Project Super Nex – Chapter Eleven – A Little Brighter
I’m falling. Falling upward. My body is shooting up through a strange space where giant towers of stone and metal float in midair, where ribbons of color slither and twist as if they’re the manifestation of mystical spirits, where the sorrowful notes of a piano melody drift out of the distance, where the sharply woodsy scent of grawtree wafts up my nose. It’s a space that breathes heavily, steadily, slowly, like a gigantic creature subsumed by its deep dreams. If I focus hard enough, I can feel its pulse, feel it purring through my veins, absorbing me into its structure—
I’m standing in a plaza with a giant kissnut queen in the middle. A tingle runs through my muscles and my bones before fading away. The bustling pedestrians and the noise disorient me for a couple moments, and then I realize I’m in Bassow Square, it’s in the southwest part of Jem-7, where the Thistles are from, Gene got bit by a Rusthund but he’s okay and they’re back in Asulon where Belldon—
I shake my head, close my eyes, clasp my hands together over my forehead as if a gaping hole has opened there and I’m trying to stop my brain from falling out. A crowd of sensations is buzzing inside my skull—images, words, sounds, smells, and most striking of all, the distinct feeling of edea pryn, the feeling I’ve been to the Square before. I open my eyes, and a heavy rock drops through my stomach upon seeing Sibrilich ambling through the Square in her immaculate white uniform, yellow-within-yellow eyes glittering against her flawless slate-gray skin. The strands of hair fanned out from her bun tremble with every step she takes toward me.
“There you are!” someone calls out, her voice cutting through the cacophony of chatter and distant traffic. I spin around and Sidney is sprinting up to me, her face pinched, and she stops three feet away. “Where were you?”
My brow knits together. “I just got here. And we need to go—” But when I look over my shoulder at Sibrilich, she’s gone. I scan the area, search for her in the crowds, but she’s gone. No, she was right there . . . Unless my head’s playing tricks on me, wouldn’t be the first time . . .
“What’s wrong?” Sidney asks anxiously.
“Nothing,” I say after a beat, turning back to her, and those liquid eyes are studying me for any clues as to what I’m thinking. I distract her by asking, “Where were you?”
“Out there.” She head-points at one of the four arcades stretching away from the Square, one on each side. Constructed from arches and beams of steel and hexagonal panels of aquamarine-tinted glass, their interiors and exteriors are strung with dozens of fairy lights programmed to glow with squiggles and whirls of color that gradually, almost lazily change hues every few minutes.
“Bassow Square, right?” Sidney queries, scanning our surroundings with a look in her eyes saying she already knows the answer is yes.
“I used to come to the market here with my parents every Sosday,” I reply, darting a glance at the nephus on her wrist. Such a simple and ordinary-looking thing, and it’s brought us to another dimension.
Yes, and Augen has her own copy, isn’t that brilliant for everyone, I think, and she has the virus too, I’m surprised she hasn’t move forth with her evil scheme—
I squash these thoughts by studying the canopied stalls that are hawking vividly colored fruits and vegetables, loaves and rolls of bread, local honey, sushi, assorted red meat and poultry, hefty pots of soup and stew. Florists are here as well, selling tigon daisies, Medoa’s Gusher, bolibflora, and some engineered specimens, even a bulbous lusiere with luminescent white and red petals. I haven’t seen a lusiere in years, they’re an expensive breed; I know Xavier Wiley bought one two years ago as an Elder’s Feast present for his husband.
The kissnut queen is growing from a circle of deep brown soil built into the ground, which has been laid with hundreds of bricks in pale hues. It’s bearing hundreds of the pear-shaped, wrinkled kissnuts on its branches. Ridges of a greenish tinge run up its tan bark. The tree stands out prominently against the golden sky, which is shimmering with smudges and streaks of sapphire and purple as if a child daubed it with glitter paint.
