Lab C16 on the Citadelle’s thirty-first floor is nice enough, with its tables and computers arranged in loose circles, with its microscopes, vials, centrifuges, ultra-cold freezers, and tons of other supplies. It’s one of several laboratories in the building handling research for Warbearer projects. I’m running computer sims, organizing equipment, recording everything in excruciating detail on my notes, and it’s almost like being at Rad-Bio. But it’s not. It’s not the lab. Even when it’s finished being reconstructed and we can go back there, it won’t ever be the same.
It doesn’t help that Penelope is being more, well, Penelope-ish today. I can’t tell what pisses her off more: 1. Not walking me home yesterday and therefore not being able to stop Brone from jumping me, 2. My intruding on last night’s meeting with Augen (still don’t know how she followed the Thistles), or 3. My getting infused with Super Nex. And judging from her bloodshot eyes, the overly sweet stench of booze seeping from her skin, her intermittent and distracted humming, and the round Salycidol tabs she’s taking every couple hours, she’s getting through a hangover. This is probably having a small effect on her mood, such as when she insists on double-checking my notes, snaps at me to quit dawdling, whips out wet wipes from her sanus and forces me to scrub my hands, or gets insulted when I don’t say “bless you” after she sneezes (I was gonna do that, it’s just that we’re having lunch in the cafeteria at the time, so how does she think I can talk while slurping up egg noodles?). These things wouldn’t be that unusual, but they’re happening in a considerably more irritable manner. I’m glad Mom, not her, will be the one driving me home tonight.
And Penelope doesn’t have her switchguns, I caught a glimpse of the empty holsters beneath her lab coat. I’m assuming she either didn’t bring them or she had to sign them in with security. Most people see them today as outdated, but they’re famous for being such a hit years ago with cubs, especially for Grimhet brawls. Whatever history she has with Warbearer, it’s left her harboring a deep grudge towards them, so it baffles me that she hasn’t gotten rid of her switchguns yet, relics from a past life. Not that I’m complaining, she did shoot and then decapitate a Slange before it could choke me to death.
Around one-thirty Dr. Fulbright drops by C16 to check on his diligent employees. We talk for a bit, and I consider telling him about my situation, but there’s never an opening to bring up such a topic. He isn’t much less pensive than when I left him earlier, he has to be anxious about Foxer and PSN. After he leaves we don’t get any interruptions until five, when Xavier breezes in, genial as ever, and hands each of us a pouch of ennium bulbs, a type of edible bolibflora that resemble garlic but with gently flowery notes. You can eat them raw, use them as flavoring in cooking, or take the seeds inside and plant them to grow even more bulbs. It isn’t necessarily any better having Xavier around, the way he keeps winking at me and assuring me everything will be okay, as if he thinks I’m worried that won’t be the case (what a shrewd one, he is).
The best moments are when I have a few seconds of privacy and I can let my energy trickle through my hands, glow through my palms and fingers. But is Sibrilich responsible for this? She must be, she must have done it on Gargant’s behalf, although I can’t fathom why. There’s nothing special about me, they could’ve picked anybody else. At least I have training to look forward to, and eventually I’ll have missions. No matter what, this is what I will use to light my way through the dark forest, to keep myself afloat in stormy waters.
I’m relieved when my shift ends, because now I can grab my messenger bag from my locker, put away my lab coat, get out of Lab C16 without saying goodbye to Penelope, and take the elevator seven stories up to the Citadelle’s thirty-eighth floor. While I lean my back against the red brillerine-paneled wall and wait in the elevator bank for Sidney, I check my Walnut feed, where I enter a sweepstakes for an Arka set from their new Realms of Unosia line; read an article about the ways that BountyWhale, an online network of bounty hunters (and of questionable legality), has been selling its user data to ad companies; check multiple seeds on the Neuanfang demonstration from the participants themselves, selfies or pictures of the protest around them or statements declaring it’s high time S.P.A.C.E. Union starts treating Vermusk with the respect they deserve; and skim more seeds about Warbearer and Web’s ongoing efforts to arrest Augen and recover Super Nex.
Then I watch clips from last night’s episode of The Late Chat with Dolores Youqu. In her opening monologue she brings much-needed humor to the subject of the Neuanfang protests and the ridiculous ways that some politicians have responded. In fact Sornis is one of them; in a KRS interview from yesterday he repeatedly mispronounces the name of the Vermusk activist, Belldon, calling her “Belly-Dune” no less than five times.
Another bit in Youqu’s monologue includes a clip from a press conference two weeks ago where a reporter asks Sornis if he has a response to people who’ve called on him to apologize for his history of transphobic slurs, and he replies, “You know, that’s their problem, they’re the ones who want to play dress-up. If they want to carp about things I say just because they think it’s offensive, it’s their problem, not mine.”
