Project Super Nex – Chapter Three – The Thistles

“My fucking pad itches.”
My eyebrows automatically scrunch together at Penelope reaching under the table, seemingly adjusting something in her pants. She screws up her face, and then her hand comes back up, hovers over her dwindling band of white pieces on the hexagonal ninety-one-cell reglintel board. Her narrowed gray eyes search for a weakness within my formidable army of black pieces.
“Guys don’t have to deal with this chafing crap in their junk factories,” she goes on, pausing to take a long swig of her espresso, which she spiked with a shot of salamandrine whiskey. “Same goes for cramps, bleeding, tracking periods on the calendar, and”—gives a sniff, waves her hand underneath her wrinkled nose—“the meaty smell.”
“True, but there are times when my boxers bunch up,” I point out, sipping my own mug of aurium tea.
Penelope rolls her eyes. “Like that even compares to what women have to deal with.”
“It doesn’t. I’m just saying, nobody’s exempt from the rough stuff down there.”
The two of us are sitting on bright blue chairs on either side of a circular table, one of ten scattered across the interior balcony spanning half the upper level of Ouran. We’re right next to the railing, taking advantage of an open view of the bustling ground floor below, my messenger bag on the floor by my feet, Penelope’s purse looped over the back of her chair by the strap. The whole café is large, with circular panels of vivid orange metal embedded into the dark oak walls. Today’s specials are scribbled on the blackboard in colorful chalk. The swarms of customers and the classy furniture of leather and wood dapple the light beaming through the huge window in the entrance wall, throwing patches of shadow and luminescence over the checkered floor. Right outside is the mall’s two-story food court, off of which branches on all sides six long, skylit paths lined with dozens of stores.
Up here on the balcony, there’s a shelf full of board games in the back wall, from which I retrieved the reglintel board. Two more shelves are adjacent to it, one cramped with dog-eared paperbacks, the other loaded down with well-thumbed comic books. Abstract art hangs on the right wall, lit attractively under pendant lights. A side exit in the left wall leads out onto the balcony that runs in a ring around the interior of the food court’s second floor.
“No, no,” I say very fast, motioning away Penelope’s hand, stopping it from flying back towards the dragon she just moved. “You can’t take back your move once you let go of the piece.”
“Why, you little—” Her words descend into a dark mumble that, fortunately, I can’t understand with the music playing over the speakers (Ouran’s personal Euphony playlist, a blend of indie alt and electronica).
“That’s how life works, too. You make your choice, you have to live with it.” Ignoring the slight ache over my left ear as I make sure my next move will do it for me (although my head feels better than yesterday, especially in comparison to how the muscles in my arm moan in protest if I lift it too high), I take my knight and, with a triumphant thud, place it on an empty cell to corner her stone, the most important of her pieces. “And that’s katako.”
She sits there, cradling her coffee and salamandrine in both hands, glaring at me with eyes that are even more slitted and foul than before. “You know, one of these days, I will beat you.”
“And I’ll be happy to welcome your victory. We’ve been playing for, what, four years now? Must have had dozens and dozens of games all that time. But it’s all about strategy, you see, thinking three or four steps ahead of your opponent, crafting a scheme that covers all your bases. Order reigns as long as you have a plan. That’s what you struggle with, Penelope; you’re too impulsive.” I spend the next couple minutes pointing out alternative moves she could have made to hinder me, which she absorbs with more eye-rolling.
This morning I was in the middle of breakfast with my parents (cheese omelet and fried sausage, seasoned with Vestral spices) when Penelope called me and asked if I wanted to meet her at Ouran. I initially turned her down, but then she said, “Let me rephrase that. I’m taking you out to Ouran.” Half an hour later, I was in her Maesse with my bag in my lap, me in a blue and gold Olympus letterman jacket, sweatpants, and sneakers, Penelope in a maroon V-neck shirt, red pencil skirt, and combat boots. The ten-minute drive to Hexaber Mall was mostly fine, except for the time I had to sink into my passenger seat in mortification while she lowered her window and flipped her finger at a motorist who went out of order at a four-way stop and almost hit us.
