The geevee ride through Maskar Hills is at once an eternal and a fleeting period. Penelope and I are sitting on one bench, opposite Cooper, Runa, and Lumpy Nose on their own bench. The driver is on my right, wearing a loose beige uniform and a clear-visored helmet, nimbly steering the geevee between trees and shrubs with mechanical whirs and moans. It isn’t going any higher than six feet off the ground; the boosters on these small craft aren’t powerful enough to make them capable of skyward travel.
On my left, in the rear of the vehicle, Gene is lying supine on a bench with his argyle sweater vest rolled up pillow-style under his head, his gray button-up shirt limping half off his body to expose the bite wound in his right shoulder, eyelids barely closed as if he’s wavering between wakefulness and sleep. Corbin is sitting at the foot end of his bench with his legs draped over her lap, she’s holding his hand tight, watching Sidney pipette more of her orange syrup into his mouth and the second Vermusk finish bandaging his shoulder. Sidney’s medical kit sits open at the end of the bench facing the Thistles. Corbin’s face is frozen in a mask of disbelief and terror, as if expecting her brother to start shuddering again, or dark blood to seep through his bandages.
And all I can do is sit here, a familiar sensation of something small and warm buzzing within my chest, fingers worrying at the bright blue token I’ve built, a spider with flat wings that display ghoulish faces with gaping mouths and hollow cheeks. I usually see this anomaly in my meadow dream, but not the last time, not when she showed up . . .
Sidney wraps her hand around mine. Instantly, a pleasant tingle runs up my arm. I look at her and she’s glancing at the winged spider in the palm of my free hand and she smiles reassuringly at me. I don’t reciprocate it, I return my gaze to the spider, study it for a beat longer, then close my hand into a fist and absorb its light into myself. And I’m shooting my eyes all around, keeping them peeled for more Grimhets. This vehicle doesn’t even appear armed. Where are we going? What if they pounce on us?
There’s a point where the geevee climbs a wildflower-tangled slope and slows down after reaching the top. Nothing but woodland ahead, moss and undergrowth and bushes choking hundreds of trees. The air sparkles with the sparse sunlight breaking through the dense canopy. Penelope brusquely mutters something under her breath, Cooper’s fidgeting with the travtoks on his belt, Runa and Lumpy Nose share a heedful frown, and the others remain focused on Gene. Then the driver taps something on his control console and the air a few feet in front of the geevee becomes watery and shimmery, as if the forest beyond is melting apart.
The geevee crawls forward into this space, it feels like we’re crossing through a sheet of cool mist, and then I draw my eyebrows together at the sight of what’s ahead of us now—a clearing with about two square miles of space populated by forty or fifty houses with colorful gardens on their flat roofs, and a church in the center of it all that reminds me of Aabryn Temple with all its asterisk towers and spires and stained glass. I’m even more bewildered by what’s emblazoned on the coral flag fluttering from the tip of one of the church’s spires—a turquoise snake squiggling up to a deep green crescent moon, an emblem I’ve seen before . . .
Our geevee glides over multiple domed lights half-hidden between the tree roots and within the carpets of grass and weeds, a network of rhythmic and faint circles of blinking white illumination. Before I can consider them much longer, the geevee slows to a full stop over a dirt road with a crowd of Vermusk gathering a good distance down the path, its participants having spilled out from other houses in the village, curious as to what our arrival entails. The two closest houses are on either side of the geevee, built from mahogany paneling inlaid with green and red stone, gauzy curtains drawn over the windows, Thredner vines with orange and blue flowers braided along the bars of their porch railings. Three Vermusk are hurrying down from the right-hand house’s porch; one of them looks familiar, her wine-red hair tied back in a high ponytail with a thin white scarf, while the other two are wearing plain white uniforms and lourus-emblazoned caps indicating them as medics and both are bearing together a stretcher. Three more Vermusk are marching off the porch of the left-hand house, dressed in black uniforms with a silver guard’s crest on the breast, the energy rifles they’re carrying making my heart quicken.
The driver lands his geevee on the ground, punches a dashboard button to swing open the door. Within seconds I’m off the vehicle with Sidney, Cooper, Penelope; the rifle-armed guards are escorting Runa and Lumpy Nose down the road, towards the growing crowd that’s smoothly parting to make way for them as if afraid of getting too close to Augen’s thugs; the medics are hurrying after them, Gene bouncing on their stretcher with his cane clasped in his hands and laid atop his body lengthwise as though he’s a dead knight arranged to hold his sword; and Corbin, shouldering her brother’s rucksack and her own pouch, and the cream-cloaked Vermusk who’d been treating Gene are talking in low, hasty tones with the red-haired Vermusk, who doesn’t seem to be bothered by the vulpine agudlin twining around her knees.
“Where’re they takin’ him?” Cooper says in the direction of Corbin and her acquaintances; all he gets is a sharp look of disapproval from the red-haired Vermusk, the crescent markings on her sober and intelligent face tightening.
Penelope up-nods to her and says, “I think I’ve seen her before . . .”
My eyebrows climb up my forehead in amazed realization. “It’s Sílvena Belldon,” I say. I can’t believe I didn’t recognize the activist sooner, that’s the symbol of her movement, Quelevoze, up on the church flag. She’s in an indigo shirt fastened with silver toggles and tucked into brown pants, fingerless knitted gloves, and a wide-necked woolen peach cloak pinned at the throat with a round silver brooch. Her ears are pierced with shimmering hoops and stained-glass droplets. She’s tall and fine-limbed, her wrists and neck thin, yet there’s a sturdy wiriness to her muscles that makes her look like she could run a long-distance race.