To which Youqu ripostes, “Look at him, he goes out of his way to defend himself by insulting his detractors and deflecting the blame with all the agility he possesses, or lack thereof, while playing volleyball.” A shot appears of Sornis at the beach in board shorts, topless and pale-chested, he’s awkwardly lunging sideways but the volleyball has already streaked past his outstretched arms, and the audience chortles. “It’s like if the police went up to you and asked if you murdered anyone, and you said, ‘If you’re offended just because I stabbed someone ten times, it’s your problem, bitch, not mine. Also, this bloody knife I’m holding—your problem, too.’” More laughter from the audience, and some whoops.
I’m in the middle of Youqu’s interview with Amelia Dermon when Sidney chirps, “What’re you watching?” I lift my head from the phone, see her strolling down the hall in the same getup as before—sleeveless jumpsuit, crimson pants, R-3 holster, ammo belt, her chocolate pack swinging back and forth in her hand, a comms earbud hooked to her ear, silver-and-purple bracelets on her wrists, knuckles scabbed as ever.
“She’s funny,” Sidney says with a laugh, like she’s agreeing with me even though she doesn’t watch the show. “So, you’re into jokes, comedy, so forth?” When I say yes, she casually goes on, “Well, I’d tell you a chemistry joke, but I don’t think I’d get a reaction.” I wonder if she sees me roll my eyes. Not a second passes before she motions her chocolate pack hand over her shoulder to the hallway from which she emerged. “Wanna go polish your claws? The Savvy’s all ready.”
I push myself away from the wall, slip my phone into my bag, follow her down the hall, its wall sconces casting down sharp blades of golden-yellow light on the floor of polished red brillerine. When I ask her if they’ve found any leads on Augen yet, she says, “Not at the moment, but we hope things will change with the Thistles on our side.”
“What are they doing now?”
She side-eyes me, as though detecting the disconcerted tinge to my question. “They’re figuring out how we can catch Augen,” she says vaguely, thumbing a button on her pack so it ejects a chocolate into the air. I’m perplexed when the chocolate stops in the middle of its arc as if an invisible hand has caught it, and it’s covered in a gossamer coat of stars glittering the same purple as the soft glow shining off Sidney’s cuffs. She makes a twiddling gesture with her free hand, and the chocolate zooms backward, straight into her open mouth. She clamps down her teeth, chews it, smiles at me while my eyebrows shoot halfway up my forehead; the glow subsides from her cuffs.
Before I can ask her how she did that, we round a corner and stop at a door marked with the words SAPHEUS CENTER in orange block lettering. She opens the door by taking the ID tag from her belt and waving it over the computer lock. She leads me into a giant circle of a room packed with crimson cubs sweating away on exercise equipment, rock music thumping over the loudspeakers. I would think I’m in the general fitness section of the Eagles Nest Club if not for the collection of flags and banners hanging on the walls and off the crisscross of exposed ceiling beams, all of them emblazoned with Warbearer insignias ranging from tigons, bears, and skysangs to swords, shields, and fire. Four passages branch out from the round walls, each marked with SP-1, SP-2, and so on above the open doorways. A line of cubs in military attire are marching into one of them. A balcony wraps around the second level with doors on all sides; three people are watching us from up there, one I recognize as one of the guards who escorted me to the Thistles’ interrogation, and the other two on the balcony’s opposite side are a Web operative in a white and silver uniform, his Intention’s emblem sewn on his chest, and Foxer. A hateful worm starts writhing in my gut. I can tell the Overseer is only present as a hologram because of the slight translucence and the minute haziness around the edges of his form. This, combined with his tailored white suit and pants and the multitude of icicle knives dangling off his belt, gives me the potent impression of a ghost who rules over a faraway land of unending winter.
“Huh,” I hear Sidney say, and I turn to her with a questioning expression, having bitterly stared at Foxer and the dragonfly he’s got with him. “It’s not out of the ordinary to see someone from Web here,” Sidney informs me. “They like us knowing we’re being watched. But I’ve rarely seen Foxer go to the trouble of showing up, even as a holo.” She shoots me an inquisitive glance, then gives a dismissive shake of her head, like she’s clearing fuzzies from her eyes, and points down the middle of the gym. “Let’s go. Stretching first, then we’ll start on the training. Shoes off, please, you can stow them and your bag here.” She kicks her shoes off, shoves them into one of the cubbyholes in the three rows bracketing the door we came out of. I follow suit with my sneakers and bag in an adjacent square.