Yes, it’s always a merry time going on the road with Penelope Flame.
I suppose a part of me’s glad she dragged me here, though. I called Dr. Fulbright earlier, but he couldn’t talk long, and he said he had to attend a meeting “where all I’ll be doing is stopping people from clipping our wings before we even get a real chance to fly.” We agreed to meet tomorrow morning at the Eagles Nest Club in Gollinger Park for tennis, and then we’ll head on over to Alphacos and continue Rad-Bio’s work there for however long it takes for the lab to get squared. I was considering staying home today, maybe binging that Psy-Code web series everyone’s raving about (it has a score of ninety-three percent on Know-It-Alls), but I can save it for later. All I need right now is something to keep my mind off things.
Once I finish my breakdown of Penelope’s reglintel moves, I ask if she wants another game, but she shakes her head no with a surly frown. I put the pieces inside a drawer that slides out from the reglintel board, then tuck it under my right arm, wincing as this movement causes an acute ache to coil the muscles in my left arm. I brush off Penelope’s pursed mouth, carrying the board across the balcony and replacing it in the games shelf.
On my way back, I glance over the railing, down at the entrance. I don’t know why, but my gaze falls on a man who’s just walked through the door, and is ambling past the counter, oblivious to the intoxicating aroma of freshly brewed coffee. He’s weaving through the crowds, veering for the stairs that lead up here to the café’s upper level. He starts climbing the steps, shoulders his way through a cluster of people descending past him.
“What are you staring at?” Penelope asks me after I sit back down, but I don’t answer her. This stranger, he strikes me as . . . familiar. I can’t put my finger on where I might’ve seen him before. He takes his first thudding steps up onto the balcony. He stops for a second, standing a few feet behind Penelope, and I drop my eyes to my tea just as he darts me a look. A beat passes before he starts sauntering across the balcony with a loose swing in his arms and a sway to his gangling body, a weird and unnerving swagger like he’s dizzy and about to topple over.
“You’ve been gawking at that guy for an awfully long time.” Disdain and puzzlement mingle together in Penelope’s tone.
He stops at an occupied table in the far corner, takes a seat across from two other people—a boy and a girl, both Lispona Starsapiens, somewhere around my age, maybe even younger. They might be siblings; they both have the same rail-thin but not emaciated build, earthy brown skin that gives off a warm glow, thick chestnut hair, impeccable clothes indicating an affluent lifestyle. The boy has grown out his hair into frizzy ringlets. The girl’s is a wavy pixie. They might as well have emerged from the pages of a T. Verinus catalogue.
“Okay, dork, this isn’t funny.” I hear Penelope snap her fingers, and I swivel my head back to the bewildered scowl on her face. “What’s going on?”
I replace my tea, rattling the saucer a little too loudly. “I thought I’d seen him before . . .” I glance at the other table again. I can’t see the man’s face anymore, his back is obliquely facing me. As for the two teenagers he’s meeting, the girl’s polite, businesslike smile contrasts with the anxious twitch in the boy’s lips and his habit of plucking at a curl of hair above his ear.
Even Penelope checks them out, but she must not think much of them, because she only gives a grunt before drinking her coffee and telling me she recently opened an account on Jibe (one of the most popular dating apps for the queer community).
“I thought you hate dating apps.”
“I know, but I’m running out of options here. I mean, after breaking up with Marnie, it feels like I’ve dated every single lesbian in Civit Lumin.”
“I’m sure you’re exaggerating. Maybe there are friends of friends—”
She tightens up her face in an ugly grimace. “Absolutely not. Which is why I’m resorting to Jibe. See, I already have some viable matches . . .” She gets out her phone to show me two women with whom she’s had friendly exchanges over the app.
