Some time ago, I posted chapters for Project Super Nex, a sci-fi YA story about the alternate dimension of Cosmotic. In this world, Rad-Bio Laboratory has bioengineered the Super Nex virus to create an army of super-soldiers for the government of SPACE Union so they can win the war against the tyrannical Gargant and his bestial Grimhets. However, the project becomes undermined when thieves steal the virus from the lab, and things only complicate further when lab tech Wyatt Durrell has to wrestle with his own newfound powers after getting unwillingly infected.
Since then, I’ve significantly overhauled the entire story, and now I’m going to serially post chapters of its latest incarnation here. Thank you for taking the time to read it, and I hope you enjoy it!
CHAPTER ONE: THE DEMONSTRATION
“Start the energy construct stage. Sword version.”
I watch the man inside the glass-enclosed chamber hold in front of himself his splayed-out hands, which glow an iridescent blue. Just as blue are the delicate, sinuous wisps pluming from his fingertips. A malleable substance pulsing with light, more substantial than gas, more liquid than water. I must have seen this a million times by now, but it never gets old.
“Sword version,” repeats the woman standing beside me, holding a finger to her earpiece.
“He heard me the first time, Penelope,” I tell her patiently.
I glance at the computer tablet in my hands, having filled half the screen with detailed notes on this final training session. Then I lift my eyes up to the chamber. Through the glass I see Easton, the candidate chosen for today’s demonstration (coming up in twenty-four minutes and forty-six seconds, according to the time on my tablet). The wisps snake up from his fingers, twisting and hardening together, and they leave a sword with a long blade and a stout hilt in his hand. Gleaming as brilliantly blue as the wisps he summoned, the sword is beautiful in its pure strength.
“Good,” smirks Penelope, holding up a telemetric scanner that projects a holographic lens through which to view the exam. Numbers and stat bars run around the circular edges.
I note the speed of the sword’s construction on my tablet (1.78 seconds, around the average of 1.80) before tapping my earpiece and instructing, “Next, energy orbs.”
Easton obliges, holding the sword by its hilt in one hand and using his other hand to grasp the tip of the blade. The entire sword flickers and turns fuzzy, like heat is hazing the air around it. Then it disappears when the candidate claps his shining blue hands together, as though crushed into oblivion. But the energy is far from gone, I can see it leaking from between his fingers while they’re cupped together. Then he releases his hands from each other, firing a series of perfectly spherical orbs of concussive energy at the other side of the chamber, striking holographic targets that had materialized there thanks to the projector installed in the chamber’s ceiling.
“Hell, we might actually get through today,” Penelope said with a scoff, adjusting her severe ebony glasses. “Of course, I still don’t know why Marsden and Foxer even need this demo, they already know how the fucking virus works.”
I try to listen to the rest of her griping, knowing it’s just her way of venting her stress, but I’m a little distracted watching Easton hit target after target on the bulls-eye with his orbs. This is how I make the mistake of letting a bland “Mm-hmm” slip from my mouth.
“Dork, are you even listening to me?”
I glimpse sideway, see her peer over her glasses and pierce me with a gimlet stare from her gray eyes—stormy gray with darker dots encircling the outer rims of her irises. Her eyes stand out fiercely against her dark skin, which is drawn tightly over the sharp angles of her face, and highlights the fieriness of her eyes. “No, I get it, Marsden, Foxer, virus,” I say, hoping this will mollify her. I steal a glance at the prall pin speared through her tight off-center bun of jet-black hair. A pin of that terrifying bug—a metallic red insect with purple triangular markings, its slender beauty contrasting with its three-clawed forelegs—is always perched on her bun. She’s practically patented the look over the four years I’ve worked with her.
Finally I avert my gaze from the prall, clear my throat and add, “You know, it’s not like you’re the only one who’s on edge. All of us believe in this. Everyone wants this to move forward.”
“Really?” Penelope gapes at me, slaps a hand to her cheek in mock astonishment. “Well, that’s news!”
I could wisecrack at this point, but instead I shut up and observe Easton as he projects a translucent blue forcefield that arcs in front of him in a broad half-dome. There’s a subtle, glimmering quality to the energy that’s always fascinated me. A magnetic and nuanced power that makes a part of me envy the trial candidates of Project Super Nex.
The glass chamber, large and hexagonal, is the centerpiece of a laboratory with a bank of computers along one wall. Lab techs and a couple researchers are seated at the computers, entering notes and running simulations of cells and microbes on the eerily glowing monitors, dressed in white lab coats over casual attire, lab ID tags hanging off their necks. Under my own coat I’m wearing my sun-washed blue shirt, which I intentionally picked out this morning to go along with the blue theme of Super Nex. I advised Penelope yesterday to wear something blue as well—looks like she didn’t listen to me, she showed up in a blood-red tuxedo blouse with a small, blotchy gray stain on the collar. I guess it doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things, but I agree with studies that say blue is the most soothing color, that it’s relaxing for the mind. Red, on the other hand, angers people, gets them riled up, which isn’t what today merits.
As I rake my hand through my chocolate brown hair, which my dad cut short and choppy two weeks ago, Penelope pipes up in a voice of clear annoyance, “I hope they don’t let that Walnut crap cloud their judgment.” I furrow my brow at her in bemusement; her scowl deepens. “I’m serious, can’t Dr. Fulbright take a break from social media for a few months?”
Comprehension dawns on my face as I recall that little controversy from last week. “It’s no worse than any of the other stuff that’s happened. In fact, I think people were making too big of a fuss over it,” I reason, fidgeting with the Olympus University ring on my right forefinger—six wires of coppery iridescence entwined together in a circle, eye-catching in its simplicity and elegance.
“People will cry and whine over anything these days,” Penelope snickers, as Easton reaches the end of the endurance stage, where, in order to show how long he can withstand damage, he has to hold up a domed forcefield against the energy blasts that the projector is raining down on him as it hangs and swivels from the chamber ceiling. “You could post a selfie where you’re wearing nice clothes, and some dickweasel will troll you because your shirt’s cropped too high.”
I’m not really in the mood to talk more about the plights of social media, so I check the time again on my tablet (eighteen minutes and forty-three seconds to nine o’clock p.d.) and I ask, “Think we can wrap it up?”
Penelope slips out her phone for the time. “Yeah, let’s do this.” She presses a finger to her earpiece. “We’re done here. Give Easton the final checkup.”
