Ten minutes after snoozing the alarm at six, I haul myself out of bed, pee, shower, brush my teeth, get dressed, and breakfast on cinnamon oatmeal and aurium tea. My parents aren’t up yet, so I head into their room and peck them goodbye on the top of their heads; without opening her eyes Mom murmurs that I’ll have a good day at work, and Dad half-opens his sleep-glazed eyes and says that Ilsa Rosior will start playing in five minutes. They didn’t question me last night when I told them I’d have to go into work a few hours earlier today and they don’t know anything about my situation and I intend to keep it this way until the time is right to explain it to them. And it’ll come soon, they have a right to be in the know in case she . . .
But I’ll protect them from her. Last night meant nothing, it was a stress dream. And I do know that I will stop her and Gargant if they ever try to hurt my parents.
As for Dell, she hasn’t interrogated me or anything, but she’s put on this wary air around me, as though she thinks I’m gonna mutate into a Grimhet. Even when I’m eating my oatmeal, she keeps glancing askance at me, but doesn’t stop me when I tell her I’ll be back tonight and I call a Mobular and rush out the door with my messenger bag.
Training at the Citadelle is mostly the same as yesterday, except Sidney has me lifting weights after the stretching. We chat with Easton and Newcomb for a couple minutes when they pass by, during which an oddly familiar warmth buzzes in my chest and I rub it through my shirt to try soothing it but it doesn’t go away until Easton and Newcomb are gone. A Web operative, a different one than yesterday and not accompanied by Foxer’s holo, watches the Savvy from the balcony above, a calculating dragonfly observing its prey from high up on its perch, awaiting the chance to capture them in its claws. Then Sidney and I head into an arena and I get pitted against those mudding mites again. They clobber me, lacerate me, fling me around, and it stretches for too long, close to an hour. Meanwhile, Sidney’s tucked herself away in her cozy little computer room, eating one chocolate after another, dancing along to the music on her headphones. At least she takes mercy by hooking up her playlist to the arena loudspeakers. The tracks I hear most often consist of Patty Ramondo’s subdued voice singing over surrealistic synth-pop beats. They’re very stripped-down, but they exude these pensive, emotional vibes that are somehow the perfect backdrop for helping me zone in on trashing every mite in my vicinity.
Next up: Lab C-16. Penelope doesn’t show up, and when I ask Dr. Fulbright if he knows where she is, he says she’s at home with a hangover. Red flag there—four years I’ve worked with her, and I have never known her to call into work sick. It’s one of the few traits we have in common, the determined, almost obstinate drive to get to work no matter what. If I broke my legs, I’d hail a Mobular to the lab and ride around in one of those nice gravity chairs for which I’ve been seeing ads recently.
At lunch break I go down one story to the thirtieth floor and head into the cafeteria, which is a bit busier than yesterday. It’s all round tables, three-legged chairs, and flags with Warbearer and S.P.A.C.E. Union crests. The steady drone of collective jabber fills my ears. The mishmash of food odors rising from the kitchen behind the pickup counter fight their way up my nose and elicit a growl from my stomach. There are two people waiting at each of the three order stations, so I stand in line at the middle station and consider what I’ll get, maybe waffles, and I fiddle with an energy construct of a die-sized cube between my fingers. I tried copying Easton’s token this morning, but the hourglass didn’t feel right, it had an odd weightiness about it. But I’m not sure a cube’s good, either, and I start shaping it into something new, split it in half, stretch the two pieces into crescents—
“Yee-up, that’s boss, Kyapitan, flaunt yeh blue magic!”
Cooper’s jumping into line behind me and he’s tall enough that it isn’t hard at all for him to peek over me at the pair of pearly blue pieces that I’m stretching into crescents. The glint of excitement in his brandy-brown eyes matches his grin, he’s staring at my constructs like an eight-year-old regarding a shiny new toy. I smile and ask him how he’s doing, but my momentum’s lost now and I let the would-be tokens flicker and vanish.
We talk about our day while ordering lunch, retrieving our trays from the counter, weaving our way through the cafeteria to find a free table. Apparently Cooper was driving around Lumin as part of a patrol squad, and he had to deal with teenage Vermusk protesters in masks and green-and-gray uniforms who were spray-painting their cruisers and lobbing figs at the cubs.
“They’ll probably get released tonight, s’not like they wanted to hurt anyone, but we gotta give ‘em a warnin’. It’s one thing to get all riled up in Neuanfang, but they gotta dial it down here in Civ-Lum, yeh know,” Cooper says on my left at our table, between bites of his gravy-soaked mutton and lumpy mashed potatoes; I’ve got two waffles glossed in syrup and topped by a pat of butter, and a violet apple. “And they get so belligerent. Like one punk, he kept shoutin’ at me, callin’ me a troll slave. Can yeh believe that?” He scoffs, rolls his shoulders in a way that bulges the muscles in his thick arms through the long sleeves of his scarlet shirt.