“What’s going on here . . .” Sidney says quietly, as Corbin looks over her shoulder at us, tension in her eyes, and then says one last thing to Belldon and her companion.
Then Belldon strides up to me, Sidney, Penelope, and Cooper with her agudlin two paces behind, its silky coat shimmering pink and blue under the late-afternoon sunlight, its bushy tail split into three ends, its curly mane framing shining brown eyes and a smirk on its pointed white muzzle.
“You shouldn’t be here, Starsapiens,” Belldon states, examining us with a I-wonder-if-I-should-detain-you gleam in her vivid green eyes.
“Good to meet you too,” I say with dry impudence.
Belldon eyes us for the length of two of my breaths before calling out, “Yentus!” The cream-cloaked Vermusk rushes up to stand at alert beside the Quelevoze leader, who tells us, “She’ll take you to my study. Stay there until I come see you. I have to check on Gene.”
Cooper waves his hand in confusion. “Whoa, hold up, we’re not goin’ anywhere until yeh lay out what the hell’s—”
Penelope clamps a hand on his arm, nails digging so hard into his bicep it must hurt, and jerks him back a couple steps. She redirects her attention to Belldon, whose agudlin is cocking its head at Cooper with enigmatic interest. “You make sure that kid’s okay, you hear me?” Penelope pesters.
Belldon’s studies her a moment longer, then advances past us toward the geevee with her agudlin and Corbin on her trail; as Corbin passes us, Sidney enfolds her in a hug out of nowhere and the Thistle sister’s widening eyes flash brightly, but she seems to appreciate the support nonetheless and she hugs back Sidney. Then she hops up onto the geevee, joining Belldon and her agudlin. The driver guns the engine, lurches down the road and hooks a quick right, disappearing behind a house. When I notice how the Vermusk whom Belldon called Yentus rests a hand on the steel-gray gun strapped to her belt, I gesture at the others to get moving and the four of us hustle down the road after Yentus, matching her brisk gait. I start asking if we could take a geevee as well, but Penelope swiftly kicks me in the shin and I stifle a shout and throw her a dirty look.
As we pass the bystanders on both sides of the road, they watch us with mingled intrigue and suspicion. One of them, a boy around six or seven, leaps onto the path and scurries alongside Penelope, cranes his head up and stares at her with his thumb in his mouth and a wide-eyed keenness that only innocent children can possess.
“Scram, you little demon,” Penelope tells him, and he giggles, curls his tiny fingers around the dirt-stained knee of her pants, gives a playful little tug, scampers away with another giggle.
“Kids love you, Penny,” Sidney comments.
“Funny, because I hate kids, especially the unsupervised kind,” Penelope says, as if talking about an infectious disease.
Aside from that church, the houses look mostly the same—two- and three-story rectangular boxes and cubes of brown, green, and gray wood with stone inlay of various colors, flowerpots sitting on their windowsills and more Thredner vines entwined over their porch railings. The residents are dressed in robes and cloaks, shirts and jackets and sweaters, pants and shorts, and someone has a hoodie printed with a Chameleons For Breakfast-themed decal, and it’s almost how creepy how they all stop to watch us pass by as though Yentus is escorting a bunch of zoo animals.
The gray sky looks like it’s going to rupture and pour down rain on us soon, I can smell it in the breeze. I can also detect the woody scents blowing in from the forest all around us, the deep forest in which Grimhets lurk. I can’t fathom why the Quelevoze would build a home here. Does S.P.A.C.E. Union know about it? Can they even treat Gene here? I know Sidney seemed to give him what he needed, but I can’t stop fear from wringing my heart at the thought of him—
I shut my eyes, inhale, exhale, open my eyes. He’ll be okay, I’m sure of it. I clench my hands. Corbin is with him, he has to be okay.
After five or so minutes of following Yentus turn after turn through the settlement, she stops us in front of a house a block away from the church’s west face. Three stories tall, double windows running along the highest level, painted in rich greens and golds that highlight the yellow discs and orange rays of fragrant tigon daisies suspended from the eaves in wire baskets. Yentus takes us up the four steps to the porch, waves her empty hand over a black metal panel embedded next to the door. A ping, and she pushes her hand on the door and it swings inside.
We enter a foyer with modest yet tasteful furnishings, paintings of nudes doing everyday activities like cooking or folding laundry, Vestral rugs woven with stylized imagery of snakes and flowers, garlands of tigon daisies hanging from the ceiling. Yentus guides us up a flight of stairs covered in moss green carpet, down a corridor with a Vestral rug covering its whole length and glowing orange glass orbs on the walls. She stops at the third door on the left, waves her hand past a black panel in the wall, and just like the entrance it clicks and she pushes it open.
“You’ll stay here until Belldon comes back,” Yentus instructs after waving us into a study as charmingly appointed as the entry hall downstairs. “Whatever you do, don’t eat the toffees—they’re only for her.” Something light and humorous appears to flicker through her hooded eyes before she leaves.
Almost at once, Sidney, eyes darting all over the study, declares, “Let’s eat the toffees!”
“I have a better idea—let’s not eat the toffees and say we did,” suggests Penelope, in a way that makes it difficult for me to determine whether she’s being sarcastic.
“But she told us we can’t eat them, which means we have to!”
Penelope sighs with facetious sympathy. “Reverse psychology’s a bitch, isn’t it?”
Cooper queries, “Where are the toffs, anyway?”