The dotted lights in the projector blink off to indicate the test is over. A square section of the glass pane on the chamber’s opposite side swings open like a door to admit a lab tech in a white bodysuit with the silver-and-yellow logo of Rad-Bio Laboratory sewn on the right breast. The tech hands Easton a bottle of mineral water and a protein bar.
“I’m heading down to the lobby. Wanna join me?” I say.
Penelope seems to think this over, momentarily pursing her lips, before curtly nodding. She follows me to the exit, where I swipe my ID badge through the card lock to open the door. We go out of the lab and down a short corridor with glowing white walls and golden running lights built along the edges of the white epoxy resin floor. At the end is a glass atrium branching off into five other hallways, one of which we take to the elevator bank. The smudges on the up and down arrow buttons between the two elevators make me look sidelong at Penelope, who’s glowering as though facing down her opponent in a street fight.
“Hey, is it true Dr. Fulbright’s promoting you soon?” she queries, pulling back the side of her coat to reveal a stubby white sanus clipped to her inside pocket. She presses one of three knobs on it. From a slit of an opening the device pops out an antimicrobial wipe with a muted zwipp! Wiping the buttons clean and then hitting the down arrow so the matching symbol lights up yellow above the left elevator, she arches her eyebrow at me and adds, “About time, isn’t it? Bright mind like yours chugging away here for four years under his mentorship, I would have thought you’d move up by now.”
The sharp, antiseptic smell is biting at my nose. “No, I don’t think he wanted to rush it. He wanted to let me learn my way around the lab.” I twist my finger and thumb around my ring. “Besides, no one else came here straight out of college when they were thirteen.”
“That’s right, I remember when you were this tall.” A smirk creeps onto Penelope’s face as she holds a flat hand at her torso. “Now you’re all the way up here.” She lifts her hand up to her temples.
“Just a small adjustment there,” I advise, taking her hand and raising it a few inches higher so it’s level with the raven top of her head.
“Not yet. You’ll have to wait for another growth spurt.”
Before I can dispute this, the left elevator’s doors slide open with a ping. Inside the mirrored car, Penelope reuses the wipe from earlier to press for the ground floor. As the door closes, she taps the second knob on her sanus. The wipe flickers around the edges and twitches between her fingers before dissolving into thin air. She’s had this gadget forever. She loves eradicating germs from elevator buttons, computer keyboards, door handles, phones, all kinds of things. According to her, she’s been a hardcore germaphobe since she was six.
So yeah, it’s fairly obvious why she became a microbiologist.
My stomach leaps up to my ribs when the elevator initially lurches downward, but the rest of the ride from the fourth floor to the ground floor is smooth. Along the way I glance at the reflection of my olive-skinned face in the polished doors, and then my attention shifts when Penelope sharply tilts her head towards me like she wants to give my ear a headbutt. “I didn’t have time for a shower this morning, so tell me the truth—does my hair smell?”
She’s done this so often, at least once every week, that I’m not the least bit fazed anymore, and all I have to do is sniff her and tell her it’s okay and it smells like normal, which it really does. My hair certainly gets more greasy and dandruffy when I skip washing myself for a couple days.
Once the elevator stops and the door opens, we step out into a wide lobby with a polished marble floor, white leather couches and chairs, streaks of silver and green painted on the walls. An upbeat piano melody is playing over the sound system, the mellifluous voice of Ilsa Rosior wrapping around the beats; I ignore the strange twitch that shoots through my stomach upon hearing her. A pair of catwalks overhead stretch between opposite ends of the lobby, bridging second-level passages. Bunches of tear-shaped lights are suspended in various spots throughout the space. They glow a soft yellow, although they’re more for decoration than anything else at this time of day. The floor-to-ceiling glass walls already let in enough light from outside, where the blazing orange twin suns are spilling puddles of light across the feathery clouds that cover parts of the morning sky. Between the lab and the distant Aso-willow forest lining the northwestern horizon is Maynard River, off of which the orange light glimmers in wavering patches. An open sweep of glazed porcelain tiles runs along the river at a rightward slant, all the way to the sidewalk forty feet away. Clusters of glass and metal office buildings sparkle in the sunlight on the other side of the street. The Civit Lumin skyline sprouts beyond them on the east.
What I especially like about the lobby is how decorated it is with Dr. Fulbright’s curious taste in art—murky paintings of reptilian birds perched on mountain peaks and flying over dense forests, miniatures of multifaceted towers with dried tears of white blobs dripping down their sheer black stone, a glass cube with hundreds of small gears inside perpetually chunking together. My favorite is the statue of a warrior two feet taller than me with huge eagle wings sprouting from its shoulder blades, its slim plates of armor twinkling gold in the daylight, a long hornlike crest protruding backward from its cheek-guarded helmet. The warrior, a Paladin from Teönor mythology, has a sword with an engraved blade in one hand. Clenched in its other hand is a Rampa’s decapitated head, its single eye bulging, its long forked tongue drooping from its maw. If only Paladins were real; then they could help us fight off Rampas and the other Grimhets, which, unfortunately, are not just mythological figures.
It’s quite a crowd waiting here. Some of it consists of microbiologists (like Penelope), geneticists, and lab techs (like me) chatting in clusters, exuding nervous anticipation. Others are military police dressed in crimson uniforms with gold accents. Reddish-tawny and black faux-tigon fur trims the brim of their kepi. These officers, standing sentry against the walls and at the entrance with Mawfer blasters strapped across their backs and shock batons and R-3 pistols clipped to their belts, are the Gendarmerie of Warbearer, tasked with anything from the guard duties they’re fulfilling right now to being dispatched to war against Grimhet, criminal syndicates, and terrorists.
I wonder for a second where Marsden is, I don’t see her anywhere, but then I realize Penelope’s gone. Just gone, even though she was next to me moments ago. Damn it, she could have at least given me a heads-up before disappearing.