I wish I could jump right into the meat of the training, but even paladins have to obey the same exercising guidelines as everyone else, and that includes warm-ups. Doing my best to ignore Foxer and his dragonfly, I tread in my socks alongside Sidney through the Savvy, passing people as they bench-press, lift weights, run on treadmills, and so forth. Two of them are sparring in a boxing ring set off to the side. Along the way Sidney explains to me that all the SP passages lead to arenas, rooms where military exercises are conducted; only a few of them are specialized for paladins, since they’re currently considered an experimental division of the army. Even then much of the drills take place on off-site boot camps.
Sidney directs me to an empty patch of mat near the center of the room, sits down, instructs me to mimic her stretching. While doing this, I attempt to keep my focus off the glaze of sweat shining from the bright red mats, off the B.O. wafting through the air and getting filtered out of the room through the siftvents humming in the walls, and I watch the patterns of black, purple, and blue symbols pulse on the back of Sidney’s hands, watch the muscles in her wiry arms swell and wriggle and set her tattoos into motion. The Teönor goddess Corve is tensing up for battle with her trifurcated sword and raven-bearing shield. The black-and-white rachwolf is prowling between wisps of smoke, a leafless tree with a deathly pallor of white bark standing behind it. The trio of dice are rolling, gyrating around the thorny stem of their rippling flower, betraying no clues as to how they will land.
It must be four or five minutes when Sidney says without warning, “What’s up, Cooper?”
I’m confused until someone bellows over the rock music, “Hey there cuz, what’s shakin’?”
I crane my neck to make eye contact with the enormous Cooper as he saunters up to us with the wide grin of a child who just saw the most awesome action movie ever. His College of Bicap tank top, jogger pants, and the towel draped over his shoulder are drenched in sweat; his shaggy bangs are sticking to his forehead.
“Nothing much, I’m gonna get him started on his training,” Sidney replies.
“Tha’s boss.” He seems to take this as permission to sit next to us, one leg crossed in front, his other knee sticking up with his left arm propped on top by the crook of the elbow. He guzzles half a water bottle, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Beads of perspiration dot his ruggedly handsome face. “Yeh must be steamed up,” he says to me, grin turning lopsided. “All this energy flowin’ through yer veins and yeh wanna go out on yer first mission. Like a tigon cub comin’ of age, you’re keen to leap into the wild and hunt down yer first prey.”
That covers only a molecule of what I’m feeling, but I decide to humor him. “A little like that.”
His smile broadens. I wonder if he’s got any relations to the family that owns Ruzuberuto Technologies Enterprise. “An’ it’s too bad, ‘cos I got this cut on my finger, and, get this, I cut it on my own fingernail. Twiddlin’ my digits, yeh know, and I get this teensy scratch. See, look at it. Hey, look at it!” He’s pushing his index finger in my face so I can see the little cut between the first and second knuckle, and I lean back, hold up both of my hands like a shield, tell him yes I do see it.
“But my point is, I wouldn’t be dealin’ with it if I had the enhanced healing stuff, yeah. Super Nex, it really is the good shit.” He drains the rest of his water, repeatedly squeezes his empty bottle in and out in his hand, which is bigger than the weights on some of the dumbbells here. “Gods, the scullybud what jacked you up, Kyapitan . . .” He shakes his head. “We can’t have more people becomin’ heaven knights the same way’s yeh, s’dangerous.”
Wait, how does he know—Oh, yes, I told him and Sidney, I told them the story of the intruder (Sibrilich, it must be her), back at Myrius. I’d forgotten about that, strange, I remembered everything else, fudging what the Thistles were doing there, covering up for them. And now they’re supposedly helping us capture Augen . . .
“Hey,” I say after a brief break in the talk, “do you know Penelope?”
“Yeah, she’s friends with my parents,” Sidney confirms after exchanging a millisecond’s worth of a glance with Cooper.
I choose to hold off on asking if her parents are in Warbearer, and if they knew Penelope back when she was a cub. “And you, you’re chummy with Penelope too?” I ask Cooper, who emits a sound that falls between a snicker and a chuckle.
“Meh,” he finally responds, “we’re okay.”
“All right, I think we’re done,” says Sidney after another minute of stretching. As she, Cooper, and I get on our feet, she gestures around the Savvy and comments, “A lot of people here. There are some couples who don’t go to the gym, because their relationships don’t work out.”
Cooper and I exchange a look, and he shrugs up a beefy shoulder: Eh, happens all the time.
Sidney takes me through the Savvy into the passage marked SP-4. Doors line both sides, and I can see through the windows into arenas with shooting ranges, beat-up punching bags, target dummies, racks of swords and war hammers and flails and whips and other primitive weaponry, or apparently nothing but a computer terminal set behind glass in the back wall. I’m about to ask why they’re all empty, but then Sidney tells me, “We usually fill this space with paladins, but you’re only one of two we’re whipping into shape today.” I’m about to ask who the other one is, and again she keeps ahead of me. “Ray Easton, you know him, right?”