Meanwhile, I can’t help but steal looks at them—the guy who I swear I’ve seen before and the two teens. The boy has a maycewood walking stick, a stout old thing with a gnarled knob on top, propped against his chair back. The girl has a drawstring pouch slung over her shoulders, and she puts down the muffin she’s been eating, unslings her pouch off and plops it in her lap, widens the opening, sticks her hand inside, comes up with a rectangular case small enough to fit in one palm. It’s dark green, and something is stamped in yellow on the lid, but I can’t make it out from this distance. The girl gingerly places this object on the tabletop as if it’s a bomb. The man snatches it up at once and tucks it in his brown business suit, then produces a bulging envelope and tosses it on the table. The boy sips his drink, picks up the envelope, peeks inside it. He gives the man a somber nod—Yes, this is it—and hands it off to the girl. She stuffs it in her pouch, hoists it back over her shoulders.
“. . . and she loves the outdoors, here’s a photo of her—Oh for heaven’s sake, you’re still ogling them?
My eyes flicker to Penelope’s frown of heavy irritation, to a photo on her phone of one of her Jibe matches hiking through a forest, and then back to the increasingly intriguing trio. The man’s getting up. He speaks a few indistinct words, pivots around, saunters away from the teens and toward the stairs with that uniquely staggering quality to his gait. But I don’t think he’s dizzy; the expression on his long, thin face is too clear, and his eyes are too alert. In fact, they look . . . wild, sinister.
A sickening, hot feeling swoops through my gut as the Vault flashes past my vision in fragments. It’s him. Brone, Augen’s accomplice, the one who threatened to put the light in me, whatever the grim that means. He’s here. Mud, he’s here, he’s moving past us, shooting me a sidelong smirk—he recognizes me. But he doesn’t stop. He wobbles down the stairs, through the crowds below, out of Ouran, out onto the food court.
Penelope, who twisted around in her chair to watch him leave, is opening her mouth, but I cut her off by saying, “He’s one of them. From yesterday.”
“What, you mean—” She must get my meaning, because she whips her head at the entrance, then looks at me like horns have sprouted from my temples. “But he’s not a Vermusk.”
“He’s in disguise,” I say simply, recalling how the four of them switched off their masks to reveal their true faces. Even under the guise of a Starsapien, Brone should have been instantly recognizable to me. My eyes dart to a sign by the side exit, where a crossed-out red circle has been slapped over a green face speckled with gray spots—No Vermusk allowed.
“What the fuck did he want with them?” Penelope asks, jerking her head at the maybe-siblings. “I mean, really, don’t they look like skinny geeks to you?”
“Yeah,” I mumble, drumming a thumb on my mug.
There’s a part of me that wants to stay away from them, stay away from whatever shady business they’re dealing with. I won’t soon forget Augen’s warning. The most logical thing would be to forget I ever saw them or Brone. Another part of me, though, wants to see those thieves captured, wants PSN to get back on the right track. If I can just talk to them . . .
I gulp the rest of my lukewarm tea, rise from my chair, hitch my bag up onto my shoulder, and stride for Brone’s contacts, hearing Penelope march after me in her boots. They’re talking together in low voices, but the boy senses my approach and looks up at me first, his remarkably bright green eyes regarding me suspiciously. The other one has to be his sister; her eyes are as equally green, but much more kind and helpful.
“Hi, uh—” I clear my throat, twist my Olympus ring around my finger. “I’m Wyatt, Wyatt Durrell.” I stick out my hand, and the boy looks at it as if I’m holding out a Rampa’s swollen eye. Thankfully, the girl reaches across him to give me a bony but strong handshake.
“A pleasure to meet you, Wyatt,” she says, her words wrapped in delicate, courteous tones, as if this encounter really is a pleasure. She stands up, and with a pat on the boy’s shoulder, he follows suit. Both of them have spindly limbs that somehow look more graceful than gawky. “I’m Corbin Thistle, and this is my kid brother, Gene Thistle.”
Gene looks insulted as he spins his head her way and mutters something in . . . I think it’s Elvaric. Surprising, it’s sort of a dead language for Starsapiens, although it’s a common tongue among some alien races. Corbin whispers back to Gene in a conciliatory voice, and then he turns to me, lightly resting a hand on his walking stick but not leaning on it; it must be a fashion accessory. He puts on a smile of bare-minimum politeness that doesn’t touch his eyes.
“Salutations, Wyatt.” His gaze drifts to my right. “And you are . . . ?”