Running both my hands through my hair, standing still for a moment beside a pedestal topped with one of the miniature black towers, I venture on an aimless pace through the lobby, exchanging pleasantries with lab workers when I pass them. I slow down on noticing Owen Foxer and Xavier Wiley sitting across from each other on two couches, a low hexagonal coffee table of blue-tinted glass squatting between them. Foxer, Overseer of Web and one of two SPACE Union Overseers present today (makes my gut churn worrying about whether he’ll give his approval for the final stage of PSN) is in a charcoal gray dress shirt, tailored white suit with silver buttons and a sashed waist, and white trousers. An olive-skinned man with a shaven head and a grizzle-stubbled chin, he keeps perfectly still on his couch, arms folded together, speaking to Xavier in a husky and clipped whisper as if confiding government secrets. Which he probably isn’t, but that voice sure does help him maintain his ice-king demeanor. And I can’t forget to mention the narrow, finger-long triangles of frosty white steel hanging from loops all around his sash. I don’t know how he can sit down without those icicles poking him.
Then there’s his Advisor General, Xavier Wiley. He’s the polar opposite of Foxer, the exaggerated gestures of his loose hands and arms telling a grand story in tune with his jolly words. A stocky, white guy with a round belly, his build threatens to pop the bronze buttons off his jacket, which is embellished with a glittery design of trumpet-shaped flowers in lurid yellows and pinks. I’m close enough that I can hear him recite to Foxer an earthy poem about the mating habits of Vestral wheatfowls in his warm, melting-butter voice. The last verses elicit from Foxer an almost-imperceptible nod and a deep whisper. Sounds to me as though he liked the poem.
I catch Xavier’s eye from six feet away, and his chubby face flashes me a cordial smile. But he doesn’t invite me over to join him. In fact, the look in his eyes is giving me permission to leave, for which I’m grateful—until Foxer’s head spins my way as if he sensed my presence, and he jerks his chin at me. “Du-rrell.” There’s something about the way he drawls the second syllable of my surname, combined with his husky whisper, that makes a bug crawl unpleasantly through my gut.
“Overseer Foxer,” I greet coolly, not daring to break eye contact with him.
“Today’s important.” Those two words, terse as they are, are laced with insinuation—insinuation that he’ll do his best to block PSN, even though he’s failed at that so far.
Shifting my computer tablet from my left hand to my right, taking a couple steps closer, I choose to hold my cards and remain silent while also agreeing with him by giving a tiny nod, Foxer-style. This is when Xavier, jumping off his couch and landing on his feet in a quick, nimble manner despite his plump frame, gushes, “Yes, yes, incredibly important! This is the fruition of all our efforts, after all! Owen can tell you himself, yes he can, I’ve been keeping him up-to-date on how diligently everyone’s working.” His jovial grin shines as much as his wavy thatch of dark hair, but it contrasts with the tension in his eyes.
Foxer, sitting as still as a statue with his arms folded over his chest, makes a grunt of feigned thought. “I have to concede to Wiley’s point. It doesn’t appear that anyone’s high on frog butter today.”
I rub a finger knuckle into my frown-etched brow. Come on, he’s doing this right now? Grim the world, I really wish Penelope was here. Shutting people up with sarcastic retorts is second nature for her. But me, I’m doing nothing but standing here, too caught off-guard by Foxer’s potshot, the bug in my stomach wriggling ever more uncomfortably. Even Xavier’s grin is shrinking. Penelope’s probably right; that interview Dr. Fulbright gave on Walnut two weeks ago, the one that a lot of people slammed because he was smoking a cigarette of frog butter may give Foxer a bit more of the ammo he wants to stop PSN. But frog butter was nationally legalized last year. I eschew recreational drugs, but even I don’t understand why people are making a big deal out of this when we’re in the middle of a war.
Well, if the Web Overseer wants to play it that way, I can reciprocate. Drumming the fingers of my left hand against my hip, I’m trying to think of the best insult I can take at his spies. But then I hear my mentor’s fruity, mellow voice. “Ah, there you are, Wyatt!” Dr. Grant Fulbright, the founder and CEO of Rad-Bio, is striding to my side in his signature attire of a navy wool blazer over a cream ribbed turtleneck and jeans, and the bug vanishes from my stomach. “If you’ll excuse us, I need to steal him away,” he says to Foxer and Xavier, a tight smile on his face. He wraps a strong, fatherly arm around my shoulder and guides me away, but not before I see the smugness in Foxer’s smirk and the muscles in Xavier’s face relax.
“Thanks for saving me there,” I quietly tell Dr. Fulbright, detecting the sweet smell of frog butter on his breath.
“No need. Owen, he can be . . .” He pauses, the deep wrinkles in his forehead widening.
“Obnoxious,” I offer. “And petty.”
“I was gonna say ‘difficult’, but you just hit it on the spot there.” We stop next to the Paladin statue. Dr. Fulbright, in contrast with Xavier’s lightheartedness, is smiling ruefully. The fifty-year-old scientist is handsome with his chiseled features, strong jaw, closely cropped beard, broad shoulders, and widow’s-peaked mane of black hair. He usually appears to be in perpetual thought, perhaps because of his forehead wrinkles, his intelligent and melancholic eyes, or his thick oval glasses. He never goes anywhere without his smartwatch, its silver face clashing with its worn leather strap. His lean, sinewy build betrays his devotion to keeping himself fit. He’s especially a wizard at tennis, which the two of us play weekly at the Eagles Nest Club over at Gollinger Park.
“There she is,” I murmur, more to myself than Dr. Fulbright, when I recognize the severe bob of Majabrakta Marsden’s glossy brick-red hair across the lobby. Unlike Foxer, who has no bodyguards with him, the Warbearer Overseer is flanked by four of her Stoique, her personal guard—deep red uniforms with golden epaulets, the Striving Tigon medal pinned to their kepis, two orange stripes running parallel with their right sleeves, white linen gloves with red tips for the thumb and forefinger. Marsden’s making small talk with her Head Councilor, who’s also dressed in red Warbearer attire, except he’s got a badge of two intersected gold-and-orange triangles on his breast.
Dr. Fulbright must know I saw Marsden, because he says, “She asked how Penelope’s doing.” He nudges his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I told her she’s doing well here.”
“Good, that’s good,” I mumble absently, trailing a hand over the back of my head. “Where is she, anyways? She disappeared once we came down—” I stop, and I silently curse myself for not thinking of this earlier. “I’m sorry, I gotta go check on something.”
Dr. Fulbright lends me an understanding, almost sorrowful smile, and gives my shoulder a couple hearty pats. “See you upstairs, Wyatt. Let’s hope . . .” He releases a pensive sigh and pads away, checking his smartwatch, leaving a scent trail of frog butter in his wake.