“Well, we’re here now,” I tell Sidney, watching her push the sleeves of her hoodie up to her elbows and shoot a frown at the florist. “What do you want to do?”
She scrunches her mouth into a half-smile, as if she finds my question amusing. “I don’t know—steal a car? Or get high? Ooh, let’s strip naked right here and have sex!”
My face quickly grows hot like I just finished a steaming bowl of wheatfowl soup. I open my mouth, but no words come out and I’m standing there as Sidney continues, “Never mind, I can tell you’re not up for anything too wild. How about a nice, boring, relaxing walk?” She motions to one of the arcades leading out of here, flashes me a smile that loosens the tightness in my chest, and we start threading through the crowds.
Along the way a little boy scampers past me in the opposite direction with the energy of a puppy and I almost think I recognize him, but by the time I spin to face him, he’s disappeared.
“So, we’re in the Welkin now,” Sidney explains as we walk into an arcade, our bodies bathed in the green and red and purple glimmers of the fairy lights; dots of color seem to flicker in the air like dust motes. “You described it with a web analogy, and that’s definitely one way to look at it. The way I see this place, it’s more than that—it’s the omniscient and omnipresent mother and guardian of our world, doing what it can to maintain peace and balance while leaving the rest of the chaos for us mortals to puzzle out. And I also see it as the entity from which an immeasurable number of dimensions spawn, all of them forming together into a space-time community, a multiverse with the Welkin at its core.”
“That makes it sound as if it’s alive,” I observe, “or as if it’s a . . . a god.”
“Maybe.” She toys with the Choro-Cuff on her right wrist. “Do you disagree with that?” She sounds like she’s asking out of curiosity and a desire for constructive debate rather than defensiveness. I don’t have time to consider an answer before her next question comes: “Are you an atheist?”
I drum my hand on my hip. “I can see why faith might be appealing to people, why they find comfort in believing in higher powers. Maybe there is some greater, intangible cosmic force out there, but whether it’s the type that intervenes on behalf of our prayers, rewards us for our good deeds, punishes us for our sins . . . I struggle to reconcile that with the mechanics of our clumsy world.” I don’t tell her that my parents used to take me to church back on Mipyā; I don’t really know why, but sometime after we moved to Bicap religion slowly fell out of our lives.
“I see,” Sidney says, like she disagrees with me but wants to hear me expand on my opinions.
Once we emerge from the end of the arcade, we’re on the sidewalk of what I recognize as Fresio Road. Businesses line it, including a Bicap Cinemas, an Ouran, a T. Verinus, a Livress Booksellers, and a store with a glinting gray door and OUT OF BUSINESS signs plastered over its windows. Across from me is a fifteen-story apartment of cement and glass. Loopy copper letters forming the name Bassow Block overhang the entrance, in front of which there’s a giant reglintel board painted directly onto the clay-tiled ground with black and cream pieces as high as my hip.
I don’t know how long I absently stare at the building before something clinks onto the ground in front of me. I look down, heart quickening unexplainably at the sight of a tarnished silver coin lying inches away from my shoes on the asphalt. I bend over, pick it up. It bears a sword and an eagle above Bicap on one side; the other features the profile of a woman’s face and the Teönor word Coronlumn.
I flip the Kasma into the air, and it turns into an octagonal block when I catch it. “It’s like the one you have,” I tell Sidney, flipping it again to change it to a pyramid.
There’s something I can’t fully interpret from her smile. Then she gives her head a little shake as if dismissing whatever she’s thinking. “Come on,” she says, and we cross the street, pass the oversized reglintel set, stride up to the set of double doors; the left one is dark wood, the right one is burnished metal, and both have a glass square of a window, ten inches on a side and tinted gold, built into the center.
The lobby inside is wide and airy, its walls painted to look like a rose garden lit by a bloody sunrise. In glaring yellow numerals the digital clock on the wall flashes 3:24. Our footsteps echo in the silence.
