Project Super Nex – Chapter Four – Paladin Gains Wings

A female voice, throaty and soulful and subdued, wafts out of the distance. The words are muffled . . . growing clearer . . . it’s a song, a forlorn one . . . But where am I? It’s dark, but I’m lying supine on cushioned surfaces. I imagine being on a bed that’s lost in a void. A star winks high above me in the darkness, and another star, a third, a fourth, more and more until they all clump into a dazzle of multicolored lights . . .
My eyes snap open. A scatter of a dozen-odd glass prisms hang from the ceiling above me, vivid beams of light crisscrossing between them in blue, red, green, gold, silver, purple, orange, yellow. The whole ceiling glitters with this beautiful iridescence. I imagine it opening like a portal into some otherworldly dimension.
Despite the music, wherever it’s coming from, I hear a breathy chortle, and my eyes shift right. Sidney is facing a shelf, her back to me. She’s caressing a photo frame in her hands as if it’s a tiny, fragile pet she loves with all her heart. I can’t see the picture from this angle. Then she lowers it into an open drawer and shuts it.
I close my eyes as she begins to turn my way. I sense movement seconds later. “Why are you pretending to be asleep?” she whispers nearby, as if she wants to be quiet in case I really am sleeping.
I wait a beat to open my eyes again. She’s sitting two feet away, head canting to the left, eyes crinkling at me. The rainbow light above flashes around the edges of her body in a ghostly halo, the kind that saints in religious artwork always give off, making her blond side braid look pearly white, turning her eyes a deeper shade, if that’s even possible, of purple. Her soft smile, curling the lower half of her scar, emanates a mix of worry and relief.
“Where—Where am I?” I croak, my throat parched.
Tension deepens the lines around her eyes. “My place.”
“Ah.” I try to sit up and survey what appears to be her living room, but my body’s creaking and grumbling like a car struggling to trundle back onto the road after swerving into a ditch. My right side isn’t as bad as I thought it’d be, but the soreness lingers there. I wince when I draw a breath; I hope my ribs aren’t cracked. My hand doesn’t hurt, even though it’s snugly wrapped in bandages with a thin red blotch over the palm. I inhale a deep breath, detecting the aftertaste of blood clinging to my dry tongue.
“You want one?” Sidney says, holding out a multifaceted little chunk of chocolate colored in swirls of deep and pale brown. She got it from the rectangular matte-finished purple case teetering on her thigh.
“No thanks.” With a grunt I push myself up on my elbows, scooch back on the plush lavender sofa on which I’ve been lying, sweep my eyes over the apartment. It’s the same as my parents’ place one floor down with the exposed-brick walls, the dark hardwood floors, the bay window ahead looking out onto a balcony and the shimmering Lumin skyline. But then it has a wall of shoulder-high shelves lined up along the right, some filled with books and graphic novels, others with glass jars of herbs, powders, or viscous colored liquids. Picture frames sit atop the shelves. Two paintings hang on the wall above, one of an androgynous Starsapien in opulent robes, the other of an urban park. A hearty yellow glow is being shed by wall lights fashioned from black PVC pipes. Video game consoles are arrayed on a modern credenza beneath the flatscreen TV attached to the left wall. The tan sofa on which I’m lounging is in the middle of the room, facing the TV askew, along with a second sofa, one in a gentle shade of golden yellow. The synth-heavy music is pouring from a smart speaker on the low chrome gold coffee table—Agata, that’s who it is. A medley of first-aid gear is spread across the table—gauze pads, bandages, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, salves, ice packs, a little pile of pads russeted with dried blood and a couple green-tinged cotton balls arranged on a spread-out hand towel.
“Are you okay, Wy?” Sidney asks me after swallowing her second chocolate. I nod, rubbing my aching jaw. Sitting cross-legged on an ottoman, she’s wearing black pants and a violet shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, exposing the amalgam of tattoos on her forearms. Her feet are bare, toes wiggling beneath her knees. A pair of three-inch-wide silver bracelets with purple tubing encircle her wrists, bearing a runelike symbol.
When she reaches back to the coffee table, picks up a water bottle, and hands it to me, I say “Thanks” and take such a greedy first gulp that I gag and slop some of the water down the front of my shirt. A few drops splash on the sofa and I mumble an I’m sorry. An unperturbed Sidney tears open a gauze pad and moves as though she’s going to dry my shirt, but chooses instead to hand me the gauze and let me do it myself. I finish the rest of the bottle in three swills, washing the blood out of my mouth, rehydrating my system.
