MERcURY IS HoT

CHAPTER TWO

I hung a right at the site of our destroyed base before heading north to Procyon’s new secret headquarters.

Don’t ask me whether it was a good idea to route their employees’ commute past their former waterfront location. I bet the foundation’s psychologist had her schedule full dealing with the aftermath of last month. You know, the part where an evil, sentient ancient relic tried to drown San Camillo under a deluge made from the city’s own bay? And that was after my nemesis, Alexander Arkwright, used a very selective earthquake powered by that relic to level Procyon’s three towers.

 

I gripped the steering wheel tighter as I drove the Subaru up Bay Avenue. All the rubble was gone. Bulldozers had flattened the lot. They’d even ripped up the parking lot. Only the stone sign by the guard post remained, a silver star flanked by black parallelograms. Sure, Procyon’s architect was busy on designs and would have something new in the works soon, and all the civilian employees were relocated to rented offices a few blocks away.

 

That didn’t make it any easier to see.

 

I said “civilian” because most of Procyon’s workers were the office types who handled the foundation’s public face. They filed grant applications for housing projects and community resource centers. They fielded calls about improving run-down neighborhoods. All such things got routed up the chain of command to Loredana Lark and the manager, Hector Alvarez.

But those two had bigger things on their minds.

 

Procyon’s real reason for existence was to safeguard our dimension from encroachment by astral fiends, like the fiery version I’d just chased off. How? By getting people like me to slay those monsters with the pulsar stave, the weapon that only individuals with certain genetic markers could use.

 

Recent catastrophes had opened the eyes of the general public, though. The internet was full of whispers. Not the kind that bugged me in the middle of the night. Those were nightmares brought on by the unholy aberration that combined Marigold Yen—a former friend—and Arkwright with the nebulous Whisperer. What they were up to inside the Interstice was anybody’s guess, but if you guess “bad stuff,” you’d win a prize.

Seemed like the “bad stuff” now included new and customized astral fiends.

I drove out the north side of town, up the coast along the 311. Waves crashed along the seaside rocks. An old monastery peeked over the cliffs to my right, a distant sentinel.

 

The next turn onto a side road led into a hilly backcountry filled with scrub pines. I used the word road loosely because it was more a rutted path meant for horses and mountain bikes. The Subaru bounced over rocks. Branches brushed at the side mirrors.

 

Ramos grimaced. He braced his hand against the ceiling. “I’d have refused the ride if I’d know the condition of the road was so poor.”

 

“Quit whining. There’s no sense having a secret base if you’re gonna have the path to it paved smooth.” We jounced around a corner. Okay, it was rough, even for my preferences. But thankfully, it flattened out a hundred yards down the twisting, winding track into a passable dirt road that showed signs of recent improvement. The trees were taller here, reaching out far enough to shade the road from most of the sun—and snooping satellites.

 

Ramos checked his phone. “Bradley says they’ve got the scene cleaned up.”

 

“How is Detective Surly these days?”

 

“You know Stan. I thought the vein on his forehead would burst when I told him I was riding with you instead of heading back to the precinct. But he can’t complain too much, seeing as how partnering with me on the new task force means he has a degree of autonomy he never enjoyed working Homicide.”

 

“Sounds good to me, as long as Homicide and the rest of SCPD—task force included—doesn’t know where Procyon hides its fun stuff these days.” I caught a glimpse of weather-beaten concrete through the trees. “Garage is coming up.”

 

“Don’t worry, I’m keeping it classified.” Ramos craned his neck. “When you say garage, you mean… What is that?”

 

“That, my friend, is an off-the-books, repurposed Titan-II ballistic missile launch site.” Turned out that the superhero Airfoil way out East in Drake City wasn’t the only one who liked the idea of using an abandoned military base for his lair—unless lair is the word only bad guys use. Never mind.

 

The garage in question was a low, slanted concrete bunker that someone had cut a brand-new entrance into. Four flat pads, these also crumbling concrete, spread across the clearing. Scrub pines had grown up in between them during the intervening decades.

 

A steel door trundled open, descending into the floor. I drove us down a shallow ramp, dimly lit with soft amber lights, as the door sealed us in. The ramp curved, following the sides of what had been the main silo, except Procyon’s enterprising souls had a parking garage built into the mid-level. I tucked the Subaru between a pair of Procyon Security SUVs, their silver flanks reflecting orange. I spotted Loredana’s glitzy BMW a couple spots down.

 

The car door made a tremendous echo in the cavernous space. Ramos peered over the railing. “I’ll admit, I’m impressed.”

 

“Awesome, right?” I led him to a door and flashed my Procyon ID badge. The panel to the right blinked from red to green. “A regular Batcave.”