“Right there,” I answer, pointing at the vivid red bowl of toffees on the desk, a stout rectangle of lacquered ashmelin wood near the back of the study, deep brown and flecked with white, decorated with foliate engravings. Each roughly spherical candy is individually wrapped in translucent wax paper through which I can see the pale brown treat of delicious sugar and butter inside. There’s also a desktop computer, a mug with pens and pencils and a pocket flashlight, a potted ennium bulb, a tasseled orange pillow, and a short lamp with a frilly orange shade. They and the accompanying gravity chair would lie bathed in sunlight if the curtains weren’t drawn over the window behind the desk. Books and knickknacks fill the shelves built into the warm green walls.
“Why don’t we just take a seat and wait for Belldon, okay?” I advise, motioning to a couch separated from a facing pair of armchairs by an ashmelin coffee table placed in between. Before any of us sit down, though, Penelope disinfects the cushions with her sanus wipes, throws them in the waste basket, and pumps a dollop of hand sanitizer on her palms for good measure.
As I plop on the couch with Sidney on my right, my messenger bag sitting on the cushion between us, and Cooper and Penelope occupy the armchairs, I can’t help but experience edea pryn as I recall the similar scene of the meeting with Augen in Myrius. Penelope and I exchange a look; I wonder if she’s thinking the same thing. And now I notice the vibrating warmth that’s filled my heart since the geevee picked us up has vanished.
After Sidney checks her phone and confirms that she still can’t get a signal through the grayclot, Penelope purses her mouth and mutters, “Stupid, so stupid.” She raises her voice and makes a sharp flick of her hand. “I swear, if Gene gets out of this alive, I’m going to kill him. Getting himself bit by a Rusthund—” She emits a growl as though avoiding Grimhet-inflicted injuries should be a piece of cake.
“He’ll be fine, I gave him the antivenin,” Sidney says, crossing her arms, drumming her left middle finger against the rachwolf tattooed on her upper right arm.
“Huh,” Cooper mumbles, unable to stop fingering his travtoks. When he registers the rest of us are looking at him, he shifts in his seat and says, “Just thinkin’ ‘bout where we are now, this . . . interesting place. Plenty of Vermusk lookin’ cozy, but why? I don’t care if they’ve got that shield, Grimhets are roamin’ round the woods and, personally, my plumpies are scrunchin’ tighter than ever.”
Ruffling my hair, I reason, “Looks to me like nothing more than a home for Belldon and her fellow activists.” Even as I say that, it sounds odd; if I were the head of a protest organization and I wanted to build a base for it, I’m pretty sure this place wouldn’t be a top-ten pick for me.
My doubt must show, because Cooper’s mouth is twisting lopsidedly. “C’mon, I can tell yer a bit leery of this sotty place, it’s clearly under Belldon’s control.”
Feeling the antagonism emanating from him as if he’s a cracked gigalek battery leaking radiation, I change my tone to one of surprising evenness. “I bet you wouldn’t be this nervous if we were surrounded by Starsapiens.”
His eyes narrow at me. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean, cuz?”
“You know exactly what he means, Cooper,” Sidney pipes up with dark significance.
He rolls his eyes. “I’m not racist, if that’s what yer getting at.”
Sidney quirks her eyebrow. “This coming from the guy who called the Thistles a racist slur.”
This seems to be the thing that drops a silence over us, leaving us restless in our seats; I, for one, am twisting my Olympus ring around my finger. Then Cooper turns to Penelope and says, “We got time, why don’t yeh tell us how you know the Thistles? Let me guess, yeh went on BountyWhale.”
“Have you gone there before?” I query.
“I’ve told her to get off it,” Sidney says, looking reproachfully at Penelope. I’m not really surprised she’d go on BountyWhale, even though there are much less sketchier bounty-hunting competitors available.
“What’s your problem? The pay’s fucking good, and being an ex-cub gives me extra cred. Besides, I’m not dumb enough to sign up for any of the overly shady posts.”
I observe, “Which makes it sound like you’re okay with the moderately shady posts.”
“Shut up, dork.”
Cooper questions, “Someone hired you to track the Flowerbrains to Myrius, is that right?” Penelope ignores him, but then he says, “Either you can tell us, or I can get a court order to check your account.”
She removes her glasses, strokes the end of the frame along her pursed lips. “S.L. Meade, allegedly a Cerebral official in the Censorship and Propaganda History Office. But I wouldn’t take it at face value; nine out of ten BountyWhale accounts put up bogus bios.”
I say, “Why’d this Meade character want you to track Corbin and Gene?”
“They suspected the kids were involved in pob dealings, and they wanted me to intervene, simple as that. And I was going to drag their bony asses out of that club, but the bouncers stopped us. And then you”—glares at me like she caught me throwing a wild party in her house—“showed up with your Super Nex bugshit, and I was like ‘okay, what the what,’ and the entire night turned into a clusterfuck—” She stops, releases a noise that sounds like a cross between a sigh and a groan, and slumps back in her armchair, as though burned out by her Myrius flashback.
“I change my mind, I’m gonna try a toffee,” she says a breath later, getting up, crossing the study to the desk, plucking a candy out of the bowl, peeling away the wax paper, popping the toffee in her mouth and chewing it—and she promptly cries an expletive in revulsion and spits the sweet into her hand. At least, she tries to; it clings to her tongue and ropes of saliva dribble over her lips, and she’s forced to pinch the brown glob between two fingers and pull it off.
“That—is—abhorrent!” she yells after lobbing the toffee toward the waste basket; it hits the rim and sticks there. That’s also where she disposes of the wet wipe with which she cleans her hands. “Old candy,” she grumbles, letting out a throaty blecchh!
