The dust covered Arcaipolis in a dense sheet, shadowing the structures that the explosion had blown apart. The particles began to swirl through the city and pellet the Grimhet carcasses and the remnants of buildings, statuary, and roads. Some were pitted fiercely enough that they crumbled apart even further and were blown off the ground. About half of the debris clumped together and fell into tall mounds tipping one way or another by the time thin rays of sunlight pierced the sheet and started to dissolve the dust in the air. The only other source of light was the forcefield Wyatt had domed over his team before the explosion.
“Agents,” said Wyatt, motioning to the ten-foot hill of dust piled on top of the Bacatrahe’s central pool. A small part of it close to the ground shivered and groaned, each speck appearing to repel itself away from the others in disdain. Then something thin bulged out of that spot, crooked and triangular as if it had to unbend a longer segment, followed by a second jointed appendage.
Sidney sidled up to Wyatt and said, “Use the heortorr. It’ll destroy his form.”
Wyatt looked at her, eyebrows arching together. “Are you sure?”
“For Teö’s sake, Wyatt,” grunted Penelope, “don’t question her! Just do it!”
Wyatt drew the heortorr from his jacket. Sustaining the forcefield, he led the team toward the dust pile as a small, rounded mass of ooze arose from between the two jointed appendages — a head and the arms. It wriggled out further, taking on Naazang’s features, the suit more raggedy, legs sticking up and outward like those of a mutated insect. Strips of muscle fibers unraveled from all over the body as it popped out of the dust and thunked onto the ground.
“Would you like to identify yourself, you common beetle?” asked Corbin, wearing a weird, smug grin as if he had invented the computer of a lifetime.
Naazang could not stand up without his legs buckling, his arms spiraling into themselves, his head sinking partway into his neck. Enough of the dust sheet above burned away so that the sunlight was able to clearly shine upon his unsightly appearance. His face looked like it had been rubbed with sandpaper. His torn, goopy clothes were ready to fall off him. Bulbs of sludge were caked on his left eye and cheek. Bone-deep wounds bled ooze of whites, yellows, and pinks.
“I presume you are Naazang,” Gene squeaked, wearing a weird, forced grin as if he were trying to hide a massive headache. “My oh my, your appearance is genuinely grim.”
Cooper said, “Grim? Boy, you’re in the Kingdom of On-The-Tippy-Of-The-Nose.”
As Wyatt constructed breathing masks and passed them around, Penelope said, “They could’ve thrown out something much more geeky.”
Sidney was the only one to decline a mask, since she had her jumpsuit to filter out the dust. When Wyatt dissolved his forcefield and strode toward Naazang, the ooze squelching under his shoes, she remarked, “How the true tyrants and mighty murderers fall.”
“No, Sidney, that’s a misconception. Gargant is the tyrant and the murderer. I choose to observe his storms of passion from the sidelines. There it is peaceful.”
“Then you won’t mind us casting you back to the sludge.” She threw a boomerang, and it stabbed through his upper right arm.
“Sidney,” said Wyatt, projecting a small forcefield in front of her. Even as she turned to him with no expression showing through her mask, she emanated a throbbing resentment.
Penelope stomped close to Wyatt, invading his private space, and hissed into his ear, “What are you fucking waiting for? Get rid of his body. Kill it now!”
In seconds he kneeled next to Naazang and poised the heortorr over his chest. He looked into the ruined body’s exposed eye and stated, “Don’t ever possess me again.”
Whether Naazang was either bored or exhausted, it was difficult to tell by the lifeless yellow sphere that was his eye and the stillness in his cheeks and mouth. In any case he intoned, “Many strings of life will unfurl for the six of you. Take this, for instance. The light will break for a former ally and call it out of the darkness. It will have to abandon you. It will be tormenting for you. But it will brighten the light in the end.”
Furrowing his brow, clenching his hand around the heortorr’s deepening warmth, Wyatt drew in a breath and said, “And if that happens, the six of us will be there to stand in its way.”
