It’s the 25th of Merto, ten past eight in the morning. The edges of a cumulus cloud burn white as it slips over one of the suns, while the second sun radiates razor blades that slice gashes through other approaching clouds. The grass and the trees and the lake of Gollinger Park flash and gleam under all the searing illumination. People amble and roam through the area without a care, cars dart along the streets and soar through the sky. I watch them from inside an Ouran across from the park, sitting on a stool by the window.
I’m sipping aurium tea, scrolling through my phone, drowning my head in my Walnut feed and the Euphony alt-pop playlist pulsing through my earbuds. I don’t even know why I’m on my phone right now, I could just sit back and ruminate, but instead I’m reading things like Dr. Fulbright seeding about the five best books he’s read recently or an article about protestors in Jem-7 taking down a statue of a Cerebral official who launched a censorship program in 1087 to ban literature from Vermusk, Lunadivian, and other non-Starsapien races.
Then Sidney’s calling me and her face appears on the display and my phone blares the Patty Ramondo song I set as her ringtone. My thumb hovers over ACCEPT CALL. I stare at her sparkling eyes, her beautiful smile, her formidable scar, and then she’s gone and Walnut’s back on the screen. I rest my phone on the table with the screen facedown, take another sip of my tea.
We haven’t seen each other much the past few days. It’s easy now that I’m back to working at the Rad-Bio facility again, the reconstruction having finished on the 20th. Lab sweet lab. They upped the security, and you can’t even tell a couple vortexes tore open three weeks ago. I still have to go to the Citadelle for paladin training, but I requested a change in trainers and now I’m with Newcomb. They do a good job, but it terrified me to learn they adore those damn mites. I think they also suspect something happened between me and Sidney, but they’ve had the sense to resist asking me about it. Not like Cooper, who’s been dropping not-too-subtle hints that I should kiss and make up with Sidney. Did she tell him what’s going on, what the whole story is? If so, that’s unfair, why do I have to get left out, why do I have to deal with these phantasms? Everyone else gets to be carefree, while my world is breaking down and unraveling around me.
I’m amazed Penelope hasn’t given me the third degree. She must know the story, but she hasn’t brought it up once at the lab. Sometimes I do catch her shooting me strange looks. Every time I see her, it digs up that image of her sitting on the couch with me and Sidney, mussing my hair.
Since that day, Sidney’s called me, left messages, texted me, these attempts at communication bursting with concern. Concern and sorrow and pity and regret. Doesn’t she realize her caring for me is only pushing me away?
I’ll admit, there are times when I want to call her and ask her if we can talk, when I have a Kasma-sized sense of courage in me to want to know if what I keep seeing is reality or fantasy. Because the phantasms haven’t stopped. Sidney repeatedly beating me at videogames and reglintel. Baking a chocolate cake with her and Penelope, which gets so messy and I playfully wipe a smear of chocolate off the corner of Sidney’s lips with my finger and lick it off. Visiting the Gollinger Park Zoo on a sweltering summer day. Stargazing from the roof of the apartment. Taking Sidney into my arms, losing myself in her warmth.
This morning I had a delusion where she gave me a potted lusiere. I cupped it in my palms, an iridescent blaze of cobalt-blue and mauve. It smelled wonderful, almost ethereal, as if it was grown in the gardens of Sannem, the Teönor god of flowering plants, and I thanked Sidney with a passionate kiss.
I don’t want it to be real. But yesterday, me and Mom and Dad went on a picnic at Gollinger in the late afternoon, and we unloaded our big picnic bag and laid out clear bioplastic tubs and pouches of smoked wheatfowl sandwiches cut in half, cheese, baby vegetables, lobster salad, goldseed wine, fizzy lemonade. In the middle of it I asked them about Sidney, and a baby carrot paused en route to Dad’s mouth. His thick brow furrowed so hard, as though he was concentrating on solving a cipher to escape a trap-riddled temple.
“Maykal, we don’t have to talk about this right now,” he enunciated carefully after a beat.
“But I want to,” I stated, using a spork to eat lobster salad out of a tub. “I need to know.”
“You always say that,” Mom said in an odd tone, sandwich hovering in her hands.
I stared unflinchingly, perplexedly at her and Dad. None of us ate or drank. The rest of the park whirled around us, oblivious to the tension at its center.
