Project Super Nex – Chapter Thirteen – Fading Into The Void

Cursed Cosmotic, I’m back in that tiresome meadow.
It’s mostly the same—picking berries, traipsing down the grawtree-lined passage toward the meadow, sensing something rustling within the trees on my left. Not only do I hear a piano melody, but also the opening verse of “Delusive Eyes”—I can smell orchids, even though they’re out of season—and something crunches beneath my foot and it’s an iridescent lusiere instead of a Kasma. And this time, I find neither the winged spider nor Sibrilich in the gazebo with my parents. Augen’s looming over them with her double-bladed ax, her hard and pitted face set in a chilling expression of dispassionate determination.
I raise my open palm and shoot an orb, it hits her in the chest and everything shatters into infinitesimal fragments, I plunge through darkness and crash into the apartment Sidney and I visited in the Welkin. I’m in the living room, I get to my feet as a slim figure breezes out of the kitchen in an ashen hooded robe with several flowing layers, white gauntlets with wooden charms decorating the cuffs, a grayish-white mask carved with a bulbous flower. The Anex has a Super Nex autoinjector in one hand. With its free hand it reaches for its mask, curls its fingers over the edge, pries it off its face, off Sibrilich’s face.
Paldinus, se eyloge cume tero. The phrase she uttered, Teönor for “Paladin, spread your wings.” Her calm voice swells within my head, but her lips are unmoving.
She’s moving, approaching me at an excruciatingly slow speed, lifting her autoinjector, its six-pointed star glowing bright blue. I raise both hands to project a forcefield, but the apartment bursts into millions of shards of reality that reform almost immediately into my bedroom, my Arka models, my film posters, the potted ennium Xavier gave me, and Sidney walks into my room in a blue sweater and gray calf-length pants. I automatically rise from my bed, her smile makes my heart race, and she moves toward me with a pure confidence in her gait, reaches to me with her open hand. Some fuzzy shape in her palm unfurls with leaves lit up in many shades of blue. As soon as I touch it with the tip of my forefinger, the bedroom explodes into nothing, leaving my consciousness alone in my head, and I drag open my heavy eyelids to the sound of gentle rain and stare stupidly up at a bare ceiling.
It takes a long time for the details to trickle back into my brain. Maskar Hills, Asulon, Belldon, staying here until one of the ships is repaired, Gene’s cerezi performance, and Sidney . . . I close my eyes, picture us up in the asterisk tower, what it felt like for her fingers to twist through my hair, for her aroma to fill my lungs, for warmth to blossom with every kiss. Even thinking about it now, I can feel the ghost of a tingle in my lips.
Gene returned from his intermission a few minutes after Sidney and I came down from the asterisk tower last night. He played for about forty-five minutes, and then granted the audience an encore. Afterward, we all chatted for a bit over by the pastry table and snacked on the treats; then the Thistles left with Belldon to stay at her house for the night, while I returned to the guesthouse with Sidney, Penelope (who drunkenly foisted wipes on us so we could “destroy the nasty critters swarming on our hands”), and Cooper (who jammed a couple pastries in his pockets).
The rain tickles the window behind my bed. The wan gray light of early dawn seeps through the glass. I turn my head to squint at the clock, which shows the time’s eight-ten p.d. Too early—I stayed up until two in the morning, watching Dolores Youqu’s show and checking Walnut on my room tablet, and trying to get reception on my phone, to no avail, and I was wishing I could call my parents or Dr. Fulbright, and all along moments of my time with Sidney surfaced to my conscious attention like pieces of an idyllic dream, and it took me a while to let my mind fade away and then it awakened just enough to spill through my nightmares.
Now I’m looking up at the ceiling, breathing deeply through my nose, letting the rain lull me back into the darkness. A dreamless darkness that swirls around me, grasps at my soul, yearns to extract its visceral contents, but I know how to put up my shields and ward off the phantoms.
An insistent beeping draws me out of the space. My eyes flap open and I turn my head to the clock and punch the snooze button. Nine on the dot, now it’s time.
I sit up, lean my back against the hard pillows, rub the sleep out of my eyes, scowl at the morning taste in my mouth. I pull over the tablet, stretching its pivoted arm, and hit the screen to life. A message from Penelope at eight-thirty-two—Hey dork, coming down soon? They don’t have the luxury of breakfast-in-bed.