 

“Don’t even tell me Procyon put this together since the Hedron quake.”

 

The name of the sentient artifact that had tried to annihilate San Camillo—Hedron of Orbits—still made me shudder. “Nah. It’s been a backup for forty years. Kept in mothballs, but periodically updated with tech. Liz has been—well, check it out.”

 

There was a security cubicle of glass and steel just inside the door. Garvey had his feet up on the desk. Dude was the size of a small mountain, so it was a wonder the desk didn’t collapse. Muscles protested their confinement inside a black polo shirt emblazoned with the Procyon star logo. He glanced up from a bank of monitors, each one showing a different aspect of the exterior, the silo and its garage, and other compartments. “Mr. Hale. Ms. Lark said you’d be bringing a guest.”

 

Ramos offered his badge and credentials.

 

“Thanks, Lieutenant. You’re cleared.” Garvey nodded.

 

I tossed him a mock salute and led us down the metal tube that served as one of the connecting corridors. The curved walls were painted a soft white. Recessed lighting gave it a bright, warm feeling. Whatever they used for floor tiling muted our footsteps.

 

“Homey,” Ramos said.

 

I shrugged. “I’d rather have the views of San Camillo Bay again, but it’s nice to stay unbothered. And you know, since we’ve been out in public a bunch lately, we need a little more privacy.”

 

“You really should carry your suit on you for such emergencies as the one we just had.”

 

“Seriously? I can’t fit it inside a ring, Ramos, and don’t even think about suggesting a man-purse.”

 

“What about Airfoil? He has to have some way to store his suit.”

 

“We haven’t talked about it.”

 

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Ramos frowned. “He’s been far more used to performing in the public eye than you, Mercury. Seems like the perfect person from whom you could take tips.”

 

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I’ll hit him up on Instagram and we can share disguise pics.”

 

Ramos muttered something that sounded like estupido but I pretended like I didn’t care. Because I didn’t, really.

 

We made a sharp turn and faced a door of green metal. The word “Tracking” was stenciled in white. My ID granted us access yet again.

Really, Liz had made sure it felt just like the old Tracking. There was little lighting, save what came from dozens of computer monitors and three huge screens at the front of the room. Desks were arranged in a semi-circle, with Liz’s console in the center. Very Star Trek.

 

Bright red Converse sneakers kicked together to the tinny sounds of reggae filtering from her computer. Those sneakers were all I could see protruding from under the desk. I nudged one with my shoe. “Boo.”

 

She yelped. Elizabeth Stojan slid out, her eyes wide with surprise. Her scowl morphed into a grin when she saw me. “Hey, Mercury! I’m resetting the sensor parameters that we’ve been feeding through the drones. Cyril needed a new processor to handle the load.”

 

Cyril. Her personal computer. Not surprising she named it, because she named lots of things, like her algorithm called the Big Bad Wolf that was handy for cracking systems it shouldn’t.

 

She hopped back up into her seat and brushed dust from hair dyed a brilliant neon pink. “And you brought Ramos! Cool! You guys want to see what I found out?”

 

“The tour’s been interesting, but yes, that’s why I’m here.” Ramos folded his arms.

 

“Oh. Sure.” Even I could tell when Liz’s Middle Eastern complexion darkened from embarrassment. “Okay, so, here’s the tachyon readouts.”

 

I squinted at the bevy of lines squiggling across the big center monitor. “The build-up to the rip looks the same as we’re used to, but what’s with all—those? The ones from right after?”

 

“I don’t know.” Liz rubbed her hands together. “Isn’t it great? It’s an entirely new curve that I can’t find any reference to in our databases but of course I don’t have all our files to help me do an exhaustive search because a lot of stuff from the Historic Vault is still locked up—”

 

“And we have gaps in said ‘stuff,’ Elizabeth.” Loredana Lark was the only person in Tracking who didn’t look like she was a tech geek. Tall, lithe, wearing a classy navy-blue dress with short sleeves, she should have been making a presentation to the Chamber of Commerce at a late-night gala. “Lieutenant. Nice to see you.”

 

Ramos shook her hand. “Likewise, Loredana.”

 

“I see you brought Mercury back to me in one piece.” She smiled.

 

“I do what I can.” Ramos clapped me on the back. “I’m sure he’ll tell you he had the situation well in hand.”

 

“Which I did, by the way.” I kissed Loredana. “Seriously, it wasn’t that bad.”

 

She looped her arm around my waist, a subtle gesture that drew her closer to me but didn’t break her poise. “Indeed? Drone Eight shows someone who looks remarkably like you making a reckless charge at an unknown variety of astral fiend.”

 

“Roasty,” Liz said.