Dangling from the waist of his cargo pants are his travtoks, like a silver-and-black one for Asmo, which has flourished commercially because of the high number of Gigalek mines and refineries it’s opened up in recent years, or an orange-and-navy one for Vestral. That hammer is slung over his back, kind of resembles the war hammers I’ve seen in the weaponry arenas. Its leather-twined handle is as long as his arm, but thinner. Every shift of his body causes a pink luster to ripple over its coppery head, which is broader than both his fists put together. The striking end is blocky and quite wide, engraved with the concentric stars and circles of the Dsinolic Doctrine; the tapering asterisk peen is fashioned with pendant charms of animal heads and flowers hanging off the star-tips in a similar fashion to his travtoks.
“Are you concerned about the way Sornis is handling things with the Vermusk?” I query, slicing off a piece of waffle; they’re a little too dense for my taste, I like them fluffier.
Cooper’s face contorts, flustered, and he pauses to take a napkin and wipe away the thick gravy dribbling down his chin, but he doesn’t get a chance to answer me before Sidney plops into the chair on my right, dressed in the same sleeveless jumpsuit as yesterday. She clatters her tray on the tabletop and punches my arm in friendly greeting.
“Well, unless you think the way that clown’s treating ‘Belly-Dune’ will make her and her supporters warm up to him, then I’d have to say, yes, we should all be very, very concerned,” she asserts, tearing open a ketchup packet, squirting out the contents on a dish on her tray with slightly burnt potato fries and an egg-and-ham sandwich, dunking a fry into the ketchup knoll and throwing it into her mouth, popping open her can of orange soda. And everything is moving without a single touch from her—a physical touch, that is. These objects, while covered in a thin coat of light as soft purple as the glow emanating from her bracelets, rise into the air, hover, flutter, spin, all in response to the slightest, most deliberate movements of her fingers. It’s as if she’s manipulating them through a series of invisible strings stretching tautly between her fingertips and the objects under her control.
After we finished my mite fight this morning, I was doing my warm-down stretches while she was gyrating three chocolates in the air above her whirling finger, darting me don’t-you-wanna-ask-me looks. I did want to ask her, I’ve been suspecting what she can do since she saved me from getting blown to bits at Myrius, or even before that, when she rescued me from Brone. So I broke down and asked her how she does her telekinetic tricks. Turns out, it’s not so much telekinesis as it is “chorokinesis,” or spatial manipulation, with which her bracelets, or Choro-Cuffs, have endowed her. Instead of moving things themselves, she warps the space around them, encloses them in their own cell, and that’s what she wields, the cell itself. She made a point of being vague about what her abilities consist of, but I’d assume she could do quite a bit with them.
“Look, the Head Councilor should be tuned in with these issues,” Cooper says, maneuvering a chunk of mutton and a glob of potatoes onto his fork, “but what can we do ‘bout it? Bitin’ our nails won’t get us anywhere.”
Uncertain of the point he’s making, I ask, “What are you saying?”
His fork is halfway to his mouth before he stops to look at me with such dismay that it’s as if I just asked him when was the last time he went to the bathroom. “I’m sayin’ we need to stay out of the forest, cos the Vermusk are in there and they know how to survive, they don’t need us stumblin’ in there and getting’ swallowed up by the creatures lurking in the sotty shadows.”
I furrow my brow at this metaphor, since it sounds like the antithesis of listening to the Vermusk and their cause, but then my ears perk up when a new voice says, “Buenuno!”—Elvaric for good afternoon. Corbin appears at our table with her tray, pouch and ouroboros pin on her back; her pale cardigan, dark shirt and pants, and flats are as neat and tasteful as her pixie hair.
“May I join you?” she asks us hopefully.
“Sure,” I answer, and she sits on the other side of the circular table, a bit closer to Sidney.
“Where’s Gene?” Sidney asks after swallowing a hunk of her sandwich.
“He isn’t feeling well,” answers Corbin as she drizzles a packet of vinaigrette over her nostmelon and cucumber salad.
“I hope Genius gets better,” Cooper chimes in, and then he points his fork at Corbin’s salad, apparently missing the quirk of her eyebrow when he said “Genius.” “What are the heck are yeh doin’ there?” he says, as though she’s going to dig into a dead rat.
“I’m about to take nourishment in my lunch,” she responds, the corner of her mouth twitching up good-naturedly.
“Hmmm.” Cooper clicks his tongue in bemusement. “Sorry, it’s just that I haven’t ever met anyone who’s sweet on those foul things.”
“Foul? I beg to differ.” The superiority in Corbin’s tone is reminiscent of her brother; maybe she feels the need to affect that air in his stead. “Nostmelons are rich with vitamins that decrease the risk of heart failure by twenty percent.”
“Oh good gods, that’s what my pa always tells me,” Cooper drawls, stabbing a glob of mashed potato with his fork. “‘Eat your nostmelons, Coop, they’re good for your heart!’ He’d nag me ‘bout that, write me notes about foods I need to nosh on and a bunch of other crap. ‘Don’t dream so big,’ ‘stop smiling,’ ‘if someone is mean to yeh, it’s because they wanna befriend yeh,’ that kinda stuff.”