I drag myself out of bed in a t-shirt and boxers and take a leak in the cramped bathroom (still can’t figure out the source of that awful lemon stench). Last night I went to the kitchen downstairs to refill my water bottle, which I now dig out of my messenger bag and glug down half of it. I rummage up my Brazzo-Gum packet and crack out one of the rectangular white tabs to chew on—the best option to get rid of my morning mouth without a toothbrush and toothpaste. I tug on the sweatpants and long-sleeved shirt that I wore yesterday, the Kasma in the hip pocket of my pants. And since I’ve already downloaded my personal Euphony playlists, I plug my earbuds into my phone and shuffle Wyatt’s Mishmash 5.
Emovere, Jackson Tach, and other artists blast through my head as I head downstairs to the kitchen and rummage through all the food options. They aren’t nearly as varied as last night’s dinner, but I make do with aurium tea and Berry-Flavored Avina Flakes doused in synthetic cow’s milk, served in a cup and bowl constructed from my shimmering blue energy. I pull myself onto a stool halfway down a breakfast bar, build a spoon to eat my cereal with, dunk my disordered thoughts deeper into the music and into the buzzing heat of my heart, watch from a distance as Cooper and Penelope and Enbo Alviz sit around a table in the rec room and play a game of loe—rolling dice and moving small iron rings around spaces carved into the board in a pattern of four concentric circles.
Once I’ve ingested the sugary cereal and my tea, I pick up the bowl in both hands and slurp up the leftover milk. Over the glimmering rim of the bowl I notice Sidney crossing the rec area and moving toward me; by the time I thud my empty bowl down on the island’s glossy ashmelin top, she’s in the kitchen, grins hello at me, and something flutters pleasantly in my belly. I’m hyperaware of her presence as she sticks a capsule in the coffee machine and throws together a sandwich with cheese, slices of roast beef, lettuce, and ketchup on toasted bread. She’s wearing the same Paffles and white pants as the day before, chocolate pack clipped to her waist, but her hoodie and black shirt have been switched out for a cream cardigan and a shirt showing off a comic-book superhero cloaked in scarlet fabric.
The music muffles her voice when she says, “Morning, Wy,” and she sits opposite me and sips her coffee from an enamel mug printed with half-rubbed-off robots from a 50s cartoon show. She’s brought her sandwich over on a plate, and she takes her first bite, chews and swallows, smiles admiringly at my shining blue tableware like she’s glad to see me expanding my construct repertoire. Her pendant rests in the middle of her chest, its fragments of a feathered wing gleaming gently.
“Slept well?” I ask, removing my earbuds, folding my arms together and resting them along the edge of the island, catching the way her gaze rests on my lips for a half second.
She shrugs up a shoulder. “It was okay. Pillows are hard as rocks, and the bathroom reeks of—”
“Lemons,” I say in time with her.
“Damn,” she says, her face mirroring the amazement on mine. “It must be air freshener.”
“Cursed Cosmotic, I hate it.” I touch the spoon, the bowl, and the cup, each item disappearing in turn. “Hey, when you’re done, can we go to the gym?”
She shakes her head. “Sorry, we’ll have to float that till later. After this, I’m gonna talk to Augen’s grazboots, pick their brains.”
“Give them my regards.” I drum my left-hand fingers on the island top, stare off into space, then request, “Even better, I’d like to do that myself. If it’s all right with you.”
She stares at me, as if assessing the quality of a dagger. It’s unnerving.
“Why not. I’d like to have a paladin with me.”
We’re silent for a few seconds, and then I say, “Last night was fun.”
“It was.” Her smile looks timid but unafraid, almost hopeful. “I wanna make sure we’re on the same page, because I don’t want us to rush things. But if we can both take ahold of the pen and see what we can write . . .” Sidney takes another bite of her sandwich, puts a hand on her pendant. She looks unbelievably cute when she blushes.
“See what we can write,” I parrot, butterflies fluttering through my gut. “Like, on top of the pages that cover everything between us, the interactions that have led up to this point.”
“From the beginning of the plot, to now, and onward to wherever the threads of the story will lead us. Let’s fill in the rest of these blank pages.”