Meanwhile I’m arching together my eyebrows at the pendant resting against her chest. An oval nugget of jagged, resined stone that looks as though it was broken off of a larger picture. It has part of a feathered wing, perhaps from an angel or a bird. It’s suspended from an extremely thin gold chain looped around her neck. Have I seen her wear this before?
“What happened?” I ask, drumming my fingers on the empty bottle, thumb to pinky, pinky to thumb. “You stopped him . . .”
“From beating the crap out of you in a slow, agonizing manner? Why yes, I did,” she says, ironically beaming in a way that loosens up the laughter crinkles around her eyes. She plants her elbows on her knees, clasps her hands together around her case of chocolates. “You need to be more careful.” Her smile fades. “Really, I’m concerned. That bag of yours has cord ties, swabs, power bars, underwear, even a breath freshener—”
“It expired, I’ve been meaning to throw it out.”
“But you don’t have anything for self-defense? You should at least keep—”
“Where is it? My bag?” She motions her chin behind me, and I twist my head around, straining my neck. Below a square wall mirror hanging next to the kitchen is a small table where my bag is sheltered beneath my rumpled letterman jacket. I hadn’t realized until then that I was only in my long-sleeve shirt and sweatpants; I have on my blue socks with the white grips as well, but my shoes are back in the foyer. “And what do you expect me to get, a gun?” I say to Sidney, massaging my shoulder, “I don’t see the need to arm myself, especially when it comes to my humble workaday lifestyle.”
She grins wryly. “Oh, you mean a lifestyle where criminals commit an armed robbery and a Grimhet attack at your workplace one day and an associate of those very same criminals jump you the next?” I resist defending myself with a sullen Yeah, so what? She tilts her body a little towards me from her ottoman. “Out of all the pobels out there, he’s been high on our most-wanted list for too long now—Brone Hennum, Rechin Ihres Augen’s right-hand man. And he took the time to ambush you today.” She peers at me with her endless amethyst eyes. “Any idea what his motive might’ve been?”
Because I talked to the Thistles. Because I’m meddling in his chief’s affairs.
Fingering my Olympus ring, I say out loud, “No, not at all. I’m probably some random guy he felt like mugging.” Glimpsing the tattoos on her forearms (a shrub inside an orb of water; a funnel-shaped flower with its long, thorny stem threaded through the pips of three dice; Corve, the Teönor goddess of warfare and wisdom armed with a raven-emblazoned shield and a bizarre sword that has a trifurcated blade), I shift on the sofa to sit up farther. Agh, my muscles are really moaning now. I push my bandaged left hand down on the cushion to support myself, but the pain there makes me flinch. Sidney wraps her arm around my shoulders, helps me swing my legs off the sofa and put my feet on the surprisingly warm floor. It’s the first time I notice the dark rug with its patterning of purple and yellow geometric shapes.
“I will say, though, out of all the books you could stow in that bag of yours . . .” She’s smiling brightly now. “Well, Chameleons For Breakfast is an excellent choice.”
I can’t stop a small grin from crawling onto my face. “You’re a Cham stan too?”
“Yes, but don’t get upset when I admit I’m part of the minority that likes the movie more.”
I feign a gasp of indignation. “How dare you!”
“Oh, I dare,” she titters, a mirthful tremble running down the arm she’s got wrapped over my shoulders.
Our shared chuckle quickly dies out, and I pick at a frayed thread coming off the bandages on my hand. “Thank you,” I mumble. Her smiles softens and she waves me off with her fingers like what she did was no sweat. Which is probably true, given her crimson background.
After a minute of trying to think back to the alleyway (but I can’t get a clear picture on how Sidney saved me, I just remember my vision turning deep purple . . .), I lug myself off the sofa and stand up, wincing with every movement I make. Sidney gets up to support me. An odd sensation makes me reach underneath my shirt to feel the large bandage on my right side. I pull up the hem of my shirt to get a look at it, and I’m appalled at the abrasions and bruises strewn across my body (not counting whatever the bandage is covering). Sidney has a pained look and her gaze flicks to the side; even she can’t stand the sight.