Corbin ruminatively stirs her spoon around her bowl, mixing together the mushy white-green chunks of nostmelon and the flimsy cucumber slices. “Well, we’re not obliged to share dietary inclinations,” she finally asserts, and she lifts a spoonful into her mouth, chews it, stares down Cooper with her bright green eyes.
After he shrugs up a shoulder and downs his forkful of potatoes, I say to him, “So, Ruzuberuto—as in the tech corporation?”
“Pa’s the CEO, yeah.” He says this quickly, almost dismissively, as if it’s insignificant that he’s Iwokune Ruzuberuto’s son.
I recall the recent uproar about discrimination within the company, but of course I don’t ask about that. “What do you know about the cancer-killing nanotech they’re supposedly testing? A lot of rumors—”
“Come on, Wy, don’t make him give up trade secrets,” Sidney jokes, her smile unable to reach her eyes, which are regarding me warningly, as if it’s best for us to change topics. Then she says, “Hey, was Patty Ramondo on fire last night or what?”
This kicks off a chat all around the table about Ramondo’s performance at the GC Awards last night. I watched it this morning on Walnut, and of course it drew out some haters, but overall people agreed she was outstanding.
The four of us sustain this lighthearted banter up to the point where we’ve almost finished our lunch and that’s when a new voice curtly interjects, “Excuse me,” and I turn in my chair to find Bansmer standing there in Warbearer uniform. “Dr. Taython needs all of you to come up to her lab. The Commander and Sornis are waiting as well.” He tells us this while sweeping his too-close-set eyes over me and everyone else at my table.
Corbin inquires, “What’s the purpose of this conclave?”
A muscle jumps in Bansmer’s cheek as he eyes the Thistle sister. “You can come up, and Taython will tell you personally.”
Cooper rolls his eyes, itches at a patch of dry eczema on the side of his neck. “All righty, let’s see what she’s got for us.” He clamps a hand on the edge of the table, pushes on it to scrape back his chair with a clattering thud, stands up with a grunt of exertion. The rest of us rise with him.
“I don’t like him,” Sidney whispers to me from the corner of her mouth, motioning her head to Bansmer, and I give her a tiny smile.
After we dump our leftovers in the trash and leave our trays in the used stack, we go four floors up through the Citadelle to Seris’s lab. Bansmer flashes his ID badge at the lock and accompanies us inside. Seris is typing on one of the computers across the room, Marsden and Sornis on either side of her. Jackson Tach is playing this time, not jazz. Cars are flying past the far window when I gaze out at the cityscape, its towers glinting gold and silver underneath the suns.
“Commander, Head Councilor,” Cooper greets as we cross the room; he and Sidney salute their superiors with the drossclaw, the Warbearer gesture of tapping three arched fingers against their throats.
“Durrell, I trust Appleton is shaping you up,” Marsden says, more as an assertion than a question. Instead of the military uniform I’m used to seeing on her, she’s wearing a blood-red leather coat with a faux tigonfur collar over a maroon shirt and pants tucked into brown boots laced up to her shins, R-3s bulging prominently through her coat’s hips.
“I had the good fortune of watching a bit of today’s arena session through the cameras,” she continues, her crimson lips tilting into a crooked smirk. “It looked fun.”
I blink at her, glance at an innocently-smiling Sidney and then at the tension creasing the carefully carved planes of Sornis’s pale face, which is one shade away from appearing waxen. He’s staring at Seris’s computer, so I round the table to examine what’s on the screen: a satellite map of Lumin with data blocks overlapping certain locations. One of those blocks is flashing yellow over a section all the way on the left-hand edge, past the Neuanfang area.
“There’s a nephus over a hundred miles out from Lumin,” Seris informs us, pointing to the flashing block. “We’ve pinpointed it here.”
“Travmee,” Corbin declares, her voice low and bitter.
If not for the Tach song and the background hum of all the lab tech, the room would have been entirely silent as we recall to ourselves the history of Travmee, a town once home to a flourishing Vermusk community until twelve years ago, when a Warbearer general notorious for his anti-Vermusk sentiments ordered an Aurus Tigon unit to raid the town on unfounded suspicions about it harboring pobel activity. The brutal fashion in which it was carried out killed twenty-two Vermusk and injured hundreds more; a small number was lucky enough to flee the bloodshed. The general was court-martialed but acquitted months later on all charges, including murder, and people were understandably outraged—and then shocked when it came out soon afterward that he’d been found dead in his own home, beaten and bloodied, a slit across his throat. The culprit, who many believe was driven by vengeance, remains unidentified to this day.
“We’re dispatching the four of you to fetch the nephus,” Sornis orders, tucking his left hand in his pocket; unlike Marsden, he’s still in uniform.
“As in, all four of us?” I indicate myself, Corbin, Sidney, and Cooper.
“No, he’s talking to the invisible strike team over there,” Marsden says flatly, gesturing across the table to an empty spot in the middle of the lab. “They’re much more qualified than you.”
