Project Super Nex – Chapter Six – First Acquaintance

Mom’s dropping me off now at Gollinger Park on her way to work (she’s an executive for MacCloud Electronics up in the city). She kisses me on the forehead, ruffles my hair, wishes me luck on my tennis match with Dr. Fulbright. I climb out of her car, watch her drive off, and then I turn, go on a nice calming stroll along a walkway of navy stone tiles winding over the gentle hills of grass, around the pear trees, underneath the low clouds that have streaked across the sallow morning sky. A Ruzuberuto 842 freighter sails in front of one of the suns, ripping up the light with its slender, filmy trail of gigalek exhaust. Skyscrapers dominate the tranquil park from all sides.
I’ve got my earbuds in, listening to Euphony. I’m in my tennis shirt and shorts, white with blue trim, a change of clothes in my messenger bag. I’ll be playing a game on the courts with Dr. Fulbright at the Eagle Nest Club, my good racket’s in my locker there, and then we’ll go to Alphacos Pillars and work at the research lab that Rad-Bio’s taking over for the time being. It’ll be good to get back to my job, clear my head of these aberrations that won’t stop intruding upon my life. And I swear, if I ever get the chance to face Augen again, I can’t fail, I can’t fail again, she needs to be taken down—
“Pleasant morning, isn’t it?”
I hear this through my music, and the voice is so light that I almost miss it. But rising from a wrought-iron bench on my left is a girl who doesn’t look much older than me, with slate gray skin, fine bone structure in her gracious face, high cheekbones, and snowy hair pulled back into a bun with several strands fanning out around it. Her off-the-shoulders uniform is as white as her hair, delicate silver threads woven through the chin-high collar and bishop sleeves.
“I don’t know, it might rain soon,” I respond to her, friendly but alert.
“Where are you headed?”
I gesture in the direction of the Club. “Meeting someone for tennis.”
She looks that way momentarily, then smiles benevolently at me and motions for us to walk there together. I hesitate as a part of me screams, Stranger danger, stranger danger!But another part of me is curious to know what she wants with me, and reasons that she probably won’t try to hurt me out here (for some reason the “probably” adverb doesn’t faze me one bit), and that’s the logic that allows me to pause Euphony, remove my earbuds, stuff them in my bag, resume my stroll with this new acquaintance alongside me.
A minute passes with the far-off chirps of pralls, always so many of them here, and the rising and falling hum of other park-goers’ chatter, I didn’t expect so many of them this early in the day, but my acquaintance doesn’t speak up, so I feel pressured to say, “I haven’t ever—I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. Do you come around, or . . .”
“You must have missed me. I’ve been here many times,” she says, with such assuredness that she must be telling the truth.
“Oh.” I wait an awkward beat to ask her, “Do you live in the area?” She shakes her head. “Are you from outside Lumin? Or from another world?”
“Yes,” she says slowly, as though this monosyllabic answer requires a good deal of thought.
I consider asking her where she’s from, but thinking it’s too intrusive, I instead query, “What brings you here this fine, sunny morning?” In a gesture of dry humor I flick my hand up at the sky, which still looks like it wants to pour down rain any minute now.
“I wanted to talk to you.”
It takes five paces for me to recognize the oddness of her words. I jerk my head at her, bewildered. “I’m not following.”
She shoots me a sidelong glance but doesn’t say anything. The sounds of high-pitched howls and cackles pierce the air as we pass a playground where toddlers are romping around and parents are gathered at nearby picnic tables nursing stainless steel travel mugs and biodegradable paper Ouran cups. My acquaintance stops to watch them with an expression of phlegmatic contemplation on her oval face.
“The young are so free, unfettered, raw.” Her voice is soft, almost a whisper. “They don’t care about the chaos of our world. Whether they’re laughing or crying, they simply want to experience life, live in the now.” She looks at me with a measured gaze; I’m only noticing now that her eyes are yellow. “You used to be a young one yourself.”
I’m befuddled into silence. But I take this time to look more closely at her eyes—yellow, brimming with yellow, the sclera a darker shade of yellow than the irises, which are sparkling with fragments of primrose yellow, and enclosed within them are white pupils that dilate slightly as she stares at me. I take a step back, look her up and down. Her face may appear young, but her eyes—well, I can’t think of any other way to put it, but they look like they’ve been seeing for all eternity.
