MERcURY OFF COURSE
I thrashed around for a hand, a step, a railing, anything I could use to drag myself up out of the water. No dice.
The water was frigid and murky, a soup of nothing. Where were the bulkheads?
My feet touched bottom. Finally! I crouched and then pushed off, catapulting to the surface.
I gasped, water streaming from my face and stinging my eyes. Who knew what gunk I’d have to wash off? Sure, it was good-old fashioned salt water from the Atlantic, but how much of it had been sloshing around inside the wreck, picking up chemicals and such?
Loredana surfaced beside me. She treaded water, arms otherwise occupied. She’d managed keep the immobilized cyber-spider in her embrace. “Mercury!”
“Hey! You okay?” I paddled over. The pulsar stave glowed, lending much-needed light to our surroundings.
“Yes. No injuries. The stasis field appears stable.”
“Good.” I grinned.
“What is it?”
“You kinda look like an otter floating on its back with an urchin for lunch.”
She smirked. The submerged kick to my ribcage wasn’t unexpected.
Cordelia popped up, followed by Randy. He shook his head like he was a dog who just disobeyed his master’s command to not jump in the lake, and then slapped the water. “Bracing!”
“Not the swim I wanted to take.” Cordelia wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Ugh. To think, I was reading on the beach in my bathing suit last week.”
“Me, too.” Randy swam to the edge of the room, where the deck slanted, and the twisted remnants of a stairwell clung.
“Don’t remind me.” Cordelia accepted his hand as he helped pull her up. “I was blinded by the white.”
Randy winked and chuckled.
I nudged Loredana. “See what we miss out on when we hide in the bunker?”
“Focus, please, darling.” Loredana pointed up. Lights streamed through the hole I’d broken in the wall on the deck above. Voices drifted down to us. “I think our enemies have ascertained our former position.”
“Crap. Okay, let’s hustle, gang!” I helped her navigate to the stairs. Randy and Cordelia guided her onto surer footing by keeping their hands on her shoulders. The gloves let off tiny sparks where she held onto the cyber-spider. Thankfully the gross critter didn’t so much as flinch. Stasis for the win.
Flashlights pinpointed us. I squinted into three blazing spots, wondering which ones were handheld and which ones were attached to guns. I mean, only for a second.
I whipped up the pulsar stave and let loose a blast of golden-white energies.
It burst dead-center to the Peeping Toms above, eliciting a chorus of shouts, some swearing, and a cloud of steam. Glass—the lenses of flashlights, I hoped—shattered and at least one bad guy dropped a gun, or so I guessed by the clattering on metal.
“Move out!” Randy shoved Cordelia through the hatch.
She didn’t let herself get pushed too far, though, before she swung her right arm up and unleashed a volley from her Uzi at the same gap I’d targeted. Between the rattle and the shouting, I had no idea if she’d hit somebody, but we weren’t sticking around to find out.
“Phone!” Loredana’s snapped command jolted me as we pounded down the next corridor.
“The who-what now?” I glanced over my shoulder. No one chasing. But the Syndax mercs were running all over the place. Above us? In an adjacent compartment? I was no good figuring out where people were based on their footsteps.
Suddenly, Randy spun sideways. He let off a burst from the TEC-9, punching holes through the flimsy bulkhead. Someone cried out. A body thumped against the wall.
I stared at him.
“What?” He tapped his ears. “Hearing like a bat.”
“My phone! Take it!” Loredana snapped.
Right. The tachyon dowser. She slowed her stride for a moment, so I could pull the device from her belt. It had gotten dunked like the rest of us, but I wasn’t worried about the possibility of malfunction. No way she would have brought equipment so sensitive when we were on an underwater mission.
Plus, she still had her hands full.
I tried to decipher the blinking lights on the screen, listening for beeps among our clanking footfalls. “Keep going straight! Take the next left!”
Cordelia and Randy outpaced us by six feet. He skidded through the corridor intersection, gun aimed high and to the left. She crouched behind him, pointing right. Both muzzles flashed. Muffled reports echoed down the hall. A body thumped onto the deck, and a mangled cry preceded a second impact.
They had already taken the left branch as Loredana and I rounded the corner. Two Syndax goons down. No body armor—wetsuits, ammo belts, and H&K MP7 submachine guns. Their chests were soaked dark.
“We should invite your Miami buddies to more Procyon parties,” I murmured.
Yep, she’d gone all taciturn. Which was fine. Couldn’t have both of us slinging quips—that was my thing. “Hey. Hey! Up ahead! Next right!”
“Stairs!” Cordelia’s comment cracked the air as soon as they disappeared in the direction I’d instructed.
“Ah…” The indicator gave me numbers. “Up!”
