CHAPTER TWO: THE BEST WE CAN DO
For years I’ve had this dream where I’m in a meadow, having just picked some berries near the river. I amble down a mossy path with grawtrees standing tall on either side, shafts of gold light filtering through the apple-laden branches arcing protectively overhead. The peaty-smelling air whispers to my ears through the softest, most tranquil breezes—the contented sighs of nature. I pause and side-eye whatever’s rustling in the woods on my left, but don’t see anything. The path quickly opens out onto a grassy glen with a gazebo where my parents are seated at a table overflowing with food. I dash up to them, ready to add my berries to the medley, but then my eyes fall on a strange bug perched on a vase of violet and white lilacs. A bluish-gray spider with dark yellow markings, and when I step closer, it sprouts flat, papery wings with yellow markings that look like gaunt Starsapien faces.
For what feels like the millionth time, I’m having this dream again. And it always ends the same way—with curious little me reaching out to touch the winged spider, and the glen plunging into darkness. This dream used to scare me, even though there’s nothing inherently terrifying about it, it’s merely a little strange, but now it just bores me.
Right after the darkness falls, however, I feel an insistent tapping on my arm, and I hear someone whisper my name. A needle of light pierces through the void in which I’m loitering. The whisper rises to a louder volume. “Are you awake yet? Wyatt?” I murmur something unintelligible, and the voice says even more loudly, “What’d you say, dork? I didn’t catch that.”
Penelope Flame. That’s it. That’s who’s trying to wake me up, tapping my arm like she’s jabbing at an app that won’t open on her phone. I obey a tiny voice in my head that persuades me to keep my eyes closed. This voice happens to be near the side of my head that feels quite tender, like someone’d smacked my ear. I’m remembering now. Rad-Bio, those thieves stealing vials of Super Nex, the Grimhet vortexes. It all rushes back into my head too fast, pounds against my skull, pound-pound-pound, and then it shoots down my body, crushes my stomach with despair, because I don’t want to remember, I can’t remember everything this abruptly—
“Stop scrunching your face like that, it’s very unattractive.” Her brusque words creep towards the edge of concern.
I wait five more seconds before opening my eyes. Right off the bat I know this is a hospital room. I’m lying in bed. A thin, metallic monitor bracelet encircles my wrist, and the lone dot of light glowing from its surface indicates I’m in stable condition. A TV is mounted on the opposite wall—seems like Xavier Wiley’s giving a press conference on CMBN, but it’s muted. I wrinkle my nose at that fresh, antiseptic smell; Penelope must have used her sanus recently.
“Where are . . .” I murmur, starting to sit up. The tenderness lingers in my ear, stars flit into my eyes, but what makes me groan is the dull ache in my right side.
Penelope puts a hand on my shoulder, gives a push that forces my head back down on the pillow. “Not too fast. You’re in Galen Hospital, best place in the city you can go to. You know, Dr. Fulbright came here for his colonoscopy.” She’s in a chair on my right, wearing a rust-red leather blazer instead of her lab coat, her blouse and black pants rumpled. Her bun’s messy, but she’s still got the prall pin stuck in there.
“You have my bag,” I tell her, my eyes dipping to the faded blue messenger bag in her lap. The flap’s bottom left corner has a patch for Emovere, my favorite band ever, sewn on it.
“I called for it, had the crimson cubs send it over here. And may I ask why you carry these around?” She flips open the flap, roots around my bag, and her hand comes up with my pack of protein bars.
“Snacks,” I reply, studying myself. I don’t have my lab coat either, but I still have on my blue shirt and gray corduroys. Oh yes, and now there’s a red bruise on the back of my hand. Then I arch my eyebrows together at a cut on Penelope’s swollen lower lip and a bandage on the back of her hand. A gray stain splotches the knee of her pants, in good company with her blouse’s blotched collar.
“Fuck, do you mind not staring at me?”
I flick my eyes at the window behind her, light seeping through the drawn curtains. “I’m sorry, it’s just, um, you look—Are you okay?”
“Doing a hell of a lot better than you were a few hours ago.” Penelope shakes her head, shifts in her chair. “I’ll give those cubs credit for closing up both vortexes so fast. They have no idea how the thieves slipped past them—”
“Do they have any leads?”
She shrugs, worries her fingers with my bag’s Emovere patch. “This is Vermusk we’re dealing with. They’re gonna be hard to catch. Tricky ones, too, putting on the guise of Starsapiens.” Her gray eyes slit at me, and her tone changes abruptly. “What the fuck were you thinking?” I stare blankly at her. “Going in the Vault, trying to stop them? Puny, naïve, dorky you?”
“I guess so. And hey, thanks for the support,” I remark with a dry smile. But now that I’m looking back on it, though, I can’t believe I was bold enough to attempt taking the gun away from that Vermusk. People who pull that sort of crap in the movies usually don’t make it out alive. But I did.
And now my mind’s trying to cling onto something the leader of the gang said. What was it . . . My name. She knew my last name, Durrell. How’d she know me? “You better be grateful that I’m not chopping your head off right now” is what she said, as if it’d be ridiculous to feel anything else at such a moment. She warned me to run away if we ever meet again, “because I won’t be so merciful next time.” Why was she merciful, relatively speaking, in the first place?