With that he thrust the heortorr into Naazang’s chest. The whiny caw of an eagle on the edge of death burst out with the blood, making Wyatt dome a forcefield over his team. Naazang writhed onto his side and cupped a hand over his wound, its edges glowing fuchsia. His caw turned to a panting whimper. His face folded up and imploded into itself. His arms and legs irregularly bulged everywhere like overgrown bugs were trying to burrow their way out.
“Get back!” Wyatt yelled to his team, thickening the forcefield.
For one moment the purest fuchsia energy lit up Naazang’s body, and then it freed itself from him in the form of three concentric, translucent spheres. They expanded across Arcaipolis, washing away the dust, goop, and carcasses. The city basked with glory in the sunlight. The buildings, statuary, and roads regained some of their former life; chunks and pieces mended back together, fractures and pits faded away, colors refreshed themselves.
Wyatt picked up the heortorr that Naazang had left behind. It was beside the boomerang that Sidney used to stab him, which she took back. Then Cooper tapped a hammer on his head, crookedly grinning. “Ha ha ha! We shooed Naazang back to Grimhet! Gets me a-buzz-buzzin’!”
Wyatt said, “We’re not finished yet. Those androids are about to steal the heylenorr.”
Then ringtones of all musical types racketed from their phones and UCTs. Corbin was the first to read the text message, which everyone received, and sourly frown. “‘Hello, Starsapiens. I would appreciate it very much if we could reconvene in the Cythudor. Saorin.'”
Putting her phone away, wiping off the dried blood on a cut in Sidney’s cheek, Penelope said, “Did she mistake us for moronic Grimhets? It’s obvious she wants to trap us.”
Sidney said, “Which sucks, because we have to go back there, anyways.”
Penelope exhaled out the side of her mouth. “Uh-huh. I knew that five seconds ago.”
While they argued over the best way to sneak into the submarine, Wyatt and Corbin were the only ones to notice the shadow-cloaked being zipping at them from outside the Bacatrahe. Before they could warn the others, this being, the one that darted Gene at Rad-Bio, showered the team with a flurry of dark shards and then pushed its hand forward. A symbol of an octagonal eye with three four-pointed stars circling a triangular pupil jumped off the back of its hand and enlarged in the air. The shards condensed into a cloud around the agents and dumped them into the symbol, which was tilting and sinking into the ground.
And the next thing they knew, some sort of a cramped space materialized from the cloud with six seats, a dashboard, and a front window for them to tumble into.
“Egads it all!” Gene cried over everyone else’s emotional exclamations and oaths of surprise, pushing away Cooper’s elbow when it nudged him into a seat.
“Tyrobian, by the looks of it,” said Penelope, looking out a small rear window at a large room with two rows of locked ports running around the walls.
Sidney followed her gaze when frothy water thundered into the room and pounded on their own port, the one that led into this cramped pod. “This flood,” Sidney remarked over the noises, “is very, very similar to the one we had to face after entering Lunatark. Isn’t it?”
“Better get your seat belts on,” Wyatt warned when holograms automatically activated in the dashboard. He crammed himself into one of the front seats, armrests digging into his sides.
Corbin said, “This pod lacks seat belts!”
Cooper yelled, “The TV in my gaming den’s way bigger than this!”
Wyatt tapped monitors and holograms, even though none of this changed the settings. An electronic whuh-whuh-whummmm! grew from somewhere in the pod. The agents barely had time to look out the rear window at the waterlogged room before the pod launched out a tunnel, out to the ocean. “Out here now,” Wyatt mumbled to himself, pushing on a toggle stick, although this didn’t seem to shift their trajectory.