“Penelope Flame.”
I say, “We don’t mean to disturb you—”
“Disturb?” Gene makes a noise, something between a chuckle and a sigh, and lifts his cup to his mouth, slurping up the opaque green kellberry juice inside. It smells like fruit-scented air freshener. His getup—freshly pressed button-up shirt, woolen argyle sweater vest, beige slacks, Grou loafers—is as polished as his sister’s—pleated pale green linen dress with a design of snakes winding between flowered vines, a pair of emerald-encrusted fangs dangling off her left ear, leggings, ballet flats. They both look so perfect, so untouchable, that I’m perplexed as to how they got themselves mixed up in Augen’s lot.
Corbin motions to the empty chair at their table, which I let Penelope take (and sanitize with one of her wipes). I pull up a chair from the nearest table, plunk it down next to her (yes, it receives the sanitary treatment too), drop my bag next to my feet, sit forward with an expression of what I hope looks like friendly interest. I glimpse the cinnamon-colored pouch on Corbin’s back; mottles of gray and black bruise its leathery material, making it look like an animal stomach. Affixed to its collar is a four-inch circular charm of orange metal and glass, cast with a snake encircling the rim and devouring its own tail, and two entwined snakes in the center also eating each other’s tails.
“So, Wyatt, what do you wanna talk to them about?” says Penelope in a let’s-move-this-along kind of voice.
I tear my eyes away from Corbin’s charm; the Thistles are staring at the two of us, waiting for us to explain why we’re here. “Right,” I say, dropping my eyes to Corbin’s muffin as she bites off a piece. “The man you just met, I, uh”—I shift in my chair and fold my arms together on the table—“I know him. Well, not know him, know him, but—”
“You’re acquaintances?” Corbin suggests.
“I fail to see how you could possibly fraternize with him,” Gene says with a pompous flick of his hand.
A deep furrow runs down my brow. “And why is that?”
Corbin starts to talk, but Gene interrupts her. “Before we discuss this further, may you tell us how you know Brone?” His mild voice contrasts with the mistrust in his green eyes.
Because I hesitate to answer, Penelope says, “He almost killed him yesterday.”
The genuine shock on both Thistles’ faces makes me run a hand through my hair a couple times. “It wasn’t, it wasn’t like that,” I stammer. Pieces of the nightmare I had right before waking up today—rushing into the Vault, the guard next to me getting shot, me getting shoved to the floor, the Grimhets—shoot through my skull, pierce my brain like bullets.
“That’s right, how’d I forget? It was all four of them.” Penelope leans forward, crosses her arms and braces her elbows on the table, eyes alight with scrutiny. “Don’t you give a damn about what they’ll do with Super Nex?”
Biting a chunk off her muffin, Corbin exchanges an apprehensive look with her brother, who is curling his fingers tighter around his overwhelmingly fruity-smelling kellberry juice. Corbin returns her gaze to Penelope and me and says, “From what little gossip we’ve gathered, we know they aren’t utilizing the supplies yet. But they have an ultimate scheme in mind, and Super Nex is one of its components.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know where they’re keeping it?” I query.
This time it’s Gene who exchanges a look with his sister. “No,” he answers, and I can feel my forehead wrinkling in frustration. “I must say, Dr. Fulbright and Advisor General Wiley are facing a significant challenge, having to ameliorate this scandal. If public opinion lingers too much longer under this shadow, Project Super Nex may flounder.”
“Thanks for the reminder,” I say, a tad petulantly.
A thick silence would have built up between the four of us if not for Ouran’s music. I drum my fingers in my lap, my gaze drifting off to Gene’s cane. Penelope clenches her hands on her purse. Corbin eats the last of her muffin. Gene drains the rest of his juice, that fruity odor lingering in the air. This is going nowhere, but the fact that these two have connections to Augen is what keeps me from walking out on them. But if they won’t give up intel, what’s the use of—
“Ah, the beauteous melody,” Gene pipes up, bopping his head. This is the first time he looks like he’s smiling for real.