“Seriously, Wyatt, your guardian angel must get exhausted at the end of the day. You saunter around, believing you can do anything and you won’t get hurt—”
“Okay, Penelope, I get it. Cursed Cosmotic, I just woke up . . .” I swallow, feeling the dryness in my throat. A glance at the clock tells me it’s almost noon. “How long have I been out for?”
The derisive humor that had curled her smirk is now diminishing. “Three hours.”
My eyebrows inch up my forehead. “You stayed the entire time?”
“I’ve only been here for the past couple hours. Had the waffles. That’s another great thing about this place. I come here every weekend just for the cafeteria waffles. Plus, I was gonna leave in five minutes.” I can’t tell whether or not she’s joking—both about the waffles and her almost leaving.
“I see.” I scooch up in my bed, clutching my aching side as I do so. Funny how we’ve been talking this long, managing to skirt around that minor complication involving the thirty vials of Super Nex that were snatched from the Vault. Everything we’ve done, everything we’ve planned out . . . and it’s come to this.
I grope for the TV remote on the end table and unmute the press conference.
“. . . everything in our power to arrest Augen and her accomplices, you have my word,” declares Xavier, moistening his lips behind a podium bearing the Knight Crest of S.P.A.C.E. Union (six interlaced hexagons arranged in a circle around a figure with great gold bird wings, something like an angel).
One of the many reporters in the crowd gets picked to ask the next question. “I’d like to know what your opinion is on Grant Fulbright, if you believe he’s still capable of handling PSN, even after today—”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t see how that’s related to this.” Xavier’s tone is fairly light, but he’s fidgeting with a button on his floral-patterned suit. I trace my finger along the entwined wires of my Olympus ring.
“But I want to know if you think he should continue to manage PSN,” the reporter persists, “because Overseer Foxer’s comment earlier today was, quote, unquote, Project Super Nex is waiting for us to rescue it from Fulbright. It will fail under his leadership.”
You’ve got to be mudding kidding me. Can Foxer ever pass up an opportunity to bash us? The camera returns to Xavier as he licks his lips again, draws in a breath, braces his hands on the podium, leans his prominent belly against it. “Look, Grant is a good guy, that’s all I can say. I’ve known him for years, and he’s a really good guy. I trust him, he’s the right person—No, let me correct that, he’s the only person who knows how to steer this ship through choppy waters.”
I hear Penelope emit something between a sigh and a grunt. She takes the remote from my lap and lowers the volume. “From what I heard, Easton did a tremendous job helping those cubs fight all the Grimhets,” she says. “At least that gives a little more merit to Super Nex.”
I shoot her an annoyed look. There’s absolutely no way she should feel the need to put a positive spin on this. But before I can tell her that, the door creaks open to admit a nurse in elephant-patterned scrubs, and she asks me if I’m feeling okay, if I need anything, and then she tells me the doctor will be coming soon. Not two minutes later, and a short man with several folds of skin hanging off his cheeks enters the room. The name tag on his white coat reads DR. WEBSTER LUNGAN. The lourus, a medical symbol made of three concentric circles, is embroidered on his breast pocket.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Durrell?” Without waiting for an answer, Dr. Lungan draws from his breast pocket a small version of the telemetric scanner that Penelope used at Rad-Bio. He scans me the same way, the device humming, and then shuts it off seconds later. “That’s good, you’re recovering fast.” He begins typing on the scanner, probably writing up a file on my condition. “You didn’t suffer a concussion, officially, but you do need to watch out for symptoms—fatigue, dizziness, headaches, so on.”
After Dr. Lungan confirms I’m of sound mind by asking me to recall the months of the year in backward order, he says it’ll be a just a few minutes to finish the paperwork and discharge me (good thing, too—never been a big fan of hospitals). Once Penelope and I leave the room, with the tender ache above my ear and a lingering stitch in my side, I take my bag back from Penelope, fetch my Omni 8 smartphone from inside and call Dad and then Mom. Both of them don’t answer, which I expected; their phones would be offline, since they’re still on the trip coming home from their vacation to the planet Vestral. I leave a can’t-wait-to-see-you-call-me kind of message on their voicemails, but I omit the Rad-Bio stuff. They were supposed to get on their spaceflight at eight-fifty, so the hospital couldn’t have been able to notify them. I’d rather tell them about the whole thing in person instead of over the phone.
Meanwhile, we’re walking down hallways with lights buzzing in the ceiling and the faint odor of stale coffee. Patients get wheeled past us in wheelchairs or on gurneys, awake or unconscious. Even the elevator ride three floors down feels cramped, like the dull metal walls are pressing in on me and Penelope.