Just then, the door opens and Belldon walks in, preceding her agudlin as it curls its trifurcated tail around her leg. She sweeps a wary gaze over us as if she thinks we swiped something from her study; when she looks at Penelope mid-hand-wiping, her green eyes glimmer joyfully. “You fell for it, didn’t you?” she says, which makes a flush of anger and embarrassment rise to Penelope’s dark cheeks.
“I have a confection to make,” offers Sidney, her quivering mouth betraying the laugh she’s stifling. “I was pretty sure those were old, so I was waiting to see if anyone else would eat them.” She gestures to Penelope. “And you did, so, thank you.”
“Yes, thanks, I don’t get many visitors, so I rarely get to pull that trick,” Belldon says, closing the door behind her. We all look on as she crosses her study, rounds her desk, opens the curtain to let what weak sunlight there is leak through the window from the gray sky outside, patches of orange blooming inches above the trees. She pulls out the gravity chair from her desk and pushes it over to our cozy sitting area; her agudlin nimbly leaps up onto the desk, snuggles up on the pillow. Belldon sits in her chair with her legs crossed beneath her at the end of the coffee table, Cooper on her left-hand side, and Sidney and I on her right.
“You’re ruthless,” Penelope grunts, returning to her former armchair.
“You’re too kind.” Belldon props her elbows on both knees, clasps her hands together. Something about her casual air makes my heart race.
“How is he?” Penelope asks half a second ahead of me.
Belldon looks at her oddly. “He’s in stable condition.”
I let out a long breath as though I’ve been holding my breath for the past few minutes. As if I just exhaled my stress, all the tension in my muscles melts away. Sidney’s face breaks into a smile. Penelope shakes her head and mumbles to herself. Even Cooper’s visibly relieved, scrubbing a hand over his forehead and leaving a pink patch in his olive skin.
“From what I heard, you were the one responsible for dispensing treatment?” Belldon asks Sidney, who nods her head yes. “I want to thank you for very possibly preventing him from . . .” Belldon looks away, unable to finish the sentence, and then goes on, “He’s in the infirmary, with his sister. They told me you were on a government assignment that took you to Travmee . . . ?”
What did the Thistles say? I get the feeling they’re more than acquaintances with Belldon, but whether they’d tell her about the nephus . . . I’m in the process of creating an alternate mission that omits the nephus, when Sidney, who’s got it in one of her belt pouches, speaks up. “We were retrieving something—a nephus.”
I side-eye her. Well, obfuscating’s out the window.
“You wanted to protect it from Rechin Ihres Augen,” Belldon assumes.
After Sidney nods, Cooper chimes in, “Yep, so we gotta head home now. Sauverpod’s on its way, right?” He’s wearing a broad grin full of easy friendliness, but he’s fisting his hands together in his lap.
“Believe me, there’s nothing I would love more than to send you back to your Starsy cronies. However, I plugged an alert to the Neuanfang crimson forces, and they replied that, even though they received the transmission from your beacon, there are certain bylaws precluding them from dispatching help. Also, when I say ‘bylaws,’ I mean—and please excuse my foul language—political tigonshit.”
The grin slides off Cooper’s face, leaving behind a pure befuddlement to which I can relate.
“It’s all because of that troublesome contract drawn up by Head Troll Aldous Sornis, it prevents crimson forces from providing any services, military or other, to Asulon, and now I’m regretting allowing that stipulation—”
“Excuse me,” Sidney interrupts, not unkindly, “the only thing I really understood was the Head Troll part. But what’s this contract and Asulon? And how did you contact the cubs? I can’t get any service in this grayclot.”
Belldon glances at the four of us, makes a shifting movement that causes her piercings to glitter and her gravity chair to shake once very briefly—right, left, and back to center. “I persuaded Sornis last Fol, after months and months of negotiating, to let me build a small colony of sorts for me and my supporters, Asulon, so we can eradicate as many Grimhets from Maskar Hills as possible, curb their population, and learn how to stop them from spawning here. But Sornis included a rule in our agreement: Warbearer will not send their cubs to Asulon for any reason whatsoever. Even if the cloak were to malfunction—an extremely unlikely scenario—and Grimhets invaded the place, not one cub will be sacrificed for our crisis.”
Cooper pouts incredulously. “Why’d yeh ever shake hands over that? Yeh actin’ like this village is impenetrable, like the gray beasties haven’t blotted out dozens of other so-called Grimhet-proof strongholds—”
“And you’re acting as though I didn’t invest a great deal of thought in this plan.” It’s scary how Belldon’s eyes flash with fury, astonishment, and tinges of hurt. “On top of the cloak, we’ve set up a variety of traps around the perimeter. Every time a Grimhet dies because it strays too close to our home, it teaches the others to evolve, and avoid us. None of them have attempted an attack for the past two months.” She leans closer to us from her chair, aims her hostility at Cooper, who blushes and cringes in his armchair. “I’m exterminating Grimhets in Maskar Hills. With every passing month I’m drawing more people here, more Vermusk who need a break from the intolerance of your species. It’s become a community for us. And somehow Sornis has managed to keep his word and not blab about this place on the news. Only a select few Union officials know about what’s going on, including Marsden and Foxer.”
A beat of time, and then Sidney, stroking her fishtail, says, “Why are you keeping this place secret?”
“For safety’s sake. Do you know how many people would be terrified to find out that I’m presiding over a secluded settlement in these Hills? Just yesterday, the Starsapien Freedom League accused me of being a cult leader who plans to engage in guerrilla warfare with your Union. Imagine the field day they would have if they knew what I was doing here. And with those sort of people, it’s not hard for them to let fear foment anger, which morphs into hate, which spills over into violence.”
