Project Super Nex – Chapter Five – Grammar Fanatic

My Mobular driver, Larson, is motoring out of Hexaber and then speeding west through the Trainore neighborhood. His stereo is blaring some twangy, plaintive country song; I never have to listen to any of that in Penelope’s truck. Sitting in the backseat, I distract myself by checking Walnut. My feed’s filled with news about the pobel (the Vermusk crime syndicate, made up by hundreds of clans). Racial workplace discrimination at Ruzuberuto Technologies Enterprise is another trending topic. Things look same old, same old on the PSN front. A Web lackey pushes for the project to be taken away from Rad-Bio “in order to prevent Fulbright from hurting us with more of his blunders,” while Xavier Wiley, Overseer Majabrakta Marsden, and numerous Warbearer officials sustain their support for my mentor.
“There are those, Overseer Foxer among them, who believe pinning the blame for yesterday’s events on Dr. Grant Fulbright will solve all our problems,” Marsden states in a press conference clip; I have to hold the phone’s speaker up to my ear to hear her over the country music. “I urge them to rethink their approach, and to refocus their efforts on capturing the criminals who are responsible for this crisis in the first place.”
I take my attention away from Walnut for a moment, sit back and look out the window, watch shops and restaurants and an EV charging station zip by in a blur. A golden-and-green journeyer-class ship soars up into the sky, iridescent flashes jumping from its wingtips, darting across its fuselage, and then it fluidly vanishes in a dazzle of rainbow light, porting onward to whatever world is its destination.
I rub the spot on my arm where I got injected. It doesn’t ache, there’s no dot of blood, no evidence it happened. But it did. How else can I explain the light in my heart, the tiny and constant light, the stubby candle with a little flame flickering, flickering? I can stoke it so it shines brighter, grows hotter, and it sends shafts up my arm, and my palm, the tips of my fingers, they glow a burnt blue. It’s at once mysterious and hypnotic, and my lips curve into a slight smile.
After watching a creepy teaser trailer for The Many Dreams of Mrs. Bliss, I notice the country music is much quieter and Larson is talking to himself in a displeasured grumble. I lift my chin, look out the windows at the greenish-beige fields stretching away from the long, straight road that we’re speeding along. I twist around in my seat, look out the back window at Maynard Bridge  shrinking on the horizon. This means we’re in the Buzee, or “buffer zone,” between Lumin and Neuanfang.
“Hope you don’t mind my asking, but what even brings you here?”
I wait a second to answer Larson, take in the vivid pink and red tufts of dusk shrinking into the horizon of the navy blue sky. Two or three stars are up there, twinkling all by their lonesome selves. “Meeting some friends.”
In the rearview mirror I catch the twitch of skepticism in his lips. He looked like that when he first picked me up and I told him to go to Myrius Club; he must be familiar with it, because I didn’t even have to add that it’s in Neuanfang, or in the Aertus neighborhood there, he just typed in the destination on the dashboard monitor, and it flashed up a map and a series of directions to follow.
“They’re getting pretty unruly over there. You know, with the protests,” he says, flipping through the radio stations.
“I think that’s the whole point,” I argue.
“What do those greenhides have to complain about? They should be grateful we’re letting them stay here, what with all the trouble they’re causing.”
I cringe at the g-word. “Trouble—as in, marching through the streets and expressing their civil rights?”
He makes a tck of disgust and shakes his head but doesn’t further pursue the topic.
The road lasts two miles before we seem to cross some invisible line, and go from the fields straight into Neaunfang. Suddenly there are huge structures of polished stone and metal everywhere, built in cubes and rectangles and circles, outfitted with columned porticos and decorative spires. Their dark, muted browns, grays, blacks, blues, and reds contrast with all the streetlights topped by orange globes, and the Vermusk’s clothing and their variety of colorful patterns. A man strolling down the sidewalk is dressed in a bright green jacket underneath a button-up vest with a hyena’s head emblazoned on the breast. Two people seated at a restaurant’s patio table are in full-length hooded robes, one apricot orange and the other opal white. A woman leaning her back against one of the streetlights appears to be fidgeting with something inside her long coat, which is sewn with glimmering yellow leaves. Their skin varies just as much—pale, medium, and deep green, pigmented by light and dark gray streaks, lines, curls, loops, and freckles.
The businesses are as equally diverse. An auto garage. A grocery store. A frog butter dispensary. A bar. A restaurant. A closed-down hospital covered in dust, grime, and NO SILENCE FOR NEUANFANG posters—No, some of them have Sornis’s face instead of Belldon’s. Gray Xs cover his eyes, UNION TROLL runs across the top. Not a flattering look for him. These posters make the geometric planes of his face look like an amateur sculptor rushed through the job of hewing them from stone.
Larson mentions he has to take a roundabout route to circumvent the protests, and even then I can see the masked, sign-hoisting crowds plugging up the other end of an avenue. I think the Neuanfang Council Hall is nearby. I click a button on my door to lower the window partway, and indignant shouts and howls pour into the car with the slightly muggy air, cluttering, cluttering my ears, my head. They’ll go all night, and all of tomorrow, all of the next day, because they’ve been at this for over five months. What must it be like to live here, knowing an immense part of the city is always awake and fighting for their rights?