After exiting Galen Hospital, which has the lourus embossed on all the front windows, Penelope and I stop on the sidewalk. Office buildings and chain stores surround the hospital. A freighter airship is docking on a landing pad on one of their rooftops. The golden light of the twin suns high in the sky pierces the knotted patches of gray clouds. A breeze passes over us, a warm breeze ushering in the start of spring, and the rustling of Penelope’s leather blazer makes my gaze lower unconsciously to her half-hidden guns holstered low on her hips. No, switchguns, that’s what they’re called. They’re not nearly as popular as they used to be, compared to all the other things people can buy or engineer for themselves to fight off Grimhet. Before today, I assumed Penelope stopped carrying those switchguns around. Good thing I was wrong.
“How’s the lab?” I ask.
“What do you think? Trashed as all hellshit get out. Dr. Fulbright’s figuring out if he can take over one of the research labs at Alphacos during the reconstruction.”
Good, I hope he gets that done. I’ll go crazy if I don’t have the daily grind to occupy myself, especially at a time like this.
“You wanna go somewhere?” Penelope recommends. “Maybe Ouran?”
I study her unreadable face, her eyes cloaked as the daylight glints off her glasses. “Thanks, but I just want to go home.” I can’t spend more time today with her. I need alone space.
“I’ll drive you, then.”
“No thanks, I’ll call a Mobular home—”
“Are you kidding me? The ride will cost you at least twenty units, more likely twenty-five.” She clamps my wrist in her hand and pulls me in the direction of Galen’s adjoining parking garage.
Minutes later we rumble back out of the garage in her huge black pickup truck, a Maesse Plateau that looks like it could plow through a horde of Rampas without suffering even a dent to its fender. Its motley crew of bumper stickers includes one proclaiming FORGIVE YOUR FOE, BUT NEVER FORGET THE WRETCHED DICKWEASEL’S NAME and another flashing an electric guitar underneath the balloon-lettered band name NEW WRINKLES. A seal figurine is on the dashboard, wedged up against the window. The thing is, it’s right on top of a heating vent, so its belly’s all warped and blackened. I asked Penelope why she doesn’t move it, and she said she doesn’t care about the heat. Admittedly I did worse things to my own toys when I was younger.
Along the drive through Civit Lumin, my hand goes for the radio, but Penelope slaps it away. “Nuh-uh, driver’s pick!” A smirk on her sharp face taunts me. She taps the monitor in the dashboard, selecting one of her preset stations.
“—So here’s Alt Peak, bringing you only the best alt-rock tunes on the Affinity Network, Channel 39.8.”
Once Emovere starts playing, I sit back in the passenger seat and take a protein bar from my bag, even though I’m not hungry. I unwrap the foil, bite a chunk off the bar. The sensation of my teeth crunching the granola to pieces gives me a strange sense of pleasure. I watch mundane things pass by—a T. Gerinus fashion store, a bus ad for the upcoming movie The Dreams of Mrs. Bliss, a red-and-gold Warbearer cruiser, S.P.A.C.E. Union flags and banners flapping off poles and balconies. As I eat the rest of the bar in two bites, my mind drifts off long enough to consider a possible future where all of this is gone, where Gargant and his demons have infected my world with chaos. But I dismiss this thought, because it won’t happen. Starsapiens are on the side of peace and order and light, and those are the values that constantly triumph over war and discord and darkness.
It takes about twenty minutes for us to get to Maynard Bridge, a bascule bridge painted in bright golds and greens. It’s up at the moment, so we wait for the solar-paneled boat to glide through Maynard River below, after which the bridge is named; it’s the same river that stretches through the city and curves past Rad-Bio. After the bridge goes back down, we cross it, moving from North Lumin on one side to Downtown on the other. Three songs and one commercial break later, we reach Hexaber, the neighborhood where my parents and I’ve lived since I was thirteen, a disparate mishmash of century-old apartments and townhouses coexisting alongside trendy boutiques, cafes, even a shopping mall. Even though Starsapiens of other colors have started moving in over the past decade, it still represents the densest portion of Lumin’s Aoi community. It’s funny (and by that I mean not at all funny) to think that Owen Foxer was born and raised in this very area.
We’re almost at my apartment, Cloverleaf Vistas, when we encounter a traffic jam on 6th Avenue. When I suggest Penelope let me out of her truck so I can walk the last three blocks, she responds, “No way, I’m making make sure you get home safe.” She drums her fingers on the steering wheel, hums along with the radio, and then shoots her eyes sideways at me. “Where do you think we’ll go from here?”
I run my hands through my hair, close my eyes, lean back on the headrest. “It’s not that complicated. PSN is still viable. The government will have their Super Nex soldiers, and we’ll beat Gargant and his Grimhets in the end.”
“But those meatmugs have the virus! I’m telling you, they’ll sell it off or use it for—”
“Penelope, I have told you how uncomfortable it makes me when you say that.” My voice is low, simmering with tension. And it’s true—I hate it when she says the m-word. It’s not as bad as other slurs, but the mere sound of it makes my insides twist on themselves.
Penelope purses her mouth as though she’s sucking on a lemon sour. “They’re gonna sell it on the black market, shoot themselves with it, maybe even hand it over to Gargant. Aren’t you the slightest bit bothered about that?”