“‘Hybrid Station’ by D.M. Dathlife,” Corbin responds to my nonplussed expression. She must be referring to the moody, hypnotic electronica that’s playing now; I think I’ve heard it on the radio.
“He adores this song,” Corbin says flatly. “Many a morning I’ve awoken to him covering it on his cerezi. Many a morning.” She reaches up, affectionately plucks one of her brother’s curly locks. He lets out a little shout and shoos her away.
“Admit it, framana,” he says, “you love my cover versions of Dathlife’s repertoire.”
“When I hear them at open mike nights, yes, but not at the crack of dawn.”
“Open mike . . . wait, so you sing?” Penelope asks.
“Usually at Lantern. Have you ever been there?” Penelope and I both shake our heads, and Gene goes on, “It is across Maynard, right in the center of Jem-7. I advise you to pay it a visit if you favor gaiety, camaraderie, and plain boisterous entertainment. Ilsa Rosior gave a performance there last Palleday—and let me tell you, that was quite the ebullient night.”
There must be a peculiar look that crosses my face, because he wrinkles his brow at me and asks, “Do you listen to Ilsa?”
I shrug. “Not really.” I don’t say aloud that I used to listen to her until a point came where her songs made me feel like I had to sob to enjoy them. My parents love her, though, and so does Dr. Fulbright.
“Personally, I find her work to be boring,” Penelope chimes in.
Gene gapes at her incredulously, and even Corbin looks fairly amazed. “Oh dear, oh dear,” Gene says with an exaggeratedly sad sigh. “How could you be incapable of apprizing all the attributes of her artistry—the winsome, the wry, the introspective?”
“Maybe it’s because different people can like and dislike different things,” I observe, rubbing my thumb knuckle back and forth along my ring.
Gene fixes his gaze on me, a gaze hovering in an odd space between intrigue and disapproval. “Someday you will have to be converted.”
The four of us lapse into silence for a while, and then I remember why we’re talking in the first place. But before I can steer us back to the original topic, Penelope does it for me. “It’s a shame about Vermusk, the discrimination they’re still facing in this day and age.” She gestures at the café around us. “Take this place, for example. It’s one of the places in Lumin that refuse to serve them. That’s why your friend had to disguise himself as a Starsapien, right?”
As Corbin and Gene nod, I say, “But why even meet here? There are countless establishments in the city that welcome Vermusk.”
I stifle a yelp when Penelope kicks me in the shin, and I recognize her momentary sideways look—Shut up and let me handle this.
“It’s one of the ways Vermusk engage in their own quiet acts of insubordination,” Corbin says, her face open, understanding, even teacherly, as though she’d love nothing more than to guide me in the ways of sympathizing with Vermusk. Which would be redundant, because I already support them.
“They shouldn’t even be at this point, where they cannot take their innate civil rights and racial equality for granted,” declares Gene, twirling one of his chestnut ringlets around his finger. “The sooner we extinguish this fatuous xenophobia from society, the better.” He pulls the hair taut, then lets go, and it springs back to his head, curled even more tightly.
Penelope must realize I’m about to respond—I want to know if they feel the same way about Torchen, since many of its members have endured just as much bigotry for researching what some call “black magic” and “demonology”—because she kicks me in the shin again. “Then you and Augen must be pretty friendly with each other,” she assumes, her smile reflecting the amiableness on Corbin’s face.
“I suppose so,” Corbin answers, snapping her fingers, a mysterious emotion flickering through her eyes as she shares a quick glimpse with her brother; he’s propping his walking stick between his legs and clasping both hands over the knobby top.
I really am struggling to imagine the two of them hanging around with the likes of Augen and her thugs. They’re obviously well-to-do, for one thing, but even more important, they look innocent, naïve, gullible. If I was a mugger, I’d pick them as easy targets.
“Have you ever met Augen in person?” Penelope inquires. Corbin nods reluctantly, fiddles with her fang earrings. “You have good rapport with her?”
As I begin to get an idea of what she’s working towards, Gene sits upright and says, “You must take us for credulous ignoramuses, Ms. Flame, if you think we do not know what you are insinuating. We have always been in good standing with Augen—”
“I never said otherwise. But I’m still concerned for your safety,” Penelope interjects without raising her voice, although the familiar edge is unmistakeable. “Honestly, you strike me as good kids, kids with promising futures. You must have higher aspirations than consorting with terrorists and murderers.”