Let’s hope for what? I think to myself as I take one last look at the Paladin, a determined shine in its iridescent eyes. Then I trek back across the lobby, back in the direction of the elevators. Along the way I go on my tablet to take a look-see at what Dr. Fulbright calls the Vault—the sole room in the building where Super Nex vials are stored. On top of my lab tech duties, he assigned me the role of Vault Supervisor, which means I manage the security and periodically check the vials. Everything looks okay, so I tuck the tablet under my arm and, on reaching the elevators, turn right, entering a side corridor with a glass wall at the end looking out onto the orange river. I know what I’ll find when I reach the end and turn right again, and—yes, there she is, less than ten feet down the corridor, leaning her back against the stone wall, staring out at Maynard River with thick moodiness in her eyes, taking an even more somber sip of what I suspect’s salamandrine whiskey from her flask.
“Having fun out there?” She doesn’t look my way; her gaze sticks to the river.
“Could’ve warned me you were gonna run off.”
“Oh, you missed me, dork? How sweet of you.”
Half a minute ticks past before I’m next to Penelope, two feet from her left, imitating her back-against-the-wall posture. Left hand in my lab coat pocket, computer tablet in my right hand. I watch how the orange shimmer on the river’s surface fades away as the suns crawl upward. Ripples of light reflected from the water shimmy over our heads on the hallway’s white ceiling. The glittery blue Aso-willows on the other side of the river are shivering—must be pretty breezy.
I’m here, knowing that if Penelope wants to talk, she’ll talk. Otherwise she’ll tell me to leave her alone or we’ll go back upstairs without exchanging a word about whatever she’s going through. It’s the same whenever she breaks up with her girlfriends or bumps into old Warbearer pals—
“Last time we talked was six months ago,” she grunted, scratching her fingernail along the claw-shaped inscriptions in the rose gold metal flask. “Remember, Xavier and his husband hosted that benefit dinner?” I nod, even though it’s a rhetorical question. She goes on, “‘You like your job? You like the lab?’ That’s what she asked me. I told her her, ‘Yes, I love it. Germs are my best friends.’” She sniggers, drinks from her flask, swallows. “And she said, ‘You have potential, Flame. Don’t you ever forget that.’ Like I didn’t already waste my potential with her stuck-up cubs, and now I’m trying to make up for lost time, like that’s actually possible—”
She cuts herself off like something got caught in her throat, her eyes widening and clouding over with wistfulness. She sucks in a sharp breath, reaches back to touch the prall pin in her bun. I’m thinking of something to say, something to assure her that her life’s going great, that she should be able to move past the crimson forces by now—that part of her life is still murky, and she’s made no efforts to clear it up for me—but she closes her flask, tucks it inside her coat, leans forward from the wall, stands upright, motions out of the corridor with a jerk of her chin.
“Ready to move your ass?” Her gray eyes are clear now, so clear that they’re regarding me with that familiar, feral glint, like they might spontaneously shoot laser beams.
I steal one more look at the river before we return to the elevators. One second she hits the up arrow with a wipe-covered finger, the next we’re in a car and, without pressing for the fourth floor, she takes a few quick jabs at the close-door button. Sometimes I think those things don’t work nearly as well they should, because the door doesn’t start closing fast enough before the orange-striped right sleeve of a Stoique officer sticks through, stopping it. Four of these officers, the Head Councilor, and Marsden proceed to file inside, their boots sounding a cacophony of thumps on the floor. The Head Councilor doesn’t join us, though; Marsden uses a simple look, arresting in its authority, to command him to wait for the next ride up, and he stands some feet away from the elevator.
“Flame,” Marsden greets; her tone, even with this one word, is arresting in its authority.
“Overseer,” Penelope mutters, nodding to her, a minor, automatic dip of her chin.
I find myself against the rear wall, watch Penelope stake her territory close to the right wall, Marsden against the left. The Head Councilor hits for the fourth floor and then taps the close-door button; the doors close immediately, and I hear Penelope emit the tiniest mumble of irritation. The elevator begins rising with a jump that makes my stomach drop to my shoes.
Marsden’s bobbed hair gives a little side-to-side swish with her head-shake, and she flashes a thin, crimson-lipped smirk at Penelope. “You still have the privilege of calling me Commander.” A lithe woman with the lightest touches of makeup applied to accentuate her attractive face and its raw-sienna complexion, she’s dressed in a long dark red military coat with six claws glinting golden on her chin-high collar, a six-pointed star molded on the tip of each claw.
“No, I don’t think that’d be appropriate.” There’s no mistaking the brusque quality in Penelope’s response, and I can tell from her reflection in the doors that her mouth is set in an austere line.
Eleven seconds of silent, crackling tension later, the elevator groans to a stop and the door whooshes open. The two officers in front march out first, followed by Marsden, then Penelope, me, and the other two officers. As we go out of the elevator bank and through the glass atrium, I glance down a hallway on the left with four locked doors; the unmarked one at the end leads to the Vault. Hurrying down a hall on the right with the rest of the group, I quell the worried twinge in my stomach by verifying through my tablet that Vault security is in order.
After Penelope swipes her ID through the keycard lock for the door marked TESTING HALL 01, we enter, passing scientists and technicians at their computer terminals, and we gather close to the empty glass chamber in the center. A still-pissed-off Penelope is on my right, the Head Councilor on my left. A door is open in the corner of the room, and I can see through it a tech simultaneously talking to Easton and typing something on her computer tablet. Easton’s knocking back a water bottle and eating the last bits of a protein bar.
Speaking of which, my stomach’s grumbling a bit; do I have time to grab one of my own bars from my bag in the locker room? Damn, not according to the time on my tablet—four minutes to nine. The demo will probably take around half an hour. Already, my heart’s crawling up my throat and I can’t stop fiddling with my Olympus ring. This has to work. This just has to work, after all the time and energy we devoted to it.
Over the next few minutes Foxer, some of the Rad-Bio researchers and lab techs, Dr. Fulbright and Xavier Wiley, and a pride of Warbearer officers hustle into the room. In turn the din of restless chatter grows exponentially, the words tumbling together into a constant buzz in my ears, and I focus a great amount of energy on itching my brow with my thumb knuckle.
“Any idea when this is gonna start?”