Everyone except Wyatt twisted around in their seats to look at the stoutly-hulled vessel, the Cythudor, which had a pair of wings with zigzag exhaust vents curved along the rear. A lack of visible windows meant nothing could be seen past the slick coating of silvery green shimmers. Both sides displayed Tyrobe’s hand-globe symbol in the same holographic style as the one in the sky. The submarine was leaning over on a slanted mass of rocks leading up to the coastline.
“Back to Lunatark,” Wyatt mumbled, pushing the stick sideways. For some reason the pod obeyed him, turning widely and slowly, scraping its undercarriage over a bank of coral reefs.
“Favors of Teö for that thing not killing us or shooting us with darts,” Sidney said.
“Sidney, if you could . . .” Corbin gestured for her to be quiet, then took his shoulder-hunched brother in a one-armed hug and murmured to him in their secret language.
Nervous chatter filled the air as Wyatt pulled back the stick to lift the shuddering pod a few inches higher over a trench, getting near the coastline. But the Cythudor, still drowning itself in the sea, rolled down a little more and squeezed rocks out from the underside. One of them struck the pod before Wyatt could veer out of the way. Everyone went lurching out of their seats as it spun backward, toward the trench they just passed.
“Whoa, big inky squid, big inky squid!” Cooper bellowed when the pod leveled out and they had a blurry view of the multicolored sea creature a few feet ahead.
“It’s an octopus!” Wyatt said, barreling the pod sideways. It grazed the swelling tentacles and winded downward, ignoring him at the controls. Everyone, except a blanching Gene, was shouting. Right as Penelope was about to toss Wyatt out of the seat by his shoulders, the pod nosedived into the trench, pivoted in the darkness, and zipped directly into one of many tunnels with a sharp skri-skreeee! Wyatt’s hands turned cobalt, the brightest since the team teleported out of Quentin’s cavern, to light up the dense indigo air. The pod bounced off the smooth walls and sped into a mass of blue, coppery, silver, and white glimmers flitting in the immense darkness.
During a period of total stillness for the agents, the glimmers bounded and spun through their eyes and thinned into long rows of vertical columns that shone all colors, rich in their darkness, generous in their sparkles. Some of them stretched into huge slabs buttressed by the other columns. Barred windows and peaked towers decorated a dome of stone that was growing out of the ground. A few of the slabs cracked open to reveal tunnels with scaffolded platforms affixed to the walls. When the blurriness flickered out of the space, the pod popped forward and thudded onto flat ground.
No one spoke when the pod stopped wobbling back and forth at the end of the skid. The residual energy was fading out of Wyatt’s hands. Penelope wiped the dashboard clean, staring out the window, and then rose from her seat and climbed over the other agents. She crawled out an exit hatch in the back of the pod, and the others followed her. Everyone was asking where they had landed this time and why the trench tunnel led them here in the first place.
Wyatt craned his head at the dome enclosing this space. “This feels . . . it’s familiar. I’ve seen it — ” He pressed a hand on the intense warmth in his chest. He reached into his jacket and pulled out the flashlight, which was so hot that he immediately dropped it and so bright that everyone jumped backward and covered their eyes. With a series of energetic trills the flashlight cracked into three clean segments on the ground and emitted all its power in one sphere that expanded throughout the space and absorbed into the walls.
No one said anything for a minute as Wyatt, having fallen down, scooted forward on his knees and picked up the flashlight segments. They weren’t fractured or warped, but mauve and white spots stained the pale blue exterior. Wyatt could have stared forever at the device if Penelope hadn’t roared, “Thanks a lot, Wyatt Durrell! Thanks a fucking lot!”
Wyatt twisted his head her way, a hard frown as his shield. “I didn’t mean to drop it.”
The fire in Penelope’s glare rose even higher for a moment. But she yelled a foreign curse and closed her eyes, and then she inhaled through her nose and opened her eyes. The fire had calmed down greatly. She looked at Wyatt and at the flashlight segments in his hands, saying, “The damn thing got us off Alidiska Min. We could have used it again —”
Sidney jumped between her and Wyatt. “Penny, it’s okay, Corbin and Gene can fix it.” When the brothers themselves shot her tense looks and mumbled to each other, she peeked over her shoulder at them and said with an expectant smile, “Right?”
