submarine.”
Gene peeked over his shoulder at the node. “You hacked into an Andropes?”
“Didn’t anybody witness that?” The others shook their heads and said no.
Gene’s voice went up a note of incredulity. “You hacked into an Andropes without me?”
“I apologize, brother, but you were occupied with the battle.” Corbin adjusted the node’s monitor, zooming in on the columns of Andropis and Shods proceeding through a large loading bay. Miniature cranes hung upside-down from the arched ceiling, controlling forceps, laser-rimmed blades, and other tools to conduct repairs.
Wyatt asked, “Could you hack into the submarine mainframe?”
“You snagged the thought out of my brain. I’m inputting a deploy code for a Shod that
will convey us into the vessel. Please allow me a minute or two to complete this.”
Corbin sat cross-legged between two urchin bushes and thumbed his device, shoulders slowly hunching up until Gene pushed them down with a gentle touch. Then Gene joined the others at the cirque’s edge to fight off the fifth wave of Shods.
Soon after Corbin declared that transportation would arrive, a lone Shod launched out of Ortsaid Bai and slowed to a stop in front of the cirque. Wyatt and Gene surged into the empty interior first. Cooper bent his knees and then leapt from the cirque’s edge next, a whoop shooting out of his open grin. But the vehicle jerked away with a metallic warble after an enemy Shod hooked a narrow coil at the stern, making him splay out his arms and legs and dig his fingers into the edge of the entry ramp.
“Hang on, rascals!” Penelope cried, firing her switchguns at the enemy Shod. Two more zoomed in to unload their Andropis and distract Penelope, Corbin, and Sidney.
In the agents’ Shod Wyatt ordered Gene to figure out the controls at a large holographic monitor, then clamped Cooper’s wrists, hauling him up the entry ramp and into the wobbly vehicle. Gene managed to direct the power cells away from the other Shod, stretching the coil with a head-pounding rikka-ring, rikka-ring! The wobbling only halted after Wyatt constructed a pair of barbed pikes with chains lined along his arms, chucked them at the cirque’s edge, and affixed their chains to the lip of the open entry. Now both Shods remained at a standstill, even as the enemy kept pulling at its ringing coil.
“Gotta get the rest of ’em up here, Com’dore!” Cooper hollered, giving a strong back-pat.
“I love how you think I can spoon a plan out of the pot like that,” Wyatt replied, pressing his hands on the entry’s lip to repair it, since the chains were curling it outward.
“Spoon a plan? Out of the pot? Oh, what uproarious words! You told Huron — emend the quote if it is erroneous — ‘It’s okay, I have a plan. Clear as a skin graft.’ He departs, and you confess to your companions, ‘I haven’t even got the Frosmo.’ The Frosmo! Merry, utterly merry!”
“Gene, I told you to figure out the contro — ”
The enemy Shod tipped up suddenly to jerk the coil, flipping the agents’ Shod upside-down. Cooper and Wyatt would have been tossed out had Gene not latched them down with the outstretching fingers of a Gelescent glove. He was using a floor-bolted chair as his handhold.
“Comrades!” Corbin called, holding up a teleportation hoop with lit-up bars speeding around the rim. Penelope and Sidney flanked him to hold off Andropis while he hurled the hoop at the Shod. Wyatt leaned partway out the entry but slid backward when it rocked again.
It was Cooper who, as he pushed himself up from the slanted floor, stuck out his head and bit down on the hoop to catch it. With bulging neck sinews and a double eyebrow flash, he picked the hoop out of his mouth with a spitting noise of disgust and some lip-fluttering. “Little T, what’re we supposed to do with this? Whonk the sub’s tail fins?”
Corbin answered, “Drop it onto the floor once the bars turn solid!”
Metallic whining and ringing gashed the air as Wyatt, Gene, and Cooper’s Shod was pulled so forcefully that the energy pikes snapped out of the cirque’s edge and flung splinters of rock everywhere. Gene tumbled through the monitor and into the rear wall, sparkles of the hologram burning into his bloodshot eyes. He clapped his hands over them and slumped backward, exclaiming foreign curses with a bit of a hyena-like quality. Cooper was about to fly out the open entry, but Wyatt, down on his knees, projected an energy rope around his waist to halt his rapid roll. The Shod sped through the sky, away from Boraker, toward the ocean, thanks to the coil that kept it connected to the enemy vehicle.
“You have to power through this!” Wyatt shouted, poking out his head to take one last furrowed-brow look at Sidney, Penelope, and Corbin on the Andropis-infested cirque. Then his eyes flickered to a smeary thing of burnt beige that stuck out from a knoll above, but he couldn’t get a clearer look before it vanished.
“Com’dore, how the heck can we rely on this?”
Wyatt turned away from Boraker and paid attention to the hoop in Cooper’s hands, the one whose lit-up bars stopped spinning and turned solid. “Corbin told us to drop it.”
Cooper considered Wyatt’s words, scratching his head, and put down the hoop. Affixing to the floor with a short brom-brom, it widened three inches in circumference and displayed a small, foggy room in the center.
Looking out the entry again, eyebrows arching at how fast this Shod was being dragged down to the wave-cluttered waters ahead of Ortsaid Bai, Wyatt grabbed Gene and Cooper’s arms and drew in a pinch of air. Then he dove into the hoop, pulling the others with him right before the Shod plunged underwater.

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