“Who are you?” I ask, a knot of inexplicable apprehension tying itself with a sailor’s efficiency in my gut.
“Sibrilich.” She offers her hand.
When I take it, colors rush through my vision, and I see flashes of her ambling through opulently furnished rooms draped in embroidered hangings of creamy velvet; hung with paintings of gangling, faceless figures in skintight black and white uniforms, their spindly limbs bent at various awkward, almost painful angles; rhomboid wall sconces suffusing the space with twilight gray light. In other words, the perfect setting for a haunted mansion horror movie.
Then Sibrilich stops in the middle of a corridor, arriving at an iron door engraved with hundreds of sinuous Thaumic runes that remind me of loops and knots of filaments sprouting from fungal growths. Adjusting the box of dark wood under her arm, Sibrilich knocks three times, and a deep voice rumbles from the other side, “Come in.”
Entering a large study with huge bookcases, miscellaneous instruments and trinkets strewn across tables, and a fireplace housing eerie white flames, Sibrilich announces, “My Magister, Rechin has succeeded.”
Ice water swirls in my gut upon hearing “My Magister.” Only one person would use this obsolete honorific which Torchen once awarded to those “who exhibit extraordinary and meritorious achievement in regards to both protecting Cosmotic from malevolent forces and contributing to a deeper appreciation of arcane phenomena.” My suspicions are confirmed when I see him rest a book on the iron desk separating him from Sibrilich, stand up from his armchair, take the box from her. I imagine what it would be like for the creamy pus to burst from the grotesque boils on top of his bald head, drip down over his face and ears with the consistency of melting wax, coagulate and flake off, and I want to laugh, I want to guffaw at this disgusting scene. But no, I’m watching him hold Sibrilich’s box, he’s gonna open it, but the vision swims out of focus, splits into shards of many colors, and now I’m standing here in Gollinger, heart throbbing, and I jerk my hand from Sibrilich’s grasp as if stung by a spark of static electricity.
“Wh-what was that?” I’m gaping at her in disbelief and horror, the kind of look Ani had in Chameleons For Breakfast when she found out her best friend had orchestrated the bombing that killed her family. “What did you give him?”
She responds with a tiny I’m-not-telling shrug. Her demeanor is poised, as it has been this entire walk, but her mouth downturns with a hint of admonishment, as if I should be ashamed for prying into her business.
“You’re Gargant’s underling, then?” A scowl twists through my lips when I utter his name.
“Apprentice.” She pauses, flicks her yellow-in-yellow eyes at the playground and its merrily shrieking children. “I know how scared you are. You wish you could accept what has been happening, and what will happen. But you showed strength last night, and it will not go unnoticed—”
“What will happen?” I parrot. What in Metura’s name is gonna mess with my life now?
“Don’t be afraid. Keep following your instincts like last night, and you will never err.” She reaches her hand for my chest, brushes her fingertips over my sternum, over my heart, and it thumps and thumps harder and I flinch, what’s she doing, get the hell away from me. And then I think to myself with dawning dread, did she . . .
“You did it, didn’t you?” I accuse her. “You gave me Super Nex, you called me and told me to follow the Thistles.”
“No, I did not. But I’m not surprised you arrived at this deduction—it is a logical one.” She turns around, facing the lake across from the playground. The water is reflecting pale shimmers from the sky, where more and more clouds are clumping together, breaking the swords of sunlight into notched fragments. Aso willows line the lake’s bank. Beyond it are the dense woods of Gollinger, populated by kissnut queens, Bicap pines, and grawtrees.
“Do you know who did it?” I ask, so quietly that she might not hear me.
There’s a long pause as she stares across the lake at the woods, and I think she missed my question, but then she says, “You have been wandering for so long, Wyatt, dreaming of building a perfect world. Soon you’ll have a chance to come home, to face the entropy that reigns supreme.” There’s a certain nuance to her voice. It’s tender, emotional . . . vulnerable. Her face is creasing, almost unnoticeably, but she’s clearly ruminating over something deep, severe.