“Oh, indubitably,” Corbin quickly responded.
“We will manage this flashlight with the most sedulous care,” Gene added.
“Great!” Cocking her head, gazing at the building up ahead with the barred windows and peaked towers, and then turning to a shallow recess ten feet up a slope in the wall, tracing a path down that section with her finger, Sidney quietly mused, “So, we sailed from that tunnel to this place, meaning their spatial-temporal threads must be linked. Why’s that?”
“It’s a prison,” Wyatt said, abruptly sweeping his eyes across the space and the tunnels that branched off on all sides, apparently hollowed out of a massive body of shiny dark stone.
Quickly tugging his curls, Gene stammered, “My, my auditory senses must be mistaken. Or per-perhaps your tongue has fuh-failed to repress a, a solecism. This cannot be a prison.”
“I recall it now, it was part of a complex of dimensional islands called — ” Wyatt paused to touch his left wrist, still raw from the monitor. “Um, Insula Tinn. But they abandoned it after an overhaul of their confinement system. I’m assuming we chanced upon an entryway.”
Sidney said, “I remember now, the Insulae network. The officers were well-known for their imperious forms of discipline. They had to soften their approach under the new rulings.”
Corbin said, “Didn’t they lock up the entrances so that wanderers like us couldn’t enter?”
“That’s the thing. They did lock them up by melting the surrounding realidorrs.”
The team looked around once more in silence, focusing on the stone dome with an abrupt air of drabness. Then Cooper patted Wyatt’s shoulder and asked him, “What’s the first idea that comes to your mind, Com’dore? I mean, we got two neat roads. One, scramble a way outta the exit with . . . stuff. Maybe we can use our shiners to mess with the tunnel, and the Little T’s can mess even more — ”
“We left them and the portal disc under the lovely Alapatium’s care,” Penelope huffed.
“Ooooohhh.” Cooper sucked in a whistle of a breath. “Damn, I forgot that. Yep, that is, yeppers, that puckers, completely makes me pucker.” He repeatedly flicked a finger against his chin and stared up at the domed ceiling. “Second road, we can make camp here.”
“Like Alidiska Min. It’ll be very, very different from Quentin’s cozy cavern.”
“I know, Sid, but we’ll make do. I hope. Com’dore?”
“I think the second road is the only one we can tread on,” Wyatt answered almost at once, his firm steps mutely crunching across the crackled ground.
“Tread on, my ass,” Penelope muttered as she and the rest of the agents followed him.
Gargant stood next to a large capsule of metal laying horizontal on the floor, watching through a small window as long twists of pale grayness pinched damp muscle fibers out of Naazang’s oozing body. “Rarely have I seen you suffer this much agony. Personally I wouldn’t have performed such a desperate craft.”
Lying inside the capsule, Naazang stifled his grunts and groans enough to respond in a tight voice, “I have felt agony in various shapes. This is not one of them.” A gurgle burst out of his throat and turned into a low wail, resulting from a large fiber being peeled off his right palm.
“I’ll leave you now. You need peace to heal in time. Besides, I have to meet your spy. I want to learn what it witnessed in Lunatark.” Gargant left his apprentice with a nasty smirk before he strode past bare desks, empty shelves, and wickless candles to reach the ajar door.
He was halfway out of the bedroom before Naazang stopped wailing and said, “I know they’ll return. Until then, profit from this interlude. Spread Grimhet without their interference. Prepare yourself for tearing out the heart of Das Disgren.”
A mess of wrinkles splashed onto Gargant’s face but loosened up as he snarled, “Arrows aimed so slyly at thunderclouds are often fired by pained fingers.”
