MERcURY IS HoT
The only thing more surreal than leading my mangy pack of fighters through the burning thicket toward the giant monster looming overhead was my phone ringing in the middle of us striding forth.
I totally forgot I’d brought it. The earbud spent so much time in, well, my ear that I got used to its presence. “This had better not be a sales call, and yes, I’m happy with my car insurance.”
A familiar giggle broke through. “Do you get those on your cell, too? I thought it was just me! I mean I know it’s worse if you have a landline and I keep telling Lieutenant Ramos he should just get rid of it as soon as all his kids have phones but did you know he’s not going to let them have their own until—”
“Liz. Updates?” A hissing sound rose. Bowen shot ice toward the biggest blazes, doing his best to douse them.
“Oh. Sure. Yeah, our readings are off the charts.”
“Sounds like you need bigger charts.”
“That’s not a bad idea, actually. I’ll bet I could have Cyril extend the maximum—”
“Liz!” I could see the swaying tentacles from the astral fury framed between blackened tree trunks, only a few hundred yards ahead. Hadn’t spotted us yet, but I wasn’t waiting until it did. “The monster!”
“Yeah, I know! He’s huge! Tachyon emissions are near overwhelming the sensors. I had to pull the drones clear back to the 311 or they were gonna get fried. Even there, it’s taxing their hardware. I bet I could step outside the bunker and get readings as clear. So, the problem is, the dimensional fabric is warping?”
Bowen and Niall hunkered low, fanning out on either side of us, as we approached the huge burned-out home of the astral fury. Niall carried his gun like he’d been born in Special Forces, while Bowen slunk along with his sword gleaming in the orange light of this hundred-acre campfire. Loredana nudged me and gestured with her weapon of choice, the MP5.
“Okay. Dimensional fabric warping is bad, right?”
“Yeah, pretty bad. It means the place where Bowen and Niall came from is bleeding into our dimension and vice versa. I mean, portals are one thing Mercury, and a more permanent bridge like the Transect that Gemini uses to get to the alternate Earth is another, but it’s a bad idea for dimensions to touch. Never mind that the astral fury could go back and start attacking people over there. The warping can make both dimensions—hiccup.”
“Hiccup. Care to explain?”
“Sorry. Can’t. I could have Cyril run scenarios for you, but the amount of data means you’d need to get yourself a Ph.D. in the next half hour, so…” She slurped on the dregs of her drink. I heard plastic clatter against a concrete floor. “The summary? Imagine a pair of bubbles bumping into each other. They sometimes pop.”
“Okay. Cool. Earth could pop.”
That got all five pairs of eyes trained on me. Dominic mouthed, “Pop?”
I blew out my breath. “So, got any advice besides put our heads between our legs and kiss our butts goodbye?”
“We slay the beast!” Niall snarled.
“Yeah, yeah, I remember, Braveheart. Liz?”
“No, he’s right. I’ve had Narang cutting apart the tendril—maybe pieces of it, not the whole thing. The hide’s not all that different from a regular astral fiend, only it has the fire-producing capacity and acts as a massive insulating system. Keeps the fury from burning its own insides, plus it stockpiles tachyon particles in a way the astral fiends could only dream of. If you can cut through and deliver a killing blow with the pulsar stave’s directed energy—”
“We can melt him. Like the rest.”
“Yeah! Exactly. I mean, the problem is keeping him cold long enough to do it.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.” I patted the gun. “We’ve got the tools. Now I just need the plan. Thanks for that.”
“You’re welcome! Stay safe. Um… Is Niall okay?”
I blew Niall a kiss and winked at him. He looked ready to cut my head off. Totally worth it. “Liz says ‘Hi,’ big dog.”
Liz giggled again. “You’re terrible. ‘Bye!”
Loredana was shaking her head. “You really are, you know.”
“You still love me.” I grinned. “Okay, gang, let’s do this.”
“What is ‘this’ that we’re planning to do?” Bowen straightened. I got the feeling I’d ruined whatever tactics he and Niall had worked out. “Since we are evidently abandoning the hunter’s approach.”
“Here’s the deal—I’ve got to be the one to put the stab into the astral fury. I need two people to distract it, while Bowen and I ice it down. Dominic’s our transport—he’ll zip us around the fury so we can keep it off balance.”
“Can you keep a giant floating monster off balance, technically speaking?” Dominic was staring up through the trees at it.
Was it getting bigger?
“Mercury!” That was Liz again. “The breach between dimensions is growing! I’m getting a spike of—out of reach with—there’s—”
Her signal cut out. And we could all see why. A granddaddy of all rips opened high above the astral fury, a great squirming slash of purple light. I could see more sky beyond it. A weird pattern of stars, a peaceful velvety night with a handful of tranquil clouds scudding by.