Sidney spends a minute perching on the armrest of a taupe couch, rifling through tabloids on a coffee table, sniffing interestedly at a vase of orchids, all with a smile gently curving her mouth, the kind of smile you have when reminiscing about a beloved home or the best summer vacation of your life. I don’t realize how long I’m watching her until she looks back at me, at which point I avert my gaze, a blush creeping up my neck.
“This is fun, isn’t it?” Sidney says as we head for the elevator.
I don’t answer as she uses a flick of her index finger to make the call button depress into the wall. The doors ping open, we enter, she repeats the gesture for the eighth floor button, and the doors close, but not before I take one more look at the street just outside, the arcade we crossed through to leave the market. The surreal quality hasn’t quite worn off yet—this place, Jem-7, the parallel version of it in which I’m standing currently. That has to be the reason for the knot forming in my stomach as the elevator whisks us up eight stories to an anteroom with a potted shrub and an uninspired wall photo of the Lumin skyline.
“How much longer do we have to stay here?” I ask Sidney as we proceed through the anteroom and down a corridor with charcoal walls that clash with the yolk-yellow doors, each of which is equipped with a retinal scanner. I couldn’t keep the whiny undertone from creeping up in my question, I know I sound like a child nagging his parents for the trek through the grocery store to end already, but the knot in my gut’s only getting tighter. Why’d she even bring me here? If she wants to kill time in the Welkin, can’t it be a solo activity?
“Are you not enjoying this?” Her syllables sound overly crisp in this hallway, which is just as densely quiet as the lobby.
“The Welkin’s novelty factor is starting to wear off a bit,” I admit.
Her smile says it’s funny I’m treating this alternate dimension as though it’s an actor who I used to be a fan of but now I’m so tired of seeing them in every goddamn movie (I’m looking at you, Sage Epping). Then she stops at a door marked 810 and stands in front of the retinal scanner, which blinks white, and a soft click comes from the door. I pause to think about how we don’t have those security measures at Cloverleaf Vistas; a good old notched key is just as reliable.
Sidney motions me through the door and into an entry hall with a side table on top of which are empty picture frames and a cut-glass bowl. Ahead of me is a living area bigger than the one at home, a giant flatscreen TV on the wall above a fireplace, a huge dining table positioned by the enormous window across the room. I spy the kitchen off to the left and a corridor branching off from the right.
“It’s nice,” I comment, just to have something to say as Sidney closes the door behind me.
“A good friend of mine actually used to live in this building,” she supplies, studying the living room with a new brightness in her eyes, worrying her fingers at her fragment pendant.
I take a step forward, another step, another step, and eventually I’m circling the entire area. I love how everything here emanates a certain prodigiousness. I examine the shining stone floor, the midnight blue sofas and armchairs with their overstuffed cushions, the zumu-stone statuettes and empty photo frames on the mantel of the fireplace, the fantastic view out the window of the city, my city, my stunning Lumin. The pinewood shelves are crammed with DVDs, videocassettes, and CDs. Perched on the sill is a potted lusiere, engineered with iridescent mauve and cerulean petals; it’s giving off an aroma powerful enough to fill up my skull, a strange sensation, like it’s tugging at the individual neurons in my brain. A beautiful painting of Gollinger Park hangs on the wall opposite the TV. A liquor cabinet adjacent to the kitchen boasts bottles of wine and brandy and vodka behind locked glass doors.
“Hey, you think there’s food?” Sidney bobs her head at the kitchen, flashes her eyebrows at me, then darts in there, and I see the edge of her through the open doorway as she opens the fridge. “Wow, it’s got everything!” she calls out. “Yogurt, wheatfowl, insta-pouches, Mipyā tuna . . . unsifted sichupod milk?”
I’m leaning halfway into the kitchen when she spins around and waggles a Fes-Ma bottle she took from the fridge. “Honestly, who ever drinks this stuff?”
“Hey, my dad loves that.”
“Is he a vegan?”