Bothered doesn’t even cut it. I press my hands on my knees, watch Penelope speed her grumbling truck down the road now that the traffic’s cleared up. I breath in through my nose, breath out of my mouth. I have to stay optimistic. Acting otherwise will only put Penelope more on edge. Breath in, breath out.
“Let me ask you again. Where do you think we’ll go from here?”
I turn to Penelope with a composed smile. “It’s like my dad says—the best we can do, is we’ll see what we can do.”
Arching her eyebrow at me, she snickers, “An impudent little smart-ass, you are.”
We take a right off 6th Avenue and onto 620 Endewen Street. Townhouses and duplexes of brown, blue, and white brick and stone stand on either side. Strings of illuminated paper lanterns decorate their balconies. Cloverleaf Vistas is at the end of the street, a fifteen-story brick tower pockmarked by hundreds of gouges and cracks. Ever since my parents and I moved here, the same Aso-willow tree’s grown near the front iron gate, adorned with pastel blue catkins and a few luxmoth chrysalises which have yet to open.
When the Maesse stops in front of my apartment, I sling the messenger bag’s strap over my shoulder and curl my fingers around the door handle. But Penelope says, “Hey,” and I turn back to eye the apprehension etched on her taut face. “Stay out of trouble, okay? I can’t wipe your butt every time you take a shit.”
“I think I’m capable of wiping my own butt, thank you very much.”
“Are you? Are you really?” A sardonic smile dances across her lips, and she gives my hair a big-sister tousle before I can stop her.
“Please don’t do that,” I say, pushing her hand away. Then I jump out of her truck, close the passenger door, climb the granite steps up to the front entry, smooth down my hair. The willow smells fresh, woodsy. I feel Penelope’s eyes on my back as I rummage up the jangling keys from my bag, select the right one, slide it in the gate’s lock, give a turn to unlock it, push open the groaning gate. I don’t turn around, but I hear the Maesse’s mechanical growl as it motors away.
I cross the front courtyard, which has a scatter of glowing yellow spheres hovering ten feet high, and enter the lobby. A mountain landscape hangs on the right wall above a ratty sofa and a glass coffee table with a pile of Lumin Urbanite magazines, facing opposite the elevator on the left. The carpet, printed with geometric shapes in multiple pale hues, reflects an ambient glow from the yellow paper lantern overhead, which bears a golden eagle and Teönor calligraphy motifs. Two hallways, one on the left and one on the right, branch off to the first-floor apartments.
Someone in a mauve sleeveless blouse baring heavily tattooed arms, distressed jeans, and ankle boots is standing at the rear wall of mailboxes, checking one of them. Her back is facing me, but I already recognize her—Sidney Appleton, the white nineteen-year-old who’s lived right above me and my parents during the four years we’ve been here. She’s bopping her head to whatever’s playing over her purple headphones. I don’t think she can hear me, but she must sense my presence somehow, because as I approach the mailboxes, she jerks up her chin, then looks over her shoulder at me, flashes a friendly smile, and greets in a faint, warm lilt of an accent, “What’s up, Wy?”
I’ve never liked this nickname; it’s what she often calls me. “Tough day at work.” I stop on her right and use another one of my keys to open the mailbox with the number 707 engraved in the square steel door and a slip of paper slid into the slot below it that reads DURRELL. Inside are the Merto/Egril issue of Universal Sciences and a notice about the medical insurance.
“Tough day?” Sidney echoes, closing her mailbox and locking it, a boxy package compact enough to fit in her palm tucked under her arm. I feel those clear amethyst eyes of hers watching me, the way they always do as though I cracked my head and she wants to bandage me up. Her blond fishtail side braid is draped over her left shoulder. She’s attractive in spite of the dark scar that starts above her right eyebrow and runs down in a jagged line that ends just above the corner of her lips—inflicted by the slash of a knife or a claw, surely.
“I heard about the attack at Rad-Bio,” she says, pulling down her headphones so they hang around her neck (the ears have a stylized logo of a wolf head, and a long, kinky wire trails down to the pentagonal NoteBook, antique that it is, clipped to her belt). I make out a female voice, accompanied by synth-heavy beats, warbling wistfully out of the headphones.
“You did?” I say, stuffing the mail in my bag. Or at least, I try to, but I completely miss. The magazine plunges to my feet, the rustling of its pages grating my ears. The insurance notice flutters down with eerie whispers, coming to a rest atop the magazine. I pick at a loose thread dangling from the Emovere patch on my bag, pick, pick, pick, as Sidney bends over faster than I can, gets my mail, slips it into my bag gently, almost lovingly.
My gaze shoots to the scabs that’ve seemed to permanently split her knuckles. This must be from the work she does for Warbearer; I’ve seen her go out in uniform. I focus briefly on the mosaic of blue, purple, and black symbols tattooed on the back of her hands; my eyes slide up her arms and the tattoos that are so intricate I can only make out a few distinct details (a rachwolf with mottled black and white fur, a Maurit Ratsel spatial illusion of an impossible tower, two spiral galaxies in mid-collision).