“I never dreamed I would be terrified of seeing the way home,” Bowen murmured. “We must end this.”
“And send you back.” I primed the ice gun… then withdrew the pulsar stave. I separated its halves. “Here.”
I held one out to Dominic. He held up his hands. I could see the silvery glint from the Echo Watches around his wrists, just beneath his shirt cuffs. “Don’t you need that for the gun?”
“Nope. You get it. Because of those things.” I tapped on his sleeve. Metal rang out. “They’re from Meda, right? You carry the same kind of genetic marker Wilhelmina does, then—a human from Earth with the capability of using Medan tech. So, use it.”
Dominic’s fingers curled around the stave. It pulsed with energy. Not the same brilliant flare I could summon, but once he plugged it into the gun, the weapon powered up. “I—didn’t think that was possible. But why not Wilhelmina? We barely know each other.”
“Doesn’t matter none.” Wilhelmina extended the Medan-forged dagger from her knitting bag. The tachyon modifier attached to the hilt hummed, emitting a familiar yellow-white hue. “This little blade can strengthen me, child, but I won’t be hefting that refrigerator around on these old legs. You go on now. I’ll manage.”
By manage, she meant leaping straight up to the treetops.
Niall laughed uproariously. “Do not leave but a ruined corpse for me to carve!” He morphed into his fox-man form and did some serious parkour up the trunks to join her, the two of them bounding through branches toward the astral fury’s tentacles.
“Or, I don’t know, we could just dump the plan and randomly charge.” I sighed and shook my head.
“Everybody present your bus passes.” Dominic held out his wrists.
The rest of us circled up. Before Dominic could activate the Echo Watches, I realized what was missing. Same thing that had been absent from all these monster brawls lately. Tunes.
I tapped into my playlist and set it on shuffle. I needed something with a fast beat. Something edgy. What I got? Huey Lewis and the News belting “The Power of Love.”
Oh, well. I glanced at Loredana. It'd get my heart going, one way or another.
Dominic formed the shimmering bubble, and, after we floated in what felt like zero gravity for a few second, the world blurred around us.
I caught a brief glimpse of a gorgeous, darkened forest. Crickets chirped beyond the rush of the portal’s wind.
Then I bounced back into an inferno.
Great news! Didn’t barf that time. I was falling from fifty feet above the astral fury, toward a bare patch surrounded by fire.
A stream of glowing ice hammered at the upper left flank of the fury, invoking a scream that had to have been heard on the moon. Bowen was chilling—see what I did there?—on a rocky outcropping. His eyes were blazing beacons of blue-white light, his left hand invisible behind a corona of the same ice-generating power. He used his left to swipe the spiny end of a tentacle that got to close to him, coating the falchion blade in dripping ichor.
I landed atop the fiend and struggled for footing on the pliable hide. The prosthetic leg spazzed. A couple more seconds and I wouldn’t have survived the attack. Tendrils sprayed flame as they slapped at me. I whirled the pulsar stave, slicing them apart. Liz wasn’t kidding. The fury wasn’t concerned with inflicting damage on itself because no matter how razor sharp or fiery hot those tendrils looked, they weren’t even singeing the hide.
A howl echoed across the clearing. Niall hurtled through a sheet of flame, red and white fur and fangs and claws. One paw brandished the katana. The other? Firing with the SCAR rifle. How in the world did he fit his finger around the trigger? Maybe that’s what the claw was for.
Bullets cut through the outer layer of the hide, ripping a gap along the opposite flank. Tendrils pivoted and went for the intercept.
A new beam of light hit the fury underneath, slicing upward into its—belly? Who knew? A black silhouette stood among fallen trees. The moment the monster’s tentacles went thrashing in his direction, Dominic vanished in a blink of light. The astral fury pounded empty ground.
Another cry broke through the cacophony. That was Wilhelmina. She came flying from a stand of trees, their tops swaying from her departure, in a somersault that I’d be hard pressed to duplicate. She slit a tentacle down the middle using her dagger, then lopped it off at the base when she landed thirty feet away.
“Start digging!” My voice was hoarse. I needed a drink. Heck, I could have sucked on an iceberg.
More gunfire erupted. Loredana was perched halfway up a tall pine, raking another side of the astral fury with bullets. Dominic was beside her, lending the ice gun’s brilliant beam to the mix.
A tentacle snapped out, quick as a lightning strike, and broke their branch.
I sliced off two more tendrils and started to run for them, but Dominic caught Loredana around the waist and they blinked out of existence.
Niall roared. A tendril wrapped around his bicep, but he pulled so hard he ripped it clean off, then slashed another with the katana. He rolled under a spray of fire and emptied half the rifle’s magazine into the hide at his feet, until he was standing in a rippling pool of blue slime and black flesh.