I nod—yes, he was at the lab when it got attacked—and Sidney lends me a sympathetic smile.
She stops me outside the fifth door on the right. The floor’s cold through my socks. We’re close to the end of the hallway, which has another door marked STAIRWAY. For two seconds I wonder what we’re waiting for, an anticipatory buzz of warmth in my chest, until the right door swings open with a squeak and Easton appears with Newcomb, the other guard who escorted me today.
“Oh, hi, Durrell,” Easton says, surprise flitting past his face, which then shapes into an edgy grin that matches with his unwavering gaze and angled eyebrows; his expression doesn’t convey arrogance so much as an amiable, teasing confidence. I can feel his energy dimly emanating off him as if he’s a computer radiating residual heat after shutting off. “First day of training for you? Are you excited?” Before I can answer, he holds up the construct he’s been twirling between his fingers, a tiny, iridescent blue hourglass. “What’s your token?”
“I don’t have one yet.”
“What do you think it’ll be?”
I think this over, rake my hand over my hair, leaving some grease on my fingers; it might be time for a shower. “Something simple. A ball, or maybe a cube.”
Easton is about to say something else, but Sidney interjects, “Well, we have to start the training now. Nice seeing you.”
Easton appears taken aback but nods a goodbye to me. Newcomb doesn’t follow him back down the corridor, though; they hang back and ask me, “Have you seen the Thistles yet?” I say no. “They said if I saw you, to tell you to drop by Lab F-19 down on the thirty-fourth floor. That’s where they set up shop. They’ll be there until ten.”
I can feel a frown forming in my brow. “What do they want to see me for?”
Newcomb shrugs, unconcerned. “Have fun with your workout,” they say, smirking enigmatically at both me and Sidney. They walk off, rejoin Easton down the hall.
Nonplussed for a moment, I step into the arena they left with Sidney, rolling over possibilities in my head for what the Thistles want with me. Do they want to berate me for damaging their partnership with Augen? Or maybe they’ll ask me to do them a favor, escort them to another pobel meeting.
“They’re an interesting pair,” Sidney observes, almost to herself, her tone pensive and somewhat faraway, staring off into space, coiling her fishtail between her fingers. “They’re serving engineering internships over at Dodd Industries. It makes sense, Augen heading to them . . .” She bites her lower lip, then blinks, her gaze sharpens, focuses on me with a gleam of renewed enthusiasm. “Why don’t we start now?”
She lifts a hand, sweeps it around the arena in the style of a realtor agent showing off the sunlit parlor of a lofty house in the suburbs. This place strays far from that image, though, being a barren cube twenty five feet on a side with rust-colored scabs strewn across its faded red walls—a sure sign that it’s seen, and felt, the brunt of countless training sessions. Like a couple other arenas I passed, a computer station is visible through a broad glass window in the far wall. A grid of twenty evenly-spaced triangles are printed on the floor, each one featuring a number starting from 1 in the far-left corner and running down to 20 in the close-right corner.
“We’ll start off nice and easy. Mites first, that’s all we’ll do tonight,” Sidney says, crossing the arena, disappearing through a door in the back wall. She reemerges behind the window, waves hello to me, and I wave back. I can see her holding two fingers to her earbud, and her voice booms all around me from the speaker system.
“Are you ready?”
“Actually, I have one question—what are these, uh, ‘mites’?”
She doesn’t say anything, just smiles impishly, and I take two steps back, my blood racing, because now I have a feeling I’m in deep shit.
She turns to the computer terminal, inputs a command. Within seconds four of the twenty triangles on the floor, one in each corner, open up and pop out a spherical drone of scarlet and golden metal. They all stop simultaneously, hover in place head-height above the floor, then sail towards me with high-pitched whirs. They stop five feet away from me, hovering again. Each drone has a pair of eyes shaped similarly to binoculars, twitching up and down, circles of light glinting off their lenses. They keep purring as though they’re cats mildly interested in the new Starsapien in the room.
“I’m gonna fight these things?” I call out to Sidney, with a disbelieving laugh. “They look like those utility bots in Chameleons For Breakfast.”
“They do, don’t they?” Her smile curves even more impishly, rippling the dark scar up her face, and the muscles in my neck tighten. She reaches up to press her comms device. “Let’s do the Tigon’s Arse Protocol.”
“The what now?” I barely get this out of my mouth before the mites whip out jointed appendages armed with energy blasters and four-clawed hands.
“You might be interested to know these things cost thousands of units, so don’t spend your energy trying to obliterate them. We can’t make excessive repairs after every arena session,” directs Sidney’s omnipresent voice, while I build a sword in my left hand and slash away two mites; with squeaky, childlike cries they spin backward like tops whirling across a table. I blast the other two mites with a forcefield from my right hand, and they squeal too.