“No, he just feels very healthy with a dose of Fes-Ma surging through his body.”
Sidney looks at me for another second, then turns back to the fridge and rummages through more food.
“I’ll go check the bedrooms,” I say, although I don’t think Sidney’s really listening; she’s inspecting the tuna steaks in their bioplastic packaging.
I turn and stride across the living room, glimpsing the Gollinger Park painting again. I slip into the corridor to the foyer’s right. The first door on my left opens into a bathroom with a vanilla-scented candle atop the toilet tank. The next door leads into what looks to be the master bedroom, a plush white comforter stretched taut over the broad bed, a shiny turquoise Omni laptop on the desk. There’s a bookcase, but not filled completely with books; it also has more zumu figurines, and some pictureless photo frames (of which this apartment has an inordinately numerous amount). The alarm clock on the nightstand says 3:24, same as the clock down in the lobby.
My gaze skims over the book spines—an equal mixture of novels and nonfiction. Then the knot in my stomach, which I’d forgotten about the past few minutes, twists even harder, because now I’m looking at several spines, four or five, with the same label reading DURRELL in small and squiggly handwriting.
A chill slinks down my spine, wraps around my stomach. I gawk at the thing, dully processing what this might mean. It’s sort of . . . peculiar, I suppose. I mean, this Welkin experience has been fundamentally peculiar, but now it’s peaking. And I can hear Sidney’s gleeful, muffled shouting about finding Teetee ice cream sandwiches, which is when I breathe in, I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath, and I pull one of the leather-bound books out of the shelf, the leftmost indigo one in the collection. Nothing on the front cover. I rest the book flat on the laptop, hover over it for one more second, and crack it open.
Two pictures of my pregnant mother fill the first page.
Huh. Okay. One photo is labeled as being taken at four months. Second photo at six months. I recognize the living room she’s in, the place she and Dad and I lived in on Mipyā. And how does she look the same at twenty-seven as she does now at forty-four? Aoi skin, that’s what it is.
I turn to the next page and there I am—a tiny baby in Mom’s arms, she’s on a hospital bed, looking sweaty and exhausted and smiling at me like I’m a huge jewel, like she didn’t just go through “the most excruciating twenty-three hours of my life.” A pic of the bloody placenta in its plastic bin, which Dad felt was necessary to record for posterity. A selfie of him wearing the stupidest, proudest, most yay-here’s-to-keeping-my-son-alive-for-the-next-eighteen-years grin ever.
I flip through a few more pages and Baby Wyatt’s home now, crawling on the bed and the couch with Mom and Dad and he’s got a mudding full head of hair and his skin is fairly orange, my parents told me the doctor thought I had jaundice at first, but it was okay, my skin faded after a month.
Cursed Cosmotic, they must be worried sick back home. Do they know about the mission I was sent on? Someone would have had to tell them about my status as a paladin. I don’t even know if I’m allowed to contact them from Asulon—
I hear the front door open, and then there’s a voice, muted and gravelly, that rips apart the knot in my stomach and turns the poor organ inside out.
Seconds later I hear Sidney respond. I can’t discern the specific words, but the apprehension with which they’re imbued is unmistakeable.
Shit. Shitshitshitshit. How the grim did Augen get here? Well duh, what else is she going to use her nephus for? I don’t hesitate to walk to the door, push down the handle, slowly pull it open and step out into the hallway. From here I can see the retreating back of the pobel boss’s giant form ambling toward the liquor cabinet and opening it by pressing her thumb on the fingerprint scanner, and Sidney standing in the kitchen doorway with a half-eaten Teetee in one hand and her purple-and-red stiletto in the other.
Augen must catch the glance Sidney sends me, because she swivels her head my way and regards me with an aloof up-nod. “Good, now you’re here too.”
I flinch before I can stop myself, almost drop the photo album I’ve tucked under my arm; I didn’t even realize I had it with me. “Augen,” I say by way of a greeting, in my coldest, most disdainful tone.