Bansmer snickers, and I resist the chance to roll my eyes.
“Isn’t it fairly wasteful to assign such a large company to this one mission? It would be more efficient for me to recover the nephus by myself,” Corbin recommends, fiddling with the emerald fangs on her ear.
“I don’t think it would have been left there if someone hadn’t set up safeguards to ward off thieves.” Marsden double-taps Travmee on the map. A second window folds open with a bird’s-eye view of a patch of the town. Half-crumbled buildings, untamable shocks of overgrown vegetation and gnarled trees, perfectly circular pits pockmarking the cracked concrete and making it look like dozens of small meteorites showered the ghost town. An invisible hand twists my stomach and I plant my hand on the table corner and drum out a soothing rhythm with my fingers.
“Isn’t it too soon to send him out?” Sidney says, glimpsing me with worriedly crinkled eyes; I was just about to ask something along those lines, considering I’m only on my second day of training.
“We need to throw him out into the wilderness sometime,” Marsden says with a careless shrug, the claws on her shoulders glinting gold with the movement.
Seris’s enormous orange eyes look me up and down as though I’m wearing ugly clothes. “Penelope’s right—too skinny,” she mutters.
“Don’t worry, this should be a quick outing.” Sornis jerks his chin to Seris. “Just bring the target back here so he can examine it—”
“She,” Marsden corrects, her authoritative inflection sounding as if it’s intended to chide the Head Councilor. It matches the look with which she’s withering him, although he seems to barely notice it—either that, or he’s doing an excellent job of ignoring her. To Seris’s credit, she’s taking all this in stride; the minuscule flicker in her eyes is the only thing that’s incongruous on her otherwise expressionless face. She probably expects this kind of behavior from people like Sornis, although it shouldn’t have to be that way.
“Er, what should I tell Dr. Fulbright?” I ask.
The Overseer waits a beat to answer, “He knows about your situation. Xavier saw fit to catch him up on things last night. I think we could have waited a little longer, just in case he . . .” She hesitates, rethinks her next words. “Well, that won’t matter.” She takes two steps closer to me, assesses me with her gaze. “This’ll be your first mission, paladin. Don’t fuck it up.”
“I’ll do my best,” I promise, dry as a bone.
“Let’s go, then,” Sidney urges, “we’ll take my ship.”
I glimpse the trains pride flag on the wall as Bansmer escorts me, Sidney, Cooper, and Corbin out of the lab—but not before Seris hands Corbin a nephus tracker, a white wedge-shaped instrument the size of a phone, for her to stuff in her pouch. Just after Bansmer leaves us with a weirdly sarcastic drossclaw, we’re about to advance down the corridor, but Foxer’s white-suited hologram materializes five feet ahead of us and I swear I flinch as if he’s Sibrilich—which isn’t that far off, because they’re both clearly intent on torturing me.
“Good luck on your mission.” How does he manage to make even that sound so foreboding? Maybe it’s the way he’s pinning me and the others with his cold eyes. “This may tell us whether we should be grateful to your Anex.”
A second later he disappears, and Sidney says, “And now we’re back,” and she leads us down the hallway.
When I ask what “Anex” means, Corbin explains, “Some have coined it here as shorthand for ‘anonymous Nexer’—whoever bestowed you with Super Nex.” She’s even-faced, but I can tell what she’s leaving unsaid, about the people who think I infected myself. Honestly, I couldn’t care less what they think; I’ve got enough of my own shit to worry about right now.
We go down to the thirty-first floor, where I run into Lab C-16 and grab my messenger bag from my locker. Once I find Dr. Fulbright, frog butter hanging on him, and tell him about my mission, the valleys in his forehead deepen, but not like he’s surprised, more as if he’s disconcerted. “You’ll be okay, kid,” he assures me, prodding his oval glasses up his nose. “The scuttlebutt here has it that you’re a natural.”
I shrug the strap of my bag into a more comfortable position on my shoulder. “Four years of working with paladins helps, I’m sure.”
“Don’t sell yourself short.” Dr. Fulbright plants a strong, frog-butter-smelling hand on my shoulder, gives it a paternal squeeze. “You’ll be more than okay,” he says, more firmly this time, as if he’s deciding to believe I really can do this.
Once I rejoin the others, we all ascend to the Citadelle’s ninety-fifth floor. Ship bays comprise the space between the eighty-eighth and the hundred-fourth floor. There’s one more level in the building, the hundred-fifth, which serves as the observation deck. We’re weaving past journeyer-class ships, compact cargo freighters, light troop transports, and technicians in headsets and yellow jumpsuits with red-striped sleeves.
“And here’s my baby!” Sidney says, fondly patting the nose of a journeyer that’s one and a half meters tall, three meters long, cerise with mauve accents, the name Wulven painted in thin white letters along the organic curves of its hull, polygonal gyrolevs the size of my head protruding from the tips of its slender wings. It brings to mind the image of an oversized alien bug with the slimness of a prall or a dragonfly. Most of the other ships in this bay are broader and more heavily armed, closer to the look of skysangs or dragons.