“It’s funny to think how close you two were,” Mom finally said, tugging at the highlighted ends of her hair. “In fact, you were practically inseparable.”
Dad supplied, “Remember when you were eleven, you fell off your gigabike and broke your arm?”
I wince at the memory. Metura, I hate thinking about that day, when I zipped down the sidewalk on the blue and white gigabike I’d had for three weeks up to that point and I lost control and skidded and lurched into the air and then the ground came rushing up to me and I felt no pain at first but heard the clear snap! in my right forearm. A moment for the shock to wear off, and then it hurt like hell.
“Sidney visited you every day,” Dad said, “and she brought you gifts, stayed at your bedside.”
Mom turned to him with a smirk. “I was always telling you, we better watch out for those two when they get older, in case—” With her sandwich in both hands she made some sort of . . . rubbing motion, I guess you’d call it.
I cringed. “Mom, that is offensive.”
She added as if she didn’t hear me, “Eventually I did catch you—”
“Mom!” My face was on fire, but her smirk widened and Dad hid his smile behind his glass of wine.
“Don’t be embarrassed, sweetie,” she said, leaning over to spork a hunk of lobster meat out of my tub and into her mouth. “Out of all the people to lose your virginity to, she was by far the best choice.”
Cursed Cosmotic, my brain could have shot out of my skull and into the sky.
“You used protection, right?” Dad inquired, arching his prominent eyebrows at me.
“They did,” Mom confirmed, and my brain was desperately searching for a way to break out of my head, especially when she turned to Dad and continued, “Unlike us, Merl. Remember that one time we skipped it? Just one time. Really though, it started a couple days earlier when I told you, ‘I’d love to have your baby,’ and the universe clicked. I’m not kidding, there was an audible click in the room, and that was it. No ifs, ands, or buts, because you”—she darted a look of mock irritation at me—“were patiently waiting up there in the stars and nebulae, a baby bird biding his time while your future father wooed me with that most seductive of mating rituals—juggling.”
I exchange a smile with Dad. It never gets old hearing them talk about how he won over Mom with his unmatched flair for repeatedly tossing various objects into the air and nimbly catching them.
“So once I told him I’d have his child and there was that click,” Mom told me, “you must have been like, ‘Alright, guys, I want in! I’ve waited long enough!’” Her face darkened, her eyes narrowed. “It took twenty-eight hours to shove you out of my body.”
Dad offered, “Remember when you were in labor and I was driving you to the hospital and you kept screaming, ‘I don’t care for this! I don’t care for this at all!’”
He chuckled. Mom smiled serenely at him and countered, “Would you still find it funny if you were the one having a jackhammer pound on your vagina?”
Dad enthusiastically shook his head, but amusement remained bright in those gold-dappled hazel eyes I inherited from him.
“Getting back around to the main topic . . .” I interjected.
They wore expressions of confusion, and then Dad said, “You and Sid.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right,” Mom agreed, regaining her solemn tone, and turning back to me. “As we were saying, you two were very close. Not just in a romantic sense, but you were best friends too, and that’s why it threw us for a curve when you . . . I don’t know if you broke up, officially, but you definitely grew apart and she stopped dropping by and you—” Mom cut herself off, pinched her lips together, tore a piece off the top slice of bread in her sandwich and rolled it between her thumb and middle finger. “You got so upset whenever we tried to talk to you about the—about what happened.”
“I don’t even remember any of this,” I fibbed, twisting my ring around my forefinger as ghosts threatened to surface from the deep darkness in my head.
Dad shook his head ruefully. “Exactly the point. It’s almost like you wanted to forget Sid, the way you refused to talk about her.”
Unconsciously, I reached over my shoulder to rub the nape of my tight neck. “Why would I . . .” I trailed off, ate the last of my sandwich, and then Mom scooted closer to me and took my hand in hers.
“If you ever want to talk about it . . .” she said, followed a few seconds later by, “We’ll always be here for you.” Her smile was genuine, full of empathy. “Always.”
We didn’t talk about it for the rest of the picnic. I had to wrestle with it for the rest of the day, throughout a restless night of sleep cluttered with half-remembered dreams, and into this morning. A part of me wants to be brave enough to dig into the past. But the rest of me says it won’t be worth the pain . . .