The edge of her mouth sharply upturns into a smirk, causing the skin just beneath her eyepatch to fold up slightly over its bottom edge. The wicked gleam in her eye says she’s overjoyed for this encounter. I haven’t seen her since Myrius, but she hasn’t changed her outfit—gray pants, yellow shirt with a pattern of diamond cutouts around the neck, long faded green coat. Her mousy hair is as straggly as ever, as though she’s never heard of a haircut.
“What do you have there?” she asks, inclining her head at me.
“Er . . . family photos,” I stammer absently, shuffling down the corridor into the living area, putting the album down on a side table. I slide my gaze to Sidney; the resentful frown creasing her face is dampened by the smudge of ice cream on her upper lip.
“I haven’t gone through my own photos in some time, been too busy,” Augen says idly, turning back to the cabinet. “Mmm, where’s the mead . . . Oh, here it is.” She selects a bottle of an amber drink, twists off the cap, pours herself a glass, swills it around, takes a tentative sip as if it might taste bad. Once she approves the drink, I can see the muscles in her face loosen in the mirror hung above the cabinet.
“Too busy with what?” I prod as she breezes over to one of the sofas, perches herself on the armrest, continues sipping her graw-matured mead. I recognize the bottle, it’s the same brand she served at Myrius. “Building up paladins? Nosing into places you have no right to trespass?”
“On the contrary, I have every right to be here.” Holding the glass in her left hand, Augen lifts her right wrist and gives it a little shake; the cuff of her coat rides up her wrist, revealing the Thistles’ coppery nephus fastened to the glossy white mount encircling her wrist. “Arrogant kids. Don’t you know you’re in over your heads?” she continues, regarding me and Sidney with a predatory smile similar to the one she wore at Myrius until I threatened her at swordpoint.
I don’t answer, it feels like my throat’s swelling up; it doesn’t slip past me that she evaded my question about her hypothetical paladins. So it’s up to Sidney to respond with a careless shrug, “He’s a paladin, and I’m a cub.” She bites off a big chunk from her Teetee, goes on while chewing, “Don’t be so cocksure yourself. It won’t be long before you’re taken down.” She shoves the rest of the ice cream sandwich in her mouth.
Augen’s grin slides off her face, leaving a hard scowl in its place. Massaging the heel of her hand against her temple, as if Sidney is getting under her nerves enough to provoke a headache, she chides, “It’s rude to chew and talk simultaneously.”
Sidney’s eyes glint irreverently. “I know, it’s so impolite!” This declaration launches some crumbs from her mouth into the air and most of them scatter on the floor at Augen’s feet, but a few land on her knees and one lucky morsel plinks into her mead. It pleases me to see that flash of displeasure in her eye as the crumb drifts to the bottom of her glass.
“What I despise even more,” I chime in, “are people who cough into the air or their hand instead of their elbow.”
“Ditto! Totally abject!”
“A complete crime to be ignorant of simple courtesies.”
Sidney chortles, then, keeping her eyes on me, thrusts out the hand that used to hold her Teetee, showing her palm, and her Choro-Cuff glows and purple sparks dance over Augen’s chest—and then vanish immediately. Augen remains in her comfortable seat on the sofa armrest. She eyes the crumb in her mead, puts the glass down on the coffee table, stares straight at Sidney with a smirk returning to her face as though challenging her opponent to try again.
When Sidney clenches her hand into a fist, hundreds of stars coil around Augen’s stomach in a ropelike form, but disperse into nothingness even faster. Sidney has a damn-but-at-least-I-tried frown, as if she expected this but hoped for better results.
“My body has been laced with Aspideum metal, which shields me from her chorokinetic cells,” Augen explains to me, as if talking about the newest Omni smartphone. “And this”—draws a short staff from inside her coat sleeve, squeezes it to transform it into her heavy double-bladed ax—“is forged entirely from Aspideum.”