She chuckles, and I react with a shy laugh of my own. A wave of relief sweeps through me now that I know we’re not dealing with communication barriers. Always something that bugs me in movies.
After Sidney’s done with breakfast, we make our way to the Sterion, which serves as Asulon’s security station and the jail where the pobs have been sequestered. Inside, one of the black-uniformed guards, the woman who danced with Enbo last night, introduces herself to us as Laddi, then escorts us through the lobby and down a short hallway. It ends at a door that she unlocks by typing a six-digit code into the keypad. Beyond it is a path that turns right, into a square-shaped antechamber leading to three cells enclosed by barred gates as depressingly gray as the walls and floor. Each one has a cot, a toilet, a sink, a wall-jointed tablet, and a small bookcase full of novels and bulky tomes.
Two of the cells are occupied. In one Runa is sitting cross-legged on her cot, dressed in an ill-fitting yellow sweater and black hiking pants, favoring me and Sidney with a look of tired annoyance. In the cell off to Runa’s left, Lumpy Nose, wearing a plain brown shirt and trousers in a matching color, is lying back on his cot and reading a dog-eared psychological thriller.
“I’ll be right outside if you need anything,” Laddi assures me and Sidney before stepping out and closing the door, leaving us with the pobs.
“Mm-hmm, give them a big smile,” Lumpy Nose says when he sees me sneaking a glance at the rounded, blinking yellow lens of a security camera up on the ceiling.
I drag over a couple metal skeleton chairs from the corner so Sidney and I can sit down.
“How’s life treating you?” Sidney asks the pobs, crossing her right leg over her other knee.
“Just great,” Lumpy Nose replies, closing his book with a slip of scrap paper inside to mark his place. He shifts on his cot so he’s sitting up on the edge with his bare feet planted on the floor, his book lying on the pillow with all the leisure of an agudlin taking a nap.
“Yeah, looks like it,” I intone, folding my arms together. “I’m sure your accommodations here are much plusher than what you’ll get in Civit Lumin.”
“Speaking of which, can you update us on when we’re pushing off from here?”
“They’re still repairing the ships,” Sidney answers. “If I were to put money on it, probably tonight or tomorrow morning.” She cocks her head. “Paramnesia. I read that last year, it’s a gripping mystery.”
Lumpy Nose looks sideways at his book. “I just started it, so don’t give away spoilers.” He takes a second to itch his collarbone through his shirt. “Sorry about your ship, Appleton.” He sounds genuinely apologetic, as if that’s supposed to compensate for him and Runa crashing the Wulven and fouling up our mission.
“I’m sure it can be salvaged,” she assures him in laid-back tones, reaching for the pack on her waist, snapping it open, popping a multifaceted chocolate in her mouth.
“Is it true that Belldon signed with the Head Councilor to block his forces from coming here?”
This is the first time Runa has spoken up. Rubbing at the pale welts that the tailties left on her wrists yesterday, she pins me and Sidney with an unblinking gaze, as if we’re in a staring contest and she expects to win. “It just seems strange,” she adds, “that your cubs aren’t making an exception to pick us up.”
“‘Strange’ is a relative term when it comes to politics.” Sidney leans forward and plants both elbows on her thighs, hands clasped together. “So, was that your first time in the Welkin? You know, when Gene and Penny brought you to us?” Her voice is lowered conspiratorially, as though she’s questioning the pobs about the first time they dazzled off kallo squares.
Runa nods. “Rechin dropped us off there so we could capture whoever entered it next. She knew you Union lackeys would do it eventually.”
I taunt, “Obviously, your plan went slightly off-course.”
“Did it?” Runa raises her eyebrows in an exact bow over her downturned mouth, like she knows more about what’s going on than us, to her dismay rather than her satisfaction.
Sidney’s face tautens with puzzlement and suspicion, sending her scar writhing. “What do you mean by that?”
The way Runa impassively contemplates us from inside her cell leaves me shivering in my chair. “It doesn’t matter how you hard you try to stop us. She’s seeing through the fine details of her plan, and she will always be two steps ahead of you.”
“You seem confident in Augen,” I observe. “Why are you loyal to her? What has she ever done for you?”