We move past it, and past avenues with glaring headlights and rumbling engines, and street vendors raucously chanting for passersby to buy noodles, fried dough, grilled meat and fish, bins of fresh fruits and vegetables. The medley of savory and piquant and sweet scents makes my stomach growl. I regret not eating anything before leaving home. I’m thinking of taking a bite from the apple in my bag, but then Larson says a little too brightly, “Here we are!” and pulls up on the side of the road, bumps up onto the curb, doesn’t bother to adjust. He turns in his seat to look back at me with suspicion all over his face.
“You said your friends are here?”
I glimpse the three-story unmarked facade of black-brown stone to which we’ve parked next. A line of ten or fifteen Vermusk lead up the sidewalk to the recessed doorway, in which stands a cross-armed bouncer in black pants and a long-sleeved green shirt, a crisscross of gray lines on his cheeks. “You sure this is it?” I ask.
Larson responds, “What, did you expect them to advertise the place with a big neon sign?”
I open the mudding Mobular app as fast as I possibly can, pay the fare, twenty-five units and twenty-nine cents.
“What kind of friends are you meeting here?” He’s like that babysitter who asked me about my favorite color. I was four, I just gave a random answer, it was yellow, and she asked me, What kind of yellow?
“Thanks for the ride,” I say, throwing open my door, jumping out of the car, and slamming it closed. After a pouting Larson pulls away from the curb, executes a tight U-turn, and revs back in the direction of Lumin, I hitch up my bag on my shoulder and check the time on my phone—eight-twenty.
Almost as soon as I join the end of the line, the bouncer meets my eyes and beckons me with his hand. I don’t move for a second, stunned, but he beckons again, and now I’m moving up to the front of the line, and they whisper as I stop two paces away from the bouncer, his expression inscrutable as he gives me a once-over. He isn’t that tall, but his protruding jaw reminds me of Augen so much that I stumble back a step and think for half a second that he’ll swing an axe at me. But I steady myself, take a breath, twist my fingers around the strap of my bag.
Before I can stop it, the memory of Brone shooting the guard sneaks up on me like a monster creeping out of the darkness. I see the bullet hole in his uniform, the blood spreading around it, staining the already-red fabric an even darker red. I hear Brone yell at me—
No, I’ll be okay in there. I clench my shaky hands, warm them up with wisps of heat from the candle in my chest. I’m not defenseless anymore. If they try anything again, they’ll get one hell of a surprise. I’ll be okay.
“Do you want to come in?” The bouncer asks me this like he knows I was getting lost for a moment. After I nod my head, he holds out his open hand, and without question I root my wallet out of my bag. Some in the line are mumbling and yelling in discontent as I shell out two twenties, which the bouncer slips in his pants pocket. I step back as he turns to the door, unclips a keyring from his belt, selects one of a dozen keys, sticks it in the lock. He gives it a turn, and I hear a click. My eyes dart down at the chunky radio clipped to his belt before he slides open the door to the right.
As soon as I enter the narrow corridor, he slides the door closed, and all the noise from the streets outside, the shouts from everyone in line who’s pissed off about my getting ahead of them, drops to a murmur. The door audibly locks, and I hear the bouncer on the other side utter a short phrase in Vermusk. Even as an unexplainable sense of foreboding settles over me, I start creeping down the corridor, under the dimly lighting of the fluorescent ceiling strips. My feet sound gloomy echoes on the stone floor. Light ripples across the plain dark metal walls as I walk along this path, which feels miles long to me, even though it’s really twenty or so feet.
Halfway through I pause mid-step because—Cursed Cosmotic, what am I doing here? I shouldn’t be here. The intruder gave me what I needed to come here. Yes, it also broke into my place and stuck a Super Nex injector in my arm. But I’m here now. I chose to be here. I choose to be here. So I can . . . reach closure? This is kind of a ridiculous way to do that, isn’t it? But I’m here.
At the corridor’s end is another door; it doesn’t have a handle. Brushing my fingers over my hair, I knock twice. Three seconds pass, and I make to knock again. But my fist freezes when the door gives an unlocking sound and slides open. At first my heart starts up into my throat because of the chilling howl and then the quavering moan of what sounds like a ghost mourning its lost love. The wide woman in the doorway, dressed the same as the bouncer outside, doesn’t look bothered at all, though. Her eyes greet me with a once-over, and she moves aside and motions me through the door.
Myrius is a great open space, much bigger than its exterior would have you believe, filled with people dancing, grinding, jigging in time to the ghost’s sorrowful moaning. A lot of them are Vermusk, but I’m taken aback by the number of Starsapiens scattered among them—an eighty-twenty mix, I’d say. Polygonal lanterns are suspended from the high, domed ceiling, and cyclically shift between multiple colors, illuminating everything in an omnipresent rainbow. Paintings of grand temples span the walls. A bar with globular green and red lights hung above its racks of glittering bottles stretches across the right side. Aeroflores, or floating flowers, wander near the ceiling, which has been installed with skylights to allow a view of the dark sky overhead and its sparse speckle of stars. And the ghost—well, it turns out that a man is up on a stage off to the left, clutching a mike in his hands, unleashing an achingly raw and vulnerable croon. He’s singing in Vermusk, but I can tell the track is about heartbreak, bereavement, something of that somber nature. It sounds familiar too; maybe he’s covering something I heard it on a Euphony playlist.
“Bar’s over there,” the woman who let me in shouts over the song. A golden beam from one of the lanterns above passes over her as she points over my head at the globe-lit bar. “Wait there, okay? She’ll be ready to meet you any minute.” She must see how nonplussed I am, because she adds, “Isn’t that why you’re here—to see Chief Augen?”