“All you have to do is get their eyes to light up green,” Sidney continues, “and that’s when you know you’ve beaten them.”
“And how long will that take?” I shout over the electronic howls, parrying the stabs of a mite’s chittering claws.
“Depends on your performance.”
What the mudding hell does that mean? I change my sword into a club, smack a mite across the room like it’s a baseball. It smashes into the wall, but this seems to have only inflicted a negligible dent above its eyes.
“Don’t worry, all you need to do is defeat the set number of mites I’ve preprogrammed for you. But you won’t know what the number is until you’re done with the last one.”
I want to tell her this isn’t the best way to go about training, that I thought it’d be more focused, hands-on, maybe she’d teach me some secret combat techniques with that telekinesis of hers. But a mite slams me to the floor with a staccato burst of concussive energy shots, knocking the wind from my lungs. The club flies from my hand. This mite and a second one close in on me, but my forcefield repels them. They’re always yelping with every hit, as if begging for mercy, but then they turn right back around and rush me with their weaponized appendages.
I can’t give an exact count of how long I endure this for. Half an hour, two hours, twelve hours, a day, a week? Blood pounds in my ears, muscles everywhere tauten, the light burns in me and never gets a chance to cool down. It’s relentless, these damn drones flying at me, thrusting their weaponry, and I hurl out of the way, I punch, slice, shoot, bash, but the most I can do is split a thin crack in their eyes. Even when one tosses it in and flashes its eyes green and sinks into one of the floor triangles, another mite rises from a different triangle to take its place. Any cuts and bruises heal quickly, but I’m suffering such a high number of them that my mendsense makes me feel like my whole body has pins and needles. I even think I break a few ribs, but the sharp pain in my chest turns into tingling, which then fades away.
At one point a mite shoots me right in the back, propelling me through the air, and I crash against the window of Sidney’s station, smack my face on the glass, there’s hot pain in my nose, something warm trickles down to my upper lip, and I clamber up from the floor, press my palms against the glass, peer wide-eyed at Sidney—sitting back in her chair, eating chocolates, bopping along with the music coming through her headphones, which are jacked into the NoteBook on her hip.
“You’re a monster!” I scream, the aching heat clearing out of my nose as it heals itself. Sidney has the nerve to respond with a finger-twiddling wave and an impudent smirk. Then I notice the oncoming mites’ reflection in the glass and I swivel back to the melee.
Finally, there’s that glorious moment when I swing my gleaming blue hammer and crunch a mite into the floor. I hit it directly on its eyes, and one of them cracks down the middle. Then they light up green and the rest of the drones follow suit and every one of them descends into the triangles with the glum moans of children who are upset that playtime is over and they need to pack away their toys.
Exhaling a breath of exhausted relief, I sink to the floor, flop onto my back, one arm draped over my eyes. So that explains Newcomb’s smirk.
“Congratulations, Wy,” Sidney says over the loudspeakers. “You took down twenty mites in twenty-seven minutes.”
“It felt a little longer than that,” I note dryly.
“That’s what everyone says.” I hear movement and I pull my arm off my head and sit up. Sidney steps out of her secluded little station, folds up her headphones and tucks them into a belt pouch, approaches me with a water bottle, a gauze pad, and a quivering smile as though she wants to burst out cackling. “I’m not joking, you did excellent.”
“Of course—a blast, really, watching hunks of metal kick your grazboot ass.”
I would gape at her longer in bewilderment, but she sticks out her hand, pulls me up to my feet, hands me the bottle so I can guzzle its entire contents (didn’t realize how thirsty I was until now), rips the gauze out of its sleeve so I can wipe the clotted blood from my nose. She takes me out of the arena and back into the Savvy—nobody from Web is here, thank god—where we do warm-down exercises before I go see the Thistles. The warm-down’s as psychological as it is physical—the lambent, miraculous light of stars, of fire, of this energy I’ll never understand. It’s bright and hyperactive, and I need to mollify it, like coming down from fight-or-flight mode.
I catch Sidney looking at me with her head cocked to the left, she smiles at me, a closed-lipped smile, and fidgets with her pendant through the front of her jumpsuit. I smile back, trying to pinpoint her motivation for doing this. She saves me from Brone, shows up at Myrius, gets assigned as my handler. What does she get out of all this?
After the warm-down she gets an alert through her earbud that appears to make her tense up, she’s toying with her cuffs, and she says she has to take care of something and she gives me directions on how to find Lab F-19 and she reminds me to train with her tomorrow morning. We part ways and I retrieve my shoes and bag from their cubbyhole and go down to the thirty-fourth level, just three floors above the one occupied by Rad-Bio. As soon as I emerge from the elevator, a second elevator in the bank pings open and Penelope takes two steps out of it before doing a double take at me, slowing down for the span of one second before shifting her stormy gray glare away from me and resuming her normal pace.