I glimpse the woods again, the lake again, and this is the exact scene from the painting in Sidney’s place, except for the family having their picnic, nobody’s doing that here. Rubbing the pad of my thumb back and forth over my Olympus ring, I turn back to Sibrilich, but the spot where she stood is empty.
“Cursed Cosmotic,” I murmur, fumbling through my bag for the earbuds, sticking them back in, the laid-back acoustic pop of Jackson Tach blocking out the shouting of toddlers and the chirping of pralls. I have a game of tennis to get to.
“Dear god, you’re on top of your form today!”
Smiling modestly, I tell Dr. Fulbright, “No more than in the past.”
“No, honestly, you were relentless.” He uses a towel to pad the glaze of sweat off his furrowed forehead.
Dr. Fulbright and I have just wrapped up our game, which I won thanks to some quick footwork and a nimble lunge I made to save match point. While I do owe the boost in my fitness to my energy, it wasn’t as if I had an easy time playing against my mentor’s signature slices. There’s still a limit to my abilities, including my stamina, and I was left somewhat winded afterwards. If last night has taught me anything, it’s that I’m not invincible.
It was drizzling when Dr. Fulbright and I were inside the Eagles Nest Club, but it stopped by the time we step out, glazing everything in rain and leaving its fresh scent hanging in the air. The suns are barely visible behind the sheet of yellowish-gray clouds when Dr. Fulbright and I leave the Club’s parking garage in his Halbrook Technorider. A flying and selfless driving SUV, Dr. Fulbright also had it specially fitted with a bulletproof-bombproof design including so much armor that it weighs five tons; the doors are heavy enough that they need motorized hinges to open and close. It’s plushly appointed, with leather seats wrapping around the back in a rectangle, sleek silvery-blue paneling, and an ashtray-topped club lounge. As it soars off into the sky with Alphacos set as its destination, Dr. Fulbright takes a frog butter pack out of his satchel and produces a cigarette. He doesn’t offer me one, knowing it’s not my thing; instead he lets me pick out a bottle of iced aurium tea from the lounge.
For a couple minutes we chat about The Many Dreams of Mrs. Blissand other upcoming movies. We changed out of our tennis togs back at the Club, so now I’m in a long-sleeve cotton shirt, a gray jacket, pants, and sneakers; Dr. Fulbright is in his navy wool jacket, cream ribbed turtleneck, and cutoff jeans. But then the music playing over the loudspeakers turns into a news break. “In latest news, speculation abounds about the mysterious disturbance at the Myrius Club in Neuanfang. So far Warbearer officials have declined to disclose specific details about the case, but sources have confirmed it is pobel-related. There may also be connections to Rechin Ihres Augen, the crime lord who led the recent theft of the Super Nex virus at Rad-Bio Laboratory . . .”
“Oh phages,” Dr. Fulbright mutters as he lights his cigarette. The tip flares an orange dot with his long drag, then he leans over and puffs the thin white smoke out the corner of his mouth so it exits the car through a siftvent. “As if we need more of this crap.” He frowns my way. “You heard about this yet?”
I nod silently, massaging my thighs.
“I couldn’t even finish my breakfast before Overseers Marsden and Foxer and Head Councilor Sornis had to have a conference call with me. Wanted to know if I had anything to do with the paladin who was at Myrius, who apparently took it upon themselves to go into an all-out brawl with Augen and her gangsters.”
Damn it, they must know it’s me. “Did they tell you who it is?”
“No, but that’s what confuses me. A situation like this is simple enough. All that has to be done is dismiss the paladin from service and remove Super Nex from their system. It’s what we did with Macky last year. But they refused to tell me who it is. In fact it was Foxer who said, and this is a direct quote, ‘Isn’t it funny, Doctor, all these strokes of rotten luck that insist on afflicting your precious project.’” The mere recitation of the Web Overseer’s words makes his mouth pout around his quivering cigarette. Before our tennis match he told me about the meeting he had yesterday with Warbearer and Web representatives who were pressuring him to sell the Super Nex technology to them, which he vehemently declined.
“It’s one thing if the crimson cubs got ahold of it,” he told me, “but I refuse to let Foxer, that conniving bastard, corrupt years of hard work. Project Super Nex is my baby, and I’ll do whatever’s necessary to protect it.”