They pounded up the flight, as Loredana and I joined them.
Randy reached the top first. “Hostiles!”
His TEC-9 opened up, rattling in the narrow confines. I slammed Loredana against the wall, gave her a kiss, and flung myself through a gap between Randy and Cordelia.
I’d always wanted to try outrunning bullets.
It was a close race, I gotta admit. I shoulder-checked the first Syndax guy, his expression hidden behind goggles and a mask. The blow flipped him onto his back, feet flailing toward the ceiling. Meanwhile, his buddy took the bullets from Randy’s fusillade.
Two more behind them.
I separated the pulsar stave and slashed through a gun, leaving behind a molten lump and a screaming mercenary. Never got tired of that—the weapon melting, I mean, not the screaming.
The other one, Number Three out of Four, he was a head taller than his pals and quicker. Forget the gun. A survival knife jabbed toward my ribcage. A second before it sliced through the wetsuit I remembered, Well, crap, this outfit isn’t damage resistant like the supersuit!
Fiery pain lanced along my abdomen. I spun out of his reach, hoping no more bullets were coming my way, and parried a second stab with the pulsar stave. Another strike flipped the knife from his hand.
Then I put enough of the stave’s energy toward my prosthetic leg, so the kick that came next sent him crashing through a crumpled bulkhead.
“Shoot.” Randy joined me, his jaw working. Was he hurt, or—Wait. Where’d he get gum to chew? “Remind me not to rile you up.”
“Don’t piss me off and you won’t be next.” I reached into the compartment with my leg and prodded the guy. Out cold. “We’re clear for now.”
“Then keep us moving,” Cordelia said.
Like I hadn’t thought of that. We had one cyber-spider. The second wasn’t far off. Judging by the readouts on the tachyon dowser, it was in the forward part of the wreck’s broken hull, not far from where the bow had been ripped off when the Ashen raised it off the sea floor.
I led us through the labyrinth of corridors, up claustrophobic stairs, trying to keep the memories of near drowning from overwhelming my senses. The recent dunking hadn’t triggered a panic attack, but it hadn’t helped my sense of well-being, either.
I just wanted to sack out on the couch with Loredana, turn on some Dr. Who—or maybe Star Wars, if she nodded off—and down a couple slices of pizza.
But that wasn’t gonna get the job done. And no matter how skilled these Procyon Miami folks were, they hadn’t faced the things I had. They weren’t the ones grappling with nightmares turned real.
The signal for the second cyber-spider grew more intense, the beeps building until they merged into a continuous tone, like somebody was leaning on the keyboard of a synthesizer. Very Eighties. A breeze cut across my face. Smelled sharply of sea spray. Not the stale stench of the wreck’s interior, but the scents like I’d experienced on the Atlantica yacht during our crossing.
“Hatch up ahead,” Randy said. “What’re the odds they got the upper deck hemmed in?”
“Probably could, because we’re not getting chased.” I blew out a breath. “I can draw their fire if I charge in, but I’d rather not if someone’s got a better idea because, you know—bullets.”
Cordelia plucked a tiny gray object from a pouch on her belt—waterproof, I assumed. She unfolded black plastic strips and set it on the deck. Then she activated her phone, using the screen sideways like she was watching a video or, a better comparison, playing a game. Completed with a cross-shaped controller in the display.
“A drone?” I asked.
The miniature robot hopped off the deck and buzzed up the last set of stairs, disappearing over the lip of the hatch. I could still hear its rotors over the rainstorm intensifying, as sheets of water pelted the ship.
“Personal reconnaissance system. Gift from our armed forces.” Cordelia smiled. “A senator owed me a favor.”
“Delia has a way with such debts,” Loredana said. “Thought the manner in which she collects them isn’t always in line with Procyon policies.”
I pointed at the frozen cyber-spider she clutched. “Says the lady holding a baby monster.”
Cordelia shushed me. She chewed on the corner of her lip as the images on her screen whipped back and forth. “Coast is clear.”
Randy craned his neck. “Yeah, no shadows where the bad guys could hide. Yup, none at all.”
“Then if the drone’s missed something, we’d better not.”
Right. I clambered up the steps.
Rain slammed into me like I’d stepped into the path of a hose. It drove at an angle, hissing where it hit the superstructure. Waves churned around the broken hull, splashing up the sides, sea spray mingling with the downpour. I wiped my face twice in thirty seconds before giving up. At least if the Syndax goons showed up, they’d need windshield wipers for their goggles.
The deck was tilted, not bad enough I thought I’d slide off, but I definitely wouldn’t want to set the pulsar staves down or they’d roll into the ocean.