 

I pantomimed shushing her, finger to my lips.

 

Loredana’s eyebrow arched. “Roasty? So, we’re giving them colloquial classifications?”

 

“Look, it wasn’t the ideal solution, but I was running out of ideas. My normal flip, dodge, and slice repertoire wasn’t cutting it—pun intended.”

 

“I was teasing, Mercury.”

 

“Could have fooled me.” I grinned.

 

Ramos cleared his throat. “Can I interrupt another awkward moment between our lovebirds to get us back to the briefing? This case just became my priority, per the task force’s injunction.”

 

“Of course.” Loredana tapped her fingernails on the back of Liz’s chair. “Please continue, Elizabeth.”

 

“Sure!” She tilted the largest of the three flat screen monitors cordoning her desk, turning it into a giant tablet. A few swipes made the tachyon readouts on the big screen shrink to one side. A fuzzy magnification of the fiery astral fiend took its place. The image sprouted lines linked to—well, gibberish, from my standpoint. I mean, I did okay in Math and Science up through community college, but that stuff was what we had people like Liz for. “This guy matches up with only about 78 percent of the composition of the typical astral fiend.”

 

“The fire wasn’t a dead giveaway?” I quipped.

 

Loredana nudged me but she was still smiling so I counted that as a win.

 

“It’s more than that. So, the readings from Drone Eight fed me back a bunch of weird stuff. Like, I haven’t seen anything like it. I mean, it kinda reminded me of the fiend-hound, in the way its composition was mixed with that of a real canine.”

 

Fiend-hound. Right. The hideous mingling of astral fiend and good old-fashioned mutt that escaped from the labs of Syndax Multinational when Arkwright was experimenting in tachyon absorption. I was really hoping that didn’t mean we had a zombie resurgence on our hands, either, because neither type of creature was fun to tangle with. “Can you tell what it was mingled with?”

“Not yet. But I can re-task our drones to watch for variations in tachyon flux exhibited by the rip that dropped off this fiery guy—Roasty. That may give us some lead-in time.” Liz shook her head. “Too bad we don’t have Forecasting anymore.”

 

“The department isn’t disbanded. It’s merely—on hiatus,” Loredana said.

 

“Because Marigold Yen was the one interpreting her dreams so she could Forecast where astral fiends would appear before they showed up, and she turned out to be part of a matrilineal conspiracy to steal Procyon’s secret weapons,” I added.

 

Ramos scowled at me.

“What? I was being helpful. Besides, Liz is right. Until Procyon restocks Forecasting, our response window is tiny. Any advantage she can give us is better than none.”

 

“Very well. Re-task the drones, Elizabeth, and keep us apprised.” Loredana checked her phone. “Can you provide us with an ETA on the creature’s return? Assuming it will return.”

 

“Oh, it should. I mean, if it works like the fiend-hound did, it might not have left our world. It’s probably skipped off somewhere nearby. I’ll deploy the drones around the county and see what we can call up.” Liz grinned. “It’ll take me a while, so, uh, if you guys have other plans—”

 

“Quite.” Loredana clasped her hands behind her back. “If you have no questions for us, Lieutenant…”

 

Ramos sighed. “No, nothing that’ll be of use. If Liz can send me whatever news she gets from the drones in a timely fashion, I’ll get our squad out as fast as I can. Assuming Mercury needs backup.”

 

“Mercury does.” I sat on the edge of Liz’s desk and stretched my leg. A sturdy press of a recessed latch unhooked the prosthetic from the stump. I exhaled, glad to be rid of it for a moment. I handed Liz the fake leg. “Can you run me a diagnostic on this? I’ll take the spare.”

 

“Sure.” Liz set my souped-up leg on her desk. She reached behind a counter and pulled out a much simpler, lighter model—titanium core, custom printed shell of glossy black material speckled with stars. “Version 1.0.”

 

“Not my favorite, but at least it didn’t glitch.” It was just plastic and metal. Sturdy, sure, but not supercharged. I attached it and gave it a couple of swings. “Well, next thing up is a shower, unless you’ve got other plans, Loredana.”

 

“You’re forgetting we have a prior engagement, thanks in no small part to your heroic actions at the farm stand.”

 

“Oh yeah? Key to the city?”

 

Ramos covered his mouth. Was he laughing?

 

“Hardly.” Loredana pursed her lips. She headed for the door, her finger crooked, beckoning me to follow. “We have to go shopping.”

 

“Since when?”

 

“Since you owe me a bottle of wine.”

 

I smirked and hopped off the table. “Lead the way, my lady.”

 

“At the very least,” Ramos said, “You can drop me at the precinct first.”

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© 2017 by STEVE RZASA