“Oh my, what a beauteous vessel!” Corbin breathlessly gushes, circling the craft, green eyes glinting with wonder. “I assume this is gigalek-powered?” She motions up to the gyrolevs.
“Sure thing,” Cooper drawls before Sidney can answer, lacing his fingers together and stretching them above his head, cords of muscle rippling up his arms. “Funny story,” he goes on while a smiling Sidney rolls her eyes, “I used to fly this sweet puppy all the time, had some real fun times with it. But then Sid won her from me in a bet.” He blows out an extravagantly regretful sigh. “I’ll get ‘er back someday, though.”
“Dream on, Ruzuberuto,” Sidney says, and she opens the entry hatch, climbs up through it and disappears into the Wulven.
Cooper mumbles, “Yep, yeh bet I will,” and pats the ship’s nose in the same affectionate manner as Sidney.
The bi-level interior is much roomier than I expected. We enter through the lower level, the gigalek-fueled turbine in the engine room, the labeled shelves and cabinets of first-aid gear in the med bay. We climb a ladder to the upper level and I get comfy in one of the cabin’s gimbaled seats, stretch the belts over my chest and click them into place, settle my bag in my lap. Sidney’s in the cockpit up ahead, toggling the assortment of monitors and lit-up dials on her dashboard, prepping her journeyer for takeoff. The co-pilot’s seat on her right is empty. A suncatcher is suspended from the rearview mirror affixed to the cockpit window, its beads glimmering yellow and white. The mirror is reflecting Sidney’s liquid amethyst eyes and they’re flitting from side to side over the controls; I can imagine her chewing her cheek in concentration. Then she looks at me in the mirror, and I avert my gaze, distract myself by building a coin between my thumb and finger. It’s blank, but then I shape one side to show the crested helmet of the PSN logo. It glows a dim blue as though lit from inside.
“Perplexing, isn’t it?”
Keeping the coin in my pinched grip, I turn to Corbin. She’s in one of the other seats, having slung her pouch over an armrest. She has her hands folded in her lap, her face unreadable.
“In regard to whomever endowed you with your energy,” she adds in response to my look of irritated incomprehension. “What phenomenal quality, what remarkable virtue, was it that drew their eye?” This would sound wary if it came from her brother, like he’d be stumped to think of any remarkable virtues I might possess. But she’s saying it with an academic interest in the intruder’s—or rather, the Anex’s—motive, nothing more.
A clatter comes from the galley set behind the cabin as Cooper rummages the cupboards, and Sidney calls over her shoulder for him to not take too long and we’ll be flying in a minute. I peer at the space beyond the galley, but there isn’t much, aside from a closet with envirosuits and ventmasks, and a square wall switch protected by a glass case that can open the emergency exit hatch.
Then Corbin suggests, “It might be someone in your social circle—a Rad-Bio colleague?” She’s snapping her finger in thought, fixing her eyes on the coin in my hand, but I’ve changed it into a die.
“Anyone with access to Super Nex, you mean,” I amend.
“Let’s not rule out Augen,” Cooper interjects, trundling out of the galley with a frommbol roll in each hand, chewing on the glazed dough he bit off one of them. God, they smell good. He leans his hip against a table bolted to the floor at the midpoint between here and the galley. “Call me as daffy as a dog chasin’ its own tail, but I wouldn’t put it past her to cook up some scheme to snag more power for herself, and for some heaven-unknown reason it just migh’ involve her sending a thug to infect yeh.”
“Maybe,” I say listlessly, fiddling with my die as it morphs into a polygon. It wasn’t Augen. Gargant sent Sibrilich to do it, I’m certain of it. He’s the one biding his time while we fend off his Grimhets, he’s the one with the scheme, and now he sees fit for me to play an important role in it.
I wouldn’t expect any less from him, what with all the deceit and assassinations and treason he committed during his long-ago post as Overseer of Torchen. And then he tricked allies within his Intention into helping him create Grimhet, an alternate dimension filled with hellish beasts. If he hadn’t been captured in time, he would have succeeded in tearing a space-time rift that would have let Cosmotic and Grimhet merge together, annihilating all Cosmotican life in the process. Even then he didn’t get his comeuppance, having inexplicably vanished the day of his execution, even though he’d been stripped of his powers and kept under total lockdown.
Then came Fal 8, 825 A.U.—the Premorost Tragedy, also known as Gargant’s Massacre and the Time of the Augnscone, exactly two years after Gargant’s disappearance. The first vortexes opened in eight major cities all across the moon Premorost. By the time Torchen deployed their sorcerers to close them and Warbearer wiped out all the beasts that had been unleashed, the death toll reached over five million. Further inspection of the matter confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions: Gargant was alive and kicking in Grimhet.