I believe him. I don’t think I’ve met anybody who exudes more determination (I once pointed this out to Penelope, and she remarked that it’s more stubbornness than determination and she knows someone who’s as equally stubborn as Dr. Fulbright, and I asked her who it was, and she said, ‘You, dork.’ But I digress). As much as he’s done to stop his work from falling into Web’s hands, though, he’s also indebted to Xavier—not just for the government funding, but for persuading Foxer to stay away from PSN. I hope he’s grateful for that.
Now, Dr. Fulbright draws another lengthy pull, then purses his lips and puffs smoke out the siftvent. “So I called Xavier afterwards and asked him what he knew, and he couldn’t say much either, but he did reveal that whoever was at Myrius last night, it wasn’t any of our project candidates.”
I run my thumb back and forth over my Olympus ring. “But that means . . .”
“Someone else has the virus. Maybe Augen sold it off, or somebody stole it from her, but however it happened, we have a Super Nex rogue, and Marsden, Sornis, Foxer, and Xavier, none of them would tell me who it is.” He rubs his eyes beneath his oval glasses. “When are we gonna get back on the right track, Wyatt?”
I’ve been asking myself the same thing. “Soon, hopefully,” I answer, and I sip my tea.
What did Sidney or Cooper tell their superiors? Did they suspect I was covering for the Thistles? I think back to last night, after Sidney escorted me back up to Augen’s meeting room. The tear gas had dispersed by that point, and aside from their red eyes the Thistles and Penelope looked okay; Cooper gave them an eyedropperful of liquite solution to counteract the gas. I looked out the open door and across the botanical garden outside, and through the archway leading back into the nightclub I saw crimson officers searching every corner, obtaining statements customers, bartenders, bouncers, even Stewart Sammon. Was anyone associated with Augen still there?
Sidney and Cooper’s debriefing must have lasted half an hour, maybe forty minutes. They repeated the same questions over and over to see if the story would change—the story that I launched into of how Augen had her thugs kidnap the Thistles and cart them over for a meeting so she could coerce them into building a weapon for her, but the Thistles, luckily enough, managed to call me and Penelope for help. I just kept driving the car down this road, no deviations at all, and Penelope and the Thistles didn’t hesitate to hop in the backseat and join me for the ride.
Cooper looked pretty leery of our story—I’d be the same way, I don’t even know why I’m covering for the Thistles, they should get what’s coming to them for working with Augen—but Sidney seemed satisfied, and she let us go, but not without letting me know they’d be in touch with me soon. I got the sense she and Cooper had some good rapport with Penelope—Sidney called her Penny, Cooper referred to her as Sab, and at the end of the interrogation she gave Sidney’s braid a mischievous tug, making her laugh and punch the microbiologist’s arm in response.
As soon as Penelope, the Thistles, and I were outside Myrius, Gene said in a manner of terse condescension, “Sir, ma’am, I bid you goodnight,” and scampered down the street with the air of one ready to leave this night behind, his cane clacking with every other step. With a smile of awkward politeness at me and Penelope, Corbin hurried after him, pouch bouncing on her back, ouroboros badge glimmering.
Penelope drove me back to Hexaber under the black sky, illuminated a tinge of blue from the city lights. I started eating the apple from my bag, and when I asked her how her Jibe date went, she remained silent. Then I pointed out how the cubs at Myrius seemed to know her, and she growled, “Dork, here’s a fuckass smart idea—let’s not talk till tomorrow.” She turned up the pop-punk of Rain Gods on the radio, the electric guitar riffs as melodic as the lyrics were anarchic, and I bit and bit my apple all the way to the core. But when she dropped me off at Cloverleaf Vistas, she didn’t pull away until I was through the gate.
I tossed the apple core in the lobby’s compost bin. I took the elevator up, and it was ten when I walked into the apartment, and Mom and Dad believed me when I said I had a good time at Gollinger—“It really does help to clear my head,” I lied—and Dell might have known I was up to something, but if so she didn’t verbalize those thoughts. I had a quick dinner and was in bed within the hour, I couldn’t even stay up long enough to watch Dolores Youqu.