“Really? Well, I built this from Go-to-grimmium,” I remark, letting my light loose so it creates a sword with a double-winged pommel.
I side-glance Sidney, hoping for her approval, but she says, “You did your best.”
“Are you kidding? That was a laughably inane comeback.” Augen gives a compressed snigger that, alongside her choice of words, gives me pause.
“What have you done to them?” I ask her after two beats. She looks at me blankly, and I add, “Corbin and Gene. We know about your . . . how you’re . . .”
Augen picks it up for me. “You found out about our family tree.”
I dart my eyes away, find them drifting over to Sidney, who’s watching this exchange with keen wariness. Augen chuckles quietly and says, “You know, Sílvena never liked me. In fact, she abhors me. So much so that when our father died, she tried to bar me from coming to his funeral. His own daughter. Her own sister. But Mother stopped her. Mother has always wanted to see her daughters reconcile. It’s a shame that won’t ever happen.”
“What have done to your niece and your nephew?” I ask again, tightening my grip on the ridged hilt of my sword.
“I’ve never hurt them, if that’s what you’re insinuating. Those little kinos are my family.”
“Okay, well, two of your goons are the reason—”
“Wyatt,” Sidney cuts in, pronouncing my name with a firm, almost admonishing edge.
“You need to know,” I tell Augen, ignoring Sidney, “that Gene almost died because two of your minions sabotaged our mission. So don’t pretend you give a crap about him or Corbin—”
“No, Durrell, you shouldn’t pretend you give a crap about them.” Augen contorts her mouth into a grimacing smirk. “Honestly, just because you’re a paladin and I’m a pobel boss, it doesn’t give you the right to prance around like a self-righteous prick afflicted with a hero complex.” Her voice is turning even raspier with scorn. “What would you say if I asked you what’s most important in life?”
I consider several answers before settling on: “Helping the world. Making the light a little brighter than it was when I was born.”
Augen lifts her eyebrows an inch, turns to Sidney and says, “Predictable, isn’t he.” Sidney, apparently analyzing me with her unwavering gaze, doesn’t deign to acknowledge her. Augen turns back to me with an emotion between pity and amusement in her vile smirk. “It’s pathetic that you’ve deluded yourself into believing you can help the world. That’s like bandaging someone who’s taken a shot to the heart. The world is dying, whether or not you want to admit it, it’s losing blood fast, so you need to give up on the first-aid and start arranging for the funeral—”
I sweep my sword at her and she parries it with her ax and then swings it the other way to block the stiletto that Sidney casts at her. Before I know it Augen’s crushing my neck on her fist and propelling me backward until I crash against the wall and drop to the floor. Aches explode sharply throughout my body but fade away thanks to the prompt pins-and-needling of my mendsense. I hear a whoosh, a smash, the high-pitched shatter of glass, I scramble to my feet and Augen’s pinned against the sofa beneath the overturned coffee table, which is bright with chorokinetic glimmers, a small scatter of glass shards and a puddle of mead on the floor, and she raises her ax and gives it a jerk that sends one of its blades flying at Sidney, who dodges it. The blade gets wedged into the wall where her head was a second ago, a taut chain keeping it connected to the ax.
The moment Sidney spent making sure her head didn’t get cleaved must have distracted her enough to lose her grip on the table, because now Augen shoves it off, jumps back to her feet, pulls back her ax to yank the blade out of the wall and it reattaches to the shaft, and she gives her weapon a little spin in her hand so both blades pop off on their own chains and dangle menacingly in front of her with soft ch-chink, ch-chinks.
“Who isn’t packing a flailed ax?” I quip, flashing into my other hand a hexagonal shield emblazoned with a Teönor Paladin.
Sidney’s knife flies back into her hand as she replies, “It’s sort of like a meteor hammer.” She turns to Augen with a mock earnest face. “Do you know what a meteor hammer is?”
“No, and I don’t give a damn.”