The fishing trawler bobbed a way off, with only a handful of people aboard. An inflatable dinghy was still out circling the debris left over from the Atlantica yacht. Still couldn’t believe Randy had blown our ride sky high.
And the second cyber-spider came skittering around a funnel.
“Everybody stay back!” I backed off into a fighting stance, wishing for the second time I had those tunes. Forget it. I jammed one of the stave halves into the stasis initiator and let it power up.
The cyber-spider reared up on four of its legs and squealed. Ugh. Sounded like someone had married a pig to a crow, then poked their kid with a branding iron. Not a happy beast.
“Be careful!” Loredana emerged from the hatch.
“Hey, you’re the one who has to juggle two of these when I catch it!” I leveled the initiator and squeezed the trigger.
The beam lanced out—
And splashed off the lopsided bottom of a funnel.
The cyber-spider was floating off the deck, rising into the rain. It writhed, claws grasping in vain to stop its ascent. The squeals got even uglier.
“Nobody told me the nasty creeps can fly.” Randy aimed his weapon.
And the TEC-9 took flight, too.
So did Cordelia’s gun, and Loredana’s, and the captive cyber-spider. The stasis initiator even yanked itself from my grip—but I managed to jerk the pulsar stave’s half free and tuck it away.
“Lori, if you’ve got any ideas, let me hear them.” Cordelia looked like she was ready to get into a brawl, too, arms drawn up to strike.
I shook my head. “No time. We’ve got to get off the ship.”
Which I tried to do, but my legs wouldn’t respond. Arms either. Worst part was, it wasn’t an unfamiliar sensation.
Airfoil, aka Brandon Tusk, had held me in the exact same grip more than once.
Not ashamed to say, my heart rate spiked and the terror that had stayed bundled in the back of my brain unfurled. I would have rather taken another deep, dark swim.
The Ashen descended from the sky.
He floated onto the deck, gloved palms extended up, fingers curled. Gray jacket, gray pants, gray mask. I don’t know whether it was the insane power he displayed by holding the four of us immobile, our weapons drifting in a circle six feet over our heads, or the cyber-spider suspended twenty feet over his head that impressed me the most.
“Dang,” Randy muttered.
“I want to thank you for all the hard work you’ve done on my behalf.” His voice was young, stern, with maybe a slight East Coast twang. Couldn’t place it from behind the featureless mask. “Syndax’s tracking devices might be good, but not as precise as yours. My compliments to your technician.”
“Now would be a good time to surrender,” I said. “And since I’m a nice guy, I’ll let you call off your goon squad first.”
“Thanks but no thanks. You’ve got a lot of myths circulating about you, Mercury. All of them fantastic—how you slayed monsters, dismantled Syndax, and saved your city from a being more powerful than anything the Ashen have encountered. And now you’ve tracked down a priceless prize. But I can take them to their rightful places.”
Syndax soldiers swarmed up the companionway behind us and from around the funnels. Nine of them. I sneered. “Looking a little short in the manpower department.”
“Mercury, do be quiet,” Loredana murmured.
“He doesn’t bother me, lady. I know his type. Like Airfoil.” The Ashen shook his head. “Or so I’ve heard. Never had the pleasure of meeting him. But that’ll change. We’ll put these creatures to good use. After all, there has to be a way to harness the tachyon-based energies to our advantage.”
It struck me then—maybe he didn’t know. He hadn’t seen my fight with Airfoil. And all the Syndax mercs who saw Airfoil go rogue at Mount Shasta were either dead or locked up.
The pulsar staves trembled as their energies sought an outlet. Easy, fellas. “Too bad for you you’ll never get the secrets I already unlocked about those critters. Oh, well. Better put bullets in our heads and smash us flat.”
“What are you doing?” Cordelia hissed. “Are you insane?”
“Steady on.” Loredana’s tone brooked no argument. “Mercury is right, you know. I daresay there isn’t a man alive who doesn’t know more about the untold powers those creatures represent.”
The Ashen hovered there, cloak streaming around him. Then he drifted toward the deck—toward me.
Normally, that’d be a bad thing.
My hand was still frozen in place by the pulsar staves. I pressed against the invisible gravity field holding me down. Straining. Demanding my fingers move. Because I leached whatever I could from my prosthetic leg, a storehouse of tachyon particles.
The staves ignited.
There was a tremendous boom, and a long whistle, followed by a huge splash not fifty feet from the edge of the ship. A geyser of water erupted.
“This is the United States Coast Guard!” The voice boomed through a megaphone. “Heave to and prepare to be boarded!”
Oh, great. So much for me waiting until the right moment.
I broke through the Ashen’s gravitational grip and slammed into him like a human cannonball.