She blinks, as if I spoke in a language she can’t understand, and sorrow flashes over her face. “My mother packed up and left before my first birthday, leaving my father to take care of me until that tumor ate away his brain. I was five at the time, and I spent some time getting tossed back and forth between foster homes until I broke free, ran out onto the streets of Neuanfang. It wasn’t much better out there, foraging for scraps of food and evading crimson patrols. I was nine when Rechin found me, put a roof over my head, promised to protect me from—”
“Runa,” Lumpy Nose cuts off from his cell, sitting forth suddenly enough to make his cot squeak and groan.
“Be quiet, Obrin.” I watch her swivel her eyes, which are bright with a resentful intensity, back to me, while creases fold Lumpy Nose’s face (or Obrin’s face, I guess I’ll call him that now) with surprise and hurt.
“She promised to protect me from your people. And she hasn’t ever gone back on her word.” Runa looks down briefly at the welted wrists she keeps massaging. “I’m loyal to her because she saved me from being destroyed. And she’s done everything for me.”
I can feel contempt distorting my lips, so I bite them together to smooth them out, then pry them apart to tell her, “Look, you don’t owe Augen shit. You deserve more than this.”
“Yes, I do. So does he”—sidelong glance at Obrin—“and all of our pobs, and every Vermusk who has to rail against your Union. We deserve much better lives, but we have to make do with what we can get at the moment.”
Obrin supplies, “And what we have doesn’t amount to much, thanks to Starsy demagogues like Sornis.”
“That’s not an excuse for the lives you’ve chosen,” Sidney argues, and then turns to Runa. “The woman you view so reverently as your adoptive mother—do you know that, when she first appeared in the pobel scene thirteen years ago, she put out hits on families. Not the kids, just the parents. She spared the kids so they could be scarred reminders of the horrors she can wreak, and it solidified her image as a calculating and murderous crime lord you didn’t want to screw with.”
I find my hand worming its way into my pocket and fiddling with my Kasma. I don’t know what alarms me more: this new info about Augen’s past, or the breezy tone that Sidney uses to deliver it, as if she’s talking about a sale at the local supermarket.
“So don’t paint her in such a kind light,” Sidney continues. “I bet she’s already sent you to off a few people on her shitlist.”
Momentarily Runa gazes at her with the weary air of one managing an undisciplined pet. Then she uncrosses her legs, rises off her cot, takes three steps across her cell and stops inches away from the gate. She’s short, but somehow she gives off the impression of being as giant as Augen.
“Your parents were good people, Sidney. You know that, don’t you?”
What is she talking about? I stop fingering my Kasma, dart my eyes at Sidney as she stiffens up, like she’s been shot. Her stone mask of a face is unsettling. I glimpse Obrin; his agitated look only strengthens the wave of apprehension lurching through my gut.
“At least, that’s what I’ve heard,” Runa goes on, raising her hand, curling it around one of the bars. She isn’t taking her eyes off Sidney, who has hate splashed all over her pale features. “Delia, the crimson agent responsible for capturing many gangsters, arms dealers, and drug traffickers. And Bentley, the neuroscientist who led a research team that was on the verge of a breakthrough for a cure to Baggler’s Syndrome. Hardworking, virtuous, good people. They didn’t deserve to die.”
An ice-cold fist clamps onto my heart. I turn my head to Sidney, open my mouth, but nothing comes out. She’s clutching her pendant in her fist so hard it’s probably cutting into her skin, the flame of agony burning darkly in her eyes. I don’t have to ask her who killed her parents. I know what name will leave her lips.
I know. . . .
“You’re right,” she tells Runa, flashing a sharp smirk that twists my insides. “But here’s the thing—they did die. And I had to be a witness to your boss giving the go-ahead to kill them.”
Dear gods. I’m picturing her when she’s seven, watching her parents get killed. Was it inside their home? How did it happen? I can’t stop myself from imagining various options that Augen could have used. I feel an overwhelming urge to hold Sidney, kiss her, comfort her.
That’s when a hazy image flits past my mind, like I’m peeking out a window as a small bird soars past. I see her doing those things to me instead. Holding me, kissing me, comforting me. There’s something familiar and snug about it, as if I’m putting on a shirt that I haven’t worn in years but still fits perfectly.