I freeze with my tea hovering, the back of my neck prickling as if someone’s approaching me. I swivel my head, furrow my eyebrows at a man standing a few feet away and looking at me expectantly. A tall, dark-skinned man I assume to be in his fifties or sixties. Mug of coffee in one hand, a dish with a cookie in the other. His thick black hair is scrupulously combed, neatly parted to the sides, and cut just above his ears, an aristocratic gray just starting to tinge the temples. Dressed in a crisp black suit jacket with a white flower pinned to the lapel, matching creased pants, creamy pink dress shirt, and shiny leather shoes, he may be on his way to a breakfast event being hosted by a wealthy friend, maybe a politician or the head of a tech empire.
I barely hear him through my earbuds when he greets me with “Good morning,” but I can read his lips. Without warning he takes the stool on my left—directly next to me, even though the rest of the window counter is vacant, he’s like that asshole who just has to sit right next to you in an empty movie theater. He puts his mug and dish on the window counter, lightly rests his palms on the stone surface on either side of his refreshments. Fat veins streak through his wrinkly hands. He stares out the glass at Gollinger Park and the surrounding roads and buildings with a pondering look in his eyes. Eyes that are a somber black, so deep-set they’re almost hollow.
I’m only half-thinking when I pull out my earbuds, coil them around my smartphone, set it back on the counter. Now I can hear the café’s hustle and bustle, the din of chatter and the whir-hissing of coffee machines and the laidback notes of Ouran’s Euphony playlist. I’m trying to conjure up a question for him, though only heaven knows what I’d ask, and then he says in a low-pitched and gentle voice, “Do you feel it, my child?” I clasp my hands around my coffee, and he doesn’t wait for me to answer before he goes on. “There’s something in the air. An acute weight.”
“Uh-huh,” I murmur, nonplussed, an odd tightness deep in my stomach. I itch the corner of my eyebrow, squint at the man, take in his distinctive appearance. Hooked nose, proud jaw, broad forehead, wrinkles trenched deeply all over his face. He sits erect on his stool. Rather than being classically handsome, he emanates radiant majesty.
However, the longer I watch him sip his coffee and dunk in his cookie and nibble on it, something starts to shift out of place. Maybe it’s the gray shadows falling over his creased features, or the rather weird glitter in his eyes, or the knowing curl in his full dry lips. Whatever it is, it’s making the knot in my gut twist round and yank on threads running to my muscles.
“Someone I know once said that peace is an illusion, that it’s the final bastion for mortals,” he recalls, continuing to gaze out the window. “Everyone strives for such a thing, but how could it ever truly exist—chaos and death will never stop mutilating the world, and we should save ourselves the anguish by surrendering to all of it.” His eyes cut sideways to me. “I find that philosophy to be grossly pessimistic.”
“What do you believe in, then?” I ask, glimpsing the flower on his lapel. A stark white evetide hyacinth. Petals swollen into a bell, encircled by ropelike leaves.
He doesn’t reply. Instead he turns slightly on his stool, examines me with an expression of profound thought. More light is beaming into Ouran—the cloud that was covering one of the suns slid off seconds ago—and casting even grayer shadows on his strong visage. The veins marbling his hands are turning gray.
A chill grips my body. My hands grip more tightly on my tea. Dark emotions are swirling within me, throbbing, heightening the edea pryn I’m experiencing. It reminds me of—
A strange, warm sensation is pressing into my forehead, as though it’s being covered with a heated towel. It only gets stronger when I meet the old man’s gaze. Cursed Cosmotic, what’s going on, the warmth is seeping through my skull and soaking into my brain, stop it—
Oh wow. Oh heavens.
Color. That’s what I see at first. Nothing but blobs and flashes of vivid color. Then they swirl together, coalesce into amorphous shapes, sculpt themselves into planets and moons and stars and galaxies. A great joy pulses through me to watch life sprout throughout this vast space, a world woven with harmony and love and . . . something else . . . something radiant and thrumming. But I can’t identify it before the vision disappears and I’m in Ouran, facing him, the corrupt Torchen Overseer who’s been waging war against us with his demons for the past three and a half centuries.
“That’s what I want, my child—to purge Cosmotic of its poisons and restore the vital spark that’s been extinguished for far too long,” states Gargant, his face flickering like rays of light are bending around it. His skin is turning smoky gray, his wrinkles are twisting his features into a grimacing smirk, his hair is vanishing and leaving behind round whitish-gray boils protruding from his bald dome.