I carefully, slowly walk across the room toward the table with my bag and jacket, and look at my olive-skinned face in the mirror above it. My brow frowns with great dismay as I absorb my reddened, swollen cheeks, and the cut running across my right cheek. I rake my hands through my hair to try, unsuccessfully, to smooth it down; it’s fairly short, but it’s spiking in all directions as if I just rolled out of bed.
Through the mirror I see Sidney come up behind me, waving a green ointment tub in her hand. “Here, I already used some of this selius salve on you, but in case you need more . . . The proteins are incredibly alleviating.”
I turn around, take the tub, and murmur “Thank you” again. I don’t know why I stand here for five or ten seconds and let my eyes rove around the place. I see what I assume are family photos down the hall on the right, a framed map of Lumin aged with yellowed splotches and hung in the foyer, the prisms dispersing their hundreds of colored stars from the ceiling, and a glass-topped table pushed against the wall beneath the bay window that’s decorated in a mishmash of baubles. This last thing inexplicably grabs my attention, lures me across the room until I’m a foot away from it and inspecting Toppa vinyl toy figures, a stone grawtree carved from reddish-black morblest, a golden-tinted glass hoop with a central hole wide enough for me to stick through two fingers.
“Do you watch The Marty Goosling Show?” Sidney says as I tap the head of Marty himself, or rather the figurine of a person with a goose’s head. I hear her approaching footsteps, and she’s beside me now, twisting her fishtail around her finger. When I tell her no, I don’t watch the show, she tells me, “It’s pretty amazing. Four seasons so far. There are times when it feels like foul play, but if you’re a fan of stuff that’s hilarious and tragic and profound, it’s definitely worth a gander.”
Smiling to myself at the pun, I find my eyes locking on a certain object. A dull steel-gray coin lying flat on the tabletop. The upper side bears a sword and an eagle above Bicap. I turn it over and the other side shows a woman’s face in profile and the inscription CORONLUMN, which is Teönor for “crown of light.” I spin the coin on the table. It’s a gray blur one moment, and the next it morphs into a cube, spinning around and around on one corner until it slows down and rattles onto one side. Flower-like signs are inscribed on each face.
“It’s a Kasma.” Sidney pinches the cube between her thumb and middle finger, twirls it on its corner with the ease of someone who has done this thousands of times, and it changes into an octagonal block. Another twirl, and it becomes a twenty-sided die. Then a pyramid. A cube again. A six-pointed star. Back to a coin. Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice Sidney’s knuckles; some of their scabs have split, and the flecks of blood look freshly dried.
“I used to have one of these,” I say, plucking the Kasma off the table. “But I lost it some time ago.” Agata keeps on singing as I turn the curio from side to side, watch it reflect pale glisters under the light shining through the window. Then I look outside at the blue afternoon sky shot with gold and pink, the twin golden orbs crawling across it to the west, the synchronous shimmers of the Lumin skyline and Maynard River. This is the home of Rad-Bio and Super Nex. The capital of S.P.A.C.E. Union. The city I’ve come to love. And there are countless more places like this on the hundreds of thousands of worlds spread throughout Cosmotic. We need to protect them all against people like Gargant and Augen, or otherwise, they’ll stop at nothing to destroy us.
“I better go,” I murmur, replacing the Kasma on the table with a soft clink. I turn around, pause to look at the painting of the urban park. A path of navy stone tiles winding between pear trees, a family having a picnic on the Aso-willow-lined bank of a lake, a patch of dense woods in the background, and beyond that great skyscrapers and a sky of lavender and crimson light . . . I should have recognized it as Gollinger Park earlier. An illusory image of Sidney and I lazing around there passes through my mind; I instantly dismiss it.
My eyes skim down to the picture frames on the shelves. One of them shows her with a crowd of military pals, all in uniform, their arms around each other, boasting the sort of convivial and comfortable smiles that are exclusive to the closest of friends. Another one shows her with a muscly young guy, probably her boyfriend; he looks familiar, but I can’t quite place him. And there she is at the age of seven or eight somehow hoisting in her arms a trophy almost as big as her; this is the only photo where her jagged scar is missing, leaving her radiant grin unblemished.
Sidney walks me to the door, and I’m ready to leave with my letterman folded over my arm and the selius salve in my bag. Then she says, “Wy,” and presses her hand on my shoulder. I turn to look at her, at the enigmatic but strong emotions streaming through her eyes.