Oh shit. She knows I’m here? She’ll be ready to meet me? Words tumble over each other, collide together and jam up my throat. Before I can say anything, the bouncer slides the door with a sharp pull and closes it with a clank that somehow cuts through the singer’s crooning. “Why don’t you make yourself at home,” she tells me, her suggestion sounding more like an order. She only becomes more threatening when a shaft from a crimson lantern cuts across her face, revealing a cluster of gray dots on her forehead.
I glimpse the door she just closed, the singer onstage, the aeroflores. Augen and her thugs are around here somewhere. And they know I’m here, too. Suddenly, heading into the lion’s den is becoming the worst idea I could have ever come up with.
Once I see that the bouncer has her hand over a hip-holstered gun, I regard her with one last look—a hard look, although I’m careful not to appear outright defiant—and I swivel and march toward the bar. The multicolored lights disorient me momentarily, but I manage to weave past club-goers, sidestep the ones who are dancing jerkily to the singer’s plaintive voice. At the bar I hop up on one of the free stools, fold my arms together and prop them on the glass-paneled countertop. When I ask the bartender for rice wine, he flips over his shoulder the stained rag he was using to wipe the cloudy inside of a glass, prepares me a glass of the wine. I pay no attention to the dubious look he’s lending me, and I take a sip, grimacing in anticipation of the cheap drink . . .
My face clears up almost immediately. All right, it’s actually pretty good.
The time on my phone is eight-twenty-five. I plan on spending the next few minutes playing a puzzle app, but it doesn’t even finish loading before I recognize the lilt that comes up on my left. “Sarvill julep, please.”
I put my phone facedown on the counter, clasp a hand around my glass, study the pattern of blurry green and red circles shining down on the counter from the spherical lights. I don’t so much as glance her way, even when she’s right there getting her drink from the bartender, because I don’t need her to notice me, I don’t need anything else fucking up this night
“Wow, didn’t expect to see you here, Wy!”
I turn to Sidney, forcing my mouth to lift into a congenial grin. In comparison she’s smiling with genuine, pleasant surprise. Her fishtail’s over her shoulder. In her hand is a glass of a clear drink with reddish-green sarvill leaves sprinkled over ice cubes. She’s in a sporty violet and red open jacket and a shirt with writing on it, but I can’t read it in this murky lighting. She must have tucked her pendant underneath her shirt; I can see the gold chain around her neck.
“I didn’t think I’d see you here, either,” I tell her truthfully. I notice, as I pause to drink my wine, that a brawny Aoi Starsapien, maybe twenty or twenty-one, is hefting his huge body with a groan of effort up to the stool on Sidney’s other side. I mean, he’s huge, at least six and a half feet, enough to dwarf the bouncer outside, enough that he shouldn’t have been able to squeeze himself through the door. Sandy hair covers his forehead in shaggy bangs. Have I seen him before?
“You look familiar,” I say, which seems to amuse him; he flashes me a crooked grin that highlights his ruggedly handsome features.
“Have you two met?” Before I can answer, Sidney motions between me and the other guy. “Wyatt, Cooper. Cooper, Wyatt.”
“How yeh doin’, cuz?” Cooper says, leaning around Sidney and sticking out a hand that entirely encloses mine in a beefy fist. But the handshake is deliberately soft, reminds me of physicians who’ve also give me similar handshakes. It’s nothing like the bone-crunching, arm-shuddering type I expect from a guy like him, with muscles bulging everywhere beneath his cargo pants, fitted shirt, and a magenta-and-red variant of Sidney’s jacket.
After he gets a soft drink from the bartender, he takes a quick swig, then gestures the glass to me and says, “Havin’ fun?” I shrug, but don’t have time to speak before he continues, “Well, as much as we can have in this sorta place. Like shieldhorn deer tryin’ to party when they know tigons are prowlin’ ‘round, stalkin’ ‘em everywhere.”
The displeasure laced in his words discomfort me. I wonder if it has the same effect on Sidney as well; her scar uneasily writhes up her face and over her eyebrow, and she spends a little too much attention on swirling her liquor, ice cubes clinking against the glass.
Then she says something, but it gets lost in the thumping music, and I gesture to my ear—come again? She leans over and says more loudly, “You ever seen Stewart Sammon before? He’s an up-and-comer.” Her fingers brush over the nape of my neck, and the tingle that runs down my spine leaves me flustered enough so I take a couple seconds to answer her.
“No. Is that who it is? I might’ve heard his music.” A beam from a silver lantern sweeps overhead as I glimpse the time on my phone: eight-thirty. All right, any time Augen wants to fetch me, I’m ready—
“Durrell,” a Vermusk calls out over the music as he emerges from the mass of dancers, passes through a green beam to stand in front of me. The last time I saw his lumpy nose, he was aiding Augen in her theft. I don’t know seeing him again doesn’t startle me.
When he jerks his head toward the crowd, I offer Sidney and Cooper a consoling smile. “Excuse me.” I gulp down the remainder of the rice wine, then reach into my bag, intending to pay with cash, but Sidney slaps her own bills on the counter.
“It’s on me.” She says this with a smile that belies the tension in her purple eyes, in the way she pushes her sleeves up to her elbows, rubs her hands over her tattooed forearms and her bracelets. I feel as though she’s warning me about something, although the presence of Lumpy Nose is making my heart ka-thud so quickly that I don’t have much energy left to interpret her silent message.