I gawp at him, flabbergasted. Which is understandable, right? I mean, his “apprentice” breaks into my apartment and injects me with Super Nex, then tracks me down for a little chitchat in Gollinger, and now Gargant himself is here and I don’t know how much more of this crap I can take. Indie music keeps pounding through the café, all the customers and baristas oblivious to the interaction taking place here.
“None of that is possible, though, if Rechin Ihres Augen achieves her ambition,” he says, while the suns sweep golden flames over the park and I silently down the rest of my lukewarm aurium. “She will annihilate our home, our Cosmotic. She must be stopped.”
It takes all my strength to not roll my eyes at his nerve, but my mouth edges upward and I end up snickering. I thud my empty cup down on the counter, flatten my mouth, look up at him with a furrowed brow. “‘Our’ home? Weird, makes it sound like you still belong here, like you give two shits about us.”
Gargant shakes his head, as if disappointed in my antagonism. “I expected you to take this more maturely, my child. You cannot—”
“First off, don’t call me that. Second, how do you expect me to react? You know, I’ve been grappling with mental garbage as of late, and now you think you can show up here and tell me, ‘Heads up, Augen’s going to destroy everything you love—”
I would have ranted longer, but torturous claws of aching pain start creeping up the tendons of my neck. I reach back to rub my neck, complaining, “Thanks, now I’ve got a tension headache.”
“Let me take care of that.” Gargant makes a light flick of his hand, and my headache melts away. “Anxious boy,” he chides, his scowl deepening like it’s ridiculous to endure something as trivial as stress. “I’m trying to help you. As much as you might like to believe it, I am not the villain of this story.” Another hand-wave, and my cup refills with aurium.
“That’s not what I meant at all,” I say after recovering from my befuddlement. “It’s just that you pulled a lot of Cabal-level political trickery and assassinations, and then you proceeded to terrorize us with those critters of yours. But none of that’s too bad in the grand scheme of things.”
Gargant narrows his eyes to choleric slits, touches his hyacinth absently. I didn’t catch that detail before, the broken index finger on his right hand. Then he reaches out a hand to me. I flinch, as if he’s going to cast a spell on me. Instead a box of fine dark wood materializes in his palm. Two silver clasps keep it closed in front. An impressively detailed etching of a starry sky arching over three figures in the middle of a wide park decorates the top lid.
Once he realizes I’m making no move to accept his offer—for all I know, it contains a creature that’s going to lunge out and eat my face off—he places the box on the counter with a resounding thump. “A token of my beneficence for your imminent enterprise. You can’t open it for now, though.”
I gaze warily at the object. “Great. What’s inside?”
“That’s part of the mystery,” Gargant counters with a touch of amusement, as if he’s offered me a fun riddle to solve, his wrinkles loosening momentarily, and then his tone changes significantly. “Besides, I believe you already suspect the answer in your heart.”
I stare at him hard. Who does this bird turd think he is? And the boils on top of his leathery bald head, they’re noxious to look at. I reach for the box, try to pry open the clasps, but they remain stuck. I glance at Gargant in exasperation, take another stab at it, but I almost bend back my thumbnail and I mutter a swear.
“Patience is a virtue,” he asserts, as if he’s telling me to wait to open my presents until the Vimming Hours of Elder’s Feast.
It takes me every ounce of my strength to resist telling him he should stick his patience where the sun doesn’t shine. My eyes shoot back to the box and it’s not on the counter anymore and the strap of my bag is digging slightly harder into my shoulder. I reach back my hand, cautiously rest it on the flap, and I know it’s there. Something hardens in my gut.
“What’s the time?” Gargant mumbles, producing from his suit a smartphone in a case etched with monochromatic circles and spirals. “Almost time for you to go to work,” he tells me after checking the clock.
“Are you summoning a Mobular?” I query in disbelief as he opens up the app and swipes through the menu.
“Shouldn’t you be driving your own car by now?” he observes, as if it’s mystifying that one out of every four people on Bicap rely on transfetch services.
I turn on my stool away from him, unspool the earbuds from my phone and stick them back in, but I hit the play button and “Delusive Eyes” blares through my head.