We’re both silent as we walk side by side, cross an atrium of red-tinted glass, advance up a hallway with sketches that genius inventors drew up centuries ago of military technology on thick yellowed sheets of gnorin paper, stop outside a glass door flanked by windows with short stacks of books on the interior sills. LAB F-19 is printed on the door. VERY IMPORTANT RESEARCH IN PROGRESS—WRATH TO ALL WHO DARE DISTURB IT has been scribbled in gold pen on the sign plastered to the glass’s other side.
“What brings you here?” I ask Penelope as she knocks on the door; she doesn’t reek as much of alcohol and her eyes aren’t as bloodshot.
“The geeks wanna see me.” She arches an eyebrow at me: You?
She adjusts her glasses, causing the light to sweep across their lenses. She looks like she has more to say, but then the door slides open with a hiss and a weary-faced woman who looks to be in her late twenties in a long coat with a laboratory emblem on the breast pocket is standing in the doorway. A Lunadivian with pale lavender skin, crescent shadows curving beneath huge orange eyes as though she only got two hours of sleep last night, a plaited whip of glossy dark hair cascading all the way down her spine, and a computer tablet under her arm. The spray of freckles across her nose is the same cherry-red as her twinkling nose stud.
“You’re here for the Thistles?” she prompts in a heavy accent, skimming her eyes up and down my form. Her gaze lingers a fraction of a second longer on Penelope. She gives us perfunctory handshakes as though she can’t bother to spare further attention on us. Her handshakes make her sleeve slide back, exposing five buff horns running around her wrist. The horns are more ornamental, what you have to watch out for are the stingers that can protrude from their blunt tips. One prick, and within five seconds the venom will leave you disgorging your past few meals.
She waves us into her lab, where desktop computers and miscellaneous research apparatuses are spread across long stainless steel worktables, along with zumu-stone figurines, like the ones at home, in green and yellow and blue varieties. Strains of a buoyant jazz track dance in the distance. The sterile, antiseptic odor in the air makes me think of a hospital lab. Windows across the room give a great view of the moonlit city of which Alphacos is the centerpiece, the night sky illuminated by the misty magenta light arcing over the western horizon. The woman calls over her shoulder, “They’re here, Thistles!” and then scuttles away, punching a note on her tablet.
Corbin pops her head out from behind a computer. “Finally, it took you long enough!” She waves me and Penelope over and we weave between the tables and meet her at a workstation where she’s running some kind of program with blocks of scrolling data and multicolored lines tracing out geometric patterns on her computer; her pouch is slumped over on the tabletop, its snake badge on the upper side. Gene is sitting on a stool at a separate table with his back to us, hunched over a microscope and inspecting a pebble-sized chunk of something yellow. Hanging on the wall above him is a transgender pride flag, pale blue with a pink and green circle.
“What are you looking at there?” Penelope asks him.
Gene utters brusque Elvaric and waves a hand over his shoulder in a please-leave-me-to-my-work gesture. His maycewood cane is leaned against a leg of his table at an angle—no, there’s some sort of black cord that’s stretched out of the knobby top and wound around the leg in a granny knot to keep it secure.
I’m standing here grazing my thumbnail back and forth over the intertwined wires of my ring. I glance sideways at Penelope—why are we here?—and she responds with her own sidelong glance and a microscopic scoff—what the hell do I know? I think to myself, Enough to follow them to Myrius, and then I turn to Corbin, the much more receptive sibling.
“I heard you’re helping out with the Augen case.” My tone is that of a friend wanting to know things are all right. “How’s that coming along?”
“Excellently, I would say. We’ve been appointed—” Corbin stops when her brother lifts his head from the microscope and speaks up in curt Elvaric. She replies in the same language but in a conciliatory manner that makes me exchange another, suspicious look with Penelope. Then Corbin pulls up a stool and slides onto it, motions to the other nearby stools—please, have a seat—and I do just that, while Penelope remains standing, arms crossed, mouth curled in such a way as to contort her sharp features.
“We’ve been appointed to oversee the retrieval of an item of tremendous value,” Corbin informs us, without an interruption from Gene. “Have either of you ever heard of a nephus?”
The name rings a very faint bell in the back of my head, but Penelope answers, “A nephus . . . Doesn’t it, ah, let you enter a parallel dimension, or something?” The bemusement in her inflection sounds artificial, as if she knows more than she’s letting on.