“Please do not affect solicitude.” Gene wags a pretentious finger at Penelope and me. “Sanctimonious hypocrites. How comfortable it must be for you to maintain this exceptionally nescient attitude. You have no concept of the injustices that Starsapiens—”
“Framano,” Corbin tells Gene, firm yet tender. She rests her hand on his elbow and whispers to him in Elvaric. His frown softens. My gaze slides to the device on Corbin’s pouch; the snakes have glittering black jewels for eyes.
“I think it’s time for us to go,” Corbin says. The fangs on her ear sparkle green when she stands up with her brother.
“Hold on,” I say, having kept quiet for the past minute. I scrape back my chair, get to my feet, rush in front of the Thistles to stop them from reaching the stairs. I move so fast that the ache in my side hurts, but I ignore it. “Don’t you care about the chaos they’re gonna start now that they can pump themselves full of Super Nex?”
Corbin’s eyes harden. “Of course we do. Pandemonium or tyranny isn’t something we want, whether it’s by Augen, S.P.A.C.E. Union, or Gargant’s hand.”
They brush past me, although Gene lingers to shoot me a withering look. As they climb down the stairs, his cane sounding a clunk every other step, I tell Penelope, who already got up from the table, “That could’ve gone over better.”
She watches the Thistles weave past customers and furniture down on Ouran’s ground floor. A strange look of determination in her face, she pushes my bag into my arms, shoulders her purse, and starts for the stairs. “Come on, move your ass,” she says without looking back at me.
I dash after her, but not without eyeing a massive young guy with bodybuilder-level muscles, apparently spying on me and Penelope. I’m amazed he’s able to cramp himself at the far corner table. He’s hiding most of his face behind this month’s issue of Astrophysics Today, but I can make out the shaggy bangs of sandy hair, and he’s peeking over the magazine, making eye contact with me for a millisecond, then averting his gaze back to whatever article he’s pretending to read. Has he been watching us from that spot the whole time?
I push this aside for later thought as I jog out of Ouran, three steps behind Penelope. She’s hounding the Thistles, sprinting past the crowds of mall-goers. I struggle to keep up with her rapid pace, especially when we have to suddenly sidestep a dense crush of people flooding out from one of the six paths connected to the food court. This is the same path into which the Thistles disappear, and Penelope and I gallop after them. It takes a minute for us to exit the mall and start crossing the sun-flooded parking lot.
When the Thistles stop to get in a shiny green sedan twenty feet ahead, Penelope clasps my wrist and yanks me behind a van. She peeks around the trunk and slips out her phone. I hear the faint humming of a car engine before she snaps a picture. “There,” she says, wiggling her phone at me so I can see the touchscreen, which caught the sedan’s rear license plate as it backed out of its spot.
“For the record, I still think they’re skinny geeks,” sniggers Penelope. “I mean, look at their car—a Pumonski.” She leans closer to me, repeats the word louder as though I didn’t hear her the first time. “A Pumonski. Is there a geekier car brand? I think not.”
It turns out Penelope has a date with one of her Jibe matches this afternoon, which is why she’s driving me home now. All she says when I ask her what she’s gonna do with the license plate is “I don’t know.” Then she diverts the conversation by talking about her match (Elouise Curtis, a book editor who’s into hiking and taking vacations to the moon Mipyā—that’s where my parents and I used to live before we moved to Bicap).
There’s a point along the ride where we stop at a red light, and Penelope’s chattering on about Elouise, and New Wrinkles is thumping over the radio, and I’m glimpsing out my open window at a convenience store on the corner of the intersection. Plastered across its side are posters, all of them featuring the same face of a solemn-faced female Vermusk with her wine-red hair tied back into a high ponytail and a pattern of crescent-shaped gray markings on her olive-green skin. I know I’ve seen her on the news—an activist, name’s something Belldon. The posters declare NO SILENCE FOR NEUANFANG.