“Be careful, okay?” She chews the side of her lower lip, sending a ripple up her scar, and she reaches up, touches her splintered pendant. “If you ever need anything else . . .”
I nod absently, my eyes trailing down the Ratsel tower, Corve, and other tattoos on her forearms. Indelible creations that will stay with her for the rest of her life. I wonder what each of them embody for her.
“Thanks again,” I tell her before leaving her apartment.
***
I sit at my bedroom desk with my phone in the stereo dock, Emovere, The Sky Engineers, and other artists pulsing out of it. I play with my Arka tower, imagining I’m the gold-armored guardian standing on the roof, ready to defend it from the oncoming army of monsters. I slash my sword at a one-eyed troll, crack my shield down on the head of a huge snake, transform my sword into a spear and hurl it through the hollow stomach of a three-legged wraithlike creature. I dash between the monsters and kill them one by one, kill them all until the tower and the pebbly hills below are littered in their carcasses.
Only then do I scoot back my chair on its casters, leave the guardian in its stalwart pose on the tower, clasp my right hand over the bandages wrapped over my left palm. I push my feet off the floor to swivel my chair, and I scan the shelves with the storage bins of Arka pieces, the books, the science magazines. I still need to finish up that Universal Sciences issue I got yesterday; I left it on the dresser. The open curtains let the afternoon sunlight stream through the window, casting patches of illumination that swim across my bed and the floor.
I kick my chair into a stationary spin, watch my room, movie posters, Arka model of my meadow dream, S.P.A.C.E. Union and Bicap flags, swirl around me in a whirlwind of colors and shapes. I close my eyes, tilt back my head, zone in on the music flowing into my ears. I don’t move when my chair slows to a stop, and I listen to the lead vocalist of Emovere sing in her rich, powerful voice.
But as the song arrives at its final verses, I hear the muted noise of the front door unlocking. I snap open my eyes, sit up. My parents are home this early? There’s the door opening and closing, followed by a few seconds of silence. Then my door cracks open, and it swings into my room to admit . . . well, I can’t even tell what it is. I stand up, watch some transparent form slip through the doorway into my room with the briefest flash of light five feet above the floor. It takes on a silhouette that’s vaguely shaped like a person, leaves a glittering trail of silvery ribbons in its wake as it closes the door and glides toward the foot of my bed, seeming to swivel, inspect every inch of my room.
Immediately I lunge for the door, but the intruder fires a needle of white light at the handle, making it shine with a weak white glow. I grab it before I can stop myself, and I jerk back my hand and wave it in the air as if this will get rid of what feels like the stings of a dozen bees. I pivot back to the intruder, staring at it with suspicion pumping through my veins as it wanders across the room, silver twinkles dotting its mostly invisible body and trailing in its wake.
Ridiculous. I put up with the robbery yesterday, I barely survived the assault today, and now I have to deal with this joker. “Excuse me,” I say as calmly as possible, reaching for my phone and pausing the music.
The intruder appears to turn to me, thin flickers of light running up and down its obscure body in silver and white hues. It stands still, staring in my direction, almost expectantly.
“Did Augen send you? She doesn’t think Brone’s enough to scare me off?”
Stars wink around the intruder’s head as it shakes from side to side. Where’s Dell? Why didn’t she stop this—this—whoever it is?
“You know—” I make a noise of frustration, rub my brow with two fingers. “I’m done with this. Everything’s gotten crazy and annoying and chaotic, and I am officially sick of it all. I need things to go back to normal.”
“Wyatt Durrell, that’s an impossible wish,” asserts the intruder in an electronic voice that sounds soft, sympathetic, as though it’s genuinely sorry about the loss of normalcy. Something that looks like its hand takes on a definite shape with a spiraling flash of light, causing a pen-like device to materialize. It has a glowing blue panel shaped like a six-pointed star near one end.
No . . . It can’t be . . .