Now it’s the year 1174, three and a half centuries have elapsed, and we’re still fighting this goddamn war. Sometimes it looked as though S.P.A.C.E. Union would triumph, other times we all dreaded the moment when Gargant would have the pleasure of watching our world crumble to dust. It’s lasted too long. It needs to end, with our victory. We’re close, we’re so close now, and it’s all because of this beautiful energy, it’s aglow in me, brightens with every heartbeat, and the polygon I’m playing with is a tiny eagle, long wings arched back and hooked bill jutted forward. It stands on my palm and it wants to fly, it needs to return home—
A staccato burst of merry chatter breaks my reverie. Corbin has joined Cooper at his table and he appears to be regaling her with some hilarious story between bites of his frommbol; the other roll is in Corbin’s hands and she’s tearing it into bite-size pieces.
With a blue flash the eagle sinks into my palm, wisps of its energy fade beneath my skin, and I peer out the windows to find that we’re already flying, we’re soaring over Neuanfang. How long have I been daydreaming for? The dark stone and metal of the buildings far below reflect a bright glint underneath the twin suns suspended high in the pale blue sky between sparse clusters of cotton ball clouds. Perfect early spring weather for the month of Merto. I spend several seconds searching for Myrius, but I can’t find it. I watch the gyrolevs glowing yellow on the Wulven’s wings, and then undo my seatbelt and consider whether I should hang out with Cooper and Corbin. Sounds like they’re still having a fun time back there.
Instead I go up to the cockpit with my bag over my shoulder, cross my arms and plant them atop the headrest of the empty co-pilot’s seat. It takes a few seconds for Sidney to register my presence; she greets me with a distracted little smile, offers the seat to me, and I sit down, drop my bag between my feet, and watch Neuanfang continuously slide beneath us as Patty Ramondo pours from the speakers.
“You seemed pretty introspective back there,” Sidney comments.
“Just thinking about some things,” I reply, watching the ragged scar on her face pale in the light streaming through the windows.
“Like what?” Her eyes move over my face with equal parts concern for my well-being and an unexplainable curiosity to pick my brain.
“Whether this will work out.” It sounds as if I could be talking about our mission to retrieve the nephus, but Sidney spends the next moment with a contemplative bite of her lower lip; she must understand the deeper significance of my statement.
“One step at a time, Wy,” she advises. “We’ve got a lot of things ahead of us.”
I scan her cockpit. A sticker on the bulkhead features a salt shaker holding a pepper pot at gunpoint, and the orange balloon letters underneath read, A salt with a deadly weapon. Glued to the dashboard is an assembly of Toppa figurines slightly smaller than the collection at her place. Dots of light keep reflecting off the suncatcher.
“How many of these do you have?” I nod to the Toppas.
“One hundred and thirty-six.” She grins sideways at my gaping face. “And the ones you saw at home, that’s barely anything. I keep the rest in my room.”
“How long have you been collecting for?”
Her face clouds over. “A long time.” A squirm travels up her scar, up from the corner of her tightly smiling lips and over her right eye. “You know that old cartoon, Joyhorns?”
I nod; it was one of my favorite TV shows when I was little.
“My favorite character was Gertrude Madsworth, so Mom gave me a Toppa of her for my seventh birthday. It was my first Toppa. As it turned out, Mom was obsessed with them. Dad, though, I think he was scared of all those figures watching him when he was sleeping—there was a massive shelf of them in my parents’ room. But now they’re all under my care.”
She’s speaking about her parents in the past tense. I ruffle my hair, drop my gaze to her cuffs; I still don’t recognize the mystery symbol engraved on them.
“Your parents, um . . .”
She immediately understands what I want to ask her. “They’re dead.” Her flat voice is mismatched with the emotion swimming across her face.
“I’m sorry,” I say with genuine apology, drumming the fingers of my right hand on my seat’s armrest. I press my lips together to stop myself from bothering her with more intrusive queries, my eyes coast over her sleeves of vivid tattoos.
“They were murdered. I was seven when it happened.”
Holy shit. My eyes shoot back up to hers, they’re emanating nothing but anguish. Violent images flicker through my mind of the ways her parents could’ve been killed . . . going out late at night and getting mugged . . . or someone breaking into their house . . . Where was she when it happened?
“It was a tough time, but”—she reaches up to her face with one hand, itches at a spot near her scar—“I’m grateful I had Penny around.”
My eyebrows involuntarily and tightly arch together. “As in, Penelope Flame?”
She attempts a grim smile. “The one and only.”
Okay, this is a shock. My hand freezes its armrest-drumming. I’ve worked with Penelope for four years at the lab and she never once mentioned anything about a kid, not once. And she hates children, she calls them “snotty-nosed germ-ridden maggots” and “whiny ungrateful brats” and other, more colorful insults. Penelope, the overbearing, germaphobic microbiologist who bemoans to me about her bad dates and swigs from her flask . . . I don’t know, she’s never really given off maternal vibes.
For the rest of the trip I resist prying into Sidney’s past and our conversation shifts to recent happenings of the world, such as the pirates who hijacked a gigalek freighter in the middle of its spaceflight, or the hundreds of doctors and professors who’ve banded together to denounce Sornis for attempting to pass a bill in Lumin and several other cities on Bicap that would slash healthcare for Vermusk. Sidney lightens up over time, but the pain never completely fades from her crinkled eyes. I want to know more, I want to know so much more, but not now, I need to let the info sink in.