I can smell orchids, even though they’re out of season
Flares in the sky, flares in the black
I know you’re here, even if you’re not
I rush to shut it off and I fumble and the phone slips from my fingers and plummets down, but it stops inches above the floor and flies up onto the counter with a flick of Gargant’s crooked finger. Nothing’s playing now. My heart crashes a raucous rhythm against my ribcage. I open my fists and my nails have indented four red crescents into each of my palms.
“Your ride will pick you up in seven minutes,” he announces, slipping his phone back in his suit, creases curling and twisting in his proud face.
“Thanks,” I intone. I haven’t touched my tea since he refilled it.
Wearily lowering his eyebrows, he slides off his stool and stands over me, the shadows deepening over his features, the wrinkles broadening from his eyes and over the rest of his grimacing face.
“Prepare yourself, my child. Great times lie ahead of us.” He almost whispers it with a bizarre awe, strokes the hyacinth in his lapel.
He strides past me in the direction of the door, and he’s a few feet away when I say, “Hey.” He stops in mid-step but doesn’t turn around and I can only see his back. “I don’t know why you think it’s my destiny to save the world. I’m not a hero.”
He slowly swivels to face me with a thin smile, not quite a smirk, stretching his cracked lips. “That’s right. You’re you.”
He advances across the café for the door, weaving between tables with their occupants ignoring him completely. He goes out the door, takes a left, and I watch him out the window as he’s about to step off the corner of the intersection. But the next moment he’s gone. I take this time to clasp my hands around my tea, lift it to my mouth and drink it. I don’t pop in my earbuds.
When the Mobular alert blinks onto my phone, I head outside, the suns flaming yellow, a vigilant hand clasped over my bag as though it’s holding priceless gems. Who knows, maybe that’s what Gargant gave me. Spying a trash receptacle on the street corner, I briefly wonder if I should throw away the box, but then a white Halbrook SMX pulls up to the curb. I get into the sedan after a hesitant beat and it whisks me off.
Easygoing jazz flows from the speakers as I check my Walnut feed. Within seconds, I see the number one trending topic: Viral video shows cub-inflicted killing of Enbo Alviz in Civit Lumin.
It takes a moment for me to process those words, then I watch my finger tap the screen and it opens up a flood of seeds pouring their grief for Enbo’s devastating death and calling for the cubs involved to suffer the consequences. *JusticeForEnboAlviz and *CrimsonViolence are the most popular startags.
I’m numb with bafflement for a minute. He’s not dead, I just saw him with Laddi a few days ago at the Citadelle. And then I come across a video that shows one of the arenas there. It’s recorded from a camera in the back corner of the room, facing the entrance wall. No sound, but the resolution and colors are remarkably crisp. Enbo and three other cubs have gathered in the right half of the arena. Enbo has his arms crossed over his chest, his bearded face unreadable. The cubs, one of whom’s Bansmer, are taking on stances that look tense, confrontational, as if steeling themselves for a tussle with Grimhets.
Just as Enbo makes to step away from the group, Bansmer unclips his shock baton from his belt and jabs at Enbo’s shoulder. He collapses to the floor in a fit of exquisite convulsions, and a sickening feeling twists through my stomach. One of the other cubs whips out his own baton, but Enbo’s spasming hand flames blue and an orb hurtles him out of the camera’s view. He seems to quickly regain some control over his body as he staggers to his feet, but then Bansmer delivers a swift kick to his head and he tumbles to his side and can’t get back up before his chest and left arm are ripped to pieces by a series of rapid-fire blasts from Bansmer’s Mawfer.
My skin prickles, something sour creeps up my throat and I swallow it back down. Why isn’t Enbo getting up? He’s lying there on the floor with deep red blood pooling around his ravaged body. The cub he orbed is stumbling back into view with a we’re-in-deep-shit head-shake, Bansmer hurries to re-sling the Mawfer on his back with enough haste to suggest he’s closing out porn on his computer and he stuffs his hands in his pockets, the third cub rubs a hand against his forehead, and that’s when the video ends.
A minute passes before I rewatch it, expecting Enbo to survive, but the monstrous cruelty unfolds before me with no changes. Gargant’s voice rumbles in my ears.
Chaos and death will never stop mutilating the world . . . I find that philosophy to be grossly pessimistic.