“Where did you get that?” My throat is so dry that my words come out as a tight whisper. When the intruder doesn’t answer, I cough, raise my voice. “Where did you get that, from Augen? Is she already forming her own mudding army—”
“I don’t work for her.” Impatience tinges its words. Faint silver dots shine off its transparent form as it strolls towards me. I awkwardly stumble away from it, almost falling on my bed. So many muscles are sore, I draw a breath that makes my chest ache. Then it rests its hand, the one not holding the Super Nex injector, on my shoulder, and I flinch. Strangely, the touch feels gentle, almost kind. My body relaxes, but I refuse to let my gaze wander away from the intruder—especially when a white luster ripples over its body, turning it visible.
I can’t tell who it is underneath the fully-clothed outfit. A multilayered ashen robe of a smooth, flowing fabric that looks like it was woven from the sliver of deep grayness between twilight and dark, emanating an air of ethereal tranquility as it hangs off the intruder’s figure in perfect, sinuous folds. White gloves with delicate dark wood charms pinned to the cuffs. The robe’s pulled-up hood shades a mask so pale gray that it’s almost white, mostly faceless except for the etching of a bulbous flower with triangular petals and whorled leaves.
“Please sit,” the intruder instructs, the pressure of its gloved hand steady and benign on my shoulder. I know I shouldn’t, but I sit on the edge of my bed without question, watch it roll up my sleeve and poise the tip of its injector over my upper left arm.
I’ve seen this dozens of times, I think dully to myself, before the intruder, humming mindlessly to itself, presses the injector’s blunt tip into my arm and thumbs a button on the other end. I feel the quickest pinch of a needle piercing my skin. Then a tingle spreads through my arm, warms it up to the tips of my fingers. The comforting heat expands to my shoulder, permeates the rest of my body. An intangible feeling swirls in my chest, fills it up, strengthens the pounding of my heart . . .
Which thunders painfully into my throat as my body lurches onto the bed, as though yanked back by an invisible force. My room, the intruder in its mask and hooded robe, the sunlight beaming through the window, everything gets washed away by the cobalt shape blossoming into my vision. Parts of it pale into a clear ocean blue, others grow as dark as the blue I’d only find at dusk when the suns have already sunk beneath the horizon. One moment it glows bright and tempts me closer like a shimmering fire in a dark forest, the next it dims as if that fire has to conserve its energy so it can burn for the entire night. The tune that the intruder was humming echoes in my head as the iridescent energy creates a thousand forms for itself, each one as beautiful and perfect as the others. A utopian planet, a majestic bird, a heroic warrior, a peaceful grove, the warrior again but this time accompanied by five equally valiant companions, a spinning ring, a moth with facelike markings on its wings.
This extraordinary entity mesmerizes me as it ventures further into my body, merges with my soul, overwhelms me with its purity and its power. But I want it, I want more of it. I want to be free with this energy, this lively and intense energy that’s swelling, growing, surging across space and time. It throbs in time to my heartbeat, consumes my spirit in a merciless fire, gets brighter and brighter until all is unfathomably blinding. The energy and I are one, and I’m never giving it up . . .
Paldinus, se eyloge cume tero.” The intruder’s voice is far away. I know it’s standing over me, watching me, waiting to see . . .
***
When I regain consciousness, I’m in my room, tucked in bed under the covers, with the blackout curtain drawn over the window and the nightstand lamp giving off a gentle yellow glow. My phone is charging on the nightstand, even though I never plugged it in. I wriggle out my arm from beneath the blanket, pick up my phone and check the time: seven in the evening.
I start to sit up in bed, scrub my hand over my face. Wasn’t it just five o’clock? I’d been playing with my Arkas, and then . . . The intruder. Wait. I think I remember . . . I jump off the bed, stare at the door as if a Hagga is slithering right outside. But the intruder has to be gone now, if it even came in the first place . . .
No, that’s not what happened. I close my eyes, press the heel of my hands so hard into them that they might get squished. I dreamed all of it. Yes. That is what happened. I have fantastical dreams all the time, some more often than others. But this is a new one. I mean, why would someone sneak in here and infect me? There’s no reason, none at all. It was a dream inspired by my overly imaginative subconscious and its jealousy of the PSN candidates.
When I hear the muffled voices of my parents sound out down the hall, I shove away the blanket, swing my legs off the bed, land my feet on the floor. I unplug my phone and put it in my pocket. I get up, amble across the room toward the door, push down the handle. With my bandaged hand.