After Gargant left, Naazang lied in his capsule, his body parts contorting less while the last muscle fibers were being extracted. All he did was stare up at the moth etchings in the top of his capsule, flying in curled patterns, flitting off-white wings with misty yellow patches.
Wyatt jotted the last words in today’s entry for his journal and concluded it with a cobalt blue handprint. Drumming his thumb on the bandages around his wrist, he flipped back through earlier entries to see how the prints had progressed, turning more blotches of yellow and gray. He put the journal and the pen in the top right-hand drawer of his grand wooden desk, rose from his swivel chair, and stole a glance at a yellowed poster of Lunatark’s mineral classifications before stepping out the door and locking all four bolts.
His bedroom was formerly that of a prison guard, like the rest of the team. Everyone tried to decorate them in the styles that they used in Cosmotic, either dragging ancient furniture out of storage sheds in the basement or lifting knickknacks from offices and other bedrooms.
When Wyatt entered the dining room, tricres-rimmed plates and cutlery etched with feather-tailed fish were already taken from a half-full sideboard and laid out on the table. The selections were smaller than the feast that the agents and the Blodius family had in the Alapatium but looked no less delicious. Faded paintings of Lunatarkian landscapes, people, and animals hung between spherical sconces of tarnished silver on the walls.
Sidney was sitting on a chair, feet propped up on an adjacent one, eating out of her sweets case. Her eyes were closed. She was rocking her head in time with a Marnie song playing on her phone. She was twirling her pendant around her thumb instead of wearing it on her neck.
Wyatt started to step back out, but Sidney heard the scuffs and opened her eyes. “Hi!” she beamed, taking her shoes off the chair, pulling it out. “Take a load off. I’m not doing much.”
“Thanks.” He sat down and gestured to her phone. “Which one is this?”
“It’s the acoustic guitar version of ‘Telescope.’ And I know what you’re gonna say, I really love this song, maybe too much, and there’s a great chance that you’re right.”
They both laughed. She offered him a truffle, which he turned down, and then he said with all his solemness, “If we had at least one realidorr and the disc, it would make this simpler.”
“Remember what I told you, Durrell? Think about — ”
“I know, and I actually did that upstairs. But it cannot change the truth. We’re isolated once again. Tyrobe has devastated Lunatark. Grimhet is free to unleash chaos in Cosmotic.”
Sidney stared at him for a couple seconds before she put her sweets case and her pendant on the table and used a napkin to wipe the chocolate off her fingers. “Okay. Think this way. We escaped. Lunatark has recovered from Tyrobe. SPACE Union has warded off Grimhet. And we have a bit of heylenorr. I mean, how crazily fated is it that Corbin took a few shards? We have something to begin working on, even if Tyrobe has taken the rest of the minerals.”
Wyatt looked down at the table, drumming a hand on the surface. “I don’t know.”
Sidney shook her head. “Stubborn.” She looked off into space, the richly strummed chords of “Telescope” providing a calming backdrop. Without turning back to Wyatt she said, “You didn’t come out of Boraker for a while. We were wondering — ”
“I built a forcefield, more or less a millisecond before the rocks could crush me. Even if the energy didn’t project quickly enough, things probably . . . it probably would’ve been okay.”
“Great, the two of us are thinking alike. And your arm?”
He reached a hand for his arm, the bandages halfway visible from his short-sleeved shirt. “The best it gets after two stab wounds in the exact same spot,” he said, raising his eyebrows when Sidney gave him a sheepish smile and a shrug. “By that, I mean it’s okay.”
He felt his right forefinger, but something was missing. His furrowing brow loosened up when Sidney reached into her pants pocket and came up with his college ring. “Right, I forgot to give you this,” she said, blushing. “Slipped off during the whole Naazang thing.”