I look up at Cooper, who’s patting beads of sweat off his face with a handkerchief. Then I slide off my barstool, give him and Sidney a two-fingered salute, and follow Lumpy Nose into the crowd.
There must be two or three hundred limbs that nudge into me and shove me around along our way through the nightclub; people are screaming, too, for Sammon as he reaches the crescendo of one of his songs. I manage to shoulder my way through the convulsing crowd, through the dense and suffocating fumes of sweat and musky perfumes and spirits, just fast enough to not lose track of Lumpy Nose, barely getting glimpses of the massive wall frescoes through the colored beams, and before I know it we’re through a beveled archway on the other side of the club.
Now I’m in some sort of botanical garden, a sprawling, circular room where willows, grawtrees, tigon daisies, lilac shrubs, and other fragrant plants sprout from triangular patches of soil built into the stone floor. Across the room from the club passage is another large archway opening out onto a columned room boasting even more flora. I can still hear Sammon clearly, but nobody is dancing here. I’m also the only Starsapien in the garden, which is probably why everyone is staring at me like I’m a dead animal that Lumpy Nose is dragging in for his chief pob. That includes the Vermusk peering down from the four stories of galleries carved out of the walls. I make the briefest eye contact with a few of them as my gaze slides upward to the glass domed roof, through which I can admire the stars emerging in the dusk sky.
Lumpy Nose escorts me up a stairway that winds through the galleries, and I trip twice while navigating its thin steps; I wonder if it was built this way on purpose to deter intruders. We come out onto a balcony which wraps in a circle around the garden’s fifth level. I follow Lumpy Nose one-fourths of the way around the balcony to a highly polished oak door with a brass hyena-shaped knocker. The Thistles are chatting up two Vermusk who are standing guard in drab uniforms, and Penelope is sitting on a bench close by.
“Oh look at this, Dorky Durrell finally deigns to join us!” Penelope says, jumping off the  bench, storming up to me with fury radiating off her flushed face, her generous mouth set in a scowl, fists swinging like pendulums at her sides as if she wants to punch me.
“What are you even doing here?”
My failure to keep the curtness out of my query may have been the wrong approach to take. “I should ask the same of you!” She stops two feet away from me and jabs her finger in my face. This close, I can see her bloodshot eyes and smell the alcohol lingering on her breath. That’s right, she was on her Jibe date. How much did she drink?
“Why is it that you have this innate desire to leap into trouble at every opportunity? I’m telling you, you’re a trouble junkie! And I had to track those damn skinny geeks all the way here, and then I found out you were coming, and I’m just sick and tired. Sick and tired!”
She doesn’t know the half of it, I think, glancing at the prall pin on her bun and imagining it wagging a reproachful claw at me; I stifle a smirk.
Lumpy Nose forces us to move along to join the Thistles at the door, which is bordered on either side by blackened windows set into the wall. The spindly siblings are wearing the same clothes they had earlier today—Corbin in her pale green dress with the pattern of snakes and flowered vines, emerald fang earrings, drawstring pouch on her back, and Gene in his argyle sweater vest, button-down shirt, and khakis. Same goes for Penelope in her maroon shirt, pencil skirt, and combat boots. The Thistles’ polite smiles do nothing to distract from the agitation in their green eyes, even as they’ve been talking amiable Vermusk with the guards. Their conversation trails off upon my and Penelope’s arrival, though. Gene looks at me disapprovingly as if I’m dressed in a genuine tigon fur coat. Corbin’s face is cooler, as though she knows we’ll be okay, but she’s holding something like a small briefcase in one hand, what’s inside it?
I do a double take at one of the guards when I recognize her from the robbery—Runa, the girl who wanted to get me out of the Vault. Small mouth with the edges slanted downward, eyes that guiltily dart away from me as soon as she meets my gaze. When she asks me in a low mumble if I have any weapons on me, I say no. Then I realize she has both of Penelope’s switchguns in one hand, Gene’s maycewood walking cane in the other, and the ouroboros ornament from Corbin’s pouch clipped to her belt. Anxiety rises in me, along with a bit of a puzzlement—I’m not sure how Corbin’s charm can serve as a weapon, and I definitely cannot picture Gene doing anything more than reprimanding someone with a feeble whack.
Just remember, I tell myself, you’ve got your Super Nex with you . . .
Runa opens the door, letting it swing in with a tired creak, and the second guard stays outside while she and Lumpy Nose usher me, Penelope, and the Thistles into the next room.
Instantly my gaze darts to her. She’s sitting on a pillowy couch, eating from a bowl of figs in her lap, legs stretched out with her bare feet planted on a coffee table, next to a bottle of an amber liquid and five empty glasses. She’s tucking a little white canister inside her coat, massaging her temples with the heel of her left hand, her eyes half-closed, but they’re opening fully, she’s turning her head to me, giving me the full view of her huge, white eyepatch with the yellowing edges, and my stomach starts squirming.
“Oh good, you’re on time,” she says huskily, lowering her feet to the floor, putting the fig bowl on the table. “Come in,” she says, rising from her couch and beckoning us in with the friendliness of business associates meeting for coffee. Some kind of staff is strapped over her back, the thick tip sticking up diagonally from behind her right shoulder.