My head spins left to the flaky-haired Head Councilor who apparently spoke to me. Aldous Sornis, that’s his name. The many fine, geometric slants to his lined face give off the sense that it has been carved and polished to perfection, like a crystal that’s been quarried from deep underground and cut into a multifaceted gem. I’ve seen him on the news lately, handling all sorts of political issues on Warbearer’s behalf, including those Neuanfang anti-government protests.
I begin to tell him, “It should be any minute now—”
“Okay, everyone’s here? You’re ready to get started?” Xavier announces with a genial clap of his pudgy hands. “Because I am!”
“Starting right now,” I tell Sornis, who smiles tensely.
As the technician who was with Easton leads him into the demonstration chamber and closes the glass panel behind him, Dr. Fulbright takes his spot beside Xavier; they’re between us and the chamber. Dr. Fulbright pushes his glasses up his nose and says, “Thank you for coming here today. This is the culmination of five years of hard work—five long, arduous, but in the end, worthwhile years of research and clinical trials. We’re this much closer to arising victorious in the war, we’re in the final leg, and all we need is your vote. But no pressure.”
My chuckle’s weak, especially amidst the assembly’s silence. Tough crowd, I think to myself. Dr. Fulbright can have trouble getting people to warm up to him. I can only imagine what he’d be like at stand-up comedy.
Fortunately, charming old Xavier steps in, whirling an airy hand in the air. “Exactly, your support is crucial to our progress. Of course, you’ve been generous for the whole project through all its ups and downs. Let’s go back to the beginning, when a crew of Web operatives first explored the distant Nexbrug Nebula and detected an exotic, powerful energy inhabiting it.”
Dr. Fulbright taps his watch, and a holographic screen pops open on one side of Easton’s hexagonal glass enclosure. On the screen, a shapeless, luminous blue cloud stands out against a black sheet studded with sparkling white dots, which I realize are stars. My heart rises at the sight of those indistinct wisps of energy flitting back and forth inside the cloud, or rather the nebula.
“Initial studies showed that the energy’s molecular instability allows its atoms to form bonds of multiple shapes that constantly break up and reconnect,” Xavier explains, at which point the screen zooms into the nebula to show amorphous particles of glimmering blue matter repeatedly splitting apart and linking together to create rods, rings, hexagons, and other shapes every few seconds. “But when those ephemeral bonds do form, they’re almost unbreakable against exterior forces. When I first heard about this, I began to wonder if it could be utilized in our war against Gargant and his ravenous beasts of Grimhet. Then I made the natural jump to the idea of modifying the energy so that our soldiers can directly and safely control it.”
“I eventually heard about the mysterious energy that had been obtained from Nexbrug,” Dr. Fulbright says. “Xavier, whom I knew well up to that point, told me one day about the struggles Web researchers were having as they tried to create a means for super-soldiers to be infused with this energy.” He pauses, shooting Foxer a strange smile. “Cybernetics, isn’t that right, Owen? A fine choice, but, well, it didn’t quite pan out, did it?”
Oh splendid, he’s using this opportunity to step on the Web Overseer’s toes. God, the antagonism between them—really, this is the last thing we need right now. I feel an involuntary chill when I turn to see Foxer staring at my mentor; the utter iciness in those eyes speak volumes for the laconic spymaster. That’s what he is—the head honcho of Web, S.P.A.C.E. Union’s national intelligence agency, and all its secretive, slippery spies. I shudder to think what Foxer could’ve done with the virus if Dr. Fulbright and Xavier hadn’t pried it from his grasp.
Dr. Fulbright must know he’s gone far enough, because his smile dissolves and a frown deepens his forehead wrinkles. “Well, what I learned from Xavier got me thinking about a virus that my lab had finished engineering to act as a vector for therapeutic proteins that can be integrated into a patient’s DNA to cure them of Insapidus Fever. And then I had that moment of random, serendipitous inspiration that all scientists and inventors crave—what if alterations were made so the virus could be turned into a sort of power cell?” A tap on his watch, and the blue particles on the holographic screen are replaced with a montage of Rad-Bio workers examining plates and vials of what appears to be a dimly glowing blue jelly.
Xavier pats his prominent stomach, chortling as if he’d been tickled. “From that point on, Grant was dead-set on packaging the energy, which he bestowed with the sublime name of Super Nex, inside his virus. Stabilizing the energy was quite the obstacle, and we had to approach this new venture with a smidgen of caution. But if there’s anyone who puts safety as their top priority, it is Dr. Grant Fulbright. He made pains to take all the precautions for every soldier whom Warbearer volunteered for the clinical trials. That’s why, no matter how many times my Web colleagues warned me to do otherwise, I never lost faith in him.”
I’m completely unsurprised that Xavier isn’t mentioning one word about the tug-of-war between Rad-Bio and Web, Dr. Fulbright and Foxer, as they vied for possession of the virus, or the political power plays he exercised to aid my mentor instead of his own Overseer. I think the only reason Foxer hasn’t forced him to resign from his post as Advisor General is because he’s Web’s only liaison with Dr. Fulbright.
Dr. Fulbright lets a smile of subdued confidence creep onto his face. “Now, we have the whole gamut of super-soldier perks available—enhanced strength, speed, agility, healing rate.” He thumbs his watch to make the laboratory montage vanish from the screen in favor of the PSN logo. It’s a helmet with a short crest of metallic feathers and a sign of a hexagon with six arrows radiating away from it on all sides etched into the cheek guards; the face inside is mostly blank except for its glowing blue eyes, the burning blue eyes of a soldier prepared to fight for SPACE Union.
“You can’t blame me for loving this particular perk,” adds Dr. Fulbright, a rare sort of mischief slipping into his smile.
He and Xavier turn to the chamber, and everyone’s attention shifts to Easton. He’s been standing within the glass borders all throughout the spiel. Now, after a thumbs-up from Xavier, he’s clenching his hands into fists and then spreading open his fingers as they light up blue from the inside out. Wisps of the same-colored energy escape into the air, coiling and interweaving, condensing into a spear in his right hand. The weapon is as bright and solid as the sword he constructed earlier.