“Thank you, Sidney.” Wyatt accepted the ring and slipped it on his finger, the corners of his mouth flicking upward. “I’ll never forget those years. Without Cerebral I wouldn’t be at the lab. Dr. Fulbright was at the lecture hall a lot, and I always drank in his talks.” He stared off at a surreal painting of six towers of aquamarine metal hovering inches over the slate-slashed foam of a stormy sea. “I almost gave in to him,” he mumbled with an edge of guilt.
Sidney looked at him unblinkingly. “What do you mean?”
“Well, suffice it to say, I can see why you hate him so much. He told me to give up. I shouldn’t put up with this. I shouldn’t burden myself with my worries about . . . about protecting the universe and retrieving the antiviral. He could ease the pain and . . . But not one word of his is true. I couldn’t give up, I can’t give up. I have goals, a mission to fi — I have you. All of you.” Wyatt glimpsed away from the tower painting, pinning Sidney with those ever-intense gold-speckled hazel eyes. “And I can’t abandon you. I just can’t.”
A light smile on her heart-shaped features, Sidney was about to respond, but she and Wyatt craned their heads at the open doorway to hear Cooper say, “All I’m say’n is the strategy elements of Catastrophic Gladiators are in your nook an’ you’d play it day an’ night. But you’d have to get over the guts and blood.”
Corbin replied, “Cooper, censor yourself!”
Gene added, “Gladiators, Grimhetized businesspeople, falcon-headed snakes. What other monstrous creations will Starsapiens spawn next for fictional amusement?”
The three of them strolled into the dining room and greeted Wyatt and Sidney, except for Gene, who refused to even make eye contact with them. He let Corbin lead him to his place setting and busied himself with tucking a napkin down the neck of his argyle vest.
“Is everything okay, Penelope?” Wyatt asked when she entered the kitchen with a scowl, furiously wiping her phone.
“Gene got his grubby, greasy, germy paws on my phone, and now the touchscreen is covered in sweat streaks. Cooper is the only other person I’ve met who perspires this much, but he does it out his head, not his hands.”
“And my neck,” he added, rubbing off the sweat with a napkin.
Wyatt turned to Gene, who was twiddling with the curls dangling over his bandaged ear. Wyatt asked him, “Gene, your head, is it all right? No concussions?”
“I am fairly healthy, according to Sidney’s preliminary medical test.”
“Good. I wanna make sure, because getting a knock on the head . . . it’s not fun at all.”
Gene took the time to pat down the napkin in his neck. “Yes, yes . . . the fun is absent.”
At the table was a bottle of hampagin that Wyatt poured for everyone. Then he raised his glass for a toast. “Agents, without rambling on for too long and letting this food grow cold, I want to say that, well, I’ve been thinking about what’s happened lately, and it’s kind of like that Yiezetch poem — you know, Pyetro Yiezetch, the poet known for works like — ”
“We know who he is,” Penelope interrupted.
“Good, just wanted to make sure. There’s this poem I loved reciting as a kid, and I’d tried to get a grip on the meaning.” Darting a look at the smile in Sidney’s eyes, he recited the poem.
Venturing the cross for rocks that glimmer under a glowing orb in the sky
Yearning for the flood of light to wash us evermore
Hoping all will be blissful and amiable and peaceful
Fractures and darkness and fury constantly antagonize the rocks and light and bliss
Solitude serves the one until it falls with no other open hands to pull it up
Benevolent company is the greatest pillar
They will make your world complete against the rages
They will stand beside you when all else crumbles
They will be your vigorous stalwarts
Wyatt glanced at Sidney when she whispered something to Cooper beside her. Her words were too quiet for him to hear, but he could read her lips, and she might have said stalwarts. He made a small lift of his glass and said, “That’s all I want to say,” then sat down and sipped the hampagin. It started out sweet like honey but left a nice savory, meat-like aftertaste in his throat.
The others were silent for a minute, sharing thoughtful expressions, before Gene tucked his napkin further down his vest and sniffed, “Mr. Durrell, may you interpret this poem for us?”