“We’re through!” I shouted. No idea if anyone but Wilhelmina and Niall could hear me.
Loredana and Dominic burst from a flare of light, right next to me. Okay, that was slick.
I pointed down.
Loredana nodded. She ejected the magazine from her gun and loaded a new one. “Very good. Mr. Phelan, if you would?”
He slung the gun over his shoulder and sneered. “This will be vile.”
I charged the pulsar stave, letting it build power. Wilhelmina was busy deflecting incoming tendrils. Dominic lent the Echo Watches to our defense, slinging blasts of golden energy that set the monster steaming—and doused a few fires, too.
Where was Bowen, anyway? I looked around at the trees—
Hang on. Where were the trees?
A breeze brushed my face. Cool breeze. The sky was a lot darker, too, and that purple rift in the sky was a lot bigger.
“Ah, guys?” I pointed up. “This thing’s headed for the exit.”
“Then perhaps it’d be best if you kill it!” Niall snapped.
He dug his claws into either side of the astral fury’s gaping wound, and with a roar that shook my innards, tore it apart. He sank deeper into the muck, and the screams from the fury—let’s just say they weren’t leaving my head any time soon.
I dove into the wound. Bad idea. It was way hot in there. My head spun. Even the pulsar stave—half of it, anyway—wasn’t enough to keep me cool. Liz could have measured the exact temperature to within a half degree. My vision swirled. I slashed as deep as I could with the stave, but the dumb creature refused to obliterate.
“Wrest him free!” a voice ordered from far above.
A furry set of claws dragged me up and out. The only thing that kept me from dying, I’m pretty sure, was the supersuit. Its haphazard patterns glowed bright enough I could have swum under San Camillo Bay from one side to the other at midnight. I could feel the energy it absorbed from the pulsar stave seeping back into my body.
“That’s—ow. Not enough.” I gasped. My chest ached.
“We know. Captain Cord has a solution.” Loredana slid me away from the wound.
Bowen was high above us, standing atop a tower of ice that projected from the astral fury. Whether he’d pierced the thing or built it around, I had no clue, but the blue light from his eyes almost obliterated his face. Ice poured down, knifing into the wound. The crackling drowned out all other sounds except the astral fury’s caterwauling.
“Here.” Dominic took the pulsar stave from me and attached the half to its companion that was plugged into the ice gun. “You’re up.”
I staggered upright, swaying. Dominic caught my shoulder. Loredana was already propping me. Wilhelmina cried out. Niall leapt to her aid, joining the defense against the fury’s onslaught. “Make it quick!” she shouted.
I held onto the ice gun until I thought it was going to rip my arms off, then pulled the trigger.
A second, more brilliant, more focused beam of ice joined Bowen’s storm. The wound widened. Hide shriveled and pulled back. The combined ice shards and beams dug deeper, until there was a tunnel—a well—five feet across with glistening walls of frozen flesh reaching three or four times my height into the core of the astral fury.
Way down there, it pulsed pale blue like a summer morning’s sky, swirls of purple chasing each other across slick innards.
But we were way too close to the rip between dimensions. Loredana shouted a warning. I craned my neck. There was an island, upside down. Vertigo threatened to knock me off my feet. Were we rising through my sky, or falling through Bowen’s?
Huey Lewis made way for the Foo Fighters. Much better for the finale, I thought.
I yanked the pulsar stave from the ice gun, willed it to full strength until it made my eyes water, and dove headfirst into the well of flesh. Felt like I fell forever. Waves of heat rolled over me while spikes of cold dug through my chest. Breathing became a chore. I was ready to give it up.
The leg quit on me. Nothing but a dead hunk of plastic and titanium.
I wasn’t dead yet. No way. I willed energy from the pulsar stave, redirected it through the suit, and channeled enough into the leg to return a semblance of feeling to it. Had to remind it who was in charge. Not just for me, but for Loredana, for Wilhelmina, Dominic and Bowen and Niall, Ramos and Liz, Garvey, heck, even Doc Arne—everyone who my feverish brain worried about as possible casualties. Don’t even get started about the people in the city I called home. It was more overwhelming than the fluctuating temperatures and smothering stench.
Let me get rid of this guy. Please?
Whatever Ramos was doing then, I knew his version of the same plea would carry more weight.
The pulsar stave struck home.
Blackness engulfed me. A supernova of riotous colors displaced it. I spun around, clutching to the pulsar stave like it was both anchor and parachute. The familiar tug of dimensional travel disassembled my body and put it back together, a few more times than I could count. Really hoped none of that was the same as dying.
The whirlwind subsided. I landed in blue ooze, a thick sludge streaked with black. I spat grit from between my teeth. Sand?
It was a calm night. Cool, not too dark, because the velvet blue sky was replete with stars—more lights than I could imagine. Waves crashed nearby.