I understand what she means. The conservative press never misses a chance to vilify her for being a “dangerous insurgent” and a “proponent of bloody anarchy”—direct quotations from KRS host Dane Binder—and death threats aren’t uncommon. They wouldn’t hesitate to put a negative spin on Belldon and her followers destroying Maskar Hills’s Grimhets.
Belldon sits back, removes her elbows from her knees and plants them on the armrests, steeples her hands at her stomach. “As for how I contacted the cubs, it’s simple—through tera-thread cables with grayclot shielding that we laid down five feet underground and connected to several modems in Neuanfang. We’re not some cult that isolates ourselves from the outside world.
“In regard to the main issues—Sornis’s contract bars crimson aid from coming here, so we’ll have to fly you out on one of the two ships we keep in stock. Unfortunately, they’re both undergoing repairs, so you’ll have to wait until one of them is up and running. The soonest might be tomorrow night.”
“Which means we’ll be staying here tonight,” Penelope says with curled lips.
“Excellent deduction.” Belldon then looks pointedly at Sidney. “Appleton, may I have it?” This makes Sidney unconsciously touch the belt pouch in which she’s keeping our nephus.
“No way,” Penelope argues, scowling indignantly. “We’re not in the mood for this. Thanks to Augen’s lackeys, we crashed in this damn forest, and—” Her eyes shine, startled, behind her glasses. “Speaking of which, where are those little worms?”
“Under close watch at the moment.” Belldon pauses as lightning flares across the sky outside, followed by thunder grumbling from the distance and rain beginning to tap-tap-tap on the window. “I know they were after the nephus, too. I guess Augen isn’t content with just one copy.”
Cooper chuckles derisively. “Yer on target there, which is why we gotta protect it.” From the crime lordand you, he seems to leave unsaid.
Raindrops continue pelting the window, casting shadows that perpetually snake their way across the study. Belldon’s agudlin remains snoozing on its pillow, triangular ears twitching irregularly as if it’s dreaming about chasing birds. I stare at the coffee table, count the number of fine bands in its grain. I’m up to eighteen when Belldon sighs, “Appleton, Ruzuberuto, stay here. I’m going to plug a vidverse with Sornis in a few minutes, and he wants your accounts of these recent events.” She turns to me and Penelope. “You may leave.”
I straighten in my seat. “Actually, can we stay? We all have a right to know what’s going on—”
“The cubs can tell you about it afterwards if they so choose. But I want this meeting to be as small as possible; I don’t want to overstimulate Sornis’s pea-sized brain.” Her solemn manner clashes with the humored glint in her eyes.
Looking hesitantly at the others, I get to my feet and ask Belldon, “Can we see Gene?”
She studies me and Penelope momentarily, then makes an expression like she’s come to a decision. “Yentus is downstairs, she’ll take you.”
Rolling thunder punctuates the tattoo of rain as I sidle past Sidney’s legs and out of the coffee table area and I head for the door. But then Penelope says, “Is that . . .” and I turn around, watch her openly stare at the shelf behind Sidney.
I double back, focus in on the shelf’s contents: textbooks on physics and theology and political science, a windup of a skysang with its feathered wings shining multiple shades of brass and gold, a glass agudlin-shaped paperweight, framed photos . . . I take a step closer, Sidney and Cooper are examining the items as well, and it might have been all three of us realizing in unison the family in these photos. Belldon hoisting a Lispona Starsapien baby on her hip. What has to be Corbin and Gene playing a game of loe around seven or eight. The siblings a few years older and sitting on a couch with Belldon between them and wrapping her arms around their shoulders and all three of them wearing big-happy-family smiles for the camera.
I look at Belldon in astonishment; so do Sidney, Cooper, and Penelope. The activist answers our unasked question. “You could try to look less shocked—yes, they’re my kids. Not that it’s any of your business, but their father’s where they get their ability to pass for Starsapien. I divorced him years ago.”
I can almost hear the jigsaw pieces clicking into place in my brain, fitting together and forming a more complete picture of the Thistles. I don’t want to ask, but I have to . . .
“How, um, how do they—” I clear the lump from my throat, dart my gaze away from and then back to Belldon’s green eyes, the same eyes she passed down to her children. “Can you tell me how they know Augen?”
“She’s my sister.”
I could build a sword and slice through the silence in the air, that’s how thick it is. Cooper, Penelope, and Sidney are all flabbergasted in varying ways. As for me, I’m kneading the tension in the nape of my neck. Things make so much more sense now with Augen being Corbin and Gene’s aunt.
Our meeting appears to officially end once Belldon kicks her gravity chair back over to her desk and boots up her computer. When Cooper asks why her agudlin’s staring at him—it woke up several moments ago and it’s been watching him and brushing its tongue over the pale fleshy pad of its right forepaw as if licking off kissnut butter—she replies, “His name is Kurolt. If he’s acts like this, either he wants to cuddle up with you or he wants to eat your eyes out.”
Cooper gawks at her and Kurolt with a strange mix of apprehension and fascination.
“We’ll probably find out which one it is soon,” appends Belldon.
I catch Sidney darting me a humorous smile, as though we’re in on an inside joke, and I force my mouth to edge up into a smile, wishing I shared her amusement.
“That was a very interesting meeting, wasn’t it, dork?” Penelope points out after she and I exit the study.
“I hope it will teach you to stay away from office candy,” I joke as we file along the corridor and descend the carpeted stairs, itching my chest through my shirt; the mild heat’s murmuring there again.