With a swipe on Dr. Fulbright’s smartwatch, the lights in the projector up on the chamber’s ceiling blink on. It shoots down a thin, silvery beam at an angle so that a shimmering, blurry shape materializes across from Easton, and then takes on the form of a Rampa—the same species of Grimhet whose head is forever in the Paladin’s possession down in the lobby. Basically, imagine an ogre, those terrifying, lumbering giants from fantasy tales of old. Then imagine that thick, octagonal plates of mottled dark gray bone cover much of its beefy, humanoid body; that blunt spikes protrude from all over its pair of four-fingered hands; that a fist-sized, pure white eye bulges out of its misshapen head underneath a bony eyelid; and that its puffy lips, shiny with saliva, keep flapping open to expose a mouthful of serrated, crooked fangs.
Yes, the Rampa is one butt-ugly Grimhet. Sure, the one in the chamber is only a tactile projection (a hologram developed to the fullest extent so that it exists as a real, physical entity), but nonetheless the sight of it makes my heart hammer against my ribs. And as clumsy and galumphing as this monstrosity looks, they’re actually pretty quick on their feet.
That’s why the seven-foot-tall creature facing Easton, with a low growl, lunges across the chamber, swinging a spiky fist at him. But he holds up his left hand to project a shining blue forcefield, and the Rampa stumbles back, cradling its fist; a spike breaks off and clatters to the floor, leaving a wound streaming inky black blood over the back of its hand. Easton hurls his spear through its shoulder, and its fangs part with a painful howl, and a thick, forked tongue flails out. Its uninjured hand gropes for the spear, which is flashing patches of blue light off its bone-plated body. When Easton, having built a spiked club, rushes the Rampa, it kicks out its knobby knee. It would have driven in Easton’s chest if he didn’t use a forcefield. Even then, the blow smacks him across the chamber, towards me, and I flinch when his body bounces off the glass pane. I look sideways at Penelope for her reaction—and she’s yawning.
Rolling my eyes, I return my attention to the demonstration as Easton scrambles up from the floor and stands his ground against the Rampa, which is stomping towards him on two wide feet, scuffing its horny-nailed toes on the floor with loud grating noises, leaving pale gray marks in the concrete. I expect Easton to sweep the Rampa off its feet with his club. Instead, just as it’s a few feet away from him—rearing back a clenched hand, gnashing its fangs—he thrusts his club up at the shaft end of his spear which has been left sticking halfway out of the Rampa’s bloody shoulder. Immediately, the two energy constructs emit a fuzzy light and blend together into a vaguely cylindrical object, an iridescent blue halo encircling the point where the club made contact with the spear. The Rampa quivers and the upper eyelid furrows over its one eye, but it doesn’t move otherwise, doesn’t attack Easton or back away from him, as swords of deep blue light fly out of cracks that are splitting open in several plates of its bony armor. One plate crumbles entirely off the middle of its chest, the fragments gathering in a pile between it and Easton’s feet.
With the tubular construct that Easton’s got jammed into the Rampa’s shoulder, he jerks it down into a kneeling position. It trembles, licks its tongue over its fangs, dribbles strings of spit down its chin, emits strangled growls, slits its eye at its adversary, but it has no chance of escaping while Easton’s pumping it full of energy to keep it paralyzed. Then there’s a moment where it opens its mouth wide and the cordlike muscles in its neck tense up, as though it wants to snap forward and clamp its teeth over Easton’s head.
Instead, he holds up his free hand, keeping inches of space between his palm and the Rampa’s flicking tongue, and he fires an azure orb in its gaping mouth. Spikes of blue light and globs of black blood burst out from the back of its head. Its upper eyelid loosens. Its lower jaw hinges farther open. With a flash Easton’s staff dissolves into gas that shrinks back into his hands, allowing the creature to collapse on its side with a heavy thud. Its tongue, burnt blue and shriveled, lolls out from the corner of its fat lips.
“And that’s Super Nex,” declares Xavier as the projector in the chamber shoots a beam at the Rampa carcass, causing it, along with the blood splatters and the scuff marks on the floor, to vanish.
I survey the group. Marsden is unsmiling, but there’s an appraising, almost admiring gleam in her eyes. Sornis also seems to be in favor of Super Nex; he has a sharp, eager edge to his slight smile as he picks at a hangnail on his right pinky. And then we have Foxer, who’s puffing out a grumpy sigh and keeping his arms crossed tightly together. His head tilts a tad to the side, his frigidly shrewd eyes scrutinize the demo for any flaws he can use to cut down Dr. Fulbright. Grimming, I really hate him.
No, forget him, I think to myself, massaging the tension out of the back of my neck. He’s not going to stop us. I watch the projector beam down a tactile projection of another Grimhet, a serpentine Slange, for Easton to battle. But as they advance towards each other, I feel my hand buzzing. No, it’s the tablet. I knit my eyebrows at an alert on the screen: WARNING, V-SEC BREACH, CODE 1815225-25.
What? But that means—Wait, where’d it go? The alert was right there.
“What are you doing?” Penelope whispers, peeking at my tablet.
I hesitate before answering, “Something I need to check.” But there shouldn’t be anything, right? It might be a false alarm, a hiccup in the security system—No, even thinking this, it sounds ridiculous. Look, I’ll check the Vault, simple as that. When Penelope asks what I need to check, I mumble that I’ll be right back and I head for the exit. Two officers are standing guard there, and the female officer sticks out her arm to block me before I can swipe my badge through the lock.
“What do you need to leave for?”
After I explain about the alert, the male officer asks me, “What does the system say?”
I open a tab for access to the camera that’s perched up in the hallway outside the Vault. The concrete steel-plated door is closed, the keycard-lock-slash-iris-scanner next to it is blinking a red light to indicate it’s locked. But this nagging doubt keeps coiling around my heart. I know something set off that alert.
The officers don’t look as concerned as I am, but the woman orders her peer, “You go with him.”
Shrugging indifferently, the man, whose shoulder patch reads HAWKINS, escorts me out of the lab, along the corridor to the atrium, and into the opposite hallway to the Vault. I walk ahead of him to swipe my ID tag through the lock and scan my iris. There’s a click and a muted whoosh from the three-foot-thick door. Hawkins draws his Mawfer blaster off his back and pushes the blaster’s muzzle, which is forged into the shape of a tigon’s snarling maw, into the door. It swings into the Vault on its whining hinges, opening slowly as though reluctant to let us in.