Looking at Gene, Wyatt said, “I always got the sense it was about taking a resolute stance against evil and upholding the virtues and morals of our world.” He paused, his eyes drifting off to a watercolor of Boraker and its adjacent mountains on the wall. The vivid colors and fuzzy strokes made it look like a portal into a blissful dream.
“And the benevolent company,” he spoke again, blinking in such a bright, almost startled manner that seemed to humor the others, “I understood the idea well enough. As long as you have friends, you can overcome anything. Simple enough, I thought. But it’s not simple.” His eyes scanned each agent. “We will get out of here. I promise.”
“Yeppers,” Cooper said in an odd, quiet voice. His face loosened with a funny frown as he pinched a piece of something stringy and brown out of his fruit salad with his bare fingers and set it on the rim of the plate underneath the bowl.
“Well, a proper poem, Wyatt,” Corbin complimented. “Now, let’s enjoy our dinner.”
And indeed they enjoyed dinner, even when Penelope seized a chunk of time for a tirade about whipping the Grimhet spy’s ass and how much she hungered for a Gigalek key to study — “They keep popping into and out of this mission, why is that?” she said at one point, to which nobody had an answer.
After a distressed Gene talked about caring for his intraplug and getting rid of all the remaining poisons in his body, Sidney lilted, “You know, I love this dinner. It tastes nothing like those nutrient pouches we have in Cosmotic.”
“We have to ration out the packages, though,” Corbin warned. “At least until Gene and I
can amplify the supplement receivers so that SPACE Union may send us more food.”
“Ooh hey, I can’t believe I forgot!” Cooper yelled, scraping his chair back so suddenly
that Sidney and Gene jerked away from him on either side. “Be righty back!”
While he was gone, Gene exhaled a long, sad breath and tried to crack open a crab claw with a utensil that resembled two bonded pliers. “How despairing it is for us engineers to tinker with Insula Tinn’s antiquated mechanisms — without the realidorrs or the portal disc.”
Penelope’s eyes narrowed at them. “Whatever happened to your resourceful ability to build a range of devices out of nothing more than scrap metal, wires, and a quantum chip?”
Gene’s eyes paled almost as much as his face, if that was possible. He looked like she just said his phone has died forever. “Pardon? Are you doubting our skills? Have you even visited the ingress-egress terminal?” When Penelope shook her head, his voice went up a note of mock shock. “No? Well, marvel at this.” He stood up from his seat, still trying to crack the crab claw, all the blood draining from his hands. “The mechanisms — are — antiquated! They are the equivalent of Onyx products! The coding is beyond baffling to me and my brother! And it might as well cap off with the arcane mechanisms of Mr. Medanar’s flashlight! It is arcane!”
Without a word Corbin persuaded Gene to hand him the double-pliers. Red pressure marks grimaced all over Gene’s palms, so he gently held onto the cool hampagin bottle.
Sidney asked both brothers, “Are you okay?”
Gene didn’t answer, so after Corbin cracked the crab claw, he said, “Yes, thank you for asking. We’re finding this . . . worrisome, that’s all.”
Cooper swaggered in with the heortorr box and an interesting-looking spirally trinket in his hands. “All righty! Let’s set this up. It’ll shine our meals.”
He pushed a serving bowl in the center of the table to make room for the spiral, standing it upright. It was woven out of fine reddish-green wires. He left the box on the sideboard and nestled the heortorr on top of the spiral. It seemed happy there when it became ensconced in a column of vibrant light, making a pleased amazement arise in everyone’s smiles.
After Corbin and Cooper commented on its beauty, Sidney said, “I wonder how it’s still
intact after Naazang. The other heortorr was in pieces when a Hagga tried to eat it.”
Cooper returned to his seat, shrugging. “Hey, that’s the way life is. I won’t grumble.” He spooned some fruit salad drizzled with a viscous berry sauce into his mouth, closing his eyes and lopsidedly grinning. “Man, love me that tangy sweetness.”