The image disappears when she tells me, “Maybe it’s time for you to leave.” Her voice is far too measured, especially when paired with her frighteningly stony mask.
I find my body getting up off the chair in spite of myself as Runa backs up and sits on her cot. I ask her and Obrin, “Do you think the world is dying?”
Obrin looks up at me between the bars of his cell, his lips tight. “It’s sick, that much is true. It’s been sick for a while.”
The corners of Runa’s lips pull upward in lofty contentment. “We’re fading into the void as we speak. There’s just too much disease in this world. You know that.”
I look at Sidney as she cocks her head slightly, chews her cheek, but keeps quiet. When I look back at the pobs, I tell them in the most imperturbable voice I can summon, “Like my dad says, the best we can do, is we’ll see what we can do.”
After leaving the room, Laddi escorts me out of the Sterion, advising me to clear my head over at the gym (“There’s nothing like pummeling a punching bag to vent your frustrations.”). However, I set off for the Camerad, where my roaming footfalls echo sharply through the deserted rooms and I climb the stairs up to the steeple of an asterisk tower. Not the one Sidney and I were in, it has a white-and-blue asterlantern suspended from the glass ceiling and pictures on the coffee-colored walls and shelves of curios including scented candles, windup toys, and jewelry boxes.
I pull back the drapes from a window, rest one palm against the side of the frame, survey the settlement around me and the hazardous forest all around its perimeter, the suns bleeding orange through the long slash running across the sheet of gray clouds as if some supernatural force has slit the sky to let a divine army descend upon the land.
My fingers are mechanically drumming the window frame. I can’t quell the bewilderment or the fear wriggling around my brain, squeezing into it, sending a vaguely sick feeling down to my stomach.
Augen killed Delia and Bentley Appleton, leaving their daughter to cope with the trauma. Their daughter, who was throbbing with the weighty pain of someone who’s harbored her grief for years, who’s attempted to put it to rest only to have to dig it back up from its grave time after time.
I step back from the window, stop near the stairs in the center of the south-facing tower, scan all the knickknacks and the framed photos. Then I’m approaching a cluster of photos on my left, examining the same market square each picture has captured from various perspectives. Vendors hawking food and flowers, the huge kissnut queen—
Bassow Square. Funny coincidence, considering Sidney and I passed through the Welkin version of it last night. My mind spins off its own little thread of memories, I imagined seeing Sibrilich, Sidney and I headed to that apartment building, I found the Durrell photo album and why was it in the Welkin? Sidney told me it’s natural for things from my life to show up there, and it’s sensitive, malleable, if I recall correctly, influenced “by your emotional and psychological states, by your memories, by you.”
I reach the tips of my first two left fingers for the corner of one of the pictures. The wood of the frame is cool to the touch. It forms a rectangle measuring five inches tall and seven inches wide around two plaid-shirted Vermusk managing a stall overflowing with beautiful flowers. I tap the frame twice as though testing it for a secret button, the edge of my fingernails clacking dully on the wood.
I can smell orchids, even though they’re out of season . . .
Yes, flowers . . . A blot of memory, my head’s building around its obscure edges . . . We were checking them out that day . . .
The boy is looking over the florist’s wares quite studiously, as though his parents have told him he can pick one thing from the toy aisle and he’s investing all his effort into making the right selection. Lilacs, tigon daisies, Xuro cubes, carnations, and many more breeds. But there’s no lusiere. The boy had hoped to find one today. He has only seen photos of the stunning flowers—
“Why’re you giving those flowers the evil eye?”
He whips his head left. A white girl is standing there. She looks to be around his age. The first thing he notices is the scar on her face—a dark snarl running from the corner of her lip, up and over her right eye, ending inches above her eyebrow. Then he takes in her oval face, her rounded chin, her soft cheeks, her tight-lipped smile that easily looks like it could broaden if he cracks a joke, her blond hair falling around her shoulders in loose waves, her denim jacket over a T-shirt featuring a design of a bored-looking dragon with sagging wings and a pouting maw and the terrible pun I DO NOT LIKE IT WHEN FAIRY TALES DRAGON.