Before I fell asleep, I was lying on my right, staring at the Arka tower on my table, and then I rolled over on my left side, peered out my window at the pair of great bird wings on Memora—that’s what the markings on its face always looked like to me, anyways, others say it’s a goblet or a pair of fish—and I thought to myself, it’s only a matter of time before they approach me and rip Super Nex out of my body. But I don’t want that to happen. I like this feeling inside of me, the feeling of fire and light. Is this what it’s like for the others? Some of them compared it to water surging through them with the fury of a stormy ocean. Others said it’s more akin to the crackling invigoration of electricity, as if a lightning bolt struck them and gave them superpowers, like something out of a comic book. The most interesting simile came from Ray Easton, the one who was assigned to do the demonstration (I can’t believe that was the day before yesterday); he said Super Nex is like an otherworldly creature with which he lives in symbiosis, the two of them feeding off each other, each entity benefitting from the other’s energy.
I liken Super Nex to an immortal fire. No, beyond fire. Pure light. Whether it’s a few winking stars or an immense blaze, it never goes out, it will always banish the darkness around me. So I can’t let it go. But those cubs must have told their superiors, who then passed the intel further above, all the way up to Marsden, and I’m sure as grim she won’t let me keep it. I’m a lab tech, I’ll never be a paladin in her eyes.
A moment passes in the Technorider before the news break ends and Ilsa Rosior’s mellow timbre flows out of the radio. “Delusive Eyes.” My left hand reflexively fists up on my knee, my heart gives a sudden jump. “Er, can we change the station?” At Dr. Fulbright’s questioning look I add, “I’m not really in the mood to hear this song.”
Dr. Fulbright obliges, tapping his smartwatch to change to another station. Now we’ve got an energetic hip-hop track to lighten the atmosphere, although it takes a minute for me to realize I’m humming “Delusive Eyes.” Stop it, I shut my eyes tight, bite my lips together. My throat’s swelling up—
“You used to be a Rosior fan.”
I open my eyes, unclench my teeth from my lips. Absorbing the inquiring look that Dr. Fulbright sends me, I clear my throat and tell him, “I was, but, but I’m not anymore.” It’s true, Rosior hasn’t been my taste for a while.
Shortly after I drink all my tea and Dr. Fulbright puts out his cigarette in the ashtray, the Technorider reaches Alphacos Pillars, a complex of six skyscrapers serving as the headquarters of S.P.A.C.E. Union smack in the middle of Lumin. Built like massive, six-sided towers of glass and steel, each “pillar” forms the points of a hexagon, is connected to the others by skywalks, and boasts differing colors and emblems to represent an Intention. Warbearer’s red pillar, the Citadelle, is emblazoned with a huge gold shield bearing a tigon passant guardant, tawny and orange vertical stripes running along its crimson fur, its great mane framing piercing amber eyes and a snarling maw, its tufted tail twined around a sword. Web’s white pillar features the left half of a silver dragonfly arranged alongside the right half of a black spider, a dark band bisecting the two halved bugs. Torchen’s purple pillar: a design of three azure spheres inside a mauve triangle, which itself is inside an octagon so dark blue it’s almost black. Halcyonic’s orange pillar: a queenflare, a small shaggy-crested bird with dawn yellow plumage and white patches on its belly and the underside of its wings. Quantax’s bronze pillar: three cloaked figures holding hands in a circle beneath a haloed sun of golden fire. Cerebral’s green pillar: a paintbrush and a quill crossed together, each item entwined by a braid of flowered vines.
In the center of the complex is Antura Gardens, a miniature park overflowing with plants and sculptures. The centerpiece is a four-story gazebo with a roof of opalescent blue metal shaped into amorphous ripples and bulges and dips. The Gardens is a popular spot for political rallies, sporting events, and concerts. I was fourteen when I went there with my parents to see Emovere.
I steady myself in my seat as the Technorider’s acceleration eases up, and it lowers through the air and lands on Union End, the road running around the Gardens in a hexagon. We turn right and head down Fourth Street, away from Alphacos. From a bird’s eye view the roads radiating on all sides away from it resemble the spokes of a great wheel. Seconds later we turn again into the entryway for Alphacos’s underground parking garage. The car hums to a stop at a gate that blocks the ten-foot-high, eight-foot-wide path, a red electronic eye glaring from the top. It blinks twice, a signal that it’s scanning the vehicle for guns, bombs, and other suspicious content. Once the eye turns bright blue, the gate clatters and slides up to the ceiling, and the car drives onward.