The Vault itself is a rectangular room, ten feet long, ten feet tall, eight feet wide. A decorative pattern of pale blue latticed lines span the walls. Three round metal caps with a diameter of two feet are set in the rear wall—the canisters where a total of thirty vials of the Super Nex virus are safely stored, in the only place in the building where we keep the virus. We rarely have to take out the vials these days. We run most of the tests through computer simulations.
I almost drop my tablet when I realize that four officers are huddled in the back of the room with their backs to me. I can tell all three cylinders have been slid out of the wall, and three of the officers are each removing their vials, filled with the glowing blue serum in which the virus is contained, and clicking them into a compact metal can.
“Excuse me,” I say, “we didn’t want to disturb you while you’re in the middle of a robbery.”
The thieving officers spin away from the cylinders, their hands clamped around the canisters. But the fourth one, a burly woman who’s off to the side, gazes at me—not me and Hawkins, just me—with cruel, beady eyes, the eyes of an animal that has spent years hunting its prey, spent years perfecting this skill.
“You need to stop what you’re doing and—” Hawkins isn’t able to finish before one of the officers draws a handgun from his belt holster and shoots Hawkins without a second thought. All I do is stand still and gape pathetically as he stumbles back, presses a hand to his chest, gasps, pulls his hand away, and it’s dark with blood. He topples over, crashes to the floor, his back slumped against the wall.
“Get in here,” the shooter growls at me in a high voice, motioning me into the Vault with his gun. I can’t stop my eyes from sliding down to Hawkins’s body, my heart beating madly in my chest. I can barely make out the dark blood seeping through the scarlet fabric of his uniform, a blobby patch around the bullet hole in his chest. The light’s already gone from his eyes. I try to take a breath, but I can’t. I feel like I wanna throw up right here.
“Get in here, maggot!” the shooter screeches in an even higher pitch. “Or I’ll put the light in you!”
“Shut it, Brone.”
The husky tone forces me to push away my terror, and I turn back around in time to see the cruel-eyed woman, who strikes me as the leader of this crew, unsling a large, silvery-gray battle ax from her back. She gestures it to me and instructs in that same voice, “Come on now, join us. We won’t kill you.”
I remain still, eyebrows shooting up my forehead. I’m astonished by the relaxed tinge in her words, the upturned corners of her casual smile. I have my tablet in one hand, clenching my fingers into the screen, and I wish I could send out an alert. But instead I take three cautious steps forward, watching the officer who’d been called Brone letting his gun hang down by his hip, not aiming at me, but scaring the crap out of me all the same with his long, twisted face and his wide, wild eyes.
“See, no harm done. You won’t get a scratch as long as you stay here while we leave,” says the leader so nonchalantly that she might as well be telling me to go with her for a stroll in Gollinger Park.
“And let you get away with all our Super Nex—”
“You want to be a hero?” accuses the one closest to Brone; his nose is so huge and lumpy that it’s almost like a growth. I realize by now that the lead robber’s minions have filled their cans with the Super Nex vials and stuffed them inside their uniforms. I don’t know what their escape plan is, but I suspect it’s well thought-out. And they’ll be in possession of Super Nex, they’ll create their own super-soldiers . . . No, that can’t happen. There’s no way in Grimhet I’m letting that happen.
The next second’s a blur as I throw my tablet aside, pivot around at Brone and try to wrest his gun away, but something smacks my back, knocking all the air out of me, crashing me to the floor. The steel toe of a boot kicks into my cheek. I can taste blood in my mouth, my limbs are bursting with grenades of pain, and the Vault’s swimming around me, or is it my brain spinning inside my skull? I better not have a concussion.
“I guess he does,” the leader taunts in her husky manner. Something grasps my arm and roughly rolls me onto my back. I squint at the ax that the leader’s using like a walking stick, leaning her hand on it; it has two curved blades that appear to be designed like bird wings, sprouting from a shaft embossed intricately with animal heads and geometric shapes, the whole thing shining various shades of metallic gray depending on how the light strikes it.
“Set it up,” the leader says, and Brone fishes out from inside his uniform a cylindrical device with a geodesic sphere on one end. He bends over, squeezes it in his fist, and its other end protrudes six metal spider legs with blobs of what looks like gray rubber for feet. He sticks this thing on the floor three feet to my right, and its feet make suction-cup noises that reverberate in my ears. He stands back up, throwing me a malicious grin for good measure.
“And one more thing, Durrell.” The leader gets down on her knee and leans over me, her angular face a foot above mine. I shrivel my nose at the smell of rotting meat on her breath. What did she eat for breakfast? And how does she know my name?
“Look at me. Look at all of us. Remember our faces.” One hand on her ax, her other hand pinching the side of her collar with a click. Her face flickers and becomes briefly transparent as though it’s a hologram, but then it turns olive-green with long gray markings threading through her pockmarked skin. Covering her left eye is a white eyepatch with yellowed edges, adding to her menacing air. The other fake Garms follow suit, pinching their collars, revealing their true faces—olive-green with thin gray markings, rough skin, even fibrous, like they’re made from ropes of literal muscle.
As I lie here on the cold floor, the sharp aches fading away slightly from my body, something warm trickling down from the corner of my mouth, the leader pokes her finger into my chest. “You better be grateful that I’m not chopping your head off right now. Because I want you to remember my face, okay, and I want you to stay away. If we ever meet again, do yourself a favor and run away, run away from me, because I won’t be so merciful next time. Okay?”
I stay still, use the pain in my body as fuel for my defiant glare. Staring back at me with her good eye (my heart races at the sight of the malice being somehow conveyed through that eyepatch), she rises to her feet and props her ax up on her shoulder; I can’t read her expression. She shouts a word I don’t recognize, then clomps out of the vault, her gang of Vermusk rushing after her. One of them hangs backs, though—the youngest-looking of them all, a short girl with a small, frowning mouth and a hint of sympathy in her eyes. She reaches down for my arm, takes it by the elbow, and drags me a foot across the Vault. But she jerks her hand off me when the Vermusk with the lumpy nose snaps, “What’re you doing, Runa?”
She stutters, “Sh-shouldn’t we get him out b-before the vortex—”
“Leave him! He’ll get out by himself.”
While the Vermusk gives a heavy cough, covering it with his elbow, Brone sniggers, “But if a Slange sucks up his flesh, all the better for us, am I right?” Runa darts a reproachful look at him.
“Shut it, I said,” orders the leader. “Let’s wrap this up.”