“Thanks,” I mumble, closing my bag. The pity in her expression reminds me of the way that Vermusk girl looked at me in the Vault. I shut my mailbox with a clang and lock it. I take a step back from her, start for the elevator, but then I hear her footsteps trail after me. I swivel on my heel and double back past her, the sympathy on her face only aggravating me further. I stop at the door to the stairway in the corner of the lobby, but as I grab the handle, the memory of those jam-packed stairs in the lab makes my heart throb between my ears.
I turn around again for the elevator, wincing at the bothersome ache in my side. Sidney’s already in there, sticking out her arm to hold the door open. I step in to find that the buttons for the seventh and eighth floors are lit up. As the door closes and the old elevator hefts upward with creaks and chunks, Sidney comments, “I don’t think the open-close buttons work.”
“Maybe,” I say, adjusting my bag’s shoulder strap, recalling how that very same thought occurred to me when Penelope tried to keep Marsden out of the elevator. Now that there’s only a gap of two feet between us, I’m getting a strong whiff of chocolates and heated iron from Sidney.
The elevator climbs another foot before she says, “Are you okay?”
“As okay as I can be after a Grimhet attack.” I shrug, then wince again at my aching side. My hand reflexively reaches for it, a movement that draws a glance from her.
“Just so you know, Wy, if you ever need to talk . . .” Sidney’s lilting voice trails off, and she fidgets with a roundish bump that bulges from beneath the neck of her blouse, maybe a necklace.
“I told you, I’m okay,” I say, with more conviction than I summoned a second ago.
She cocks her head slightly, fixes me with an incisive stare. “It wasn’t just Grimhets, though, was it?”
The leader’s face, the one with the eyepatch, flashes past my vision, and my insides give a nauseating lurch. The door opens right then, and I can’t get out of the elevator sooner. I mumble a have-a-good-rest-of-the-afternoon parting, and I hustle down the seventh-floor hallway, past the brass sconces and the nature paintings on the sky-blue walls, away from Sidney and her chocolates-and-iron odor. I stop at the seventh door down, turn my key in the lock, and step through into the Durrell residence.
It’s a good place, as far as I’m concerned. The foyer leads up to a spacious living room—spacious for a Hexaber apartment, anyways. Exposed-brick walls, a gleaming mahogany floor, tasteful furniture, pendant lights up on the ceiling that automatically glow a subdued yellow in my presence. Religious zumu-stone statuettes and sculptures are scattered among the shelves and credenzas. Hung on one wall is a large blue-and-golden print of Xies, the Teönor goddess of light personified as a great rainbow-feathered bird, soaring over the opalescent blue ocean with five of its offspring flying after it. The west corridor leads to the bathroom and a walk-in closet. The east corridor goes to two bedrooms, one for me, one for my parents. To my left in the foyer is the entry table with an empty blown-glass bowl, into which I clink my keys, and a framed picture of ten-year-old me with my parents. Cut out of the foyer’s right wall is an opening that admits a view into the mosaic-tile-backsplashed kitchen. I cross the room to pull back the velvet curtains from the bay window, allowing a view of the Civit Lumin skyline. Out of all the structures of metal and glass there, Alphacos Pillars, the complex of buildings that acts as the official headquarters of S.P.A.C.E. Union, glitter the most brilliantly.
“Hey Wyatt! Good to see you’re home now.”
I turn around, smiling at the sight of Dell, the Durrell family’s robot assistant as she flies out of the east corridor, levitating four feet above the floor. Her pair of bright purple eyes, expressive in all the ways they squint and widen and smile and frown, are the only feature in her egg-shaped head, which sits atop her geodesic sphere of a body. It’s polished white for the most part, but if the light hits her a certain way, the facets give off a subtly prismatic glint.
“Good to see you too, Dell,” I say, tossing my bag on the sofa in the entertainment-center part of the room—a white L-sofa and an armchair, an oak coffee table, a flat-screen TV bolted to the wall above a cabinet filled to the brim with old DVDs and video cassettes (I know you can stream everything these days, but the hardcore cinephile in me needs to have physical copies of movies and TV shows on hand).
While I cook myself tomato wheatfowl soup for lunch, Dell gives me the news update, which includes a piece about S.P.A.C.E. Union declaring the attack at Rad-Bio as an act of terrorism that the perpetrators did on Grimhet’s behalf (some Vermusk crime rings have become notorious for praising Gargant like he’s a god), and Marsden and Foxer are each appointing a special unit to track them down; furthermore, they’re ordering their respective units to collaborate in the hopes of arresting the criminals. Huh, this is rare—tigon cubs banding together with dragonflies, soldiers teaming up with spies. Marsden and Foxer don’t hate each other, exactly, but let’s just say their clashing viewpoints and policies have started a sort of bad blood between them rivaling that between Foxer and Dr. Fulbright. The only time the Overseers of Warbearer and Web would be willing to work together in this fashion would be under the circumstances of an emergency, a genuine crisis threatening the safety of Cosmotic. And that seems fitting, since, for all we know, an army of Super Nex-powered Vermusk might ravage our homes tomorrow.