A seven-year-old Sidney grieving her slain parents. Penelope tending to her as an adoptive mother. For Metura’s sake . . .
On the other side of Neuanfang we fly over a two-mile-long strip of scrubland, and then cross over into the airspace above Maskar Hills, a swath of upland rising up at a slight incline from the scrubland’s edge. From up here I can spy the few highways snaking between evergreen trees and hillocks. But they’re tangled in brambles, weeds have pushed through splits in the asphalt. Nobody’s used those roads since Grimhets began spawning within the forest ten years ago. Fortunately they never try to leave it and cross over into Neuanfang. According to the data Torchen collected from Web drones sent into Maskar, the monsters are satisfied staking their own territory in Maskar, and the growth rate of their population is equal to their death rate, meaning the risk is very low that they could build a horde big enough to charge into Neuanfang; why the creatures die so fast is still a mystery. And Torchen has repeatedly blocked Warbearer from storming into Maskar and eradicating all Grimhets, fearing such efforts might provoke a vortex into life; Marsden had to settle for posting cubs along the border between it and Neuanfang 24/7.
Beyond Maskar the grayish-beige land steeply slopes back down, to a plane lower than Neuanfang, and the highways with their swollen bumps and weed-infested cracks zigzag through fallen lampposts, clumps of decaying wood, piles of metal and cement, broken traffic signs.
“We’re here,” Sidney announces once we’re over Travmee. According to the dash clock timing the trip’s duration, it’s been thirty-two minutes, forty-eight seconds, and counting since we departed from the Citadelle. Now I can survey the buildings, most of which are gouged and weather-beaten but too resilient to fall down, as if they’re ancient creatures refusing to give way to the wear and tear of nature and time; a few have yielded, though, leaving heaps of debris in their place. Beastly trees stand tall in brown garden patches, overhanging their long claws of leafless branches over dead flowers divided into uneven slices by the gnarled tree roots stretching out onto the pavement. The remnants of more lampposts are scattered everywhere, along with spots of dry vegetation and the corpses of cars that’ve been stripped bare of every valuable part.
“Gah, my poor little plumpies are scrunchin’ tight jus’ lookin’ at this place.”
I whirl my head around and Cooper’s right there, I never even heard him sneak up behind me and Sidney. He’s holding out one hand on the wall, sticking out his bottom lip with the air of a child who does not, does not, want to go see the doctor.
“Your plumpies scrunch when you watch a horror movie,” Sidney nonchalantly points out.
“Yep, thank yeh for provin’ ma point, cos we’re traipsin’ into just that sorta thing. We don’t know what’s out here.” He juts a thumb over his shoulder at Corbin shuffling up behind him. “Why’d we even have to drag Corbinoid out here? She coulda hung back at Taython’s lab—”
“Are any of you experts in the procedure of nephus authentication?” Corbin says, darting us critical looks. Whatever mirth she shared with Cooper appears to have died away. “Please, speak up if you are proficient at said field. No? Oh that’s right, your job is to provide muscle.”
“Muscle that’ll protect you in case anything happens down there,” I argue. I’m getting a mudding tension headache in my neck.
“And somethin’ will go down, cos my plumpies are never wrong, never ever.”
“That’s not true,” Sidney objects, “sometimes they miss the jump scares.”
A thin, humorless smile spreads across Cooper’s round face. “Oh no they don’t. They’re like fire alarms, but for fear. Fear alarms, yep.”
A beeping comes from the dashboard, and Sidney taps a monitor, opening a window for a live video channel with Seris. “What’s the status, Taython?” asks Sidney in a serious tone appropriate for the task at hand.
“The target should be seven paks ahead of you,” Seris informs us. “Corbin?”
“I concur,” says Corbin, who is studying her wedge-shaped nephus tracker, its wide end pointed toward the cockpit. She points to something in the distance resembling a cathedral, an impressive mass of spires and columns and asterisk towers on the edge of a long inlet—Saydon Sound, if my orbiography knowledge serves me correctly. Even from this far away it emanates tenacity, as if resisting the damage that’s causing the rest of the town to perish, as if it will stand until the end of Cosmotic.
“That’s the Aabryn Temple,” Seris says. “It served as a cross between a church and a library for the locals. It was considered Travmee’s religious center.”
Seems like as good of a place as any to hide a reality-warping device, I think to myself.
“We’ll alert you as soon as we’re done,” Sidney says before clicking off the channel. Then she tells Cooper and Corbin to get back in their seats and she expertly lands her ship in a town square two city blocks away from the Temple. The four of us disembark the Wulven; I notice Corbin nervously checking her phone, clenching it tightly in one hand as if awaiting an update on her lost luggage, while holding the tracker in her other hand.
