MERcURY IS HoT
Have to say, I was getting real sick of losing to that overgrown jellyfish.
Procyon’s security gang got us bundled up and whisked out of downtown within seconds of Garvey screeching up in his van, followed by two silver SUVs. Wilhelmina was there, too, but didn’t do much except hold my hand as we bounced over the roads toward the silo base.
She didn’t need to say anything. We blew it. Again. And we were way more prepared than during that first group face-off in the woods.
What was I supposed to do against an astral fiend that had merged with a monster from another dimension, then absorbed that alternate self, and kept growing ginormous?
Plus, it was getting antsy.
I stood in Tracking with arms folded. Aerial news footage broadcast from one of San Camillo’s big networks showed an ugly black line tracing its way into the hills. Firefighters hustled families from their homes as the blaze spread down Arbor Valley, threatening more homes that your typical wildfire. The astral fury burnt so much acreage in a short time it created a permanent pillar of smoke that blocked out attempts to pinpoint its location.
“Si. I understand. We’ve got it, sir.” Ramos ended his call. His face still glistened with sweat. Probably because he was still geared up in S.W.A.T. fatigues and armor. “Air National Guard is coordinating with the Forest Service. They’re debating whether they should hold off the slurry bombers fighting the fires so the military can send in the real thing loaded down with enough high explosive to turn the hills into a second lunar landscape.”
“Let me guess: No one can make a decision.” My heart thudded under my ribcage. I was so mad I couldn’t put much more of a quip together. It felt like my arms were the only thing keeping my chest from exploding. “No one can figure out what to do about this monster.”
“It’s more the debate about whether the solution will inflict more damage than the problem.” Ramos attempted to smooth his hair. A tuft refused to be tamed. “If you haven’t already called for your kind of backup, now would be the time.”
“First two calls went to voicemail.” I mashed my finger on the speed dial icon on my phone. “Here goes number three.”
Voicemail. What kind of superhero doesn’t check his messages? Or texts? Each one I sent steadily approached Rated R in terms of verbiage.
This time the phone clicked. “Hey, quit calling.”
I scowled. “Who is this?”
“This is the guy who’s not gonna let you talk to Airfoil.” The voice dripped with condescension, but not the kind you’d pick up from someone who thought he was a brainiac. No, this was way too smarmy to be an adult. Plus, it cracked on the word “not.”
“Listen, kid, this is Mercury Hale. Brandon knows all about me and I know all about him. So, do me a favor? Go get your dad.”
“If I knew the where, I’d have said where.” He sighed so loudly into the receiver it blew static. “What do you want?”
“What do I want? Have you seen the news from San Camillo? I want your dad to fly through a portal I’ll happily provide so he can mash our latest monster flat with his gravity powers!”
“He’d do it, too, but like, he’s not here. I don’t know where he is. Secret mission, I guess.”
“And he left his kid home alone?”
“His partner.” The teen snapped out the last work. “I get it. You got big problems. But so does he. If he gets back in time to help, I’ll tell him. Otherwise, quit bugging me. I’ve got homework.”
“Wait a second, you—”
The call dropped.
My mouth kept working but no words exited.
“Problem?” Ramos asked.
“Yeah. I just got hung up on by a 15-year-old sidekick.” I slammed my phone down on the table.
“Take it easy. Bashing useful things isn’t going to help anything. You’ll need to be calm and focused to figure out how to destroy this creature.”
“Calm and focused? I’m 0-3 with the astral fury, Ramos. I’m past rational thinking.”
“Which would be a mistake, because if you truly are, then you won’t be able to save anyone.” He prodded my chest with a finger. “Including you. And if you’re dead, we’re all doomed.”
I clenched my teeth. He was right. I hated it, but he was right. This was no time to explode. I had to do something, and if I was preoccupied rampaging through Procyon’s secret base, that meant zero time spent planning. I exhaled. Suddenly all the adrenaline tanked. I slumped into a chair.
“Better?” Ramos sat opposite me.
“I think so. It’ll take me a bit.” I shook my head. “Did you seriously use ‘doomed’ in a sentence?”
“I thought it would get your attention.” He smiled.
Loredana and Wilhelmina came in, heads ducked as they whispered a conversation. Loredana hurried nearer as soon as she realized I was there and knelt by my side. “You really must let Doctor Becker examine your wounds.”
“Bumps and bruises, all of which are healing fast. Nothing broken. Ramos checked.”
“As much as I trust the lieutenant, I would prefer the opinion of a medical professional.” She cocked her head, like she was examining me for those same injuries, but I figured she was trying to look deeper. “What of Airfoil?”
“Zilch. He’s AWOL and his brat kid won’t tell us where—if he even knows.”
“Then Gemini could be our best bet.”
“I’ll message him again.” I shook my head. “Superheroes. Worse than customer service when you’re trying to get help on the phone.”
“Bowen and Niall are still recuperating in the infirmary.” Loredana stood. “As for Manager Alvarez, well, I suppose I should admit him for observation, given the spike in his blood pressure.”