“Not just any parallel dimension.” Corbin turns to her computer and double-taps the screen, closing out the program and leaving in its place the home screen with a picture of the Shenos Mountains on the moon Mipyā; every year thousands of people travel to my birthworld to conquer the snowcapped peaks. Corbin hits one of many icons on the screen, opening a new window, and she types something on the keyboard and the window shows a loading screen with a small and silvery cube. It’s spinning, and spinning, and spinning.
“What the fuck is it doing?” Penelope barks.
“Taking its precious time to load,” the Lunadivian interjects, striding from her corner of the lab, tablet still under her arm. She stops four paces away from us, seems to regard Penelope with interest. “Would you like to sit down?”
“I’ll stand, thanks.”
The Lunadivian waits a beat, not taking her attention off Penelope, then says, “I hope you don’t mind the smell—I sanitized all the stools and desktop surfaces literally minutes before you came.”
I steal a look at Penelope. The rare glint of ecstasy in her eyes speaks volumes for her.
“Pardon, I do not believe proper introductions have been made,” Gene chimes in. “Seris, meet Wyatt Durrell and Dr. Penelope Flame. Mr. Durrell, Dr. Flame, meet Dr. Seris Taytoth.”
Seris completely ignores me as she takes a step closer, tucking a loose strand of hair back over her left ear. Now that I’m getting a closer look at her, certain features—the narrow nose, the high forehead, the strong definitions of her chin and cheeks—stand out from the rest of her visage.
“The Thistles mentioned you work at Rad-Bio,” she says to Penelope.
“Yes, we both do,” I throw in, drawing a can-you-please-shut-your-noisemaker glare from Penelope.
“Oh, here it is,” Corbin pipes up, as the loading cube disappears from her computer and a library of files takes over the screen. I scoot my stool closer to her table as she scrolls through the files and opens one of them, and Gene scrapes his own stool closer as well, but Penelope parks on a stool five feet away and keeps chatting with Seris as if that’s all she came here for.
“Leave her be,” Corbin advises, and now I turn back to what’s on her computer: a 3-D model of an orange donut-shaped disc marked with dozens of pale lines intersecting together on its surface . . .
“That’s what you sold to—” I begin, but Gene shushes me and cuts his eyes to Penelope and Seris, even though they’re not listening to us one bit.
“Allow me to speak categorically here,” Gene says, running a hand over the front of his argyle sweater vest to smooth out imaginary creases. “The nephus is an abstruse artifact of our mysterious, ever-mutable world, but the rumors surrounding it have persistently bruited about our world for years—rumors of its ability to grant its user entrance into an alternate dimension woven within the cosmic plane of our beloved universe, our Cosmotic.”
Corbin picks up the next part of the lecture, snapping her fingers in time with the saxophone’s vivacious cries in the background jazz. “The Welkin Dimension, as some call it, allegedly underlies our world. There are scholars, a large number of them in Torchen, who believe that if you were to cross over to the Welkin, you could grasp its power and manipulate reality. Our reality. Imagine the Welkin as a web made from trillions of strings, each string connected to a discrete aspect of Cosmotic—a place, an event, a person, any existent being. Pluck one of those strings in a certain fashion, and you will shift the linked aspect accordingly.”
“So, it’s not a phone charger,” I mumble, rubbing the feet of a zumu soldier on an adjacent table. The feet are much shinier than the rest of the body, indicating how much they’ve been buffed for good luck.
Luck. That’s what I didn’t have last night, because otherwise I would’ve stopped Augen and her pobs, but no, they got away with the nephus, and it’s partly the Thistles’ fault. My heart’s throbbing, the light is roaring, roaring furiously.
“Why?” I say too quietly, grimacing at them, rubbing the thumb and first two fingers of my right hand together, the friction warming them up. My full question—Cursed Cosmotic, why did you give it to Augen?
At least Corbin has the grace to put on a contrite expression. Gene, on the other hand, straightens up on his stool, interlaces his fingers together, and makes an offended Hmmph! as if we’re at the grocery store and I cut him in line at checkout. “You may be hasty to judge, Mr. Durrell, but there are many elements of our circumstances that you cannot apprehend.”
“I can apprehend plenty.” I enunciate “apprehend” violently, like a dagger hacking through a thin slab of gigalek. “For example, selling something that can screw up the fabric of reality to a crime lord who’s already stolen Super Nex—”
Corbin shushes me this time. I look back and they’re still gabbing away. Seris’s back is to me, but that delighted gleam in Penelope’s eyes is the kind I haven’t seen in . . . well, ever.
“Why do you even want us to know about this?” I ask the Thistles, gesturing to myself and Penelope and then to the nephus on the computer.