Neuanfang, I think to myself as the light turns green and Penelope tears down the road, her Maesse growling like a hungry monster. Hundreds of thousands of Vermusk live there, demonstrating in defiance of Sornis and other S.P.A.C.E. Union officials. Belldon in particular has become a prominent activist, a passionate voice for the people, if you will. I’m certain that, sooner or later, they’ll succeed in lobbying for changes to the city’s prejudiced laws.
“Screw this!” Penelope yells, jolting me out of my daydream. We’re on 6th Street now, and as expected, traffic is jamming up every inch of it.
“You can let me out here if you want,” I offer after she punches her steering wheel, honking the horn twice.
She twists her mouth at me. “Stay right here. It’s only—” She leans out her open window. “HEY, WHERE’D YOU GET YOUR DRIVER’S LICENSE, TIGONSHIT?” I rub the furrow in my brow as she tells me, “It’s only three more blocks.”
“Exactly, it’s not gonna be a long walk.”
“Long walk, my ass.” She clenches her fingers on the steering wheel, purses her mouth, glares at the bright red digits in the dashboard clock. It takes another minute of us being stuck in standstill traffic for her to say, “Three blocks.” Seconds later she presses a button on her door, unlocking my passenger door.
I hop out with my messenger bag, but before I can say goodbye, she peers at me over her black glasses and threatens, “If anything happens to you, Wyatt, I’ll slap silly your cold dead body.”
“Sure you will, Mom.” I give her my wryest two-fingered salute, and the ghost of a scowl flicks over her mouth. I throw the door closed, stroll down the sidewalk, my bag bouncing off my hip to the rhythm of my steps. I look back to see Penelope pull her Maesse away from the curb, cut across the street, and screech down a side road.
Going down the two blocks to my street, I notice a silvery glint up in the sky, and I tilt my chin up to look at the dragonfly-like drone flying two or three hundred feet overhead. Web has those things everywhere. Foxer says they’re essential for security, but they might as well be flying banners that scream WEB IS WATCHING YOU. I get that he’s the Overseer of the government’s intelligence service and that’s pretty much his thing—but it doesn’t mean I approve any of it.
Turning the corner onto 620 Endewen Street, I detect the presence of someone following me. Their feet are pounding the sidewalk at about the same beat as mine, but I can hear the swishing of their clothes and the faint pants escaping their lungs. I don’t dare turn; I keep moving forward, steadily, calmly, down the sidewalk, past the brick and stone buildings, past the trees and iron gates and unpolished wood fences. One more block till Cloverleaf Vistas. Passing a parked car, I glance at the windows; someone’s definitely on my tail, but I can’t discern much else from the warped, muddied figure in the reflection—
Something heavy grabs me by the arms and heaves me into an alleyway. I collide into one of the huge metal trash bins, then smash to the ground, knocking the wind out of me, grazing my knee. The ringing in my ears isn’t nearly as bad as the stitch slashing through my right side. As I scramble to my feet, taking ragged breaths, a lanky Vermusk in a loose-fitting brown suit and pants, white shirt, no tie, and black shoes lopes into the alley.
“Durrell,” Brone greets in his high, mocking tone, an evil grin widening his puffy lips across his long face. Most of his graying hair is slicked back, except for the hook of a cowlick standing up from the back of his head. He should be able to hear my heart throbbing against my ribs while I dread what’s coming next.
“What do you wa—” His fist slams into my left cheek, lurching me sideways. The stinging pain makes a sheen of white flash over my vision, and I almost trip on a long metal rod left on the ground. But I recover fast enough to throw a punch at his jaw. It would have hit had he not caught it in his hand, and now it feels like he’s crushing my fist until the bones turn to dust. Only now do I realize he’s wearing gloves of some metallic fabric, its many studs stained with splotches of fresh red blood. My blood.
“Rechin warned you to stay away,” he spits, balling up his free hand and driving it into my stomach. When I double over with a sharp moan, he shoves me back into the trash bin and follows up with a second jab at my right cheek. Great, now both sides of my face feel like they’ve been scraped raw. The tinny taste of blood spreads through my mouth.