As promised, Yentus is waiting in the foyer, engrossed in a dog-eared paperback of the sci-fi/fantasy crossover classic Secrets of An Orbiformer. “Let’s go,” she says, slipping the book in a sack hanging off her belt and leading us out the front door. We dash through a couple seconds’ worth of rain to jump into a waiting geevee; we would’ve gotten drenched had Yentus not lowered the glass-paneled roof over the craft. The heater exhales a continuous stream of hot air to stop us from getting cold.
During the ride, Penelope asks why we can’t use one of these geevees for our trip out of the woods, and Yentus explains, “We’d be pushing our luck if we attempted to leave the Hills on this. It was dangerous enough scouting so far away to locate you.” I’m left unnerved by the incompleteness to her statement, as if she wants to hint at what could have unfolded if my group hadn’t been picked up. There wasn’t a sauverpod on the way, no help coming, and all because of some agreement between Sornis and Belldon that, in my opinion, is tantamount to unnecessarily bureaucratic politics.
The sky flashes and barks with lightning and thunder as we reach the far side of Asulon and pull up to the hospital, a two-story rectangular block painted in white with pastel blue accents, louruses printed on the entrance’s glass double doors. It reminds me so much of Galen Hospital, of me and Penelope leaving it after . . . My heart tightens, I touch the side of my head that once felt tender . . . A blurry image of myself listening to Ilsa Rosior’s “Delusive Eyes” in the hospital room flits across my mind’s eye, but that never happened.
I inhale the orchids, but they’re out of season. . . .
Yentus escorts Penelope and me inside the infirmary’s lobby, past the receptionist’s desk and the waiting area with chairs that have stuffing weeping from cracks in their leatherette cushions and outdated magazines and a vending machine filled with candy that may or may not be older than Belldon’s toffees, down a corridor that smells like disinfectant and urine are embroiled in a fierce war. A doctor emerges from the second room on the left with a tablet in his hands, politely smiles to us as we pass him. It takes me a while to stop my eyes from idly searching for room 646, room 646, don’t know why I’m thinking of that—
“Wait,” Yentus says after stopping at the half-open door to the fourth room on the right. She holds up her palm to me and Penelope, raps on the door—marked with the number fourteen—and leans into the space between it and the doorframe, speaks Vermusk, and I can see past her into the room where Gene is sitting up in bed in a hospital gown with three fluffy pillows supporting his back, a blanket pulled up to his waist, a handleless enamel cup of neon green kellberry juice cradled in his hands, the dressing for his right shoulder peeking out from his gown’s wide neck. Corbin is in the chair next to him. Her pouch and his rucksack are on the nightstand, against which his cane is propped; the memory of Gene using that thing to knock over Cooper with an energy blast passes through my head, and I have to bite back a laugh. A TV small enough to lug in your arms is sitting on a spindly plastic table in the far corner.
Gene smiles when he sees me and Penelope, a weary smile and the dark bruises under his eyes conveying his exhaustion, and whatever he says back in Vermusk must appease Yentus, because she steps back from the door and tells me and Penelope, “I’ll wait out here.”
“Thanks,” I reply before entering the room with Penelope. The TV’s tuned to CMBN but muted, so no sound accompanies a news report about a crimson unit wiping out Grimhets from a ravaged town on some planet or moon.
“Greetings and salutations to the both of you,” Gene says, without the usual pomposity.
“Where are the others?” Corbin inquires, referring to Sidney and Cooper.
Penelope responds, “They’re with your mother, taking part in a vidverse with Sornis.”
A meaningful, agitated look passes between the Thistles—They know is my interpretation—and then Corbin says, “Did she tell you we have to stay here tonight.”
I nod, watching Gene roll back his right shoulder, slip his hand under the neck of his gown and itch at the dressing, and Corbin tells him, “No, stop that already,” and he waves her off and sounds like a crotchety old man the way he mumbles Elvaric.
After Corbin offers for us to sit down, Penelope is about to wipe down two free chairs with a sanus wipe, but I build a couple chairs for us and she says, “Showoff,” and insists on wiping them down. As we take our seats, I tell Gene, “It’s good to see you’re okay. You got us all worried for a minute there . . .” I trail off clumsily.
“Why, thank you for your munificent concern,” he replies, lifting his chin abruptly enough to throw back his chestnut curls. “It warms my heart so.”
“Munificent!” Penelope parrots in an exaggerated imitation of his voice.
Another look, one of trivial exasperation, passes between the Thistles, and Gene sips his juice and smiles very tightly at Penelope as if to humor her.
“You are in the clear, right?” Penelope double-checks. “All the bad shit’s flushed out?”
“Flushed out? Why, that irksome canine’s poison has been expunged, cleansed, and purged from my body. Hopefully I can be discharged in a few hours.”
“You’re being pretty good-natured about all this,” I observe, and Gene shrugs like maintaining such an attitude after a near-lethal Grimhet attack is no big deal.
A long time where nobody says anything, and then he pipes up, “Mom never disclosed this location to us.” He says it as if it’s reasonable for Penelope and me to think he and Corbin knew about Asulon all along.
Corbin agrees, “Yes, all we knew was that she started pursuing a secret project nine months ago, and it would involve her moving out of Lumin.” She cuts her eyes at her brother. “She wouldn’t let us come along; she said it was safer for us to stay in the city.”
The ghost of a grimace flashes past Penelope’s face. “Fuck, she left you by yourselves?”
An abrupt laugh bursts from Gene. “Of course not. She left us with the family caretaker.”
“And where do you live?” Penelope presses.
“Irrelevant information,” Gene says at the same time his sister answers, “Jem-7.” He throws her an annoyed glare.
Didn’t they mention that part of the city when Penelope and I met them? Yeah, Gene plays open mike there, at Lamp . . . no, Lantern. I could picture the Thistles living in one of the condos there.