Five minutes later the car parks in the third level down, and we walk through the concrete-pillared garage, casting long shadows under the triangular panels of yellowish-white light built into the ceiling. Upon reaching the elevator, Dr. Fulbright hits the only button, and the doors open. We step in, Dr. Fulbright selects the red button marked for the Citadelle, and the doors close.
Cheesy elevator beats fill the car while it smoothly moves backward, slows down momentarily with a metallic rattle, then shifts left and returns to full speed.
“You think they’ll nab Augen?” I ask Dr. Fulbright, both of us holding onto the railing to remain upright, swaying with the elevator’s shuddering movements.
“There’s a good reason the authorities haven’t done that yet,” he says after a beat of consideration, knuckle-nudging his glasses up his nose. “I mean, all the terrible crimes she’s committed, and yet her name meant nothing to the majority of the public before—” His forehead ridges deeply, mercilessly, with consternation. “I want to believe she can be stopped. I really do. But this Super Nex rogue, we don’t know whose side they’re on, if they’re helping Augen . . .”
The elevator shifts in another direction, remaining on a horizontal plane. Almost immediately it abruptly shoots straight upward, sending my stomach plummeting to my feet. The melancholy in Dr. Fulbright’s eyes makes me want to tell him, It’s okay. I’m the one. And I’ll stop her next time. My mouth parts as if I’m about to verbalize those words, but the elevator stops with a stutter and the round bulb above the opening doors lights up red, indicating we’ve reached the Citadelle.
I’m right behind Dr. Fulbright as we step out onto the ground lobby, where former Warbearer Overseers arrogantly glare down from giant oil portraits, some of them depicted on tigonback. More high-ranking military officials are immortalized in the form of bronze statues standing in recessed niches carved out of the walls, which are a paler shade of red than the scarlet brillerine with which the high ceiling is vaulted. Situated right in the center of the lobby is a huge statue of a tigon prowling down a chunky rock, its forelegs bent, back arched, ears pricked, looking like it could come to life and pounce on its unsuspecting prey. Richly detailed paintings of gripping battles cover the polished floor, soldiers in red armor riding tigons, horses, elephants, and skysangs against the destructive Grimhets. Two sentries are guarding the main entrance. Dr. Fulbright and I are crossing the lobby in the opposite direction, towards an open archway leading to the elevator bank. Flanking the archway are two stairways that curve up to a wide balcony encircling the second level.
We’re on our way to the elevators, passing people dressed in varying levels of military attire, when two crimson-uniformed guards—one a white Starsapien with a tan scruff of beard on his chin and the other a Vermusk with a patch of gray diamonds marking the brow—emerge from the bank, marching towards me and Dr. Fulbright. Something in the sternness of their gait compels us to stop at the same time beside the tigon statue; we exchange an uncertain look.
“Mr. Durrell,” the Starsapien guard sharply greets after he and the Vermusk stop five paces away from me. “We need to escort you upstairs.”
Oh crap.
“What’s this all about?” inquires Dr. Fulbright, adjusting his glasses.
“Commander Marsden needs him upstairs,” the Vermusk guard informs us. “This won’t take long.”
Fine, I might as well get this over with. “All right, uhh—Dr. Fulbright . . . ?” I look to him, almost for permission. But he can’t even reply before the guards spin around on their heels, the Starsapien (the patch on his shoulder reads Bansmer) ordering me to follow them.
Inside the bank two more crimsons are standing erect with their backs against the far wall. They, like the other pair of guards, are sufficiently armed, R-3 handguns and shock batons holstered to their belts, Mawfer energy blasters at their shoulders. Is it my imagination, or are they shooting me hard looks? Two women and one man in expensive suits, maybe representatives for a military contractor, file out of one of four elevators in the bank, and Bansmer sticks an arm into the elevator, forcing the closing door to stop and then reopen. “Come on,” he urges, more rudely than necessary.