No one spoke for a minute. The clinking of cutlery and glasses became white noise. Then Penelope gestured her fork at Wyatt, sitting in the seat opposite. “The heortorr box. Please.”
He flashed his eyebrows. “Sure.” He turned in his chair, reached back for the box, lifted it off the sideboard, and handed it across the table to Penelope. “Why does it catch your — ”
She flicked a hand at him, and he sat back and stopped talking. She held the box up to her slitted eyes, tracing her fingernail over an engraving on the front. Everyone watched her with increasing interest until she darted her eyes at all of them and ordered, “Stop staring at me!”
They looked back down at their food, and Gene asked, “Penelope, why is the box — ”
“This sign, the sword with the little flower and the star below the hilt, it was in Medanar’s cavern.” She gathered the blankness on all their faces. “Didn’t any of you see it — ”
“The cavern, right, you saw the sword, I also saw it,” was their general mumble.
Wyatt said, “Quentin must have taken that from Lunatark, too.”
While Penelope shook the box close to her ear and felt her hand around the velvet interior, Gene said with a half-smirk, “He collected a notable amount of Lunatarkian items.”
Wyatt’s tone rose with hard defensiveness. “He loved the land.”
Then there was a crinkly ripping and Cooper’s “Crap, Penny!”
“Favors of Teö,” she murmured, creeping her fingers around the velvet she half-pulled out of the box. There was a dull clank and a sticky peeling noise inside, and then a resonant thud of the portal disc tottering out of the box and onto the rim of Penelope’s plate.
No one spoke, staring at the disc and unconsciously holding their breath. It could vanish at any time or transform into a useless rock and make them realize that they created the mirage. But this never occurred. Gene was the first to say something. “This allows for” — he cleared his throat — “Ah, for some adjustments in our, our circumstances.”
The hopeful glint in Sidney’s amethyst eyes was mismatched with the muted shock in her voice. “But Huron was supposed to repair the disc. And the realidorrs — ”
“I bet everyone a hundred tokens that this is from Medanar,” Penelope cut off, pulling from the box a small envelope mottled with creamy waves. A cerulean bead was what kept the flap closed, so she tore it off with the edge of her thumbnail and unfolded the envelope into a single piece of paper. Peering over her glasses at the shaky, left-slanted handwriting, she said, “It’s almost illegible. I guess it’s not Medanar. He had excellent penmanship.”
Cooper clinked his spoon against his bowl. “Oof, your tokens got burnt!”
She rolled her eyes, reading aloud, “‘Dear Starsapiens, Quentin Medanar confided to me that the explorers who follow his trail will require the torus, your portal disc, unconditionally. Their expedition will benefit solely by its advancement of peaceful venturing, but only for as long as it is in their hands and no one else’s. I am honoring his wishes.'” Penelope’s eyes lifted up from the paper, flitting around at the agents with a hint of sadness. “‘Sincerest wishes, Nekotaros.'”
As the agents let the Amrohdor’s letter sink in, Corbin refused to take his eyes off the
disc. Then he said, “We’ll excuse ourselves. Please save our food for later.”
Gene took the disc from Penelope’s begrudging hands, holding it close to his twinkling eyes. “I suppose I can refrain from fussing over the absence of the realidorrs.” Together the Thistle brothers scurried out of the room, leaving phrases of their secret language in their wake.
“Yeah, why didn’t the ol’ king send the shiners?”
Sidney said, “Cooper, we have the disc. Nothing else matters.”
He nodded and shrugged, and Penelope said, clasping her hands around the jewel box, “You’re right, Apples. Did you see how geeky the Thistles were?”
“Because this gives us a way forward.” Wyatt’s eyes dipped to his lap. He turned over his palm, watching the steady cobalt dots beneath his skin. “This is what we need. A way forward.”
(until the next installment in the Project Super Nex hexalogy)