Cursed Cosmotic, I forgot about that part. My parents will be horrified to see me looking as if I got beaten to a pulp (which is kind of what happened). I let go of the handle and look at myself in the dresser mirror—and I’m astonished to see my face is unblemished. No bruises, no swollen cheek, no abrasions. I hesitantly peel the bandage off my cheek, and the frown in my brow deepens at the cut’s absence. And deepens even more once I rip the gauze off my hand, exposing its gash-free palm. I pull up my shirt; there’s a befuddling lack of bruises and scrapes on my chest and stomach. My body isn’t groaning with every movement.
Well, now I must be having a lucid dream. After taking the bandage off my side, balling it up with the rest of the dressing, and tossing it in the wastebasket, I give my cheek a firm pinch. It hurts very slightly, but I need more proof than that to know I’m awake.
As I shuffle down the hall, I hear Dad gripe, “Those mudding riots are gonna keep raging until Sornis comes out with a good solution.”
“I don’t know, Merlin.” Mom. “He doesn’t look like he’ll budge on this issue—”
“Hey, sleepybud!” Dell’s lit-up eyes smile at me as I pad into the living room. She’s hovering at a corner table and folding clothes, the refreshingly citrusy scent of mipgrass rising out of the laundry basket. When I came home and she asked me why I got hurt, I said it was from a bad fall outside, and I know she didn’t believe me. She’ll be even more suspicious when she sees my injuries are gone.
“How come you were so tired?” asks Mom, taking one of Dad’s pawns with her lorist; they’re playing reglintel at the gaming table.
“Tired?” I repeat, glimpsing the CMBN news report on the TV. Throngs of Vermusk protestors are packed together on the streets of Neuanfang, donning bright green uniforms and gray masks painted with trails of what’s supposed to be white blood running down from their eyes, holding up big signs with mottos like NO SILENCE FOR NEUANFANG and YOUR UNION IS NOT OUR HOME. Some of the signs have Belldon’s face on them.
“Yeah, you didn’t stir at all when we came into your room to check on you,” Dad says, twiddling the fingers of his right hand over the reglintel board as though he’s a sorcerer  summoning his pieces to life.
I glance over my shoulder at my room, regard it cautiously, then put on a face of feigned composure when I turn back to my parents. “Guess I needed the nap.” Looking out the bay window at the last of the orange flames fading from the dark blue sky, I take a seat on the sofa and continue watching the Neuanfang protest unfold on TV. “Head Councilor Sornis can’t ignore them forever, right?” I say, propping my elbows on my knees, clasping one hand over my other fist. “He needs to listen to them.”
“What he needs to do and what he wants to do are two very different things,” Dad remarks. I hear a piece get picked up and thudded down on its next cell on the board, and Mom makes an excited little noise while Dad moans like he’s suffering the world’s worst migraine.
“Protestors keep pouring into the streets and calling for S.P.A.C.E. Union to institute significant changes in their policies,” a reporter announces as the broadcast cuts between shots of riot police stationed in clusters, spots of crimson attempting fruitlessly to contain the huge patches of green and gray. “Even as police are initiating a crackdown, the fight for Vermusk rights rages on.” T. Verinus to close Neuanfang shops in response to demonstrations, reads the news ticker.
I get up from the sofa and head to the kitchen for a glass of water. Along the way I think about the Vermusk, how they have to put up with this, after all the oppression they’ve dealt with in the past. I wonder if Augen gives a damn about any of this, or is she so enveloped in her own underworld that she couldn’t care less what contentious law Sornis signs off on next? If I were her, I’d use this unrest to my advantage and . . .
Oh no. No, no, no, no. This isn’t happening. It’s a dream. It has to be. I replace the water pitcher in the refrigerator as calmly as I possibly can. I shut the door. I stare at the cup into which I poured water. A glowing blue cup. A tall, round, translucent cup that emits a dim, steady light. It appeared in my hand when I needed it. The energy was shapeless at first, it freed itself from my fingers, formed into—
No, this can’t be real. I take a long sip of the water, swallow it down my throat, feel its coldness resonate through my body. I concentrate on the fridge, which is covered in pictures of me and my parents, a googly-eyed felt bird, an electronic notepad with daily reminders, a calendar flipped to the month of Merto. GPA is scrawled on the twenty-fourth in thick blue marker in loopy, wistful cursive, and underlined three times.