“See you in the lab, Wyatt,” Dr. Fulbright says, giving me two strong pats on my shoulder. He’s smiling as if he has a canker sore.
When Bansmer, the Vermusk guard (their shoulder patch has the name Newcomb and a symbol of three horizontal bars inside a square to indicate their nonbinary identity), and I enter the elevator with its red-tinted metal walls, I make eye contact again with Dr. Fulbright as he presses for an elevator across from me. I attempt my own smile, even though it probably looks as pained as his.
Newcomb punches one of many buttons, and it glows 28. The yellow number on the wall, starting from 1, scrolls up through the digits as the elevator lurches upward, as we ascend past multiple floors. Neither Bansmer nor Newcomb say a word while standing on either side of me with fig-leaved hands, but Bansmer keeps eyeing me mistrustfully like he thinks I’m gonna whirl around and throttle him.
When the elevator stops on the twenty-eighth floor, Newcomb exits first. Bansmer remains in his corner, which I take as a signal to follow the other guard. With Bansmer two steps behind me, I trail after Newcomb out of the elevator bank, down a short corridor paneled with more of the high-quality brillerine, into an antechamber with a small painting of a volcano mid-eruption, a plume of black smoke and rock fragments vomiting from its gaping peak. Newcomb leads us into one of the other two hallways. We pass two doors, turn left, and a floor-to-ceiling window is visible at the end of the hall. I can see the yellow spots persistently sticking onto the clear blue sky, the last marker stains that refuse to come off a blanket even after multiple washings.
Newcomb stops at the third door, which pops open with a hiss after the retinal scan and the six-digit passcode; all the doors have been fitted with a retina scanner and a keypad lock. The guards usher me into a chamber where Xavier and a technician, the latter seated at a computer terminal, are watching through a large glass panel into an interrogation cell on the other side, inside of which Corbin and Sidney are sitting across from each other at a bare table. Corbin’s pixie gleams like burnished bronze beneath the harsh fluorescent lighting. She’s squarely meeting Sidney’s gaze, wearing a resigned smile as if being a good sport about losing a game of reglintel to Sidney.
“—not as if we ever relished being stuck in this position,” says Corbin, her level voice resounding from a speaker in the chamber. Once again she’s got her bulging drawstring pouch, it’s in her lap, the snakes still biting their own tails on its attached trinket. In one hand she’s got a foil packet of dried melon slices, and she has a slice in her other hand, tossing it a foot upwards, catching it, tossing it a foot upwards, catching it.
“But at the same time it’s a tolerable position for me and Gene. We’ve had to consistently confront worse problems and turn them around in our favor. When life gave us lemons, as they all say . . .”
Sidney makes an interested noise, sitting back, both hands laid palm-down on her side of the table, right forefinger hooked over left thumb. She’s in a sleeveless purple and red jumpsuit that accentuates her tattooed arms and broad shoulders. I can see the bulge of her fragment pendant through her jumpsuit. “Well, when life gives you melons,” she says, nodding to Corbin’s packet, “it might mean you’re dyslexic.”
Corbin looks on at her with a smile that isn’t touching her eyes.
Sidney starts saying something else, but it gets drowned out by Xavier’s cheery “Good morning, Wyatt!” after realizing I’m in the room. “No, wait, is it still—” He checks the time on his phone. “Yes, still morning!” He lets out a joyous laugh as though he made a hilarious joke. His apple-green suit is embroidered with hummingbirds flitting amongst red and white carnations.
“They’ve been talking for some time,” he continues, grandly gesturing through the window to Sidney and Corbin. “The Thistles are giving us quite a bit of info on Augen and her pobs. They were initially reticent, especially the brother, but surely—”
“Gene? Where is he?”
Xavier points out a transparent glass door in the right wall, through which I can see Marsden, Sornis, and another computer-operating technician. Almost as if detecting my gaze Marsden swivels to me, her bobbed hair sweeping in turn. Her red lips slash across her face, not quite a smirk but also not a smile. She’s in a deep ruby military uniform, not the one she had at Rad-Bio, but it still has the sextuple of star-tipped commander’s claws glimmering on her collar, along with gold braid and insignia-engraved buttons.