“As a contingency,” Corbin answers. A contingency for what? And how long have these things been around for? And I hadn’t thought about this in a while, but what was in that case they handed Brone in Ouran—a tool to complement the nephus? But I can tell the siblings won’t confide anything more, it feels like they’ve divulged a sacred enigma at the core of a secret society. However, I know they’re hiding much more, for their own shady reasons.
“You’re going to get it back, aren’t you?” I query, watching them with a steady gaze, continuing to rub together my thumb and first two fingers.
“Without a doubt,” Corbin confirms, with a reassuring smile that contrasts with the doubt in her eyes.
“Of course, we all know Augen has yet to obtain her own nephus.” This is Gene’s less-than-subtle way of reminding me that only the three of us and Penelope know what truly happened at that meeting; Sidney, Cooper, everyone else is none the wiser.
A moment passes before I lean towards the microscope Gene was using to examine that yellowish thing. I point out that it looks like a piece of bread, and Gene hops off his stool and says, “This morsel comes from a product that the cafeteria merchandises as a kellberry bagel. However, I believe they fabricated this commercial claim. In fact, the bagel in question may be nothing more than of the two-day-old plain variety.”
I suggest, “If you want good cafeteria food, Penelope loves the waffles at Galen Hospital.”
“I have always been more predisposed to pancakes myself.”
Corbin reasons to her brother, “But waffles are perfectly satisfactory too.”
He frowns at her, but there’s a glint of humor in his eyes and his voice. “I demur. The pits allow for an indulgent amount of syrup. Who wants all that viscous liquid weighing down their intestinal system? Most certainly not me.”
After another moment I say, “If that’s all, I’m going home now. See you.” I give them a two-fingered salute, then say goodbye to Penelope and Seris on my way out of F-19. That’s when Penelope realizes I’m still in the lab and she initially objects to my leaving, but I tell her the Thistles will fill her in on everything.
Or a shred of everything, I think to myself upon exiting the lab.
Hours later I’m in my bed, having taken the seed from one of Xavier’s ennium bulbs and sown it in a flowerpot that’s sitting on the windowsill, and then finished reading the Merto/Egril issue of Universal Sciences, there was a fascinating paper by Dr. Herbert Routh, the eighty-seven-year-old psychoanalyst, on dissociative amnesia. The first thing I dream about is being back in the arena and Sidney is commanding thousands of mites to rain down on me and they all have Cooper and Penelope and Corbin and Gene’s faces. The Coopers are groaning about the cuts they have all over their hands, the Penelopes are complaining about how often I beat them at reglintel, the Thistles are spewing Elvaric so fast that the individual words are slurring together. And then I get distracted by something shiny on the floor and I reach down to pick it up and it’s the nephus Augen took and now all the mites are transforming into giant chocolates and I dome a forcefield over myself and they slam down all at once and my energy explodes—
The next dream is much calmer but more unsettling in comparison. It’s the one I’ve had for years about the meadow. Most of it is the same. I pick berries close to the river, stroll along a moss-blanketed pathway bordered by grawtrees. The gold sunlight flashes brightly off their smooth iron-gray bark, their serrated yellow leaves, their ripe violet apples. Something rustles beyond the grawtrees on my left, but I’m unable to catch a peek of it.
As I enter the glen where my parents are enjoying a sumptuous meal inside the gazebo in the center, the notes of a piano melody break the silence. My breath catches, but I don’t know why. I take a step forward, something’s underneath my shoe, and I pick it up. A Kasma in its coin form, like the one in Sidney’s apartment. I flip it up into the air, catch it, and it’s a twenty-sided die. I flip it again, but I fumble it and let it fall to the grass because Sibrilich is sitting at the gazebo table, eating with my parents. You’ll understand, in time, she says without moving her lips, her voice resonating serenely in my head, what are they doing Mom and Dad get away from her she serves Gargant the piano is getting louder I drop my berry basket and scramble for the gazebo GET AWAY FROM HER NOW—
It’s as if I’ve been drowning but now I’m coming up for air, my eyes fly open, I suck in a breath, sit bolt upright, blink through the darkness at the table where I left my Universal Sciences. I spot my Arka model of the gazebo on top of the adjacent bookshelf. I peer out the window at the Lumin skyline, the ennium pot on the sill.
My heart’s a hammer on my ribs, it takes one, two, three deep breaths for it to slow down, for my body to relax. Like I said before, coming down from fight-or-flight.
Twisting my ring around my index finger, I grumble to myself, “Great, now I have to go pee,” and I roll out of bed and stumble my way to the bathroom to relieve the pressure in my bladder, picking through the fragments of my dream as I go. And until I go back to sleep they cling to my vision . . . Sibrilich’s eyes, white within yellow within yellow, calm and determined with a tinge of regret, the eyes of someone who has convinced herself to make certain sacrifices, no matter how grievous they may be, for a greater cause.