The room is dimly lit by several lamps spread across ornately carved wood tables covered in sleek computers and short stacks of books. More books fill the shelves built into the gleaming brown stone walls, and pastel street photography prints decorate the in-between spaces. The overpowering leather odor coming off the couches and chairs is stifling. In the far wall is a pair of wide windows with the curtains pulled aside, beyond which is the expanse of Neuanfang under the inky blue sky, punctuated by the moon Memora, a bronze circle inching up from the horizon.
Our shoes sound clacks off the sea of forest green and light gray diamond floor tiles as Runa and Lumpy Nose guide me, Penelope, and the Thistles across the room to the overstuffed leather couch opposite the one on which Augen is seated. After sitting down I look back at Runa and Lumpy Nose, they’re pulling up chairs at a table less than ten feet away and arranging a reglintel set with yellow and red pieces. Runa has unclipped Corbin’s ornament from her belt and placed it, Penelope’s switchguns, and Gene’s cane on the table.
“Would you like some figs, or graw-matured mead?”
I turn back around to face Augen, shake my head no, gaze out the right-hand windows at the buildings blazing orange and gold between the streetlights. I hear the soft motions of reglintel pieces being moved across the board and the leisurely, quiet sounds of Lumpy Nose and Runa talking. The squeak of leather makes me look left at Corbin as she leans over, plucks a fig from the bowl, and eats it with loud chewing noises. The case she brought in is on the floor between her and Gene’s feet.
“How’ve you been?” Augen asks, eyeing me specifically, with a little grin that would look more fitting on a hyena. She’s dressed in a long green coat, a yellow shirt with a row of diamond cutouts encircling the neckline, and gray pants. She uncaps the bottle of the amber-colored mead, pours a generous measure of it into each of the five glasses. She raises hers in a brief toast and sips it. Penelope and Gene do the same, but Corbin and I leave our drinks untouched.
“Things have gotten a little chaotic, thanks for the concern,” I tell Augen, glimpsing one of the photography prints, what looks like a street market muddled with clumps of balloons and streamers in the town square. “Other than that, though, I’m doing mudding well. You?”
“Doing fine myself.” Her one-eyed gaze lingers on me, then shifts to the Thistles. “May I have it?”
Corbin is about to reach down for the case, but then Penelope, frowning in disgust, produces a wipe from her sanus and gives it to her so she can clean the fig juice off her fingers. After crumpling the wipe into a ball and tossing it on the coffee table before us, Corbin picks up the briefcase—steel gray metal, about the size of a phone book—and hands it to Augen, who invests an unusual amount of energy in positioning the case just so on her lap, flicks the latches, and raises the lid. She murmurs something to herself, a greedy light in her eye. In the dim illumination from the lamps strands of her mousy hair shine darker brown.
“What do you have there?” I pry, drumming my fingers on my glass. “Shot in the dark, I bet it’s some rare, powerful energy crystal. People like you are always on the lookout for unobtainium crap like that to complete their nefarious schemes.”
There’s an annoyed sigh, and Gene says, “Pardon me, Mr. Durrell, but if you could hold your flippancy in check—”
Penelope spins round on the Thistles and snaps, “The lab dork actually has a point, because if you two were dumb enough to give this bitch a weapon that can fuck the world ten times over—”
“Of course we didn’t do that!” Corbin says, too defensively. “Don’t be so ludicrous, Penelope.”
“That’s Dr. Flame to you!”
“If you’re so curious to know . . .” Augen says, and we watch her spin the case around on her lap. Tucked in the foam-lined interior is a donut-like disc with webs of hairline veins engraved on its coppery surface. It’s three inches in circumference with a one-inch opening going through the center. It’s not really that impressive, looks like a cinnamon sugar treat I could buy from the local bakery.
 “I must say, acquiring this was a vexing problem for me and my framana,” Gene says, puffing out his argyle-vested chest. “It is a dying breed of technological marvel.”
“What does it do?” asks Penelope before I can, gray eyes narrowed. I don’t know exactly what the purpose of this disc is, but it’s nothing good if it’s on Augen’s radar.
“It’s a phone charger,” Augen answers, deadpan, as she closes the case, clicks the latches closed, and sets it next to herself on the couch. As I drink my mead for the first time (swill it around, pleasantly sweet on the tongue, a hint of fruitiness going down), my ears focus on the murmurs of Runa and Lumpy Nose and the shifting noises of their game pieces, and then Augen takes a long sip of her mead, regards me and Penelope with an unsettling, pleased sort of smile. “I’m gonna cut to the quick here, spare you two the pressure.”
But as she draws a breath in preparation for her next statement, a low-key electronica ringtone pierces the air. Corbin says, “Excuse me,” and retrieves her phone from her pouch, taps it to shut off the noise. “A reminder for tonight’s episode of Psy-Code,” she explains.
“Based on the graphic novel, right? I’ve been thinking of watching it,” says Penelope.
“It has a score of ninety-three percent on Know-It-Alls,” I supply.
Corbin grins proudly. “Of course! It’s undoubtably the best TV show of the year, giving an enthralling, profound examination of racism, the criminal justice system, and other relevant social issues.” Her smile slips off her face when Gene sighs tiredly, and she adds, “Unfortunately, not everyone admires the show.”
“It is inane and superficial,” Gene justifies.