“It could have been a lot worse.”
“I’m acknowledging that. Keep in mind, though, that several people died in full view of police armed with heavy weaponry and public armed with cell phones taking video. The federal government has expressed its thanks to Procyon for intervening, even if it cannot be mentioned in public.”
“Not that people aren’t talking,” Ramos said. “There’s been a flood of calls to SCPD and the mayor’s office, everyone wondering what Procyon and Mercury are going to do to stop the monster.”
Them and me both. I rubbed my face. Could’ve slept for the next ten years. “Okay, recap. Bowen and Niall are injured. I’m fair to middling. SCPD lost their chopper, which would be handy, and the Air National Guard’s still drawing straws as to whether they get to napalm downtown San Camillo. The superhero with the ability to smash this mutated monster like a fly on our windshield is missing in action, and our portal-hopper isn’t answering his phone. That sum things up?”
“Quite.” Loredana arched an eyebrow. “I would add to that list Elizabeth’s locking herself away in one of the makeshift laboratories with the portal gun designed by Mister DeBarthe. Apparently, she has had a brainstorm of cyclonic proportions.”
Gary DeBarthe. Another person who died because of me, who I should have been able to save. That list was getting way too long and too heavy to carry. “Let me know when she saves the day.”
“Hey.” Ramos caught up with me as I brushed by them on my way to the door. His voice was a harsh whisper. “Remember what I said? These people need you. Especially Loredana, whether she shows it or not. You’re not going to be able to walk out on her whenever the mood suits, Mercury. The two of you will be bound for good.”
“Tell that to the city municipal courts.”
Ramos balled his fists. No joke. I’ve seen the guy mad, but never thought he was gonna take a swing at me. But I deserved it.
Stupid comment. I was hurting, both inside and out, and chose to lash around me for easy targets like I was a pain-crazed astral fiend.
“Sorry. I know what you meant. And I believe it.”
“You’d better. Or there’s more than just your city that’s doomed.” He turned back to the monitor and made a phone call.
“And on that cheery note…” I headed deeper into the base.
“Hey!” Wilhelmina broke her silence. “Where you think you’re off to in a huff?”
“Anywhere but Tracking,” I muttered.
Liz was in the lab. Where Procyon’s had been the tidiest of spaces, scrubbed free of any possible contaminants, this space was a cold, bare set of concrete walls and slab. A straight-up box. Wires ran in thick bundles across the ceiling and walls, like highways of electricity and data. A row of bright white lab coats hung by the door.
“Mercury!” Liz waved from the middle of the cavernous compartment. Like I needed the indication of where she was. That pink hair could have been a set of fireworks over San Camillo Bay on the Fourth. “Oh, good! I was hoping you’d come by but I was all set to text you so you could start the demonstration.”
“Doesn’t inspire much confidence when you need my help, Liz.” Whatever she was working on was obscured by tall metal boxes and a couple of tarps with holes chewed in the sides. “Loredana said you were working on the portal gun.”
“Yeah. Clunky, handheld thing, looks like a radar device that’s eaten a power-up mushroom?”
She giggled. “It’s not like Super Mario, silly. We totally rebuilt it! I mean, not totally, because the core components remain the same and while I’ve managed to narrow the confinement stream and drop the temperature way, way down—”
I cleared my throat and indicated my watch.
“Yeesh. Somebody’s grumpy.” She gave me a hug, squeezing her arms around my middle so hard I thought my spleen would pop out of—wherever a spleen lives, internally speaking. Then she poked her fingers into the corner of my frown until she’d forced it upward. Not a smile, but maybe a grimace doing its best impersonation of one. “Better! We’ll work on it.”
“I’d rather work on your new toy.”
“Oh, you don’t have to work on it.” Her smile outshone anyone else’s I’d encountered all day. “You get to play.”
She swung the tarp away, and I gotta admit, I gasped. Not quite “Squee!” but close.
The new device was a dark rectangle carved with readout screens and indicators. There were labels at various points for things like “WARNING: ELECTROCUTION HAZARD,” AND “CAUTION: HEAT SINK.” The thing had to be four feet long.
“Wow,” I said.
“Come on, you haven’t even tried it yet!” She tapped my thigh, her fingers clinking where the pulsar stave was hidden in a holster.
I drew the stave, letting it gain power. It cast a warm glow in the sickly-lit lab. “I take it I need this?”
“That’s your power source.” She pointed to a slot under the grip, behind the trigger.
I plugged it in. The yellow-white energy seeped up into the weapon. A low hum built, filling the room with a subtle vibration that set my teeth buzzing. Blue light spread along sharp angles throughout the device, until the muzzle end started—steaming.
“What’d you make, a giant teapot?”
She rolled her eyes, still grinning. “Pick it up!”
I did. Ice cold. I suppressed shivers. Yeah, that wasn’t steam at the far end. It was mist.