“What?” the boy asks, so dumbfounded is he by the girl’s odd question. With one hand he rakes back his chocolate brown hair, which is fluffy and handsomely overgrown at this age. When he grows older, it will turn stubbornly greasy and he’ll start keeping it short and trim.
“Not that it’s any of my business, but do you have a vendetta against flowers? I can’t imagine what some poor roses or Medoa’s Gushers could’ve ever done to you. Unless they’re somehow responsible for sending your life into a downward spiral, and now you’re obsessed with annihilating all flowers in the world. Is that what happened?”
The boy gawks at her with hazel eyes, then says just as stupidly, “Ummm—”
“What about flower torture? Does that hit the spot for you?”
The boy, apprehensive of this strange girl who thinks accusing someone of suffering from a pathological hatred of flowers is what passes for social mores, looks over his shoulder at his parents; they’re filling their reusable forest-printed tote bags with produce four stalls away. He turns back to Sidney, amazed and a little frightened that her smile hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s widening, showing teeth, reaching her eyes, which are a rich, clear purple. The color of amethyst. He’s never seen eyes like hers before. Or the scar, for that matter. The scar—or rather, whatever caused it—terrifies the boy. The scar itself, in his opinion, adds to the girl’s prettiness instead of detracting from it.
Then a man’s cheerful voice sails out of the commotion. “Hey Maykal, whatcha up to?”
The boy’s father appears on his right carrying a lumpy tote bag in each hand by the straps. His mother comes up on his left lugging a bag in the crook of her left elbow, and she uses her free hand to affectionately ruffle his fluffy hair.
“Hi!” Sidney chirps, waving hello to the parents as though she does this on a daily basis.
“Hello,” replies the mother, smiling quizzically. “Making friends already?” she asks her son, who responds with an eyebrow-flash and an I-have-no-idea shrug.
Elevating his own strong brows, the father asks the girl, “What’s your name?”
She starts to open her mouth, but a new voice cuts through the Sosday market din.
“There you are, Monkeygirl!”
A black, angular-faced woman darts out from behind a knot of shoppers with her own red tote bag in her arms. She stops beside the girl, whose cheeks are turning crimson. Her smile lingers, but it’s taking on a sheepish tone.
“It’s nice to meet you, Monkeygirl,” the boy says, a good-natured glint in his eyes, and he extends his hand to her. “I’m Eagleboy.”
Her face is practically glowing with her blush as she shakes his hand, her grip firm enough to leave a very slight sting in his palm when they let go.
After the introductions go around, the woman, Penelope Flame, narrows her stormy gray eyes through her severe glasses at Wyatt, Ida, and Merlin, and says, “Have I seen you here before?” Her raven hair is tied into an impishly off-center bun, from which a pin of a red-and-purple prall is protruding.
“We’ve been here the past few weekends, yes,” Ida confirms, shifting the bag in her arm. “We moved here last month from Mipyā.”
Penelope arches her eyebrow. “That’s quite a trip.”
Wyatt’s parents nod in agreement. “We wanted a fresh start,” Merlin says, slinging one bag up onto his shoulder and patting his newly-free hand on his son’s shoulder. Without further explaining the move, he asks, “You live in the neighborhood?”
“No, we’re over in Hexaber,” the girl, Sidney Appleton, volunteers perkily. “The stuff at the market there isn’t nearly as good as it is here, though.”
Wyatt keeps mostly quiet for the next few minutes while the others chat. He hates how Sidney keeps flicking her eyes at him and shooting him curious smiles. Then she asks him which flower he likes the most in this market, and he points at the bundle of  pink and blue mootpens; he’d rather pick a lusiere, but none are being sold today.
“Shot in the dark,” she says, her eyes gleaming inquisitively. “You’re a Chameleons For Breakfast nerd, right?”
“The proper term is a Cham Ally, and yes I am,” Wyatt answers, taken aback by her perception.
“I only guessed that because mootpens were such a huge motif in the Chameleon memes. Never seen the movie, though, or read the book.”
“You haven’t?” Wyatt is aghast. “What have you been doing all this time, then, if not losing yourself in the greatest sci-fi phenomenon ever?”
“Dealing with life.” There’s something beneath her wry tone that Wyatt can’t quite identify. Then she queries, “Which do you like more—the book or the movie?”