“Inane and superficial?” Corbin looks askance at him. “Dear framano, that’s a bit rich, considering you’re the one who dragged me to see The Dicemaker last year.” Gene emits the terrible, strangled noise of a sick mouse hacking up phlegm. “I’m sorry, but even you can’t deny the bathos upon which that soulless movie was based. And I haven’t seen such an embarrassing performance from Amelia Dermon since Chameleons For Breakfast.”
Oh that is it, she cannot bash Chameleons. I glimpse Penelope’s eye-roll—yes, she knows what’s coming—and I interject, “Hold on, that won her an Apex Award.”
“An undeserved accolade,” Corbin asserts.
“I concur,” Gene agrees. “In general Chameleons For Breakfast is a grandiloquent mess, and how it won an Apex for Best Picture boggles the mind—”
“I hate to cut into your irrelevant little chat—” interrupts Augen.
“Gene is dumping on Chameleons,” I object. “This is far from irrelevant.”
“But I have more business to cover, and you’re boring Flame.”
I look at Penelope; she’s yawning, and covering it with the back of her fist.
“From what my sources tell me, your lab is temporarily moving operations to the A-Pills.” Augen drinks her mead, props up her elbow on the couch back, comfortably crosses her right leg over her left knee. “That puts you in the perfect spot to carry out certain tasks for me.”
I feel a frown slice down between my eyebrows. “You mean Alphacos Pillars?”
Her lips curl with the same self-satisfaction she had in the Vault. “I promise, the job’s no bother, all you’ll have to do is deliver packages. And you’ll be compensated handsomely—much more than that lab will ever pay you.”
I get paid well enough, thank you very much. Even if I didn’t, I’d never stoop so low as to take one dirty cent from Augen’s pocket. But I don’t verbalize these thoughts. Instead I say, “Speaking of Rad-Bio, that was quite the heist yesterday. Disguising yourself as cubs . . . There are other parts that stump me, but obviously you’re devious enough to pull all that off.”
She picks a fig out of the bowl, tosses it in her mouth, chews it quickly and swallows. “I disagree. It was more neglectful security on your part than devious scheming on ours.”
Gene gives a small cough. “Mr. Durrell, it would be astute to avoid digressing from—”
“And there’s something else that I can’t figure out,” I go on, as if the Thistle brother hadn’t spoken. “It’s not about Super Nex—I know you’re planning to pump your thugs with it—but in the Vault, you spared me. You killed that guard, but not me.”
“You didn’t pose a threat. It wouldn’t have been pragmatic to dispose of you.” Augen’s casual tone contrasts with the tense wrinkles radiating from the corners of her jaw.
“Even when I tried to wrestle the gun away from Brone?” Her mouth curls unpleasantly, but I down another swig of mead—I feel the fuzzy and warm clouds of alcohol drifting through my bloodstream, but they dissipate away in seconds—then lean forward and plant my elbows on my knees, ready to take another shot. “And I must make him feel threatened if he saw it necessary to follow me home and beat me up.” Inside I’m smiling as her pitted face flushes to a deep green and the gray striations running across her broad forehead and razor-sharp cheekbones wriggle with malice. “But he got taught a lesson, so let’s hope he doesn’t bother me again—”
I would have kept ticking off Augen, but that’s when Penelope clamps a hand on my shoulder and growls, “When the grim did you get beaten up?”
Oh. Right. I turn to her with an apologetically sheepish grin. “Ohhh . . . yeah, it happened earlier, um, after you dropped me off.” Saying her eyes are flaring up is an understatement. “But it’s okay—”
“Not for Brone, it isn’t.” I turn back to Augen, whose irritation seems to be draining away in favor of an untroubled face. “Appleton did a number on him.” I catch Penelope’s hiss of an breath through her teeth. “If she hadn’t swooped in to save you . . . Even then, look at you—not one scratch, not one bruise . . .”
Something in her tone makes a knot of uneasiness fill my stomach. She can’t suspect . . .
She sends a small yet significant glance over me, and there’s movement behind me. And that’s when a spark kindles within my chest, fills it with a gentle warmth. The candle is there, it’s been there this entire time, but it grows hotter, flashes into a fire that swallows up my throbbing heart. Its tendrils of light unfurl, creep down my arms, explode out of my hands—
I’m on my feet, both arms outstretched in opposite directions. From my left hand, a forcefield that’s glimmering iridescent blue behind the Thistles and Penelope, shielding them from Runa and Lumpy Nose, who have risen from their reglintel game and drawn their weapons from hidden wrist sheaths—Runa’s brought out a device that expanded into a polearm with a broad, curved blade, and Lumpy Nose is wielding a pair of double-ended daggers—but they’re motionless, with searching looks in their eyes as they devise a way to get the upper hand on me. They’re doing this because I’m holding Augen at swordpoint—a gleaming blue sword, long and slender, its tip pressed against her throat. She’s still holding her glass (I let go of mine, spilling a puddle of mead around my feet). Her eye, reflecting blue stars from the sword, pins me with a vicious stare that makes her look like she wants to throttle me.
An expletive flies out of Penelope’s mouth. The Thistles exchange breathless Elvaric murmurs. The shock of excitement thrills through me, quivers my fire as I tell Augen, “As for that inside job you’re offering, I’m afraid Penelope and I will have to decline it.”
“Don’t you think you’re misunderstanding who’s in charge here?”
The steely edge to her words only deepens my hate for her. I press the blade a little harder against her throat, forcing her to lift her chin. “Not at all. Now, where are you keeping the virus?”