The last news piece Dell gives me is about the thousands of demonstrators who’ve been defiantly marching through parts of Neuanfang, a large Vermusk district west of here that used to be its own city before getting absorbed into Lumin; for over five months they’ve protested numerous issues like police brutality, exorbitant taxes, and the growing number of hospitals that government officials are shutting down (many Neuanfangians have been calling for Head Councilor Aldous Sornis’s resignation since he’s the one responsible for proposing that last policy). Then Dell floats off across the living room and goes into standby mode, leaving me to head to the dining nook off the kitchen with my bowl of soup and eat spoonfuls while going on my phone to check Walnut. I hope Dr. Fulbright didn’t seed anything inflammatory.
I’m incredibly grateful for Ray Easton and the brave crimsons who defended my lab today, reads Dr. Fulbright’s latest seed from three hours ago. If they keep this up, I swear, the war will end with the fall of Grimhet and its ilk.
That seed would’ve been okay if not for the emojis he sticks at the end—a blue circle, a fist, a six-pointed star, and a hexagon, which I assume means that he wants Super Nex to keep fighting for S.P.A.C.E. Union. Then again, he’s posted much weirder emoji strings before. This mudding quirk of his, it’s one of the easiest ways for people to make fun of him.
I scroll through my Walnut feed for another minute before stopping to do a double-take at the face staring at me from the screen. Faded white eyepatch with yellowed edges, pockmarked green skin flecked with gray spots, protruding jaw—it’s her. The official Warbearer account posted this fifteen minutes ago.
Rechin Ihres Augen—WANTED for armed robbery, assault, kidnapping, murder, extortion, and destruction of government property. Known to operate in Neuanfang. 20,000 units for information pertinent to her capture.
I stare at her photo, dumbfounded. When she broke into the Vault, she must have had all those long straggles of mousy hair tucked up into her military cap. And I hadn’t noticed the chunk of flesh missing from her right ear. The ruthlessness in her eyes—no, her eye. But that damn eyepatch of hers is gripping my neck in a tension headache. Suddenly I’m back in the Vault and I’m getting shoved to the floor, blood’s in my mouth again, my heart’s swelling too much—
I drop my spoon into the bowl with a clatter, put my phone down on the table, shut my eyes. Stop it. I inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. It’s all right. I’m safe now. I’m never gonna cross paths with Augen again; I’ll definitely make sure to stay out of Neuanfang.
“Is something wrong, Wyatt? You seem anguished.”
I open my eyes, look sideways at Dell as she hums up from her spot on the sofa, her eyes wide and alert.
“Nothing’s wrong,” I tell her with a forced smile, giving a meaningless little wave of my hand. It takes a minute for her to fall back onto the sofa, and even then she keeps shooting glances at me.
After lunch, having resolved to say goodbye to Walnut for the rest of the day, I retreat to my room, where everything is bathed in the afternoon sunlight streaming through the big window opposite the door. Tiny yellow flecks dot the blue wallpaper, some of which is covered in movie posters—Kith and Kin, Bright Between The Clouds, and my all-time favorite flick, Chameleons For Breakfast. Other possessions to gussy up the room: my framed Olympus University diploma, a rolltop desk and chair often used as my workstation for building Arka models, sleek silver laptop, shelves burgeoned with books and bins of Arka pieces, and two flags on the wall across from my bed. One is the world flag for this planet, Bicap—deep green with a red rectangle in the canton bearing an emblem of a yellow crescent inside a yellow circle. The other is the S.P.A.C.E. Union national flag—light gray with six small, six-pointed stars set in a circle around a blue hexagon in the center, each star a different color to represent an Intention of S.P.A.C.E. Union.
Red for Warbearer and its crimson cubs. White for Web and its cunning spies. Purple for Torchen and its scientists who study paranormal and occult phenomena, including that which concerns Grimhet. Orange for Halcyonic and its devout disciples who preach dozens of religions. Bronze for Quantax and its voyagers who keep the space program running. And last but not least, green for Cerebral and its researchers who preserve the history of our universe, Cosmotic, and manage our educational system. The idea is that there isn’t any one Intention that’s more important than the others; each one serves its own purpose for our government, and all of them have to mesh together so it can function as a cohesive whole. Yes, there have been times when fascists corrupted the system, but fortunately they’re rare in the thousand-plus years that S.P.A.C.E. Union has been around, and their regimes never lasted long before dissidents overthrew them.
My latest Euphony playlist, Wyatt’s Mishmash 5, plays from my phone to set the mood while I dive into my Arka model of an ancient stone tower that I started building last week. I’m about halfway done, and it’s coming together well. I could stop right now if I wanted to, make it look like the top half cracked off. But I’ll keep going; I have enough pieces to complete it, and I want to set up a brawl on the roof where a Super Nex soldier, represented by a figurine equipped with gleaming blue armor and an equally blue sword, faces off against a horde of Grimhets. I’m particularly proud of the way I’m constructing the tower so that bricks protrude from the exterior in rickety, uneven layers, like the whole thing might crash down at any time.
Once I click on the final piece (the total count will probably be around a thousand pieces), I’m going to take pictures of it and post them on Walnut. I’ll let the tower stand for a few weeks so I can admire my work, and then take it apart and reuse those pieces for the next model. I’ve done this since I was thirteen, and it’s gained me a small online following as a TBOL (Teenage Builder Of Arka).