First thing to hit me when we step outside is how much this place reeks of Grimhet. A horrendous odor of grease and death, like taking a pot of tar and throwing in the decomposed carcasses of rats and birds. It makes my stomach writhe and bile’s creeping up my throat, but I have to push it back down, I pinch my nose closed. I can tell nobody else is crazy about the smell from the grimaces contorting their faces, and especially from Cooper’s agonized “SWEET MALEPHI DAIMO!”
We set off at a fast pace up the cracked road to the Temple, passing by multiple houses that have collapsed or are close to collapsing. I try not to peek through the openings in the walls and the glassless windows, but I can’t help myself a few times and I’m able to pick out the torn and shattered remains of furniture and upholstery. There’s one house with a gaping mouth of an entrance and its door has been ripped away and left on the steps, a splash of dried brown staining its faded yellow wood. I pull my eyes away and refocus on the Temple, flexing my fingers, feeling the anxiety rise in my chest.
“After we find this thing, what’s the next step?” I ask Corbin.
Keeping her eyes fixed on her tracker, she opens her mouth, but Cooper breaks in, “Dr. Taython and the Flowerbrains are gonna study it, o’course, see if Augie’s been gummin’ up the Welkin.”
“So you know about it too, the Welkin?”
“Fabric of reality and all that good shit, yeah.” Cooper’s face darkens and he shoots a glance at Sidney, who’s three paces ahead of us and snacking on chocolates from her pack.
I don’t get more time to read into this gesture before Corbin pipes up, “Excuse me— ‘Flowerbrains’?”
“Sure, cos of your name.” Cooper scrunches up his forehead in thought. “Damn, now I think about it, Dr. Taython and the Flowerbrains, that sounds like a thirties rock band.”
Now we’re nearing the Temple, which has a nonfunctional fountain to the right of its weed-blanketed front path. A layer of grayish-green lichen covers the fountain and the statue of a robed Vermusk standing in the middle of it and wielding a staff. Something like apprehension clutches my heart at the sight of the cemetery abutting the left of the Temple, its graves crammed into tight rows, marked by small headstones of chipped granite, and guarded by rusty metal fences.
The Temple itself has torn flags with fragments of divine symbols limply hanging on the brown and gray columned walls. The stained-glass asterisk window above the entrance depicts a cloaked figure clasping a jewel-encrusted goblet in their rounded hands. The Temple is casting great shadows under the suns, which are being reflected in the Sound behind it as though they’re the golden eyes of a god watching us from the water’s surface.
We proceed up to the entrance’s double doors, which are of metal set with glass circles confining wilted flowers inside. Sidney pulls open one of the doors and it creaks on its hinges. Inside, an ultimate silence fills the musty air, which has been warmed by the light glaring through the stained-glass windows. The ceiling rises three stories over the pews and the canopied altar and the long table of white-flecked ashmelin wood running parallel with the back of the chamber. An omnipresent illumination of silvery and orange hues shimmers over everything, reflects off the thousands of motes of dust drifting through the air.
“My readings say the nephus is above us,” Corbin declares, wiggling her tracker up at the ceiling.
To our right is an open doorway leading to a staircase that curls upward through darkness to a dim patch of light far above. We climb the steps one after another, Sidney first, followed by me, Corbin, and Cooper. I reflexively put my hand against the wall and I’m barely able to discern the individual steps in the darkness, but the steadiness of our simultaneous footfalls keeps me in rhythm. Once we reach the top of the stairs, we emerge out onto a library that’s a good deal larger than the room beneath our feet. The walls are lined with shelves, but books occupy about only half of them, messily arranged and leaning diagonally against each other, and some of the books have spilled to the checkered floor with their covers and pages spread to either side like the wings of a dead bird. Reading tables and chairs are set in a pattern of two haphazard circles in the center.
“All right, let’s book it,” says Sidney, walking swiftly into the library with the rest of us on her heels.
Corbin raises an eyebrow but says nothing as she waves her tracker from left to right and right to left, colorful lines crisscrossing over the screen. Dust is wandering around the air here too, and by now I’m fighting off the itchiness building up in the back of my nose.
We’re ten feet into the place when Sidney says, “You know, I love libraries—they make shhhhh happen.”
That must be too much for Corbin. “Appleton, please tone it down.”
Sidney grins irreverently. “I’m sorry, I just can’t help my shelf.”
I’m about to ask her how many more library puns she has at her disposal, but then a chirp sounds and Corbin mumbles, “That’s strange . . .”
Another chirp, faster this time. The colored lines are forming a cluster of arrows on the screen of her tracker, more chirps at a rapidly increasing tempo, and I feel as though someone is shoving their hands on my chest, forcing me backward, the momentum slapping my bag against my hip. Purple light flickers through the rim of my vision. Something pushes back Cooper and Corbin as well, the latter almost dropping her tracker. I look at Sidney, she’s holding up one hand and the bracelet there is shining a gentle purple, and then I return my attention to the space in front of me—one second the air looks like it’s warping itself around the misty, pale silhouettes of ghosts, the next Penelope and Gene are standing six feet in front of us with two of Augen’s pobs, Runa and Lumpy Nose, lying on the floor next to them.