The left corner of her mouth twitches upward. “It frightens you, doesn’t it—realizing I have the power to tear your world apart, to show you that the peace and unity so valued by your pathetic Union is nothing more than an illusion.”
I press my sword even further into her throat; beads of dark blood appear there. “I’m going to ask you again—where are you keeping Super Nex?”
“Mr. Durrell, let’s not be impetuous—”
“I can handle her myself, Gene.”
Before Augen can talk again, the buzzing of what must be a phone emits from somewhere on her person. She shoots her eyes down, looks back up at me questioningly. I give a go-ahead nod, and she takes a phone from inside her jacket and answers in Vermusk. My heart’s pounding when her face tenses up in response to the caller. Then she speaks again, a clipped voice tinged with alarm, and her eye throws a gaze over my shoulder. There’s an instinctual feeling of a hand reaching into my chest and twisting my heart; I whip my head around to find that Runa and Lumpy Nose have remained on the other side of the forcefield, but Lumpy Nose’s hand is fidgeting inside his jacket pocket.
A mechanical hiss issues from somewhere in the room right before it vanishes in giant clouds of black smoke that smother my light—blinking hard against the dark, my forcefield’s gone, sword slips from my fingers, clatters to the floor. My knees buckle, scrape against the edge of what I know is the table even though I can’t see a damn thing, and I bang my right elbow on the same table, knock off what’s probably the bottle of mead and it shatters, I can imagine the amber alcohol spraying, skittering across the once-pristine floor tiles, drops and globules creeping away from the mess. I heave a cough, another cough, more and more, I could hawk up my lungs. Tears are stinging, ripping at my eyes. I hear thuds, the scuffle of feet, Penelope struggling to curse between her barks, Augen snarling something in Vermusk, the low and muffled voice of Corbin, or maybe Gene, I can’t tell. Shapes hurl themselves through the black smoke, it’s them, they want to escape, and I shoot a orb, not caring which one I hit, but it misses, flashes blue against the wall, casts light on some dark opening—
I scramble to my feet, still coughing, a tingling running over my tongue, I’m almost choking on this dense smoke, but I throw myself into a stumbling dash after them, through the secret door, and into a narrow corridor with a steep downward incline. The tiny lights in the ceiling force me to blink momentarily, and I rub out the tears with the back of my fists, rub away the twinkling blue stars. I fire an orb, but they slip around a right corner in time for it to explode on the wall, leaving faint blue marks on the chipped plaster. The smoke clears from my lungs as I gallop down the corridor, knees still a little shaky, coughs weakening, heart hammering on my ribcage. My bag jounces noisily on my hip, probably giving the apple inside as many bruises as I had this afternoon, and I pull the strap up and over my head, toss the bag on the floor behind me.
I hurtle around the corner, and their shadows are sliding off the wall at the end of this hallway, they’re climbing down a stairwell. I can stop them, I will stop them. I streak down the path in two seconds, grip the railing in one hand, lean over it to peer down at the seven or eight rectangular flights that descend to the lowest floor. How are they two flights down already? I hold out my hand, but the angle’s too severe, I don’t think I can get a good shot from up here. Looking down the central opening of the staircase again, I bite the inside of my cheek, think about what I’m going to do for one more second.
I clamp my hand on the top bar of the railing again, then pull it away, and a pearly blue cord stretches between my fingers and the metal bar, the latter to which it’s bonded with a bulging sphere that looks comparable to a single bead on a necklace. The cord grows longer and longer, and I vault the railing and plummet down the cord, both hands clenched around it. I ignore the friction burn in my palms, the stairs zip up past me in a blur. I tighten my grip on the cord, halting my descent so I’m level with the pobs’ flight. Augen’s ready, though, drawing the staff from behind her back, a staff with intricate etchings of geometric shapes and animal heads, and flips out its dual wing-shaped blades, turning it into the ax she brought out at Rad-Bio.
I suck in an apprehensive breath, and that’s the half-second advantage she needs to sweep the weapon, slice the cord above my head with a sharp snap, and I’m plunging through open air, flailing my arms and legs in an imitation of someone doing an extremely poor job of swimming through water. But the blue light glares, a deep blue light, it washes away my panic with a wave of calm resolution, and I curl myself in the fetal position, encase myself in a forcefield that absorbs much of my crash to the floor. A brief prickling, something like pins and needles, pervades parts of my body, and my vision sheens with tiny blue stars; both of these sensations—which everybody at Rad-Bio calls “mendsense” as a shorthand for what a Super Nex soldier feels when they get hurt and their enhanced healing has to kick in—fade away instantly.
I get to my feet, but I’m not even standing fully upright before Brone’s high voice taunts, “You’ve done very well for yourself since the last time I saw you!” I turn to him, and he’s aiming a long but slim TF-7 energy rifle at me from five paces away. God, I wanna smack that sneer off his twisted face. Behind him is a short passageway to a parking garage with rows of cars and trucks sitting in pools of yellow light.
Brone lets off a volley of silvery energy shots, all which fail to penetrate my forcefield, but their rapid and constant percussion pushes against me, pushes on my chest. It’s like I’m taking punches through a padded vest, and they’re getting more forceful every time. For the first time I’m experiencing what all the Super Nex soldiers feel when they’re absorbing blows through a forcefield. It’s surreal.