“Jem-7,” Penelope repeats, glancing at me with an odd sort of interest.
Glimpsing the TV as a news ticker scrolls across the bottom of the screen—Many frustrated by slow progress on hunt for Rechin Ihres Augen—makes dread clutch at my heart. How hard can it be to catch her? Two of her minions have already been caught. Keeping my gaze fixed on CMBN, I say to the Thistles, “What’s it like, having her as your aunt?”
“She’s perfectly adequate, as far as kindred go,” Gene claims after a moment of thought, plucking at and twisting a ringlet above his ear. “When we were younger, we only met her at family reunions and holiday celebrations. We were always partial to the candied figs and hundred-dollar bills with which she supplied us.”
Corbin says, “Mom did her best to keep us away from Aunt Rechin so that her . . . choice of lifestyle wouldn’t influence us.” It’s weird to hear her call Augen “Aunt Rechin.”
Penelope curtly says, “Doesn’t look like she did a great job with that.”
The Thistles look at her with dismay, and Gene says in bitter undertones, “Once Mother moved here”— he gestures around the room as if the walls are coated in mildew and require cleaning—“it became far easier for our aunt to contact us and hire us for . . . certain tasks.”
Like bringing Augen a nephus, and whatever they delivered to Brone, I think. And if I didn’t know better, I’d say Gene resents Belldon for leaving him and Corbin behind, even if it’s to do something as important as cleaning Grimhets out of the Hills and providing a sort of refuge for Vermusk.
“Well, maybe it’s time for us to go,” I say, rising from my chair and touching it on the back so it shimmers and disappear, its energy reabsorbed into my system. I do it a second time for Penelope’s chair after she gets up.
After we say our goodbyes, Penelope and I emerge from the room and into the corridor outside, where Yentus has been leaning back against the wall and reading Secrets of An Orbiformer. Once she notices us, she returns the book to her sack and says, “Ready to be taken to the guesthouse?”
We follow her through the clouds of antiseptic and pee lingering in the hallway, out of the hospital and through the persistent downpour and into the geevee, the mysterious but pleasant warmth thrumming within my heart. Yentus flies us to a green-and-lavender house one block from the east of the church, which she tells us is called the Camerad, and it will open for drinks and dinner at eight, two hours from now. As we dash up the rain-slicked steps and across the porch and through the front door, I project a small forcefield upward in the fashion of a makeshift umbrella, through which the impact of the countless pattering raindrops exert a dull pressure on my hands.
“Wow, aren’t you hot stuff,” taunts Penelope, while Yentus glances at me admiringly.
Yentus leads us through the foyer—honey-brown pinewood floorboards, orchid vines of many vibrant colors creeping along the ceiling, a fireplace with dark orange flames crackling inside and an antique glass clock on the mantelpiece, an adjoining rec center with bookshelves and a TV on the wall and a computer desk. We pass the brown-carpeted stairs and turn into a long corridor with multiple doors in the yellow-and-green-striped walls. Each door is marked with a pair of Vermusk characters—letters or numbers, I can’t tell.
Yentus stops us at the third door on the right, slips a hand inside her jacket, produces a white keycard printed with the same symbols as the ones on the door. “Feel to take a shower,” she advises, at which point I realize I reek of sweat. “There’s fresh clothing in your rooms. Remember, the Camerad opens at eight for drinks and dinner. You can also check out the computer café, the gym, the—”
“Thanks,” Penelope snaps, swiping the keycard away from Yentus, flicking it over the rounded gray bulge where the door handle should be. The door clicks and Penelope pushes it open, disappears into the room. Right before she closes the door, I catch her pulling her flask from her jacket.
I smile apologetically at Yentus, but she turns away indifferently and takes me back to the foyer and we climb the stairs to the second floor. My room is second on the left; first sign on the door looks like a triangle and a circle squished together, second sign resembles a five-petaled flower.
After Yentus hands me my keycard and informs me about the computer tablet inside my room that I can use to make video calls with people in other rooms and to check a map for Asulon, she says, “If you hadn’t come with her kids, you and your friends would have been left where I found you.”
My eyebrows lift an inch. “Nice to know. I usually prefer to wait until after dinner to get stranded in forests that are crawling with Grimhet.” I wave my keycard and the door clicks.
I upturn my mouth into a benign smile, tell her thanks for her help, and slip into my room. I hear her retreating footsteps grow farther away until all is quiet.
My room has a bed with a stack of clothes nestled into a dip in the middle of the mattress as if the clothes themselves are too much weight, a nightstand on one side with a lamp and a digital clock, a nightstand on the other side with a computer tablet attached to the tabletop by a mechanical articulated arm, an end table cramped in the corner, and a closet-sized bathroom that smells like the site of a citrus perfume bomb and has the toilet stuck right in the shower. The rain is battering the square window, two feet on a side, above the bed.
I tug off my dirty and tattered clothes, stuff them in a bag woven out of my light, toss it and my messenger bag on the end table, and change into the brand-new clothes—white t-shirt, gray cotton long-sleeved shirt, navy blue sweatpants, even a pair of socks, but no replacement shoes or underwear. I’m not sure about the sweats, they’re sort of bunchy around the hips. Skipping the shower, I flop down onto the bed and it squeaks underneath my back and I stare up at the pale yellow ceiling, briefly itching my left hip and then lacing my fingers together over my belly. I close my eyes, listen to my steady heartbeat, let my mind drift off into darkness . . .
Until my eyes pop open at an alert chirping from the nightstand tablet. I roll onto my side, squint at the display. I napped for a paltry seven minutes.