From forest fire to vacation beach.
The astral fury’s form was like an oil slick, but one that was rapidly sublimating. I tried not to gag. Imagine the biggest landfill full of the ripest garbage, baking under 100-degree sun in humidity so thick you could doggie paddle the air.
“Mercury!” Dominic dropped to his knees. His outfit was more blue than black, thanks to the slime. He grinned great big. “Thank God. You did it!”
“We did.” I coughed. Ow. Best to let the old tachyon-infused body heal before I hacked up a lung or some other equally important organ. “Loredana?”
“Here.” She limped, her arm draped over Wilhelmina’s shoulders. “My ankle is sprained, I believe.”
I got up and hugged her. A good move, because she melted into my arms. And also, it kept me from passing out. Less than heroic.
“By the heavens.” Bowen knelt on the sand. His sword was resting on his knee. “The Most High has brought us home and granted us victory.”
“Amen,” Dominic said.
“And what a victory!” Niall whooped. He drove the katana into the beach, where it stuck, quivering. “I know not what ails the rest of you but if I cannot find a tankard of mead on this isle, I demand we depart!”
“Yeah, well, mead apart, I’ve got a better idea.” Loredana and I kissed. “Let’s go home.”
Maybe not home quite yet.
“You did promise me a cruise,” Loredana said.
Wasn’t gonna argue that.
So, we stood at the railing of Bowen’s cloudship, the Northwind. I’d been on schooners out beyond San Camillo’s breakers—felt the deck rolling with the waves, smelled the salt air, tasted the spray. This was like that but minus the spray, and a much smoother ride, because Northwind flew, probably two or three hundred feet above the starlit seas.
Bowen never looked more at home. No wonder I thought Skipper had been a crusty old sea captain. Seeing him in his element, turning the twin wheels to control our direction and height, with that ridiculous cloak billowing behind him, made me about as happy as being with Loredana did.
“A few days ‘til home,” he said. “I would be honored to have you both as guests.”
I checked my watch. “As much fun as it’d be to hang out on angel island—”
“They’re Aevorn,” Niall said. “And you’d best recall their proper name, welp!”
“Yeah. Anyway, Dominic should be back any minute and then we’ve got to see if those fires have been knocked down.”
“I would check with Elizabeth. Perhaps the ice gun can be put to a more peaceful use,” Loredana said.
“You want to call her now?” I waved my phone.
Loredana pushed it away and smirked. “I doubt very much our service provider will allow communications over such a distance as this, and I’ll not be the one to spoil the moment, thank you very much.”
Nope, leave that duty to Dominic. His portal expanded halfway down the deck, between us and Bowen at the wheels.
Wilhelmina was so busy following Niall’s hand tracing a course across an unfurled chart that he had to pull her away from the swirling light.
When it cleared, two people stood on the deck—Dominic, still dressed in black but sans his mask, and a pretty woman of Middle Eastern heritage with flowing raven-hued hair.
“I don’t believe it!” She clung to Dominic and sighed. “It’s so lovely up here! The ship’s really flying?”
“It is.” Dominic caught me staring and winked. “Since you interrupted my date, Mercury, I thought it only fair I return the gesture.”
I chuckled. “Hey, you’re not on my clock, Gemini, and since you’re our ticket back to Earth, I don’t think Loredana’s going to complain, either.”
She put her finger to my lips. “Less babble, more contemplation.”
The woman extended her hand. “Jessica Zein.”
“Mercury Hale.” I gestured to Loredana. “And she’s—”
“Nice to see you again, Loredana.” Jessica wrinkled her nose. “But you’ve smelled better.”
“Haven’t we all.”
“Let’s leave these two some privacy, Jess,” Dominic said. “We’ve all earned it.”
He was right. It was nice to step away from battle, and even from the ruckus that was life on good old real Earth. Plus, I finally got why Dominic was so tetchy about being forced to come to our aid. His life was his. He valued the same things I did—especially the things that mattered to his heart.
Probably I could cut him a break, then.
“You ready to go?” I asked Loredana. My leg ached. Wasn’t going to give up standing any time soon, though.
“No. But I suppose we must, soon.”
I nodded. “This isn’t a paradise. Bowen and Niall—they came to our world primed to fight. Guns, swords, lethal magic… You don’t need those if everything’s perfect and beautiful.”
“I agree, it’s likely not a paradise.”
“Nope. Probably has more monsters.”
“Means this break won’t last us long. Even when we get back, there’s the real world and the Interstice to deal with. That’s our job. Our duty.”
“I’m proud of you for taking both on. We will have to return, and when we do, I know you’ll keep us in the fight.”
“And you’ll keep me grounded.”
“But,” I added, “Five more minutes won’t kill us.”