Even with the gunfire I can hear the clomping footfalls, and then the other pobs leap out from the stairs’s final steps on my left and race towards the garage behind Brone, Runa frowning at me in that same apologetic manner as at Rad-Bio, Lumpy Nose clutching to his chest the steel gray briefcase with the disc widget inside, Augen calling out a gruff Vermusk phrase to Brone. His mouth moves in a snicker, and there’s a pause in the shots that lulls me into thinking this is my chance to counterattack. But he launches what’s clearly a charged-up blast, as big as my head and with spikes of red flickering through the silver. It rams into my forcefield, and my body lurches backward, Cursed Cosmotic, and I bang off the wall, my mendsense overwhelming the pain, but when I stagger to my feet, Brone’s already in the garage, the four of them piling into a black SUV.
I bolt down the passage, blood pounding on my eardrums, the fire roaring, the light gleaming. I’m about to shoot an orb, but I have to project a forcefield again when the right window in the backseat lowers and Brone leans out with his TF-7. The shots only last a few seconds, until the car, having backed out of its spot with a rumble, swerves its rear end around, facing its left side to me. The backseat window is already down, and it’s Lumpy Nose this time who shoots at me. The SUV is screeching off, it’s going to escape up an exit ramp on the other end of the garage. No, they can’t escape. I dart through the garage, past numerous parked vehicles on either side of me, and both Lumpy Nose and Brone are bombarding me, silver glinting everywhere on the blue. But I’m running, I’ll keep running, I’ll chase them through the streets of Neuanfang if I have to—
The trace of purple in my eyes, a single burst of light, befuddles me, but not enough to make me slow down—neither do the scowls that have suddenly darkened the pobs’ faces. Rather, it’s the feeling that someone’s invisible arm has wrapped around my torso that stops me, no, it yanks me backward. I don’t think I’ve even gone ten feet before the ground up ahead, the part of the garage I was just running through, goes up in a shower of concrete chunks and dust. The booming echoes through my head, and at the point when this invisible arm releases me, I almost fall down, but two hands grab my left arm and right shoulder. The sharp flash of pain on the back of my neck feels like a small bandage has been torn off the skin there.
“Careful there!” Sidney brightly advises.
I look at her, baffled to see her here. I turn back to the remnants from the explosion, the debris scattered all around it, the white-gray dust coating the nearest vehicles, some which have suffered multiple gouges, others which have had their windows shattered. The garage was shaking, but it’s already stopped. The billowing puffs of smoke are thinning out enough for me to realize that the SUV is gone. Augen and her minions got away. But they haven’t, no, surely the authorities are out there, they have to capture her? Maybe they’re in a good old-fashioned car chase like in the movies? She can’t slip away that easily.
“No, Wy,” Sidney says, tightening her grip on me, stopping me from sprinting down the garage. “Good lord, you still wanna chase them down?” She says this like she’s suppressing a laugh, like my dogged attitude amuses her.
“What’s with you? Yeah, I wanna chase them down, so why are you stopping me?”
“You need to pick your fights. This particular one, you have to forgo it.”
I can’t forgo it, because I already picked it by coming here. I reach for the back of my neck, rub the residual sting. “Are officers even out there? Have you called them or something?”
“Three minutes ago.” Her gaze flicks away from me. She scrunches up her face like she can see a cipher hidden among the rubble and she’s focusing on solving it, and her scar goes into an accordion fold.
“What are the chances they’ll evade your cubs?”
When her attention returns to me, her expression loosens, and her scar doesn’t look nearly as jagged, but her eyes are solemn, the kind of solemn people get when they tell you something they know you won’t like and they’re going to be straightforward about it, as if that’s going to make it all better. “They’re an elusive lot. I told you Brone Hennum’s been on our most-wanted list for a while? Well, so has Rechin Ihres Augen, even longer than him. And there’s a reason for that. Every time we’re close to . . .” A shadow seems to cross over her face, but it vanishes when she flashes her eyebrows and motions to the path going to the stairway. “Come on, let’s go back. The others are waiting.”
“What do you—” My heart sinks. I left them behind. “Are they okay?”
Leading me back across the garage and towards the stairs, she says they’re okay, and the smoke is basically a modified form of tear gas that affects everyone but Vermusk. I guess if it was fatal, I wouldn’t have chased Augen down here. Cooper, the guy who was with Sidney, is with them now, she says. But she doesn’t mention anything about how she saved me from getting blown up, which I’m not sure I would have survived despite my powers. She doesn’t appear to have used any apparatuses to pull me back. I glimpse her silver and purple bracelets, still unable to discern the symbol engraved on them. Then I look at her shirt through her open jacket, because I can read what it says now:
The best way to soothe a grammar fanatic? There, their, they’re.
I feel my mouth lifting into a little smile, and I say, “Thanks for . . . you know, back there.” She beams appreciatively but doesn’t reply. I don’t ask her for details on how she saved me. I should be feeling disappointed and furious about failing to stop Augen, but those emotions will probably come crashing down on me once I’m back home. For now I’m in that dull, processing sort of stage where I’m keeping myself as level as possible to make it through the next few hours.
“We’ll have to debrief you, understand?” she says when we start climbing the stairs, gesturing her chin to the squiggle of my cord on the floor, its blue energy fainter than before. She’s three steps ahead of me, so she looks back with what I expect to be dubiousness, but instead her eyes glimmer with curiosity. “I don’t know how you became a paladin, but I’m sure it will make for an intriguing tale.”

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