When he starts moving in to take another shot, I land a kick on his shin, and he gives a yell. Then I leap away so his next punch merely hits the bin with a resounding clang, and he releases a strangled gasp. I scramble to pick up the loose rod from the ground, wincing as this quick movement shoots more pain up my side and sets off a storm of nausea in my gut.
“Bold one, eh?” Brone sneers as I brandish my rod like a sword, irregular stripes of sunlight sparkling off its tarnished surface. “Regular old knight, you are.” He reaches behind himself with one hand, grabbing something from the back of his pants. His hand reappears with an awful-looking dagger, the whole thing glinting silvery white in the light, making it easy to pick out strange symbols inscribed along the heavy blade.
“You were bold yesterday too,” Brone says, switching the weapon to his other hand. The weird, seemingly relaxed sway to his posture makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “You didn’t want us to take the virus, and Rechin made it very clear—keep your big beak out of our business. But you couldn’t resist. You had to talk to my contacts.”
I sweep my rod at him, but he ducks. As I go for another adrenaline-loaded swing, he seizes it in his knife-free hand, yanks it away from me, tosses it to the ground. It rolls away with a clatter, stops against the wall with a thump. He slashes at me with his knife, and all I can do is jump back, smacking into the brick wall, and hold up my arms to block my face. I shout when the searing pain tears through my left hand; warm blood wells from my palm.
 “Not so bold now, are you?” Brone growls as he digs his hand into my collar, wrenches me forward so sharply that the fabric bites into my throat, almost choking me. Then he smashes his studded fist into my chest; the explosion of pain makes me crumple to the cold cement. I’m lying flat on my back, sick with pain, groaning, my entire face clenched in aches, black fuzz rimming my eyes as they wander to the bloody cut on my palm. Brone casts down one huge shadow as he stands over me and blocks out the light.
“Any final words?” he says in the silky, subdued tone of one soothing an injured creature. He gets down, braces his knee on my stomach, presses the tip of his knife’s blade hard into my cheek. I strangle a yell when he gives a flicking motion that makes the blade nick my skin in a shallow but long cut that leaves a rivulet of blood running down my cheek, past my ear.
It can’t end this way. I have to get out of here. I can’t get out. I squint at the street just outside the alley. Someone will come. Haven’t they heard the commotion? But nobody’s there. I want to keep fighting, but I physically can’t move. It’s yesterday morning at Rad-Bio all over again, but worse, so much worse. I’m going to die. I’m going to die right here because of this assholes. But I might as well be stoic about it.
“Okay then,” he says in a tone dripping with fake sweetness, “Now, you might wanna close your eyes.”
I keep my eyes wide open, even as he takes ahold of my bloody hand, rolls down my sleeve, and poises his knife at my trembling wrist, a sadistic shine to his eyes. Cursed Cosmotic, he’s gonna make this hurt.
“What’s up, grazboot?” calls out a familiar, lilting voice.
As Brone lifts his chin to gape at the speaker, something shiny and purple zips out of nowhere, striking his hand. “Diavol!” he shrieks—a Vermusk oath. The dagger goes flying from his hand, clangs off the trash bin I tried to climb and falls to the ground. Whatever the shiny purple thing is, it lashes across his face, making him scream even more loudly. He topples backward, taking his knee off my stomach. I twist my head around, watch someone standing in the alley with long, whiplike things swinging down from their wrists. But I can’t see much with these black spots swimming through my world. I can feel my brain shrinking, swirling, fading.
There’s yelling, the noises of metal slicing through the air and inflicting hits, and someone races out of the alley, vanishes into the glaring light outside.
“It’s okay, Wy.”
“Hey there,” I murmur as Sidney Appleton crouches over me, her fishtail braid hanging over my head. I can see very clearly into her purple eyes. Deep purple eyes. Deep and purple. I could sink into them. I am sinking into them. Everything is purple, a twilight-sky sort of purple that smells of chocolate and hot iron.
“Wy, stay with me! Wy!”
But I can’t stay, not for now, at least. And for the second time in as many days, I plunge swiftly into the dark.

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