Hi, is this Wy’s room? reads a message on the screen. Then a second message blinks on below it: It’s Sidney, is it ok if I come over?
Half because I need some alone time and half because I’m in a mischievous mood, I pull the tablet closer, tilting and swiveling its jointed arm, and I reply: Sorry, wrong room.
She doesn’t respond, so I shut off the tablet and return to lying supine on the bed. I bet she wants to tell me about whatever she, Cooper, and Belldon discussed with Sornis. But it can wait. I draw threads of the light from my heart, which is missing that comfortingly warm buzz, and out of my hands, coax them into a twenty-sided die etched with Teönor runes.
Then a knock on the door, through which I hear her muffled voice: “Hey Wy, it’s me.”
Cursed Cosmotic. I lug myself off the bed, it squeaks again, and I itch my hip through my sweatpants and pad over to the door and open it. Sidney is standing there, not in her sleeveless jumpsuit, but in maroon Paffles jogging shoes, white flannel pants with her NoteBook and chocolate pack clipped to the waist, a black shirt, and a purple zipup hoodie with a design of a blue paint splash across one shoulder. More notably, she doesn’t have her pendant tucked beneath her clothes; the resined fragment of a feathered wing sits on her sternum, hanging from a thin gold chain around her neck, its broken edges as sharp as her scar.
“What happened after Penelope and I left?” I say after she saunters into my room.
She leaps onto my bed, her weight eliciting a cry from its springs. “Eh, you didn’t miss much, unless you’re the kind of person who gets captivated by the minutiae of political hash-outs,” she says while scooting herself into a sitting-up position.
“I do love watching Cabal,” I reply, referring to the political thriller series streaming on Dabbly. “Does that count?”
“Sure. It’s much more fun in a TV show or a movie, though. In real life, it just makes my insides twist in agonizing boredom.”
“The excruciatingly painful listlessness of surviving the political jungle.”
She slides her eyes away from me, bites the inside of her bottom lip. “Are you in the mood to pay a visit to an alternate dimension with me?” She rolls up her left sleeve, baring the pink nephus on its wrist mount below her Choro-Cuff.
It takes a long time for me to say, “What do you mean?”
“I’m going to test it, confirm it actually works.” Sidney is watching me with a hint of genuine surprise, like I shouldn’t be hesitating to grab this opportunity.
“Actually, I’ve been moving nonstop all day, I was planning to rest for a minute, and I don’t think venturing into the Welkin will be a step towards that goal.”
“You know about it already?”
“A little.” Pieces of the Thistles’ explanation of the Welkin trickle into my memory. “It’s like a, a web made from a bunch of strings that are linked to the reality of our universe.”
Sidney smiles approvingly. “A good way to put it, yes. Tell you what—let’s sit here and I’ll set my timer for one minute so you can get your treasured rest.”
“Wait, didn’t Penelope and Gene already go into the Welkin? That’s where they picked up the pobs. See, we don’t need to test—”
“Grazboot, aren’t you the slightest bit interested in a trip?” She spreads her hands and smiles with the air of a salesperson trying to hook me on the newest gadget in her stock.
I consider her as she takes her phone from her hoodie pocket, thumbs a passcode on the lock screen to open it, looks up at me with keen anticipation. I’ve been going nonstop all day, I want a breather. But I guess it won’t do any harm . . .
I sit on the bed next to her. She sets the timer for one minute and lays her phone on the bed with the screen facing up so we can both watch the seconds tick down.
“What does this test of yours entail?” I say when there are forty-seven seconds left.
“Nothing complicated—roaming the Welkin, making sure everything’s stable.”
“Okay . . . and why do I need to join you?”
“The question should be, why wouldn’t you want to join me?”
I can’t help but smile, even as I shift on the bed and tug at the hips and also the crotch of my sweatpants, rearrange and smooth out the fabric.
“Getting bunchy down there?” Sidney watches me with amusement in her eyes.
“No big deal. I’ll take this over Grimhets any day of the week.”
“Same page. I’ll admit, though, this hoodie”—she pulls at the cuff of her right sleeve—“very constricting in this area.”
“I hate it when it’s like that. And turtlenecks, I especially loathe them.”
“I know, who’s into having all that fabric wrapped around their neck? Aside from Dr. Fulbright—doesn’t he wear one all the time?”
“I don’t know how he stands it. My parents had me wear this turtleneck when I was little, and I wanted to rip the neck off.”
“Just tear up the whole thing!” She reaches for the air with both hands, pretend-grabs a turtleneck, quickly moves her hands apart as if tearing it in half. “It reminds me of the time when Dad bought me this fleece jacket—”
The timer goes off with a NewWrinkles song, and she says, “I’ll save that story for later.” She tucks the phone back in her pocket, smiles radiantly at me as though we’re going to a music festival. “Ready, Wy?”
“Yeah, sure,” I answer flatly, in spite of the small thrill of excitement running through me. I suppose teleporting to an alternate dimension might be an enthralling experience.
She offers me her elbow, which I take in one hand. With her right hand she twists the nephus clockwise on its mount with a raspy, cranking noise like it’s a dial on a clunky old machine. We sit here annnndddd . . . nothing but the beating of the rainstorm.
With a noise of puzzled dissatisfaction, Sidney twists the nephus clockwise again, but again, nothing. I’m wondering if it’s broken, and then she squints at the device, lifts her chin and sheepishly grins at me. “Oops,” she says, detaching the nephus, flipping it over on the mount. “This is supposed to be on the upper side.” She taps a squarish sign engraved near the disc’s outer rim.
For the third time she gives it a twist, and my world explodes into an infinity of colors and shapes.