“The book, of course. Book’s always better than film adaptations. But the movie’s fantastic too.”
“It’s rare for that to happen. Usually they bungle translating the material to the screen, like that sci-fi vomit bucket last year, you know what I’m talking about? The teenage girl who leads a revolution against her dystopian government . . .” Sidney rubs her lip together. “Chronic Souls, that’s what I’m thinking of.”
Wyatt winces. “Watching that forced me to ponder over what I was doing with my life.”
“Yeah, it really makes you grapple with philosophical musings on the emptiness of our world. I can’t even get into the books anymore, it brings back too many memories.”
“The worst memories. Anyways, I highly recommend you check out Chameleons.”
Her smile turns coy and she inclines her head a little to her left. “Maybe.”
Once the interaction reaches its conclusion minutes later—Ida courteously says that maybe she and her family will bump into Penelope and Sidney again, and Sidney tells Wyatt, “Bye, Eagleboy”—Penelope and Sidney amble past the Durrells and across Bassow Square. Wyatt looks back to find Sidney looking over her shoulder at him as well. She’s smiling.
A warm and tingly feeling flits through him for a moment, long enough for him to hope his mother is right.
I retract my trembling hand from the picture. My heart’s racing as fast as a squirrel scurrying away from a pursuing agudlin. My gut is rocking back and forth like a building threatening to collapse in an earthquake. I take a step back, a second step, and I almost trip on my third step, oh grim it all, I need to sit down. I sink to the thickly carpeted floor. I put up my knees, wrap my elbows around them, prop my chin on my adjacent forearms.
I don’t understand. I just don’t understand. That wasn’t . . . It can’t be real. I never met them at the Square. The first time I met Sidney was the second night of my parents and I living in Cloverleaf Vistas; we were stargazing on the rooftop for five or ten minutes before Sidney popped up to join us, said she wanted to introduce herself to us, the new neighbors. The first time I met Penelope was on my inaugural day of lab-teching at Rad-Bio; Dr. Fulbright, whom I’d already met a few times during the interviewing process, introduced me to Penelope that day, told me she’d show me the ropes, and the look she gave my scrawny twelve-year-old self was the same look she’d give a bug that she would squash under her combat boot.
Which is why what I just saw, it’s imaginary, it’s not real. I went to Bassow Square quite a bit with my parents every Sosday, but I met neither Sidney nor Penelope there. Clutching my hands on my elbows, digging in my fingers, feeling my nails bite into my skin through the sleeves, I shoot my eyes up at the photos of the hectic Square.
So . . . it was a hallucination, then. One that felt very immersive and tangible. Being in the Welkin’s Bassow Square and exploring my relationship with Sidney must have inspired my extremely creative brain. Fright’s coiling around my heart now, because I don’t need to put up with this, I handle enough eerie dreams when I sleep and I don’t need phantasms haunting me when I’m awake.
I drum my fingers on my elbows from thumb to pinky, pinky to thumb, and back again. I breathe in, breath out. I wonder how long I could stay here. Pick something on Euphony, maybe the Chameleons For Breakfast score, and stick in my earbuds, and relax enough to unknot the threads that have tangled around my head.
But no. I can’t even fish my earbuds from my bag before the ear-piercing blatting of a tritone Rabzen obliterates the silence. My heart leaps from its nest of tickly warmth in my chest to my throat. I jump up to my feet and hurry to the window, peer out over Asulon, and . . .
Oh crap. All the way on the south side are Grimhets gathering in the woods outside the rim of this place. Tons of Rusthunds, but also some Slanges and Rampas, pouring from the dense trees and shrubbery. What about the cloak, and the traps? They’re lunging at the guards lining the perimeter, and the guards respond by firing energy rifles and swinging bladed staffs, and . . . Those blue flashes . . .
I scrunch my brow, press my fist against my lips. Holy shit. Energy orbs tearing through the monsters. Forcefields propelling them away. Swords and flails and clubs and various other weapons striking them down. All of them made of the iridescent blue light blazing inside me right now, the fire roaring against the cold shock numbing my senses.
This is unbelievable. Not all the Vermusk, but some of them, are wielding the energy. How did they . . .
So, I think bitterly, is that what Augen did with her cut of the virus?

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