It’s such a quick movement, Augen rearing back her ax, and I raise my shield and the chained blades lash into it hard enough to send dull pain echoing through my body and a shockwave hurtles me and Sidney back into the wall. The pain tingles and fades away, I’m lying on the stone floor, the sword and the shield are still in my hands, and Augen is towering over us with an unbearable smirk on her pockmarked face. I start lifting my sword so I can get a stab at her legs, but she kicks her foot into my hand and crunches my fingers with the toe of her boot and the sword spins away and clatters to the floor and she stomps that same boot on my chest. The wind gets knocked from my lungs, I swear she just pulverized one or two ribs.
Then Sidney springs from the floor and onto her back, encircles her legs around Augen’s waist, wraps one arm tight around her neck, lifts her other arm, the stiletto’s purple blade gleaming in that hand, and it begins plunging in a swift arc toward Augen’s heart. But apparently Augen has remarkably fast reflexes, fast enough to clench Sidney’s hand in her ax-free hand and halt the knife just as the tip is literally an inch away from piercing her chest.
Also, Augen’s boot is still crushing my chest, which is prickling so much it hurts a little, but I can summon up the strength to transform the shield in my left hand into a slim gun, awkwardly twist my wrist to aim the weapon at Augen’s leg, and squeeze the trigger.
A thin streak of bright blue scrapes past her knee, tears across the room, burns into the wall above the fireplace. Strangling back a shout that ends up sounding like the poisons brewing and bubbling in an evil sorcerer’s cauldron, Augen lurches herself to the floor and Sidney tumbles off her back and crashes a millisecond after her and the ax blades inflict gouges in the floor. The pressure is off my chest now and it’s burning with my light and tingling and healing, ribs are piecing themselves back together, and I lurch myself the three feet across the floor to clamp my hands over the nephus on Augen’s wrist, gun still in my left hand and pointing at her face from ten inches away. I use my other hand to snap the nephus off its mount, or I try to, but it sparkles brightly for a beat and a biting pain like an electric shock shoots up my arms and makes me jerk them back with a start.
I can’t even get up on my knees before purple flashes of light fill the rim of my vision and my body soars through the air, over Augen, and collides into Sidney, it’s like the garage at Myrius, and her arms curl around my shoulders, she uses her stiletto hand to twist the nephus mounted on her right wrist, a legion of shapes and colors floods the apartment, it’s just me and Sidney, the two of us falling down, plummeting past hundreds of prismatic threads sinuously worming between huge towers floating in this vast space that reeks of grawtree and resonates with the plaintive tune of a piano and breathes peacefully in its metaphysical slumber . . .
I can smell the orchids, even though they’re out of season, sings a woman’s mellow voice . . .
It takes me several moments to realize my eyes are closed. I open them. Sidney sitting next to me on a bed in a room with cream-colored walls, my messenger bag on the spindly table in the corner, an open door revealing a tiny bathroom. My room, in a guesthouse in Asulon, in the middle of Maskar Hills—
I close my eyes, inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale in the dark. With my right hand I rub at the tension in the base of my skull, and then her hand, warm and slightly damp with sweat, cups on mine, which stills and she slides it off my neck and I let it fall to my lap. I open my eyes as she rests her hand on the back of my neck. A shiver runs down my spine, those purple stars flicker across my vision again, what is she doing . . .
I sit up, square my shoulders, roll my head around, listen to the stress crinkle out of my muscles, and she pulls her hand away and the pleasant warmth lingers in my neck, spreads over every inch of my skin, sinks deep into my bones.
“Thanks,” I murmur, turning my head to look directly at Sidney. She has unclasped the mount from her wrist, she’s cradling it and the attached nephus in both hands like it’s a small animal, staring down at it with somber emotions clouding her eyes.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think . . .” she whispers, pinching her pendant between her middle finger and thumb. She lifts her eyes up to me, attempts a little smile. “She shouldn’t have been able to find us.”