“Sorry,” Runa mumbles, lending me a sad face like she really is sorry that she has to leave me behind, before scurrying out of the vault. I turn my head, watch them click on their holographic masks so they look like regular old Starsapiens. Of course, Brone rubs the last bit of salt in the wound by stomping his foot down on my tablet, which I’d tossed to the floor earlier; I hear the screen crack. They step over Hawkins’s body, bustle down the corridor and into the atrium. And no one’s there to stop them.
Only ten or so seconds pass where I’m struggling to sit up, aching all over, the tinny taste of my own blood sticking to my tongue, before I detect the faint but quickly rising odor of grease, oil, and it burns the insides of my nostrils. I know this smell, and it sends a jolt of horror through me. I whip my head at the device that Brone stuck in the floor; funny, the geodesic ball reminds me of a virus capsid, and the legs are what it’d use to land on a cell so it can infect it. And right now, this particular virus is pumping the floor full of viscous ooze that’s swirling around it in a grayish-black two-foot-wide vortex. It burbles and grunts, and then unleashes a demonic wail that sets off a bomb in my brain, makes me clap my hands over my ears. The wail silences as quickly as it began, but the residual pain lingers in my head, and I stagger to my feet, resting a hand against the wall.
The vortex pukes a fat glob of ooze that arcs left, splatters the blue-latticed wall there, burns into it with a sizzle, leaves behind a smoking cavity. Then the vortex, whirling and growing another foot wider, throws up its first Grimhet. It’s a Slange, a black-and-white-banded snake that lands its great body on the floor with a heavy thud. I stumble backward into the corridor, feeling a lurch in my stomach but stifling my instinct to puke in spite of the sickening stench of Grimhet muck that’s wafting up my nose. I almost trip over Hawkins’s leg, and I tear my eyes away from his deathly white face.
The Slange starts slithering towards me instantly, slowly and patiently, like it wants to relish this part of the hunt. I can see the ragged scales peeling off around both of its gray-dotted white eyes, and the small spikes poking out of its rounded, protruding skull.
I reach for the Vault door and try to slam it closed, but it flies back open, pushing me farther into the corridor. The Slange rears in the doorway, yellowed molar-like teeth chattering off each other inside its open mouth, ready to grind me to a pulp. Just as it begins to strike, I grab up my cracked tablet from the floor and slap it at the snake’s head. It bangs into the wall but leaps at me the next second, too fast for me to react. The tablet slips from my hands as the Slange slams me into the floor with its ample body, slides over me, coils itself around my legs and chest. It’s squeezing air out of my lungs, my heart’s panicking. Its head is hanging over me, all those teeth clattering together in its mouth, pouring a malevolent stink into my face.
Just as I start to wonder when my ribs will crack, I hear Penelope shout, “Get away from the lab tech, sludgie!”
A gunshot, and the Slange lets me go, emitting a weird whistling noise, a spurt of black-gray blood bursting out from a wound somewhere along its body. It writhes next to me, thrashes its tail into the wall. I glance right; Penelope is stalking down the corridor, a slim rose gold pistol in each hand, squeezing off a second shot that hits the Slange’s neck, and a second jet of blood pumps from there. Even then, it doesn’t know when to call it quits; having apparently forgotten all about me, it dives down the corridor at Penelope, teeth clattering more loudly than ever. But—and I swear I’m not making this up—she thumbs a knob on the slanted handle of her left-hand gun, and it transforms into a rapier with a four-foot-long blade. She sweeps her weapon in a wide arc as the Slange lunges for her, and its head flies off, bounces off the wall, thuds to the floor alongside the decapitated body.
“Why are you here?” I ask, blinking stupidly.
She rolls her eyes. “For bagels and arisberry jam.” She thumbs her weapon again, changing it back to its pistol form. Slipping both guns into hip holsters that her lab coat hid previously, she barks, “Come on, get your ass up!” She seizes my arms, lugs me up to my feet, pulls me down the corridor by my elbow. I look over my shoulder, and the spike-laden hands of a Rampa are thrusting up from the vortex, plunging their thick fingers into the floor, pulling the rest of the Rampa’s hulking body out of the vortex. It howls as Penelope jerks me into the atrium, which is crowded with crimson officers. People are stampeding out of the labs; I’m able to pick out Dr. Fulbright’s long black hair above everyone’s heads, but I don’t recognize Xavier or Foxer or anyone else. No, wait, there’s Marsden leading her officers, and Sornis—and Easton’s next to them, hefting a bright blue hammer construct.
“Get downstairs, now!” Marsden yells in my direction, cocking her Mawfer. I give a shout when Penelope shoves me into the crush of twenty or thirty people pushing for the elevator bank, and I hear Marsden order, “Fire!” The following fusillade makes my heart pound harder, but it’s nothing compared to the repulsive odor of Grimhet ooze that persists in clutching its claws into my stomach. At least they have a Super Nex soldier with them.
I curse under my breath once Penelope and I shoulder our way to the bank; the lit-up arrows above both cars are red. It didn’t even occur to me they’d be shut down in an emergency like this. I don’t get time to pause before Penelope yanks me into the stairway, which is cramped with panicked bodies stamping down the steps two or three at a time. Her nails don’t stop biting into my arm. Our bodies are pressed against everyone else’s in one shivering mass of nerves and exhilaration.
We emerge from the stairs four stories down, my eyes blinking against the blanket of light shining through the lobby’s glass walls. Officers are all over the room, waving people with their Mawfers past all the art pieces, out the front entrance and the side exit on the right.
As frenzied as I am while moving toward the front entrance with Penelope, I’m able to pick out one officer with a long, twisted face, scanning the crowd with wild eyes, then letting his gaze fall on me. He flashes a sinister grin, and I do a double take. My heart jumps up into my throat, and I try to say something to Penelope, refusing to break eye contact with Brone. But he pivots around and sprints away, throwing an evil smile over his shoulder. I lower my eyes in time to take in the virion-like gadget that’s been planted on the floor where he used to stand, and then there’s an earsplitting cry that shakes the room, a vortex that tears open the floor and pukes a foul cloud of ashy smoke. Bodies get hurled through the lobby, my own included, and the solid snap of pain in my head sets off an explosion of white stars in my vision. The last thing I hear before plunging into darkness is Penelope screaming, “Wyatt, you dork!”