It can’t be real. Because if it is, then I am—I’m one of them. I gulp down the rest of the cup, then picture it dissolving into a small cloud and absorbing it back into my hand. Which is what happens, and glimmers of the powerful energy skitter across my fingertips and palm before disappearing into my skin. This is the same hand that got cut mere hours ago, but it’s healed now. All my injuries are gone. I made my first energy construct . . .
On my way back to the sofa, the first few notes of the bombastic main title for Chameleons For Breakfast sounds from my pocket. I fish out my phone, frown at the blocked caller ID on the screen.
“Hello?”
My mouth goes dry as sand when the hushed electronic voice comes from the other end. “Go to Neuanfang. At eight-thirty the Thistles will be meeting Augen at the Myrius Club in the Aertus neighborhood.”
“You mean”—I look back fast, making sure my parents and Dell are occupied with their game (things don’t look so good for Dad, the way he’s rubbing an anxious hand over his balding head)—“Corbin and Gene Thistle?” I whisper into the phone.
“No, I’m talking about the florist who’s delivering thistles.”
I ignore the hint of sarcasm. “Are you the one who broke into my place? And injected me against my will? Where’d you even get that thing, if not from the lab?”
“That’s irrelevant, Wyatt. All you need to know is you have Super Nex, and you have a chance to put it to good use tonight.”
“How do I know this isn’t a trap?”
A pause, then a low sigh. “Eight-thirty at Myrius. I’m trusting you.”
After the call clicks off, I massage the side of my neck, half-listen to the banter my parents are tossing back and forth over their game. My eyes drift to the TV, where the broadcast has cut from the protest back to Everest Lowrion, CMBN news anchor and Marsden’s wife of six years. She’s talking about the efforts that Belldon is taking on social media to spread awareness about Neuanfang, but I register little of it while I start planning how to shadow Corbin and Gene Thistle.
“Hey guys, I’m gonna go out for a few hours,” I say after a minute, rising from the sofa, phone in my pocket.
“Where to?” Mom inquires.
“Gollinger Park.” By the time this lie leave my mouth, I’m in my room, rummaging my letter jacket from the closet and putting it on, averting my eyes from the bloodstain droplets on the left sleeve cuff. I give myself a final once-over in the dresser mirror, internally laughing at the irony of what happened the last time I wore this thing. Now, if Augen or her goons go after me again . . .
For one beat I let the wisps shoot out of my fingers, twirl through the air and intertwine together, begin to form into a sword. But I have to make it disappear when I hear the footfalls outside. My ajar door opens with a slight creak, and Dad stands there, thick eyebrows furrowed together over his gold-flecked hazel eyes, the eyes I inherited from him.
“Your mother won,” he says with mock displeasure. “The Horovomon Attack.”
I smile. “How does she always get away with that move?”
“I don’t know, son, but I’d like to see how she’d do out on the battlefield, conquering great lands like in the days of yore. Her empire would know no bounds.” Dad and I chuckle together, and then his face grows ruminative. “What are you gonna do, Maykal?”
“I told you, Gollinger. Just have to clear my head,” I respond, even though I think his question meant something else.
Eventually he nods to me as if he’s a teacher who asked a question in class and I’m the pupil who gave him a sketchy but acceptable answer, and he backs out of my room.
After calling for a Mobular, I’m almost out of the apartment with my messenger bag slung over my shoulder—I give my parents goodbye pecks on the cheek, and at Mom’s insistence I add a violet apple to the supplies so I’ll have something to eat, but they still want me home in time for dinner—when Dell shoots up to me with a whir and whispers, “I know what you’re up to.” Her tone is conspiratorial as she studies me with narrowed eyes.
“What do you mean?” I reply with an innocent shrug.
“Just . . . stay safe, okay? Neuanfang isn’t . . .” Her eyes flicker towards my parents, who are together on the sofa streaming the latest episode of a police procedural show on Dabbly. “Stay safe,” she tells me again at an even lower volume, communicating grave concern.
I flash her a smile that hopefully looks more self-assured than I feel. “I will.” I pause, then stuff my hands in my jacket pockets and ask, “Did anybody come here earlier?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
I wonder how the intruder evaded her; she has a computer core that’s impervious to most forms of hacking. “Never mind. See you later.” I salute Dell goodbye, then stride out the door, down the hall to the elevator as the warm energy dribbles into my hands and glows in round patches through the fabric of their pockets.

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