I raise my shoulders, drop them. “It’s Augen. What else do you expect?” I glimpse the nephus, glinting its soft pink sheen. “So. That’s the Welkin.”
She chuckles. “Like an amusement park, isn’t it.”
“Yeah, a park where everything’s a ball except for that one game where you have to fight an ax-swinging pobel lord.”
“Oh, everyone would lose at that, and the park would make mountains of cash off it.” Sidney bites her lip, cuts her eyes to the nephus and then back at me. “I saw you try to grab her nephus. Good idea, but nephuses are designed to be inviolable in the Welkin. You can’t steal them, break them, coat them in sugar and bite off a chunk, nihel omi no.” Teönor for Nothing at all.
I shift on the bed. “But how did she even find us?”
She shakes her head, runs the pad of her thumb in circles around the nephus, then slips it and the mount in her hoodie’s belly pocket.
I stare off into space for a minute, muddle through my memories of what I just underwent, the place I just returned from, a place as strange as it is enthralling. At the thought of that album, I suck in a breath through clenched teeth, which makes Sidney ask, “What is it?”
“I found . . .” My mouth remains open for a second, then I close it and wave my hand in the air. “Never mind.”
“No.” Her voice is gentle yet firm at the same time. She scoots a couple inches closer, enough so her elbow brushes mine. My skin tingles there, my breath catches in my throat. “What is it?”
I look at her, absorb the open concern in her eyes. I give a small nod, more to myself, as if for reassurance. “I found this, this photo album. Of me and my mom and my dad.” I rub my hands on my thighs. “Do you know if, um, if that’s normal? Stuff like that popping up—”
“The Welkin is a sensitive thing, a very malleable and intimate being. It’s deeply affected by your emotional and psychological states, by your memories, by you.” She says this so smoothly it’s almost as if she prepared it in advance, as if she knew what I’d ask. She reaches out with her hand, takes mine in that soothingly warm grip, but the sweat has dried off. “It’s natural for things, people, places from your life to manifest in there.”
I nod again like I’m taking in the info, even though the Welkin’s inscrutability is proportional to the amount of info I learn about it.
“Is there anything else you need to talk about?”
I shake my head, even as Augen’s words pass through my head—a self-righteous prick afflicted with a hero complex . . . The world is dying. Really, I just want this conversation to be done. Retrieving the nephus from Travmee, crashing in the Hills, a Rusthund biting Gene, and now we’re here in Asulon and the shock that Belldon and Augen are the Thistles’ mother and aunt respectively hasn’t worn off yet. Suffice to say, a lot’s happened, and I don’t want to talk anymore, I want to sit here and enjoy the silence with Sidney, enjoy this downtime—
“Eight-oh-two,” Sidney announces, looking at the clock on my nightstand. “Yes, dinnertime!” She rubs her stomach in circles with her free hand.
“How long were we gone?” I query. We entered the Welkin around six-twenty; we couldn’t have spent over an hour and a half in there?
“Time flows a little differently between here and the Welkin,” explains Sidney. “We could spend twenty minutes there and an hour or ten minutes or no time at all might pass here when we return.” She lets go of my hand, rises from the bed and starts for the door. I look at my fingers quizzically, then get to my feet and walk her to the door and open it for her.
“I’ll see you at dinner, okay?” I tell her. “I just need a few minutes.”
Her eyes light up with understanding. “All right.”
The two of us stand staring at one another momentarily, then she slips out the door and I close it behind her. I walk over to the bed, lie on my back. Just five minutes of rest.
But it’s not without some rumination. I replay my exploration of the Welkin, which a small part of me wishes to revisit. I replay perusing the photo album. I reach my hand for the back of my neck and replay the soothing warmth with which Sidney filled me. And then I dig my hand around my pocket, take out the Kasma, which I’d forgotten until now, in its pyramid form, and flip it into a twenty-sided die.