My first ever model was of the meadow in my dream; that’s the only one I’ve kept for the past four years, and it has a special spot atop the bookshelf next to my table. I took painstaking efforts to get almost every detail correct—the grawtrees, the gazebo, the figures of me and my parents (as for the winged spider, I have to make do with a butterfly piece). No matter how long I analyze the model, my dream refuses to make sense. I break it down, and some of the parts will give up little bits, and I can spin off tons of theories. But when I piece those parts back together again into the big picture, I end up looking at a mirror covered in a spiderweb of cracks, each fragment home to a dream interpretation that’s as convoluted as a Routhian psychologist’s. I don’t know, maybe the obsessive part of me needs to let this go. There are other things far more important in my life than this frivolous dream.
Over two hours later my parents call, and they sound like Mom when she rushed me to the hospital for a sore throat; mind you, I was eight and it was simply a cold. Between my repeated reassurances that I’m okay, they tell me they got the notification from the hospital right after they got off their spaceflight, they’re waiting to grab their luggage from the carousel, and they’ll be coming home soon. And then I’m about five minutes away from completing my tower when I hear the sound of the front door unlocking and then opening, my parents’ voices, Dell greeting them. I pause my playlist, go out of my room, stride down the hall to the living room, and almost instantly I’m suffocating in Mom’s arms—
“Thanks heavens you’re okay!” she cries, her arms squeezing tightly around me, sending an ache flaring down my side.
“Calm down, it’s okay,” I gasp, unable to extricate myself out of her rib-crushing hug.
“Don’t tell us to calm down!” Dad exclaims; yes, now he’s joining the embrace as well, wrapping his arms around us and adding the pressure.
“I’m telling you, son, Rad-Bio needs better security,” urges Dad after the hug finally ends and I’m able to take my first big gulp of air and rub the sensitive spot in my side. “What if those scoundrels try to break in again?”
I massage the side of my neck. “Look, we’re gonna be fine. Don’t worry.”
Dad furrows his brow at me, and I almost think I’m looking at forty-five-year-old me. We share the same heavy eyebrows and the same gold-flecked hazel eyes, two prominent traits that make people joke about how I’ll look just like Dad in my forties. But I actually inherited more of Mom’s looks—her chocolate brown hair (which she lets down in long, bushy waves, and tips with ombré aquamarine highlights), finely shaped mouth, and delicate jaw.
“I’m glad you’re okay, our little Maykal,” Mom says, using her and Dad’s special nickname for me, and engulfing me in a second hug.
For the rest of the afternoon she and Dad regale me and Dell with stories from the trip to Vestral—the specialty restaurant that served nothing but wheatfowl eggs, the 106-degree mud baths, the vast canyons and temple-adorned mountains and hillside villages. They brought back some jewelry, a robe of rich fabric with an iridescent luster, and four jars of fragrant spices. God, I’m so jealous; the last time I was at Vestral was two years ago, and I would’ve gone with them, but I couldn’t take time off work, not during the week coming up to the demonstration.
I wince when I remember how the Slange wrapped its long, smooth body around my body, squeezing the life out of me. Dad must know something’s wrong, because he asks if I’m okay, and I say I am, and I excuse myself. In my room I shut the door on all thoughts about this morning and finish my tower, arranging Grimhets around the Super Nex soldier on the roof. I take pictures and post them on Walnut; not even fifteen minutes elapse before they garner a few likes and reseeds.
As usual we eat dinner in front of the TV and put on The Late Chat with Dolores Youqu (the first Aoi woman to host her own late night talk show). She starts off with a monologue that solemnly summarizes the Rad-Bio robbery and the subsequent Grimhet attack, and then she offers her own wry view on the ways that Xavier, Foxer, Dr. Fulbright, and others are responding in their efforts to assuage the fears of the public. At one point a picture of the stubbly, expressionless Foxer in his white suit gets pulled up on the screen, and she introduces him as “Owen Foxer, Web Overseer and poker face extraordinaire.” And yes, she does roast Dr. Fulbright for today’s emoji string. “Maybe he’s saying that he wants one of his Super Nex soldiers to build a fist and shoot it through the hexagon in order to earn a star.”
Almost an hour later I’m in my comfy bed, relieved that today is coming to a close. Hopefully tomorrow will be—
“Maykal?” I open one eye, watch Dad peek through my ajar door. The light from the hallway outside is shining from behind him and into my dark bedroom, creating a surreal halo effect around his body. “I just wanna make sure you’re all right,” he says, his smile mismatched with his downturned eyebrows.
“I’ve heard that too many times today,” I mumble, rolling over to face the other side. Now I can look out my window at the shimmering city skyline. Too bad the indigo sky is devoid of stars.
“Well, er . . . Goodnight, son.” I hear Dad start to close the door, and then he says something I can’t understand. When I hear the door open again, I look back, and Dell is soaring into my room, settling herself in the corner as though she intends to remain there for the night.