“It siphons the tachyon energy from the pulsar stave the way your suit and your leg do, but it converts them into an extreme
cold. Narang found a prototype in storage. I don’t know what Winston had in mind for it—maybe to immobilize astral fiends instead of destroying them?”
Winston Yen. The former head of Tracking and local tech genius, who, as it turned out, helped his wife open a stable gateway to the Interstice so astral fiends could flood our dimension. Now Marigold was gone, merged with the Whisperer and Arkwright, and her hubby was locked up in a state prison.
Since he also designed my power-absorbing, adaptive camouflage supersuit, I guessed I couldn’t fuss too much.
I hefted the gun. It was surprisingly well-balanced, for as long as it was. “Any particular target?”
Liz pointed at the opposite end of the room, where a stack of three cardboard boxes tottered against the damp concrete wall. She crossed her fingers.
“Yippie kay-yay.” I aimed and squeezed the trigger.
The beam was brilliant blue, laced with white bolts of energy, dripping—I don’t know, excess tachyons?—along the floor. It struck the boxes. They shattered into thousands of tiny shards that blasted like snow in a blizzard. I shielded my face with the gun.
Liz finally peeked over her fingers. Her hair and eyebrows were frosted white.
“I think,” I said slowly, “I’m going to like this.”
The rest of the gang was waiting in Tracking. Bowen was there, sporting new bruises and still as pale as a guy recovering from the flu. I sidled up to Loredana. “Everything okay?”
“Are you addressing the rest of us, or myself?” She regarded me with a manner a couple of degrees cooler than the ice-weapon I just tested.
“I’m sorry about earlier. This astral fury—and the leg...” I shook my head. “Nothing’s gonna get better if I shut everyone out every time things get rough. So, if you can bear with me, I’ll keep pushing through.”
She took my hand. “Good. Because we need you here, to take command.”
“I’m ready.” I winked. “First thing I gotta do, of course, is get Saito-on-Sky booked.”
“Perhaps that should wait until directly after we avert fiery destruction.” Her smile was sly.
“I can do that. How about we start by finding another way to get out into the forest and as close to the astral fury as we can?” I pointed in the general direction of the garage. “Because there’s no way I’m risking my car again.”
Ramos cleared his throat. “I don’t think anyone wants to drive up into those hills, not as torn up as those roads can be.”
“Would that I could command Northwind in this realm, we could sail the clouds to our destination,” Bowen said.
An air raid? I’d heard worse plans. “Which wouldn’t be a bad idea, because I’m guessing SCPD won’t drag out another helo after the first one belly-flopped on Twenty-Second.”
Ramos frowned. “We’re fresh out of military surplus. I could see if my contacts in the Air National Guard would grant us special dispensation.”
Loredana held up her hands. “That won’t be necessary, any of you. Come with me.”
We followed her down the narrow corridors, through a set of thick steel doors guarded by a couple Procyon security men. I hadn’t been through this section of the base. But it was new-ish, and I hadn’t gotten the full tour. We wound up at the base of a stairwell and climbed until daylight brightened the railings on either side.
“I took the liberty of having our Chicago office send over one of their aircraft. You should find it the better version of a helicopter.”
Loredana wasn’t kidding. I’d expected to find another Blackhawk sitting outside the door at the top of the stairs, or maybe a civilian model. I stepped out into a broad clearing hemmed in by tall pines and surrounded by a rusty chain link fence. The vehicle at the center was unmistakable—same pale gray as any other military craft, except it was absent all markings. Nothing could identify it as belonging to Procyon.
Which was a good thing, because I was pretty sure the average community foundation wasn’t supposed to have an Osprey tiltrotor, whether they fought monsters or not.
It sat there like its namesake, crouched on a building, ready to spring on its prey. Huge black propellers dangled from the end of long pylons.
Ramos donned his mirrored sunglasses and, to my surprise, smiled. “I won’t bother placing my call, unless you need a trained pilot.”
Loredana shielded her eyes. “I have one of those, as well, provided he’s not killed himself in some foolish aerial maneuver.”
A lanky guy with light brown hair spotted us and waved from an open hatch. He hopped down and trotted over.
“Looks like he hasn’t died yet,” I quipped.
“Not for lack of trying,” Loredana murmured.
The pilot stopped short, pale cheeks flush. He cracked a grin. “Mighty fine day for a flight ain’t it, Miss Lark?”
“Indeed it is. Though it appears it’ll be nightfall by the time we get underway.”
The pilot waved a hand. He had on an olive-drab flight suit over a garish, neon blue Hawaiian shirt patterned with green palm. “Don’t bother me none. I reckon we’ll put this bird through her paces, day or night.”
“I’d like to introduce the operative leading this sortie, Mercury Hale.”
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance.” The guy wrung my hand like he’d never heard of a dryer for getting moisture out of laundry.
“Yeah, uh, the same. You’re the new guy? From Chicago?”
He winked. “Thereabouts. Copernicus Sark, finest pilot this side of Galderica and anywhere else that’s a blamed sight farther across the Interstice.”