“Durrell,” she greets after striding through the glass door. “You’re doing okay?”
I stop myself from arching my eyebrows too high at the nonchalant tone she’s affecting. “Why wouldn’t I be?” She stares at me, Xavier’s darting his eyes between us and toying with the second button on his suit, and I say, “Er, can I see what’s going on . . .” I vaguely motion to the room out of which she came.
“Truth be told, I have never understood what people see in Francis DeSmyter’s film direction,” Gene says through the speaker while Marsden and I enter the room, twisting and untwisting a corkscrew of his hair around his pinky. “The gortonto’s last three movies have been increasingly frustrating and facile.”
“Yep, his stuff’s divisive that way,” Cooper drawls, wiping his massive hands over his ruddy cheeks. He looks like a babysitter putting up with a tiresome seven-year-old. “A’righ’ now, if yeh wanna get back to the main topic at hand, talk ‘bout what ol’ Augie—”
“Pardon, but I have to interrupt because, well, how did The Three Explorers attain a score of ninety-two percent on Know-It-Alls? That is absurd. Absurd, I tell you!”
“Hey, don’t hate on that movie, at least it got the rolls in the oven.”
“It’s been hard to get much out of Gene,” Marsden tells me while he and Cooper keep chattering. “The sister’s more helpful, but . . . something tells me they’re hiding more from us.”
My heartbeat quickens. “Like what?” I ask, feigning an easygoing attitude.
“Where Augen has stowed away the Super Nex virus, for one,” Sornis pipes up, frowning at something on his thumb as if a fly has perched there. “If we can recover the supplies—”
“No offense, Aldous,” Marsden says like she has every intention of offending him, “but we need to assume she’s already tested out Super Nex on a few of her pobs, which means we need to be on high alert for any attacks on her end.”
Sornis looks like he wants to object to this, but Marsden taps her tiny earbud and says, “Good enough, Ruzuberuto. We’re done here.”
Ruzuberuto? I think to myself. Like the tech corporation?
Cooper seems to glimpse me through the window, even though it must be the one-way kind. He pushes back his chair, more quietly than I would’ve expected, and he stands up and towers over Gene. I keep waffling on who’s the giant, him or Augen. Something like a long and narrow club or hammer is strapped across his back, but I can’t get a good look at it before he lumbers out a door in the cell. He reappears five seconds later from another door opening into this room, grumbling under his breath, but stops once his big brown eyes alight on me.
“Hey there, what’s new?” he says, grinning lopsidedly. Mud-brown and red jacket, pants rolled up to his calves, leather ankle-high sandals. Looks dressed for a tactical mission, on top of whatever he’s got on his back. Around twenty travtoks, collectible pins to show what worlds he’s visited, hang off his belt loop like a bunch of grapes.
There’s chatter from the other side of the glass door as Sidney appears in the other room, and then she and Xavier walk into this one, joining me and the others.
“What do you think?” Marsden asks Sidney.
“I think they’d be willing, as long as Corbin can persuade her brother,” Sidney says. Willing to do what?
Marsden says, “I was just about to inform Durrell that I’ve assigned you to oversee his training.” She counters my apprehension with an authoritative smirk. “She claims you did far better than she would have expected, given your complete inexperience.” This time I can’t stop my eyebrows from shooting up to my hairline, and when I look at Sidney, she’s beaming at me like the professors at Olympus when I earned top scores on my exams.
“But it doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from proper training,” advises Marsden. “It will commence at 1920 tonight, just after you get off work.”
I feel like I’m trying to swallow a wheatfowl leg whole, but it just won’t go down my throat. Marsden is not only letting me keep my abilities, but she’s already arranged training? My excitement is dampened only slightly by her assigning Sidney as my trainer.
As if reading my thoughts Sidney says, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be fun!” She comes over, punches my arm the same way she did to Penelope, jokingly but still hard enough to leave me rubbing the point of impact.
Cooper shyly edges over to me. “Hey, uh . . . Can yeh build somethin’?”
I look at him for a moment, then summon the stars in my chest, and a brilliant blue sword is in my hand. Cooper claps his palms together like a little kid amazed by a magician who materialized a bouquet of flowers out of thin air.

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