Dad closes the door before I can tell him to take her out, and she pipes up in her cheeriest manner, “I’ll watch you sleep, okay? You can relax now.”
I stare at her in disbelief before sighing and resting my head back on the pillow. Despite Dell’s presence, I fall asleep within minutes.
As soon as Gargant, the Magister of Grimhet, hears his apprentice’s muffled footsteps coming down the hall outside his study, he closes the leather-bound book in his hand and sits up in his high-backed armchair. His private study is a vast rectangular room with black and gray stone from floor to ceiling, lit by the ghostly white flame crackling in the marble fireplace on his right. Tomes weigh down giant bookcases along one wall. The peculiar devices and artifacts cluttering the tables give off the air of a curio shop. In fact that is very likely the sort of place where you could buy some of these things—a metal cylinder made of multiple engraved discs, a sword with a crust of black blood covering much of its blade, a figurine of an ursine creature with two horns protruding above its eyes and a smattering of bloody gashes on its body.
With an absentminded hand Gargant touches the crowd of perfectly spherical gray-white boils bulging from the top of his bald, wrinkly head. Ten of them, three inches in diameter, two inches high, shiny and enclosed by patches of grayish-pink flesh. He’s been patiently awaiting this moment for years—this moment which will set in motion the next step in his plan.
Three gentle knocks on the iron door, which is engraved with hundreds of knotted symbols, and Gargant rumbles in his deep yet soft, almost whispery voice, “Come in.”
The door groans open to admit a slim woman in an off-the-shoulders white uniform with threads of silver filigree woven around her chin-high collar and down her bishop sleeves. It, along with her fitted white pants, complements her slate gray skin. “My Magister,” she greets silkily with a deferential dip of her chin. “Rechin has succeeded.” She approaches his desk, treading over a threadbare hearthrug embroidered with a black-and-white rachwolf. She carries a small cube of shining white wood in her arms, something akin to a jewelry box.
Gargant’s cavernous eyes, black as the darkness of an infinite and doleful night, widen when they alight on this object. He puts his book on the ornate iron desk in front of his chair, and he rises to his bare feet, covered in irregular gray patches.
He reaches out his dark hands, which are marbled in pulsing gray veins, and the apprentice rests the box in them. It isn’t nearly as heavy as it looks, and it feels . . . warm. Heat is emanating from inside. He sits back down, and with a gesture of his hand, his apprentice takes a seat in the iron chair on the opposite side of his desk. This chair, wrought with many twists and distortions that call to mind bestial faces, is so low to the cool stone floor that Gargant can only see his apprentice’s head and shoulders poking up above the desktop.
“I trust this is it?” he says, staring at his apprentice sharply.
“I verified it myself. Rechin delivered on her promise.”
Gargant studies her momentarily, finding it hard to read any emotions behind her murky yellow eyes. Then he undoes both silver buckles on the front of the box, pulls up the lid and lets it fall backward. A faint glow reflects off his dark gray face, accentuating all its deep, grimacing creases. Yes, this is it. This is what he needs to deliver to Wyatt Durrell—at the right time, of course.
He exhales with renewed confidence, not realizing until then that he’d been holding his breath. With his right index finger, which is crooked as though he just broke it, he strokes a white evetide hyacinth in the lapel pinhole of his double-breasted black blazer. “Sibrilich, I hope your judgment is correct on this,” he says, his inflection quite deep without being booming. “If this fails, we’ll lose valuable time . . . and Wyatt will be lost.”
“My Magister, I assure you, that won’t happen,” claims Sibrilich, the firelight casting a shadow over her high cheekbones. Her white hair is styled so that numerous strands radiate like spider legs from the bun on the back of her head.
For a second Gargant’s aquiline nose flares with as much contempt as the sneer that curls his chapped lips and draws them back from small, clear teeth. “Isn’t there a part of you that still wants to kill him?”
Her phlegmatic face doesn’t waver, but the glimmer of emotion in her murky yellow eyes communicates her frustrations clearly to Gargant. “Yes, I can see it, Sibrilich. The light breaking for Wyatt—that’s what you hope for. But you’re still nursing the pain. Struggling to forgive.”
“And you would know much about that matter, wouldn’t you?”
Gargant’s sneer changes into a malignant scowl that deepens all the wrinkles in his face, including the crow’s feet trailing away from his eyes. “I would sooner suffer an eternity of torture than forgive those ignorant mortals,” he snaps with a growl of anger that makes “forgive” sound like an oath. “When I have my chance, I will punish them for the sins they’ve wrought upon my people.”
“I hope I won’t be there to witness it.”
The slightly patronizing edge to her words makes Gargant drum his crooked forefinger on the desk. He shifts in his armchair, then gives a flick of his hand to command Sibrilich to leave.
He watches her rise awkwardly from her sunken chair, backtrack across the study, open the door and step halfway out before looking over her shoulder, a dim glint in her eyes. “Prepare yourself, My Magister. Great times lie ahead of us.”
After she closes the door behind her, Gargant, gazing darkly at the black box, reaches up for his hyacinth with his bent finger.
“I know he’ll be the right one,” he murmurs to himself reassuringly.